Fight of the Cargo Hauler by Jed Herne

When pirates board her spaceship, an overweight, middle-aged cargo hauler must use her wits, inventiveness and knowledge of B-grade action movies to survive.

Fight of the Cargo Hauler is a 4400-word sci-fi short story. It was published in The Scarlet Leaf Review‘s May 2017 issue.

Fight of the Cargo Hauler by Jed Herne

Christina Everett’s day went downhill when the yellow light flashed on her spaceship’s dashboard. Groaning, she eased her bulky backside out of the pilot’s chair. She shuffled out of the cockpit, not bothering to grab the holochart with directions to the faulty boiler.

Yellow wasn’t too bad. It didn’t mean Christina’s cargo hauler was in mortal danger – not like when it flashed red. Yellow just meant minor repairs. More damn repairs. She’d spent most of her six-month trip tightening screws, replacing fuses and wishing TransCorp hadn’t given her a spaceship that had been old at the start of last century.

The holochart would’ve told her to turn right at the junction. Instead, Christina pried open a floor panel and squeezed into a service duct. She shimmied past pipes and wires, her large belly pressing against the walls, and opened another hatch. Climbing down a ladder, she emerged in corridor 2C.

Striding along, she didn’t glance in the storage rooms on either side. When you’ve hauled cargo for half your forty-six years, it stops being interesting – no matter how much TransCorp gets paid for the delivery.

She walked past the room with the hologram projectors. Ahead, gas spewed from the wall and a light flashed above.

Christina checked her chronometer. She smiled. Thirty-three seconds from cockpit to boiler. She’d like to see someone beat that with the dumb computer’s directions – the computer that claimed to know everything about the vessel, but didn’t know half as much as her.

Christina fixed the boiler with two tweaks of her wrench.

Her smile faded. But of course, her skills didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter how she could get from any point to any other in six minutes, even though the maze-like, four-level spaceship was five hundred metres long. It didn’t matter that she could fix every piece of equipment on board.

No one would ever see. No one would ever care. Space was an abyss of nothingness, but the loneliness of her six-month cargo trips was nothing against the loneliness of the spaceports.

Sighing, Christina trudged back to the cockpit, her flabby arms hanging at her sides. She needed to cheer herself up. She’d watch a HoloReel – yeah, a HoloReel! One of her favourites. A Clash of Colonies, or maybe Zanthus: Space Pilot. Sure, Zanthus was decades old, but they’d never made a finer film about the Galactic Navy.

When Christina got back into the cockpit, the warning light was flashing red.

Christina’s eyes widened. She checked the computer:

[Alert] Fatal collision in 00:23:59. Course change advised [/Alert]

Christina cursed. A spaceship was approaching: it would crash into Christina’s hauler in twenty-four minutes.

Christina hit the identify button. A message popped up:

[ID_Report_01] Identification request ping sent [/ID_Report_01]

[Alert] Fatal collision in 00:23:56. Course change advised [/Alert]

Christina waited for her ping to return. She swallowed. Only cargo vessels used this stretch of space between Yussal-3 and Dracona Minor, and the approaching ship was travelling twice as fast as any hauler had a right to go.

The ping returned and a message appeared:

[ID_Report_01] Identification request failed [/ID_Report_01]

[Alert] Fatal collision in 00:23:51. Course change advised [/Alert]

Christina breathed out. Okay. Maybe it was an error. Maybe a cloud of space debris had blocked the ping. She waited for a minute and re-sent the request. Seconds later, the ping returned:

[ID_Report_02] Identification request failed [/ID_Report_02]

[Alert] Fatal collision in 00:22:30. Course change advised [/Alert]

Christina chewed her fingernails. The other ship was either behind the largest cloud of space dust this side of the Carlson Nebula, or her ping was being blocked. She pried her overalls off her sweaty back. Only one way to find out.

She hit the communication button. “This is Christina Everett, captain of the TransCorp-2408-Bovine. Please identity yourself.”

Static filled the line.

“Unidentified ship, you are on a collision course with my hauler. Please identify –”

The line crackled and a man spoke: “My name is Arnov, hauler.”

