Episode 13: Walking Through Walls
by Keanan Brand
For new readers:
These are the adventures of space mariner Captain Kristoff, formerly of the colonial navy but now a pirate more given to smuggling and salvage than theft, and prone to reluctant good deeds and harboring strays. After all, his crew is made up of strays—and criminals:
Sahir: gunner-turned-ship’s-cook, handy with fire, knives, and chandimay tea;
Finney: once a freelancer, now pilot on the Martina Vega, she is from an illustrious space-faring family;
Wyatt: a former banker accused of stealing millions, is a brilliant forger serving as ship’s steward;
Corrigan: entered the military to dodge justice, and is now the Vega’s mechanic;
Alerio: an inventor and scientist who escaped from his lab in the colonial government, currently serves as ship’s engineer;
Mercedes: a renowned physician who once helped the law solve poisoning cases before being suspected of murder herself, is now the crew’s doctor;
Ezra: sixteen years old, has been cabin boy ever since Finney found him, the lone soul aboard the research vessel Elsinore, whose crew and passengers mysteriously vanished.
The Martina Vega, an old but faithful freighter, is often followed by the constable ship Orpheus, captained by Iona Zoltana, an upright law officer bent on learning the secrets of Kristoff and crew. Her most trusted sailors are a navigation officer, Lieutenant Mars, and Ensign Gaines, the youngest member of her security detail.
But Zoltana is in the brig for digging into secret files; an arrest warrant was issued for Mars. He and Gaines were last seen trying to escape the Orpheus by wearing cloaking suits that make them invisible.
Meantime, Kristoff and the Vega crew have been reunited with Finney, who was rescued by a band of rebels led by the enigmatic Daniel. Why, then, after such generous help, is the crew so suspicious?
And now, on Thieves’ Honor:
Zoltana unbuttoned her tunic, revealing a once-crisp white shirt now damp with sweat. Someone in atmosphere control was having fun. Juveniles. But she’d served planet-side in the Western Desert before becoming a star mariner. She could handle the heat.
Somewhere in the cellblock, a rather nice tenor slurred a love song in drink-lengthened notes. Tomorrow, someone would be regretting his good time tonight.
“Captain Iona Zoltana.” Commander Wilkes stood outside her cell, hands clasped behind his back, a smug smile on features rounded by too many years behind a desk at the admiralty. He waited, as if expecting a salute. Zoltana buttoned her tunic. Starting at the top. His smile disappeared.
“Your advocate will be assigned from the court pool—”
“I have my own.”
Red climbed Wilkes’ neck. “You understand the gravity of the charges against you, Captain Zoltana?”
I comprehend the enormity of the stick up your—”Aye. Sir.”
Wilkes cleared his throat, pushed his mouth into an insincere smile, and spoke with forced friendliness. “Anything you need to get off your chest? I can speak to the tribunal, maybe convince them to mitigate the sentence.”
Zoltana straightened the bars on her collar, tugged her tunic into place. “Charges are not synonymous with evidence. Sir.”
“Oh,” Wilkes wagged a finger in the air, “there’s evidence!”
“Then there’s little I could tell you. Sir.”
He glared. “Captain Zoltana, you will regret—”
Heels hit the floor in rapid but muted cadence, as if someone in cloth-covered shoes advanced along the corridor. Wilkes looked over his shoulder, and frowned.
A cheerful and oddly familiar voice rang out, “Don’t mind me, Commander. Go ahead. As you were threatening?”
Whoever approached should already be within sight. Gripping the cool metal, Zoltana pressed her face to the bars and looked down the passage. It was empty.
Wyatt tapped a pencil eraser against the computer screen where a news article, lurid with artist-enhanced photos and colorful prose, detailed the latest scuffle between rebels and colonials. There was even mention of a pirate crew saving the civilian vessel Katy Joy from brigands. “Y’know, whoever wrote this did everything but call the Vega by name.”
Corrigan propped his boots stained with engine grease on the corner of a desk and leaned back in an office chair covered in the iridescent skin of a sand lizard. He cleaned his nails with a knife better suited to slaughter than to manicures. “Might not be a bad thing, gettin’ our names out there.”
Wyatt stared at him, eyebrow raised.
Corrigan shrugged. “Gotta get us a decent reputation again. All these good deeds are makin’ me—delicate.”
Laughing, Sahir swiveled his bulk in a chair that leaned so far sideways he seemed in danger of sliding to the floor. Slamming the knife into its sheath, Corrigan looked offended.
