The Only Worthwhile Human Cargo: A Story by Valerie Valdes

Here is the first of two pieces I solicited and edited based on the paid subscriber theme choice of Science Fiction, Preferably Set in Space!

Coffee beans
Photo by NordWood Themes / Unsplash

Happy 2021! I asked last year if you would like to see some original fiction on this feed, and you said yes!

Here is the first of two pieces I solicited and edited based on the paid subscriber theme choice of Science Fiction, Preferably Set in Space! The second story is How to Defeat Gravity and Achieve Escape Velocity by Miyuki Jane Pinckard, which is longer.

This story was available to paid subscribers only until the 1st of February, 2021, at which point it became publicly available.

Thanks to my paid subscribers for making it possible for me to pay writers for awesome stories, and then share them with the world! If you'd like to sponsor more stories, consider becoming a paid subscriber, which will also give you the chance to vote for which kinds of stories I look for.

title card with the text, "The Only Worthwhile Human Cargo by Valerie Valdes" in white on a light brown background. To the right is a pile of coffee beans.

The Only Worthwhile Human Cargo
by Valerie Valdes

Amberina soaked up the virtual sun as delightfully realistic ocean waves sank her feet into the sand. Behind her, Luca finished laying out their picnic on a blanket, complete with grapes he had promised to feed her one by one between kisses, and honey she had promised to find creative uses for between grapes. A gentle alert chimed in the distance; someone was hailing the ship, but she ignored it. They’d been planning this date for weeks, and nothing short of catastrophe was going to interrupt them.

The alert volume increased. Amberina frowned.

“Something wrong there, tesoro?” Luca asked.

“No, nothing,” Amberina said, closing her eyes and willing it to be true.

“Are you sure?” His hand brushed the back of her neck, then slid lower.

The beach around them began to fade. Amberina’s frown turned to a scowl.

“How would you feel about skipping straight to dessert?” she asked.

As she turned to face him, Luca’s gloriously naked body was the last thing Amberina saw before the VR connection cut out, replacing blue skies with the cream-colored ceiling of her spaceship quarters.

“Captain, an emergency requires your attention,” said Veer, the ship’s virtual intelligence.

“Of course it does,” Amberina muttered, sitting up. “What is it?”

As if in reply, the ship lurched, knocking her off the bed.

“An unmarked vessel is attempting to disable us,” Veer said.

Pirates. Damn them to dust. Amberina staggered to her feet and down the short corridor to the cockpit, the blast doors closing behind her as she sank into her chair. The rear shields flickered, engine power was dangerously low, and a small hole in the cargo bay leaked precious air into the void. Alarms beeped insistently and warnings about various systems flashed at the edges of her vision.

She grudgingly admitted this qualified as a catastrophe.

“Are our firewalls intact?” Amberina asked.

“If they were not,” Veer replied, “the attackers would already be onboard.”

“Sarcasm, nice,” Amberina said.

“I am not capable of sarcasm,” Veer said.

“You’re certainly capable of backtalk.” Amberina muted all the alarms and made a shooing gesture. “Go hack their systems, you cranky pile of code, and let me know when you’re in.”

The ship shuddered from another impact. The pirates hailed her again, so she opened a comms channel, instead of ignoring them like she had when she was trying to get laid.

“This is Amberina, captain of the Sovrana,” she said. “What do you want?”

A holovid appeared, presumably the pirate captain; a thravix, blinking his four purple eyes, his orange skin covered in tiny hornlike protrusions that rippled as he spoke.

“Ugh, a human,” he groaned. The crew behind him echoed the sound.

“You have a problem with humans, pirate?” Amberina asked, narrowing her eyes.

“That’s Captain Shrrk to you,” he replied, his top pair of arms grabbing his head while he crossed the middle ones. “The problem with humans is, you never have anything worth stealing. It’s always useless trash, like psychic cats or dihydrogen monoxide.”

Amberina frowned, insulted. She could be enjoying grapes and a honey-covered hottie from Mars, but instead she had to listen to a pirate bitch about her whole species after punching a hole in her hull.

“You don’t know me,” she snapped. “I could have something great.”

“You are transporting two hundred unlicensed datapads and fifty kilos of kopi luwak,” Veer said.

The thravix now roared their dismay, their captain covering his face with two hands and hugging himself with the rest. Amberina raised her middle finger at the camera Veer used to monitor the cockpit interior.

“What a waste of missiles,” Captain Shrrk grumbled. “Do you know how much missiles cost?”

“More than kopi luwak,” Amberina muttered. “Are we done here, then? Can I go?”

The pirates talked amongst themselves, audio muted, several of them thrusting their arms in multiple directions at once, while others held themselves tightly and danced like they had to pee. Meanwhile, Amberina drummed her fingers on her chair and thought about poor, sweet Luca waiting for her on the beach, wearing nothing but a smile.

“What’s ‘kopi luwak’?” Captain Shrrk asked finally.

“Coffee beans,” Amberina replied. “From Earth Prime. An animal called a civet ate them and crapped them out.”

The pirates perked up. “Coffee!” Captain Shrrk exclaimed. “The only worthwhile human cargo! Give us your coffee, or we will annihilate you.”

Amberina sighed. Her cheap insurance policy didn’t cover pirate attacks, and the client would be furious, but nothing was worth dying over.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll space the container from the cargo bay.”

“Do I look foolish?” Captain Shrrk asked, making a chopping motion with his top right arm. “Prepare to be boarded. We will retrieve the coffee ourselves, and then we will release you to the whims of the void.”

“Promise?” Amberina asked.

“You have my word as a pirate,” Captain Shrrk replied. Several of the crew behind him punched each other and made noises that the translators parsed as laughter.

Amberina scowled, cutting off the comms. That didn’t bode well, but she didn’t have much of a choice. She couldn’t hope to outrun them, not with Sovrana in such rough shape. Maybe she could trick them all into getting spaced when they reached the cargo bay...

“Captain, I have infiltrated the pirate ship’s systems and assumed control,” Veer said suddenly. “What is your command?”

Amberina’s lips turned up in a smile. “I’m sorry I called you cranky earlier,” she said. “You’re my favorite pile of code.”

“I accept your apology, though I do not have feelings and thus I was not offended. What is your command?”

“Lock them out of their weapons and navigation controls,” Amberina said. “And force a download of… an exobyte of cat holovids.” That should keep them entertained while they’re drifting, she thought.

“Anything else, Captain?” Veer asked.

“Accelerate to FTL and get us back on course as soon as you’re finished with them.” Humming cheerfully, Amberina started to slip into her spacesuit to at least fix the hole in the cargo bay, then paused. With a few gestures, she instead sent some of her expensive emergency repair bots to take care of it for her; she deserved a treat after what she’d just been through.

Peeling the spacesuit back off, she returned to her sleeping quarters. If she was lucky, maybe Luca was still around, and they could recapture the mood that had been so rudely interrupted. She might even brew herself a nice, strong cup of coffee afterward, with a sweet spoonful of honey.

____________________

Valerie Valdes’s work has been featured in Uncanny Magazine, Time Travel Short Stories and Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel Chilling Effect was published by Harper Voyager in September 2019 and Orbit UK in February 2020, with starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal. It was also named one of Library Journal’s best SF/fantasy novels of 2019. The sequel, Prime Deceptions, was published in September 2020.

Valerie currently works as a freelance writer and copy editor. She  attended the University of Miami, where she majored in English  literature with minors in creative writing and motion pictures. She is a  graduate of Viable Paradise and has taught classes in speculative short  fiction writing.