The brig stank. Forty men were crammed into a space meant for half that many. More prisoners than the head could handle, which was the largest part of the stench. Add to that sweat and blood and the indefinable yet unmistakable smell of fear, and the brig of the HIMS Northwest Passage was not a pleasant place to be.
The prisoners complained and moaned, but kept their voices low, like the chittering of insects. Their captors had removed all chairs and cots, to make room for the influx of prisoners. Since they were forced to sit on the floor, they felt the change in the texture of the vibrations.
"We're slowing down," Stone said. He was a short, stocky man with dark hair.
The prisoner next to him nodded.
"I thought we were a week or more from planetfall."
"I'd hoped we were," his shipmate said. "I'm in no hurry to arrive."
Stone nodded. Albion justice frowned on piracy. Albionese civil suits could drag on for years. Criminal cases were another matter. Pirates caught red-handed -- they'd have a fair trial, be convicted, and face a firing squad within a month.
The ship continued to slow, which gave the prisoners something new to talk about. A few minutes later, the outer door of the brig opened. Four armed men stepped inside.
"Stone! Alleyn Stone, front and center," one guard ordered.
Stone had every intention of hiding in the crowd and ignoring the order, but fifteen heads turned and stared at him. He swore beneath his breath. So much for anonymity.
He wanted to yell 'come and get me,' but it was moot. They would.
He wanted his shipmates to rush the guards and overwhelm them. It wouldn't be impossible -- they outnumbered the guards ten to one -- but his defeated crewmates didn't look like the idea had even occurred to them.
Seeing no other option, he rose to his feet. He picked his way over and through the other prisoners. As he reached the outer door, two of the guards grabbed him. They manhandled him into the antechamber between the brig's outer and inner doors, even though he didn't resist. A third guard shoved him against the wall. Stone's wrists were handcuffed behind him. The two guards continued to hold him as another manacled his ankles together. Only then did they open the inner door leading from the brig to the corridor.
"Move," one ordered. "The captain wants to see you."
The guards didn't say another word as they escorted him through the ship. Neither did Stone.
Stone was surprised a few minutes later when he was taken not to an interrogation chamber, but the bridge.
"The prisoner you requested, ma'am. Alleyn Stone," one of the guards announced.
Stone stared at the woman sitting in the captain's chair. She seemed far too young to be in command.
"Captain Janet Carswell, HIMS Northwest Passage," the strawberry blonde introduced herself. She looked like she was in her mid-to-late twenties. Slender and short, her petite stature made her seem even younger. "I need a gunner, Mr. Stone. Captain's Claim.”
"Go to Hell," Stone replied.
The guard closest to him slapped him.
Stone ran his tongue around his teeth. They were all still there, and he didn't taste blood. "Sorry. Go to Hell, ma'am."
The guard raised his hand again. Carswell stopped him with a glance.
"My chief gunner was injured in the raid that captured your ship, Mr. Stone. I need a replacement. Captain's Claim," she repeated.
Captain’s Claim was the ancient tradition, dating back to Old Earth, that a ship’s captain could commandeer the services of a passenger or prisoner in an emergency.
Stone thought quickly. The ship had been slowing down. She needed a gunner. He glanced at the main viewscreen, and the pieces came together. "You wandered into a minefield, and you need me to shoot your way out of it."
Stone grinned maliciously. "Nothing doing."
"If the ship explodes, you die, too," she pointed out.
"I get shot after the trial or I die here and take you with me. Not much of a difference from where I'm standing."
"They haven't had the trial yet. You might avoid a firing squad," countered Carswell. "Especially if I testify on your behalf that you were cooperative."
"Captain, we don't have time for this nonsense," interjected a tall, dark-skinned man with short black hair that was beginning to go gray. "Throw him back in the brig and get Litewski up here."
"Mr. Litewski is the best judge of his own competence, Mr. Washington. If he does not feel he can shoot his way through a ralJeneth minefield, then --"
That got Stone's attention. " ralJeneth?"
Carswell nodded. "You know how the ralJeneth deal with prisoners."
Stone knew. Every spacer did. A firing squad was one thing. Even death by explosive decompression he could face without fear. But being captured by the ralJeneth ....
"Last time, Mr. Stone. Captain's Claim. Or are you disputing my authority on my own bridge?" Her voice was icy, her patience gone.
"No, ma'am. Not disputing your authority ... or your Claim."
"Uncuff him," Carswell ordered.
