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A sci-fi short story
The following is a sample of one chapter from an upcoming sci-fi anthology book, A Journey through Aubrey Finch’s Multiverse, which will be released this fall by Andak Media. Stay tuned for future updates!
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Streaks of folded space raced across the bridge’s instruments as the carrier traveled its charted course across the commercial lane of the greater republic. They weren’t always the quickest routes, but they were the safer choice, with designated republic vessels patrolling for the usual suspects: slavers, mercenaries, and pirates. The designated lanes also meant your ship wouldn’t wind up in a blackhole or collide with a star going supernova.
The carrier, AJAX, was part of the common merchant fleet, ships designated for trade by the republic’s commerce guild. Captain Boyd was on his first command post as part of the merchant fleet, and – so far – things were going as planned in their logistics meetings. Cargo was stowed and secured. Crew was stabilized. Navigation was following protocol. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
Boyd adjusted his deep navy blue uniform, pulling the jacket seams taut and sat back down in his seat. His sparse crew was led by one nav officer, an engineer, a defense officer, and a representative of company cargo. The rest of their crew would be woken up in case of emergency or when they arrived at their destination to unload cargo.
Ensign Leighton was studious, his eyes darting between glowing instruments on his panels. There was a glowing green line, designating the proper route. Their trajectory overlapped as an additional glowing line. Rarely did the two lines diverge, thus the line continued a satisfying glow.
Chief Brunson pushed her stray black hairs out of her face as she monitored the ship's engines and life support systems. All signs were green and operating within the efficient ranges.
Tac Officer Han wasn’t sure what to make of the assignment. She had originally hoped for a posting in the republic navy, but merchant work was lucrative and marginally safer than getting shot out of a dreadnought in drop pod combat.
Executive Jordan – the company man – was monitoring the several screens showing live feeds of the cargo hold. There were also inventory screens with sensor readings in an easy-to-read table, but Jordan preferred the visual aesthetic of rows of shelving and boxes. The symmetry calmed his nerves, and he trusted his eyes more than a spreadsheet. It also allowed him to keep his eyes on a very specific container without much scrutiny from the crew.
Their work logs were clean so far: no accidents, full cargo yield, additional incentives collected. The crew was moderately happy, aside from the usual grumbling about shares or percentage quibbling around the incentives.
Nobody wanted the company stock options, the corporate department found. Everyone wanted the boost to pension points – less volatile and more inclusive of their labor. But Jordan tried to press them on stock options, even adding some extra shares above what they would get in their pension accounts. The company needed the capital boost and more republic holders in their ecosystem gave them a greater sway during the election cycle.
But the crew wouldn’t budge, and Jordan had acquiesced under the pressure. Now he was staring at the cargo, wondering if the rest of the crew was aware how much extra that one container was worth – the one container he hadn’t logged in the manifest and wasn’t calculated in their incentives. It wouldn’t be much longer and he’d finally be rid of it, with a little extra in his pocket.
“What’s our ETA?” Captain Boyd broke the long silence.
Ensign Leighton didn’t look up from his navigation panels. “We’re on schedule. A couple of days still.”
Boyd sighed and glanced over at Han. “Instruments?”
Brunson cleared her throat. “All systems operating within parameters. Crew stable.”
“Weapons and shielding are functional in the green, sir,” Han chimed in.
“Cargo’s fine,” Jordan interjected before Boyd could bore him with the inane script of questions. “All accounted for. Nominal environmental deviations.”
Boyd cleared his throat at the interruption and scratched at the arm rests of his captain’s chair. Things were going a little too well for his liking -- very little hassle at pickup, barely any red tape to wade through -- and the travel time seemed to be going just fine.
A notification popped up on their screen.
“Cargo better be fine,” Boyd replied to Han. “Because the weigh station has flagged us for review.”
The crew collectively rolled their eyes. Jordan let out a groan and started running his preliminary checks. He could feel the hair on his body stand, tingling with a clammy panic. There was no way his special cargo would pass inspection.
The screen notification in front of Captain Boyd slid down the length of the screen and a video image revealed an officer with long blonde hair. His face was chiseled, with a strong jaw and deep hazel eyes that were looking offscreen at instruments to his side.
“Hello, Captain Boyd. This is Chief Inspection Officer Cordette. We have flagged MC37 - callsign AJAX for a routine inspection. Please transfer docking control to our station A.I. and we will get you back on schedule.”
“Understood,” Captain Boyd nodded, and he pointed two fingers to Ensign Leighton, who complied.
