My Other Car is a Spaceship

By Mark Terence Chapman

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure, Thriller

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14 mins

Chapter 3

The hours turned into days, and the days into a week. After Hal mastered all of the internal sensors, Kalen added the rest of the external ones. He had a spherical view of space around the ship for as far as the eye could see.
Correction: as far as cameras and high-gain sensors can see.
The majesty of the view caused him to gasp. Wow. Would you look at that? Stars, moons, planets, asteroids, comets. It’s-it’s magnificent. So this is what the astronauts see when they’re out here. Incredible!
A split second later, views in other spectra overlaid the visible. He “saw” space in infrared, x-ray, microwave and dozens of other frequency ranges. Rather than being overwhelmed, he found the experience exhilarating.
This is incredible! I can pick out solar flares on the sun and hotspots on Io. It’s like being Superman with x-ray and heat vision, only I don’t have to worry about kryptonite—merely pirates.
At first the sheer magnitude of what he experienced threatened to overwhelm him—too many inputs coming too fast. Little by little, Hal learned to interpret the new sensations.
This is all so bizarre—not only that I can do all this stuff, but that it feels so natural after such a short time. This must be what it’s like to be a spider, with all those legs and compound eyes.
Stretched out on his bunk in ship-issue tan jumpsuit—the pilot’s color, he was told—Hal mentally toggled the communication relay to the captain’s implant.
“Kalen. I think I’ve about mastered the intricacies of controlling the lights and temperature and scanning the exterior sensors. I’m sure the rest of the crew could manage that without me. When am I going to start learning the things you brought me aboard to do?”
“I’ve been monitoring your progress. You’re ready to begin lessons in basic navigation and piloting. When I’m convinced you won’t run us into something big enough to be nasty, we’ll visit the asteroid belt for weapons training.”
“Yee-ha!” Hal sported a huge grin, even if Kalen couldn’t see it from the bridge. “Now we get to the fun part. How do I begin?”
“I’ve unlocked the navigational database. You have full access to the star maps, hyperspace routes, and procedures for navigating around celestial bodies. As for piloting, we’ll begin with the maneuvering thrusters, magnetic docking grapples, and the exterior repairbots. After you master those, we’ll move on to the main engines, set at minimal power.”
“Great. Let’s do it.”

* * * *

Hal had the enthusiasm of a puppy, wanting to do everything, to get into everything, and occasionally getting himself into trouble. Fortunately, at this stage there was nothing he couldn’t also get himself out of. As with the other controls, he quickly mastered the techniques needed to safely and efficiently move the ship about and to remotely pilot the ‘bots. After a few hours, he was ready for the main engines. These took a bit longer to master, as they involved many levels of control: from low-power cruising up through hyperflight. Still, he was an experienced fighter pilot and with the neural interface it took him little time to make sense of it all. By the end of two days, he had done well enough to satisfy even Kalen.
Or, to be precise, Kalen said, “That’ll have to do.”
Then it was time to move on to weapons training. As with a jet fighter, it wasn’t simply a matter of pulling a trigger. There were a number of weapons systems, both offensive and defensive, active and passive, and Hal needed to know what each was for, how they all worked and when to employ them. But this was what he lived for.
God, I love blowing stuff up! I’d forgotten how much I missed it. He grinned happily to himself. To think I once wanted to fly orbital shuttles. This is so much cooler!
He had just obliterated a small asteroid with the antiproton cannons. As Kalen said, “The APCs pack a wallop against an unprotected target or a small pirate ship, but they can be stopped cold by a powerful-enough energy shield—the kind the bigger ships tend to have.”
Next he tried out the mass driver on a sixty-six-meter chunk of iron and rock hurtling past Adventurer at several hundred kilometers per hour. The ship zigzagged through the asteroid belt, dodging rocks and simulating evasive maneuvers while Hal lined up his shot. He had to wait for an opening between two other asteroids and….
The mass driver, or MD, had a much greater useful range than the APCs. It was the equivalent of a big gun on an Earthly battleship, firing large loads great distances. It accelerated a 108-kilo slug of ultradense depleted uranium to four-tenths the speed of light in a fraction of a second.
No energy shield known could stop a mass driver slug. If you hit your target, you killed it. That was the good news.
The bad was that unlike an asteroid that cooperated by flying in a straight line, a ship that jinked in three dimensions and fired back was anything but an easy kill. Without the instantaneous link offered by the neural interface, it would be nearly impossible for human reflexes to respond fast enough to hit a ship. Even with the neural link and all the advanced firing and target acquisition technology at Hal’s disposal, it still was tricky. A missile could track a target, but a slug could only fly in a straight line.
The next drill involved the quark-enhanced missiles. They were used to beat down the shielding that was so effective at stopping the APCs. A direct hit by a quem, or a couple of near misses, and the APCs had a chance to do some damage against even the biggest raider. The missiles were in somewhat short supply, so Hal had to content himself with simulating missile launches.
Too bad we don’t have something like a Gatling gun for close-in dogfighting. But then again, this ship wasn’t designed for that. Most engagements happen at a distance.
All right then. Next up, defensive weapons. We’ve got short-range missiles and lasers for picking off enemy missiles and we’ve got false-image camouflage to fool sensor-guided missiles—sort of like high-tech chaff. We’ve got heat projectors to throw off heat-seeking missiles. We’ve got multiphasic energy shields to absorb or deflect energy weapons. Whew! I can see I’ll be busy for a while.

