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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Saturday, February 17, 2018 07:10 EST



    Captain Leary brought us down in the harbor at Santiago, the capital of the planet of the same name. He put me in the striker’s seat, just as he had when Lieutenant Enery landed on Hansen’s World.

    I’d thought Enery’s landing was flawless. I thought the same of the Captain’s. I was no expert, but both were a lot smoother than the computer landings I’d experienced in jaunts to orbit and back in training. Seeing it done right made me even more determined to leave the job to the computer, at least until I’d had several more years of training on simulators.

    After landing I went to my cabin to change for liberty. The boarding hold was already full of spacers going on leave, but they’d be wearing utilities. I was changing out of uniform. The Sunray was a commercial vessel, but she was run on RCN lines by RCN personnel, and I didn’t intend to give myself any breaks.

    I decided to wear an outfit different from what I’d worn on Hansen’s World: dark brown slacks and a matching jacket, over a bright yellow tunic. As I sealed the shirt seam, someone knocked on the door panel.

    “Just a second!” I called, tucking in the shirt tail. I strolled to the panel.

    I figured that Woetjans had gotten through with the docking procedures more quickly than she’d expected to. There was no reason for the bosun to superintend rolling out the extension bridge with a crew as experienced as this one. She and both her mates had been present to check me out in the lounge; a senior rigger was probably in charge on the hull, but they were all senior riggers. Woetjans liked to do it, though.

    I opened the panel. Maeve smiled at me. She said, “I decided that the hull wasn’t the best place for us to get acquainted. Would you like to go to dinner tonight? I hear that Santiago has some nice places.”

    She was wearing a body suit, black with sudden silvery highlights. It wasn’t at all tight, but the ways it clung and slipped would’ve gotten any man’s attention. It sure got mine.

    “I’m very sorry, Maeve,” I said. “I’ve already made a dinner engagement for tonight.”

    Maeve looked startled, then smiled warmly. “Well, there’ll be another time,” she said. “I hope so, anyway.”

    Her eyes narrowed slightly and she added, “With Lieutenant Enery, I suppose? She’s had some bad luck and certainly deserves some fun in her life.”

    I thought I heard condescension in Maeve’s voice. I found the first officer unsettling to be around, but the sneer — maybe I imagined it, maybe — made me angry on Enery’s account even though she wasn’t present to hear it.

    “No, mistress,” I said as calmly as I could. “I’m having dinner with the Chief of Rig tonight. Bosun Woetjans, you know.”

    It suddenly struck me that I didn’t know Woetjans’ first name. I’ll ask her tonight, though I don’t suppose it really matters.

    “I don’t think I know…” Maeve said. Her smile slipped. “Oh. Oh.”

    When the smile returned, it was as false as a politician’s. “Well, another time, as I said.”

    She turned and strode very quickly to the companionway. I couldn’t have offended her so badly if I’d slapped her face.

    But you shouldn’t treat people that way, even if you’re pretty and they never were, even before they got burned. I put on the jacket I’d laid on the bed; then I went to the bridge and chatted with Cory while I waited for Woetjans to get off duty.

    According to the information from Mundy, there was a Museum of the Settlement in Santiago. It didn’t sound like much, but I’d try it tomorrow if I had time to. Far planets were a new experience to me. I might get blasé about them, but I didn’t think so.

    Woetjans stuck her head onto the bridge and said that she was going to change and would be back in a jiff. “No rush,” I called to her back. I didn’t expect to make a long night of it.

    Cory was telling me about visiting public works departments when they landed on new planets, the ones organized enough to have such things. His father was a paving contractor on their homeworld of Florentine, and it gave Cory a feeling of comfort to talk shop.

    I thought about the sudden wash of homesickness when I’d walked into Apex Outfitters. I wondered if I could arrange to negotiate with all suppliers, as long as I was aboard the Sunray.

    “Okay, kid,” Woetjans called from the hatchway. “Where’re we going to dinner?”

    I looked at her. “A place called the Plumb Bob,” I said. “But what happened to your liberty suit?”