Ensign Leighton moved his hands back and the instrument panel was glazed over with an alert menu stating TRACK LOCK, and the ship was guided into the weigh station’s dock.
“Let’s get this over with,” Captain Boyd grumbled and adjusted his jacket before escorting his team to the docking bay of the AJAX.
The crew in unison held their hands behind their backs and waited for the bay doors to slide open. A series of clunking and grinding machinery noises cascaded upwards, and the door wrenched up a few centimeters then slowly glided the rest of the way to reveal Cordette’s serious face. He pursed his lips and held a hand out for the manifest. Jordan nervously passed a shaky tablet over to him.
Cordette scrolled across the manifest. It was fairly standard fare; the boring usual. Then his finger stopped abruptly on a few untagged container items. Sometimes someone forgot to tag a few crates of exotic fruits or a shipment of non-potable water. But sometimes… Sometimes it was smut. Cordette stifled a snicker, and looked up at Executive Jordan, who was sweating profusely.
“I see some anomalies here, Executive.”
“Huh?” Jordan quivered, his voice cracking. The crew stifled their laughter. Normally, Jordan was an insufferable, cocky little shit. But they also didn’t want to get searched and slapped with a citation or - worse - fines. It wouldn’t take much of an excuse for the company to garnish wages or pull all of their bonuses. Captain Boyd cleared his throat and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Is this necessary, Inspector? I can assure you, we aren’t hauling anything in violation. I’m sure Executive Jordan just mislabeled some empty containers. I’d hate to give up our bonuses over a simple mistake.”
Cordette looked up from the tablet and gave Boyd an incredulous, arched eyebrow.
“I’m not really in charge of how your compensation is structured, Captain. Forgive me if that doesn’t mean much in light of our protocols. You should know better.”
Boyd put his hands at his hips. “Excuse me?”
The crew wasn’t smiling anymore. Jordan could feel their eyes staring daggers into him. Losing bonuses over a tagging error? Jordan couldn’t exactly defend himself. No, you don’t understand - we’re hauling contraband so I didn’t tag it!
Cordette put the tablet under his armpit and locked eyes with Captain Boyd.
“Okay, so we’re going to do a random sequenced search, plus your untagged items. This will go as fast as you let it. Executive?”
Jordan swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded in compliance. They backed out of the docking bay to the cargo bay, a large warehouse room sectioned off by containers. The containers were aligned in rows with automated forklift pulling shelves. Cordette handed Jordan his tablet, and the rest of the crew cleared away so they could get to work.
Jordan swiped up on his tablet, and tapped on the manifest controls. The hydraulics sputtered and whirred as forklifts arms woke from sleep and started moving to the tablet commands. Cordette started calling out rows and container items. The last ones he called out were the untagged containers. Jordan tapped in the corresponding container serials and the forklifts slid down the long cargo hallway. The forklifts’ RF guns scanned the barcode of each container, and then pulled out racks of their haul.
Cordette walked down the line and opened the containers, one by one. The crates hissed as their pressurization expelled, and the lids pushed back on their automated hinges. Non-potable water cylinders. Oxygen respirators. Mineral deposits. Cordette went to the untagged containers, and opened it. There was a loud hiss, and the lid folded back. Cordette leaned over the box and looked inward at… strawberries.
“Strawberries?!” Boyd hollered. “You almost got us fined over strawberries! This debriefing with your office is going to be hell for you, Jordy.”
Jordan breathed a sigh of relief. Boyd angrily slammed the container closed, snapping the automated hinges. The broken pieces of metal pinged across the floor, echoing overhead in the open space. Boyd was fuming, a bulging vein drawn across the center of his forehead as he walked up into Jordan’s face.
“You are done here. I’ll make sure you can’t get a license on a waste hauler after this,” Boyd whispered, his voice growling. “Pack this shit back up.”
Boyd turned back to Cordette. “Well, as you can see, we will make sure to make some adjustments to our manifest… and our crew.”
Cordette nodded and made a note of it on his personal records. Jordan began loading the containers back into the rows, and the crew started to disperse back to the freight elevator.
“Wait,” Cordette said, looking up from his paperwork.
“What?” Boyd replied impatiently.
Cordette bent down at the untagged container, observing its busted hinge. The metallic scraps had scraped the barcode off the container, revealing another barcode underneath.
“This isn’t the right container. The barcode has been manipulated.”
The cargo bay lights shut off and returned in a sickly red, pulsing strobe. The emergency broadcasting speakers blared a proximity alert.
ALERT: 1 UNMARKED CRAFT HAS BROKEN PROXIMITY PROTOCOL.
