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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2018 18:18 EST



    I didn’t exactly wake up, but I came around enough to realize that somebody was shaking me and shouting, “Get up, numbnuts!”

    The High Drive was on. The buzz made my brain tremble. I didn’t know where I was; I wasn’t sure who I was. It occurred to me that I might be dead and in Hell.

    “Get up, you little shit!”

    Water splashed in my face. A second voice said, “Hey, watch the bunk, Wellesley.”

    There was a rope tethering my thighs to the bunk. My eyes didn’t work right; I saw a blur lean close and move back, but I wasn’t sure anything moved except in my mind.

    The water on my lips tasted good. I licked them and sat up.

    “About bloody time,” the voice said. I threw up.

    I wasn’t aiming at the speaker — I wasn’t awake enough to do anything that organized — but I was looking toward the blur that spoke. I guess that was good enough to get the same result.

    The voice roared, “You little shit!” and something slugged me. I went back into blackness.



    When I finally came around the ship was under way in the Matrix. I felt as if there was a membrane shrunk over my skin, moving when I did. It didn’t get in my way — but it was there.

    I opened my eyes. I was on the bottom bunk of a tier. The two higher bunks were raised against the bulkhead, which is how I’d been able to sit up before.

    The side of my jaw hurt. One thing at a time. First I had to learn where I was.

    The man at the console heard the bunk springs squeal and turned to look at me. “Bloody well about time,” he said. “I was beginning to think we’d paid good money for a deader. Not a lot of money, though.”

    I recognized the voice of the man who’d waked me the first time — and who’d then slugged me when I threw up. He was big and broad, though short legged as best I could tell in a seated figure. The right half of his skull was bald and he was missing the top of his right ear. I didn’t see any scar tissue on his scalp.

    He had a nasty voice, but I was already sure we weren’t going to be friends. If I remembered correctly from when I was still under the drug, his name was Wellesley.

    “Where am I?” I said. I was glad to learn that my voice worked. I didn’t try to shout, partly because I didn’t have the energy. I felt like a dishrag.

    I’d heard the outer airlock close as I came around, but I wasn’t sure whether it was for people going out on the hull or coming back in. Now the dogs of the inner lock drew back in a series of small clicks and the hatch opened. Three spacers entered the cabin, two in hard suits and the third in an air suit.

    They’d already taken their helmets off. One was a hatchet-faced spacer who must be seventy; the other two were as pale as anyone I’d ever seen.

    “Where you are,” Wellesley said, “is aboard the Martinique, on the way to Blanchard. And you’re a landsman.”

    “I rated able spacer in the RCN,” I lied. I didn’t know exactly what the situation was, but I didn’t see any advantage to blurting that I could astrogate. I wasn’t great, but I was probably as good as any of this lot.

    “I’m still captain of the Martinique, Wellesley,” the old man said as he continued to strip off his suit. He turned to me and said, “I’m Captain Langland. What’s your name, spacer?”

    The captain’s hard suit looked like a piece of junk, but it was better than the suit the crewman behind him was taking off. The air suit that the other spacer was getting out of was visibly patched with cargo tape.

    “I’m Roy Olfetrie, crew on the Sunray till you drugged and kidnapped me,” I said. “Where are we headed?”

    “That’s a bloody lie!” Wellesley said. “Two of your friends brought you aboard!”

    “We’re headed for Blanchard,” Langland said. “We’re twelve days out.”

    I sat up carefully. My arms were ready to support me but they didn’t need to; I’d slept off whatever it was that they’d drugged me with, though I still felt weak.

    I stank. I guess somebody’d cleaned the deck, but the front of my tunic was soaked with my own vomit. “Bloody hell,” I muttered. “Where do I clean up, Langland? And I need a change of clothes, at least a tunic. I’m not going to wait twelve bloody days.”

    “There’s the head,” Langland said, gesturing to the corner with the rear bulkhead. The screen there was the same grease-dulled color as the deck and bulkheads; with my current fuzzy vision I hadn’t noticed it. “And I guess a set of my slops’ll fit you.”

    I got up with only a momentary rush of dizziness and started for the head. “Look, Olfetrie?” Langland said. “You’re not raising hell about this?”

