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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2018 20:30 EST



    My last watch before Saguntum was in the Power Room. Captain Leary believed that an officer had to know the whole ship, not just the rigging and how to astrogate. One of the things Pasternak’s list had directed me to buy on Hansen’s World was a flow pump. This wasn’t the big unit which sucked water into the reaction mass tanks; it was a relatively small pump submerged in the tank to feed the fluid to the plasma thrusters or to the antimatter converters for the High Drive, depending on which we were using at the time.

    “Got a job for you, kid,” said Pasternak when I reported. “You and Gamba are going to be replacing the flow pump, and I don’t mind telling you that it’ll be a bitch of a job.”

    It was that in truth. Pasternak had run the tank down lower than he said he liked, but me and Gamba, a Tech 4, had to wear air suits working inside in four feet of water to remove frozen bolts.

    Some time in the last few years, the Sunray had filled its tanks with water which was either contaminated with something more corrosive than salt, or which perhaps wasn’t water at all. Any fluid which would feed through the lines became reaction mass so far as the propulsion units were concerned.

    The pump was supposed to be a sealed unit, but Pasternak said it had been running hot ever since we lifted from Xenos because of a corroded rotor shaft. The lock nuts (the bolts were welded to the tank) had long given up any pretence of having corrosion-resistant coatings.

    When we got the pump loose, I released the short line that clamped me to the inflow grating in the tank floor. Without those tethers, we’d have been bobbing like corks in our air suits. I opened the faceplate and called, “We got it loose! We’re ready to haul it out!”

    I expected somebody to bring a chain hoist above the open lid of the tank. Instead, a tech named Evans leaned over the side and gripped the output pipe. It had been unhooked from the manifold.

    “Keep outa the way,” Evans said. He tilted the pipe to make sure the pump really was free of all the bolts, then slid it toward him in the tank. Finally he lifted the pump hand over hand until he could rest it on the lip.

    “Now, you boys just sit there and you can put the new one back on,” Evans grunted. He swung the pump to the deck and disappeared for a moment.

    “Bloody hell,” I said to Gamba, who’d also opened his helmet. “I know what that thing weighs!”

    “Yeah, Evans is showing off for the new officer,” Gamba said. He was as overqualified for this job as Barnes had been to act as my helper in restringing a cable; his ears were the smallest I’d ever seen on an adult man. “Mind, he’s got a lot to show off. He’s thick as a brick, though.”

    “With Captain Leary on the bridge,” I said, “the rest of us don’t need to be brilliant.”

    Shuffling and heavy thumps indicated that something was happening on the deck above us; then I heard the squeals and bangs of a crate being broken up. Beaumont, a Tech 3, leaned over and called, “Just a second more. We gotta hook up the exit pipe.”

    “We’re not going anywhere,” I said. I wondered if Gamba and me would even be able to get out by ourselves. Maybe if I was strong enough to haul myself up from Gamba’s shoulders and then strong enough to pull him up in turn…but I’d use a rope or a length of cable for that, not just reaching down and grabbing him by the hand.

    “Stand clear!” somebody shouted. Then a new pump appeared over the rim and descended into the tank — faster than the old one had risen but still under control. It hit the water with enough of a splash that I was glad I’d closed up my helmet again.

    There’d been several techs skidding the new unit along the decking, but Evans had apparently decided to lower it alone. I wouldn’t get in his way about any bloody thing he wanted to do.

    Gamba and I walked the new unit over the to the mounting plate on its edge. The trick then was to align it with the bolts.

    Gamba grinned at me. “It’s on you now, kid,” he said.

    “Right,” I said. “But look, you get over against the side, okay? I’ll come up and ask for help if I have to” — I couldn’t honestly think of anything a second man could do that would be useful — “but I don’t want to lose a hand if the pump moves while I’m between it and the bottom.”

    “Right, kid,” Gamba said with a serious expression. He at least knew to look like he was as concerned as I was. The corner of his mouth quirked. “Besides…” he said, “I think Woetjans’d pull my arms off if anything like that happened.”

