Having just finished the first draft of my novel Sunder, I found myself at a loose end and so decided to go through many of the book ideas, that had been threatening to overwhelm me recently. As I searched through my ideas file I found a short story,
created for an authors event at a local independent bookshop Southcart Books.
So I thought I’d share it with everyone here. Comments welcome.
Non-human traffic – Rules for smuggling (The intergalactic kind).
1. Those in charge make the rules.
Those words resonate in my head. It’s what my Godfather tells me when he finds me stowed away in the cargo hold of his ship, the Tomitoa, or the tomato as I called it when I was younger, back when I dreamed of travelling through space, anything but grubbing in the yellow soil and trying to cultivate the Homestead. That was my parent’s crappy dream not mine. So I sneak aboard and hide behind the Aluplast storage bins in cargo hold two. It was then that I found the cache of plasma beacons, which I thought was strange for a merchant who specialised in transporting food. Mom always said Dad’s best friend was a scoundrel and a smuggler, but I thought it was just because she didn’t like him. The beacons were amazingly sensitive and that’s when I was caught. A lectured ensued about how there are laws and there’s right and wrong, but those aren’t rules. And, he says, there are especially no rules for situations like this. Which turns out to be to my advantage, because he’s pissed but not that pissed and likes the idea of being a hero to his Godson. Those in charge makes the rules effectively means not turning around and taking me back to Durian III. Result. Turns out he is a smuggler. Hate to admit it but Mom might not be wrong about everything after all.
2. Trade ports are bloody dangerous.
Now Mom has told me this. Dad has told me this. And my Godfather told me this about a hundred times before we docked at Fredia -12 trade port. I’ve heard a thousand stories about the three headed psychopathic Kleptins who take young boys like me and train them to be Geisha boys whatever they are. From all warnings about trade ports, when I step off of Tomitoa, I expect to be approached by shady alien wearing trench coats offering me illegal contraband.
As it turns out that Trade ports are boring, just stretches of stores, vendors carts and salvage yards of spare parts. And they stink, I mean really smell bad. There are aliens most of them look human and weirdly inhuman, making me stare like a yokel. I spot a man. I think it’s a man with three tentacles jutting out his upper jaw. One woman has silver cheeks flecked with pieces of green stone, and three purple stripes over each eye, of which she has seven. It’s creepy as hell. There are no Kleptins however or galactic drug dealers.
Noticing that my staring is attracting attention, I try to rest my hands on the belt I loaned from my Godfather, inches away from the twin holsters carrying sparse revolvers, also lent to me, with a tough expression on my face. I try to copy the swaggering gait I see my Godfather and his crew use, but the belt is loose and those guns are awful heavy as they bump into my legs.
“Stop acting stupid,” he growls, but there is a smile on his face.
My Godfather has a million stories about narrow getaways and hidey-holes, in addition to a large cast of seedy accomplices able to forge passable paperwork, when we stop for the night. And the next day he buys me a pair of chrominium needle blasters, black pants and a deep green flight coat like his.
‘Does it have any secret pockets?’ I ask.
‘Pull the lapels and it’s a cloaking device.’ My Godfather says chuckling. Unable to keep the smile from my face in that moment I’m sure we are going to be the greatest smuggling duo in the Celedrian quadrant.
3. If the job is paying double the rate, delve deeper. Chances are its worth at least twice that.
After being docked in the Trade port for three week, it is past boring. Whilst my Godfather touts for jobs, I spend my time practising shooting my new blasters. They kick a little to the right but I don’t tell my Godfather as that would seem ungrateful.
By the time we have a job lined up, I am way past ready to leave.
The job is quite possibly the nastiest I have ever heard of. A woman in a red holowire dress and a blotchy face came aboard the day before and had contracted us to transport a harvest of Dorvid eggs – spider like aliens home to the Japurnius constellation.
I hate spiders so the whole things creeps me out, but I can tell that the price is ridiculously high, judging from the spurs my Godfather brought last night for his Fragboots.
The woman meets us on the dock with a thick black case.
“Half now,” she says. “Half when the cargo arrives intact. And it better get there inside a month, or I will take the extra time out of your hide. I am paying for speed—and silence.”
“Oh, it’ll be there,” my Godfather says, trying to look suave and roguish. “Both this ship and I have hidden depths.”
The lady sniffs, not impressed and walks off.
An hour later we’re back among the stars. My Godfather seems relaxed and even lets me fly the ship for an hour with him hanging over my shoulder, nagging about everything I’m doing wrong.
