The Bother With Bowbies by Jack McKenzie – FREE STORY

“Hold on,” Cordwainer said, standing up from his navigation station and facing the clients. “Are you talking live cargo? I thought we were transporting a load of horns.”

“Bowble horns are no good less’n they’re fresh,” the client’s laconic reply came from somewhere beneath a bushy mustache.

The two clients were tall and lanky, a man and a woman. The man wore boots which sported some sort of metal decoration. He wore a plain shirt, a leather vest and a ludicrously shaped hat. The woman wore a plain blouse and long skirt that reached to the ship’s deck.

The woman shrugged. “Bowbles is mostly placid critters. They won’t cause hardly any trouble.”

“What about shit?” Cord countered. “Live cargo will need to take a shit now and then. How do you propose dealing with that?”

“That’s enough, Cord,” Captain Boris Tankready said. The captain was as tall as the visitors, but dark-skinned where they were pale, and with his barrel chest and prodigious belly, the Captain could never be described as lanky.

“So we’re just going to let live cargo shit all over the Crimson’s hold?”

“Why are you so worked up about this?” Tankready scowled at his pilot. “You won’t have to deal with them. That’s Even’s job.”

Cord shook his head. “Live cargo moves. You can’t strap it in with webbing. I have to take that into account when I’m plotting vectors.”

“We’re going to have to keep the artificial gravity on in the cargo hold, that’s all,” the Captain argued. “And you will just have to plot vectors carefully.”

Cord threw up his hands in an exasperated gesture and sat back down at his station.

“Why do you always have to complain?” Kude, the navigator, said. “Why isn’t it just enough to do what you’re told?

Cord stared at the tall, dark woman. “Do you think anything on this ship would change if nobody complained?” he asked. “You have to complain. You have to rail, rage, and fight for change. Otherwise, everything just happens the way Captain Boris wants it to.”

Kude shook her head. “It pretty much does anyway. It’s his ship.”

“We all have shares,” Cord countered.

“Which we will never see.”

“Which YOU will never see, because you won’t stick up for yourself. I plan on leaving this tub with my full shares, plus interest.”

Kude shook her head and returned her attention to her board.

Cord flipped open a communications channel to Even’s box. “Even. What’s going on?” Cord sub-vocalized.

“Don’t bug me,” Even Steven replied. “I’m counting.”

“Counting bowbles?”

“No. Meal-packs! I just wanna make-sure we didn’t get short-changed again.”

“What about the cargo? What do they look like? What do they smell like?”

“I dunno. They won’t let me see ’em. They said they don’t like too many strangers. I’d just upset ’em.”

“So you can’t see how many there are?”

“Eighty head. That’s what they told me. And they told me to keep the gravity on for the duration, so you’re gonna have to compensate when you plot vectors.”

“Yeah, I know! I know!” Cord said and closed the channel.

“That’s odd, them not letting Even see the cargo being loaded. In fact, that’s damned irregular.”

“Stop talking to yourself,” Kude snapped. “It makes me nervous.”

“This reminds me of that time when we transported the Leather Nun. She wouldn’t let us see her cargo, either.”

Kude made a face. “Don’t remind me. Awful woman.”


Cord plotted vectors. He used the client’s manifest, which contained as much physical information about the cargo that the transport vessel required. This was standard procedure in order to compensate for the additional weight the bowbles would add to the Crimson‘s total mass.

With the clients and the crew strapped in, Captain Tankready gave the order to jump.

The ship jumped in the blink of an eye. Instrument panels went dead momentarily, then came back to life with fresh info gleaned from the new space-time coordinates of the location the ship had spilled into.

“We’re off course,” was the first thing Kude said as her panel came back to life.

Cord shook his head. “We just got here!”

“We’re off our target point by 300,000 kilometers.” Kude said.

“Did you not plot the vectors correctly?” Captain Tankready asked, an edge of anger and frustration in his voice.

“I’m insulted you have to ask!” Cord snapped, but he checked his calculations again anyway. It wouldn’t be the first time he had calculated a negative mass instead of a positive one.

His calculations this time, however, were solid. “Everything checks.” he said. To prove his point, he threw the time-stamped calculation up onto the main viewing screen.

“There’s no need to pull a hissy fit, Cord!” Tankready said. Nevertheless, he squinted at the numbers on the screen. It was all for show, and Cord knew that. Boris was not an unintelligent man, but he had trouble with basic math, let alone being qualified to understand what the complex calculations now on display actually meant. He nodded once, as if satisfied, then waved the displayed calculations off the viewscreen. “It’s only 300,000 kilometers. We can compensate.”

