Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Sunday, February 11, 2018 15:24 EST



    I was using one of the displays on the bridge to read what the Sailing Directions had to say about Hansen’s World. I wanted to learn as much as I could, but mainly I was focusing on something other than the fact that my guts had been turning somersaults ever since we extracted from the Matrix. We were in freefall orbit around the planet. I was hoping that I’d feel better as soon as we landed; it wouldn’t be hard for however I felt to be better.

    I’d been told that every time you extracted it felt different; and that every time was bad; and that you never, ever, got used to the experience. This was the first time I’d gone through an extraction, but at least the part about it being bad was true.

    The PA system said, “Lieutenant Enery, come to the command console and take the conn for landing.”

    There was a pause; I wasn’t really paying attention. Then the speaker added, “Officer Olfetrie, come to the command console and echo the landing from the striker’s station.”

    I was reading about vegetable exports from Hansen’s World. If it hadn’t been my name — that kinda cuts through everything, at least with me — I probably wouldn’t have heard a word of the announcement.

    Even so, I was half convinced I’d imagined it, until I turned my head. Captain Leary was looking at me; he smiled and pointed to the seat on the back of the console. Cory had been sitting there, but he was heading off the bridge with quick hand pats against the corridor walls. If Enery was coming forward, then Cory was probably heading back to man the back-up position in the stern.

    The striker’s station had a saddle, not a couch. I climbed onto it, noticing that my stomach had settled down the instant I registered the command.

    The display could be run separate from that of the primary station or it could echo the primary. Cory had been using it separately — some sort of communications program, as best I could tell. I switched it to echo the primary, a view of the planet we were orbiting, plus some smaller insets.

    The continent we were over had broad margins of green and dark green, and a gray-brown interior. Some of the darker green patches had straight margins. They must have been enormous to be so clear from orbit. I remembered what I’d just read about the sorghum fodder which, with meat and dairy products, Hansen’s World exported to the whole region.

    Enery was on the couch across the console from me, though I hadn’t seen her arrive. The display shifted to bring up the power controls, thruster and High Drive both.

    A schematic of the planet — the same continent — appeared above the controls on the display. Enery highlighted Breckinridge — the planetary capital and largest city — on the east coast. A series of numbers appeared in a sidebar beside the schematic.

    “Braking to land,” Enery announced. She highlighted the second set of numbers from the top — they were time calculations. The High Drive vibrated; the Sunray began to fall out of orbit against 1 g of thrust.

    To my surprise, Enery disconnected the automatic landing program. She lighted the plasma thrusters, adding their impulse to that of the more efficient High Drives, balanced them — and cut the High Drives completely, though we were still in hard vacuum.

    We continued to drop, but against the roar of thrusters instead of the high frequency buzz of matter/antimatter recombination. As we entered the atmosphere, buffeting quickly built along with rattles and clangs.

    My hand was poised above the Override button and the automated landing controls. If something happened to Enery, it would be my job to land the Sunray. At my level of skill, the best option would be to let the computer do it.

    The Sunray slowed noticeably; we were actually braking harder than we had been under computer control. Enery had rotated the ship on her axis as we slowed. At an altitude of three thousand feet we were parallel to the surface according to the reading on my display. We were still moving forward and dropping, but we were in the realm of aircar velocities now.

    Inset in the display’s upper left quadrant of the forward view, land swelled from the ocean. Enery brought the Sunray into a near hover, then reduced flow to the bow pair of thrusters by two percent. We set us down in a concrete slip. The berth to port was empty; that to our starboard held two skeletal ships intended to haul containers of bulk produce which would be hooked onto the frames.

    Enery shut down the thrusters though the water in the slip continued to boil for nearly a minute as the Sunray’s underside cooled. We rocked side to side, and steam continued to shroud the sensors in the visible range. I heard hatches opening, though that let in not only warm air but steam and whiffs of ozone — unquenched reminders of the thrusters’ plasma exhaust.

    “Lieutenant Enery?” I said, opening a two-way link through the console. Ambient noise was still too loud to imagine speaking to anyone without electronic aid. “May I ask you a question, over?”

    “Go ahead, Olfetrie,” Enery said. “Over.”