“What?” Cordette questioned. “What are you trying to pull?”
“What am I trying to pull?” Boyd yelled back at Cordette, but Cordette could barely hear anything over the alert status updates. “Tac Officer Han, take Mr. Cordette into custody.”
Cordette looked around bewildered. Han grabbed Cordette by the arm and started pulling him toward the freight elevator.
“What? You can’t get away with this!”
ALERT: PROJECTILE TRAIL DETECTED.
“What the--” Boyd shouted as their ship shuddered and shifted violently. Han threw Cordette to the ground and Brunson ran through the cargo warehouse to their docking bay doors and slammed her fist on the emergency closure button. The doors immediately fell down into place with a loud thud and locked.
Han pulled a pistol from her uniform holster and aimed it at Cordette.
“Release the docking clamps!” Han shouted. Cordette frantically rifled through his personal tablet settings.
“Do it!” Boyd yelled, and Han mashed Cordette’s hand on the release controls.
A hiss erupted from the back of the ship at the docking bay door. The AJAX slowly started floating away from the dock. But the explosion caught up to them, rushing down the freight elevator core of the weigh station and erupting out of the docking tube, launching the AJAX out into open space. The warehouse door automatically shut from the jolt of multiple G’s. The explosion threw Brunson away from the docking bay door and into the closed warehouse door.
The crew all fell over, and the containers not bolted back into their shelves launched their contents into the air. The AJAX tumbled, rolling over itself as the pressurized explosion shot them out into space like a torpedo. The gravity field broke, and they all were floating in the air with their cargo.
“Leighton, get us thruster control!” Boyd barked, as he tried to right himself.
Leighton grabbed at his sleeve controls and pressed the emergency stabilizer button flashing on his screen.
“Brunson, we need atmospheric controls!” Boyd yelled. No word over the intercom. “Brunson!”
Chief was out cold, floating in the docking bay entry. Han kicked off a container and swam through the chilling zero gravity and grabbed onto the maintenance panel next to the docking bay entry door. She pulled back on a panel and flipped the reset button.
ALERT: GRAVITY STABILIZATION RETURNING IN 3… 2… 1…
Everyone fell to the ground, along with all of the loose cargo. Boyd scrambled to his feet, while Han held Cordette at gunpoint.
“OMNI,” Boyd said to his wrist AI Control protocol, Operative Machine Neural Interface. “Status report.”
OMNI chirped, and a calm voice spoke up, cutting off the alert speakers.
CRITICAL SYSTEMS STABLE. FLIGHT CONTROL REMOTE FUNCTIONAL. PERSONNEL STORAGE MAINTAINING ACCEPTABLE HEALTH STANDARDS.
“Weigh station status?” Boyd questioned.
WEIGH STATION B227 STATUS - CRITICAL FAILURE. ALL SYSTEMS RED LEVEL. STATION STRUCTURE - DESTROYED.
“OMNI,” Han spoke up, “status of unidentified craft.”
UNIDENTIFIED CRAFT IS IN CORRECTIVE FLIGHT PATH. TIME TO PROXIMITY ALERT – 1 MINUTE TWENTY-TWO… ONE SECONDS.
“Hey, boss,” Bruson said groggily over their wrist comms. “What’d I miss?”
Boyd looked at the thick porthole window and Brunson’s face staring back at him. She was pushing her hand on her head, blood visibly leaking from underneath her hair, a gash down her left cheek.
“Ship’s fine. But you look like shit,” Boyd replied.
“OMNI, increase propulsion impulse by five points,” Brunson said through her comm device.
ACCESS DENIED. 15 SECONDS.
“OMNI, increase propulsion imp –”
IMPACT IMMINENT. BRACE –
The AJAX rumbled as the unknown craft entered its propulsion wake. Boyd picked Cordette up, and shook his shaking body.
“Your sensors should have picked up on this the second the ship hit the system. Why didn’t your station warn us?”
“Boss,” Brunson said softly.
“What game are you playing?” Boyd growled at Cordette.
“Boss!” Brunson yelled.
Boyd looked back at the docking bay entry porthole. Brunson was staring at the docking bay door, the vacuum of space on the other side. Brunson turned back and looked at Captain Boyd. Their eyes locked for a moment. Her green eyes dilated.
The AJAX shook and the docking bay door exploded. Brunson was silently sucked out into the vacuum. Boyd could feel his blood run cold as he watched her body glance off of the ship in pursuit, a small skiff.
“Pirates,” Boyd said, his teeth clenched and his voice barely producing sound with the lump lodged in his dry throat.
