Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, January 19, 2018 12:06 EST



    Captain Leary had said “noon.” I timed it to arrive at eleven in the morning. If they told me to cool my heels for an hour, that was fine. I wasn’t going to take a chance on being late, though.

    My room was near Harbor Two, the main harbor for Xenos. It got most of Cinnabar’s commercial traffic and was the logical place for ship chandleries to cluster.

    Harbor Three was the naval harbor, a long run by tram. There were water taxis too, but they wouldn’t have been much quicker and they cost more than I wanted to spend anyway. I punched harbor three on the call plate — it was one of the preloaded destinations — and a tram arrived within ninety seconds. There were already two men and an old woman with a grocery bag aboard.

    The woman and a man got out as we snaked along the shoreline. Seven more people got on; two stood though there were eight seats. The car passed stops from then on. It could take the weight of twelve average passengers, but eight was the normal load.

    For some of the way the pylons supporting the overhead track were sunk into marsh. There might have been interesting wildlife to see if the windows hadn’t been so scratched and smudged. I wasn’t in a mood to sight-see anyway.

    We all got out when the car arrived at Harbor Three. There were at least a dozen tram stops at Harbor Two but there was only one here, and there were armed guards besides. They didn’t look too worried — they weren’t even checking IDs. It had probably been different before the Treaty of Amiens and the end of the long war with the Alliance of Free Stars.

    I’d been to Harbor Three a couple of times while I was at the Academy, but I didn’t know the layout — let alone where the Sunray might be berthed. They’d have the information in Harbor Control, but before walking over there I called to the Shore Police guards, “Can any of you tell me where the Sunray is?”

    “You want the Sunray?” said a voice behind me. “Thirty-seven A, but come with me ’cause I’m going there myself.”

    I nodded to the guards and turned. The woman who’d spoken had been on the tram with me. She was short and fit-looking and spoke with a Xenos accent.

    “Thank you, mistress,” I said. “I have plenty of time before I’m due, but I’d rather not spend it walking up and down the waterfront.”

    We started off to the right. She walked like a spacer, balancing an instant before taking the next step in case the motion of the deck had changed.

    “Are you a suit?” she said, looking at me hard. “You’re dressed like you belong here, but you sure don’t sound like it.”

    She might’ve meant my accent, but I suspected it was the fact I was polite. Which would be regrettable, but I’d realized long before my current troubles that quite a lot of things were regrettable but true.

    “I’m not a suit,” I said. “Captain Leary offered me the third officer’s slot on the Sunray.”

    “You know Six?” the woman said. “Well, hell, I guess you’re the real thing, then. I’m Wedell; I’m a rigger in the port watch.”

    “I’m Roy Olfetrie,” I said. I didn’t offer to shake hands because I was about to become her superior officer. “Yesterday I was working for a ship chandler, but I was fired.”

    “Fired for what?” Wedell said, her expression getting minusculely less friendly. It was a reasonable question to ask a man who might shortly be giving you orders.

    “For punching back when the owner’s son-in-law swung at me,” I said. “I’d do the same thing if it happened again.”

    Wedell laughed hard. “I shoulda figured it was something like that!” she said. “Six isn’t one to screw up when he’s picking officers.”

    “I’ll hope not,” I said. I smiled but I wasn’t as sure of that as Wedell sounded. “If I may ask — by Six you obviously mean Captain Leary. But why?”

    “Oh, it’s his call sign,” Wedell said. “The XO is Five. That’s Lieutenant Vesey usually, but she’s staying on the ground this time. Master Cazelet got his leg next thing to shot off and she’s staying close. Vesey’s good, a hell of an astrogator and shiphandler, but you know — when you’re really in the shit and everybody’s shooting at you, there’s nobody like Six to have on the bridge.”

    From the stories at the Academy, having Captain Leary on the bridge was a pretty good way to be sure that everybody would be shooting at you. Still, that was the whole point of there being a Republic of Cinnabar Navy. If it was always peaceful, I’d have joined the merchant service — or maybe taken a job in one of Dad’s ventures.

    I’d never wanted to do that, which turned out to be a blessing. If I hadn’t been so obviously unconnected with Dad’s business, somebody — a private prosecutor if not the Solicitor of the Navy — would sure have gone after me months ago.

    “Here’s Thirty-seven,” Wedell said, gesturing. “And that’s the Sunray in Berth A. I can’t tell you anything about her because we all just mustered aboard.”

