Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 06

“I’m Cory,” the officer at the command console said when I knelt beside him. “I’m second lieutenant and have the duty right now. You are?”

“Sir, I’m Roylan Olfetrie,” I said. “Captain Leary visited me last night and ordered me” — that wasn’t really the right word — “to report at noon today to be signed on as the Sunray’s third mate.”

“Go sit at the striker’s seat so we can hear each other over whatever the yard’s doing,” Cory said, gesturing me to the seat on the opposite side of the console. It was where a junior striking for a position could watch the regular officer and even control the ship if the senior spacer permitted. They were standard in naval use but much less common on civilian vessels.

I settled myself. Cory must have engaged the active cancellation field, because the ambient noise shut off. The small flat-plate display at this position showed Cory’s face. He said, “Six told me you’d be coming aboard. Welcome to the Sunray. You’re no newer to her than all the rest of us are, but I guess we’re new to you. The rest of us have been together quite a while, on various of Six’s commands.”

“I’ll try to fit in,” I said. “Anyhow, I’ll do my job the best I know how to.”

“You’ll be covering Master Cazelet’s duties,” Cory said. “Do you know anything about commo?”

“What?” I said. “Well, I’ve had a unit on it but I don’t have any experience. Was Cazelet the commo officer of, of the Princess Cecile?”

“No, that’s Officer Mundy,” Cory said with a grin that implied more than humor. “She’ll have the job here too. But it’s a handy skill and Rene was good at it.”

He grinned more broadly. “Almost as good as I am,” he said.

“I’ll try to learn,” I said. It was all I could figure to say.

“Astrogation?” Cory asked.

“I had two years in the Academy,” I said. “I — ”

“Academy?” said Cory, cutting me off. “Why did you leave?”

“Family problems,” I said. I swallowed and added, “My dad was a crook. I’m not. I guess he isn’t now either, because he shot himself.”

Cory didn’t say anything for a moment, just held my eyes. Then he said, “Well, that’ll do for a reason, I guess.”

“I got good grades,” I said, switching back to a subject I preferred. “But I left before my senior cruise.”

“Marksmanship?” Cory said.

“Personal weapons in my second year,” I said. “I didn’t try out for a shooting team — it seemed to me I couldn’t do the practice I’d need and keep up my studies.”

I thought for a moment and added, “Dad had a trap range on his estate in Oriel County. I used it the last few summers and got pretty good.”

“That could be handy,” Cory said, though I couldn’t imagine how. I was — or anyway I wanted to be — a naval officer, not a sporting gentleman. He looked up from his display — the console was obviously transcribing the interview — and said, “Ever kill a man?”

“No sir,” I said, as though the question hadn’t shocked me. “Is that a job requirement?”

“Sometimes it is, yes,” Cory said. “Rene never got his…conscience, I suppose, past that, though. He was a bloody good officer and bloody good friend.”

There might have been a challenge in the way he put that. I ignored the possibility and said, “I’m sorry he was injured, sir.”

Cory smiled again. “Yeah,” he said. “So am I, but sometimes that comes with the job too.”

He stretched, spreading his arms. “I’ve assigned you to the port watch,” Cory said. “You’ll be under Lieutenant Enery for the time being, but chances are you’ll take over if you work out. Six said you were to be worked like a midshipman in training, and so you shall be.”

I cleared my throat. I said, “Thank you, sir. I’ll fetch my baggage and report back aboard.”

I didn’t have to worry about housing next week after all. I think Mistress Causey would miss me: I was quiet and didn’t come back drunk and singing at three in the morning. And she didn’t have to worry about getting the rent on time — if I had the money, and for rooming houses like hers I wasn’t the only resident who might find himself out of a job at the end of the week.

“Oh, Six also said you were to draw an advance of a hundred florins if you wanted it,” Cory said, raising an eyebrow to make a question of his statement.

“Ah…” I said, thinking about what I had in pawn. Most of it I’d never need again, but —

“If I could have fifty florins,” I said, “that would be useful for getting an outfit together. At the moment I’ve got the clothes I’m wearing, and another set like them.”

Cory reached into his belt purse and placed a fifty-florin coin on top of the console. “We’re not set up to run you a credit chip the normal way yet,” he said. “I’ve got it noted on your records here and I’ll get it back on payday.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said. It struck me that the Sunray operated in a very easygoing fashion, and also that Cory was a lot less concerned about fifty florins than most young lieutenants would be. I wondered if he had family money.

