Though Hell Should Bar The Way – Snippet 28

* * *

The pirates started taking their helmets off in the airlock in usual fashion. I hesitated to do that, but I decided that regardless of what my shipmates in the cabin were going to do I was better off doing exactly what the pirates did. The leader — he had a pair of red-dyed bird plumes glued to his helmet — wore a holstered pistol, and knives dangled from the bandoliers of the other two.

The leader had a goatee. I smiled at him and said, “I’m Roy Olfetrie. What happens next?”

The pirate glared at me. The four of us were crammed pretty tight in the airlock. A crappy hard suit (and all of these were) took up just as much room as a good one.

The man I’d saved was only a few years older than I was. He said, “We take you to Salaam on ben Yusuf and sell you. Unless your world has a treaty with us?”

“I’m a Cinnabar citizen,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter, Lal,” the leader said. “He’s crew, not a passenger, so he goes with the ship’s registry.”

He drew his pistol and opened the inner airlock. He gestured me out first.

My shipmates stood on the far side of the cabin. Bodo and Glance were blank-faced — as usual; Captain Langland looked downcast. Wellesley seemed furious, but that wasn’t different enough from his usual expression for me to make anything of it.

Lal — the man I’d saved — went over to the console. He checked readings, then called the pirate ship.

“I’m Captain Hakim,” the leader said, looking across me and my shipmates. “Now, which of you wants to join my crew on shares? Otherwise you’ll be sold in Salaam and take your chances.”

“It was pirates like you that killed my brother,” Wellesley said. The words came out slowly, as though he were carving them individually out of wood.

A light tap on the hull was followed by three ringing notes. The pirate ship must’ve cut power to the grapnel, because Lal lit the High Drives. We began to accelerate at the Martinique’s modest best.

“I’ll help you work ship,” I said. “I won’t join your crew, but I’ll help you get the Martinique into harbor.”

“You little turd,” Wellesley said, glaring at me. “They’re pirates. No decent man could join them!”

I met his eyes. “You shanghaied me,” I said. “By my books, you’re as much a pirate as they are. Besides which, you tried to drop out of orbit when you spotted the pirates. You’d have killed all of us on the hull if you’d been able to lower the starboard antenna so that it wouldn’t set you spinning when you hit the atmosphere.”

Wellesley shouted something about my mother and swung for my face. I was wearing a hard suit, so that was the only target he had. The fiberglass-stiffened sleeve kept me from moving as quickly as I usually could have. I was holding the helmet in my right gauntlet, though, and I got it in the way of Wellesley’s fist.

He shouted again, grabbing his broken knuckles with his free hand. I straightened my arm, still holding the helmet, in a punch to Wellesley’s head. The weight and stiff suit slowed me down, but it was still enough to bounce the mate’s skull against the steel bulkhead. He collapsed onto the deck.

I backed away, weak from the adrenalin pumping through me. I started to wonder how the pirates were going to react, though there was nothing else I could’ve done.

I needn’t have worried. Hakim started laughing; the pirate beside him sheathed the curved knife he’d drawn, and Lal grinned as he turned back to the console display.

“Sure you don’t want to join my crew?” Hakim said. “I could use you.”

“I’m sure,” I said. “But I’ll go out now and finish connecting the starboard antenna. As soon as I’ve changed my air bottle, I mean.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Lal, getting up from the console. “It’s a two-man job.”

* * *

Lal was good to work with — as good as Langland, and sure a lot better than Bodo or Glance. We rerigged the antenna, then matched course with the pirate ship again. I’d thought that Blanchard might have some kind of patrol, but there wasn’t one.

Hakim said that occasionally there’d be a well-armed freighter in harbor and the Blanchard authorities would hire it to chase pirates away, but that didn’t happen very often. He said they kept a careful watch while they were in Blanchard orbit, but they were in no real danger.

With both ships coasting outward in free fall, the pirate vessel reattached the grapple. Hakim went back aboard his own vessel, taking with him Langland, Bodo and Glance. Two more pirates came across to join me, Lal, and Stephanos with the curved knife, giving the Martinique as full a crew as before to work her to ben Yusuf.

The new men brought with them a net bag holding containers. I assumed they were additional food — the Martinique’s larder was down to boring if not dangerous levels.

As it turned out, the new stores were entirely wine — a harsh red vintage, very strong. A mouthful was enough for me. The only use I could imagine for it was as paint stripper, but the pirates went through it at a rate that astounded me.

Wellesley stayed aboard the Martinique, in the shower. His limbs were bound with cargo tape, and he was gagged between feedings. I hosed him off when he fouled himself, which the situation forced him to do.

I didn’t ungag him, though, let alone consider loosing his limbs. I wished that Hakim had taken Wellesley aboard his ship, but I wasn’t going to endanger myself in order to ease the situation for a bastard who’d tried to kill me when he tried to enter the atmosphere when I was on the hull.

* * *

I thought that Lal had been appointed captain, but within a day I realized that there was no captain. The pirates acted as equals, cooperating pretty well. Lal happened to be the only one aboard — besides me — who could do even basic programming on the astrogation console.

How basic I realized on the second day out from Blanchard. Tarek was fooling with the console. He suddenly gave a cry of horror — the display had gone pearly blank the way it did if you tried to access a sensor input while the ship was in the Matrix.

I didn’t think anything of it until Lal took over at the console and began attempting more and more frantic commands. He began to pray aloud in a rising voice.

I joined Lal at the console. Actually, everybody was standing around it. Lal’s panic had already started to affect them.

“Here, let me,” I said. “Now back away, for heaven’s sake.”

Lal gave up the seat. The crowding and chattering I simply had to work with.

It didn’t take long to find the problem. Tarek had switched the display to remote input — and there were no remotes attached to this console.

When I returned to an ordinary navigation display, I said, “All right, from now on only Lal touches the console, okay? I don’t want to starve to death in the Matrix. Do you all agree?”

They did, or anyway they muttered things that I took as agreement.

* * *

In another day and a half, the Martinique was in ben Yusuf orbit. Lal let the console land her.