    Thirty-seven was a repair dock. The slip could be drained, but it hadn’t been for this job. The interior of a midsized freighter was being rebuilt extensively enough that at least three hull plates had been removed, though one of them was being welded back in place now.

    “They’re adding two levels of bunks to the forward hold,” Wedell said. “We’re boarding a crew of eighty-odd, they tell me. There’s only accommodations for thirty-five normal-like. And amidships is all suites now.”

    Thirty-five would be ample crew for a two-ring freighter. Leary was famous for making fast passages, which worked ships and rigs hard and worked their crews even harder. The Sunray would look like an ordinary fast freighter, but she’d have the crew for quick runs and quick repairs.

    “They expanded the arms locker too,” Wedell said with a note of pride. “We’ve got no missiles and just the one cannon in the bow, but I guess we’ll be able to take care of ourselves on the ground if it comes to that.”

    “I guess I’d better report aboard,” I said. I was feeling a little queasy. I wasn’t afraid of getting shot, but there were so many ways I could screw up leading ground troops. I hadn’t been trained for it.

    But ground combat wasn’t part of the Academy curriculum, so even if I’d graduated as a midshipman it wouldn’t help. Master Cazelet, the officer I was taking the place of, wouldn’t have had any more training than I had. And he’d done well enough to get his leg shot off.

    I grinned. Maybe I’d be luckier and take a bullet through the head. That would solve all my problems.

    I headed for the boarding hatch but Wedell pointed to the balanced pair of freight elevators and said, “You’ll need to sign in on Level One so you may as well ride since we’re in dock.”

    I didn’t want to look like a wimp, but panting after I’d climbed sixty feet of polished steel treads didn’t sound like a good start for meeting my fellow officers. I took the rigger’s suggestion and waved goodbye from the elevator platform. The elevators didn’t have cages, just six-inch railings to keep pipes from rolling off.

    I threw the lever from left to right and started trundling upward immediately, though we stopped a quarter of the way up for half a dozen workmen get onto the car balancing mine. They were going off-shift, carrying personal tools and the jackets they’d worn when they came on duty in the wee small hours. The cars began to move again; the workmen and I nodded as we passed in opposite directions.

    I got to the top level and starting going back down before I realized that there wasn’t an automatic stop. I threw the lever left and the car juddered to a stop. Another clump of workmen were trotting along the walkway from the ship’s uppermost level. I let them get past me before going the other way.

    The walk had no railings either. I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but the crew leaving work was tired and in a hurry to get other places. I didn’t need to argue right-of-way with them.

    Entry to bridge level was at a hatch which normally would have been torso height. The yard crew had cut it into a full-length door; the piece of hull plating lay in the rotunda beyond. They’d even attached temporary handholds to the plate, making it easier to handle.

    I supposed they’d weld it back on when they were finished. I wondered if they’d fish the piece as well. In my three months at the chandlery I’d seen a lot of shortcuts to keep ships working — safely and otherwise. The “otherwise” versions made me gasp, but it was part of my education to learn that the real world wasn’t always what I’d been taught that it should be.

    The forward rotunda held the suit lockers, the up and down companionways, and an airlock. A corridor ran sternward to my left and to the right was an open hatch. I could see the bridge beyond. I stepped into the hatchway, rang my knuckles on the transom, and called loud enough to be heard over the sound of hammering on steel below, “Master Olfetrie reporting as ordered!”

    Three or four people were on the bridge, mostly at flat-plate displays. That was a lot more instrumentation than I expected to see on a merchant ship. I figured more than bunks were being added for this mission.

    The man at the console in the far bow turned on his couch and gestured me to him. He wore RCN utilities but wore the saucer hat of an officer.

    A woman was at one of the stations, but she was working on a personal data unit with a holographic display; it was a blur of color to me and everybody else except the user. On a jump-seat bolted to the hull beside her was another woman with an attaché case on her lap. The man on a port-side display seemed to be running a gunnery program.

    I hadn’t noticed what the Sunray’s armament was: a single four-inch plasma cannon was more or less standard for a well-found freighter as anti-pirate defense, but I’d never been aboard a civilian ship in which anybody really cared about gunnery — until they had to use the weapon.



    “I’m Cory,” the officer at the command console said when I knelt beside him. “I’m second lieutenant and have the duty right now. You are?”

    “Sir, I’m Roylan Olfetrie,” I said. “Captain Leary visited me last night and ordered me” — that wasn’t really the right word — “to report at noon today to be signed on as the Sunray’s third mate.”

