Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 07


I had a cabin on Level 1 — the rebuilding had added officers’ spaces as well as quarters for the crew and passengers. I had just opened the hatch to stow away the gear I’d brought, mostly retrieved from pawn, when the cabin across the corridor from mine opened.

“You’re Olfetrie?” said the small woman who stuck her head out.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’m the third mate.”

“I’m Enery,” she said. The right side of her face had a glassy perfection and moved very little when she spoke. “Come over and have a drink when you’ve got that” — she nodded at the bundle of my belongings — “struck down.”

She gave me a smile that would’ve been less grisly if both sides of her face worked. She added, “Don’t worry. I don’t have designs on your body.”

I stowed my gear in the cabinet under the bunk — which, with the small desk/chair combination on the corridor bulkhead beside the hatch, was all the furniture there was. That done, I stepped across and knocked on the first officer’s hatch. She called, “It’s open.”

Her cabin was twice the size of mine — that didn’t make it big — and there was a flat-plate display on the hull-side bulkhead. Two chairs were bolted to the deck on the corridor side and another at the display.

Enery was straddling the chair by the display. She poured whiskey into a tumbler, then handed the bottle to me. “There’s another glass under the chair seat,” she said, gesturing with her own drink.

I took the tumbler — it was high-density plastic — from its nest with flatware and a platter and sat down to pour. The whiskey was a Heilish County brand, a very good one that one of Dad’s friends had sworn by — but it was something of an acquired taste for its heavy smokiness. It wasn’t a favorite of mine, but I sipped.

I handed the bottle back and said, “Thank you, mistress.”

“We’re the outsiders on this run, Olfetrie,” Enery said. I noticed that the back of her right hand was hairless and had the same smoothness as half her face. “I thought we ought to get to know one another.”

I sipped the whiskey again to have an excuse for lowering my eyes. “Ah,” I said. “You’re not RCN either, then?”

“Oh, I’m RCN, all right,” said Enery. Her lips worked and she took a large swallow — too large for me to equal with this stuff. If I’d tried, I’d have spewed it out my nose. “Just not one of Captain Leary’s gang. I’m Admiral McKye’s goddaughter, and I had a stellar career in the RCN ahead of me ten years ago.”

“What happened?” I asked. I didn’t want to hear the answer, I wanted to be back in my cabin reading — or on the bridge, practicing astrogation on one of the stations there. Enery obviously wanted to tell somebody, though, and she’d picked me for the duty. If we were going to be in the same crew, I was going to make an effort to get along. I guess I’d do that anyway.

“Lieutenant Daniel Leary happened,” she said bitterly. “Oh, I don’t blame him. I just happened to be in his way when he started out on the most brilliant career in the RCN. I wasn’t even a bump to him.”

I sipped again. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I wasn’t going to have a refill of her whiskey.

“I was tipped for the command of the corvette Princess Cecile,” Enery went on, pouring more whiskey. “She went to Leary instead. And he made her the most famous ship in the RCN.”

I frowned, remembering stories that I’d heard. “I thought Captain Leary had captured the Princess Cecile?” I said.

“Sure, he did that right enough,” Enery agreed. “But that shouldn’t have mattered in the way things are done. In RCN politics, I mean. He was a new-minted lieutenant with no interest at all, and I had three admirals in my bloodline and a fleet commander as my sponsor.”

Instead of slugging down the fresh drink, Enery swished the liquor around in the tumbler as she stared at it. “Leary outmaneuvered Admiral McKye,” she said. “He did or his friend Mundy did. He got the ship, and I…”

She drank. And took a second gulp before she put the tumbler down.

She glared at me and said, “It broke me. Broke my luck, I mean. It wasn’t Leary’s fault any more than it was mine. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it never went right again for me.”

“That was in the middle of the war,” I said. “You surely weren’t put on the beach because you missed that posting?”