“We shouldn’t have to,” Kude complained.

“Well…we do. So…do.” Tankready said.

“Hold on,” a soft voice came over the communications system. “I’ve picked up a signal.” The voice, quiet, whispery and hesitant, belonged to Sooz, the Crimson‘s communications officer. As usual, Cord had forgotten that she was even there.

“What kind of signal, Sooz? Tankready asked.

“Oh,” Sooz, said, as if startled that somebody was talking to her. “Proximity signal.”

“Send the coordinates to my station, Sooz, will you?” Tankready asked.

There was no reply, but the coordinates obviously were sent to Tankready’s station. He focused the ship’s sensors on the location. An image came up on the main viewing screen. The feed was sent to individual stations. Cord saw the feed come up on his board. He immediately linked the configuration to the ship’s database.

What came up as a 99% match surprised Cord. “It’s a weapons platform. It was abandoned, apparently, according to these records.”

“What’s its status?” Tankready asked. “Is it legitimate salvage?”

Cord shrugged. “These records aren’t clear. We can make note of the position, but we’ll have to do more research. Maybe after we’ve delivered the bowbles…”

“I’m getting a signal,” Sooz’s voice, barely above a whisper, interrupted.

“From where, Sooz?” Tankready asked.

“From the weapons platform,” she said.

“What?” Tankready scowled. “I thought you said it was abandoned?”

“I’m just reading what’s in the database,” Cord complained. “I don’t…”

Alizarin Crimson,” a voice came over the ship’s speakers. The signal was dirty with static, but loud. “I am ordering you to power down your engines and prepare to be boarded.”

“Who the hell are you?” Tankready asked.

“Who we are isn’t important. The only important thing is the missiles that we have locked on your vessel. Power down and prepare to be boarded!”

“Boarded?” Tankready exploded. “Who the hell do you think you…”

“Like I said, that doesn’t matter. Unless you want to be tiny pieces floating in the Black forever, power down.”

“Pirates?” Kude said, incredulously.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Tankready said. “We have nothing of value onboard this ship. We are transporting a load of live cargo…”

“Yep,” the voice cut in. “That’s what we want. A vessel is inbound to your position. It will couple to the main airlock on your cargo bay…”

“You can’t do that!” Tankready sputtered. “Without the right signals, you won’t…”

“That’s why we demand that you power down, Crimson!” the voice said. The static was beginning to clear, but the voice was just as insistent. “We will soft seal onto your cargo bay, and we will manually open the airlock.”

“We’d have to shut off the artificial gravity. We’re transporting live cargo!”

“I am aware of that!” the voice boomed. “I am giving you exactly one minute to power down, Crimson, before I start launching missiles.”

Cord shook his head. “If you fire missiles, you’ll kill the live cargo. It’ll be dead cargo!”

“Shut up!” Tankready growled at Cord.

“45 seconds, Crimson.

Cord could not believe it. “These fuckers aren’t pirates. They’re cattle rustlers!”

Tankready flipped open a channel on his board. “Even: Get the Cortezes to…”

“They’re on it!” Even’s voice shouted back over the channel. “They’re ready to power down as soon as you give the…”

“Power down!” Tankready bellowed. “That’s an order!”

“You heard the man, Pablo!” Even’s voice came over the speaker.

Kude’s board went black. Then Cord’s. Then all the rest. In a moment, they were sitting in pitch blackness. Cord felt himself becoming weightless. He held on to the edge of his board, even though he had strapped himself into his seat out of habit.

The normal hum of the ship was gone. The eerie silence that replaced it made Cord’s insides shrivel up.

Orange emergency lights clicked to life. Cord was startled to see a metal mug float in front of him. He reached out and grabbed it. It was Tankready’s coffee mug.

“Can I have that back, Cord?” Tankready asked, his voice meek, as if the Captain were embarrassed.

Cord looked back to see the captain’s beefy hand outstretched. Cord passed it back. As he did, he thought he caught a whiff of rum. It smelled like Spaceways. It was a bottom-tier brand, but the price point made it popular enough. The ship had several cases listed in the manifest. Cord wondered if this was the Captain’s private stock, or if he should suggest that Even should do an audit of the ship’s stores.