    “I’ll be done as quick as I can,” I said and closed my face shield. Mostly to get on with the job, but I didn’t want to talk about me and Woetjans either. Mind, there was nothing to talk about anyway.

    I hooked to the grating again. My helmet still bobbed, but I could keep my arms and torso under water. I rotated the pump so that the flange was up on one of the four bolts, then used a screwdriver through another hole to crab the unit onto the remaining three bolts.

    Now was when I really could have used some help, but only if we could’ve communicated. I grabbed the outflow pipe with both hands and turned it carefully, like it was an analog clock. This would’ve been a lot easier if I were strong as Evans was, but I’m not sure I’d ever met anybody else that strong. I heard a click! and felt the pipe wobble.

    I straightened and opened my face shield. “Okay, Gamba,” I said. “I got it balanced here. Now we just need to line it up with the bolts and let it fall home.”

    Gamba grinned at me. “Keep your hands on the pipe, kid,” he said, “but you just feel. And make sure your boots aren’t in the way. Right?”

    “Right,” I said and shuffled back a boot’s length. I’d asked for help, not to have Gamba to take over. On the other hand, I was so exhausted that I didn’t really care.

    The pipe tilted one way and another, turning by equally tiny bits under my gloves. It suddenly gave and clanged to its seat. Gamba stepped back; he was breathing hard, so it hadn’t really been as easy as he’d made it seem.

    “Got the old nuts, kid?” he asked.

    “Sure,” I said. I reached for them. “Right here in my pouch.”

    “Leave ’em and throw ’em away when were out of this,” Gamba said. He held up a little net bag with four bright-finished nuts. “We’ll use these instead because we can. That’ll make it easier for the next couple bastards. Who won’t be us, I hope to hell.”

    It was a lot easier to snug the nuts up than it had been to crack them loose to begin with. That would’ve been true even if Gamba hadn’t given me a power wrench small enough to hold in my hand, instead of using the box wrench I’d taken them off with. As a matter of fact, the biggest problem screwing the nuts on was keeping hold of the wrench against the torque.

    Beaumont hooked a tubular ladder over the side. I climbed up behind Gamba. It was long past the end of the watch. I was wrung out, as I generally was since I joined the Sunray. I wasn’t complaining, but I’d never have worked this hard at a regular civilian job.

    I walked to the entrance of the Power Room and started to take off my air suit near the lockers there. The bulkhead was armored, like that of the bridge. It wouldn’t exactly withstand the blast of a ruptured fusion bottle, but it should redirect the fireball through the deliberately weakened vent plates in the exterior hull.

    Pasternak gestured me to come over to his enclosed office across from the lockers. I closed the hatch behind me because of the racket. Four techs were guiding the lid back over the tank — using the travelling hoist. The Power Room was noisy enough at any time, but the clanking and shouts made it something out of Hell.

    “Six wants to see you on the bridge, kid,” Pasternak said.

    “Thanks, Chief,” I said. What I was really thinking was, “No bloody way!”

    I chuckled as I finished removing the air suit. I couldn’t even complain about it not being fair. I was a volunteer.



    “There you are, Olfetrie,” Captain Leary said, rotating his couch at the console to face me as I entered the bridge. “Say, you’ve got a nice suit, right?”

    “Well, I’ve got a suit,” I said. “Several of them. But I left all my dress clothes in pawn in Xenos.”

    By now they’d probably have been sold. Well, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever again have entry to society in which they’d be required. I might’ve gotten a few extra florins if I’d flat sold them instead of pawning them, but at the time I did it I hadn’t really internalized how complete my disaster was.

    “They’re civilian,” the captain said, smiling. “And I suspect anybody else aboard would call them dress clothes.” He frowned across at the commo station and added, “Well, maybe not Adele.”



    Looking at me again, he said, “Anyway, the delegation needs an escort of five spacers when they present their credentials in Saguntum, and I need an officer to command the escort. You’re what I’ve got with civilian clothes.”

    “Ah…” I said. I had nowhere to go with the thought, so I said, “Yes, sir!” and shut my mouth.