“Arnov, be advised that –”

“Quit worrying, Christina! We’ve got eighteen minutes until the crash.”

Christina glared at the stars. She’d dealt with people like Arnov before: hotshot captains trying to impress their friends by skimming a cargo hauler.

[Alert] Fatal collision in 00:17:47. Course change advised [/Alert]

“Arnov, please change your thrust vector. I’ve got a lot of cargo and my boss won’t be happy if it tumbles into space.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll have more to worry about than your boss when I reach you.”

Christina’s skin crawled, as if a thousand nanobots were marching across her neck. “What?”

“Are you deaf? I said, you’ll have more to worry about than your boss when I reach you.”

Christina swallowed. “You’re not a pirate, are you?”

“No. You’re only a pirate if you’re caught. I’ll be long gone when the Galactic Navy arrive.”

Christina wiped her clammy hands on her overalls. Arnov was crazy. Christina had to get away. She overrode the autopilot and boosted the thrusters.

[Alert] Fatal collision avoided. [/Alert]

“C’mon,” said Arnov. “Where’s your sense of sport?”

The radar blipped: Arnov’s ship had altered course.

[Alert] Fatal collision in 00:16:01. Course change advised [/Alert]

Christina’s heart raced. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but change your course right now!”

Arnov laughed. “Don’t get your overalls caught in knot. If you don’t want to play, I’ll tell it to you straight. In fifteen minutes my crew will board your ship, and we’ll take anything we fancy. I’d like to say we targeted you specifically, but you’re just a nobody who’s in our way. You can’t outrun us, you can’t outgun us and you sure as hell won’t get any mercy if you try to do either of those. Be in the landing bay when we dock. If we like the look of you, we’ll sell you as a slave in the next spaceport. See you soon, captain.”

The line cut off. Christina stared out of the cockpit, her eyes wide. This couldn’t be happening.

[Alert] Fatal collision avoided. Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:21:23 [/Alert]

Christina swallowed. Twenty-one minutes until Arnov arrived. Then the best Christina could hope for was a quick death or a life of slavery on a backwards outer-rim planet.

She hunched over and cried. Why her? What had she done to deserve this?

The computer beeped:

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:19:23 [/Alert]

Christina grabbed the holochart and stumbled out of the cockpit. Blinking back tears, she waddled to the landing bay. She’d have to beg. She had to grovel, she had bow, she had to convince Arnov and her crew they’d be better off leaving her alive.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:18:12 [/Alert]

Christina rounded the corner. She could’ve pried off a maintenance panel and taken a shortcut, but what was the point? Christina snorted. How pointless were all the things she prided himself on! All the shortcuts, all the memorised lines from Zanthus: Space Pilot, all the things that defined her. Pointless. She was as worthless as space dust.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:16:23 [/Alert]

She tapped the wall panel and the bulky metal door to the landing bay slid open. She stumbled inside.

This was it. Forty-six years of life about to be snuffed like a flame in a vacuum. And what had she achieved? She’d dreamed of being a Galactic Navy Pilot, and becoming a wisecracking adventurer like Zanthus. But she’d dropped out of the academy in her second year. The long stretches of interstellar transport routes had been her home ever since.

She sobbed. No one would care when the pirates put a blaster bolt through her brain. There’d be no friends to mourn her, and no family to cry when they got the hologram from whomever found her dead body.

Christina Everett was alone, and the cold stars would be the only ones to watch her lifeless body drift through space.

The holochart beeped:

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:15:00 [/Alert]

Christina’s hands shook. The holochart beeped again.

She screamed and hurled the machine at the wall. It bounced off, undamaged. Christina stomped it and kicked it and pounded it until her hands bled and still the holochart lay unbroken on the floor.

And as Christina stood there, blood dripping from her knuckles to the floor, the holochart counting down until her life ended, she realised something. She’d failed as a Navy pilot, and she was nothing like Zanthus, but she did know this ship. She knew every corridor, every service duct and every stupid malfunctioning piece of equipment.

And she’d be damned if she would let Arnov take it.

