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Though Hell Should Bar the Way: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 11:38 EDT



    “So what’re we supposed to do now?” Wellesley said. “We can’t enter the atmosphere with an antenna up or the stresses’ll tear the ship apart!”

    He sounded like he meant the question rather than just faking stupid to be nasty, though “being nasty” was generally a good bet with Wellesley. I said, “We put the original cable back on the antenna. I’ve completed the splice except for spraying the adhesive, and we’d need to do that in vacuum anyway.”

    I started putting a suit on. Wellesley said, “Well, if you hadn’t done such a half-assed job the first time –”

    But Captain Langland, suiting up beside me, said, “Wellesley, belt up. Take the console. Bodo and Glance, you come out too. We’ll need both of you to hold the line for spraying the adhesive.”

    With the loosely bunched cable it took two cycles of the airlock: me, Langland and the cable through first, then Bodo and Glance when we were clear. While we waited for them to arrive, I looked down on Blanchard. The continent we were passing over was mostly beige, running into orange. There were two green streaks running toward the east coast, so it wasn’t completely arid.

    I didn’t suppose it mattered. I wasn’t going to be on Blanchard long enough to care.

    With the two spacers to either side holding the cable up and the captain with his gauntlets gripping either side of the splice, I applied the adhesive. I didn’t trust any of the others to do it, and it could be that they felt the same way. Anyhow, none of the others argued that he ought to be the one to do it.

    I got the two sides, then had the crew rotate the cable on its axis and got what had been the top and bottom of the seam. The sprayer worked best when I could hold it level, so it was worth the effort of explaining what I wanted to Bodo and Glance.

    I’d just hooked the spliced cable to one end of the broken #8 when the hull vibrated and the two antenna I could see — dorsal and ventral — telescoped. I knew that the take-up reel of starboard would be spinning also if I hadn’t disconnected the hydraulics before I started work. It wouldn’t have done anything to the antenna; but when the line with the bight in it whirled through my hands it might have taken them off.

    Langland gestured to me and trotted toward the lock as quickly as anybody could move in a hard suit. I was up in the rigging, so I just stayed there. Bodo and Glance followed the captain, which I’m pretty sure he hadn’t meant them to do. It didn’t matter, though; there was nothing more for them to do on the hull.

    I was looking down at Blanchard again — we’d proceeded west over an ocean and were over another continent, when something blocked my view: Another spaceship had just slid within a hundred feet of us. I jumped in my suit. The ship must have some sort of propulsion other than plasma thrusters, because otherwise they wouldn’t have sufficiently delicate control.

    I felt a loud clang! through my boots; my antenna swayed noticeably. My first thought was that the Martinique was falling apart, perhaps because of something the strange ship had done. Then as our orbit continued, sunlight caught the line which now connected our ship to the other: The stranger had sent across a magnetic grapple. We were being captured by a pirate ship.

    The pirate puffed exhaust — steam, I figured, from the glitter of ice crystals that formed on the hull near the nozzles. The stranger halted at about fifty feet; maybe it even started to edge away.

    Several figures stood near an airlock open on the pirate’s hull. As I watched, they jumped in turn along the grappling line.

    From where I stood they seemed to be holding on to the cable, but they probably were using rings of some sort pre-looped over the line. You could expect at least one fiber of a cable to fray in ordinary use, and it might easily find a seam in a gauntlet. Certainly I wouldn’t trust the Martinique’s equipment to protect my hands or my life.

    The first pirate reached the hull with an impact I could barely feel. They couldn’t enter the airlock if those inside kept the inner hatch open, but I doubted Langland and the others would try to do that.

    On the pirate ship’s bow was a set of four bombardment rockets pivoted toward the Martinique. They were probably six or eight inches in diameter — I couldn’t tell which from where I was; both sizes were standard — and carried enough explosive to dish in a starship’s hull plating.

    They were standard chandler’s stores. Bigger, better-found ships like the Sunray generally mounted a plasma cannon, but a basket of rockets was a cheaper defensive fitment. At the bottom end, there were many tramps like the Martinique with nothing at all.