Mostly the trip is uneventful, the computer navigates us to a ship off the asteroid belt and they load the cargo over wordlessly. I fiddle with the cuffs of my shirt, rolling them up and then folding them down whilst they store the cargo crates in the hold. Everything is normal and we head back.
Two nights later I wake up because the whole ship is shaking. At first I think that we have hit a gravity field, passing too close to a planet, but then realize it is something worse. There’s the faint smell of pungent earth and fire and the sound of the ship’s systems extinguishing it. The ship spins, gravity momentarily stops and I fall head over heels slamming into a wall.
Once it stabilizes, I grab my needles, and crawl into the corridor. My heart pounds and I feel light headed but I hear scrabbling feet on the alutile floor and think it is a Dorvid. I am right about the Spider, wrong about the floor as it drops from the ceiling in front of me.
When it drops, I start trembling all over and by the twitching hairs on its legs I know that it can smell my fear. I squeeze the trigger of a needle blaster before I even know it is in my hand and one of its legs explodes. As the spider squeals, I duck away and head for a hidey hole, my Godfather showed me.
As tears roll down my face I know my Godfather is dead.
4. If your ship gets raided by crazy psychotic spiders don’t hide in the cargo hold. If you do, don’t look at the secret cargo.
It has been an hour since my encounter with Dorvid according to my holowatch. Four shiny silver crates sit in front of me. I leave them alone for a while, then start to play with the control panel on one.
A square of the shiny silver crates turns clear and the inside glows. The whole thing hums a little, as though expecting more instructions, a thin mechanical whine. I lean down, looking at what’s inside, and then stumble back, hand to my mouth stifling a scream.
There’s a Dorvid inside, its eight terrible black legs drawn up underneath it, thousand eyes staring at the new light.
That was not an egg. It was a juvenile Dorvid.
I heard horror stories about the Spiderlings all my life. They were a race of blood thirsty arachnoids, hungry to destroy everything they came across. The only reason they had not done so already was that they did not reproduce quickly. Unlike spiders on the homestead these bred rarely and only two eggs per lifecycle. But what they lacked in numbers they made up in viciousness.
This—this must have been what the Dorvids wanted. Their young, stolen, and being transported to that scumbag in the red dress.
The storage crate rocks slightly and I wonder if the gravity is giving out again. It is the Dorvid, testing its cage. After watching it hurl itself against the transparent wall, I reach over and swipe the control panel hoping the viewing screen fades to silver. It doesn’t.
In a time like this I should not be hungry but I am, hey resilience of youth and all that, so I leave my hidden compartment and raid the food storage above me. As I grab stimultabs and Cafeflasks, I hear the clatter of feet again. I move as quickly and quietly as possible, back under the floor, yanking the cover of the hidden compartment into place.
The light is still shining from the crate, and I’m afraid that the glow will show through the seams and reveal my hiding spot. I press the screen again, hoping that will turn off the view screen, but it doesn’t. Another light- a red one—starts blinking and letters come to life.
Opening 10, 9, 8, 7, 6.
And as the footfalls come closer, a sudden strange calm comes over me. Screw it.
I run to the corner of the hold and crouch down, wrapping the coat around me.
There is a horrible loud sound, like a giant exhalation of breath. The top of the crate slides open.
‘Sod it.’ I think and pull both lapels hard and then grab my needle blasters.
5. Don’t mess with crates, and if you think your Godfather isn’t lying, he probably is.
There is a loud clicking noise, and then silence.
There’s a wet, liquid sound of spittle, an acid burning smell in the air, and then the scampering of feet.
I sit in the cargo hold for a while not sure if the cloaking device on my coat was real or not but not willing to risk it—too scared to move. The hold is pitch black but for the glow of the opened crate. After half an hour, my legs are stiff, and I need to pee so I force myself numbly to my feet. I walk past the empty crate but the Dorvid is long gone.
I go into the bathroom and take a leak. Then head back down out in the hallway, and straight to the galley, passing two bodies, one Dorvid, one of the crew. The smuggler is bent at an odd angle, missing his face, burnt away. There is an odd spatter of red along one wall, and yellow along the corridor where the Spiders head exploded. A belt of frag grenades are on the floor.
In the galley, I wash my hands and then raid the cryovault. I eat an entire pack of freeze-dried salt jerky, and three cookies from a large tin. There’s no point in dying on an empty stomach.
There’s movement in the hallway, the Dorvid skitters into the room, and I can’t help noticing how large it is. There is a certain gliding elegance to its movements. It looks at me, mandibles chittering as it stares. I want to reach for my needles but for some reason I don’t. For the longest minute of my life we look at each other, then its body crouches low, bending forward, two legs reach towards me.
