Science Fiction – Horizon Chaser: Tension

Erin slammed into floor, her groan changing to wheeze from a quick blow to her solar plexus. Black and gray spots swam through her vision, but left enough space for her to recognize a set of knuckles rapidly heading for her jaw. She heard a voice, tinny and echoing, yell, “STOP!”

Waves of pain washed over her as the fist ignored the distant command. The gray spots fled as black took over.

***

“What the hell was THAT?” Gillian’s face, twisted and red, snapped forward, leaving less than an inch between her nose and Samantha “Sammy” Gutierrez’s. “When I say STOP, I mean STOP! If you ever pull some shit like that again, will put you in the med-bay. Do you understand me?”

Sammy stared above her superior’s head, eyes never leaving the far bulkhead. “Yes, ma’am!”

“Get the hell out of my sight before I do something you’ll regret!”

The ship’s third shift navigator performed a crisp about-face, strode off the practice mat, and out of the gym, head unbowed and back straight.

***

Captain Megan Hurley poured a finger a bourbon into a metal tumbler, glanced at her Master-at-Arms, then poured a couple more. She handed the whiskey to her shipmate and friend of fifteen years. “What do you think caused it?”

Gillian slammed back the offering in one gulp. “Kendra,” she exhaled.

The captain frowned and swirled her drink around before taking a sip. She leaned against her desk, arms folded. “Explain.”

Gillian shrugged, studying the empty bottom of her cup. “Sammy blames Erin for Kendra’s death. Not much more to tell.”

“Should I put them on separate shifts?”

Lips disappeared as Gillian pondered the question. “No. If you do that then Sammy’ll never get over it, and it’ll look like we’re babying Erin.”

Megan set her glass on the desk. “And if their problems affect the running of the ship?”

Gillian grinned at the petite blonde. “That’s why they pay you the big bucks,” she said as she stole the neglected drink and downed it.

Captain Hurley rubbed her temples, trying to ward off the building ache. “You’re such a help.”

“I aim to please, Captain.”

***

Silence reigned on the bridge, its grip harsh and tyrannical. Erin’s eyes kept stealing glances at Sammy over at the navigator’s station, despite the throbbing her jaw suffered every time they looked. Her assailant sat stiff-backed, view never wavering from her plot readouts.

A course correction popped up on Erin’s pilot-eye view screen, and she sighed.

“Shut up.”

Erin’s fingers punched in the course correction, her face screwed up in frustration. “Careful, Princess. You might break a nail.”

Erin swiveled her seat to the side. “What is your problem?”

Sammy gave her a look normally reserved for something unpleasant found on the bottom of a shoe. “You. The captain never should have hired you.”

Erin arched a chilly brow. “Oh. So I guess you wanted to be a pirate’s toy then? Guess you never know about some people, do you?”

Sammy’s head snapped up for the first time, eyes blazing. “What I want is my wife back, you spoiled bitch!”

Erin recoiled from the venom. “Your…Kendra?”

Sammy laughed, bitter and hard. “You didn’t even know, did you? You just wanted to play hero, consequences be damned, and got her killed!”

Erin turned back to her station. “You know what? Screw you. Kendra was brave and gave her life so the rest of the crew wouldn’t be raped or sold as sex-slaves. If you can’t understand that…then you didn’t deserve her in the first place.”

“How dare you!” Sammy leaped out of her chair, body trembling in rage.

“How dare you?” Erin retorted. “You want to hate me? Fine, but don’t try to stir up pity pretending it’s because of Kendra.”

The door swished open and Captain Hurley strode in. “Return to your station!” she snapped at Sammy.

“But, Captain-”

Hurley raised her hand to cut off whatever the younger woman would have said. “Stow it! I won’t have this on my ship.” She placed her hands on her hips and stared at Erin. “Stahl, can you work with Gutierrez?”

Erin cocked her head as she studied the other woman. “I can if she can.”

“Well, I can’t,” Sammy screeched. “Captain, she got Kendra ki-”

“That is enough!” Hurley barked, fists balled so hard her knuckles turned white. “I gave the order to execute the plan, Master-at-Arms Gillian commanded it.” Her voice lowered to a dangerous whisper. “If you want to blame someone, blame us.”

Sammy deflated at her captain’s anger. “I’m sorry, Captain. I don’t blame either of you, but I can’t work with…with…” She flicked her hand in Erin’s direction. “It’s her or me, Captain.”