The guards unlocked his handcuffs. They left the ankle manacles on, but that didn't surprise Stone, not after the way he'd mouthed off to the captain. He didn't need his feet to shoot, anyway.
"Ms. Shetula, get me the Fogarty’s Cove, please."
A communications tech hastened to obey. A moment later the image of a handsome middle-aged man with blond hair appeared in the viewscreen.
"Fogarty’s Cove, Larabee here."
"Captain Larabee, I've Claimed a gunner, and we will be proceeding momentarily," Carswell reported. "Follow our path, but not too closely."
"Understood. Good luck, Ja- Captain Carswell," he wished her. "Fogarty’s Cove out."
Carswell stepped down from the captain's seat and approached the weapons console. She briefly reviewed the controls with Stone. They were standard; he knew he could handle them. She pointed to a blue button. "That connects you with Mr. Slocum, our starboard gunner. That," she indicated a green button, "connects you to Mr. Litewski, our port gunner."
She turned to face the pilot. "Meaning no discourtesy, Mr. Fernandez, but under the circumstances we need our best pilot."
"All yours, Captain." Fernandez couldn't get out of the pilot's seat quickly enough.
Carswell sat down in his place. "Clear us a path, Mr. Stone. I'll follow your lead."
Stone's eyes darted from the main viewscreen to the sensor screens at the gunner's post to the firing controls. His hands rested on the firing controls, like a pianist about to begin a sonata.
The bridge was absolutely silent for the next two hours. No one dared to say a word. The normal communication between the bridge and engineering, the usual chatter between techs as they worked -- all gone. The only voice heard was Stone’s on the rare occasions he issued orders to Slocum and Litewski.
Like a billiards player, Stone studied the angles, made his shot, and fired. He glanced from the viewscreen to the sensors, back and forth, waiting for just the right moment to shoot. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he cleared a path.
As she’d promised, Carswell followed his lead.
First deosil, then widdershins. Jumpy as a jitterbug, slow as a strathspey, she danced the Northwest Passage through the minefield.
Fernandez watched the captain’s every move intently. If their lives hadn’t been in danger, he would have paid for the privilege of a piloting demonstration like this. Washington glared at Stone. His distrust was evident in his expression, but eventually a grudging respect for the pirate’s marksmanship showed in his eyes.
Finally, Northwest Passage reached the edge of the minefield. Carswell exhaled.
Stone turned to face her. He nodded curtly. “Precision flying, Captain.”
She nodded, accepting the compliment as her due. “You didn’t do so badly yourself, Mr. Stone.” She rose from the pilot’s seat.
"Mr. Hamilton, bring Gunner Stone to my cabin in half an hour," Carswell ordered. She turned to the XO.
"Mr. Washington, the ship is yours." She walked off the bridge without another word, as Hamilton and Washington said "yes, ma'am" in unison.
Fernandez returned to his place.
"With me, Stone." Hamilton's tone was far gentler than before, but he held the cuffs out expectantly.
Stone didn't resist as his hands were locked behind him again. Hamilton and the other guard repaid the courtesy by not manhandling him off the bridge.
The two of them took him to the ship's sickbay, where he was unlocked, ordered to strip, and permitted to shower. A water shower, not a sonic shower. Stone took as long as he dared, reveling in the luxury of a real shower. When he got out, they gave him clean exercise clothes to change into and a bad cup of coffee. He drank it nonetheless. Meals in the brig were accompanied only by water. They rehandcuffed him, but didn't put the ankle manacles back on.
"Come in," Carswell called out.
The other guard -- whose name he hadn't learned yet -- opened the door. Hamilton pushed Stone forward.
"The prisoner, ma'am, as requested."
"Undo his cuffs," Carswell ordered.
"Captain, that's not –” Hamilton started to protest. She gave him a look, and he stopped in mid-sentence. He unlocked the cuffs.
"Dismissed," she told the guards. "Sit down, Mr. Stone."
Stone sat in the chair in front of her desk. He rubbed his wrists ostentatiously, even though the cuffs hadn't been on long enough to hurt. There was a tray on the desk with two sandwiches, a mug of beer, and a napkin.
She gestured at the food. He grabbed a sandwich and bit into it. His eyes widened. The ham was thick, cut unevenly. This was no syntha-soy substitute. The contents of this sandwich had once oinked. The Swiss cheese was sharp. His tongue could feel the holes. He took a second, larger bite and chewed vigorously.
"Slow down. There's no need to make yourself sick."
