SFReader 2014 Story Contest
Second Place Winner
Gustavo Bondoni was born in Argentina, which, he believes, makes him one of the few – if not the only – Argentinean fiction writers writing primarily in English. He moved to the US at the age of three because his father worked for a multinational company that bounced him around the world every three years. He only made it back to Buenos Aires at the age of twelve, by which time he was not quite an American kid, not quite a European kid, and definitely not Argentinean!
His fiction spans the range from science fiction to mainstream stories, passing through sword and sorcery and magic realism along the way, and it has been published in fourteen countries and seven languages to date. You can read all his latest news over at www.gustavobondoni.com
Flytrap was the result – at least indirectly – of the steampunk craze and the reemergence of the airship as an SF trope. Gustavo decided to re-imagine the airship as something that could actually be worked realistically into a near-future scenario instead of relying quite so much on the rules of steampunk. Oh, and pirates are always awesome.
You could never really trust the sky to do its job.
All Julia would have asked, had she had a direct line to whichever god took care of those things, was for a nice overcast to hide her from the eyes in the sky. After all the coast of Spain was nearby. They were in international waters, but who would truly give the Euros any grief if they “accidentally” shot down a privateer?
At least they were moving away from the mainland at a speed that would make them look like a cargo vessel making its way towards the Balears on legitimate business. Hopefully, the controllers wouldn’t look too closely.
Ironically, bad weather had caused them to drift towards the coast in the first place. Seven cloudy days in a row had depleted their batteries to the point where they’d had to turn the props off and drift wherever the wind took them.
She’d spent the last two of those days fighting a desperate battle trying to keep her ship at the right altitude, attempting to judge the wind direction at every strata. Because if they’d been blown over land, they were all as good as dead. A pirate airship wasn’t much use against jet fighters who knew where it was. Missiles and hydrogen just weren’t a good combination.
“How are we doing, Alex?” she asked her first mate. It was obvious everything was perfectly all right, but she wanted to re-establish a sense of normality, make everyone forget the anguish of the last couple of days. Status reports tended to make people forget they were nervous.
“Power at twenty percent, batteries charging. We’re heading nearly due south.”
“Good. Carry on.”
The man nodded. He knew what she was doing, but wanted to look professional in front of the captain, as did the rest of the bridge crew. Which was just what she wanted; people sucking up to their superiors weren’t thinking about the fact that they’d been one strong gust in the wrong direction from dying.
Due south was where she wanted to be. Tenerife. A couple of days would bring them to a place where the hunting was good and the law enforcement negligible. The Atlantic shipping corridor had gotten a little too hot for her taste.
“I call it the Flytrap.”
“Very funny,” Julia said sourly. But then again, Henning was decidedly technology-oriented. What else would he call an offensive weapon carried by an airship named Venus? “What does it do?” From where she was standing, it looked like a huge pile of string and netting – nothing even remotely functional.
“Can we stop? If we can hold our position a while, I’ll show you.”
She nodded, and commed the control room. “Alex, can you hold us in place for a few minutes?”
He acknowledged and Julia felt the airship decelerating under her feet. She’d been able to tell to the millisecond when an aircraft came to a halt ever since she was an orphaned pirate brat and her uncle ran the airship.
“Grab a rail,” Henning warned. As she passed her hand through a safety line, looping it over her wrist, the engineer pressed the big red button on the hatch controls. The massive bomb-bay doors that made up most of the floor began to open, slowly but surely.
The pile of cords dropped out of the opening and down towards the sea below. Suddenly, two thick ropes, connected to a pair of structural pillars on opposite sides of the bay tautened.
Henning looked down at his handiwork. “I think you’ll like this,” he said.
Julia looked over the precipice. “It’s a net!”
The tangled mess had expanded and now hung open beneath the airship. It was quite clearly a net designed to snare some kind of small craft, and it was held taut by two weights on the extremes.
She studied it. “Will it be able to pull anything up with it?”
“Look at this,” he replied, tossing her a piece of cord. “Hyperelastic Kevlar. When something hits it, it expands quite a bit, and then it contracts and grabs hold. Stronger than steel, too, but not sharp, so it won’t damage the merchandise.”
“And what do you propose to use it for?”
“It seems like a great way to grab speedboats and jet-skis, don’t you think? All we have to do is make sure we manage to drop the net in front of them.”
Speedboats and jet-skis had always been a sore point with the crew. While a good airship could outrun them in a straight line, the more maneuverable surface craft were nearly impossible to catch, short of sinking them with missiles. And there was not much of a market for ransoming dead millionaires. If Henning’s net worked, they could increase their profit while decreasing the risk.