The skiff closed the gap between the two ships and spun to its side. A docking tube jutted out from the side of the skiff and slammed into the docking bays scrapped opening. The tube drilled into the remaining structure, with automated clamping screws anchoring it into the metal of the AJAX, creating a pressurized seal between the two ships.
Fog filled the docking bay room, and obscured the porthole. Han pointed her gun at the cargo bay door, anticipating the entrance. A hooded figure silhouette against the porthole fog.
“Open the cargo bay door,” the figure said in a distorted voice.
Captain Boyd scoffed and Han cocked her gun. Ensign Leighton clicked the intercom button.
“That’s a ‘no’ if you didn’t pick up on it,” Leighton jeered.
The hooded figure turned to Leighton, revealing a portable oxygen mask and long purple curls spilling out of the hood. The figure sucked in an exasperated breath.
“Have it your way.”
CARGO BAY DOOR OVERRIDE ACTIVATED.
Han looked down at Cordette who was feverishly trying to slide his tablet away to hide his handiwork. The hooded figure entered the cargo warehouse, raising her pistol and firing a round into Han while two more soldiers filed out behind her. They knocked Leighton back into the maintenance panel and then set sights on the rest of the unfortunate crew.
Han fell to the floor, blood spilling out onto the cargo deck. A clean shot. Boyd dropped down to help her. Cordette stood up and shrank back toward the hooded figure, who pulled her hood back to reveal long purple hair and a scar running down her face over her right eye. She pulled her breathing mask off, while maintaining line of sight with the AJAX crew.
“Aubrey Finch. Sorry to meet like this.”
“I bet you are,” Boyd grumbled, looking up from the wounded Han.
Aubrey cocked her head with a faux-sympathetic coo. “Anyway, Cordette over here tells me we have some delicious contraband that you were trying to hide from us.”
“Oh, you work for the weigh station, huh?” Leighton joked, and the pirate next to him backhanded him to the floor.
“Gentlemen, no need for hostilities. We can be reasonable about this. I only want the contraband. We’d all like to leave without any further bloodshed.”
“Tell that to Brunson,” Leighton said, wiping blood from his swelling lip.
Aubrey’s eye lashes batted nervously. “That was unfortunate.”
“Unfortunate?” Boyd questioned, his voice cracking. “You murdered her.”
“I didn’t expect --” Aubrey cleared her throat and raised the gun on Captain Boyd once again. “I need you to show me this contraband, and we’ll get out of your hair.”
“We can’t tell you. Jordan didn’t –” Han groaned through pained breaths, but when she looked back where Jordan was, he was nowhere to be seen. “That little shit.”
“Ah, why is it always the snively corporate stooge,” Aubrey shook her head, and put her gun down. She nodded to her two henchmen. “Watch them. Come with me, Cordette.”
Aubrey sidestepped her way past the rows of containers to the back wall of the cargo warehouse, and saw that her path to the left led to the freight elevator and the path to the right led to an open doorway.
“I’m sorry it took so long to get to you. We hit a bit of a snag in the next system. We may have to jump from here pretty quick,” Aubrey explained to Cordette.
“It’s no problem,” Cordette replied. “I just hope it’s worth it. The Republic will assume I went down with the rest of the station.”
Aubrey nodded, and pulled a flashlight from her shoulder pocket and held it out with her offhand. The emergency red lights were still pulsing in the cargo warehouse, but the doorway lights were completely off. The flashlight button clicked and the beam illuminated an elbow shaped hallway that turned back towards the engineering bay.
The engine’s core was pulsing a pale blue light, illuminating Jordan’s silhouette off and on as Aubrey and Cordette approached him. Jordan turned his body back toward them, revealing a small, air-tight container – one that had been lodged within one of the large crates.
“Hold it right there,” Aubrey ordered, raising her pistol at the young executive.
“You don’t understand,” Jordan tried to explain. “I was told not to open it. I don’t even know what’s in it.”
“We’re pirates, kid. We don’t exactly follow the rules,” Cordette jeered. “Besides – you tried to hide it at gunpoint, so obviously it’s worth more than this damn ship. Open the box.”
Jordan put the container on one of the console ledges next to the engine core. He wiped the sweat off his forehead, and looked back at Cordette and Aubrey. He turned back to the box. His hands shook as he put it around the container’s hinges.
Aubrey Finch cocked the gun. “Just do it, kid. Don’t make me use this.”
Jordan flipped the latches, and the container box hissed as the pressure was released. He flipped the lid up, and looked down into the box. Cordette joined him, staring down at the strange object inside.
To be continued…