* * * *

After eleven days of training, Kalen called Hal into his ready room.
“You’ve done well, Hal. I couldn’t be more pleased with your progress. Your initial training is now complete.”
After accepting Kalen’s kudos, Hal grew serious. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I noticed a couple of days ago that many of the bridge crew looked worried or nervous. I ignored it at the time; but since then, if anything, they’ve gotten even more so. What aren’t you telling me?”
Kalen sighed. “I guess it’s time you knew anyway. As I mentioned earlier, shortly before Tompkins’ final shore leave we had had a run-in with a pirate—a big one. What I didn’t say was that we took a serious beating before we were able to drive the pirates off. That’s why we’re short on missiles.
“Four days ago, one of the sensor operators saw indications that an unidentified ship was on a direct course for Earth. It’s a big one and a long way out, but it’ll be here within two days.”
Hal whistled, then frowned. “Four days? You can detect ships that far out?”
“Not usually. But this ship is big and its hyper drive is out of tune. That combination produces a disturbance in hyperspace—sort of a squeal—that’s detectable with the right equipment.”
“I see. Obviously there’s a lot I still have to learn about this stuff. But why didn’t I know about the telemetry? I thought I was tied into all of the ship’s sensors.”
“Normally you would be, but I took the liberty of disabling your access to a few specific systems and reducing the sensitivity of others, so as not to distract you from your training. I’ll restore your access immediately.”
Hal nodded. “Good. Thanks. So what else can I do to prepare for the upcoming battle?”
“There are recordings of our previous skirmishes, here and elsewhere, as well as instructional recordings of classic battle techniques. It would be a good idea to learn as much as you can about tactics, both the pirates’ and ours. This is why we were looking for an experienced fighter pilot, rather than someone off the street who happened to have the talent for hypertasking. That, and we needed someone who’s battle-tested.”
“No kidding. Still, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve been in combat.”
Kalen nodded. “True, but at least you have that experience. A civilian wouldn’t. He might flinch or freeze under fire. You won’t. I’m sure it’ll all come back to you quickly.”
It was Hal’s turn to nod. “I’d better get to it, then. I’ve got some tactics to learn and some rust to knock off. Keep me apprised of the bogey’s progress.”
“I will. Thank you, Hal, for risking your life like this when you could have been home, relaxing in your retirement.”
A grin spread across Hal’s face. “Are you kidding? I haven’t had this much fun in ages. I’d have paid for the opportunity!”
Kalen responded with a tight smile. “Perhaps so. I just hope you don’t have reason to regret my bringing you here when this is all over.”