“Won’t they see us coming miles away?”
“They might, but if we’re just holding our altitude steady, they might not realize we’re pirates.”
“Not many cargo companies fly black airships, Henning.”
“Not all black airships are pirates.”
Yeah, but most of them are , she thought. Out loud, she said, “All right. We’ll give it a shot. It has to be safer than hijacking oil tankers in the middle of the night or exchanging volleys with merchant airships.” Especially now that the price of helium means that some of our bags are filled with hydrogen .
“Thanks. I won’t disappoint you.”
“I’m certain of it.” And besides, even if it didn’t quite work on speedboats, there was another idea she wanted to try. Riskier, and it meant getting involved with a partner – making it riskier still – but potentially incredibly profitable.
The boat, more a luxury yacht than anything you would describe with the word ‘speedboat’ shot through the water at an amazing clip. Julia ordered the crew to lower their altitude and called Henning. “Standby with the Flytrap,” she said. “I’ll let you know when to deploy it.”
“Full speed ahead.”
The bridge crew complied and the Venus shot towards the bright blue surface of the ocean, attempting to intersect the large boat’s path in a place where they’d be able to tangle it in the huge nets. They’d tried this a few times on smaller vessels and jet-skis with no success – it always seemed that they were detected at the last moment and the craft would veer off.
This time, though, there was no one on deck, and whoever was driving seemed to be more concerned with avoiding the larger swells than in what might be bearing in on him from his upper left-hand side.
Julia knew that in just a few seconds more, they would be at the point of no return, beyond which the boat would be unable to turn away from her nets. Her heart beat as if counting down to a momentous occasion. If they moved too soon, everything would be ruined.
But if they left it too long, they might miss completely. Julia held her breath and watched. Waiting. Waiting. “Henning, now!” The airship shuddered slightly as the huge bomb-bay doors opened and the miles of netting fell out of the belly of the ship. “Keep us level, Alex!”
She watched the scene unfold on a series of monitors which gave her the feed from cameras mounted on the bottom of the airship. The dark grey mess of interconnected holes that was her net dropped and expanded, the two end-weights hitting the water with a splash.
At the very last moment, the pilot of the yacht seemed to realize that something was amiss, and attempted to break away from the curtain that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in front of him. The boat skidded over the waves as he desperately attempted to change course.
It was much too late. The speedboat hit the net at an angle and spun into the curtain wall, twisting the flexible strands until it was cocooned.
That was all Julia saw. A huge shock went through the Venus, which was suddenly pulled down and to the right by the force of the impact on the netting. Julia was actually thrown off her feet, and her head bounced against the roof of the control center. She landed against the rear bulkhead and was pelted by what seemed to be everything else in the bridge which wasn’t nailed or tied down.
Fortunately, the crew were belted to their seats, which were firmly bolted to the floor, and two of them were immediately attending to her.
“I’m all right,” Julia told them, and tried to stand as she brushed them off. She needed to see what their situation was, and whether the shock had damaged her command. She could worry about the bruises and possible concussion later.
Alex was already giving orders, and the airship’s nose, which had been dangerously close to the surface, slowly leveled out.
“What’s our status?” She asked him.
He held up a hand, and when the floor finally became horizontal, he turned to her. Updates flashes across his screen. “A few snapped lines, some bruises and at least one broken arm. But other than that, the old boat held up extremely well.”
How the hell could he already know about the broken arm? she wondered. But that was why she employed Alex. It certainly wasn’t for his combat prowess. “And the net?”
“It held up better than we did, we’ve already started to winch it up. The boarding team is on its way to the hangar.”
“Tell them no one is to board until I get there.”
She shot through the door and headed towards the rear of the airship, cursing the all-enclosed construction. On an open-plan airship she would have been able to use a rope to swing from deck to deck. But open-plan airships, bitterly cold, had gone out of fashion when she was just a little girl, except for some sightseeing vehicles.
Still, even with the precious seconds she lost navigating the twists and ladders that led to the cargo deck, Julia arrived well before the entangled boat was anywhere near the opening. She found her assault team leader, a huge blond man with a fine network of scars on his face and arms, peering down over the edge.
“Hey Rajiv, You really should use a safety line.”
“Hey Sis. So you’re going to join us in the bloodshed and pillaging?”
She scowled at him. Her half-brother knew perfectly well that the mission called for the gentlest possible extraction of the hostages, and the greatest respect for their virtue, such as it might be. Rape the wrong heiress, cut off the wrong millionaire’s finger, and a whole bunch of dangerous people got paid lots of money to shoot you out of the sky.