    “I don’t believe you’ve met our passengers,” Captain Leary said. He grinned. “Except for the pretty one, right?”

    “Mistress Grimaud,” I said, nodding vigorously. “Though I don’t know precisely what her position is.”

    “If she’d told you…” the captain said, “she’d probably have lied. We’ll go down now — no, clean up and put on a suit before we do that. When you’re presentable, I’ll introduce you to the delegation. Director Jimenez seemed to be concerned that his escort would be a bunch of roughs who’d embarrass the dignity of the Foreign Ministry.”

    His smile wasn’t altogether warm. “Personally,” he went on, “I don’t believe anything the RCN did could possibly lower it to the level of the Foreign Ministry, but I figure your experience will put his mind at rest.”



    I thought of just changing clothes, but I knew I looked like something the cat had dragged in. Five hours working — and I mean working — in an air suit really takes it out of you. I showered before changing. It made me feel more human as well as cleaner, though I was still very tired.

    I came back, wearing my dull green jacket over gray tunic and slacks. “I knew you’d clean up nice,” Captain Leary said. “Doesn’t he, Hogg?”

    “Pretty as a picture,” his servant said, rising from the striker’s seat to take a good look at me. “I hope he can take care of himself.”

    “Now, Hogg,” the captain said. “It’s not going to be that kind of escort. They won’t be carrying weapons.”

    “I can take care of myself, Hogg,” I said. If he’d been a gentleman, I’d have said, “Master Hogg,” but he wasn’t. “But your servant raises a good point, sir: Who have you chosen for the escort?”

    The captain shrugged. “I figured I’d leave that to you, Olfetrie,” he said. “Pick any five you’d be comfortable leading on this business.”

    I started to protest, then caught myself. I wanted to be an officer; this was my job. “Yes, sir,” I said. “I suppose any of the crew, at least of the former Sissies, would stay solid if something went unexpectedly wrong.”

    “They’re all former Sissies,” the captain said. “Except for you, that is.”

    He was watching me. There might be a touch of amusement in his eyes. I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t let me go too far wrong, though he’d said it was my decision.

    “The main thing we have to worry about is keeping Director Jimenez happy,” I said. “We’ll want clean-cut personnel, and people who won’t scare the civilians. Also with a bias toward smart rather than, say, quick. So — ”

    I took a couple seconds to go over my choices one last time. “Sun and Barnes,” I said. “I say Barnes instead of Dasi, because I know him better and because Dasi’s nose is crooked from where it was broken. Wedell and Gamba, in both cases because I’ve worked with them and trust their judgment.”

    “And Woetjans?” the captain said.

    “Even if Jimenez is as slow as the mid-level Foreign Ministry staffers I’ve met have been,” I said, “Ellie would scare him to death. But I would like Tovera, because she wouldn’t scare anybody.”

    Captain Leary’s face went very still. “Have you looked Tovera in the eyes?” he said.

    “Yes,” I said. Tovera and her mistress were in earshot, but I didn’t turn my head. “But Jimenez won’t. Most people won’t. They won’t notice her at all.”

    I wouldn’t have either, except that Maeve had told me that Mundy’s clerk was an assassin. Since then I’d been watching her; I had no proof that Tovera was what Maeve called her, but the feeling I got from her was certainly that.

    “Tovera isn’t under my command,” the captain said, “so I can’t — ”

    “I can,” said Mundy’s voice from the speaker on the command console. “Tovera is welcome to join Master Olfetrie if he wants to have her. And she’s amenable, of course.”

    “Sure,” said Tovera. Mundy was still looking down at her data unit, but Tovera — as always — was scanning the room with an alert expression, like a lizard looking for a meal. “I don’t expect there’ll be any fun, but I never lose hope.”

    The grin that followed the comment would’ve convinced me that Maeve was right even if I hadn’t already been sure.

    “All right, then,” Captain Leary said. “Tovera, you’ll have to leave your briefcase behind; Sun will find you a set of utilities so that you fit in. Olfetrie, let’s you and I visit our betters.”

    I matched his grin with an equally broad one.



