Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 17


Captain Leary brought us down in the harbor at Santiago, the capital of the planet of the same name. He put me in the striker’s seat, just as he had when Lieutenant Enery landed on Hansen’s World.

I’d thought Enery’s landing was flawless. I thought the same of the Captain’s. I was no expert, but both were a lot smoother than the computer landings I’d experienced in jaunts to orbit and back in training. Seeing it done right made me even more determined to leave the job to the computer, at least until I’d had several more years of training on simulators.

After landing I went to my cabin to change for liberty. The boarding hold was already full of spacers going on leave, but they’d be wearing utilities. I was changing out of uniform. The Sunray was a commercial vessel, but she was run on RCN lines by RCN personnel, and I didn’t intend to give myself any breaks.

I decided to wear an outfit different from what I’d worn on Hansen’s World: dark brown slacks and a matching jacket, over a bright yellow tunic. As I sealed the shirt seam, someone knocked on the door panel.

“Just a second!” I called, tucking in the shirt tail. I strolled to the panel.

I figured that Woetjans had gotten through with the docking procedures more quickly than she’d expected to. There was no reason for the bosun to superintend rolling out the extension bridge with a crew as experienced as this one. She and both her mates had been present to check me out in the lounge; a senior rigger was probably in charge on the hull, but they were all senior riggers. Woetjans liked to do it, though.

I opened the panel. Maeve smiled at me. She said, “I decided that the hull wasn’t the best place for us to get acquainted. Would you like to go to dinner tonight? I hear that Santiago has some nice places.”

She was wearing a body suit, black with sudden silvery highlights. It wasn’t at all tight, but the ways it clung and slipped would’ve gotten any man’s attention. It sure got mine.

“I’m very sorry, Maeve,” I said. “I’ve already made a dinner engagement for tonight.”

Maeve looked startled, then smiled warmly. “Well, there’ll be another time,” she said. “I hope so, anyway.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly and she added, “With Lieutenant Enery, I suppose? She’s had some bad luck and certainly deserves some fun in her life.”

I thought I heard condescension in Maeve’s voice. I found the first officer unsettling to be around, but the sneer — maybe I imagined it, maybe — made me angry on Enery’s account even though she wasn’t present to hear it.

“No, mistress,” I said as calmly as I could. “I’m having dinner with the Chief of Rig tonight. Bosun Woetjans, you know.”

It suddenly struck me that I didn’t know Woetjans’ first name. I’ll ask her tonight, though I don’t suppose it really matters.

“I don’t think I know…” Maeve said. Her smile slipped. “Oh. Oh.”

When the smile returned, it was as false as a politician’s. “Well, another time, as I said.”

She turned and strode very quickly to the companionway. I couldn’t have offended her so badly if I’d slapped her face.

But you shouldn’t treat people that way, even if you’re pretty and they never were, even before they got burned. I put on the jacket I’d laid on the bed; then I went to the bridge and chatted with Cory while I waited for Woetjans to get off duty.

According to the information from Mundy, there was a Museum of the Settlement in Santiago. It didn’t sound like much, but I’d try it tomorrow if I had time to. Far planets were a new experience to me. I might get blasé about them, but I didn’t think so.

Woetjans stuck her head onto the bridge and said that she was going to change and would be back in a jiff. “No rush,” I called to her back. I didn’t expect to make a long night of it.

Cory was telling me about visiting public works departments when they landed on new planets, the ones organized enough to have such things. His father was a paving contractor on their homeworld of Florentine, and it gave Cory a feeling of comfort to talk shop.

I thought about the sudden wash of homesickness when I’d walked into Apex Outfitters. I wondered if I could arrange to negotiate with all suppliers, as long as I was aboard the Sunray.

“Okay, kid,” Woetjans called from the hatchway. “Where’re we going to dinner?”

I looked at her. “A place called the Plumb Bob,” I said. “But what happened to your liberty suit?”

