Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 05


Captain Leary had said “noon.” I timed it to arrive at eleven in the morning. If they told me to cool my heels for an hour, that was fine. I wasn’t going to take a chance on being late, though.

My room was near Harbor Two, the main harbor for Xenos. It got most of Cinnabar’s commercial traffic and was the logical place for ship chandleries to cluster.

Harbor Three was the naval harbor, a long run by tram. There were water taxis too, but they wouldn’t have been much quicker and they cost more than I wanted to spend anyway. I punched harbor three on the call plate — it was one of the preloaded destinations — and a tram arrived within ninety seconds. There were already two men and an old woman with a grocery bag aboard.

The woman and a man got out as we snaked along the shoreline. Seven more people got on; two stood though there were eight seats. The car passed stops from then on. It could take the weight of twelve average passengers, but eight was the normal load.

For some of the way the pylons supporting the overhead track were sunk into marsh. There might have been interesting wildlife to see if the windows hadn’t been so scratched and smudged. I wasn’t in a mood to sight-see anyway.

We all got out when the car arrived at Harbor Three. There were at least a dozen tram stops at Harbor Two but there was only one here, and there were armed guards besides. They didn’t look too worried — they weren’t even checking IDs. It had probably been different before the Treaty of Amiens and the end of the long war with the Alliance of Free Stars.

I’d been to Harbor Three a couple of times while I was at the Academy, but I didn’t know the layout — let alone where the Sunray might be berthed. They’d have the information in Harbor Control, but before walking over there I called to the Shore Police guards, “Can any of you tell me where the Sunray is?”

“You want the Sunray?” said a voice behind me. “Thirty-seven A, but come with me ’cause I’m going there myself.”

I nodded to the guards and turned. The woman who’d spoken had been on the tram with me. She was short and fit-looking and spoke with a Xenos accent.

“Thank you, mistress,” I said. “I have plenty of time before I’m due, but I’d rather not spend it walking up and down the waterfront.”

We started off to the right. She walked like a spacer, balancing an instant before taking the next step in case the motion of the deck had changed.

“Are you a suit?” she said, looking at me hard. “You’re dressed like you belong here, but you sure don’t sound like it.”

She might’ve meant my accent, but I suspected it was the fact I was polite. Which would be regrettable, but I’d realized long before my current troubles that quite a lot of things were regrettable but true.

“I’m not a suit,” I said. “Captain Leary offered me the third officer’s slot on the Sunray.”

“You know Six?” the woman said. “Well, hell, I guess you’re the real thing, then. I’m Wedell; I’m a rigger in the port watch.”

“I’m Roy Olfetrie,” I said. I didn’t offer to shake hands because I was about to become her superior officer. “Yesterday I was working for a ship chandler, but I was fired.”

“Fired for what?” Wedell said, her expression getting minusculely less friendly. It was a reasonable question to ask a man who might shortly be giving you orders.

“For punching back when the owner’s son-in-law swung at me,” I said. “I’d do the same thing if it happened again.”

Wedell laughed hard. “I shoulda figured it was something like that!” she said. “Six isn’t one to screw up when he’s picking officers.”

“I’ll hope not,” I said. I smiled but I wasn’t as sure of that as Wedell sounded. “If I may ask — by Six you obviously mean Captain Leary. But why?”

“Oh, it’s his call sign,” Wedell said. “The XO is Five. That’s Lieutenant Vesey usually, but she’s staying on the ground this time. Master Cazelet got his leg next thing to shot off and she’s staying close. Vesey’s good, a hell of an astrogator and shiphandler, but you know — when you’re really in the shit and everybody’s shooting at you, there’s nobody like Six to have on the bridge.”

From the stories at the Academy, having Captain Leary on the bridge was a pretty good way to be sure that everybody would be shooting at you. Still, that was the whole point of there being a Republic of Cinnabar Navy. If it was always peaceful, I’d have joined the merchant service — or maybe taken a job in one of Dad’s ventures.

I’d never wanted to do that, which turned out to be a blessing. If I hadn’t been so obviously unconnected with Dad’s business, somebody — a private prosecutor if not the Solicitor of the Navy — would sure have gone after me months ago.