It blinks. Twice. Double lids flicking.
“Um, hi,” I say, because I don’t know what else to do.
It keeps looking at me, tilting its head one way then the other.
6. Spiders have a sweet tooth.
“Fancy a cookie,” I say holding one out, “they are really good.”
“Does it have nuts,” it says after a long moment, and I’m completely startled by its voice, which has a little hiss behind it and an accent I’m not used to. It’s a young voice, a not-much-older-than-me. “I’m allergic.”
I look at the tub and then shake my head dumbstruck.
Of course some part of the stories I had heard about them mentions they could talk. Dorvid could not betray treaties if they could not talk. Monsters aren’t supposed to sound normal though.
She/he—sits down on its legs and reaches out to take a cookie and I notice each leg has four finger like claws.
“ were you an egg in there?” I ask.
“No, just like this.” It raises its arms in an eerily human gesture.
Which meant that there were possibly more Dorvid alive in those crates.
The spider leaned forward as I offer another cookie.
“Th-thank you,” it says.
“Was this your parents’ ship?” it asks.
“How do you know the Tomita isn’t mine?” I ask.
“Is it?” it asks, faltering.
“No,” I admit. “The ship was my Godfathers, but I think he’s dead.”
It tilts his head studying me. “You freed me,” it accuses softly. “By accident?”
“I—” you begin, but you can’t think of a lie fast enough.
“Thank you.” It says then nods and leaves the room.
Confused I sit down on the floor. These Dorvid don’t seem as blood thirsty as I’ve been told.
7. The dead are dead but sometimes they are living.
It takes me two hours to find my Godfathers body. He’s holed up in a hiding spot opposite his cabin, his side bloody and torn. I find a medikit and seal his wounds and pump him full of stimulants and then lock him in his cabin with food from the galley.
I find the Dorvid in the cargo hold staring at the crates. I do not want to do it but still I open the crates, knowing what they contain.
Each touch of the screen initiates the opening protocol and the crates his open one by one.
Inside are eggs, glinting green in the light and I breath a sigh of relief that there aren’t more juveniles.
“I’m sorry.” I say.
The Dorvid hisses, “It was not you. Who was it?”
“Some lady on Fredia -12. We did not even know what they contained.” I lied glibly.
“All the other of my kind are dead, as are your crew. Can you take me to this woman?” It asks.
I swear that the Spider looks as if it has grown in the past few hours.
“Sure thing,” I said. “Leave it with me.”
We reseal the crates and head off back to the cockpit. I make refried noodles for us all to eat, including my Godfather, whom it takes me half an hour to convince that this Spider is friendly.
We eat in silence then my Godfather skulks back to his cabin, his swaggering gait replaced by a limp.
8. Make the deal take the money, what happens next is their problem.
The comm crackles, a voice booming from the speakers in the wall. “Trigate to Tomita. Is that Captain Brent?”
My Uncles eyes narrow and he rises but I put my hand up and I reply.
“This is First mate Canagan, Captain Brent is currently in bad shape, are we still okay for the rendezvous.”
Don’t be afraid of silence, my Godfather tells. Silence shows your strength.
“We would like to speak to the Captain,” the voice says.
“You have to agree to speak to me,” I say. “We took heavy damage from an attack. If you want your cargo, we will need twice what you paid us before.”
“Twice… that’s too much.”
Have a bottom line, my Godfather tells me. Sometimes to make a deal, you’ve got to walk away from a deal.
“If you want the cargo, then agree to my terms, twice again or nothing. Payment in advance, and we will gravibeam the cargo into the designated location.”
Silence, longer this time.
“Agreed,” he says, but our Mistress will be inspecting the cargo and we will track you and blow you out the sky, if anything is amiss.”
“Agreed,” I say.
We drop a line and receive the payment. Once my Godfather checks it we Gravibeame the cargo and hover up into the clouds.”
We keep the comm link open long enough so that we can hear the Dorvid attacking the lady in the red dresses and her men. Seems that all the eggs needed to hatch was some of the acid that nearly burned a hole in our hull.
As we fly towards the stars I look back on my first adventure and begin to believe that there might a slight chance that if he is lucky, I may just let my Godfather become one-half of the best smuggling duo of all time.
Neil Sehmbhy is a Fantasy and Science fiction author from the Midlands, UK and tends to write in his writing den, lovingly decorated by his wife Amy. Author of Tea with death and other stories a flash fiction anthology, he is also a multi-award winning author.