    “Go sit at the striker’s seat so we can hear each other over whatever the yard’s doing,” Cory said, gesturing me to the seat on the opposite side of the console. It was where a junior striking for a position could watch the regular officer and even control the ship if the senior spacer permitted. They were standard in naval use but much less common on civilian vessels.

    I settled myself. Cory must have engaged the active cancellation field, because the ambient noise shut off. The small flat-plate display at this position showed Cory’s face. He said, “Six told me you’d be coming aboard. Welcome to the Sunray. You’re no newer to her than all the rest of us are, but I guess we’re new to you. The rest of us have been together quite a while, on various of Six’s commands.”

    “I’ll try to fit in,” I said. “Anyhow, I’ll do my job the best I know how to.”

    “You’ll be covering Master Cazelet’s duties,” Cory said. “Do you know anything about commo?”

    “What?” I said. “Well, I’ve had a unit on it but I don’t have any experience. Was Cazelet the commo officer of, of the Princess Cecile?”

    “No, that’s Officer Mundy,” Cory said with a grin that implied more than humor. “She’ll have the job here too. But it’s a handy skill and Rene was good at it.”

    He grinned more broadly. “Almost as good as I am,” he said.

    “I’ll try to learn,” I said. It was all I could figure to say.

    “Astrogation?” Cory asked.

    “I had two years in the Academy,” I said. “I — ”

    “Academy?” said Cory, cutting me off. “Why did you leave?”

    “Family problems,” I said. I swallowed and added, “My dad was a crook. I’m not. I guess he isn’t now either, because he shot himself.”

    Cory didn’t say anything for a moment, just held my eyes. Then he said, “Well, that’ll do for a reason, I guess.”

    “I got good grades,” I said, switching back to a subject I preferred. “But I left before my senior cruise.”

    “Marksmanship?” Cory said.

    “Personal weapons in my second year,” I said. “I didn’t try out for a shooting team — it seemed to me I couldn’t do the practice I’d need and keep up my studies.”

    I thought for a moment and added, “Dad had a trap range on his estate in Oriel County. I used it the last few summers and got pretty good.”

    “That could be handy,” Cory said, though I couldn’t imagine how. I was — or anyway I wanted to be — a naval officer, not a sporting gentleman. He looked up from his display — the console was obviously transcribing the interview — and said, “Ever kill a man?”

    “No sir,” I said, as though the question hadn’t shocked me. “Is that a job requirement?”

    “Sometimes it is, yes,” Cory said. “Rene never got his…conscience, I suppose, past that, though. He was a bloody good officer and bloody good friend.”

    There might have been a challenge in the way he put that. I ignored the possibility and said, “I’m sorry he was injured, sir.”

    Cory smiled again. “Yeah,” he said. “So am I, but sometimes that comes with the job too.”

    He stretched, spreading his arms. “I’ve assigned you to the port watch,” Cory said. “You’ll be under Lieutenant Enery for the time being, but chances are you’ll take over if you work out. Six said you were to be worked like a midshipman in training, and so you shall be.”

    I cleared my throat. I said, “Thank you, sir. I’ll fetch my baggage and report back aboard.”

    I didn’t have to worry about housing next week after all. I think Mistress Causey would miss me: I was quiet and didn’t come back drunk and singing at three in the morning. And she didn’t have to worry about getting the rent on time — if I had the money, and for rooming houses like hers I wasn’t the only resident who might find himself out of a job at the end of the week.

    “Oh, Six also said you were to draw an advance of a hundred florins if you wanted it,” Cory said, raising an eyebrow to make a question of his statement.

    “Ah…” I said, thinking about what I had in pawn. Most of it I’d never need again, but —

    “If I could have fifty florins,” I said, “that would be useful for getting an outfit together. At the moment I’ve got the clothes I’m wearing, and another set like them.”

    Cory reached into his belt purse and placed a fifty-florin coin on top of the console. “We’re not set up to run you a credit chip the normal way yet,” he said. “I’ve got it noted on your records here and I’ll get it back on payday.”

    “Thank you, sir,” I said. It struck me that the Sunray operated in a very easygoing fashion, and also that Cory was a lot less concerned about fifty florins than most young lieutenants would be. I wondered if he had family money.

    “Before you go, Olfetrie…” Cory said. He gestured to the woman working on her personal data unit. “Go over and talk to Officer Mundy, will you? She’ll have some questions.”

