Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 19


My last watch before Saguntum was in the Power Room. Captain Leary believed that an officer had to know the whole ship, not just the rigging and how to astrogate. One of the things Pasternak’s list had directed me to buy on Hansen’s World was a flow pump. This wasn’t the big unit which sucked water into the reaction mass tanks; it was a relatively small pump submerged in the tank to feed the fluid to the plasma thrusters or to the antimatter converters for the High Drive, depending on which we were using at the time.

“Got a job for you, kid,” said Pasternak when I reported. “You and Gamba are going to be replacing the flow pump, and I don’t mind telling you that it’ll be a bitch of a job.”

It was that in truth. Pasternak had run the tank down lower than he said he liked, but me and Gamba, a Tech 4, had to wear air suits working inside in four feet of water to remove frozen bolts.

Some time in the last few years, the Sunray had filled its tanks with water which was either contaminated with something more corrosive than salt, or which perhaps wasn’t water at all. Any fluid which would feed through the lines became reaction mass so far as the propulsion units were concerned.

The pump was supposed to be a sealed unit, but Pasternak said it had been running hot ever since we lifted from Xenos because of a corroded rotor shaft. The lock nuts (the bolts were welded to the tank) had long given up any pretence of having corrosion-resistant coatings.

When we got the pump loose, I released the short line that clamped me to the inflow grating in the tank floor. Without those tethers, we’d have been bobbing like corks in our air suits. I opened the faceplate and called, “We got it loose! We’re ready to haul it out!”

I expected somebody to bring a chain hoist above the open lid of the tank. Instead, a tech named Evans leaned over the side and gripped the output pipe. It had been unhooked from the manifold.

“Keep outa the way,” Evans said. He tilted the pipe to make sure the pump really was free of all the bolts, then slid it toward him in the tank. Finally he lifted the pump hand over hand until he could rest it on the lip.

“Now, you boys just sit there and you can put the new one back on,” Evans grunted. He swung the pump to the deck and disappeared for a moment.

“Bloody hell,” I said to Gamba, who’d also opened his helmet. “I know what that thing weighs!”

“Yeah, Evans is showing off for the new officer,” Gamba said. He was as overqualified for this job as Barnes had been to act as my helper in restringing a cable; his ears were the smallest I’d ever seen on an adult man. “Mind, he’s got a lot to show off. He’s thick as a brick, though.”

“With Captain Leary on the bridge,” I said, “the rest of us don’t need to be brilliant.”

Shuffling and heavy thumps indicated that something was happening on the deck above us; then I heard the squeals and bangs of a crate being broken up. Beaumont, a Tech 3, leaned over and called, “Just a second more. We gotta hook up the exit pipe.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” I said. I wondered if Gamba and me would even be able to get out by ourselves. Maybe if I was strong enough to haul myself up from Gamba’s shoulders and then strong enough to pull him up in turn…but I’d use a rope or a length of cable for that, not just reaching down and grabbing him by the hand.

“Stand clear!” somebody shouted. Then a new pump appeared over the rim and descended into the tank — faster than the old one had risen but still under control. It hit the water with enough of a splash that I was glad I’d closed up my helmet again.

There’d been several techs skidding the new unit along the decking, but Evans had apparently decided to lower it alone. I wouldn’t get in his way about any bloody thing he wanted to do.

Gamba and I walked the new unit over the to the mounting plate on its edge. The trick then was to align it with the bolts.

Gamba grinned at me. “It’s on you now, kid,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “But look, you get over against the side, okay? I’ll come up and ask for help if I have to” — I couldn’t honestly think of anything a second man could do that would be useful — “but I don’t want to lose a hand if the pump moves while I’m between it and the bottom.”

“Right, kid,” Gamba said with a serious expression. He at least knew to look like he was as concerned as I was. The corner of his mouth quirked. “Besides…” he said, “I think Woetjans’d pull my arms off if anything like that happened.”

“I’ll be done as quick as I can,” I said and closed my face shield. Mostly to get on with the job, but I didn’t want to talk about me and Woetjans either. Mind, there was nothing to talk about anyway.

I hooked to the grating again. My helmet still bobbed, but I could keep my arms and torso under water. I rotated the pump so that the flange was up on one of the four bolts, then used a screwdriver through another hole to crab the unit onto the remaining three bolts.

Now was when I really could have used some help, but only if we could’ve communicated. I grabbed the outflow pipe with both hands and turned it carefully, like it was an analog clock. This would’ve been a lot easier if I were strong as Evans was, but I’m not sure I’d ever met anybody else that strong. I heard a click! and felt the pipe wobble.

I straightened and opened my face shield. “Okay, Gamba,” I said. “I got it balanced here. Now we just need to line it up with the bolts and let it fall home.”

Gamba grinned at me. “Keep your hands on the pipe, kid,” he said, “but you just feel. And make sure your boots aren’t in the way. Right?”

“Right,” I said and shuffled back a boot’s length. I’d asked for help, not to have Gamba to take over. On the other hand, I was so exhausted that I didn’t really care.

The pipe tilted one way and another, turning by equally tiny bits under my gloves. It suddenly gave and clanged to its seat. Gamba stepped back; he was breathing hard, so it hadn’t really been as easy as he’d made it seem.

“Got the old nuts, kid?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. I reached for them. “Right here in my pouch.”

“Leave ’em and throw ’em away when were out of this,” Gamba said. He held up a little net bag with four bright-finished nuts. “We’ll use these instead because we can. That’ll make it easier for the next couple bastards. Who won’t be us, I hope to hell.”

It was a lot easier to snug the nuts up than it had been to crack them loose to begin with. That would’ve been true even if Gamba hadn’t given me a power wrench small enough to hold in my hand, instead of using the box wrench I’d taken them off with. As a matter of fact, the biggest problem screwing the nuts on was keeping hold of the wrench against the torque.

Beaumont hooked a tubular ladder over the side. I climbed up behind Gamba. It was long past the end of the watch. I was wrung out, as I generally was since I joined the Sunray. I wasn’t complaining, but I’d never have worked this hard at a regular civilian job.

I walked to the entrance of the Power Room and started to take off my air suit near the lockers there. The bulkhead was armored, like that of the bridge. It wouldn’t exactly withstand the blast of a ruptured fusion bottle, but it should redirect the fireball through the deliberately weakened vent plates in the exterior hull.

Pasternak gestured me to come over to his enclosed office across from the lockers. I closed the hatch behind me because of the racket. Four techs were guiding the lid back over the tank — using the travelling hoist. The Power Room was noisy enough at any time, but the clanking and shouts made it something out of Hell.

“Six wants to see you on the bridge, kid,” Pasternak said.

“Thanks, Chief,” I said. What I was really thinking was, “No bloody way!”

I chuckled as I finished removing the air suit. I couldn’t even complain about it not being fair. I was a volunteer.

* * *

“There you are, Olfetrie,” Captain Leary said, rotating his couch at the console to face me as I entered the bridge. “Say, you’ve got a nice suit, right?”

“Well, I’ve got a suit,” I said. “Several of them. But I left all my dress clothes in pawn in Xenos.”

By now they’d probably have been sold. Well, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever again have entry to society in which they’d be required. I might’ve gotten a few extra florins if I’d flat sold them instead of pawning them, but at the time I did it I hadn’t really internalized how complete my disaster was.

“They’re civilian,” the captain said, smiling. “And I suspect anybody else aboard would call them dress clothes.” He frowned across at the commo station and added, “Well, maybe not Adele.”