Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 27


“So what’re we supposed to do now?” Wellesley said. “We can’t enter the atmosphere with an antenna up or the stresses’ll tear the ship apart!”

He sounded like he meant the question rather than just faking stupid to be nasty, though “being nasty” was generally a good bet with Wellesley. I said, “We put the original cable back on the antenna. I’ve completed the splice except for spraying the adhesive, and we’d need to do that in vacuum anyway.”

I started putting a suit on. Wellesley said, “Well, if you hadn’t done such a half-assed job the first time –”

But Captain Langland, suiting up beside me, said, “Wellesley, belt up. Take the console. Bodo and Glance, you come out too. We’ll need both of you to hold the line for spraying the adhesive.”

With the loosely bunched cable it took two cycles of the airlock: me, Langland and the cable through first, then Bodo and Glance when we were clear. While we waited for them to arrive, I looked down on Blanchard. The continent we were passing over was mostly beige, running into orange. There were two green streaks running toward the east coast, so it wasn’t completely arid.

I didn’t suppose it mattered. I wasn’t going to be on Blanchard long enough to care.

With the two spacers to either side holding the cable up and the captain with his gauntlets gripping either side of the splice, I applied the adhesive. I didn’t trust any of the others to do it, and it could be that they felt the same way. Anyhow, none of the others argued that he ought to be the one to do it.

I got the two sides, then had the crew rotate the cable on its axis and got what had been the top and bottom of the seam. The sprayer worked best when I could hold it level, so it was worth the effort of explaining what I wanted to Bodo and Glance.

I’d just hooked the spliced cable to one end of the broken #8 when the hull vibrated and the two antenna I could see — dorsal and ventral — telescoped. I knew that the take-up reel of starboard would be spinning also if I hadn’t disconnected the hydraulics before I started work. It wouldn’t have done anything to the antenna; but when the line with the bight in it whirled through my hands it might have taken them off.

Langland gestured to me and trotted toward the lock as quickly as anybody could move in a hard suit. I was up in the rigging, so I just stayed there. Bodo and Glance followed the captain, which I’m pretty sure he hadn’t meant them to do. It didn’t matter, though; there was nothing more for them to do on the hull.

I was looking down at Blanchard again — we’d proceeded west over an ocean and were over another continent, when something blocked my view: Another spaceship had just slid within a hundred feet of us. I jumped in my suit. The ship must have some sort of propulsion other than plasma thrusters, because otherwise they wouldn’t have sufficiently delicate control.

I felt a loud clang! through my boots; my antenna swayed noticeably. My first thought was that the Martinique was falling apart, perhaps because of something the strange ship had done. Then as our orbit continued, sunlight caught the line which now connected our ship to the other: The stranger had sent across a magnetic grapple. We were being captured by a pirate ship.

The pirate puffed exhaust — steam, I figured, from the glitter of ice crystals that formed on the hull near the nozzles. The stranger halted at about fifty feet; maybe it even started to edge away.

Several figures stood near an airlock open on the pirate’s hull. As I watched, they jumped in turn along the grappling line.

From where I stood they seemed to be holding on to the cable, but they probably were using rings of some sort pre-looped over the line. You could expect at least one fiber of a cable to fray in ordinary use, and it might easily find a seam in a gauntlet. Certainly I wouldn’t trust the Martinique’s equipment to protect my hands or my life.

The first pirate reached the hull with an impact I could barely feel. They couldn’t enter the airlock if those inside kept the inner hatch open, but I doubted Langland and the others would try to do that.

On the pirate ship’s bow was a set of four bombardment rockets pivoted toward the Martinique. They were probably six or eight inches in diameter — I couldn’t tell which from where I was; both sizes were standard — and carried enough explosive to dish in a starship’s hull plating.

They were standard chandler’s stores. Bigger, better-found ships like the Sunray generally mounted a plasma cannon, but a basket of rockets was a cheaper defensive fitment. At the bottom end, there were many tramps like the Martinique with nothing at all.

Pirates used rockets also. From the stories, when a ship got far enough out from civilized worlds, whether it was a pirate or a trader depended on its immediate circumstances.

I was pretty sure pirates would be willing to blow an airlock open with explosives if a crew kept the inner hatch door open so that the interlock would prevent the outer door from opening normally. I wouldn’t have let anybody try that trick if I’d been in the cabin.

The third pirate was sailing toward the Martinique when the line twitched. The two ships had been drawing apart ever since the final braking puff of steam. The cable went taut as it snubbed up the pirate vessel.

The shock was really very slight — I doubt the relative movement can have been as much as a mile an hour — but it flung the pirate loose from his hold. Instead of landing softly, using both his grip and his flexed knees to brake him, he hit hard, fell full length on the hull, and bounced away.

I didn’t think; there wasn’t time to. I knew my safety line was anchored, because I never worked on the hull without my line. I judged the pirate’s trajectory — at the moment he was just a spacer who was about to carom off into vacuum — and jumped for where he’d be when I reached the same point. It was as if we were gymnasts executing a trick we hadn’t practiced.

The thing I didn’t know was whether my safety line was long enough to allow me to reach him. The one I was using was a standard length — ten meters, I thought. It’d either work or it wouldn’t.

I caught the pirate around the waist. We slammed the hull together, him underneath. We started to slide off again, but I got the soles of both my magnetic boots flat against the steel. Between them and the safety line reaching the end of its play, we stopped.

The pirate had been flailing his arms. Now he went rigid and allowed me to set him down firmly on the hull in front of me. Only one of his boots took hold; the magnets in the sole of the other were missing.

The pirate turned and faced me. He looked terrified, which was a pretty reasonable reaction.

I walked us to the open airlock where the other two pirates waited. I sure didn’t want to stay out here, though I wasn’t looking forward to what happened next in the cabin either.

I unhooked my safety line from the ring at the airlock coaming.