    Pirates used rockets also. From the stories, when a ship got far enough out from civilized worlds, whether it was a pirate or a trader depended on its immediate circumstances.

    I was pretty sure pirates would be willing to blow an airlock open with explosives if a crew kept the inner hatch door open so that the interlock would prevent the outer door from opening normally. I wouldn’t have let anybody try that trick if I’d been in the cabin.

    The third pirate was sailing toward the Martinique when the line twitched. The two ships had been drawing apart ever since the final braking puff of steam. The cable went taut as it snubbed up the pirate vessel.

    The shock was really very slight — I doubt the relative movement can have been as much as a mile an hour — but it flung the pirate loose from his hold. Instead of landing softly, using both his grip and his flexed knees to brake him, he hit hard, fell full length on the hull, and bounced away.

    I didn’t think; there wasn’t time to. I knew my safety line was anchored, because I never worked on the hull without my line. I judged the pirate’s trajectory — at the moment he was just a spacer who was about to carom off into vacuum — and jumped for where he’d be when I reached the same point. It was as if we were gymnasts executing a trick we hadn’t practiced.

    The thing I didn’t know was whether my safety line was long enough to allow me to reach him. The one I was using was a standard length — ten meters, I thought. It’d either work or it wouldn’t.

    I caught the pirate around the waist. We slammed the hull together, him underneath. We started to slide off again, but I got the soles of both my magnetic boots flat against the steel. Between them and the safety line reaching the end of its play, we stopped.

    The pirate had been flailing his arms. Now he went rigid and allowed me to set him down firmly on the hull in front of me. Only one of his boots took hold; the magnets in the sole of the other were missing.

    The pirate turned and faced me. He looked terrified, which was a pretty reasonable reaction.

    I walked us to the open airlock where the other two pirates waited. I sure didn’t want to stay out here, though I wasn’t looking forward to what happened next in the cabin either.

    I unhooked my safety line from the ring at the airlock coaming.




    The pirates started taking their helmets off in the airlock in usual fashion. I hesitated to do that, but I decided that regardless of what my shipmates in the cabin were going to do I was better off doing exactly what the pirates did. The leader — he had a pair of red-dyed bird plumes glued to his helmet — wore a holstered pistol, and knives dangled from the bandoliers of the other two.

    The leader had a goatee. I smiled at him and said, “I’m Roy Olfetrie. What happens next?”

    The pirate glared at me. The four of us were crammed pretty tight in the airlock. A crappy hard suit (and all of these were) took up just as much room as a good one.

    The man I’d saved was only a few years older than I was. He said, “We take you to Salaam on ben Yusuf and sell you. Unless your world has a treaty with us?”

    “I’m a Cinnabar citizen,” I said.

    “It doesn’t matter, Lal,” the leader said. “He’s crew, not a passenger, so he goes with the ship’s registry.”

    He drew his pistol and opened the inner airlock. He gestured me out first.

    My shipmates stood on the far side of the cabin. Bodo and Glance were blank-faced — as usual; Captain Langland looked downcast. Wellesley seemed furious, but that wasn’t different enough from his usual expression for me to make anything of it.

    Lal — the man I’d saved — went over to the console. He checked readings, then called the pirate ship.

    “I’m Captain Hakim,” the leader said, looking across me and my shipmates. “Now, which of you wants to join my crew on shares? Otherwise you’ll be sold in Salaam and take your chances.”

    “It was pirates like you that killed my brother,” Wellesley said. The words came out slowly, as though he were carving them individually out of wood.

    A light tap on the hull was followed by three ringing notes. The pirate ship must’ve cut power to the grapnel, because Lal lit the High Drives. We began to accelerate at the Martinique’s modest best.

    “I’ll help you work ship,” I said. “I won’t join your crew, but I’ll help you get the Martinique into harbor.”

    “You little turd,” Wellesley said, glaring at me. “They’re pirates. No decent man could join them!”

