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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Friday, January 26, 2018 10:53 EST



    “Testing thrusters One and Six,” said a raspy voice over the PA system. The Sunray shook and wobbled as two plasma thrusters vented into the flooded slip.

    Pasternak, the Chief Engineer, was speaking. He was the old spacer I’d asked to guide me when I first arrived at Bergen and Associates a lifetime ago.

    There was a brief pause. The ship still rocked as the pool settled.

    “Testing thrusters Two and Five,” Pasternak said, and again we roared and shook.

    I was squatting on one side of the A Level corridor with other riggers, ready to go out with both watches to set sail as soon as the Sunray had reached orbit. There wasn’t room in the rotunda for all of us, and each of the two airlocks could hold only four personnel in rigging suits at a cycle.

    “Testing thrusters Three and Four,” said Pasternak. This time the ship teetered slightly nose-high for a few seconds before splashing back and lifting again for another few seconds. The central pair of thrusters weren’t precisely at the Sunray’s balance point.

    A big man — bigger yet in his rigging suit — clomped down the corridor and said to the spacer on my right, “Scoot up to the rotunda, Kellogg. I want to talk to the kid.”

    Kellogg, a tough-looking forty-year-old, got up with a grunt and moved forward. Barnes, the speaker, sat down beside me. He was one of the bosun’s mates under Woetjans, the Chief of Rig.

    “Testing all thrusters!” Pasternak warned. This time the Sunray bobbed like a cork. The leaves of the thruster nozzles were flared open, minimizing impulse, but the plasma quenched violently in the slip. The gushing steam added to lift.

    “So, kid…” shouted Barnes. “Six says we’re to train you like a midshipman, but this ain’t the RCN. Maybe you want to tell me to bugger off because you’re an officer?”

    I’ve done my share of dumb things, but I wasn’t dumb enough to take that at face value. I said, “I want you to do what Captain Leary told you to do, Barnes!”

    I tried to sound authoritative, like a real officer. I don’t know how well I did, but Barnes laughed and slapped my armored knee.

    “Lifting off in ten, repeat, ten seconds,” Lieutenant Enery’s voice warned as the thrusters built to full power. The Sunray didn’t have an armored Battle Direction Center like a real warship, but the dockyard had added a full console in the stern so that she could still be directed if the bridge were destroyed.

    “Lifting off!”

    The thruster note changed as Enery closed the sphincters. The Sunray shook herself free of the slip, paused a moment, then resumed her climb at an ever-increasing rate.

    I was on my way to my first operational deployment as a spacer.



    We began staging out through the airlocks as soon as the Sunray reached orbit, though by the time I’d reached the locks the High Drive motors were accelerating us. It felt to me like 1 g, comfortable for those within the hull and not particularly burdensome for the rigging watch.

    No commercial vessel could accelerate much harder than that anyway, and even warships were limited because their rigging couldn’t be stressed for heavy thrust and still be able to fold and telescope as it had to do for landing. Landings — and to a lesser degree lift-offs — were the real problem for a starship’s rig. Atmospheric buffeting, accompanied by vibration from the thrusters running at maximum output, snapped shackles and undid any rovings that weren’t snugged up tight. Microcracks, crystallized metal, frayed cables — any weakness was likely to be tested to destruction.

    The rig was wholly automated. Gears and hydraulic motors raised and extended the antennas, rotated the spars into place, and stretched the sails in response to commands from the navigational computer. Riggers were superfluous — unless something broke or jammed.

    As it always did.

    The port watch was assigned to the aft ring of antennas. B Port mounted only thirty degrees and jammed, but Barnes put two other spacers to clearing it. The mainspar of B Dorsal didn’t release, and that became a task for me and Wedell whom I’d met the day I reported to the Sunray.

    The lower clamp had opened properly: It was only waist high to spacers standing flat-footed on the hull. We climbed the ratlines to the upper clamp and found it only half-open. We didn’t expect to need jacks for the initial job — we wrapped our legs around the antenna, set a prybar, and put our backs into it. The clamp opened with a clack! just as I was about to decide I was going return for the jack after all.

    I lurched backward on my perch, but my legs didn’t quite lose their grip. I slid down to the hull and hit on my butt. I wasn’t in real danger — I’d set my safety line before climbing — but it was a nasty feeling for a moment and a solid thump when I hit the steel.

    I’d worn hard suits before, but I wasn’t used to them. The one I’d been issued fit all right — as well as any that hadn’t been personally fitted, I guess — but I knew that in the morning I was going to have worse than a rash at the points it rubbed.

    Strands of monocrystal stiffened the fabric. It wasn’t armor in the sense that it would stop a bullet, but it would resist a torn plate or a strand from a broken cable that would puncture an air suit. If your job was to work with torn plates and broken cables, it was definitely the garment to be wearing. It wasn’t very flexible, however.

    The Sunray entered the Matrix just after we got the spar loose. I felt my nerves tingle in a wave, starting at my toes and rolling up through my scalp. Light changed: The focused, distant glare of Cinnabar’s primary vanished and the ship trembled in the glow of all universes.

    The B Dorsal mainsail shook out with neat precision; the antenna rotated about fifteen degrees to impinge on Casimir radiation and propel the ship between bubble universes. Each individual spot in what looked like the starry sky above me was really a separate universe with constants of time and velocity different from those of the sidereal universe. It was by shifting from one bubble to another in the Matrix that starships were able to traverse interstellar distances in practical lengths of time.

    The second part of my job and Wedell’s was to fix the clamp — on the hull, if possible, but by carrying it in to the engineering shop if necessary. The driving gear in the clamp body was worn smooth, but I suspected that wouldn’t have happened if the driven gear had been turning properly. We fetched a replacement clamp from an external locker, and Wedell slung the worn one to her equipment belt.