“A reputation’s just what the captain’s trying to avoid,” said Wyatt. “Remember? Zoltana following us around? The law’s too interested already.” He scrolled to the next article. “The Vega’s getting too darn legendary.”
Clasping his hands behind his head and grinning up at the reinforced concrete ribs of the bunker ceiling, Corrigan sighed. “Legendary.”
Commander Wilkes folded up with a sigh, as if relieved to no longer be conscious. An invisible hand cradled his head from hitting the floor then lifted his shoulders, while a different set of hands grasped his ankles. The officer was dropped onto the cot, footsteps crossed the cell floor, then a key turned in the lock.
“Sorry to do this, ma’am”—a hood descended over her head—”but we can’t have security thinking this was your idea.”
“Then leave me here. I have an excellent advocate. I’ll be out by the end of the week.”
“Aye, ma’am, that may be, but you’re in a colonial military facility. With a hospital. If they set you free so easily after such a grave accusation, that means there’s an implant to track you for the rest of your life. Is that the kind of freedom you want, ma’am?”
“You should have been a lawyer, Lieutenant. You know just what to say to motivate a recalcitrant client.”
A firm hand gripped her elbow, and led her along the corridor. Behind them rose shouts and the stomp of many boots, and then came the rasping slide of something crashing down—probably one of those barred walls meant to contain rioting prisoners.
The guiding hand pulled her into an echoing room without a floor. No, merely a stairwell, and she stumbled down a couple steps but was saved from falling not only by the hand but by coming up short against a solid back. A little grunt escaped from the lieutenant.
“Apologies, ma’am,” said Ensign Gaines. “The lifts can be shut down too easily.”
Meaning that the stairwell would only take a little longer to become a trap for one hooded and two invisible rats.
Putting a hand on the shoulder in front of her, Zoltana gained the rhythm of the stairs and determined not to stumble again.
“It’s a rare thing, standing in the presence of a legend.”
Pretending he hadn’t heard, Kristoff pressed a hand against the blast-roughened concrete framing the carlinnian doors, and looked into the dim cavern outside. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a stone stair showered with bright grains of sand swirling down from the desert overhead. “How’d you learn about this place? Decommissioned military installations aren’t exactly listed in the tourism registry.”
“I was stationed here.” There was pride in the rebel leader’s voice. “Second in command, Wilderness Battalion. My specialty was—is—explosives.”
Kristoff stepped outside and ran a hand along the seamed and crumbled shield wall that had once blocked the entrance. “Dampened device?”
“Couldn’t let the garrison or ol’ Tarquin know we were here.” Daniel limped forward. “Took us a while to get all the way through. Once we breached the barrier, it was just a matter of my recalling the codes to unlock the doors.”
With such precaution, how had Commander Claudius known exactly where the rebels were? Kristoff tried not to let the question show on his face. “Now that you’ve engaged the troops at Horatio, you’re not afraid they’ll counterattack or set a siege?”
“I doubt Claudius will do anything. Not while you’re here.”
Kristoff looked at him.
Daniel smiled slightly. “Every military bunker has multiple exits. I’ve changed the codes, and these doors are four feet thick. Nothing can breach tempered carlinnian.” He pounded a fist on a massive metal door. “As for Commander Claudius, I know he led you here. Without his troops. He won’t attack a friend.”
“We’re on opposite sides of colonial law.” Kristoff headed for the stairs. “He may not have a choice.” Less than one day underground, he was starting to feel claustrophobic. Sure, the bunker was big enough to hide an entire fleet of ships, but he couldn’t breathe down here.
“Captain Kristoff? Where are you going?”
He stopped halfway up the steps and turned. “Thanks for saving my pilot and taking in all those folks from the villa. And whatever your medic did to help Doc patch up me and my crew”—his hand went to the still-tender spot on the left side of his chest, just above the heart—”I appreciate it. Anything I can do—”
“You can join us.”
Kristoff looked down at the rebel leader leaning on his cane and wearing a puzzle of a smile.
“You’ve already smuggled weapons and medicine to other rebel groups, especially the one holed up in the Riva Mountains near Port Henry.” Daniel shrugged. “Why not join the fight?”
This wasn’t the first time someone had tried that argument, but Kristoff had already been a warrior for a cause. He had the medals—and the scars—to prove it. And he’d killed more than his share of rebels. Aye, so he sympathized with them now. Anything to tweak the nose of the colonial government and the admiralty.
“Not much of a joiner, myself.”
“Ask them.” Kristoff started up the stairs again. “Gotta warn you, though. They’re pretty serious about independence.”
Daniel raised his voice. “All the more reason to join us.”