    I met his eyes. “You shanghaied me,” I said. “By my books, you’re as much a pirate as they are. Besides which, you tried to drop out of orbit when you spotted the pirates. You’d have killed all of us on the hull if you’d been able to lower the starboard antenna so that it wouldn’t set you spinning when you hit the atmosphere.”

    Wellesley shouted something about my mother and swung for my face. I was wearing a hard suit, so that was the only target he had. The fiberglass-stiffened sleeve kept me from moving as quickly as I usually could have. I was holding the helmet in my right gauntlet, though, and I got it in the way of Wellesley’s fist.

    He shouted again, grabbing his broken knuckles with his free hand. I straightened my arm, still holding the helmet, in a punch to Wellesley’s head. The weight and stiff suit slowed me down, but it was still enough to bounce the mate’s skull against the steel bulkhead. He collapsed onto the deck.

    I backed away, weak from the adrenalin pumping through me. I started to wonder how the pirates were going to react, though there was nothing else I could’ve done.

    I needn’t have worried. Hakim started laughing; the pirate beside him sheathed the curved knife he’d drawn, and Lal grinned as he turned back to the console display.

    “Sure you don’t want to join my crew?” Hakim said. “I could use you.”

    “I’m sure,” I said. “But I’ll go out now and finish connecting the starboard antenna. As soon as I’ve changed my air bottle, I mean.”

    “I’ll go with you,” said Lal, getting up from the console. “It’s a two-man job.”



    Lal was good to work with — as good as Langland, and sure a lot better than Bodo or Glance. We rerigged the antenna, then matched course with the pirate ship again. I’d thought that Blanchard might have some kind of patrol, but there wasn’t one.

    Hakim said that occasionally there’d be a well-armed freighter in harbor and the Blanchard authorities would hire it to chase pirates away, but that didn’t happen very often. He said they kept a careful watch while they were in Blanchard orbit, but they were in no real danger.

    With both ships coasting outward in free fall, the pirate vessel reattached the grapple. Hakim went back aboard his own vessel, taking with him Langland, Bodo and Glance. Two more pirates came across to join me, Lal, and Stephanos with the curved knife, giving the Martinique as full a crew as before to work her to ben Yusuf.

    The new men brought with them a net bag holding containers. I assumed they were additional food — the Martinique’s larder was down to boring if not dangerous levels.

    As it turned out, the new stores were entirely wine — a harsh red vintage, very strong. A mouthful was enough for me. The only use I could imagine for it was as paint stripper, but the pirates went through it at a rate that astounded me.

    Wellesley stayed aboard the Martinique, in the shower. His limbs were bound with cargo tape, and he was gagged between feedings. I hosed him off when he fouled himself, which the situation forced him to do.

    I didn’t ungag him, though, let alone consider loosing his limbs. I wished that Hakim had taken Wellesley aboard his ship, but I wasn’t going to endanger myself in order to ease the situation for a bastard who’d tried to kill me when he tried to enter the atmosphere when I was on the hull.



    I thought that Lal had been appointed captain, but within a day I realized that there was no captain. The pirates acted as equals, cooperating pretty well. Lal happened to be the only one aboard — besides me — who could do even basic programming on the astrogation console.

    How basic I realized on the second day out from Blanchard. Tarek was fooling with the console. He suddenly gave a cry of horror — the display had gone pearly blank the way it did if you tried to access a sensor input while the ship was in the Matrix.

    I didn’t think anything of it until Lal took over at the console and began attempting more and more frantic commands. He began to pray aloud in a rising voice.

    I joined Lal at the console. Actually, everybody was standing around it. Lal’s panic had already started to affect them.

    “Here, let me,” I said. “Now back away, for heaven’s sake.”

    Lal gave up the seat. The crowding and chattering I simply had to work with.

    It didn’t take long to find the problem. Tarek had switched the display to remote input — and there were no remotes attached to this console.

    When I returned to an ordinary navigation display, I said, “All right, from now on only Lal touches the console, okay? I don’t want to starve to death in the Matrix. Do you all agree?”

    They did, or anyway they muttered things that I took as agreement.



    In another day and a half, the Martinique was in ben Yusuf orbit. Lal let the console land her.

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