“Just want to make sure you knuckleheads know what you’re doing.”
“Good point. Wouldn’t want us to just charge in and try to tackle them, would you?”
“Exactly. So what are you going to do?”
“We’re going to charge in and try to tackle them, of course.” He grinned at her. “And I don’t want you anywhere near the front. These people have had plenty of time to get their bearings, and they might be armed.”
“So, are we going to have a shootout?”
“I hope not. I have a plan.”
That was all she could get out of him, but when the yacht neared the floor, he commanded his team, as well as Julia and Henning, to hide.
Soon enough, the craft had crossed the threshold, and was suspended nine feet above the closing bomb-bay doors. Rajiv’s predictions were borne out: two men in sailor’s whites could be seen at one of the smashed windows, pointing weapons at the seemingly empty hangar.
“Now, Henning,” Rajiv said. “If you would be so kind?”
The old engineer began to move two levers, seemingly at random, and the suspended speedboat began to dance in midair, throwing the two sailors – and anyone else who may have been inside – around violently.
“All right. They’ve had enough.”
The netting, complete with speedboat, dropped to the floor with a hollow boom and Rajiv’s team appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to swarm over the cracked hull. Julia’s heart jumped to her throat as her brother led his men through the tangled netting and into any openings they encountered.
They were out of sight, but she could hear the shouting coming from within. It seemed to her that an eternity had passed, but it was actually nearer to thirty seconds. Rajiv’s blond head poked out a porthole. “All clear, sis.”
She exhaled. No one had said that being a pirate was going to be easy, but watching her family put their lives on the line on her orders never got any easier.
She pulled some ropes aside and climbed onto the warped remains of what had once been extremely expensive wooden decking. Further contortions gained her entry to the motor yacht itself. Even if they’d only captured a transport crew, some of those fittings might be worth their while. The nav and engine systems would definitely be useful, once Henning had removed all the GPS locators.
A small group of people, bruised and battered to different degrees, sat on their hands in the lounge. Four of them were clearly hired help, three African sailors and a mestizo cook, but the casually-dressed couple in the center had oriental features – they clearly hadn’t been recruited from nearby towns to help transport a yacht.
A fourth sailor lay to one side of the group, breathing shallowly. He had a deep cut in the forehead and one of his arms rested at an unnatural angle. She wondered in passing whether he’d been injured in the crash, or by her brother’s gentle ministrations.
But she had more pressing concerns.
“Don’t even pretend you don’t speak English,” she said to the oriental couple. “I’ll just throw you overboard if you do. You won’t survive the fall. Now, you have one minute to tell me how much you’re willing to pay for your freedom, and who I have to contact to get my hands on the money. Just keep a couple of things in mind before you start. Running an airship costs money, and keeping you on board is a risk. If I’m not making a profit with this, you go overboard.” She smiled at them. “Now, I’m listening.”
Serge was not happy. There was no need to be particularly good at reading people to see it. His face showed enormous suspicion, his eyes darted here and there, and the his expression made him look as though he’d been force-fed something unpleasant. It was obvious that, given a choice, he would have preferred to be anywhere else.
But he really didn’t have a choice. Pirates who agreed to swing between airships a few thousand feet in the air to hold a meeting on the other captain’s turf were clearly pirates who’d reached the end of their line. Men who were willing to take any risk if it meant keeping their airship afloat and their crew loyal.
His darting eyes drank in the surroundings.
“Like what you see?” Julia said.
He started, as if unaware that she was watching him. “Yes. I’ve never seen an independent ship in quite such good repair.”
“It comes from having a female captain. We like everything just so.”
Serge shook his head. “It takes money to keep things this nice. I see the rumors about your big score are true.”
“Oh, come now. It doesn’t take all that much to keep an airship and its crew happy.”
“I must be the world’s most incompetent pirate captain then. We seem to spend all our time attacking armed merchant airships and fishing boats, and yet it’s all I can do to keep the most basic supplies on board.”
He wasn’t incompetent. She wouldn’t have asked him here if he was. Of all the other captains, he was one of the steadiest. Sadly, this only meant that he wouldn’t intentionally fly his airship into a hurricane unless there was a huge payoff on the other end of it. He would probably feel the same about stabbing an ally in the back.
“I’d say unlucky, more than incompetent. But, unless you add ‘unwise’ to that list, your luck is about to change.”
Serge glanced back at her, studiously ignoring the two large sailors standing behind her with looks of contrived innocence on their faces. “And I suppose saying no to whatever you have to offer would be unwise?”
“Oh, yes. Very,” she said sweetly.