“Here’s Thirty-seven,” Wedell said, gesturing. “And that’s the Sunray in Berth A. I can’t tell you anything about her because we all just mustered aboard.”

Thirty-seven was a repair dock. The slip could be drained, but it hadn’t been for this job. The interior of a midsized freighter was being rebuilt extensively enough that at least three hull plates had been removed, though one of them was being welded back in place now.

“They’re adding two levels of bunks to the forward hold,” Wedell said. “We’re boarding a crew of eighty-odd, they tell me. There’s only accommodations for thirty-five normal-like. And amidships is all suites now.”

Thirty-five would be ample crew for a two-ring freighter. Leary was famous for making fast passages, which worked ships and rigs hard and worked their crews even harder. The Sunray would look like an ordinary fast freighter, but she’d have the crew for quick runs and quick repairs.

“They expanded the arms locker too,” Wedell said with a note of pride. “We’ve got no missiles and just the one cannon in the bow, but I guess we’ll be able to take care of ourselves on the ground if it comes to that.”

“I guess I’d better report aboard,” I said. I was feeling a little queasy. I wasn’t afraid of getting shot, but there were so many ways I could screw up leading ground troops. I hadn’t been trained for it.

But ground combat wasn’t part of the Academy curriculum, so even if I’d graduated as a midshipman it wouldn’t help. Master Cazelet, the officer I was taking the place of, wouldn’t have had any more training than I had. And he’d done well enough to get his leg shot off.

I grinned. Maybe I’d be luckier and take a bullet through the head. That would solve all my problems.

I headed for the boarding hatch but Wedell pointed to the balanced pair of freight elevators and said, “You’ll need to sign in on Level One so you may as well ride since we’re in dock.”

I didn’t want to look like a wimp, but panting after I’d climbed sixty feet of polished steel treads didn’t sound like a good start for meeting my fellow officers. I took the rigger’s suggestion and waved goodbye from the elevator platform. The elevators didn’t have cages, just six-inch railings to keep pipes from rolling off.

I threw the lever from left to right and started trundling upward immediately, though we stopped a quarter of the way up for half a dozen workmen get onto the car balancing mine. They were going off-shift, carrying personal tools and the jackets they’d worn when they came on duty in the wee small hours. The cars began to move again; the workmen and I nodded as we passed in opposite directions.

I got to the top level and starting going back down before I realized that there wasn’t an automatic stop. I threw the lever left and the car juddered to a stop. Another clump of workmen were trotting along the walkway from the ship’s uppermost level. I let them get past me before going the other way.

The walk had no railings either. I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but the crew leaving work was tired and in a hurry to get other places. I didn’t need to argue right-of-way with them.

Entry to bridge level was at a hatch which normally would have been torso height. The yard crew had cut it into a full-length door; the piece of hull plating lay in the rotunda beyond. They’d even attached temporary handholds to the plate, making it easier to handle.

I supposed they’d weld it back on when they were finished. I wondered if they’d fish the piece as well. In my three months at the chandlery I’d seen a lot of shortcuts to keep ships working — safely and otherwise. The “otherwise” versions made me gasp, but it was part of my education to learn that the real world wasn’t always what I’d been taught that it should be.

The forward rotunda held the suit lockers, the up and down companionways, and an airlock. A corridor ran sternward to my left and to the right was an open hatch. I could see the bridge beyond. I stepped into the hatchway, rang my knuckles on the transom, and called loud enough to be heard over the sound of hammering on steel below, “Master Olfetrie reporting as ordered!”

Three or four people were on the bridge, mostly at flat-plate displays. That was a lot more instrumentation than I expected to see on a merchant ship. I figured more than bunks were being added for this mission.

The man at the console in the far bow turned on his couch and gestured me to him. He wore RCN utilities but wore the saucer hat of an officer.

A woman was at one of the stations, but she was working on a personal data unit with a holographic display; it was a blur of color to me and everybody else except the user. On a jump-seat bolted to the hull beside her was another woman with an attaché case on her lap. The man on a port-side display seemed to be running a gunnery program.

I hadn’t noticed what the Sunray’s armament was: a single four-inch plasma cannon was more or less standard for a well-found freighter as anti-pirate defense, but I’d never been aboard a civilian ship in which anybody really cared about gunnery — until they had to use the weapon.