Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 11


I spent my next duty on the hull with Captain Leary as he indicated our course to me from the Dorsal A masthead platform. The captain was using a brass rod — it must have been filled with something — between our helmets so that we could talk without actually leaning into direct contact.

I listened to his descriptions of what I should be seeing as my eyes followed the sweep of his arm across the glowing Matrix. He could have been whistling to me in bird language and it would have made as much sense, or almost as much.

Apparent color indicated relative energy levels compared to the level of the bubble universe I was viewing from. That was simple enough. I didn’t understand how the captain was so sure how the universes were layered, though; which one a ship should enter before it went on to the next.

I hoped that when I compared what the captain told me with the Sunray’s plotted course, I’d understand better. Anyway, that’s what I started doing on the bridge as soon as I reentered the hull.

Cory was on duty. He let me use the command console — the only console — and took a flat-plate display himself. There was no reason he shouldn’t have done that — nothing was happening or likely to happen — but it was still a kindly action.

I don’t know how much it helped me, though. I felt badly out of my depth as I viewed the astrogation plot as a three-dimensional hologram and compared it with my memory of what I’d seen on the hull — and Captain Leary’s commentary on it. I’ve got a good visual memory, but the captain had been describing subtleties which continued to escape me.

The tap on my elbow just about made me jump out of my skin. “Hellfire!” I said and turned my head.

One of the delegation stood beside the console; she’d just touched me. I’d seen her among the ministry personnel when they were boarding, but I hadn’t had contact with any of them before now. There was no reason to: They had quarters separate from the officers and crew, and they messed separately also.

I’d noticed this one; she was very pretty. She was older than I’d thought, though; not old, but past thirty. From a distance I’d guessed she was twenty, like me.

“I’m Maeve Grimaud,” she said and smiled, which made her even more attractive. “I believe you’ve just been out in the Matrix?”

Maeve’s dark-blond hair was shoulder length. She wore a two-piece outfit of soft violet fabric which wasn’t fancy but matched her eyes.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’m pretty busy now.”

“Well, I was hoping that you could take me out on the hull,” Maeve said. She smiled again. “I’ve never seen the Matrix, and I’d like to. With a guide.”

You could do better than me, I thought. Aloud I said, “Ma’am, I’m still in training. If you get permission from the captain, I suppose I can. But not now, please. I’m trying to apply what Captain Leary showed me before I forget it all.”

Her face tightened a trifle, but the smile was back an instant later. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll hold you to that.”

She turned and walked off the bridge. I followed her into the corridor with my eyes. She got into the companionway and I turned back to my exercise.

Cory was looking at me from his station. He didn’t say anything, but he was smiling.

* * *

An hour later, a text crawl from Maeve appeared on the bottom of my display. It said that she had permission from Captain Leary to go onto the hull with my escort. I replied that I’d take her out at the end of my next watch.


I came in with the riggers from an uneventful watch on the hull. Starboard B hadn’t rotated fully to lock during one of the course changes, though it was close enough that I certainly hadn’t noticed the difference by eye. I suspect the experienced riggers had missed it also, because the alert came by semaphore from the bridge.

We’d examined the track and found nothing, so we walked the mast into proper registry using bars stuck into the holes in the mast. With all twelve of us tugging, we got it into place. It made me a believer in hydraulic power, though.

I started taking my suit off as the riggers around me stripped — as usual, in half the time it was taking me. When the watch had melted away to the showers and their bunks, Maeve came forward. I’d completely forgotten her.

“Are you ready to take me out?” she said. She was wearing spacers’ slops, as new as mine were, but she made them look sexy. Soft, clingy fabrics were kind to her; or maybe I should say that Maeve was kind to any clothes she chose to wear.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I didn’t want to, but I’d said I would. “First we’ll find a suit to fit you.”

There were three spares in the end locker. The medium was probably the best bet, but when I pulled it out and compared it to Maeve it didn’t look like a good one. She was the right height, but she was slim and she’d rattle around like the pea in a whistle. That would mean scrapes and bruises — at best.

“Put her in an air suit,” said a voice behind me.

I turned. Officer Mundy and her clerk had come off the bridge to watch; Maeve had turned also,

“Number Seventeen should do,” Mundy continued. “That’s the one I wear myself.”

“Ah, ma’am…?” I said, wondering how I should phrase what I was thinking. Well, I was wondering a lot of things, starting with why Mundy was speaking at all. “Mistress Grimaud doesn’t have any experience outside a ship and I don’t want to take chances.”

“Of course,” said Mundy. There was nothing in her tone — and no expression on her face at all — to make me think it, but I was sure “you dimwit” lay under in the words. “But hard suits are only safer against possible puncture. An air suit is more comfortable and less clumsy, which makes it safer generally for a novice. Or an incompetent like me. We’re less likely to drift off the hull.”

I opened my mouth to say, “She’ll be attached both to me and the ship with safety lines!” but Mundy probably knew that. And being jerked up short by a safety line wouldn’t be very comfortable anyway.

“Ah, Mistress?” I said to Maeve. “Are you willing to wear an air suit?”

“Yes, if you think it’s all right,” Maeve said, glancing at Mundy and then back at me. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen in the look she gave the signals officer, but it certainly wasn’t friendly.

“We’ll try you in an air suit, then,” I said, turning to the lockers on the other side of the rotunda.

