Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 09

Wedell and I had been using hand signals when we needed to “speak.” Rigging suits didn’t have radios because the accidental use of one in the Matrix could send a ship wildly off course. I’d learned the signals in the Academy, but I wasn’t very good at them yet — and Wedell and I hadn’t worked together before, so we didn’t know how to predict one another’s actions the way an experienced team would. Still, we hadn’t had real problems in such a straightforward job.

Barnes, the sound of his voice transmitted through his helmet to mine, said, “We’ve got a job, you and me, kid. We’ve got to replace the extender cable on Ventral A antenna.”

I frowned. “It’s broken?” I said.

“Naw,” said Barnes. “It’s a half millimeter undersized. Some contractor cheated, or maybe his supplier did. Who’d have thought that RCN suppliers’d be crooked, hey?”

I took a deep breath. “Then we’d better change it,” I said.

I didn’t bother asking why I was being held over at the end of my watch to do a lengthy, brutal job. For that matter, I didn’t ask why nobody’d noticed the cable while we were in Harbor Three. That was the sort of thing that might pass unnoticed in the usual run of things, but the examination Captain Leary and his Sissies had given the Sunray hadn’t been usual.

They had noticed it. And they’d waited until now to see how the new third officer dealt with it. I was bone tired, but I was going to be more tired before I went off watch. That was just how it was.

We trudged along the hull to the bow ring, then down to the ventral antenna. It had been raised and extended, but the spars were still locked vertical instead of being rotated ninety degrees to their set position. The sails were furled.

I’d been carrying my safety line unhooked since I left Dorsal B. I wasn’t shuffling because Barnes was following me, but I made sure I set each magnetized boot sole firmly before I lifted my trailing foot. I stepped along uncomfortably fast. I’d pay for it in the morning — thigh muscles and skin abrasions both — but this was a test.

I hooked the line to one of the shackles at the base of the antenna; then I checked the raised lettering on the pulley at the foot of the mast. The nearest exterior locker was just behind Dorsal A and easily within the reach of my line. I clanked up to it, setting my feet with determination as before.

Barnes continued to shadow me. He didn’t comment on what I was doing.

I opened the locker, pulling up the recessed catch before turning it. I was pleased to find a spool marked with the correct number — I hadn’t been sure how far Captain Leary was willing to go in a training exercise. I’d half expected to be sent to the stern locker or to inside storage.

There was a handle on either flange of the spool. I gripped one, turned to Barnes, and mimed him taking the other one. He did — another better result than I’d feared — and we returned to Ventral A.

I could probably have handled the spool alone if I’d had to, but there was no point in making me do that — except to prove I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I already knew that.

When we got back to the antenna, I took a wrench from the satchel I was wearing and adjusted it to the nut of the hydraulic fitting that fed the pump. Barnes tapped my shoulder. I looked up and he touched helmets again.

“Six took Ventral A out of service on the main console,” Barnes said. “It won’t move no matter how the course changes.”

“All right,” I said. I finished disconnecting the hydraulic line, then took the existing cable loose from the lift spool and crimped it to the end of the fresh cable with an in-line splice. I then stuck a screwdriver through one of the holes in the take-up spool provided for the purpose and began turning it like a windlass.

Even with the cables end to end, I couldn’t tell the difference in diameter by eye. I suspected that Barnes could have, however. Someday I’d have that much experience too.

The cable stuck at the first shackle. The hydraulic motor could probably have dragged it through the obstruction, but I couldn’t do it by hand.

I turned to Barnes. With hand signals I asked him to keep tension on the pulley while I went up and cleared the jam. He put his hand on the screwdriver, which was all the reply I needed. He may’ve nodded within the rigid helmet, but I couldn’t see for sure.

This was my second trip up an antenna since reporting on watch. The suit was heavy, and I wasn’t used to wearing it. I fed the splice through the shackle, then climbed to the next one. Barnes resumed winding, thank goodness. Grasping the cable with my gauntlets and hauling it up by hand would have been a lot harder at best. I didn’t figure I’d give up — that I could control — but I might be out here dangling from the ratlines until they hauled me in.

The splice hung at each shackle — up to the masthead and back down. I was counting them at the start — not for any reason, just for the way you do — but I lost track. I think it was seventeen.

At the bottom of the mast, I returned to where Barnes knelt. He’d coiled the original cable beside him, as neatly as the take-up spool itself could have done. I could barely see straight, but I opened the splice and hooked the new cable to the spool. I took a single turn by hand, then removed my screwdriver/handle and reconnected the hydraulic line.

It took me three tries to get the threads started so that I could snug it up with the wrench. Barnes watched impassively while I struggled, but when I rose from the job he led me to the semaphore stand by which messages were sent from the bridge to the riggers. There was also a hydromechanical override system for the rigging. Barnes unlocked it and hit three buttons in series.

We both watched as antenna Ventral A telescoped neatly, with no more than the usual jumps and catches. It remained vertical: I’d only changed the extension cable, so there was no need to test whether the antenna would hinge flat and clamp to the hull for landing.

Barnes patted me on the back and pointed to the nearer airlock. We walked to it together. I was so tired that I almost forgot to unclip my safety line from the antenna base.