“No surprise there. All right, I’m listening.”
Julia outlined her plan and watched his eyes grow ever larger. Only the fact that Julia had a reputation for being both honest and averse to needless bloodshed kept him there until she finished.
“It’s pretty risky,” he said cautiously, after she’d had her say.
“We’re pirates in the sky. I don’t think risk is something we can avoid. At least this way there are two airship crews to fight back if we have any trouble.”
“There are also twice as many witnesses and twice as many people to betray me. Not to mention twice as many mouths to feed.”
“Look around. Does it look like I’m having trouble feeding my mouths?”
“No, but you didn’t make your money doing this. I don’t know what you did, but it wasn’t this. If you’d been working with a partner, we’d all know it by now.”
“There’s more money in this than in what I’ve been doing. Or I wouldn’t even think of roping you in.”
“All right. We’ll try it once and then we’ll discuss how we go on from there. And since it’s you who need me, we’ll split it fifty-fifty.”
Julia smiled. “Don’t be silly. You get thirty percent.”
“Done.” She spat on her hand and held it out.
Six months later, the partnership was still afoot. Serge’s ship had slowly gotten better as the cash poured in, and his loads of cheap but insanely dangerous hydrogen had gradually been replaced with helium. They could now risk flying a little closer to land, confident in the knowledge that a single missile wouldn’t turn his entire airship into a ball of fire.
The coast of Iceland wasn’t far, but the clouds hid them well. Their target was a transport run carrying mafiya money from St. Petersburg.
Serge’s voice came over the wire – they’d thrown a cable between the tow dirigibles to allow them to communicate without using easily overheard radio or cellphone devices. “The Blaugrana is in position, Julia.”
“Perfect. We’ll lower the netting, then.” Five hundred meters separated the two craft. It took a much wider net to capture airplanes than boats, not only because it was nearly impossible to pinpoint where they’d be, but because the wider net allowed for the much more progressive damping needed when dealing with the kinetic energy of a plane. The original system would have torn the blimp apart and turned the target’s occupants into jelly. “Henning?”
“Releasing now.” Henning’s voice was excited. The entire crew was thrilled about this one. A plane full of money, and no messy hostage negotiations. Perfect.
The airship swayed slightly as the nets swung into position. It had been tied to the bottom of the Venus, but was anchored to both airships.
“Nets in position,” she told Serge. He clicked the comm twice to acknowledge.
The crews were used to what came next. They’d wait a few minutes for the sudden yank – all extremely well strapped in – and then wait some more while Henning’s people hoisted the catch onto the boarding deck. After that, it was just a question of going in and pulling out whatever the airplane held inside. It was very rare for them to meet resistance, but they’d purchased tear gas for those situations.
As soon as the initial tug subsided, Julia was undoing her belts and running towards the loading bay. Her function was to meet with crew of the plane, explain that they were now under her command and also to make certain that Serge’s envoy got access to the information he needed.
As always, she arrived long before the catch did. This one would be a bit less emotional than the usual. She didn’t expect any hysterics: all she would tell them was that they were going to be lowered onto the sea in a lifeboat. Her own protection lay in the fact that couriers who had their mafiya money stolen were not treated well if they returned, so these guys would lie low and pretend to have gone down with the plane.
The fuselage came into view, cracked along several lines, and wingless, but otherwise intact.
It had no sooner cleared the large opening in the floor than Rajiv’s men were all over it. Two of them worked to open the doors on the side of the plane while a third took a blowtorch to the metal around the cockpit glass. What had once been an expensive business jet quickly filled with holes.
The team was in, and less than a minute later Rajiv was back out, dragging a stumbling form with him. “We’ve got a whole load of trouble,” he spat, and let the figure drop to its knees in front of her. The face of Elena Matinyeva, darling of the tabloids and daughter of one of the most powerful men in Russia, looked up at Julia through dark blue eyes.
Rajiv knew what this meant – one could tell by his hooded eyes. Likewise, the avaricious glow emanating from the face of Serge’s lieutenant, a look of having hit the jackpot beyond his wildest expectations, told her that he, too, had recognized the girl.
“Rajiv, please tend to the prisoners,” Julia said.
“What should I do with them?”
“Lock them up for now. I need to talk to Serge.”
His eyes flashed. He knew what Serge would say, knew it would be much too dangerous. But he complied, too loyal to his sister to question her commands in front of the crew.
Ten minutes later, Serge was seated across from her in the main conference room, a windowless enclosure about ten meters by three.
“It’s too dangerous,” she insisted.
“Nonsense. This could be our biggest score ever. That girl is worth millions. We could both retire and never have to worry about whether a merchantman is armed or not as long as we live.”