* * * *

When Kalen said “instructional recordings,” Hal envisioned watching videos on a monitor. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Wow. I certainly never imagined anything like this!
As soon as Hal initiated the first lesson via his neural interface, he found himself sitting in the command chair of a ship.
This isn’t a VR simulation of a ship; it’s an honest-to-god ship in the middle of a battle—and we’re being fired on!
Instinctively, Hal’s heart rate kicked into high gear; adrenaline flooded his system, sweat peppered his brow. Even though intellectually he knew he was in no actual danger, his body responded to the stimuli he received not only visually but through the myriad neural inputs recorded during an actual firefight. Hal found himself experiencing what the real pilot did, moment by moment, in that long-ago battle.
It was a weird sensation. Both his mind and body reacted to the events as they unfolded. Yet simultaneously he felt/saw/heard/sensed what the other pilot did. It was like watching two versions of the same movie, one superimposed over the other but slightly different and out of synch—and involving all the senses. He saw the enemy ship through the pilot’s eyes and absorbed the sensor data via the pilot’s neural interface. He heard the sounds of battle: the metallic rumble of missiles feeding into the launcher, the scream of damage klaxons and the cries of the injured. He felt the ship shudder from multiple impacts and felt the weave of the command chair’s fabric armrests through the other pilot’s fingertips. He smelled the stench of burnt paneling mixed with sweat and fear, and he tasted blood when the pilot bit his tongue.
It all feels so…natural. Almost like memories, but more vivid.
The parallel experiences acted as a sort of feedback loop. At first, Hal’s efforts at evasive maneuvers differed considerably from the original pilot’s, and his reaction times lagged the other’s. Eventually, Hal began to develop a feel for the pilot’s tactics, technique, and style. Soon his own reactions resembled the other’s. In less than an hour, he was able to anticipate the pilot’s moves and match them exactly. Not long after, he used that experience to experiment with his own variations on those maneuvers. In several instances, he was able to get the drop on the bandit even faster than his doppelganger did. Other times, he got his ass blown out of the sky.
What an amazing way to learn! It would have taken me weeks back home—first in a simulator and then in a plane—to learn to do some of those moves and to do them as well as the other pilot did them. And yet I mastered them in an hour. He broke into a self-satisfied grin. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!
That’s one lesson down, several dozen to go. I don’t know if I’ll be ready by the time the bandits get here, but at least I won’t get bored.
A frown creased his brow as an annoying thought occurred to him. He mentally toggled the captain’s implant.
“Yes, Hal?”
“Just curious, but if you have all this fancy ‘instructional recording’ technology that could have taught me to fly the ship in a few hours, why did you make me spend almost two weeks doing it the hard way?”
Kalen’s laugh echoed inside Hal’s head. “Simple. We don’t have any recordings of that type aboard.”
“How come?”
“Believe it or not, the Unity isn’t in the habit of shanghaiing people from embargoed planets and putting them into service piloting our ships. Normally, we only take experienced pilots. So we’ve never had a need to teach basic piloting skills. I thought it might be overkill to drop you directly into the immersive combat-mode recordings.”
Hal snorted. “You’re probably right. Still, some extra practice in battle conditions might have helped.”
“Perhaps so,” Kalen conceded with a sigh. “Let’s hope I gave you enough time.”