Captain Hurley didn’t hesitate as she drew herself up to her full height. “Then it’s her.” Sammy’s eyes widened at the decision, and she opened her mouth. Hurley shook her head and Sammy’s jaw clacked close. “You are relieved of duty and confined to quarters until such time we make planet-fall, where you will be discharged with whatever wages are owed. Get out of here.”

Sammy’s eyes glistened as she looked back and forth between her captain and her enemy. She stomped out of the room, slamming Hurley’s shoulder with her own as she passed by.

Captain Hurley walked over to the nav-station and sat down. “Captain…” Erin began.

“Don’t talk to me right now, Erin. I’m not mad and I don’t blame you. Just…not now.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

The two finished out the shift in silence.

Horizon Chaser

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The Perils of Piracy

“Mayday! Mayday! This is Captain Megan Hurley of the trade-ship Horizon Chaser. Pirates are attacking my vessel. Any Stellar Navy vessels, please respond!” 

Erin hit the starboard thrusters and the ship jolted as the inertial dampers struggled to keep up with her maneuvering. A beam of azure coherent light flit briefly through the view screen.

“Sammy, broadcast that distress call on a continuous loop,” Captain Hurley told the navigator. “Not that it’ll do us a damn bit of good.”

Beads of sweat dripped down Erin’s face. She had kept the pirates at a distance for a good twenty minutes now, but they steadily crept closer into point-blank range. Soon she wouldn’t be able to dodge the laser blasts aimed at their engines.

She was good, but nobody was that good.

A voice crackled over the comm. “Trade vessel, this is the free-ship Nebula Shark. Stop maneuvers, disengage engines and weapons, and prepare to be boarded. This doesn’t have to be…nasty.”

Captain Hurley swore at the name Nebula Shark. Erin looked at her. “What should I do, Captain?”

Hurley rubbed her face in frustration and moaned. “Better do what they say. We can’t outrun them, and if they cripple us, we’re dead. I just wish it wasn’t these guys.”

Erin felt confused. “What does it matter who is robbing us?”

“I’ve heard about these guys. They take cargo and any women they find. The lucky women are sold into slavery. The unlucky ones they…use. There are twenty crew on this ship, all women. They probably have a minimum of fifty. Understand?”

Erin’s face paled, but she complied with her Captain’s orders.

Hurley opened up the ship’s channel. “Attention, crew, this is the Captain. We are about to be boarded by hostile forces. I want all personnel not on duty to lock themselves in their bunks. I’m going to try to negotiate the situation to where they only take the cargo. Hurley out.”

Erin swiveled her pilot’s chair. “Captain, how many EVA suits do we have?”

“One per crewperson,” Hurley answered without thinking. “Why?”

“I have an idea, but I’ll need MA Gillian. And everyone needs to be armed.”

Captain Hurley listened and a predatory grin grew.

***

Five women floated through the distance between the two ships, an occasional burst from a thruster pack the only sign of their passing. They were too small to show up on the enemy’s sensors as anything other than minor space debris.

Erin followed Gillian’s lead. Two of Gillian’s best students and the first shift engineer floated along with them. Erin could see the docking tube extend from the Nebula Shark and connect with her ship.

One of the women, Alice, broke off and thrustered underneath the tube. She attached a cylindrical device to the tube and made haste back to the group.

Erin could see the aft airlock loom nearby. Gillian reached it and motioned for the engineer, Hayley. Hayley pulled out her torch and cut through the lock, opening the Nebula Shark up to them. Gillian climbed inside the lock and readied her rifle that she kept from her days as a Stellar Ranger. Alice and Kendra readied plasma rifles, while Erin and Hayley gripped their pistols.

The women burst through the door into the corridor. A pirate gaped in surprise until Gillian stroked her trigger. Surprise turned to confusion then blankness.

Alice and Kendra took the lead and headed aft toward engineering, Gillian and Erin covering the rear. Twice more shots echoed and pirates died.

The quintet reached engineering. Several men sat around a table playing cards. The stakes were who would get the first turn with their new plaything. Alice and Kendra settled the bet and their charred bodies smoked in the sanitized air.

Hayley moved around engineering, pressing some buttons and disconnecting systems, while the other four women watched. Erin found herself glad for her EVA helmet. The sight of the bodies sickened her. If she had to smell them, she thought she would lose it.

The ship’s alarm triggered just as Hayley gave the “all done” signal. Gillian activated her comm and said one word. “Now.”

An explosion rocked the Nebula Shark as Alice activated the bomb on the docking tube. Captain Hurley and the other women on the ship would be exiting their bunks and taking the fight to the boarding party.