“No,” said Enery. “I was appointed first lieutenant on a destroyer commanded by a distant cousin, a very good posting for a lieutenant as junior as I was. But we were in the home fleet and saw no action. I transferred to the Ajax and I did well, there was never anything wrong with my work, but again we weren’t in action. You don’t make a name for yourself because your ship remained squared away when nothing happened. Then” — she smiled again. It was horrible to look at, but I did — “I was in line for promotion to lieutenant commander and command of a destroyer. Something finally happened on the my cruiser — a fire in a paint locker. I was head of damage control. We were in Harbor Three, so of course I didn’t have a hard suit on and of course I didn’t take time to put one on. The locker exploded just as I arrived.”

She took more whiskey though she didn’t drink immediately. The bottle was down well below half.

“I was three years in hospital,” Enery said. “By the time I could return to duty, the Treaty of Amiens had been signed and Admiral McKye had retired.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said. Of course Enery hadn’t thought first about protective gear in a crisis. She wouldn’t have been fit to wear the uniform if she had. She’d really had bad luck for a well-connected officer. Still —

I didn’t smile but I thought, I can do you one better, honey. Though I’m not sure Enery would have thought my situation was truly worse than hers.

“I was expecting to be beached for good and all,” Enery said, looking hard at her whiskey. “But then this came up — was I willing to become first lieutenant to Captain Leary on a civilian charter? I jumped at it — of course.”

“Well, it’s certainly better than retirement on a lieutenant’s half pay,” I said. Let alone picking up casual labor on the docks. “I’m glad that Captain Leary gave you the opportunity.”

“Him?” Enery said. “Scarcely! Navy House wished me on him. I don’t doubt that he’d have put in one of his cronies if he’d been able to.”

I swallowed and said, “I don’t understand.” I didn’t see how that could get me into trouble, and anyway it was true.

“What do you know about Captain Leary?” Enery demanded. “As little as you seem to?”

“I know he’s a hero,” I said carefully. “I believe he’s the son of a senator, a powerful one. And I know that he gave me an officer’s slot when nobody else on Cinnabar would have.”

“Leary and the crew of the Princess Cecile, his Sissies, are pretty much a special operations commando,” Enery said. “The problem is, nobody in Navy House is quite sure whose commando they are. His friend Mundy, that’s Lady Mundy of Chatsworth, is a spy in the intelligence network that Bernis Sand runs.”

“Our spies?” I said. I’d never heard of Mistress Sand.

Enery shrugged. “I suppose,” she said. She drank again. “When it suits them, anyway. I’ve found spooks are pretty much in it for themselves when you look closely enough. Anyway, Mundy certainly isn’t working for Navy House. That’s why somebody at Navy House wanted me aboard the Sunray.”

I raised my tumbler high enough for the whiskey to touch my lips, but I didn’t really drink. I wondered if Enery would have been talking like this if she hadn’t been punishing the bottle so hard.

Aloud I said, “You’re here to spy on Captain Leary for Navy House?”

“I’m not a spy,” Enery said. “They all know who I am. I think somebody hoped that me being aboard will put some kind of rein on Leary. That’s nonsense: I can’t get in Leary’s way any more than I could when I was supposed to take command of the Princess Cecile. But it’s a chance for me, anyway. A better chance than there’d be on the beach. I keep thinking, you see — “she gave me another of her terrible smiles” — that maybe my luck will change.”

“Lieutenant…” I said. I got up and put my empty tumbler down on the seat I’d vacated. I didn’t remember finishing the whiskey, but I had. That was a reason to leave if I hadn’t had a better one — a desire simply to get away — before I wound up drinking more. “Lieutenant, I hope this voyage works out well for you and for all of us. Thank you for the drink.”

Enery didn’t speak. I glanced over my shoulder an instant before closing the hatch behind me. The first officer remained hunched over the back of her chair. The bottle was in one hand, her empty tumbler in the other.

I sat on my own bunk. I’d thought I was signing up for a charter voyage on a civilian vessel, carrying diplomats to a distant, minor posting. It sounded like it was a great deal more than that.

Regardless, it was better than casual labor.