Sunday, July 1, 2012


by Walt Staples

The wrench slipped and clanged against the manifold. Israel Hands grimaced. He held his breath, listening. All he heard were the normal ship sounds—the wheeze of the air handlers, the creaking and pop of the hull as the rotating freighter turned a new side to the glare of 94 Ceti A's blaze. Satisfied, the engineer went on with installing the spigot on the blower motor supply line.

His mind wandered to Captain Merry, the late Captain George Merry he reminded himself. He thought of the orange bodybag holding the captain with which he had shared John Silver's walk-in-cooler while hiding. Outside in the galley, he first heard angry voices, then sounds of a commotion, a scream, finally silence. When he could stand the waiting no longer, he eased the door of the cooler open. Silver, the tall cook, lay on his face; the handle of one of his carving knives protruding from his back. Somehow, his prosthetic leg had become detached in the struggle. Hands scowled at the murdered man; no doubt Jim Hawkins' handiwork. He enjoyed doing Smollett's dirty work.

Hands had not cared for Smollett since the first officer came aboard. While Merry was quiet, competent, and easygoing, Smollett—now “Captain Smollett”--showed the marks of a martinet.

The engineer considered the opposition. Smollett, Hawkins, Livesey probably, Hunter, and Joy. Gunn? Maybe yes, maybe no. Ben Gunn was impossible to figure; more a force of nature than a man.

He tightened the coupling. Hooking the wrench to his belt, he paused and listened once more. Nothing. Hands quickly threaded the heavy hose onto the spigot and snugged it down.

“Barratry,” that's what they called it—a captain stealing the cargo with which he was entrusted. The goods in the strongroom had proved too much for Smollett. The engineer wondered what was on the manifest that set the crime in motion.

Hands crossed himself and said a quick prayer for the spirit of “Long John” Silver. Had he not overheard the plot and pushed Hands into the cooler when he heard Smollett's faction coming, the engineer was sure he too would be lying on the galley deck beside the Imperium Traveler's cook. He smiled sadly as he remembered Silver tickled to death that Steve Jackson, the shipping line's owner, knew him by name. He sighed, a good man gone.

Down the companionway, someone dropped a metal object. Hands heard a snarled profanity that could only  have come from Hawkins. The engineer grinned wolfishly. The tell-tale on the bridge showed Hands back aft in the drive room rather than in Life Support. Amazing what one could do with a screwdriver.

The Imperium Traveler's engineer pulled on a pair of heavily padded gauntlets and picked up the  free end of the hose. He checked that the nozzle was closed, then opened the valve on the spigot all the way.

He heard footfalls approaching from forward. He peeked a bit too far around the door combing. Jim Hawkins, in the lead, saw him and snapped off a shot from the ship pistol he carried. The frangible bullet hit the combing just to the side of his head and shattered. The projectiles wouldn't hole hard surfaces, but they would hole skin and muscle.

Smollett called out, “Jim, put that away. Israel is a friend. There's no call for that sort of thing.” After a moment, he continued in a wheedling voice, “Now, Israel, Jim has put the pistol away. Why don't you come on out and we'll discuss the whole thing.”

Hands stayed hidden. “There's nothing to be discussed. You're stealing the ship and her cargo. That's barratry! We've nothing to talk about.”

Smollett sounded pained, “But, Israel, that's such a harsh word. Besides, you can be a rich man.”

Hands felt the blood rise in his face. “I work for Steve Jackson,” he shouted. “I've eaten his salt.” He stepped around the edge of the door into the companionway, pointed the nozzle at the four men there, opened it, and roared, “I will not break my oath.”

Hawkins got off one shot before the stream of live steam took him and the others. The round hit Hands low in the right leg, causing him to fall back against the bulkhead and slide down to sit on the deck. He managed to keep the steam on its targets until the screams ceased. Eventually, he closed the nozzle.

His leg burned to the point that he glanced down to make sure he hadn't scalded himself as well. He dropped the hose, and opened and slapped a med pack over the wound. He looked at the four bodies that shared the companionway with him and decided that med packs would be of little use. Between the painkillers in the med pack, nervous exhaustion, and the horror at his success, Hands zoned out.

When he returned to alertness, he found Doctor Livesey treating his wound. The ship's rabbity medico smiled sickly at him, then glanced up nervously at Ben Gunn. The latter leaned against the bulkhead idly cleaning under his fingernails with a vicious-looking dagger. Livesey turned back to Hands. “Ah, Israel. You've returned to us. Everything's under control. The Revenue Cutter Wolverine will be along side in an hour.” He looked at Gunn. “See, Ben? I told you I'd take care of him.”

The cargo master leered down at the medico. “Oh, aye, pleasant as pie aren't we, good croaker? The thought of spending time, just the two of us, strongly concentrates the mind, does it not? No forgetting a syllable of the Hippocratic Oath as well as the one you made to this ship, is there?” He giggled, then cocked his head to take in the hose and spigot. “And, Israel, my young lad, wherever did you find steam on our darling old Imperium Traveler?”

Hands nodded toward the Life Support compartment. “The steam's a byproduct of cooling the fusion chamber. It's piped forward to turn the blower motors.”

Gunn thought it over for a moment, then giggled again. The engineer reflected that it was proof of Gunn's genius as a cargo master that captains willingly put up with his oddity.

Gunn looked at him with a bird-like twinkle. “How came you by the idea to use steam in such an innovative way, my boy?”

Hands glanced at the bodies and shuddered, then back up at Gunn. He said, tiredly, “The ancient classic about a ship's engineer, The Sand Pebbles.”

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