“Before you go, Olfetrie…” Cory said. He gestured to the woman working on her personal data unit. “Go over and talk to Officer Mundy, will you? She’ll have some questions.”

“The signals officer?” I said. I thought I must’ve misheard.

“Yeah, she’s that,” said Cory, “but she’s a bit more than that too. Among other things, she’s a good friend of Captain Leary; his best, maybe. And Olfetrie?”

“Yes,” I said. Captain Leary’s job offer still seemed like the best thing that’d happened to me since Dad had shot himself, but there was a lot more to it than I’d have learned in my final two years at the Academy.

“If Officer Mundy tells you to do something, do it,” Cory said. “Don’t worry about rank — because believe me, she doesn’t. And don’t argue if you think she’s wrong, because I don’t remember that happening. Just a friendly suggestion, of course.”

“Thank you, Cory,” I said and got up. This was all bloody crazy and I didn’t begin to understand, but I actually believed Cory about it being friendly advice.

I walked over to the signals officer and knelt beside her station, as I’d done with Cory. “Officer Mundy?” I said in a lull in the racket of impact wrenches. “I’m Third Officer Olfetrie reporting to the Sunray. The OiC suggested that I speak to you.”

Mundy said nothing for a moment. She was using short wands to control her data unit. I’d heard of them — they were supposed to be quicker than any other input method if you were good enough — but they required a delicacy of control and pressure beyond that of anybody I’d ever met.

I thought Mundy was just too busy to respond for the moment, but then the woman in the jumpseat beside her reached through the holographic display, disrupting it. Mundy looked up and focused on me with a terrifying, blank expression.

Her face relaxed, though I wouldn’t call her expression welcoming. “Ah,” she said, twitching her wands again.

The bridge had gone quiet again. Mundy had switched on a cancellation field. These were part of a navigation console, but I’d never heard of one being attached to a subordinate display.

“I’m glad you came over, Olfetrie,” Mundy said. “I have a few background questions beyond what Cory would have asked.”

“All right,” I said, standing up again. I was going along with this, but I won’t pretend I was happy about being questioned by a junior warrant officer.

“What are your politics?” Mundy said.

She could have asked me my favorite color and not surprised me as much. I said, “I don’t have any politics. I’ve never voted, and I don’t remember my parents ever voting, though I can’t swear they didn’t. We weren’t a political family.”

“Your father was Dean Olfetrie?” said the clerk. A clerk, for hell’s sake! “I’d say he was pretty political.”

I looked at her and regretted it. The clerk vanished into the background unless you focused on her. When I did that, I’ve seen guard dogs with warmer expressions.

“Openly political,” I said, as calmly as I could manage. “My father bribed politicians, yes. I do not, nor did my brother before he was killed aboard the Heidegger. At present — ” I fingered the coins in my pocket. “I’ve got eighty-two florins and change. That would probably allow me to bribe a dog warden to release my pet, but I don’t think it would go much beyond that.”

I glared at the clerk. To my amazement she smiled back. She said, “Good answer, kid.”

Mundy, looking at her display again, said, “You mentioned family, Olfetrie. What kin have you?”

I shrugged. It was disconcerting to be interviewed by someone who didn’t bother to look at me. “My mother’s probably still alive,” I said, “though I couldn’t tell you more than that. She disappeared when the bailiffs arrived, and I haven’t tried to find her. Mom…got very full of herself when Dad was important. I guess the scandal bothered her even more than it did me.”

Though probably not for the same reasons. I’d been pretty much my dad’s son.

“My brother’s dead and I don’t have any other siblings,” I said. After thinking for a moment, I added, “Miriam Dorst is my mother’s cousin. She and her daughter Miranda are probably my closest living relatives.”

Mundy didn’t look up or even nod. She said, “Do you have a girlfriend? Or boyfriend.”

“I did, a girlfriend,” I said, thinking about Rachel. “Before Dad shot himself. Pretty much everybody I knew dropped me then. Certainly she did. So no, not now.”

Looking up at last, Mundy said, “The Sunray is carrying a diplomatic delegation, Olfetrie. That makes political neutrality for our officers more than usually important.”

I smiled. “I was training to be an RCN officer,” I said. “The political neutrality requirement wasn’t one of those I expected to have trouble with.”

“Thank you, Olfetrie,” Mundy said, going back to her data unit. “I don’t have any further questions. I hope our association goes well.”

I left the bridge. At least I had more to think about than wondering if I’d be able to carry out the duties of a junior officer on a civilian vessel.