Our congratulations to TS Rhodes and Susan Murrie Macdonald, who tied for winner in September’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Their prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook each from among the eSpec publication list.
Teel James Glenn – Of A Feather
For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:
Tale of the Swan
by TS Rhodes
The Swan were a cursed ship. Not cursed by God, mind you, but by the mind of a man. By which I mean Captain Clark, as bloody-handed a merchant captain as ever sailed the sea for profit.
I’d had enough by of him by Charlestown, but Clark held the crew’s pay, in spite of the papers we’d signed. He said he’d pay us in Jamaica. It’s hard to leave a ship with no money. So I stayed. We all did.
We had not raised a single island before the beef in the casks had turned green, and the biscuit had been riddled with weevils in the beginning. Clark had his own stores, and it was plain that he bought sailor’s food as cheap as he could get. I’m young and strong, thank God, and though the food griped my belly, my hands stayed strong.
But Billy took ill with it, and Clark wouldn’t let him off his work. When I spoke up, Clark offered me a beating to teach me my place. When the headsail needed set, Billy was sent up, just as if he’d been well.
Old Michael, white hair and naught to his body but sinew, knew a trick or two. He offered to tie Billy to the yardarm while they worked. But Clark wouldn’t hear of it, said it took too long. Old Michael did his best, but Billy slipped and fell, and Clark wouldn’t even give us time off for a proper funeral.
Then the Holland-boy, Voort, came down with fever. Clark locked himself in his cabin for days, for fear of the sickness. But Old Michael said that if we tied rags over our noses, and soaked them good with vinegar, then the fever would pass us by. It worked, we all came through, though Voort were weak as a kitten. When Clark come out, he began to torment the boy for his weakness.
Seeing that, I was sick. Not my body, but my heart. I do hate the beatings, though it’s part of the work, so they say, the captains do. Me, I never saw a man die for lack of a whip.
I was scared we’d lose Voort. But Old Michael kept our spirits up, with tales of mermaids, and Spanish gold washed up on the beaches after the old wrecks. He spoke of the song of the stars make, and the green flash that comes at sunset when a good man’s soul goes up to heaven. And sometimes, real quiet-like, in the early watches of the night, he told us tales of pirates. Of Harry Every, and how he captured the sultan’s treasure ship, and split the plunder even with his men, and was never caught nor hanged. And of Long Ben Hornigold, who plies the seas to this day, a-takin’ from the wealthy merchants and giving back to the poor sailors. Starting with himself, of course.
But one night Clark came down on the crew deck, though why such a fine gentleman should be down here with the likes of us, I never knew. But he walked in on one of the pirate tales, and after that he had it in for Old Michael.
All of a sudden, there was only one fellow called when the job was dangerous or dirty. It was Old Michael when the blocks on the main yard ran afoul in a gale, and it was him must catch the flapping end when the topsail came unclewed. And Cookie shorted him on his bread, too, foul bread though it was. I offered to catch up a belaying pin, and set Cookie straight for that, but Old Michael just said, “Be still, it’ll pass.”
Then Voort started giving the old fellow a share of his food, and before you know, we’re all doing it, for though the belly do gripe, the soul expands with justice. And when the work was hard, Old Michael knew how to make it easier. The captain sent him out, time and again, to do what should be beyond an old man’s strength. But Old Michael knew his business, and some of us helped out.
It got to Clark, in the last. The work was done, and the food shared out fair, and we was all in good spirits. The good spirits of others is a bane to some folk, and I reckon Clark was one of them.
One day a blow was coming on, and Clark said to Voort to “Get aloft, quick!”
Old Michael looked at the boy, said, “No, I’ll go!” and headed toward the foremast, Then Clark turned turkey red, and shouted out, “Mutiny!” He threw a bucket at Old Michael, and hit him in the head.
I’ve heard the music of the starts, when the sea is quiet. But I never heard a breath our of Old Michael after that blow. I stood near Clark, and sad for him, I had an iron marlin-spike in my hand. I drove it onto Clark’s brain, and we put him over the side. I saw the green flash that night, but it wasn’t for Clark. Old Michael’s funeral lasted all the next day.