* * * *

“Pilot to the bridge. Repeat, pilot to the bridge.”
The interruption ripped Hal’s consciousness from the middle of an evasive maneuver.
“Huh? What?” The pirates! “On my way.”
He burst from his quarters into the control room amid barely restrained chaos. Men, women, Chan’Yi, Sestrans, and others bustled about preparing the ship for battle.
Hal climbed onto the pilot’s couch and waited while it conformed to his physique and secured him in place.
Kalen was already seated in the captain’s chair, just to Hal’s right. “Ship. Activate full pilot command interface, authorization Kalen Jeffries, Captain. Colonel Nellis, the ship is yours. You have unfettered access.”
“Roger.” Within milliseconds, Hal’s consciousness expanded, and for the first time encompassed the entirety of the ship.
He seemed to be everywhere at once. His hundreds of eyes absorbed interior views of the engine room, the weapons bays, common areas, in fact everywhere but crew’s quarters and the infirmary. Right now, he focused on the exterior view.
“Status report! Belay that.”
He remembered a split second after asking the question that he could instantly call up all information collected by the sensors.
“Yes, Hal.”
“Sensors detect a ship coming toward us at high speed out of the glare of the sun. But I have no indication that it’s a hostile. How can you be sure it’s a pirate? Sensors register energy signatures for weapons, but only on minimal power. Maybe it’s a commercial craft with defensive arms. I don’t mind blowing enemy combatants out of the sky, but I’d like to be sure it’s an enemy first.”
“It’s quite simple. Because Earth is an embargoed world, no one comes here except Unity patrol ships and pirates. A patrol ship would have a Unity transponder. That leaves pirates.”
“But how do you know it isn’t just a tourist on vacation checking us out?”
Kalen shook his head. “Impossible. No embargoed worlds appear in the navigational databases of commercial and private ships. Only someone with restricted access to the embargoed worlds database could find the coordinates of those planets. Unfortunately, someone must have bribed a Unity official and now dozens of pirate organizations have that information. That’s why we’re out here.”
“So there’s no chance someone could have stumbled onto our system by accident?”
Kalen shrugged. “It’s highly unlikely. But if it’ll put your mind at ease, feel free to ask them.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks.” Hal mentally toggled the radio. “Unidentified spacecraft on a vector to Earth. Please identify yourself. This is Merchants’ Unity patrol craft Adventurer. Repeat, please identify yourself. This is an embargoed world. You are trespassing in restricted space. Identify yourself or be fired upon.”
Hal turned his attention back to Kalen. “Weapons are online. I’m moving to engage. The bogey will be in weapons range in just over three minutes. Do you want a warning shot first?”
Kalen shook his head. “You’ve warned them. If they’re tourists, they’ll turn and run.”
“Acknowledged. How close should I let him get before I open fire?”
“Wait twenty seconds after maximum range. That’ll improve your accuracy and give them less time to react. If they don’t respond or head out of the system by then, shoot to kill. They certainly will.”
“Roger that. I’ve compared the energy signature of the bogey against the database of known pirate ships. It doesn’t match any of them. So much for knowing what we’re up against.”
Kalen shrugged. “I’m not surprised. The ships usually start as stock models and then the pirates customize them. The engines and shield generators are replaced with ones from larger ships and the weapons are either hand-made, military surplus, or stolen from patrol craft they’ve destroyed. So they won’t match the signatures of standard ship models. Some of the bigger ships think they can take on anyone, but most lose their taste for combat after the first battle. As a result, the same pirate rarely takes on a Unity ship twice.”
Hal nodded. “Makes sense. All I can tell by analyzing the ship at this distance is that it has a huge power plant and a big engine—much bigger than a ship that size should have. You’re right about that. They’ll be able to generate a pretty powerful shield. I imagine whatever energy weapons they have will be equally powerful.”
“More so than ours?”
“Definitely. They’re probably faster, too. There’s no way to tell yet what other types of weapons they might have.”
“Very well. Proceed with caution, but we can’t afford to be timid.”
“Roger. Proceeding with aggressive caution.” Hal chuckled. He cracked his knuckles, then he gave a mental salute to his opposite number aboard the pirate ship.
I think I know how good I am. Let’s find out just how good you are.

* * * *

“General, the Unity ship is moving to intercept. Following protocol, they won’t open fire for another thirty seconds or so.” Pilot Gabby Simmons tucked a loose strand of auburn hair behind her ear and glanced back and up at the Chan’Yi sitting behind her in the command chair. Simmons and others like her disproved the notion that all humans freed from slavery pursued noble causes, such as joining the Unity fleet.
Self-appointed “General” Chouros’Aboun’Suriel stretched his lips in a feral grin. “Well then, let us not give them thirty seconds.”
“Yes sir!” Simmons’ expression nearly matched the ferocity of her general’s.
“Continue on the same heading. Let them think we are simply a confused civilian craft—until it is too late.”

* * * *

“We’ve reached maximum weapons range.” Hal toggled the radio. “Unidentified ship trespassing in embargoed space. This is your last chance to walk away unharmed. Turn back, identify yourself immediately, or be fired upon. Your choice.”
He waited another ten seconds. Still no indication that his message had been received.
Is there any chance that perhaps they’re innocent tourists and their radio isn’t working? He mulled over this thought for a moment. I sure as hell don’t want to fire on a civilian ship.
It took but an instant to pull up the latest sensor data on the bogey. At shorter range, the results were more detailed than before.
Their speed and trajectory haven’t budged an iota. As aggressively as I’m approaching, they’d have to be concerned regardless of who they are. And look at that shield. Why would a tourist or merchant vessel need that kind of shielding? And those weapons signatures. A civilian wouldn’t need all that for self-defense. No, everything points to someone up to no good.
He squared his mental shoulders. I’ll give him five more seconds to peel off and then his ass is mi—”
He heeled the ship over and immediately initiated a corkscrew evasive maneuver. “Sorry, crew. Hang on!”
That’s the trouble with energy weapons. The shots travel at the same speed as the light you’d see them by. The first warning you have is when they hit your shields, unless you’re playing close attention to the other ship’s energy spikes—like I should have been doing. Damn.
“Shields holding at ninety-six percent.”
Okay, buddy, your turn. Let’s see how you like it.

* * * *

“Direct hit, general! No damage, however.” An old hand at this, Simmons continued to fire and evade even as she spoke.
“Continue. You know the drill.”
“Yes sir. This pilot, though…. I don’t think she’s very experienced. Her handling seems indecisive. And she has trouble shooting and dodging at the same time. There’s always a momentary hesitation between one and the other.”
“Excellent! That means this should be over before mealtime.”
“My thoughts exactly, sir.”
“Finish her off and let us get on with the plundering.”
“Yes, sir. This shouldn’t take long.”