    I looked at him over my shoulder. “That wouldn’t do much good, would it?” I said. “You going to turn around and put me back on Saguntum?”

    “Like hell we will!” Wellesley said.

    “Yeah, that’s what I figured,” I said. I walked into the head and stripped off my tunic. “I’ve never been on Blanchard, but I guess it’s got bars. That makes it pretty much all same-same as Saguntum so far as I care.”

    “Well, you’re a cool little bastard,” said Langland.

    I ran water into the basin and rinsed out my tunic. Then I used the wet garment to wipe my face and torso before rinsing it again. One thing about a starship is that there’s always water from the tanks of reaction mass.

    I wasn’t looking forward to being a crewman on the Martinique, but after Dad shot himself I’d given up expecting things to be the way I wanted. This wasn’t going to be fun, but I guessed it’d be livable. If I was wrong about that, well, then I didn’t have any problems at all.



    The Martinique didn’t have proper watches, but when we’d dropped into normal space so that Langland could fix our position, he swore and said, “Wellesley, we’ve got to get the starboard antenna back in service. It’ll be a month before we make Blanchard at this rate, and we don’t have food for that long.”

    “All right,” Wellesley said. “I’ll take the landsman out and we’ll free the cable.”

    We were all more or less average size, though Wellesley probably strained the expansion seams of the hard suits. I went to the less-good hard suit, though that was a toss-up: The cushion lining was almost completely gone from this one, but it looked to me like the interior flex at the joints was maybe in a little better shape than on the other.

    Wellesley cuffed me away. “Who told you to take a hard suit?” he snarled. “Put on one of the air suits until I decide you’re ready for a good one!”

    “I won’t wear one of those air suits,” I said. “Especially if I’m going out with you.”

    “You’ll do what I bloody say!” said Wellesley. “I’m the mate!”

    He cocked his fist. I set my feet and said, “I’m not drugged now!”

    Wellesley didn’t swing. I was about to start things myself, moving in and hitting him as many times as I could in the pit of his stomach. I wasn’t as strong as Wellesley and he had forty pounds on me besides, but I hit hard and I didn’t figure he was used to taking punishment.

    “Oh, back off, Wellesley,” the captain said. “I’ll take Olfetrie out. You recalibrate us for Blanchard with starboard in service again.”



    When the hatch had closed behind me and Langland in the airlock, I said, “What’s the story about the other two?”

    He frowned. “Glance and Bodo, no story,” he said. “They don’t speak much Standard, but they’re good spacers. I’m not sure where they come from. Never much cared, to tell the truth.”

    I wondered what he paid them. As little as he could, and that was probably less than a spacer with a better grasp of Standard would’ve gotten. I wouldn’t have called them “good spacers,” but I was comparing them against the Sunray’s crew. Chances were the run of RCN ships wouldn’t have measured up to that standard.

    The cable that extended and furled the starboard sails was jammed at the masthead. I climbed up to it and found the reason: The cable had been spliced into a rat’s nest about four times the diameter of the line proper. Apparently it’d worked for a while, but when it finally jammed, the cable guide had buggered it hopelessly.

    I came back down, put my helmet against Langland’s, and said, “I guess we can resplice this, but it isn’t going to be easy. Do you have a spare cable?”

    I could resplice it, anyway. I figured that whoever’d made the botch that I’d seen there now wasn’t going to do any better a second time.

    “Well, nothing of the weight,” Langland said. “That’s why I had Bodo and Glance splice it.”

    He led me to the outside supply locker. There was indeed a spool in it — marked #8, which meant it was exactly half the diameter of the cable on the antenna at present. This was the cable that’d usually be used to raise yards, not to extend the antenna itself. On the other hand…

    “Okay, we’ll swap it out,” I told Langland. I wasn’t acting like a junior spacer, but they hadn’t recruited me in the proper way either. I hadn’t liked the notion of running out of food on the way to Blanchard.

    “But that’s not heavy enough,” Langland said.

    “It doesn’t have to serve for long,” I said. “We’ll take the old cable aboard and I’ll splice it in the cabin. If I try to do it out here, I’m likely to butcher it as badly as the first guy did.”

