Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 08


“Testing thrusters One and Six,” said a raspy voice over the PA system. The Sunray shook and wobbled as two plasma thrusters vented into the flooded slip.

Pasternak, the Chief Engineer, was speaking. He was the old spacer I’d asked to guide me when I first arrived at Bergen and Associates a lifetime ago.

There was a brief pause. The ship still rocked as the pool settled.

“Testing thrusters Two and Five,” Pasternak said, and again we roared and shook.

I was squatting on one side of the A Level corridor with other riggers, ready to go out with both watches to set sail as soon as the Sunray had reached orbit. There wasn’t room in the rotunda for all of us, and each of the two airlocks could hold only four personnel in rigging suits at a cycle.

“Testing thrusters Three and Four,” said Pasternak. This time the ship teetered slightly nose-high for a few seconds before splashing back and lifting again for another few seconds. The central pair of thrusters weren’t precisely at the Sunray’s balance point.

A big man — bigger yet in his rigging suit — clomped down the corridor and said to the spacer on my right, “Scoot up to the rotunda, Kellogg. I want to talk to the kid.”

Kellogg, a tough-looking forty-year-old, got up with a grunt and moved forward. Barnes, the speaker, sat down beside me. He was one of the bosun’s mates under Woetjans, the Chief of Rig.

“Testing all thrusters!” Pasternak warned. This time the Sunray bobbed like a cork. The leaves of the thruster nozzles were flared open, minimizing impulse, but the plasma quenched violently in the slip. The gushing steam added to lift.

“So, kid…” shouted Barnes. “Six says we’re to train you like a midshipman, but this ain’t the RCN. Maybe you want to tell me to bugger off because you’re an officer?”

I’ve done my share of dumb things, but I wasn’t dumb enough to take that at face value. I said, “I want you to do what Captain Leary told you to do, Barnes!”

I tried to sound authoritative, like a real officer. I don’t know how well I did, but Barnes laughed and slapped my armored knee.

“Lifting off in ten, repeat, ten seconds,” Lieutenant Enery’s voice warned as the thrusters built to full power. The Sunray didn’t have an armored Battle Direction Center like a real warship, but the dockyard had added a full console in the stern so that she could still be directed if the bridge were destroyed.

“Lifting off!”

The thruster note changed as Enery closed the sphincters. The Sunray shook herself free of the slip, paused a moment, then resumed her climb at an ever-increasing rate.

I was on my way to my first operational deployment as a spacer.

* * *

We began staging out through the airlocks as soon as the Sunray reached orbit, though by the time I’d reached the locks the High Drive motors were accelerating us. It felt to me like 1 g, comfortable for those within the hull and not particularly burdensome for the rigging watch.

No commercial vessel could accelerate much harder than that anyway, and even warships were limited because their rigging couldn’t be stressed for heavy thrust and still be able to fold and telescope as it had to do for landing. Landings — and to a lesser degree lift-offs — were the real problem for a starship’s rig. Atmospheric buffeting, accompanied by vibration from the thrusters running at maximum output, snapped shackles and undid any rovings that weren’t snugged up tight. Microcracks, crystallized metal, frayed cables — any weakness was likely to be tested to destruction.

The rig was wholly automated. Gears and hydraulic motors raised and extended the antennas, rotated the spars into place, and stretched the sails in response to commands from the navigational computer. Riggers were superfluous — unless something broke or jammed.

As it always did.

The port watch was assigned to the aft ring of antennas. B Port mounted only thirty degrees and jammed, but Barnes put two other spacers to clearing it. The mainspar of B Dorsal didn’t release, and that became a task for me and Wedell whom I’d met the day I reported to the Sunray.

The lower clamp had opened properly: It was only waist high to spacers standing flat-footed on the hull. We climbed the ratlines to the upper clamp and found it only half-open. We didn’t expect to need jacks for the initial job — we wrapped our legs around the antenna, set a prybar, and put our backs into it. The clamp opened with a clack! just as I was about to decide I was going return for the jack after all.

I lurched backward on my perch, but my legs didn’t quite lose their grip. I slid down to the hull and hit on my butt. I wasn’t in real danger — I’d set my safety line before climbing — but it was a nasty feeling for a moment and a solid thump when I hit the steel.

I’d worn hard suits before, but I wasn’t used to them. The one I’d been issued fit all right — as well as any that hadn’t been personally fitted, I guess — but I knew that in the morning I was going to have worse than a rash at the points it rubbed.

Strands of monocrystal stiffened the fabric. It wasn’t armor in the sense that it would stop a bullet, but it would resist a torn plate or a strand from a broken cable that would puncture an air suit. If your job was to work with torn plates and broken cables, it was definitely the garment to be wearing. It wasn’t very flexible, however.

The Sunray entered the Matrix just after we got the spar loose. I felt my nerves tingle in a wave, starting at my toes and rolling up through my scalp. Light changed: The focused, distant glare of Cinnabar’s primary vanished and the ship trembled in the glow of all universes.

The B Dorsal mainsail shook out with neat precision; the antenna rotated about fifteen degrees to impinge on Casimir radiation and propel the ship between bubble universes. Each individual spot in what looked like the starry sky above me was really a separate universe with constants of time and velocity different from those of the sidereal universe. It was by shifting from one bubble to another in the Matrix that starships were able to traverse interstellar distances in practical lengths of time.

The second part of my job and Wedell’s was to fix the clamp — on the hull, if possible, but by carrying it in to the engineering shop if necessary. The driving gear in the clamp body was worn smooth, but I suspected that wouldn’t have happened if the driven gear had been turning properly. We fetched a replacement clamp from an external locker, and Wedell slung the worn one to her equipment belt.

When we’d finished, our four-hour watch was pretty near over. I was looking forward to a bite to eat and my bunk. Wedell pointed back past me. I turned and found Barnes — his name was stenciled in glowpaint above the front window of his helmet — standing at my shoulder. He leaned forward slightly so that our helmets touched.