Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 10


Barnes started taking off his helmet as soon as the outer hatch had locked closed. I knew that was usual for riggers, but I’d always been willing to wait for the pressure in the lock to build up a bit.

Still, Barnes and I were the only ones in the lock this time — we were knocking off shortly before the watch ended. I wasn’t hiding in the crowd. I began to undo my catches also. The pressure had risen to ten psi by the time I had the helmet off, though.

Barnes grinned at me. “Know where the warrant officers’ lounge is, kid?” he asked. “Level Two, aft of the crew’s quarters?”

“I know it’s there,” I said. I’d never had occasion to visit it, and I hadn’t imagined I ever would.

“Drop in when you’ve changed out of duty clothes,” Barnes said. “We’ll stand you a drink or three? All right?”

“I’d be honored,” I said. Which was true, but it was an honor I could’ve done without. I’d really been looking forward to my bunk.

Barnes was out of his hard suit in half the time it took me — even with his help on the catches. I clamped the suit to its place in the locker and walked — staggered, better — to my cabin.

I’d been wearing shapeless garments, spacers’ slops — brand new, bought with the fifty florin advance from Cory. The cloth was soaked with sweat, and stiff with blood at a couple of the wear points. My skin burned as I pulled them off.

My cabin didn’t have a shower, but there was a tap and basin. I sponged off with a rag, then sprayed the rubbed patches with antiseptic sealant from the first aid kit. I dressed again in RCN utilities. Aboard ship they were really dress clothes for all but the commissioned officers — which I certainly was not, except in name.

I left my cabin, feeling a lot brighter than I had when I entered. Removing the hard suit had been a weight off me in more ways than one.

I took the down companionway to the second level, then walked aft through the newly built crew’s quarters: bunks four high, set in alcoves partitioned by ceiling-height dividers which also provided locker space. Twenty-odd spacers were in the alcoves. Those who noticed me nodded or called, “Sir,” in acknowledgement. I nodded back, surprised that anybody recognized me.

I’d heard that Leary’s crew, the Sissies, considered themselves an elite and were certainly a close-knit group who’d served together for years. To my surprise, they seemed willing to treat me with more consideration than I expected most junior midshipmen got in the RCN.

There were closed compartments on either side of the corridor when I got beyond the alcoves. The nearest one on the port side was a group shower/latrine. The hatch across from it was ajar. I tapped on the panel, then eased it open enough that I could peer through.

“Come on in, kid,” Barnes called, “and shut it after you.”

I entered. The cabin was twelve by eighteen. There appeared to be a full galley at the aft end, and the furniture had leather cushions. Barnes and Dasi, the other bosun’s mate, sat close to one another at the round steel table in the center. On it was a tray with a bottle and tumblers, and everybody in the room was holding a drink.

Woetjans, the bosun, and Sun, who’d been acting as purser and armorer but called himself the gunner’s mate, sat against the hull side of the cabin. They were all facing me.

Barnes pointed to a chair across the table from him. “Sit down and pour yourself a drink,” he said. “D’ye like rum?”

“Well enough,” I said, sitting as directed. “I’m not a drinking man, though, and it’s been a while since I last ate.”

“We’ve got other stuff,” Sun said. “Pretty much anything you want.”

He was the only ship-side warrant here; the others were riggers.

I sipped the rum. It was lightly spiced and very powerful. I didn’t recognize the brand name, but it had been bottled in one of the Southern Tier counties and was way more expensive than anything I could’ve afforded on my own.

Woetjans said, “Barnes says you cut the pump line before you started working on the cable even though he’d told you Six had taken Ventral A out of the computer. That so?”

“That’s so,” I said calmly. I hope I sounded calm. “I trust Captain Leary and I trust Barnes.” I nodded across the table as I spoke. “But I don’t trust some dickhead not to throw a switch on the bridge while I’ve got my arms wrapped in cable.”