She was wearing new utilities, tailored but otherwise unadorned.

Woetjans looked away. “Well,” she said, “you know…I appreciate what you did in Breckinridge, but I don’t want to embarrass you.”

“Woetjans!” I said. “Put your bloody liberty suit on! I’m not taking us anywhere they won’t serve spacers, and if I’ve figured wrong we’ll bloody well go somewhere else!”

Woetjans looked blank for a moment. “Yessir!” she said and trotted for her cabin.

When she was out of sight, Cory chuckled slightly. “You know, Roy,” he said, “I wasn’t sure you were really cut out to be an officer. Guess I was wrong to wonder.”

Woetjans was back in a moment, bright and fluttering. We headed down to the boarding hold and out. I turned left at the street along the harbor, saying, “It’s about six blocks. Mostly west, but a block in from the harbor, that’s north.”

“Then let’s take the block inland first,” Woetjans said. “Along the street by the harbor, it runs to warehouses and factories even beyond where it’s dives. Most of the places I’ve been, I mean.”

“That’s better than what I’ve got,” I said, changing direction to cross the street. “All I have is a map.”

We crossed as a couple of heavy trucks rolled past — one in either direction. They weren’t moving fast.

“The information I’ve got is about three years old,” I said. “The place I’m looking for may not be around.”

“Kid, I don’t care,” Woetjans said. “Not a scrap. I just wanted it to be you picking, not me.”

The traffic along the street we were following was steady but not fast. The standard local vehicle had four tall wheels and squarish box on top of them. It seemed to me that if one hit us, the car would be worse off than we were — though they were probably sturdier than they looked.

Woetjans shook herself. She kneaded her pectoral muscles with both hands.

I could loan her my jacket as a drape over her shoulders; it wouldn’t fit, of course. I was finding the evening a little nippy myself.

Woetjans saw me looking at her and said, “It’s just the muscles still tighten up when it gets cold. I’m fine, the weather here’s warmer than lots of places I’ve been.”

“Ah,” I said. “You were shot several times in the chest and returned to duty?”

“You’re bloody right I did!” Woetjans said. “It was just a dumb mistake, I wasn’t fast enough getting through a doorway. There was a medicomp in the next bloody room!”

“Right!” I said, nodding in fierce agreement. You don’t suggest to anybody that they can’t do their job, and suggesting that to somebody like Woetjans could be, well, dangerous.

And I hadn’t meant to do that, but it’d come out that way to her just because it was such a hot button. I chuckled. To explain it I said aloud, “Bloody hell, woman, who’d be dumb enough to say that you couldn’t do your job?”

What I’d really been thinking was that I’d known being an RCN officer was dangerous. I hadn’t guessed that asking a simple question about information a shipmate had volunteered might be one of those dangers.

“Nobody who didn’t want to learn how far I could throw them through the nearest wall,” Woetjans said. She laughed as well, but I was pretty sure that it was also the cold truth. I’d gotten a break because she liked me and she was sure I hadn’t meant anything by it.

The sign of the place where the Plumb Bob was supposed to be now read Catch of the Day, with a leaping fish which seemed to have fins sticking out in four directions. “Are you up for seafood?” I said. “I guess they changed their menu since Officer Mundy got her information.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” Woetjans said. “Say, that fish looks just like a ship, don’t it?”

The fins really did stick out from the fish’s body the way antennas did from a starship’s hull in the Matrix. It wasn’t a connection I’d have made, but I hadn’t spent my working life as a rigger.

The doors pulled open; the headwaiter’s station was set just back from the entrance. It could have been in Xenos — or in Breckinridge or I suspect anywhere people weren’t too close to the edge. A city with a busy starport has at least modest comforts for the locals — as well as with the sort of establishments that serve spacers.

“A table for two,” I said to the dapper little man who turned a professional smile on us. More than half the seats were filled, but the place wasn’t packed yet. “A booth if that’s possible.”