* * * *

Hal fired a burst from the antiproton cannons. It won’t penetrate his shield, but it ought to blind him for a moment.
Then he fired a trio of quark-enhanced missiles: one to port, one to starboard, and one just behind—in case the pilot braked. Right on the tail of the missiles, he fired two slugs from the mass driver dead center. Maybe it’s overkill, but if it all works as planned, the pirate shouldn’t even see them coming.
His lips curled upward in a wolfish grin. He finished with another burst from the APCs, in case the slugs missed.
Even as he fired, he continued to evade the massive weaponry of the raider, jinking first right and then “down.” No matter what he did, however, the other pilot seemed to find him.
Come on, Hal, you can do better than this. Relax! You’re too stiff. Just let it flow.
Most of Adventurer’s defensive measures were designed for missiles, but the raider didn’t seem to have any kinetic weapons like missiles or mass drivers. On the other hand, it carried quite a collection of gamma-ray lasers, APCs, and other energy weapons, and they were having the desired effect on Adventurer’s shields. It was impossible to outrun energy weapons short of jumping to hyperspace. All Hal could do was try to stay out of their way as much as possible. And that meant keeping a close eye on the energy spikes that presaged a shot and jinking a split second before the other ship fired.
That was a task far easier said than done. The pirate knew the same tricks and tried to camouflaged its genuine energy spikes among a blizzard of decoy spikes. Hal couldn’t dodge every time the sensors “detected” a spike. He had to try to figure out which were real and which were fake. Dodge too soon and the enemy had time to adjust his aim. Too late, and you got hit.
A sweat bead dripped off the end of Hal’s nose as he absorbed Adventurer’s status data. “Shields down to seventy-four percent. Damn! One of our quems missed and the others detonated too far from the pirate to weaken its shields enough for the cannon fire to get through. Somehow their pilot managed to slip between the slugs. He’s very, very good.”
Better than me?
As a fighter pilot, Hal had always entered battle certain he was the better pilot. But not today.

* * * *

The pirate ship rocked under a solid blow. It wasn’t enough to damage the Fer’Yar, but it sent a message.
“Simmons!” the general growled. “I thought you said the other pilot was not very good. We have been at this for almost an hour. The fight was supposed to be over by now.”
Simmons licked a drop of blood off her lower lip where she’d bitten it. “She wasn’t very good, but she’s learning. She’s learning fast. It looks like it’ll take a bit longer than I thought. But don’t worry, I can take her.”
“You had better be right—or else. There is a fortune in slaves on the planet below, but it will do me no good if you let her shoot my ship full of holes.”
“Don’t worry, sir. I’ll take care of her.” The alternative was not worth contemplating. Simmons knew what became of crewmembers who displeased the general.
Time to pull out the big guns.

* * * *

Come on, Hal, you can do it.
Kalen clutched the arms of his chair as the ship bucked. He made a conscious effort to release his death grip. After all, he didn’t want to give the impression he didn’t have complete confidence in Hal’s abilities.
I know you have the raw talent, but not the experience. You have to put it all together somehow, and soon.

* * * *

Hal fired another salvo at the pirate and continued to stick-and-move like a prize fighter. I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.
Take that, you bastard!
A missile/cannon combo rocked the pirate ship, but did no visible damage. Then a port-side blast jarred Adventurer.
Whoa there, Hal. Don’t get cocky. That pilot can shoot as well as fly.
Let’s see you dodge this! He fired off a spread of five slugs in an X pattern and immediately flooded the pirate’s shields with jolts from the antiproton cannons. You can’t dodge what you can’t see.
A massive blast overloaded Adventurer’s shields and knocked out many of the external sensors.
“Repair crews to starboard side, decks three, four and five, Blue and Red sections! We have multiple hull breaches.” He shook his head. “Damn, he’s good!”
I didn’t even see those shots coming.
Kalen spoke firmly. “The battle isn’t over yet, Hal. You’re doing fine so far. Better than I could. Keep doing what you’re doing and that raider’ll lose his appetite for battle eventually.”
“I wish I was as confident.” He paused to fire off another barrage, twisting and turning all the while. “But I’m certainly not giving up. I—”
A tremendous hand swatted Adventurer and all went dark.



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