“So, we’re just going to sit here and take this?” Cord asked. “Lie back and hope it’s over soon?”

‘I don’t like that analogy,” Kude said.

“Neither do I, but it’s what’s happening to us. Are we just going to take it?”

“What do you suggest we do?” Tankready asked, a hard edge in his voice.

“If we let these… space rustlers… take the client’s merchandise without putting up a fight, what kind of a reputation will we have?”

“We’ll be alive,” Tankready replied. “And so will the clients. If they’re adequately insured…”

“Insured? You saw those backwards hillbillies. Do you honestly think they have insurance on these horned monstrosities?”

“Oh, shut up, Cord!” Kude snapped. “What are you going to do if they fire a missile at us? Try to argue with it?”

“I can’t believe were all just sitting back and taking this.” Cord said.

“We’ll file a report next station we dock at.” Tankready said. “Justice will eventually catch up with these… whoever they are.”

“Well, fine,” Cord said. He unbuckled his strap and allowed himself to float up from his chair.

“Where are you going?” Tankready asked.

“Well, if we’re going to be fucked anyway, I might as well get comfortable!” he said. He pushed off from his lifeless console with a foot, angling himself towards the open exit door. He was thankful that they had not been closed when the power had been cut, or else he would have had to stop and open them manually, which would have ruined a perfectly good flounce.

Cord floated back to his cabin where he managed to strap himself into his bunk. He slid his entertainment consul out of its webbing and flicked it to life.

Without being able to draw power from the ship, the portable screen was on its lowest power setting, which meant he had no access to virtual sims. It was either 2D vid or text. He didn’t know how long the ship would be powered down for. In order to save power, he selected a text he’d been meaning to read.

Cold Station had a reputation for being a racy novel, and he was anticipating an exciting read. As he got into it, the story soon bogged down in technical details about the running of a medium-sized Hub station. After two chapters of this, Cord tossed the console across the room. It floated through the air, only stopping when it collided with the opposite wall and bounced back the way it came.

Cord unstrapped himself angrily and floated to intercept the consul on its reactionary journey. He was not in the mood to watch it bounce around his cabin for the next few hours until it lost momentum.

A signal flashed on the console screen as he was slipping it back into the webbing.

It was a message from Even.



Even was floating in front of the Crimson’s only real window, a transparent polymer plate set into the hull. His hair and beard floated wild around his head without the gravity to tame it. He was peering out into the darkness at the unfiltered view outside the ship.

Just beyond him, Pablo, Maria and Jesús Cortez, the ship’s Gear Crew, floated above the gantry. They’d latched themselves with flexi-cords so they didn’t bump into each other. Cord sent a lazy wave in their direction. The Cortezes nodded in return.

“Why’d you drag me up here?” Cord asked Even.

Even gave him a look. “You dragged yourself up here. And it wasn’t hard without gravity.”

“Fair enough,” Cord conceded. “What’s so interesting? Other than the fact that Boris’s coffee is mostly Spaceways Rum.”

“What, you didn’t know that? I thought all the crew knew that.”

Cord shook his head. “Don’t care. What’s going on out there?”

Even moved aside and Cord floated up to the transparent polymer plate.

Outside the Crimson, he could see the pirate’s vessel. They’d extended a soft-seal airlock which was clamped on to the outer hatch of the Crimson’s cargo hold.

“Fuckers,” Cord breathed.

The pirate’s vessel was smaller than the Crimson. Sleeker. Newer.

But small. Cord scowled. The pirate’s vessel was barely bigger than the Crimson’s cargo hold.

“How the hell are they gonna fit all those bowbles…”

“See, I figured you’d notice that,” Even grinned.

Cord narrowed his eyes. He knew the combined mass of the cargo. That information was entered into the manifest. He’d used it to compensate the calculations of the vector he’d plotted. But now, looking at the two ships… something wasn’t right.

“How big are the bowbles? Did you see them at all?”

Even shook his head. “Not even a hair.”

“Do you know what a bowble looks like?”

Even shrugged. “They’re small, apparently. They’d have to be if they expect to fit them all into that vessel.”

‘Well, I hope they shit all over that pirate’s ship!” Cord said.

“They’ve probably shit all over our cargo hold already. I’m not cleaning that up. I don’t care if Boris has a coronary, I’m hiring an outside crew to do it next time we dock.”


Back in his quarters, Cord called up the manifest the clients had submitted. The manifest stated the cargo as 80 bowbles. The manifest stated the weight of the cargo at 484,720 kg. That would make each bowble roughly 6000 kilograms each.