Christina grabbed the holochart. She checked the alert:

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:14:23 [/Alert]

She strode out of the landing bay. Fourteen minutes to prepare for Arnov’s landing. There were no weapons on board – even TransCorp weren’t dumb enough to transport guns in a lumbering piece of junk like this ship – so a straight shoot-out wasn’t an option. Not that Christina had ever used a gun, anyway. She couldn’t fight the pirates like Zanthus would; guns a-blazing and wisecracks spewing out even faster than the blaster bolts.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:13:12 [/Alert]

Christina opened a storage room and grabbed a portable electro-magnet. She took a shortcut through a service vent into corridor 2C and found the room with the hologram projectors. After fixing the electro-magnet to the ceiling and pairing it with a hand-held switch, she opened the case on a hologram projector and tinkered with the programing.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:09:45 [/Alert]

Christina dashed out of the store room and took a shortcut to level 1. Plugging her holochart into the escape pod, she edited the code so she could control the pod with the holochart. She couldn’t use the escape pod to flee – the pirates would shoot it – but she could use it as a diversion.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:06:32 [/Alert]

Christina’s fingers shook and she had to re-type a line of code. She swallowed. This was taking too long. Maybe she should’ve hacked the life support for the landing bay … no, she didn’t have the time to do that safely.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:05:12 [/Alert]

Christina pressed execute and her new programing installed.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:04:41 [/Alert]

She dashed into the room with the artificial gravity systems. Another few lines of code linked the system to her holochart.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:03:12 [/Alert]

Christina’s heart pounded as she climbed a service ladder. She was running out of time.

She reached level four. Her bulky chest heaved and sweat stained her overalls. Adrenaline coursed through her system, but that didn’t change the fact she’d spent most of the last twenty-three years planted in a pilot’s chair.

She staggered to the cockpit and opened the communicator, ready to send an emergency alert. Her hand hovered over the button.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:02:49[/Alert]

What was she thinking? Could she fend off the pirates long enough for the Galactic Navy to arrive? This was a transport corridor. It’d take hours for a Navy ship to reach her.

She swallowed. Once she sent the alert, Arnov would know she’d called for help and there’d be no turning back.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:02:20 [/Alert]

Screw it, Christina thought. They’ll kill me either way.

She hit the button.

The communicator squawked.

“What are you doing?” asked Arnov: there were growls in the background.

Christina tried to sound braver than she felt. “This is a sting, Arnov. I’ve got ten Navy Officers on board and another two ships on the way. Last chance to escape.”

Arnov snorted. “You wouldn’t have warned me if this was a trap. I’m disappointed, Captain Everet. We had an understanding, and now you’ve ruined it.”

Fear surged through Christina. “No – wait, I was joking –”

“Do you hear me laughing?”
Christina sobbed. “Please! Please don’t kill me! You can have the ship – you can have everything! Just let me live!”

Arnov sighed. “I gave you a chance, and you spat on it. Don’t worry, I’ll make your death quick. Painful, but quick.”

The line cut off.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:00:59 [/Alert]

Christina wanted nothing more to sit and weep. But there was only one way out of this, and it was to take down the pirates.

Okay, thought Christina. What would Zanthus do?

Christina hit the scan button. The specs for Arnov’s ship appeared on the computer:

[Diagnostic_Scan] Mark 5B Corsair; full military arnament; top speed of 0.5c; max capacity of 8 humanoids. [/Diagnostic_Scan]

Christina cursed. Arnov was piloting a Navy-grade ship with enough guns to turn the cargo hauler into space dust. The only good part of the scan was that Arnov’s Corsair was an attack ship with a maximum crew of six.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:00:30 [/Alert]

A red light appeared amongst the stars. The light grew, and a few seconds later the Corsair appeared in the distance, shooting towards the hauler.

Christina swallowed. Too late to back out now. She had to take down the pirates. With another line of code, Christina transferred the cargo hauler’s CCTV feeds to her holochart.

[Alert] Unidentified ship on docking trajectory. Will dock in 00:00:15 [/Alert]

Christina typed one last code and all the ship’s doors locked. She wiped her sweaty hands. Arnov’s corsair passed the cockpit, close enough for Christina to see the scorch marks on its hull.