    The passengers’ accommodations on Level 3 probably didn’t seem palatial to the civilians, but for somebody who’d gotten used to a cabin barely big enough for its bunk and desk, they certainly seemed so. The captain — or more likely, Officer Mundy — must have alerted the delegation that we were coming, because a female servant held open the hatch to what turned out to be a lounge when we came out of the companionway.

    She bowed as we approached, then closed the panel behind us. Inside were cushioned seats — rather than pressed steel like elsewhere on the ship — and tables with floral designs on the upper surfaces. The only person standing was another servant, this one male. Like the woman at the door, he wore a uniform of brown fabric with a slick finish.

    “Captain Leary,” said the man in the chair facing the hatch. The words were an acknowledgement rather than a greeting. He was alone at a table for four.

    Captain Leary nodded to the seated man. “Director Jimenez, I’ve come to introduce the officer who’ll command your escort to the Councillor’s Residence in Jacquerie. This is Lieutenant Olfetrie.”

    I stepped forward and bowed. “Sir,” I said as I straightened, “I’m greatly honored to be chosen for this duty. I served an internship in the Bureau of Friendship Affairs. I’ve always felt that the Foreign Ministry does more to preserve the Republic than any other branch of government.”

    It was true about the internship: Mother had thought the diplomatic service was more refined than the RCN and had pushed to get both her sons into it. Junior had flat refused, but I’d given it a try.

    It hadn’t worked out well. I was quieter than Junior, but I hadn’t been willing to solemnly nod when a fool talked nonsense to me, and there were other things. At the time, of course, I’d been a rich man’s son looking for a profession rather than a job.

    “You do?” Jimenez said, clearly startled. He was a trim little man, perfectly groomed the way you get only if you spend more time on it than a man ought to spend. “Then why are you here? What are you doing here?”

    I shook my head with a sad expression. “I couldn’t fool myself, sir,” I said. “I knew within a week that I wasn’t fit for the work. I was unwilling to drag down the fine people around me in the department. I was on the Kostroma desk under Director Kwalit.”

    I shrugged. “I still wanted to serve the Republic, so I joined the Navy,” I said, deliberately using the civilian term for the RCN. “It was a surprise, a wonderful surprise, to learn that I was posted here.”

    “Well…” Jimenez said. “You’re confident that your guards won’t embarrass us? You see, Saguntum has no relations whatever with the Republic. Any sort of high-handed behavior or even the sort of normal loutishness to be expected of spacers — it might absolutely scuttle our mission.”

    “Sir,” I said, with more truth than most of what I’d been saying. “I can honestly tell you that I’ve hand picked each person with an eye to intelligence and proper decorum.”

    I regretted that Captain Leary was listening to this. Heaven be thanked that Woetjans wasn’t. She’d take it as a betrayal, and I had a good notion of how she’d deal with a traitor.

    “Well,” said Jimenez. He put a slight emphasis on the word to make it approving. “Here on my right is Master Han” — thin, bald man of uncertain age. His face showed no more expression than an insect’s does — “who’s our finance expert, and on my left Master Banta, whose specialty is agriculture.”

    I exchanged nods with both men. Banta was round, very pale, and gave the impression of having the intelligence of a cabbage…which to a degree he resembled.

    My eyes followed Jimenez’s. For the first time since I’d entered, they rested on Maeve. She was in ochre tonight. Smiling, she nodded to me.

    “And this is Mistress Grimaud, my secretary,” Jimenez said.

    I nodded to her, then returned my gaze to the Director.

    “Well, I must say,” Jimenez said, “this is much better news than I was expecting. Captain Leary, I congratulate you. I’ll make sure my superiors learn how well you’ve executed their instructions.”

    Captain Leary bowed, just as I had when I greeted the Director. He said, “Thank you, sir. We of the RCN set great store on the faithful execution of our orders.”

    We nodded again to the delegates, then left the lounge promptly to go back to where we belonged. I’d have been on the edge of laughter except for one thing: the look in Maeve’s eyes as she smiled at me.

    Maeve moved like a cat. For a moment she’d made me feel like a mouse.

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