“Doesn’t sound like freedom to me.”
“That’s a strange form of gratitude.”
Again Kristoff halted. “Save a life, present an invoice?”
“Your own ship’s doctor—Mercedes?—was once a law-abiding physician. She gave care then billed her patients. It’s the way things work.”
“If I’d known how much your rescuing Finney was going to cost me, I’d have brought along my handy-dandy bag of ill-gotten colonial coin. But then”—Kristoff shrugged—”Governor Tarquin would have taken that, too, just as she took our weapons.” He tapped the gun at his side. “We had to take these off the guards. Of course, that meant we had to overpower them first, and if you only knew how much my engineer abhors breaking a sweat—or how much he hates to be parted from his gun.”
Daniel’s bodyguards stepped from the corridor, but the rebel leader shook his head and waved them off.
“I don’t want your money, Captain Kristoff. I want your help.”
“More guns? Ammo? Water generators?”
“That fuel you took from Skippy the fence. That might be nice.”
Kristoff chuckled, and spread empty hands in apology. “Yeah, well, I had a pilot to find.”
Daniel planted the tip of his cane in the sand and rested both hands on the knob. “Now, there’s something you can do.”
“Give me Finney.”
“Drop your weapons!”
“Absolutely not,” Zoltana commanded in a low voice. Blinded by the hood, she could see only a band of light somewhere below her chin. “How many?”
“Four,” Mars murmured, and she felt his voice vibrate through his back. “At least five on the way.”
“Are your suits still charged?”
“Aye, ma’am. They’re only guessing at our number and locations.”
“Step away from me.”
“Lieutenant”—she pushed the word through her teeth—”that’s an order.”
After a brief hesitation, he obeyed, but she kept her hand up as if pressed against an unseen shoulder and moved to the left, toward the source of that bright band of light.
She stumbled as if pushed from behind, and fell to her knees just as a projectile whined through the space in front of her.
“Captain!” Panic filled young Gaines’ voice.
Shut it, lad! Zoltana pulled the sack off of her head and dove for the next set of stairs.
Someone returned fire, and the game was on.
Finney rounded the corner into a corridor that looked like all the others. An arrow pointed right, and the “MH” above it could stand for anything from Mess Hall to Munitions Hold, a fancy name for the magazine. Another arrow pointed back the way she’d come, and was labeled with a list of letters—CC, I, WR, B—that she took to mean Central Command, Infirmary, War Room, Barracks. Those all lay somewhere behind her in the massive concrete warren.
The only other arrow at this junction pointed left: West Gate. Smiling in anticipation, Finney swung forward on crutches she despised. She’d had just about all the invalid-ish-ness she could handle. The crutches kept her upright, however, and lent a certain amount of freedom to her wanderings.
The passage stretched for at least a quarter-mile before encountering another junction. This time the WG arrow pointed right, and she followed it. Distant voices echoed, not raised in argument but tense with conflict. Finney paused. One of those voices was the captain’s. It had the familiar casual, slightly amused tone, but there was a hard edge to it, as if he had a slim grip on patience.
He probably wouldn’t want his crew eavesdropping. But, then, the captain had a way of finding trouble. Pride was not his friend.
Heaving a sigh, Finney pushed forward with the crutches, mindful of the tight bandage around her ribs. Painkillers helped, but the bandage forced her into a stiff posture. She was alive, though, so no complaints.
A round hatch appeared ahead, and beyond it a golden light that could only be from the sun. Finney picked up the pace, eager for air that wasn’t run through a recycling system, and for light that wasn’t the result of excited gases in a tube.
“Yeah, well, I had a pilot to find.” The captain again.
A short silence, then Daniel—”There’s something you can do”—and the captain answering, “What’s that?”
Finney stopped to listen, but she already knew the answer.
“Give me Finney.”
Kristoff stared down at Daniel for an amazed instant. “Say again?”
“Give me Finney.”
He couldn’t help himself. He laughed.
The rebel leader’s expression tightened in annoyance. “She is a rallying point, captain. Her existence alone can revitalize the rebellion.”
Kristoff wiped a hand down his face to calm the laughter. “If that’s all you need, then spread the word among the rebels that Admiral Cunningham’s last living relative is alive and well. As for giving her to you”—he turned toward the sunlight, closed his eyes and lifted his face to the warmth—”no man I know can tell Finney what to do.”
At the landing, Kristoff raised his face to the light and closed his eyes, breathing fresh air, feeling the heat of midday sun.
“If I were not wounded—if you had not saved my life—I would demand an answer for this bargaining.” Finney’s voice was loud but contained. “I am no man’s property.”