The hauler rattled. Christina gripped her armrests.

[Alert] Unidentified ship has docked in main landing bay. [/Alert]

Christina swallowed. The pirates were here.

The computer beeped:

[Alert] Attempted systems brea

The readout faltered.

“Hello, captain,” said Arnov over the cockpit’s speakers.

Christina flinched. Arnov laughed. “I’d ask for permission to come on board, but I don’t feel up to formalities today.”

Her fingers trembling, Christina brought up the landing bay’s CCTV feed. The grainy camera footage showed the airlock opening. A handsome man in a battered leather jacket stepped into the landing bay and sneered.

“What a dump,” said the man, who Christina realised was Arnov. “We better get a decent haul, and not more damn grains.”

Christina’s hands curled into fists. How dare Arnov insult her ship!

Arnov frowned at the locked door. “Knelli, get over to that control panel.”

“Sure thing, honey.” Knelli, a red-skinned, twelve-fingered Blohirk, strutted out of the Corsair and marched to the control panel. She started typing. “Man, this system’s older than the one on my nan’s ship!”

“It’s not old!” said Christina, even though Knelli was three floors away. “It’s functional!”

In the landing bay, a hulking eight-foot tall Krall emerged from Arnov’s ship, holding the leash of a snarling Flithe Hound.

Christina’s eyes widened. Flithe Hounds were genetically engineered for hunting. Once a Flithe caught an escaped prisoner’s scent, they could track them to the other side of a planet.

The Krall released the Hound. It bounded to a stain on the floor and sniffed.

Christina cursed. That wasn’t a stain. It was her blood, from where she’d smashed the holochart.

The Hound slammed into the landing bay’s door, barking. Christina trembled. The Hound had her scent. At least it couldn’t –

The cockpit door opened behind her. She whipped around, half expecting Arnov to storm into the room.

He didn’t. Christina laughed. Of course he hadn’t. The landing bay was on level 1, next to the life support and artificial gravity machines – far away from the level 4 cockpit.

She glanced at her holochart. Her laughter died. Every door had opened, and the Hound had disappeared from the landing Bay.

Arnov smiled at the camera. “Better run, girlie!”

Christina cursed. Knelli – she’d hacked into the system!

A bark echoed from the corridor behind the cockpit.

Christina stood and turned around. The Hound crouched at the far end, hackles raised, spit dribbling from its mouth.

It sprinted towards Christina.

She yelped and pelted down a side corridor as fast as her flabby legs could propel her. The Hound tore around the bend. Christina cursed. She couldn’t outrun the Hound. She needed a plan.

Christina raced around the corner and pelted towards the storage room at the corridor’s end, her lungs on fire. Rabid growling echoed behind her. She fumbled with the holochart.

The Hound streaked around the corner behind her, mouth foaming, eyes gleaming with rage.

It leapt at Christina –

And she ducked and switched off the artificial gravity.

The Hound soared over Christina, claws tearing through where her throat had been, and crashed into the wall beside the storage room’s door.

Christina floated into the air, cursing. She’d wanted the Hound to fly into the storage room.

She stretched for the wall-mounted fire extinguisher. It was too far away, and now she was floating towards the Hound.

Christina hurled the holochart. The throw propelled her to the fire extinguisher, which she tore off the wall. She spun, the corridor revolving around her.

A blast from the fire extinguisher stopped her spinning. She aimed the nozzle at the dog and fired. The gas hit the Hound and it yelped as it flew into the storage room. Christina shut the door, locking the snarling creature inside, then grabbed the floating holochart and re-enabled gravity.

Crash!

She fell to the floor. Sweat coated her body and her hands shook like a malfunctioning ion drive. But she’d done it. She’d bloody done it!

She vomited.

Once she finished, she grabbed the holochart. Zero-G always made her puke. Just another reason she’d failed as a Navy Pilot.

The floor shook. Christina turned around and the eight-foot tall Krall lumbered around the corner. “That was my pet, you pathetic hauler!”