    I couldn’t tell whether she was irritated or just surprised that I’d spoken. Her immediate duties were complete, and it’d be another ten minutes or more before the exterior cooled enough for people to leave the ship.

    “Ma’am?” I said. “Is there a problem with the automated system that you chose to land us manually? Over.”

    There was no response for a moment. Then Enery gave a tiny chuckle and said, “Well, that’s a fair question, Olfetrie. Since you’re an outsider like me, you don’t know that Captain Leary makes a fetish of manual landings and shiphandling generally. I was just demonstrating that he and the people he trains aren’t the only ones able to bring a ship in, over.”

    “I see,” I said. “Ma’am, why did you switch to thrusters so quickly, over?”

    “We have plenty of reaction mass now,” Enery said, “and we’re about to land in an ocean harbor. Our thrusters and High Drives are both in good shape, but thrusters can be repaired while High Drives have to be replaced.”

    For a moment I thought that Enery had finished without closing. Then she burst out, “I’m not incompetent and I’m not a cipher. I’m the bloody first lieutenant of this ship! Over!”

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Olfetrie out.”

    “Olfetrie, this is Six,” the console said in Captain Leary’s voice. “Woetjans and Pasternak have put together a list of stores and equipment we need to pick up here. I want you and Woetjans to take care of that. Then you can go on liberty until 0600 hours. Over.”

    “Yes, sir!” I said. “Olfetrie out.”



    I knew that this was the first time Barnes and Dasi had landed on Hansen’s World, so probably the captain hadn’t either. At any rate, he hadn’t directed me to a particular outfitter.

    Cory might want his place back now that we’d landed. Rather than contact Mundy electronically, I walked over to the station where she was working with her personal data unit.

    Tovera moved as though she intended to block me when she saw what I was doing, but I thrust my arm out in front of her. I was a ship’s officer. I had no desire to throw my — minuscule — weight around, but I wasn’t going to let a clerk stop me from carrying out the captain’s orders.

    “Officer Mundy?” I said.

    For a moment she didn’t respond. I remembered Tovera had thrust a hand through Mundy’s display to get her attention. I was about to try that technique, but before I could Mundy turned and looked up.

    “Yes, Master Olfetrie?” she said.

    Well, I’d never heard her put any emotion in her words, so I don’t know why I found the polite words, well, scary now. I said, “I’m hoping that as communications officer you can help me. I want to find a chandlery that will be able to provide the ship’s requirements at the best prices, but I don’t even know if Breckinridge has a data net.”

    “It does,” Mundy said. “And I’ve just connected us with it. Here” — schematic map and list of names appeared before me, projected by her personal unit. The resolution was remarkably high — “are the businesses who offer to outfit starships, though of course the list may not be complete.”

    Well, that startled me. I was glad, of course, but that was a lot of information for somebody just landed on a new planet.

    I looked at the list and the map. Not surprisingly, the establishments were all on the harbor front.

    “Is there anything else you need?” Mundy asked.

    “Well, we don’t need it, exactly,” I said, “but what I’d like would be a list of their holdings to compare with the list that Woetjans will be bringing me. I guess we can just hoof it along the harbor road.”

    Mundy got up from her station. “Sit here,” she said. “I’ll queue up the inventories so that you can go through them.”

    “Ma’am?” I said. I’d heard what she’d said, but I couldn’t fathom it.

    Mundy moved to the adjacent station which Sun had just vacated. “Let me know if you need more,” she said as she resumed whatever she’d been doing before I’d interrupted her.

    Tovera moved over with her, grinning at me. She reminded me of a lizard, and I was suddenly glad that it was a happy lizard.

    Using the station’s built-in light pen, I started scrolling through the first of the businesses on the list — the one to the left of our berth; the other seven were spaced to starboard along Water Boulevard. Woetjans entered the bridge with a piece of flimsy in her hand. I motioned her over and took the list.

    I was viewing not only the inventory of Agnelli Outfitters but also the wholesale price of each item. I checked the next business on the list — Kropatschek and Sons — and found the same thing. And rather wider margins on items with the same wholesale prices as Agnelli.

    I looked over at Mundy, who was lost in her own business again. I had nothing to say to her; she already knew that she’d given me access to the companies’ internal records.