    She was wearing new utilities, tailored but otherwise unadorned.

    Woetjans looked away. “Well,” she said, “you know…I appreciate what you did in Breckinridge, but I don’t want to embarrass you.”

    “Woetjans!” I said. “Put your bloody liberty suit on! I’m not taking us anywhere they won’t serve spacers, and if I’ve figured wrong we’ll bloody well go somewhere else!”

    Woetjans looked blank for a moment. “Yessir!” she said and trotted for her cabin.

    When she was out of sight, Cory chuckled slightly. “You know, Roy,” he said, “I wasn’t sure you were really cut out to be an officer. Guess I was wrong to wonder.”

    Woetjans was back in a moment, bright and fluttering. We headed down to the boarding hold and out. I turned left at the street along the harbor, saying, “It’s about six blocks. Mostly west, but a block in from the harbor, that’s north.”

    “Then let’s take the block inland first,” Woetjans said. “Along the street by the harbor, it runs to warehouses and factories even beyond where it’s dives. Most of the places I’ve been, I mean.”

    “That’s better than what I’ve got,” I said, changing direction to cross the street. “All I have is a map.”

    We crossed as a couple of heavy trucks rolled past — one in either direction. They weren’t moving fast.

    “The information I’ve got is about three years old,” I said. “The place I’m looking for may not be around.”

    “Kid, I don’t care,” Woetjans said. “Not a scrap. I just wanted it to be you picking, not me.”

    The traffic along the street we were following was steady but not fast. The standard local vehicle had four tall wheels and squarish box on top of them. It seemed to me that if one hit us, the car would be worse off than we were — though they were probably sturdier than they looked.

    Woetjans shook herself. She kneaded her pectoral muscles with both hands.

    I could loan her my jacket as a drape over her shoulders; it wouldn’t fit, of course. I was finding the evening a little nippy myself.

    Woetjans saw me looking at her and said, “It’s just the muscles still tighten up when it gets cold. I’m fine, the weather here’s warmer than lots of places I’ve been.”

    “Ah,” I said. “You were shot several times in the chest and returned to duty?”

    “You’re bloody right I did!” Woetjans said. “It was just a dumb mistake, I wasn’t fast enough getting through a doorway. There was a medicomp in the next bloody room!”

    “Right!” I said, nodding in fierce agreement. You don’t suggest to anybody that they can’t do their job, and suggesting that to somebody like Woetjans could be, well, dangerous.

    And I hadn’t meant to do that, but it’d come out that way to her just because it was such a hot button. I chuckled. To explain it I said aloud, “Bloody hell, woman, who’d be dumb enough to say that you couldn’t do your job?”

    What I’d really been thinking was that I’d known being an RCN officer was dangerous. I hadn’t guessed that asking a simple question about information a shipmate had volunteered might be one of those dangers.

    “Nobody who didn’t want to learn how far I could throw them through the nearest wall,” Woetjans said. She laughed as well, but I was pretty sure that it was also the cold truth. I’d gotten a break because she liked me and she was sure I hadn’t meant anything by it.

    The sign of the place where the Plumb Bob was supposed to be now read Catch of the Day, with a leaping fish which seemed to have fins sticking out in four directions. “Are you up for seafood?” I said. “I guess they changed their menu since Officer Mundy got her information.”

    “Sure, that’s fine,” Woetjans said. “Say, that fish looks just like a ship, don’t it?”

    The fins really did stick out from the fish’s body the way antennas did from a starship’s hull in the Matrix. It wasn’t a connection I’d have made, but I hadn’t spent my working life as a rigger.

    The doors pulled open; the headwaiter’s station was set just back from the entrance. It could have been in Xenos — or in Breckinridge or I suspect anywhere people weren’t too close to the edge. A city with a busy starport has at least modest comforts for the locals — as well as with the sort of establishments that serve spacers.

    “A table for two,” I said to the dapper little man who turned a professional smile on us. More than half the seats were filled, but the place wasn’t packed yet. “A booth if that’s possible.”