The Krall crashed into Christina. Christina flew back and slammed into the door. The Hound barked on the other side.

The Krall loomed over her. “Open the door!”

Christina wiped blood off her split lip. “N-N-No.”

The Krall drew back a gigantic fist. “What was that?”

“I said –”

Christina rolled to the side. She scrambled up, trying to get past the Krall, but huge hands grabbed her and hurled her down the corridor. She crashed into a wall and groaned. The move-mid-sentence-trick had always worked for Zanthus.

Her chubby legs shaking, Christina stood. The Krall pounded towards her. “You’ve got four limbs, fatty. How many do I have to rip off before you open the door?”

Christina staggered away.

The Krall laughed and pounded after her. Christina’s mind raced. She couldn’t outrun the Krall and she couldn’t fight him – even strong humans were no match for Kralls.

Wait! That was it! The Krall wasn’t human, which meant alcohol was poisonous to it – especially the two-thousand litres of hundred-percent pure, burn-through-engine-grease alcohol in storage room 3E.

Christina stumbled around the corner. The lumbering Krall overshot her and bounced off the wall.

Christina pried open a hatch. She slithered into the service tunnel –

And the Krall’s meaty hand wrapped around her ankle.

Christina yelped. She grabbed a pipe and her chubby arms were almost wrenched off as the Krall tugged her.

The pipe burst. Gas billowed up and the Krall stumbled back, his grip loosening.

Christina tugged her ankle out of the Krall’s hand. She scrambled along the duct and dropped into the corridor below. Wincing, she stumbled to the nearest door.

Her flabby arm throbbed when she opened store room 3E. She sighed. Good thing the Krall was too bulky to crawl through –

Crack!

The ceiling fractured. Panels fell onto Christina, who dropped the holochart and dove into store room 3E as the ceiling collapsed.

The Krall thudded into the corridor. “Enough running, puny hauler!”

Christina crawled to the tank of alcohol.

“You’re–” Christina coughed blood. “You’re the one who’s puny.”

She stood and leaned against the tank. The Krall strode into the room.

Blood dribbled down Christina’s chin. “Bet you couldn’t even knock me out with a punch, you weakling.”

The Krall roared and punched at Christina. Christina ducked. The Krall’s fist glanced off Christina’s head. Light flashed behind Christina’s eyes and she crashed into the floor as the Krall’s fist crunched into the tank.

Floosh!

The tank burst. Alcohol exploded outwards. Christina spluttered, trying to hold her breath as liquid spewed into the Krall’s face. He stumbled back, choking. Clutching his throat, the Krall lurched towards Christina. She shied back, but the Krall collapsed with a crunch that shook the floor.

Christina stood. Alcohol dripped from her hair. Her eyes stung, her overalls were soaked and she reeked of ethanol.

Slipping on the wet floor, she staggered outside. She locked the storage room’s door. Even if the Krall was alive, the hauler’s bulky doors were too tough for him to break.

She grabbed the holochart. Despite the cracked screen and the sticky buttons, the machine still worked.

“What the hell are you doing, Captain Everett?” said Arnov over the speakers.

Christina jumped.

“Do you know how many people we’ve killed?” said Arnov. “Do you know how many pathetic cargo haulers have begged us for mercy? And do you know how many got it?”

Zanthus would’ve made a witty quip. Christina was too busy trembling.

“No one, Everett!” roared Arnov. “No one!”

The doors at the ends of the corridor shut. Christina’s eyes widened. She was trapped.

Toxic gas hissed up from the floor’s vents. Christina held her breath. Arnov must’ve triggered the coolant pipes’ emergency valves! Christina slammed the button to open the door. It stayed shut.

Lungs straining, Christina fumbled to bring up the door codes on her holochart, squinting through the thickening gas.

The door slid open.

A hint of fresh air wafted in, but the door slammed shut straight away.

Cursing, Christina checked the cockpit’s camera. Arnov sat in the captain’s chair. Knelli – the red-skinned Blohirk – crouched behind the computer console. Christina tried to open the door again, but Knelli hit a button and it stayed shut.