At 6000 kilograms those beasts would have to be massive. Even in the Crimson‘s hold, animals weighing that much would have to be stuffed in cheek-by-jowl. How the hell were those pirates expecting to get all those bowbles onto their ship? Even without gravity, maneuvering them through the soft-seal airlock bridge would be a massive undertaking.

You’d need a crew of experienced animal handlers to do that. Cord figured at least four, and that would be the absolute minimum. Crew quarters on a ship that size would take up half the interior space. There’s no way they would get all that weight onto their ship. The calculations to get anywhere would be ridiculously difficult to make, even for a sophisticated nav computer.

None of this was making sense.

Cord looked up bowbles in the Crimson‘s database. There wasn’t much on the creatures. There was a lot of data on the value of the bowble horns in various different currencies. Cord boggled at the prices. Raw bowble horns went for 50,000 standard credits per piece. Processed and powdered horns were currently trading at 300,000 standard credits per kilogram.

Cord scoured the lists of weights and measures to try to get a sense of what the bowbles were like. Buried in one of the index was an interesting statistic: Raw bowble horns weighed an average of 12 kilos.

Cord looked closer at the number. It wasn’t 12 kilos. It was .12 kilos. An average bowble horn weighed less than an eighth of a kilogram. A 6000 kilogram animal sported a horn that weighed less than an eighth of a kilo.

It was making less and less sense as he went on.

Then he found the image file. It showed a bowble with its handler.


“No, Cord, we can’t open the cargo bay,” Pablo insisted after Cord found him in the maintenance bay.

“Yes, Pablo, we can. We have to!”

“No. No. No. No. No,” Pablo shook his head. “The pressure’s not equalized. We could unseal the airlock bridge and you’d get blown out into space. That’s not good, Cord.”

“I’m willing to bet that we can. I’ll bet they don’t even have their airlock open.”

“You crazy, Cord!” Maria said as she came floating towards him like a fiery-eyed torpedo. “Hostia! Tu puta madre! You’ll kill us all!”

“Okay, then turn on the monitors inside the cargo hold. You’ll see I’m right.”

“We can’t,” Pedro said. “We’re powered down.”

“Yeah, but…”

Que te folle un pez,” Maria shouted. “We’re powered down so those cabrónes don’t kill us! ¡Jodete!, Cord! Are you tryna get us all killed?”

Cord was obviously going to get nowhere with the ship’s Gear Crew. “Fine!” He said and stalked away.

He went to the galley to get some coffee. Coffee without rum in it, particularly not a low-end brand like Spaceways.

The clients were sitting in the galley. They’d latched themselves to their chairs, and were drinking from zero-gee globes. Cord activated the coffee machine, selected one cup in a zero-gee globe. As the machine processed, Cord gave the lanky couple a hard look. “Doesn’t it bother you that pirates are making off with your animals?”

The man looked surprised at the question. “It happens,” he shrugged. “Bowble horns is valuable. Real valuable. Some people can’t resist that.”

“But you’ve raised these animals, right? Surely you must have some feelings about that?”

The woman turned a hard look at Cord. “Best not to get attached in this business.”

“No matter how small and cute they are? I mean, you must have carried at least one of them in your arms. Doesn’t that get to you even a little bit?” Cord asked.

The woman laughed. “Sure, they’re cute and cuddly. They snuggle you a bit when you pick ’em up, and it’s fun to watch ’em scamper around. But business is business, you know?”

Cord nodded, satisfied. “Bad for business to have your bowbles stolen from you, right?”

The lanky man shrugged. “We’ll put in an insurance claim once we get to where we’re going.”

“You have insurance?” Cord asked.

“Uh, of course. Don’t you?”

“Well, sure. But that’s not the point,” Cord said as he sipped his coffee.

Or maybe it was.


Cord knew he would have to act fast. Jesús was in the main engine room. He had himself tethered to a crossbeam and he was trying to eat a sandwich. It was tricky to do in zero-gee, and Jesús choked and coughed a bit while he was masticating.

Cord floated towards the main power switch. “Whaddya say we power the ship up, Jesús?”

Jesús gave him a confused look. “Did Pablo say to?” he asked.

Cord smiled at the young man. “Yeah, he did. Don’t worry, your uncle will be cool with this.”