    “And I get the bill!” said Woetjans. She didn’t exactly shout, but her voice from just behind — and above — me made me jump.

    “Lucinda will seat you, madame and master,” said the headwaiter. His smile was a little wider; and I thought it had become real.

    He thinks I’m Woetjans’ gigolo, I realized.

    We followed a pert young woman — a slightly younger, female edition of the headwaiter — to a booth at the back. “Sorry, kid,” Woetjans muttered. “Hope I didn’t embarrass you. I just didn’t want you to forget what I said.”

    “Of course you didn’t embarrass me,” I lied. “But I’ve looked at the prices, and I guarantee I could handle it.”

    “Yeah, well, you’re not going to,” Woetjans said, taking the opposite side of the booth after I slid onto a bench. “I’ve made plenty in prizes, serving as bosun to Six. And I pissed away some of it, sure — I’ve got three sisters, all of ’em married and none of the husbands worth the powder to blow ’em away.”

    She grinned. “I kept some for myself, though. You bet your ass I did.”

    The server made the usual offers. I didn’t know enough about local food to make a competent choice, so I chose the peppered ragfish special — it sounded interesting, so why not? — and a glass of the house white.

    Woetjans ordered the same, only she’d drink gin with a peppermint candy. To my amazement the server was no more surprised by that than she had been by my wine. I was broadening my horizons, though Woetjans’ choice wasn’t a taste I expected to cultivate myself.

    “Two questions, Woetjans,” I said as we waited for our drinks. I was raising my voice a little to be heard over the other diners and the bustle of servers. The bar on one side of the building was already crowded.

    “Shoot,” she said.

    “What’s your first name?” I said. “I’m Roy, but ‘kid’ works fine.”

    “I guess you’re going to stay ‘kid,'” Woetjans said. “That’s just how you come through. I’m sorry, I guess, but you just do.”

    “That’s the breaks,” I said. “There’s worse. But your name?”

    “I’m Ellie,” Woetjans said, “but nobody but my family calls me that. Blood family, I mean. With the Sissies, I’m ‘Chief.'”

    She threw her shoulders back on the bench. “Two questions, you said. What’s the other?”

    “What the bloody hell do you want from me?” I said, not letting my voice change from when I asked her name.

    Woetjans looked blank for a moment; then she began laughing. Her laughter was loud enough — and harsh enough — that people were turning to look at our booth.

    The drinks came. Woetjans downed half her gin, then smiled at me.

    “Okay, kid,” she said. “I want to know what you’re doing here. You’re not like anybody I’ve seen before. Just tell me what you’re up to.”

    “You want it straight?” I said. “I was in the Academy, but my dad was Dean Olfetrie. He was bribing politicians and Navy House bureaucrats to rob the RCN blind. So I dropped out of the Academy, did some scut work, and took the first decent job I was offered. Which was by Captain Leary, who brought me here.”

    I sucked my lips in, then said, “Are you shocked? Want me to buy my own dinner now?”

    “I guess your old man isn’t the first crooked outfitter I’ve heard of,” Woetjans said. “The cable you replaced the first day out was from a reel marked with the right size, but there was a ring around the hub to make up for the cable’s smaller diameter.”

    She drank again, then thought about it and emptied the glass. She held it high, which I took as a silent request for a refill. “Go on, kid,” she said.

    “Maybe it was Dad doing so much work with the RCN,” I said. “I don’t know. Both Junior and I wanted to be RCN officers, though. He was killed at New Harmony.”

    I frowned as I tried to focus my mind on a past that had changed completely since my father’s death. “Look,” I said. “I know I don’t seem like an RCN officer, but I could’ve been one.”

    I was trying to put words to things I’d thought for years but hadn’t been willing to say even to myself — because it’d seem like whining. “My brother had the look, I know what you mean,” I said. “He partied and he was everybody’s drinking buddy — and if you passed out trying to drink along with him, he’d pull your girlfriend sure as lead sinks. But my navigation was better than Junior’s and I could take him apart on the tactical simulator, even when I was twelve and he was an Academy graduate!”