Christina’s eyes stung. The gas was so thick she had to hold the holochart a hand’s breath from her face. She couldn’t hold her breath much longer. She had to get Knelli out of the cockpit.

Christina had one chance. She typed in a line of code with shaking fingers and the ship shook as the escape pod launched.

The cockpit’s camera showed Knelli turning to Arnov. “She’s launched the escape pod!”

Arnov frowned. “What?”

Christina gasped and acrid gas swirled into her mouth and she coughed.

The escape pod cleared the ship. Christina entered new co-ordinates and watched through the pod’s camera as it accelerated back to the cargo hauler.

Nausea swept through Christina. She slid down the wall.

“I don’t like this.” Arnov took out his blaster. “I’m going to kill her.”

“Have fun, sweetie!” Knelli said as Arnov strode out of the cockpit, the cockpit’s door sliding shut behind him.

Christina’s fingers hovered over the final line of code. She blinked. The holochart was blurry and flickering. Christina swallowed. Knelli would escape if she mistimed this. But the gas would kill Christina if she waited any longer.

She transmitted the code.

The escape pod shot towards the cargo hauler’s cockpit.

Knelli cursed. She scrambled to the closed door –

And the escape pod crashed into the cockpit.

Crack!

The plexiglass splintered and the cockpit exploded. The captain’s chair was ripped from the floor and Knelli hurtled into space, screaming soundlessly.

Christina wacked into the wall as the ship jerked back. Her hands shaking, she typed in a line of code. The doors at either end of the corridor opened and Christina crawled out of the billowing gas, gasping.

Fresh air filled her lungs and she stood on shaking legs. Footsteps echoed from around the corner. Christina’s mouth went dry.

Arnov.

Christina dashed to the nearest service hatch and pried up the cover. She scrambled into the service vent. Behind her, the duct was full of billowing gas, but Christina’s position was gas-free.

Footsteps clanked from the corridor above. Christina held her breath. She couldn’t make a sound, couldn’t let Arnov hear –

Bang!

A blaster bolt seared through the vent and struck the floor in front of Christina. Christina yelped and peddled back.

“Come out, you coward!” yelled Arnov.

Bang!

Another bolt cut through the floor and nicked Christina’s hand. Pain lanced up her arm and she screamed.

Arnov dropped into the duct. Sneering, he aimed his blaster at Christina.

Christina pummelled a hatch. It popped open and Christina fell into corridor 2C, a blaster bolt shooting past her head.

Christina lurched around the corner. Boots clunked into metal behind her: Arnov was closing in.

Panting, Christina staggered down the corridor. Needles of pain drove into her chest with every step and her flabby legs wobbled.

A blaster bolt sizzled her shoulder. Christina screamed and stumbled into a storage room. She collapsed beside the door. With blood-stained fingers, she sent the last line of code from her holochart.

Measured footsteps sounded from the corridor. Arnov appeared at the door. He saw Christina standing on the room’s far side.

Arnov didn’t bother with a eulogy; he just strode inside, raised his blaster, and fired.

The blaster bolt hit Christina –

And passed through.

The real Christina, who’d been crouching beside the door, strode out into the corridor. She shut the door and locked it.

Christina’s hologram flickered and Arnov turned, his face livid with anger. He aimed his blaster at the viewport. Christina pulled the transmitter out of her overalls and pressed the button. The electromagnet on the storage room’s ceiling tugged Arnov’s gun out of his grip and it crashed into the magnet with a sizzle of fried electronics.

Arnov hammered the door. “You worthless cargo hauler! I’ll –”

Christina hit the mute button and Arnov’s protests grew silent. “That door’s held a 5-ton Ovrad Elephant – don’t bother trying to break it. Also, you might want to keep this story quiet in prison. If a worthless hauler outwitted you, how bad of a pirate does that make you?”

Grinning, she strode to the MediStation and grabbed a pocket of antiseptic gel. Christina sat and waited for the Navy’s red-and-blue lights to appear amongst the stars. Her shoulder stung, her chubby arms ached and she felt ready to puke, but Christina Everett grinned. This’d be one hell of a story for the spaceports.