Three missiles streaked just over Hale Brandon's patrol craft, their engines like three blue eyes winking at the pilot. Swiftly, Hale assigned the targeting computer to track two of them sequentially with the turret-mounted lasers while he took care of the third missile with the forward-firing guns. Before any of the three could reacquire their target and come around for another try at him, they were gone, reduced to microscopic chunks of circuitry.
There had been five ships when the duel began, but that had been quickly reduced to two, Hale's craft and one light missile frigate. A laser beam nearly singed the patroller's tail, reminding Hale that his opponent had more than just two missile pods for him to worry about. He popped a spin to the left, royally screwing up the enemy's target acquisition, and spat a couple of laser beams back from the undercarriage turret just to keep the frigate's pilot honest. He came out of it into a straight vertical, then did a wingover and plunged back down.
The one thing that always confused newbies about space combat was the matter of perspective. In space, "up" and "down" were relative terms based on the orientation of the ship. Each ship's artificial gravity defined its up and down, meaning that combat maneuvers got a lot more wild and wacky than in an atmosphere where everyone shared the same gravity. So when Hale raked the back of the frigate with laser fire, he wasn't really flying upside down and at a forty-five-degree dive even though it seemed that way to the person at the frigate's helm.
Military spacecraft were designed with combat in mind. That included armor, structural improvements, and internal safety measures to limit the effect of a hull breach. That didn't mean that they could take the repeated pounding Hale was giving the frigate. As an artillery ship, it wasn't suited for dogfighting a more maneuverable vessel like the patrol craft, and after repeated laser attacks it was consumed by a soundless explosion.
The simulator's projection window faded to blue, signaling the end of the run. Hale unsnapped the seat belts, popped the door, and got out.
"You lucky skag," the frigate's pilot said, not angrily. Kurt Baines was blond-haired, broad-shouldered, and handsome, fitting right into the public's stereotype of a space pilot. Hale was just as tall as his nephew, but thin and lanky, with jet black hair starting to show signs of gray. The fact was, though, he was one of the Algo Space Administration's best pilots. "If I hadn't been flying that tank, I'd have taken you."
"In your dreams, kid," Hale laughed. "Nice work, though; I'd have bet that scout shuttle had you. Redirecting the missile you had on the other frigate's tail was a sweet move."
"A lucky move. Well, at least I made you work for it, old man. Say, what are you doing here, anyway? I figured you'd be out enjoying your last day of R&R before the big flight."
"You know the rules; everybody's got to log a certain number of hours on the combat sim each month no matter how much actual space time they're getting. If I didn't make it up today, I'd find my ticket pulled while we were orbiting Dezo. You know the bureaucrats; they'd insist on shuttling a new pilot out to take my place, regardless of the effect on the mission. I ask you, Kurt; if we can make robots that think like people, why do we have to put up with people that think like robots?"
Chuckling, Kurt said, "Ahh, they're just nervous because of Arnheim Damis' anti-space crusade in the legislature. Still, I envy you. I know an astrogation mission isn't exactly Shiva of the Space Corps stuff, but I want to cut my teeth on a long-haul job. These little shuttle hops are getting boring."
"It'll come, kid, it'll come. You're qualified for it; they'll give you a mission to fly sooner or later."
They collected their updated ID smartcards and checked that their sim time had been properly credited, then left.
"Well, I've got to get going," Kurt said. "Scion-Colesburg is trying to sell ASA a new shuttle design and believe it or not, Requisitions actually wants some input from the pilots."
"Damn, Kurt, I've got to start going to church. There must be something to this miracle stuff after all. Catch you around, kid."
"Bye, old man."
Kurt stepped onto the moving walkway that led to Camineet Spaceport's administration dome and was quickly whisked out of sight. Hale liked his sister's son; the kid was a bit overenthusiastic but what did you expect from a twenty-five-year-old space pilot? He had a valid complaint, too, about the limited opportunities available for missions. With robot autopilots used for freighters and other ships locked into straight A to B to C runs and more and more androids being programmed to fly spacecraft on missions with more varied needs, there were fewer jobs each month that needed a Palman at the controls. Even the military was leaning that way.
Hale stopped at an infoterm and called up the duty roster for the next day, March 16, AW 1274. It had only been a whim, but what he saw made a grin spread across his face. He was still grinning when he made a visiphone call an hour later.
"Yo, Hale, whassup?"
"Well, Sid, it's about that thousand meseta you owe me."