    That wasn’t true. It was, however, true that I didn’t want to do a major splice in a hard suit that I didn’t trust not to fall apart even without being poked by a frayed cable.

    I disconnected the hydraulic line, then went up the antenna again, carrying the new spool. It was a lot easier this time than it’d been on the Sunray. Not only was the antenna not extended — that was the problem, after all — but I cut the original cable and used it as a traveller after I’d reconnected hydraulic line.

    It was easier also because I’d done it before — and because I’d done a lot of other things as well since Barnes first ran me through my paces on the Sunray. I was confident, because I’d managed to hold my own in a picked crew under a famous captain. There were plenty of better spacers, but none of them were on the Martinique.

    We hauled the old cable in together, loosely gathered since there was no point in rolling it properly. I wasn’t looking forward to making a proper splice, but that was the job.



    Wellesley complained that the cable took up most of the cabin, which it did. I didn’t bother explaining why I was doing the job inside rather than on the antenna. That was obvious if you accepted that I didn’t want to die because I’d ripped the suit open. Wellesley probably didn’t accept that, but even he wasn’t willing to push the business too hard.

    I’d squared the ends on either side of the previous splice. That was a bad enough job in itself as the Martinique’s saw was on its last legs. The power supply didn’t hold a charge — I had to recharge it three times on each cut — and the diamonds of the blade were worn almost smooth with the steel disk they were set into.

    I thought about the tools I’d seen by the scores in the chandleries that Dad supplied. It hadn’t crossed my mind that there were a lot of ship masters who couldn’t afford to replace basic equipment when it was worn out.

    Splicing was a simple job. Wearing gauntlets I spread both ends of the cable a foot back from the cut, using the handle of a pair of pliers since the ship didn’t have the hardened spike intended for the job, then laboriously braided each matching pair of filament bundles with the same pliers.

    Using hand tools I couldn’t possibly join the ends tightly enough to take the strain of extending the antenna, but the interior supply locker had a can of vacuum adhesive. It wasn’t full, but I was pretty sure there was enough to lock the pairs together until we got to the ground.

    What happened then was no concern of mine. Blanchard was a civilized world, and I was pretty sure that the local authorities wouldn’t be willing to forcibly return a jumped spacer to his ship if he insisted he was a Cinnabar citizen. Cinnabar was a long way away, but the Republic made rather a thing about the rights of her citizens.

    Even if there wasn’t a Cinnabar consul, on something like this I could probably get help from the Alliance embassy. Neither of the great powers had any use for dirtball worlds giving themselves airs.

    I kept working my watch. I’d thought of telling the others to cover for me while I focused on the splice. They’d gotten along without me before they landed on Saguntum, after all, though the rigging’s wretched condition showed that they’d gotten along very poorly.

    But so long as the #8 cable continued to work, there wasn’t a crisis. I didn’t want to provoke a fight unless I had to. It wasn’t as though I had anything better to do with my time than work on the rigging.

    Splicing gave me a lot of time to think. Mostly what I thought about was why I’d been drugged and sold to a short-crewed ship that was lifting immediately.

    It had to have been at Maeve’s orders. It can’t have been because she was angry about me turning her down, because there had to have been a lot of preplanning.

    The only thing that made sense to me was that Maeve was afraid I’d warn Captain Leary that she was planning something — she was or the Foreign Ministry was.

    I probably wouldn’t have said anything anyway, mostly because I was embarrassed about the whole business. “Sir, a woman came on to me and I ran away.”

    But what was Maeve — or maybe what was the Foreign Ministry — planning? She had some sort of gang working for her, but I didn’t see how they could accomplish anything serious against the Sunray’s crew. A couple thugs could easy enough nobble a young fool like me, but it wouldn’t have worked with an experienced spacer.

    Lady Mundy, whom Maeve had said was the leader of the conspiracy to start a war, would never have been caught by such local talent. The stories I’d heard from spacers from the Princess Cecile made “the Mistress” out to be a demon from Hell, and she was always with Tovera, who was even worse.

    Anyway, that’s how it stood until the Martinique reached Blanchard orbit with food still in her lockers.

    Then the undersized cable on the starboard antenna snapped when Captain Langland started to retract it.

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