He swallowed before answering. "We don't eat like this in the brig." He reached for the beer and took a small, cautious sip. Pilsner. Crisp, slightly bitter, very hoppy. He smiled and took a larger sip.
"I know to the calorie how much the prisoners are fed. The minimum required by imperial regulations, and not one bite more. Hungry prisoners think about their next meal, not escape."
Stone said nothing, just took another bit of his sandwich.
"That was extraordinary marksmanship, Mr. Stone. The best I've seen since I left Dartmouth."
One eyebrow went up slightly as he continued chewing his sandwich. Dartmouth was the Albion Empire's most prestigious military academy, where the cream of the imperial fleet's officers were trained. Most privateers couldn't claim it as an alma mater.
"Have you ever considered applying for an imperial pardon?" she asked.
"Nope." He took another bite of his sandwich. "Not an Albioner."
"Albionese," she corrected him. "And several of my crew aren't. I'd be happy to offer you a berth on my ship, if you're willing to take an imperial pardon."
He finished the first sandwich and reached for the beer. "Privateers shoot pirates. People I've shared beers with in port, people I've served with."
"Given the damage you did to us and Fogarty’s Cove, and the way you shot a path through that minefield, you've shown you can disable a ship without destroying it," she countered.
"Doesn't matter if I blast the ship to atoms or you capture them and turn them over to the authorities.
They're still just as dead." He drained the beer. "I don't kill friends."
"We don’t spend all our time hunting pirates. We also hire out to merchant ships as escorts. Your marksmanship saved my ship and our sister-ship. I'd prefer that level of marksmanship in the king-emperor's service, not on a pirate vessel, but Captain's Claim is only for emergencies. Once the emergency is over ...." She looked him in the eye, her green eyes meeting and holding his gaze. "I owe you more than a few sandwiches and a beer. Once we reach Jórvík, the jail is just north of the space port. I can see to it that my security personnel will be too busy escorting the other prisoners north to notice you scooting south. I'll have to --"
"No deal," Stone interrupted.
She raised one eyebrow at the impertinence.
"I saved all your crew's lives, you release all my crew."
"Your loyalty does you credit, Mr. Stone, but that's just not feasible." Carswell shook her head. "We get paid by the head. I've already reported to the authorities how many prisoners we captured. I need to turn in that many people, either as live prisoners or as corpses. I can lose the paperwork for one man, but not for your entire crew."
"You owe me," Stone said.
"I do," she acknowledged, "but we appear to be at an impasse here." She raised her voice. "Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Lau."
The door opened, and the two security men hurried in.
"Gunner Stone's own clothes should be clean by now. Let him get into his own clothing, then return him to the brig."
Stone grabbed what was left of the second sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth as the two guards grabbed him.
Ten days later, Stone was removed from the brig and escorted to the captain's cabin again. This time she didn't feed him, nor did she order his handcuffs to be removed.
"I despise wasted potential. You're a top-rate gunner, Mr. Stone. Sending you to face a firing squad...." She shook her head. "There's not much to do in the brig but think. You've had time to consider my offer. Take pardon, and you have a berth on my ship."
"Ain't an Albioner."
"The letter of marque from the king-emperor is in my name. The citizenship of my crew is irrelevant. Last chance, Mr. Stone. Will you join my crew?"
Stone bit his lip. After a moment's hesitation, he shook his head.
Carswell reached into a desk drawer and removed a small stun pistol. She fired.
Alleyn Stone woke up with an aching head. That was the first thing he noticed. The second thing he noticed was the smell. There wasn't one. The stench of the brig was gone. The third thing was that there was a mattress under him, instead of the cold, hard deck. He took a deep breath, then opened his eyes.
He had no idea where he was, but he wasn't in the brig of the Northwest Passage.
He sat up and looked around. He was in a cheap hotel room, the sort found on a dozen planets in any port district. There was a nightstand next to the bed with four small pieces of paper on it. Three ten-pound bills and a handwritten note.
Avoid the police; you're officially an escaped prisoner. If you change your mind, we're homeported out of Hathor.
Janet Carswell, HIMS Northwest Passage
A PORTION of this story won the eSpecs Book flash fiction contest and was posted on their website October/2016
Wordsmith, freelance writer, Mama, stroke survivor. BA, San Diego State University (English major, anthropology minor). Schoolmarm when my health permits. Roughly 20 stories published, mostly SF & fantasy, also romance, children's stories, westerns. Author of R IS FOR RENAISSANCE FAIRE, a children's book. Freelance proofreader, staff writer for Krypton Radio with over 100 articles on their website.