"Geez, you know I'm good for it. It's only been two weeks and--"
"How'd you like to forget it completely?"
Sid's broad face broke into a smile.
"Now you're talking my language. What've I gotta do for it?"
"Nothing. Just take care of yourself. You look like you're coming down with a nasty bug."
"Huh? Oh yeah, riiight. Yeah, I figure it's the twenty-four-hour flu."
"Uh-huh. There's a lot of that going around, I hear."
* * *
"What do you mean, he's sick?" bellowed the commander. "He's taking off
for Dezo in four hours!"
"He's sick, ma'am. Some kind of virus, apparently," her aide replied.
The commander groaned. She hated it when the smoothly ordered running of her spaceport glitched.
"So who's due to replace him?"
"Sid Cartwright, ma'am, but he also called in sick."
The commander snorted. "Yeah, right; I bet hung over is more like it." She called the duty roster up on her screen and pointed to the third name. "There, Kurt Baines. Was he at the beer bash too?"
"Um, if you mean, did he also call in sick today, ma'am, then the answer is no. Grade Two Pilot Baines is here today."
"Is he cleared for this mission?"
"Good. Find him and tell him to get his hind end up to preflight. I hope he doesn't have any appointments that can't be put off for three weeks, because he's going into space."
* * * * *
"What'll it be, Hale?" the bartender asked, sweeping a wet cloth across the bartop.
"Beer, I suppose, Louie." He felt a twinge of regret that he wasn't out in space, that he'd passed up any chance to sail between the planets, even for his nephew's sake. That was all right, though. After all, if he didn't want to be up there, he was in the wrong business.
Louie slid a draft over to the pilot.
"So what's up? I thought you were supposed to be orbiting Dezo right about now."
Hale took a drink.
"Got sick, Louie. Not even Mother Brain can stop ol' Mother Nature. Well, except on Mota, maybe. ASA's not going to miss a launch window just because a pilot's on the shelf, so they sent somebody else."
"That's rough, Hale. Who knows, though? Maybe it'll turn out to be a lucky break for you. Never can tell."
"Maybe so. Hey," he pointed at the holovid screen over the bar, "that's the Racers and Seatigers, isn't it?"
"Yep, I got fifty on Eppi so no way am I missing the game. You want the sound up?"
"Sure, if it's all right."
"No problem. There's nobody else in the joint to complain."
Hale relaxed, watched the game, and drank his beer, occasionally taking time out to tease Louie about how lousy the Racers were doing. A couple of other people came into the bar, but they kept to themselves.
Then it happened.
"We interrupt today's game for a special news announcement." The game shrank to a tiny window in the corner while the main view was filled by an elaborately groomed, green-haired anchorwoman.
"We have just received word of a tragic accident in space," she said in the saccharine voice of one for whom death and suffering meant a big story and the opportunity for ratings. "The colony vessel Wayfinder had collided with another ship in orbital space near Dezo. Algo Space Administration officials have informed us that while rescue efforts are being pursued, it is believed that all aboard both craft were lost in this shocking incident. The cause for the accident is being given as pilot error, though no information on whether the pilot of the Wayfinder or the second spaceship, the astrogation vessel Ranger, was responsible had been released."
Hale's glass slipped from his hand, shattering on the tiled floor.
"Hey, man, what's up?" Louie asked.
"I...was supposed to be on the Ranger."
"Geez, really? Well, like I said, you can never tell what's going to turn out to be lucky in the end."
Lucky? Maybe for me. Pretend to be sick and let Kurt die in my place.
"The Wayfinder was to be the first ship to explore and settle worlds outside the Algo system," the talking head droned on. "Given the intense controversy that has raged over the colonization mission, this catastrophe is sure to reopen debate about the wisdom of extending Palma's reach beyond Algo at our present level of technology, and perhaps even the extent of current space travel. Legislative Member Damis..."
Hale wasn't listening. The thousands who'd dies aboard the colony ship, the ammunition the disaster would give to anti-space-program activists, none of it mattered. All he could think was, It was my fault. I killed him.
* * * * *
In the vastness of space, on board the interplanetary spacecraft Noah, Mother Brain examined the data streams that flowed to her from her network across Algo. Public opinion polls were showing confidence in space travel at an all-time low. It was the perfect excuse she needed to ban it entirely. If the arch-computer could be said to smile, she would have at that moment.
First, divide the three planets. Then...conquer.
And, from so deep within her electronic mind that Mother Brain was not even aware of its existence, a tiny, dark voice added its own whisper to her thoughts.