“My apologies, Miss Grace, for any misunderstanding—”
But she cut off Daniel’s stilted words with a salty epithet. Her crutches thumped across the opening toward the stairs.
Kristoff smiled, but did not open his eyes or turn away from the sun.
After a few seconds, the skritch-shuffle-skritch of Daniel limping across the sanding floor was only a faint echo as the rebel leader returned to his concrete warren. He’ll have another plan. Best keep a weather eye.
Kristoff braced his hands against the cool, sandy wall, let his head fall forward until heat embraced the back of his neck, and he sighed. “That medic is a miracle worker. And he likes you. What’s his name again? Lester? Lloyd?”
“Leo. And he’s moved on. Shoulda seen him flirting with Mercedes.” Finney’s boots clanged on the stairs as she made a halting ascent. “Alerio ain’t too happy.”
Kristoff chuckled. He turned, and opened his eyes. Her face was still bruised, but the cuts were healed. Her crutches leaned against the railing at the bottom of the steps. She gripped her wounded leg just above the knee.
“Still a few kinks.”
“Doc slather you with that sparkly, bubbly pink stuff?”
Finny grimaced. “And then Leo suggested something else—”
“That blue goop that paralyzes your face and makes your whole body feel like it’s on fire?”
“Between Leo’s experiments and Doc’s tender care, it’s amazing I survived.”
She joined him on the landing just big enough for two people to stand comfortably and, as he had done, Finney closed her eyes, lifted her face, drew a deep breath. Then she gasped, wrapping her arms around her middle. Cuts and bullet holes might heal in a matter of hours with the right magic potions—let’s face it, sparkly pink and bright blue look like fairy first aid—but broken ribs still had to mend at their own pace.
“It’s nice and all, being alive,” she said, “but when do we go home to the Vega?”
The lift—somewhat of a misnomer, since this platform traveled sideways—hummed as it zipped along the tube. Mars and Gaines stepped out of their cloaking suits and donned slightly creased uniforms while Zoltana stepped into the suit Gaines had brought for her.
She rolled the bug-eyed cloaking hood at the neck to make it easier to pull over her head. “If the admiralty police locked down the Orpheus, how did you get off the ship?”
“Well, ma’am”—Gaines shot a glance at Mars, and grinned—”while the lieutenant tried to come up with a plan, I—”
“He hit the hatch release, and we made a run for it.” Mars straightened his cuffs and tugged his collar into place. “Along the docks and down to Old Port Henry. The sunlight helped charge the suits.”
“Aye, ma’am, you should have another good two hours or so left in that one.”
“Thank you, ensign.” She gave Gaines a warning look, and his expression sobered. The young man was giddy with the adventure, but there was no need to forget the respect due senior officers. “Will you be able to walk normally, do you think, lieutenant?”
Mars nodded. “The bleeding is minimal, ma’am, and the bandage is tight.”
“Thank you both. You have sacrificed your careers—”
The platform slowed, and they each grabbed a rail.
“No time for that now, ma’am.”
She pulled on the hood and secured the neck to the power contacts, rendering her invisible to the naked eye. Then she grasped the two rucksacks the men had concealed in cloaking bags, and hefted them, one on each shoulder. Mars before, Gaines behind, acting as shields, the trio stepped into the vast domed rotunda outside the main courtroom.
They passed through the eddying groups of advocates and witnesses whose muted conversations were amplified under the dome. The lieutenant and the ensign tossed a few salutes, and Mars was stopped once for a brief chat about the latest navigation technology. Polite but crisp, he mentioned an urgent appointment, and was let go with a laughing warning about owing drinks next time.
Moments later, they crossed the courtyard outside the admiralty complex, just two ordinary mariners in dark uniforms, strolling toward Old Port Henry.
- to be continued -
Keanan Brand resides in the Arkansas River Valley, and has worked for a non-profit youth organization since late 1997—not a chosen profession but one that seemed like the right path. Writing under another name, Brand also produces fantasy and general fiction, as well as poetry, essays, and the occasional feature article, and keeps an intermittent blog, Adventures in Fiction, covering the writing process, as well as occasional book and movie reviews. Thieves’ Honor is Brand’s only science fiction endeavor to date.
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Editor’s Note: Thieves’ Honor is an ongoing long-form serial novel Keanan has been working on for awhile now at Ray Gun Revival magazine. To catch up with the adventures of Captain Kristoff and the Martina Vega, start with Episode One here.
If you have ideas for new short-form serial novels, please see our sister site, Every Day Novels.