I drank a bit more rum; a little more than I’d meant to, to tell the truth, and I almost snorted it out of my nose.

Oddly enough, that broke my fear. I almost started laughing at the notion. I thought, There’s never a situation so bad that it can’t get worse.

Barnes rubbed his cheek with his left hand and said, “Following procedures is all well and good, but sometimes you don’t have time for it.”

“I know that,” I said. “In an emergency I’ll do what I have to do and if I get killed, well, I wanted to join the RCN. I didn’t need my brother being blown to hell on New Harmony to know that the job has risks. But today wasn’t one of those times, unless you’d given me a direct order.”

I met Barnes eyes, then looked around at the others. The other members of the court-martial, it was sounding like.

“Hell, you were right,” Barnes said. “I’d’ve pulled you up short if you’d cut corners today.”

“Yeah, if we were in a rush,” Dasi said, the first he’d spoken since I entered, “Six’d get us to Saguntum without a planetfall. Instead of which we’re making three.”

“Remember Tubby Duxford?” Woetjans said. “He was moonlighting in a dockyard when somebody reconnected the power inside. The pulley cut his hand clean off.”

“He was a bloody fool to work for Sampson,” Barnes growled, refilling his tumbler.

“Tubby was a bloody fool most times that I remember,” Woetjans agreed. “But if he’d bothered to disconnect the gear on the take-up spool, he’d still have his left hand.”

I said, “Could Captain Leary really make the voyage from Cinnabar to Saguntum without planetfall?” I said. I tried a little more rum. “It’s rated as a thirty-day voyage.”

“You bet your ass he could!” Sun said. He didn’t sound angry, though there could’ve been a challenge in the words. “And it wouldn’t be any thirty days, neither. He’s like a wizard in the Matrix, finding routes that nobody else could.”

“If we’d really been in a hurry,” Dasi said, “we’d be aboard the Sissie instead of this pig. And I wish we bloody well were.”

“We’re keeping a low profile,” Woetjans said. “Say, pass the bottle, will you?”

Barnes passed the rum back. “It’s not that low,” he said. “Six is using his own name, right? And so’s the Mistress.”

“Who notices the name of the signals officer?” Woetjans said as she poured. “Even the captain, that doesn’t set off any bells. The Princess Cecile, though, everybody’s heard of her. And if they haven’t, she still looks like a warship. Not a transport hauling diplomats around.”

“She is a bloody warship,” Dasi said, “even if you call her a yacht.”

“So she is,” said Woetjans, returning the bottle to Barnes. “The kid needs some more, Barnes.”

“I still don’t see why they can’t be Captain Smith and Signals Officer Jones,” muttered Sun.

The kid didn’t need another drink; that rum must’ve proofed close to the grain alcohol they used as working fluid in the Power Room. Still, realization that I’d passed a test had relaxed me. I didn’t object as Barnes poured me another two inches.

“Somebody who’s looking already,” I said to Sun, “is likely to recognize Captain Leary if they see him. And if they do that and he’s pretending to be somebody else, then he is blown — they have to be spies. But if he’s just being given a responsible job while the Republic’s at peace” — I shrugged and raised my rum — “well, what’s surprising about that?”

“Aw, you know they wouldn’t waste Six and the Mistress like that,” Sun said, but he sounded more like he was arguing than that he was sure.

I swallowed very carefully before I said, “I don’t know anything of the sort. I was hired to take the place of a midshipman who’d been injured, on a charter carrying a foreign ministry delegation to Saguntum. And that’s all I know.”

“Well…” said Woetjans. “I guess I could get used to a quiet voyage if I had to.”

“I guess,” said Sun, but he didn’t sound convinced.

I stayed a bit longer, but I refused another drink. Even so, I hung to the railing of the companionway when I returned to my cabin on Level One. It had been a good visit and had, I think, made me a real member of the crew.

But neither my head nor my stomach could take many repetitions.