“While you’re at it,” said Mundy’s clerk, “why don’t you take one of Six’s communication rods? I’m sure he’ll be willing to help young love along.”

I felt myself blushing. I started to turn, then decided I’d be better off ignoring it than shouting at Officer Mundy’s clerk. That’d make me look like an idiot.

I remembered the warning Cory had given me the day I reported aboard. I didn’t believe all the rumors I’d been hearing about Lady Mundy; but she was sure Captain Leary’s friend, and that too was a good enough reason to let her clerk’s comment go.

“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Mundy said. “Tovera, there’s one in the captain’s cruising cabin. Fetch it for Officer Olfetrie, if you please.”

I was ready to help Maeve into the air suit, but she had no trouble with it. Either she was familiar with suits, or she was an extremely quick study. Given the suppleness with which she moved, I was willing to believe this was not her first experience. She was fully dressed before I’d gotten my torso section back on.

Mundy watched but didn’t speak except to hand me the communication rod when her clerk came back with it a moment later. I checked Maeve’s seals — all as should be — and gestured her to the open airlock. Turning, I nodded to Mundy — I hadn’t put on my helmet — and said, “Thank you, mistress.” Then I followed Maeve into the airlock.

As soon as the inner door had dogged shut, Maeve let out a deep breath and said, “Thank heavens! Doesn’t that Tovera give you the creeps?”

I’d started to put my helmet on, but I paused as pumps drew out the air. “Mundy’s clerk?” I said. “No, not particularly. She’s got something of an attitude; but if it doesn’t bother her mistress, I can live with it.”

“Clerk?” Maeve said in amazement that I thought was at least a bit put on. “I should offer to sell you the Pentacrest! Prime Xenos real estate!”

She closed her faceplate. I put my helmet on and latched it in place.

I clipped the free end of a safety line to Maeve’s equipment belt, then led her onto the hull when the telltale over the outer hatch went green. I watched carefully as Maeve followed until I was sure that she understood the need to set the magnetic soles of her boots firmly on the steel hull.

I hooked another line for each of us to one of the attachment points near the hatch, then led Maeve into the bow. We weren’t in anybody’s way there and the sails didn’t block our view of the Matrix. The dorsal and ventral masts rotated while we were moving, but that didn’t affect us except to wait while Maeve stared at the movement.

When we were well forward, I stopped and took her arm. I gestured to the Matrix, then linked us with the communications rod. “This is the Matrix which joins every universe in the cosmos,” I said. “This is everything there is; all existence.”

Maeve looked across the horizon in front of her. The rod rattled against her helmet as she moved, so I lowered it. She reached down and brought one end firmly back into contact. “What am I supposed to be seeing?” she said.

“Well,” I said, “if you’re like me, you see dots of color across the whole sky. They’re not stars, they’re not even galaxies; they’re whole universes. The ship travels from one to another, according to the course programmed into its computer.”

“So it’s like looking through the window of an aircar in flight?” Maeve said.

“For me, yes,” I said. “There’s some people who see god in the Matrix. Maybe they’re right. I haven’t found god there. Or anywhere else.”

I shrugged, which she couldn’t see in my hard suit.

“There’s a few people can actually see a course through the Matrix better than what the astrogation computer can plot,” I said. “Captain Leary’s famous for it. He judges energy gradients by the colors and picks a route with fewer translations than a computer would. Or the Academy solution, either one. I suppose that’s why Navy House picked him for this mission.”

Maeve turned to face me, then clamped the rod to her again. “Do you really think that’s why Captain Leary was given this mission?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” I said, trying not to sound defensive. “He’s just as good an astrogator as the stories about him say. He’s trying to teach me. The heavens know I’m trying to learn, but I’m not sure I’m even on the right page yet.”

“You see that Daniel Leary is too senior an officer for what this mission is supposed to be, do you not?” Maeve said. She was still staring at my helmet, but I didn’t turn to face her.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “But it’s a diplomatic mission, and the Republic is at peace.”

I couldn’t be sure of the sound Maeve made, but I think it was an audible sneer. “Relations between us and Saguntum could scarcely be of less importance,” she said. “As for peace, though, there you’ve put your finger on it.”

“I have?” I said.

“Roy, a powerful cabal of bureaucrats, unelected bureaucrats,” Maeve said, “have repeatedly sent their preferred tool, Lady Mundy, and her assassin Tovera, to worlds they’ve decided to subvert. You can check this easily enough, though probably not on the Sunray — unless you’re willing to look at material which I can provide you with.”

She stopped there. I’d as soon not have replied, but it seemed that I had to. I said, “Ma’am, I know Captain Leary was a war hero, and I believe what you say about Officer Mundy not being just a signals officer.”

That’s basically what Barnes and his fellows had been saying last night. They’d served with Captain Leary — and with Lady Mundy — for long enough to know.

“But it’s no business of mine. I’ve never been interested in spying — or politics, or anything like that. I just want to do my job and to learn to be a better astrogator.”

“It could be –” she started to say.

I didn’t let her go on. “Ma’am!” I said. “I don’t want to talk about this. Right now I think we’d better go inside, because I want to learn more about Hansen’s World. We’ll be landing there in a few hours, I think.”

I started back to the airlock. Maeve came along, which was good. I was feeling prickly enough that I’d have dragged her if she’d forced me.