    The server did indeed arrive with a gin, and a peppermint candy that Woetjans cracked with the back of a spoon. The bosun put half in her cheek and sipped at her drink. She said, “Barnes said you did a good job rerigging Dorsal B.”

    I shrugged. “Barnes and Dasi could’ve done the job in half the time,” I said. “I’ve watched them work.”

    Woetjans smiled broadly. The server, arriving with our meals, shied back, though I’m not sure she had anything to do with Woetjans’ expression.

    “Barnes and Dasi’ve been working rigging for a long time,” Woetjans said. “Either one could be bosun on a cruiser if he wanted to. Besides, Barnes was laying back to see how you’d handle the job.”

    “You could be on a battleship, Ellie,” I said. “Why aren’t you?”

    Woetjans laughed again. “I been on a battleship,” she said. She cut a big bite of fish, guiding it to her mouth with both fork and the tip of her knife. “My first tour as an able spacer was on the Renown. Didn’t like it worth a damn — seemed like the admiral was always looking over my shoulder. Transferred to destroyers, then got a slot as bosun’s mate on a courier ship — the Aglaia. Best luck I ever hope to have.”

    The ragfish was pretty good, though bland to my taste. The peppers were strands of bell pepper, not the hot pepper I’d expected.

    “You liked the courier ship that much?” I said to keep the conversation going.

    “It was bloody awful,” Woetjans said, shoveling the rest of her fish into her mouth. “You not only have extra ship’s officers, you got the passengers like as not nosing into your business. But that’s where I met Six, and I been with him ever since.”

    I was taking longer to finish my meal than Woetjans had. For that matter, I still had half a glass of wine and she was ordering her third gin. I said, “Because of the prizes?” I said. “I guess all the crew who’ve served with Captain Leary are pretty rich by now.”

    Woetjans laughed, but without the enthusiasm that’d rattled the windows before. “Most of the Sissies, they’ve got maybe a pot to piss in, kid,” she said. “They’re spacers. The ones who’ve got more — Pasternak’s got a regular manor back in Wassail County where he grew up — it don’t do them no good. It don’t do me no good, except if I want to take a kid to dinner to learn what makes him tick, I don’t worry what the tab’s going to be.”

    She paused and pursed her lips. “We Sissies are all spacers,” she said. “Every single soul who stuck with Six is that, and you don’t need money to be a spacer. If you signed with Six to get rich, you’re a bloody fool. You’re more likely to lose your arm or your ass than to get rich.”

    “I joined to be a spacer,” I said. “I’m learning to do that. I’ll never be the astrogator that Captain Leary and even Cory are, but I’ll be better than I am now. And eventually I’ll be pretty good.”

    I shrugged. My glass was empty, so I held it up the way Woetjans had hers. “I know there’s risks,” I said. “They told us not to open the coffin when they shipped Junior back for burial. Mom thought that meant his body’d been torn up and maybe Dad thought that too, but I heard the gravel rattle when I shifted the coffin a little. Junior’d been burned so bad they had to ballast the coffin before they sent it back. But he’d been a spacer, and I’m going to be a spacer.”

    My wine came. I took a deep draft, I guess to cool myself off. I’d gotten pretty hot talking like that.

    “That stuff any good?” Woetjans said.

    “It’s all right for me,” I said. “I’m not much of a drinker. But I can tell you, my fiancée’s father wouldn’t use it to clean drains. Ex-fiancée.”

    “Toss it down and let’s get out of here,” Woetjans said. “We’ll find a place near the harbor and really tie one on if you like.”

    I didn’t — I peeled off when the bosun stopped at a place on the harborfront. But I went back aboard the Sunray, feeling that it’d been a good evening. My astrogation was improving faster than it ever would have if I’d stayed in the Academy, and I’d gotten through another test.

    I guess the tests would keep coming till I died. Well, that was all right.

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