    When we’d finished, our four-hour watch was pretty near over. I was looking forward to a bite to eat and my bunk. Wedell pointed back past me. I turned and found Barnes — his name was stenciled in glowpaint above the front window of his helmet — standing at my shoulder. He leaned forward slightly so that our helmets touched.



    Wedell and I had been using hand signals when we needed to “speak.” Rigging suits didn’t have radios because the accidental use of one in the Matrix could send a ship wildly off course. I’d learned the signals in the Academy, but I wasn’t very good at them yet — and Wedell and I hadn’t worked together before, so we didn’t know how to predict one another’s actions the way an experienced team would. Still, we hadn’t had real problems in such a straightforward job.

    Barnes, the sound of his voice transmitted through his helmet to mine, said, “We’ve got a job, you and me, kid. We’ve got to replace the extender cable on Ventral A antenna.”

    I frowned. “It’s broken?” I said.

    “Naw,” said Barnes. “It’s a half millimeter undersized. Some contractor cheated, or maybe his supplier did. Who’d have thought that RCN suppliers’d be crooked, hey?”

    I took a deep breath. “Then we’d better change it,” I said.

    I didn’t bother asking why I was being held over at the end of my watch to do a lengthy, brutal job. For that matter, I didn’t ask why nobody’d noticed the cable while we were in Harbor Three. That was the sort of thing that might pass unnoticed in the usual run of things, but the examination Captain Leary and his Sissies had given the Sunray hadn’t been usual.

    They had noticed it. And they’d waited until now to see how the new third officer dealt with it. I was bone tired, but I was going to be more tired before I went off watch. That was just how it was.

    We trudged along the hull to the bow ring, then down to the ventral antenna. It had been raised and extended, but the spars were still locked vertical instead of being rotated ninety degrees to their set position. The sails were furled.

    I’d been carrying my safety line unhooked since I left Dorsal B. I wasn’t shuffling because Barnes was following me, but I made sure I set each magnetized boot sole firmly before I lifted my trailing foot. I stepped along uncomfortably fast. I’d pay for it in the morning — thigh muscles and skin abrasions both — but this was a test.

    I hooked the line to one of the shackles at the base of the antenna; then I checked the raised lettering on the pulley at the foot of the mast. The nearest exterior locker was just behind Dorsal A and easily within the reach of my line. I clanked up to it, setting my feet with determination as before.

    Barnes continued to shadow me. He didn’t comment on what I was doing.

    I opened the locker, pulling up the recessed catch before turning it. I was pleased to find a spool marked with the correct number — I hadn’t been sure how far Captain Leary was willing to go in a training exercise. I’d half expected to be sent to the stern locker or to inside storage.

    There was a handle on either flange of the spool. I gripped one, turned to Barnes, and mimed him taking the other one. He did — another better result than I’d feared — and we returned to Ventral A.

    I could probably have handled the spool alone if I’d had to, but there was no point in making me do that — except to prove I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I already knew that.

    When we got back to the antenna, I took a wrench from the satchel I was wearing and adjusted it to the nut of the hydraulic fitting that fed the pump. Barnes tapped my shoulder. I looked up and he touched helmets again.

    “Six took Ventral A out of service on the main console,” Barnes said. “It won’t move no matter how the course changes.”

    “All right,” I said. I finished disconnecting the hydraulic line, then took the existing cable loose from the lift spool and crimped it to the end of the fresh cable with an in-line splice. I then stuck a screwdriver through one of the holes in the take-up spool provided for the purpose and began turning it like a windlass.

    Even with the cables end to end, I couldn’t tell the difference in diameter by eye. I suspected that Barnes could have, however. Someday I’d have that much experience too.

    The cable stuck at the first shackle. The hydraulic motor could probably have dragged it through the obstruction, but I couldn’t do it by hand.

    I turned to Barnes. With hand signals I asked him to keep tension on the pulley while I went up and cleared the jam. He put his hand on the screwdriver, which was all the reply I needed. He may’ve nodded within the rigid helmet, but I couldn’t see for sure.

    This was my second trip up an antenna since reporting on watch. The suit was heavy, and I wasn’t used to wearing it. I fed the splice through the shackle, then climbed to the next one. Barnes resumed winding, thank goodness. Grasping the cable with my gauntlets and hauling it up by hand would have been a lot harder at best. I didn’t figure I’d give up — that I could control — but I might be out here dangling from the ratlines until they hauled me in.

    The splice hung at each shackle — up to the masthead and back down. I was counting them at the start — not for any reason, just for the way you do — but I lost track. I think it was seventeen.

    At the bottom of the mast, I returned to where Barnes knelt. He’d coiled the original cable beside him, as neatly as the take-up spool itself could have done. I could barely see straight, but I opened the splice and hooked the new cable to the spool. I took a single turn by hand, then removed my screwdriver/handle and reconnected the hydraulic line.

    It took me three tries to get the threads started so that I could snug it up with the wrench. Barnes watched impassively while I struggled, but when I rose from the job he led me to the semaphore stand by which messages were sent from the bridge to the riggers. There was also a hydromechanical override system for the rigging. Barnes unlocked it and hit three buttons in series.

    We both watched as antenna Ventral A telescoped neatly, with no more than the usual jumps and catches. It remained vertical: I’d only changed the extension cable, so there was no need to test whether the antenna would hinge flat and clamp to the hull for landing.

    Barnes patted me on the back and pointed to the nearer airlock. We walked to it together. I was so tired that I almost forgot to unclip my safety line from the antenna base.

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