“Contact!” Gillian yelled. She sighted and unleashed her full fury down the hallway. Alice and Kendra joined her at the entrance and added their fire to hers.

“Get to the airlock,” Gillian ordered.

She suited action to words and moved as she fired. Erin and Hayley crouched and followed behind Alice and Kendra.

Most of the pirates hadn’t expected any resistance and weren’t mentally prepared for the ferocity they faced. More and more of them retreated as they watched their fellows fall.

The five crew-mates made the airlock. Hayley went out first, propelling herself back to Horizon Chaser. Erin started to exit when she heard a scream. She whipped around to see Kendra on the ground, a blade in her back. A pirate playing possum had waited until their backs were to him.

He dove for Kendra’s rifle and Erin’s finger reflexively tightened. Her plasma blast caught him in the skull, making his death real.

She paled as nausea surged through her. Gillian grabbed her shoulder and pulled her out of her stupor. “MOVE!” Gillian shouted at her.

Erin jumped out of the airlock.

***

“Three casualties,” Captain Hurley said at the debriefing. “Ten captives and salvage claim on the Nebula Shark.

Erin sat quiet as the Captain spoke. Kendra’s face vied with the man Erin had killed for a place in her mind.

Gillian noticed Erin’s face and chucked her under the chin. “You did good, kid. You did good. Meet me later for a good drink.”

Erin nodded as her eyes moistened.

“Only fools believe tears are for the weak,” Gillian said.

Erin let them fall.

Life lessons

Erin ached all over.

Captain Hurley made it a mission that Erin learn new skills, including how to fight. So everyday for the past month she had sat her shift bruised and sore.

Erin stifled a moan of pain as she entered a minor course correction.

It wasn’t fair. She wasn’t some dirty groundpounder slogging through the mud. Why did she need to learn hand-to-hand? It was… It was…

It was barbaric, that’s what it was.

It wasn’t just her martial arts instructor. The whole crew was mean to her, and she didn’t understand why. She had good ideas, but when she tried to tell people she was told to shutup.

Civilized people were not supposed to behave this way. None of the three previous crews she served with acted this way, nor did the captains make her do extra work.

That had to be it. These people were just uncivilized barabarians and she should just get off at the next planet and find a ride…

“What are you thinking about, Erin?” Captain Hurley’s question startled Erin. She twisted too quickly and an involuntary squeak slipped her lips, while her eyes started glistening.

“I see Master-at-Arms Gillian is getting you into shape,” Hurley said with a hint of humor and sympathy.

“Permission to speak privately, Captain?” Erin said.

Captain Hurley raised an eyebrow, but gestured for Erin to head to the ready room. She saw the navigator, Samantha Gutierrez, roll her eyes in disdain as Erin strode through the hatch.

In the office, Erin started pouring out her complaints against the rest of the crew. Captain Hurley listened without a word, the corners of her mouth twitching every so often.

When Erin finished, her cheeks flushed and eyes glinting with anger, Captain Hurley began. “Do you know why I needed a new pilot? Did you ever bother to ask about your predecessor?”

Erin’s confused look gave her the answer. “Pilot 3rd Class Dani Tyler was a bright shiny newbie, not unlike yourself in that regard. But that is where the similarities end.”

She leaned back in her chair and tapped her fingers together under her chin. “My father fired you because three crews couldn’t stand to work with you. Three.”

They locked gazes and Erin looked away first.

Captain Hurley continued. “I don’t necessarily blame you for all of that, though you do bear a large portion. The captains of those vessels bear some responsibility. See, they were afraid of the repercussions should Senator Daddy’s little girl grow unhappy, so they didn’t treat you like they should have.”

Hurley’s eyes grew distant. “Dani was the exact opposite. She could work with anyone because she cared about more than herself. She asked smart questions and made an effort to draw out even the most reclusive crewman.”

“In short, she was just about the best damn person I’ve ever met.”

“You have twice the piloting ability of Dani.” Captain Hurley refocused on the present. “I have no complaints about that aspect. However, you make imperious demands you expect to be followed, could give a damn less about anyone’s feelings but your own, and whine about learning.”

She stood up and leaned on her desk. “Dani was killed during an ambush on one of our runs. And that was my fault because I never made her learn how to handle combat.”

She straightened and crossed her arms over her chest. “I want you to learn other jobs because redundancy in knowledge helps stave off disaster, plus you need to learn to work with, listen to and respect others. Nobody here gives a damn about who your father is, and nobody is going to treat you like a princess-or let you get away with acting like one.”