    “Sir?” said Woetjans. She was polite, but she didn’t sound best pleased. “I think we ought to be going. I’ve got a dinner with Six this evening, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to find all the items.”

    “Officer Mundy has provided us with full inventories and prices for all the ship chandlers in Breckinridge,” I said. “So if you’ll just sit for a few minutes and jot down notes, the actual work is going to be relatively simple.”

    “Oh!” said Woetjans, flipping down the jump seat Tovera had vacated. “Well, if you’re working with the Mistress, that’s fine.”

    Apparently it would be. It was still a long list and a lot of choices, but I was already getting a feel for where we’d be going. I called off numbers to the bosun and she jotted them down on another sheet of flimsy.

    About an hour later, I stretched and stood up. I grinned and Woetjans and said, “Ready for a trip to Apex Outfitters, Chief?”

    “Yessir!” said Woetjans, getting up from the chair like a crane extending to tower over me. “But sir? These numbers don’t mean anything to me. Are you going to do the talking?”

    I frowned. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the way Captain Leary had seen the business going — send the kid out with the bosun to get a little experience in the way things were really done — but thanks to Officer Mundy’s data and my own experience, that was the best way.

    “Right, Woetjans,” I said. “I’ll do the talking.”

    We stopped at my cabin so that I could change from the slops I was wearing into utilities. I’d expected to go on liberty immediately on landing, but if Captain Leary tapped me for the anchor watch, the slops were fine. What I hadn’t expected was to be sent to represent the Sunray on shore.

    The boarding hold was still steamy and with sharp touches of ozone when Woetjans and I reached it. Any organic matter floating in the slip during landing had been incinerated also, so the atmosphere stank.

    The processed air of a starship underway was clean, perfectly balanced — and dead. I wasn’t surprised that the crew had begun opening hatches high in the hull as soon as we were safely on the surface. It was good to have something real after a period of manufactured air.

    “Hey, kid?” Sun called as we started toward the ramp. The purser’s shop was a small compartment in the aft corridor, just off the hold; he was standing in the hatchway.

    “Yes?” I said. Woetjans had already stopped.

    “You’ll want a saucer hat,” Sun said, “since you’re going off to be an officer. I already put this on your account.”

    He held out a flat-topped visored hat with a modest knot of gold braid on the front. The fabric was white in contrast to my dark-gray utilities.

    I traded my soft cap for the saucer hat. “Thank you, Sun,” I said. “I’m too new to this business to keep everything straight.”

    There were rails the length of the quay. On them ran a truck with a boarding extension which could align with the ramp of a ship regardless of where it lay within the slip. We crossed it to the quay and walked down to the street proper. It was a sunny day but brisk.



    Woetjans kneaded her pectoral muscles with her fingers and looked sideways at me. “Sorry,” she muttered in apparent embarrassment. “I took some slugs a couple years ago and they tighten up when they get cold.”

    I said, “I’d been thinking that a jacket might have been a good plan. We could go back?”

    “Bloody hell, no,” the bosun said.

    The chandleries along Water Boulevard were separated from one another by bars and brothels. We’d left the ship long enough behind the main liberty group that the prostitutes were back out on the sidewalk in strength.

    Woetjans moved slightly ahead of me and cleared a path — less brutally than I’d feared, but thoroughly nonetheless. “Move along, girls,” she said, though none that I saw were girls and not all were even female. “We’re on business now, maybe later.”

    She paused in front of the next chandlery where the walk was clear and said, “Unless you’d like to stop in, sir? I didn’t mean to — ”

    “Good heavens, no,” I said, genuinely shocked at the notion. The whores here were the equivalent of the air above the slip when we’d just landed: real beyond question, but with no other virtues that I could see.

    “I think Apex is the next one,” I said and moved up beside Woetjans again. We entered the business together.

    I felt at home. Dad had worked his way up through chandleries; some of my earliest memories were of riding on my dad’s shoulder through places like Apex Outfitters.

    The clerk behind the counter was reading an illustrated paper. He looked up, eyed us, and went back to his paper. He was about my age, but possibly younger.

    “Good afternoon,” I said. No one else was in the store that I could see, though someone could be walking among the racks of goods. “We need to speak with the person in charge.”