So merchant captains beware. She’s the Black Swan now, I’m her new captain. We share the plunder even, and all the food and grog the same. We’re pirates. And we come a-lookin’ for justice as much as for gold.
by Susan Murrie Macdonald
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 Bandersnatch was decidedly unpleasant.
The starship slowed down.
The brig door opened. Four armed men stepped inside.
“Stone! Alleyn Stone, front and center,” one guard ordered.
Two of the guards grabbed him. They handcuffed his wrists behind him and manacled his ankles. Without another word, they escorted Stone to the bridge.
“The prisoner you requested, ma’am. Alleyn Stone.”
Stone glared at the woman in the captain’s chair.
“Captain Janet Carswell, HIMS Bandersnatch,” the redhead introduced herself. “I need a gunner. Captain’s Claim.”
“Go to Hell,” Stone replied.
A guard slapped him.
Stone ran his tongue around his teeth. All still there, and he didn’t taste blood. “Sorry. Go to Hell, ma’am.”
“My chief gunner was injured in the raid that captured your ship, Stone. I need a replacement. Captain’s Claim,” she repeated.
Stone thought quickly. The ship had been slowing down. She needed a gunner. He glanced at the main viewscreen. “You wandered into a minefield. You need me to shoot your way out of it.”
Stone grinned maliciously. “No.”
“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. What’s the difference?”
“It’s a ralJeneth minefield.”
Stone stiffened. “ralJeneth?”
A firing squad was one thing. Death by explosive decompression he could face without fear. But being captured by the ralJeneth ….
The guards unlocked his handcuffs, but not the leg-manacles. He wasn’t surprised, after mouthing off to the captain. He didn’t shoot with his feet, anyway.
Carswell stepped down from the captain’s seat and faced the pilot. “Meaning no discourtesy, 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 in his place. “Clear us a path. I’ll follow your lead.”
The bridge was absolutely silent for the next hour. No one dared to say a word.
Stone shot carefully, destroying one mine after another. Carswell danced the ship down the path he cleared, jumpy as a jitterbug, slow as a strathspey.
When they reached the end of the minefield, she sighed. “Well done.”
“Precision flying, ma’am,” Stone was forced to acknowledge.
An hour later, Stone was brought to the captain’s captain.
She gestured at the chair in front of her desk.
Stone sat. Two sandwiches and a mug of beer were on the desk. He grabbed a sandwich and bit into it. This was no syntha-soy substitute; this had once oinked. He took a second bite.
“Slow down. Don’t make yourself sick.”
“We don’t eat like this in the brig.” He reached for the beer.
“I know to the calorie how much the prisoners are fed. The minimum required by regulations, not one bite more. Hungry prisoners think about their next meal, not escape.”
Stone ate silently.
“Superb shooting. The best I’ve seen since I left the navy and turned privateer. Ever considered applying for an imperial pardon?”
“Nope.” He took another bite of his sandwich. “Not an Albioner.”
“Albionese,” she corrected him. “Several of my crew aren’t. I’d be happy to offer you a berth on my ship, if you’ll apply for a pardon.”
He reached for the beer. “Privateers shoot pirates. People I’ve drunk with in port, people I’ve served with.”
“Given the damage you did to us, and the way you shot a path through that minefield, you can disable a ship without destroying it.”
“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.”
“You saved my ship. I owe you more than lunch. Once we reach Jórvík, the jail’s 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.”
“No deal,” Stone interrupted. “I saved all your crew’s lives, you release all my crew.”
“I’ve already reported 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 insisted.
She summoned the guards. “Back to the brig.”
Stone grabbed what was left of the second sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth as the guards grabbed him.
Ten days later, Stone was taken to Carswell again.
“I despise wasted potential. You’re a top-rate gunner, Mr. Stone. Sending you to face a firing squad….” She frowned. “Have you changed your mind?”
After a moment’s hesitation, he shook his head.
Carswell reached into a desk drawer and removed a stun pistol. She fired.
Stone woke up with an aching head.
He sat up and looked around. He was in a cheap motel room, the sort found on a dozen planets in any port district. Four small pieces of paper lay on the nightstand beside the bed. 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 Bandersnatch