The Crimson‘s main power switch was a single lever. It’s supposed to be locked out when the power is off, but Cord saw no lock chains. It didn’t surprise him. The Cortezes were nice people, but they were barely level 3 engineers and tended towards sloppiness…like everybody else on this crew.

Everybody but him.

Cord braced himself to gain some resistance, then flipped the lever.

The power came on all at once. Jesús shot him an alarmed look, but Cord just smiled a reassuring smile.

The gravity kicked back in. Cord was ready for that, but Jesús wasn’t. He couldn’t get his tether unhooked in time to get his feet out from under him. His sandwich dropped to the floor, and Jesús would have, too, but for the tether which kept him suspended from the crossbeam.

He let out a shout of alarm. Cord didn’t have much time. He pulled out his portable console. It had been powered down to save the charge, but now he flicked it to life and activated the program that monitored his navigation console.

The board was alive now, and had just booted up. Cord flicked the override protocols and accessed the thrust controls.

He had no time for subtlety, so he activated a hard forward burn. The deck lurched as the artificial gravity struggled to compensate for the sudden movement. The ship shuddered alarmingly, yet Cord felt a triumphant sense of satisfaction as he imagined the Crimson tearing way from the soft-seal airlock.

Jesús had managed to free himself from the tether. He landed on the deck with a thud. Cord scampered to try to get past the young engineer. Jesús managed to grab him by the calf as he ran. Gravity had his way with him, and crashed him onto the deck. On the way down, something hit his head and then everything went black.


Cord came to in the Crimson‘s sickbay. The power was still on, and he felt the gravity holding him onto the diagnostic bed. His head felt like a crash site.

He looked up and saw Doctor Barnes. Barnes had a bandage over his left eye and his chin sported stitches. Barnes scowled when he saw that Cord was awake.

Asshole,” he said, then walked away.

Captain Tankready then loomed over Cord. He could smell coffee and Spaceways rum on Boris’s breath.

“Don’t try to say anything.” Tankready said. “Partly because you’ve got a concussion and shouldn’t try to speak, but mostly because whatever you say at this point is likely just going to piss us all off.”

Cord nodded, wincing with the pain in his head. He could see Kude, Evan, and the Cortezes standing behind the captain.

“Here’s what we all now know:” Tankready said. “There were no bowbles in the cargo hold. There never were any bowbles in the cargo hold. The whole thing was a sham.”

“Cargo hold was clean,” Even said. “Not a plop of shit anywhere.”

Tankready gave Even a look, and Even clammed up. He turned back to Cord. “There were also no missiles on the weapons platform. It was abandoned, just like you said it was.”

Despite his command to keep quiet, Cord couldn’t help but to rasp out a question: “The pirates?”

Tankready nodded. “There were two occupants on that ship. They connected the soft-seal for show. They didn’t even open their airlock, though they did open the hatch to the cargo bay, so when you pulled your little stunt, we lost the atmosphere from the hold.”

Cord nodded. “The clients?”

“They were in on it. They’re in custody now, being charged with insurance fraud.”

Cord nodded, satisfied and relieved. He just wished his head would stop pounding.

“What I want to know,” Tankready asked, “Is how you knew there were no bowbles.”

“It was the weight,” Cord croaked. “The mass readings on the manifest had nothing to do with anything, except throwing us off course. They knew that I would include that figure when I plotted the vectors. They were counting on it so that the ship would end up in the proximity of the weapons platform.”

“How did you know it wasn’t right?”

“Because bowbles are tiny. Their horns are incredibly valuable, but they’re very small. I saw an image of one. It was a picture of a little girl carrying it in her arms. I knew then that the weights were bogus. I figured they were just used to get us here.”

Tankready nodded. “Okay. That makes sense now. We know it was all theater. The bowble rustlers and the clients were counting on our testimony to corroborate their story. Our insurance claim would have bolstered theirs. They would have collected the money, and then turned around and sold the bowbles… if there are any bowbles.”

“Oh, they’ve got bowbles,” Cord said. “I’m sure they do. They’re cute and fuzzy, and you can carry them in your arms, and it’s fun to watch them scampering around…”

Doctor Barnes came back into view. “I’m upping your sedative,” he said. “You, at least get to sleep while the rest of us clean up your mess. Asshole.

As the drugs took effect, and the pounding in his head subsided, Cord had a thought. “What about my shares?” he asked. “I want my full shares.”

The last sound he heard before the blackness overwhelmed him was Boris Tankready laughing.



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