    “The signals officer?” I said. I thought I must’ve misheard.

    “Yeah, she’s that,” said Cory, “but she’s a bit more than that too. Among other things, she’s a good friend of Captain Leary; his best, maybe. And Olfetrie?”

    “Yes,” I said. Captain Leary’s job offer still seemed like the best thing that’d happened to me since Dad had shot himself, but there was a lot more to it than I’d have learned in my final two years at the Academy.

    “If Officer Mundy tells you to do something, do it,” Cory said. “Don’t worry about rank — because believe me, she doesn’t. And don’t argue if you think she’s wrong, because I don’t remember that happening. Just a friendly suggestion, of course.”

    “Thank you, Cory,” I said and got up. This was all bloody crazy and I didn’t begin to understand, but I actually believed Cory about it being friendly advice.

    I walked over to the signals officer and knelt beside her station, as I’d done with Cory. “Officer Mundy?” I said in a lull in the racket of impact wrenches. “I’m Third Officer Olfetrie reporting to the Sunray. The OiC suggested that I speak to you.”

    Mundy said nothing for a moment. She was using short wands to control her data unit. I’d heard of them — they were supposed to be quicker than any other input method if you were good enough — but they required a delicacy of control and pressure beyond that of anybody I’d ever met.

    I thought Mundy was just too busy to respond for the moment, but then the woman in the jumpseat beside her reached through the holographic display, disrupting it. Mundy looked up and focused on me with a terrifying, blank expression.

    Her face relaxed, though I wouldn’t call her expression welcoming. “Ah,” she said, twitching her wands again.

    The bridge had gone quiet again. Mundy had switched on a cancellation field. These were part of a navigation console, but I’d never heard of one being attached to a subordinate display.

    “I’m glad you came over, Olfetrie,” Mundy said. “I have a few background questions beyond what Cory would have asked.”

    “All right,” I said, standing up again. I was going along with this, but I won’t pretend I was happy about being questioned by a junior warrant officer.

    “What are your politics?” Mundy said.

    She could have asked me my favorite color and not surprised me as much. I said, “I don’t have any politics. I’ve never voted, and I don’t remember my parents ever voting, though I can’t swear they didn’t. We weren’t a political family.”

    “Your father was Dean Olfetrie?” said the clerk. A clerk, for hell’s sake! “I’d say he was pretty political.”

    I looked at her and regretted it. The clerk vanished into the background unless you focused on her. When I did that, I’ve seen guard dogs with warmer expressions.

    “Openly political,” I said, as calmly as I could manage. “My father bribed politicians, yes. I do not, nor did my brother before he was killed aboard the Heidegger. At present — ” I fingered the coins in my pocket. “I’ve got eighty-two florins and change. That would probably allow me to bribe a dog warden to release my pet, but I don’t think it would go much beyond that.”

    I glared at the clerk. To my amazement she smiled back. She said, “Good answer, kid.”

    Mundy, looking at her display again, said, “You mentioned family, Olfetrie. What kin have you?”

    I shrugged. It was disconcerting to be interviewed by someone who didn’t bother to look at me. “My mother’s probably still alive,” I said, “though I couldn’t tell you more than that. She disappeared when the bailiffs arrived, and I haven’t tried to find her. Mom…got very full of herself when Dad was important. I guess the scandal bothered her even more than it did me.”

    Though probably not for the same reasons. I’d been pretty much my dad’s son.

    “My brother’s dead and I don’t have any other siblings,” I said. After thinking for a moment, I added, “Miriam Dorst is my mother’s cousin. She and her daughter Miranda are probably my closest living relatives.”

    Mundy didn’t look up or even nod. She said, “Do you have a girlfriend? Or boyfriend.”

    “I did, a girlfriend,” I said, thinking about Rachel. “Before Dad shot himself. Pretty much everybody I knew dropped me then. Certainly she did. So no, not now.”

    Looking up at last, Mundy said, “The Sunray is carrying a diplomatic delegation, Olfetrie. That makes political neutrality for our officers more than usually important.”

    I smiled. “I was training to be an RCN officer,” I said. “The political neutrality requirement wasn’t one of those I expected to have trouble with.”

    “Thank you, Olfetrie,” Mundy said, going back to her data unit. “I don’t have any further questions. I hope our association goes well.”

    I left the bridge. At least I had more to think about than wondering if I’d be able to carry out the duties of a junior officer on a civilian vessel.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image