What Distant Deeps — Snippet 12

CHAPTER 4: Harbor Three, Cinnabar

Daniel was familiar with the Sissie’s Power Room. He was the captain: he must have at least a working acquaintance with every aspect of the ship he commanded.

Having said that, he always felt like an unwelcome visitor when he passed through the armored hatch which, unlike the ship’s other internal hatches, was always closed and dogged when not in use. Larger vessels even had airlocks between the Power Room and the rest of the ship, but a corvette like the Princess Cecile couldn’t spare the space.

If the Sissie’s fusion bottle vented while someone was entering or leaving the Power Room, it was just too bad for the rest of the ship. Realistically, that was true even if the containment bulkheads retained their integrity. For the technicians themselves it made no difference whatever.

“Anything I should know about, Chief?” Daniel said, looking about the steam-hazed chamber with appreciation if not affection. To him, star travel meant standing on the masthead, feeling his soul merge with the cosmos, while infinite bubble universes glowed in pastel splendor all around him.

That magnificence wouldn’t be possible without the energy developed by the fusion bottle cradled here in muggy discomfort in the Power Room. Thank the gods there were people like Chief Engineer Pasternak who not only accepted this environment but who thrived in it.

Pasternak turned and glared at Daniel in grim satisfaction. “Like enough there is, yes,” he said. “I’ve never lifted yet but there was a seal that cracked or a fleck of corrosion to scale off the inside of a line and clog a converter inlet or the like. But –”

The glare didn’t become a smile, but it suggested that the engineer’s face was capable of smiling. Years of association with Pasternak hadn’t given Daniel any evidence that the suggestion was true, however.

“– I’ll say that the Sissie could — could, mind you — become the first one.”

Though they stood side by side, Daniel and the Chief Engineer were using a two-way link through their commo helmets. The noise in the Power Room was as omnipresent as the steam. Though no single machine was particularly loud, in combination they were overwhelming. Pumps ran constantly, to maintain the fusion bottle’s equilibrium as well as to circulate the water that when vaporized drove the generators which in turn powered everything else on shipboard.

There were many possible working fluids with higher thermal efficiency than water. The reason they weren’t used was that starships were closed environments which were subjected to all manners of strain. Everything within a ship’s hull was certain to become part of the atmosphere eventually. Crews readily accepted lower efficiency in the power train so that they could avoid poisoning by minute concentrations of whatever heat, pressure, and bad luck could turn metals and long-chain molecules into.

Daniel beamed. That was perhaps the most positive statement he’d heard from Pasternak in all their years together. “Very good, Chief,” he said. “You and your team have dealt with every problem you’ve been thrown, but I’d say that you’ve earned a chance at an uneventful voyage. Mind, I will be pushing this time.”

“And when have you not pushed, captain?” Pasternak said. “In your cradle, you were trying to rock faster than the other lads, were you not?”

Both Power Room watches were present, crowding the space which wasn’t given over to machinery. Liftoff was in six hours. Though there wasn’t much to do by this time, everybody down to the engine wipers wanted to make sure of that.

Gauges were being calibrated, synchronized, switched off, and checked again to make sure they had held their zero. Flow rates were calculated, compared against the lines’ logged history, and compared again with that of the other feed lines.

A pair of very serious assistant engineers were even running density checks of the contents of the reaction mass tanks. That determined the quantity of impurities in the water being sucked up from the harbor to be later spewed out as plasma through the thrusters or converted to antimatter and recombined in the High Drive motors. Since the reaction mass was cleared by centrifugal filters before it even left the tanks, Daniel couldn’t imagine how the answer could matter — but maybe it did; and in any case, Pasternak’s assistants were bent on learning it.

Daniel looked directly at the Chief Engineer. Despite the crush and bustle around them, the very noise gave them complete privacy. Further, though Daniel found the atmosphere — in all senses — of the Power Room to be oppressive, Pasternak was in his element and as relaxed as he ever seemed to get.

“Chief?” Daniel said. “Why did you sign on for this voyage? Don’t mistake — I couldn’t be happier to have you. But, well, not to pry, but –”

Bloody hell. He was prying, that was all he was doing.

“If you don’t mind telling me, I mean. Because it can’t be the pay, after what you’ve salted away in prize money over the years.”

For a moment, Pasternak’s face had no more expression than the Tokomak squatting in the center of the compartment; then it creased into a smile that suggested ice breaking up on the Bantry shoreline as the tide came in. Daniel swallowed a sigh of relief.

“You’ve made me a rich man, Captain,” Pasternak said. “And no, I haven’t pissed it away in the alleys behind dram shops and knocking houses like half the crew has. Half the crew and nigh all the riggers.”

The Chief of Ship — Pasternak — and the Chief of Rig — the bosun, Woetjans — had to work together to make the Sissie the first-rate fighting ship she was. The rivalry between the two sides from top to bottom was also a factor in that success, however.

“When I first signed on with the RCN,” Pasternak said, “I started saving for a piece of land in Wassail County where I come from. I’m not a farmer, no, but my dad, he was chief mechanic on the Tomlinson Estate there. And now, because I shipped with Captain Leary, I own the Tomlinson Estate, sir, I own it. Lev Pasternak is the richest man in Wassail County and everybody calls his children Squire or Lady, they do.”

Daniel clapped his hands in delight. Heaven knew what the other people in the Power Room made of that, but they’d all shipped with Captain Leary before so it wouldn’t greatly surprise them.

Senior warrant officers took a significant share of prize money. Land prices in Wassail County, far south of Xenos, were moderate, and Daniel’s commands had captured a fortune in prizes while Pasternak served with him.

“Chief,” he said, “that’s marvelous! By all that’s holy, I’d never have dreamed it! I mean — not that you could become a country squire, but that you’d want to be a country squire.”

Which the gods knew, Daniel Leary — though raised as he was and full of fond memories of his childhood — did not. But if vaccinating swine and talking to stodgy neighbors about corn prices really were Pasternak’s ideal, all the more reason to wonder what he was doing aboard the Princess Cecile.

“Testing only!” snarled a male voice over the ceiling loudspeakers, adding to the cacophony. Power Room personnel would be getting the warning through their commo helmets as well. “Testing only!”

A blat of sound and pulsing red light followed immediately and lasted much longer than Daniel thought it should have. He wondered, as he often had, whether alert signals weren’t distractions that interfered with an intelligent response. Though when the alerts were real, he’d always been too busy to notice.

“Well, between you, me, and the bedpost, sir,” Pasternak said, “a month or two every year or two, when we’re on Cinnabar between voyages — that’s pretty much my limit. But the wife likes it, and the little ones like it, not that they’re so little any more, and those’re good things.”

“I understand exactly how you feel, Chief,” Daniel said. “But I hadn’t thought of you as needing adventure; and, well, there’s houses to be had in Xenos or another place if you fancied.”

Pasternak touched the side of his commo helmet as though he’d forgotten he was wearing it when he tried to knuckle his head. He was frowning; perhaps the question puzzled him as much as it did Daniel.

“I been shot at enough times now to know I don’t like it, that’s a fact,” he said. “But you know, sir? I find I’m happy being around people who’re good at their jobs and who understand that I’m good at mine. You don’t see that on many ships, and you bloody never get it with civilians. Does that make sense?”