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Saturday, February 25, 2023

“The USS Copernicus Sixth (Semi-Annual) Contraband Run” • by Karl Dandenell

“Listen up!” Chief Susanna Kosonen’s booming voice filled the mess. Everyone immediately gave the spaceship’s Chief of the Boat their full attention. “Phobos supply shuttle ETA is thirteen-fifteen. So that gives us just—”

“Four hours!”

“Nice to see that you can do basic math, Seaman Henderson. Now shut it.” She continued, “Four hours for the race. Six runners, one for each watch. I hope you’ve picked your best people.”

Of course they had. Fierce negotiations had been ongoing since the Fifth Race, six months earlier. Four women and two men stepped forward and came to attention.

The COB nodded. “Rule number one: first sailor to get to the docking bay unobserved and uninjured—“

“No fair!” cried Steward’s Mate Riley.

“—gets to claim the C-pod for their shift.” She gave Riley the stink eye. He’d won the Fifth Race—and broken a collarbone—earning his watch a standard cargo pod packed with real chocolate bars, not the printed crap for sale onboard.

“What’s in the pod?” shouted a cook.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” said Kosonen.

“Yeah, Chief, I would.”

“That was a rhetorical question, which means shut it. Rule two: no screwing with critical systems. You try that shit, and your entire watch pulls double recycler shifts for a month. Looking at you, Ansible Technician Jimenez.” During the Fourth Race, Jimenez had delayed his opponents by triggering an 02 alarm, which closed the pressure hatches behind him.

“Heard, Chief!”

“Rule three: no one goes outside.”


Kosonen turned to a powerfully built runner. “Yeoman Lynch, I saw you’d checked out an emergency e-suit for ‘testing’ yesterday. Honestly, you must be a special kind of idiot to think you could clump along the outer hull like a goddamn yeti and not be noticed by fifteen thousand cameras. Believe or not, someone actually monitors those.”

Lynch stared straight ahead, ignoring the laughter.

“Rule four: nobody messes with the cat.”

During the Fifth Race, Midshipman Jones had stepped on Fuzzbutt, the ship’s mascot. The aggrieved tom had gone to ground in Engineering, emerging only to piss on every air filter within reach.

Kosonen had barely convinced Captain Byrne not to throw Jones in the brig.

“That’s it. Take your marks!” The six champions lined up before the mess hatch. Tanaka, the tiny machinist mate representing Second Watch, said, “Chief, permission to ask about the pod.”


“What’s in the pod?”

“Precisely one hundred and fifty liters of Ireland’s finest beer. Now get out of my sight!”

Three hundred throats cheered as the hatch swung open.

*     *     *

The COB drew a fresh cup of coffee before sauntering off in pursuit. There was no rush. Before she’d instituted the Contraband Race, crew morale was in the shitter. The former commander, Captain Mavros, was forced into early retirement because of the crew’s appalling combat readiness and open flouting of regulations. (At one point, an enterprising sailor installed a medical printer and sold designer drugs throughout the lower decks.)

The brass had sent in Captain Byrne to restore order, who quickly tapped the COB to help him figure out how to keep that shit from happening again.

Kosonen took inspiration from her own childhood in Lapland. Every year, the village’s teenagers would mark the Spring Equinox with a snowshoe obstacle race, searching the woods for a hidden cache of specialty foods and drinks imported from Europe, America, and Africa.

Only those children who had earned good grades and consistently finished their chores were allowed to run. It proved excellent training for the military.

While Kosonen couldn’t recreate a snowy forest on board, she could set up a version of capture the flag, using the Copernicus as the playing field.

“Instead of a flag,” she’d told Captain Byrne, “we’ll give them a stash of small luxuries, things they can’t normally get.”

 Bryne agreed, with one proviso. They had to limit the contestants to six, representing the Watches. “Otherwise, it’ll be a full-on melee.”

“Good point,” the COB had replied.

Thus the race was born.

*     *     *

Kosonen’s first catch of the day was a double: Midshipman DeGuzman and Logistics Specialist Harlick, both of whom were lying on the deck, groggy and dripping with sedative foam. “These two tried to bypass Ops using the same air duct, Chief,” said one of the MPs standing guard. “Neither one would back off so we had to spray them down.”

“They can sleep it off in their racks,” said Kosonen. “Carry on.”

As she wended her way to the stern over the next hour, she tracked sightings from other decks. Fourth and Fifth Watches had apparently formed an alliance, hoping to boost their chances by submitting false reports of their team positions.

Two years ago, such cooperation would have been inconceivable. But the race had introduced a certain espirit d’corps to the Copernicus. Their efficiency rating had just crossed into the top five fleet-wide, much to Kosonen’s delight. The crew no longer acted like a bunch of dumbass recruits; they were a unit. Hell, they were family.

Her audio feed was interrupted by a priority call from sickbay. Corpsman Jedynak from Fourth Watch was dropping out of the race. Twisted ankle.

“How’d that happen?”

“He claims he ran into Fuzzbutt and slipped when tried to ‘run the hell away in the opposite direction’,”  said the duty medic.

“Restricted duty as needed. Thanks,” said Kosonen, making a mental note to do a spot inspection of the crew’s ship boots. Some might be due for replacement.

“He swears he didn’t touch the cat, Chief.”

“Good thing for all of us,” said Kosonen.

She continued on to the shuttle bay and settled herself just outside the passenger airlock, where she had clear sight lines on the adjoining passageways.

Her feed grew quiet. Kosonen guessed the remaining three runners were weighing their options. It was little like the forest. Do you try to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, or save your energy for the last sprint once someone spots the cache? She had won (and lost) using both techniques.

A steady proximity chime and squeak of plastic treads alerted her to an automated loader rolling down the starboard passageway. She moved aside, watching the loader add its container to the stack awaiting transport.

A few minutes after that, there was a thump within the container. Kosonen unlocked the cover and flipped it open. “Well, hello sailor.”

*     *     *

Captain Byrne handed Kosonen a coffee bulb. “Who’s our winner, Chief?”

“Second Watch, sir. Machinist Mate Tanaka hid inside an empty ammo container and programmed a loader. Literally rolled right past me.”

“Clever, but also stupid.”

“Aye, sir. I’ll add it to the rules.”

“See that you do, Chief. I’m happy to turn a blind eye for the sake of morale, but I have my limits.”

“Of course, sir.”

“So the Seventh Race will be coming up close to Christmas,” said Byrne. “Any ideas?”

She thought for a moment, envisioning boxes of candy, reindeer meat pies, and bottles of cognac. “I think I can convince Santa to fill up a C-pod for us.”

“Excellent. I look forward to it.”



Karl Dandenell’s short science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared in numerous publications, websites, and podcasts in England, Canada, and the US. He and his family, plus their cat overlords, live on an island near San Francisco famous for its Victorian architecture, accessible beaches, and low-speed traffic. His preferred drinks are strong tea and single malt whiskey. You can find him online on his blog ( and lurking on Twitter (@kdandenell) and Mastodon (@karldandenell)

If you enjoyed this story by Karl, be sure to check out “The Carpetbagger’s Ball” in SHOWCASE #1 and “The Last Feast of Silas the Wizard” in Stupefying Stories #23.




Two reminders: SHOWCASE #1 is going out-of-print in three days, so if you want a copy you’d better grab it now. Also, Stupefying Stories #11 is long since out of print and I can’t put it back into print, but I can distribute PDF review copies. So here’s the deal: if you subscribe or donate to the Support Stupefying Stories crowd-funding campaign in the next 24 hours, I’ll email you a PDF review copy of SS#11.

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