“You can stay and change to fit in with this crew or leave your fourth crew and best chance at making it on your own.”

“Your decision.”

Captain Hurley waited as Erin digested everything.

Erin stood up and stiffened to attention. “Captain, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to be late for my session with MA Gillian.”

Captain Hurley nodded. “Dismissed.”

Truth Hurts

Erin’s foot beat a steady staccato against the floor of the waiting room. A human secretary sat as guardian to Mount Olympus; the President of The Stellar Trade Consortium’s office.

Her boss.

No drones flew by with drinks or disposed of the trash. President Hurley felt they were too “impersonal” and only used humans, even in the lowliest positions. A servant brought out a bottle of water, while the secretary stared off in the tell-tale sign of having an internal comm conversation. Her hand twitched every so often as she entered the data received in the company database.

Erin wondered what was taking so long. She sipped her water and dreamed of what her new responsibilities would be after her promotion. She had only performed three missions, but why else would the President of one of the largest trading conglomerates want to see her? Pilot 2nd class Erin Sta-. No, she thought. It’s Hardwick now.

Pilot 2nd class still had a nice ring to it.

“Erin Hardwick,” the secretary said. “The President will see you now.”

Erin stood and straightened her pilot’s tunic. She swept past another woman waiting and right into the President’s office. “Pilot 2nd, I mean, 3rd class Erin Hardwick reporting.”

President Hurley sat studying a holographic report and absently waved her to a seat. She felt stunned and insulted that he hadn’t even bothered to look at her.

“Sir,” she said with a bit of an edge in her voice. “I-”

President Hurley glared at her. “Sit down and shut up, Stahl,” he said with without inflection.

She sat, surprised at the use of her real name.

He pointed a finger at her. “You, young lady, are a problem for me. You will sit there and not say one word while I’m talking. Nod if you understand.”

She nodded.

President Hurley leaned back in his chair and tapped his forefingers together. “Your father came to me when you received your license and asked me to find a position for you.”

Erin’s mouth dropped open and tears started to form.

President Hurley continued by throwing up three different holographic reports between them.  A flick of his finger enlarged the one on the left. “This is the report from your first captain. He states that your talent as a pilot is dwarfed by your staggering lack of interpersonal relationship skills.”

“Disobeying orders, arguing with ship’s crew, insulting civilian passengers…” Line after line turned red as he ran down the list until both of them in scarlet.

Erin’s shoulders slumped, and she sagged lower and lower in her chair as he read each damning sentence.

Hurley closed the reports and looked directly at her. “Erin Stahl, I don’t give a damn who your father is. I’m going to tell you something that should have been said long ago.” He stood up behind his desk and looked down on her. “You are a spoiled brat who has no idea how to work with a team. And that is what a starship crew is: a team. I made a mistake in bringing you on. One I will rectify now.”

“You are fired.”

Hurley sat back down. “Get out of my office.”

Erin scurried out, unable to hold back the tears and feelings of shame any longer. She tried to run past the woman still sitting in the waiting room, but was stopped by a strong arm. “Wait.”

Erin sniffled. “Wh-what do you want?” she asked with a tremor in her voice.

The woman smiled. “My name is Captain Megan Hurley and I run my own ship. I need a pilot for my third shift. Interested?”

“Why?”

“Let’s just say I know about overbearing father’s.”

Erin slowly smiled. “I’ll take it.”

Character Sketch-Erin Stahl

I enjoyed my first character sketch-flash fiction combo enough that I think I’ll make it a semi-regular feature. I welcome comments and will try to respond to each.

Pilot 3rd class Erin Stahl:

Erin is a fresh-faced 20-year-old pilot. She is the daughter of a prominent Federal Alliance world senator, Senator Franklin Stahl. Her mother is a doctor that works with the Stellar Relief Group treating plagues, Dr. Yolanda Stahl.

Erin rarely saw them when she was younger, coming to treasure those stolen moments when her Dad would wake her in the middle of the night for an ice cream snack or Mom would take her on a picnic. Most of the her time, however, was spent with various nannies, tutors and personal trainers.

She is a petite athletic blonde who is highly intelligent, yet socially awkward. Her father paid her caregivers well to put up with her tantrums and put in place strict rules she not be disciplined by anyone but her parents. This has left Erin with no sense of boundaries or how relationships, from superficial to deep, work.

She became a pilot through private tutoring, skipping the Stellar Academy most pilots attend. Deep down she believes that if she proves herself successful and interesting her parents may spend more time with her.

She wants to succeed on her own, and doesn’t know her father pulled some strings to get her current position.