Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 16


Barnes had warned me that the two of us would be dry-lubing Antenna Dorsal A on our next watch. Though I’d never done it, I knew that applying graphite to all the joints was a miserable, filthy job. Well, I wanted to be a spacer.

Very few people had dry-lubed an antenna in space. It’s never necessary to do. Not doing it just means the antenna moves a little more stiffly than it ought to and puts a little more strain on the machinery. Commercial ships don’t have the sail area to take an antenna out of service for most of a day, and even naval vessels preferred to leave the job to shipyards where the dust could be washed off instead of being brought into the ship’s interior.

The coming job was hanging over me, but I still had a couple hours of my own time. Our next landfall was Santiago. I’d read what I could find about the place, but it occurred to me that Officer Mundy might have information beyond the official bare bones.

I’d heard more things about Mundy by now. I was sure that they weren’t all true — they couldn’t be if she was human — but I was willing to accept that she was a spy and that she was a skilled librarian. Her spying was no business of mine, but someone who had the skill of researching and organizing information was exactly what I needed now.

At the moment she was lost in the world formed by her dancing control wands. Instead of breaking in, I walked to her servant, seated beside Mundy at her station and said, “Mistress Tovera, I would like to ask Officer Mundy about information on Santiago. Background beyond the Sailing Directions for when we touch down. Would you pass that request to her when she becomes free, please?”

Tovera grinned at me. I’d heard more about her too. Now that I’d known Tovera for a little while, Maeve’s statement that she was a sociopathic killer didn’t seem as ridiculous as it had at the time.

“I’ll let her know,” Tovera said. “I expect that she’ll have a file ready for you when you come off watch.”

“Thank you, mistress,” I said. I made a slight bow and headed to my cabin to catch an hour of sleep before I went on watch.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with Tovera; she certainly wasn’t just the clerk of a junior warrant officer, whom I as an officer ranked. On the other hand, simple courtesy generally struck me as the best choice, unless there was a good reason for something else. And maybe even then.

* * *

Barnes and I fed graphite into the antenna’s topmast joint. I didn’t bother disconnecting the pump because we wouldn’t have body parts in the way at this stage. It was a dirty job, but it wasn’t a particularly tough one.

Barnes sent me to the emergency controls. I selected the topmast and held my gauntleted thumb on the Down button. The mast began to telescope, but very slowly. Barnes signalled me to stop and rejoin him. I locked the controls closed before I obeyed.

He’d already started opening the gearbox when I got there. He put his helmet to mine and said, “I should’ve checked this first. It wasn’t the tubes binding, they were fine. The drive gear’s worn!”

He pointed his finger. The pulley was pinned to a gear, which in turn was driven by a gear in the transmission. The alignment hadn’t been perfect; the drive gear had been running on the outer edge of the driven gear and had worn it almost smooth.

I bent to read the inventory number. Barnes lifted my head and said, “For now we’re not going to bother with replacing the set and restringing the cable. I’ll show you a trick.”

He disconnected the hydraulic line — I’d have done it myself if he hadn’t — and took a chisel and heavy hammer from his pouch. He placed the chisel edge on the side of the driven gear and struck a hard blow, shearing off the rivet head. He set the chisel again and pointed to the gear; I held it by the gear teeth, keeping my fingers out of Barnes way. He struck again and the gear came loose in my hand. I cupped it in my palms while the bosun’s mate knocked the shafts of the beheaded rivets out of the pulley.

Barnes thrust cotter pins through both rivet holes, then set the driven gear over them — with the other face upward. He peened over the legs of the cotter pins, then touched helmets with me. “Hook the motor back up, kid,” he said. “I think that’ll hold till we’re on the ground again.”

The antenna ran up and down slickly. Lubricating the joint no doubt helped, but not enough to mention. The problem had been the worn gear.

* * *

Barnes and I locked through at the end of watch with Bondurant and Cerne, who were arguing about the relative merits of the prostitutes to be had on Bryce and Pleasaunce. Garden-variety streetwalkers, I gathered; neither man sounded as though he had refined tastes.

Bryce and Pleasaunce were powerful members of the Alliance of Free Stars and not common destinations for Cinnabar citizens. Very few people on Xenos could have joined in the discussion. It demonstrated that experience didn’t equate with culture.

To Barnes as the lock filled, I said, “Will those cotter pins hold up?”

“Long enough,” he said, shrugging in his hard suit. “I didn’t feel like swapping out the pulley in the Matrix when we’ll be on the surface in a couple watches.”

He grinned broadly. “You already proved you could string a cable,” he said, “and that’s what it’d take to replace the whole set.”

The lock opened. In the rotunda I began undoing my suit. Barnes, Bondurant and Cerne got theirs off quickly. The common spacers were arguing fine points that I couldn’t even understand. I was all right with my ignorance.

Woetjans came out of the companionway, saw me, and braced my shoulder as I got my legs clear. “Hey, kid?” she said. “We oughta be on Santiago in a couple hours. Got any plans for there?”

“No, ma’am,” I said over my shoulder as I hung up my suit. “Do you want me to swap watches with somebody?”

“Not that,” said the bosun. She looked away. “Look, kid? Would you let me take you to dinner? I’ll pay, only you gotta pick the place.”

I guess my face went blank. The gods know my mind did.

“Oh, bloody hell, not that!” Woetjans said. I swear to heaven she was blushing. “Look, not that you’re not cute, but I like ’em a little better growed. Naw, I just want to talk with you where we can. I owe you for Breckinridge, you know.”

“You don’t owe me anything!” I said. “We’re shipmates. But I’m not proud — I’ll let you buy me dinner. Or whatever it is when we land.”

“Thanks, kid,” she said as she strode to the companionways again. “Remember, you pick the place!”

I went onto the bridge to see what Officer Mundy had for me. I hoped that she’d found information on restaurants not too far from the harbor. That hadn’t been one of the things I’d been worried about.