“We’d be dead long before we had a chance to enjoy it.”
“So what do you suggest we do?”
Julia sighed. “They have to die. All four of them. The pilots and the courier. And especially the girl.”
“And here I thought you were the honorable pirate.” Serge laughed ruefully.
“Honorable doesn’t mean stupid, Serge. If we try to ransom her off, her father is going to put a price on our heads so big that I’d turn us in myself. And if that doesn’t work he’ll buy up every airship on the planet and come looking for us. We’d be dead in weeks. She has to die. We got more than three million each from what the courier was carrying. We don’t need much more than that.”
Serge pounded the table with his fist. “No. This is the strike that can finally get me out of this business. There’s no way I’m going to let it pass. You told me we were equal partners in this.”
She held his gaze. “We were, but if you insist on going this way, our partnership is over.”
“So, it comes down to that. Are you going to tell your crew to throw me overboard?”
“I’m too honorable for that.” She smiled ruefully. “Look, won’t you reconsider?”
“Then take all of it. The money and the girl. I don’t want my share, because they’re going to be coming after it.”
“Oh, come on. Every major government has declared us their enemy. We’re shot at on sight if we come near their coasts. Do you really think one man is going to make that much difference?”
“The governments follow the law, and they don’t come after us over international waters. Matinyev will.”
“You really should retire. You’ve grown soft, Julia. Piracy is a business for people with balls.”
She held out her hand. “It’s been a pleasure working with you, Serge. If you’re still alive in a couple of years, we can do it again. Now take your money and your hostage and get the hell off my airship before I remove your balls and put them in a jar.”
She gave the orders that the girl and the money be given to Serge, and he walked back to the hold.
Raviv entered almost as soon as he left. “All the money, sis?”
“He wouldn’t let me kill them. He thinks the girl is worth a fortune.”
“The girl is worth a slow death and an early grave.”
“So what are we going to do now? The crew are going to want their cut.”
“Leave the crew to me. I’ll buy them off somehow. What happened to the pilots and the courier?”
“He left them in the hold.”
“Let’s go talk to them.” She led the way.
The three men had their hands bound behind their backs, lashed to rings welded to a support column. Their eyes were downcast – they knew they were dead men.
“Good morning, men,” she said in English.
“I know you can understand me, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re going to be set free.”
One of the men spat. “What good will that do us? Matinyev will find us no matter where we run. I’d rather let you kill us than face what he’s going to do. Just make it quick.”
“Matinyev won’t kill you. You’ll be bringing good news.”
“Hah. I can imagine it now. He’ll thank us when we tell him that his six million Euros and his daughter are in the hands of pirates. He’ll thank us very slowly.”
“No. He’ll thank you when you tell him that it was a mistake, and that we want to give him his money back. And his daughter as well. We were actually targeting a different plane. I’ve sent Serge in the Blaugrana off to contact him with instructions to give back the girl and the money. I am going to let you three off in a lifeboat with a message for him: I’d be willing to replace the airplane, as a sign of good will. Serge will take care of the rest.”
“Why don’t you just let her off with us?”
“We didn’t want anyone to get greedy and fake an accident to cover up their failures.”
The men nodded. In their world, the double-cross was a way of life, and the life of one girl, no matter how pretty, was always worth less than a chance of surviving.”
A little bit of hope shone in the men’s eyes. “Are you really going to do this?”
“I told you. Serge is already on the way with the girl. I’m not stupid, I wouldn’t want to cross Matinyev. So you guys will probably be all right, once he understands that this won’t cost him any money.”
They still looked doubtful, but not as hopeless as before. She had two of her crewmen lead them to the boat deck and ordered Alex to take them down.
“That was cold, sis,” Rajiv told her approvingly. “Those three are going not going to enjoy it when Matinyev realizes that Serge has no intention of giving him what he wants.”
“I know. But it was the only way.”
“Do you think Matinyev will believe us?”
“I hope so. When Serge contacts him, he’ll assume that Serge double-crossed us as well as him, especially if I go through with my offer of paying for the airplane.”
“Can we afford it?”
“Yes. But more to the point, we can’t afford not to. He has to be convinced that Serge is acting against orders.”
Rajiv shook his head in admiration. “These are the times when I’m glad I backed you up for the captain’s chair. You have balls of solid rock.”
She smiled. “Not so solid. Once we’ve wired Matinyev the money, we’re going to run for it. I think the Pacific, somewhere near Easter Island would probably be nice this time of year.”
“You know, I think you might have a point. So we sail south.”
“South it is.”Share