    “That’s me,” said the youth. He put his paper down but eyed us without enthusiasm. “What d’ye need?”

    I thought for a moment, then said, “Come along, Woetjans. If this person is in charge, we need to go elsewhere. Blakesley Brothers was the next firm on my list.”

    I wasn’t shouting, but I pitched my voice to be heard in the office to the right behind the counter. Its door was ajar and a light was on inside.

    Woetjans turned to go, but I put a hand on her shoulder. As I expected, the office door opened and a man of fifty-odd came out. His hairline was receding, making him look older than he was.

    “Sir?” he called to me. “Can I help you?” To the clerk he added, “I’ll handle this, Amos.”

    “But you said…” the youth whined.

    Both the older man and I ignored him. I said, “I have a list of purchases to bring our ship up to RCN spec. I’d like to discuss quantities and pricing with you.”

    “I’m Artur Ferrante,” the older man said, opening a gate in the counter. “If you’ll come this way, we can discuss it in my office.”

    There were two straight chairs before the cluttered desk. One had a caddie of electronic files on it, but I lifted them off and put them on the floor behind me. That left the other chair open for Woetjans, but she stood by a file cabinet instead.

    Ferrante latched the door firmly and sat down behind the desk. “My wife’s nephew,” he said in a low voice. “I was hoping that he’d come along a little faster than he has.”

    “He won’t unless he changes his attitude,” I said, “but that’s not my problem. We’re here to outfit the Sunray properly. We’re an RCN crew carrying a Cinnabar trade delegation to Saguntum in a chartered vessel. This is the first leg, and there are significant deficiencies to correct.”

    Ferrante brought up the workstation at his desk. “What in particular are you looking for?” he said. “I think we’ll be able to handle your requests.”

    I know you will, I thought. But you may not like the price I’m offering.

    I read off the items on the list which the Chief of Rig and Chief of Ship — Woetjans and Pasternak — had prepared. Ferrante entered the items and quantities.

    When I got to the end of the list, I said, “I mentioned that we were on a trade mission. If it’s as successful as I expect it to be, there will be much more commercial traffic between Cinnabar and Saguntum than there is at present. There will also be increased RCN traffic, though of course that depends on many factors.”

    Ferrante smiled and nodded. “Apex Outfitters will be delighted to serve their needs with high-quality merchandise,” he said.

    He cleared his throat and looked down at his display. “I find the total of your current order to be — ”

    He paused and looked up. “Would you like the figure in florins or would you prefer another currency?”

    “Florins are fine,” I said. “If I may ask you a question, Master Ferrante? Are you the owner or the manager of Apex?”

    “I’m the sole owner,” Ferrante said. His eyes had narrowed slightly. “I married the founder’s daughter, but I’ve built the business up considerably since then.”

    “Excellent,” I said. “Go on.”

    “As I was saying,” Ferrante said, “in florins, the total is eight-seven hundred and I’ll knock off a hundred for the new relationship.”

    I nodded and said, “I’m offering sixty-one hundred.”


    “Incidentally, this will be in the form of a draft of the Shippers’ and Merchants’ Treasury” — I’d checked while I was putting together the proposal — “rather than RCN scrip. It allows you a fair profit on every item, and I’ve included the ten percent surcharge that I would have paid to a manager as an expediter’s fee.”

    “You were planning to bribe me?” Ferrante said.

    “I was prepared to bribe a manager,” I said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to. And I point out, not only is the price fair, it really will lead to increased business for you when I make my report in Cinnabar.”

    “I’ll decide if the price is fair,” Ferrante muttered as he went over the figures on his display. I glanced at Woetjans, who looked stunned. She didn’t even meet my eyes.

    After a moment Ferrante looked up. “Maybe that’s what they call fair on Cinnabar,” he growled. “But I suppose I can live with it.”

    He suddenly laughed. “Say, you wouldn’t like to jump ship and come work for me, would you?”

    I smiled back as I got to my feet. “Thank you, sir, but no,” I said. “There’ll be a credit chip in the full amount waiting at the Sunray when the order is delivered.”

    The sun was low as Woetjans and I returned to the boulevard. I was feeling extremely good for the first time in a long while.

    The first time since Dad shot himself.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image