Down Below....

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Dear Uncle Barrington has asked me to put his memoires online for him. He claims he can't do 'this newfangled interweb malarky' though he seems to be coping well in most other ways. (shame about my Ducati mind) Here's a brief scene for a start, and he's asked me to request some feedback. Enjoy!

“You, Stoker!”

He halted, stood to attention, and saluted, “Sir?”

Strictly speaking, as a supernumerary I was outside the chain of command and so the salute wasn't strictly necessary, but the stokers were the ultimate professionals and, after a rather shaky start, Her Ladyship and I had earned considerable respect from the crew.

“Where's your 'suit?” I asked.

“Locker Sir!” he replied, as if that answered everything.

“I'm sure it is,” I countered, “but why isn't it on your body?”

“Sir?”

“We're about to engage the enemy, you should be properly attired.”

“But this one is cleaner Sir!” he was staring at a spot just above my right shoulder, military-blank as they come, but I could see he was having some trouble suppressing a smile.

So we were going to dance, were we?

I regarded his spotless white overalls; seams razor-sharp, hood folded perfectly under left epaulette, mask clipped to chest just so... A far cry from the stokers on most ships of course, and sharing nothing with them but a title and post in engineering, though that was completely different too. These 'stokers' weren't grubby labourers but the highest of specialists; respected, even admired, and paid well above grade to compensate for the risks.

For all that, few people wanted to be one.

“Regulations require it, dammit!” I insisted.

He raised an eyebrow in a manner that would be construed as insubordinate by most officers. I was not most officers of course, and he knew it. Besides, that one eloquent gesture conveyed more than any conversation permitted between such different ranks.

Not only was I a supernumerary myself, and my presence either on the bridge or in the engineering spaces during an engagement somewhat of a grey area regulation-wise, but everyone knew I was here with Her Ladyship, and that she'd be directing in Fire-control! That broke just about every rule in the book, and contravened pretty much all the customs outside of it too.

No-one was complaining of course. The whole ship knew she had the best feel for tactical ballistics in the fleet, and her direction had taken Dreadnought's score from mid-field to top-of-the-list during exercises. With the intensely competitive spirit existing in the fleet that was a very closely guarded secret, but Commander Bromhead over in Devastation knew us quite well and I strongly suspected he'd guessed the truth.

Certainly I was on a sticky wicket as far as moral superiority went, so I decided to resort to logic instead.

“The ratings look up to you chaps, you need to be setting a good example.”

He wilted for a moment, then visibly stiffened his backbone, clearly deciding to tough it out.

“Permission to speak feely Sir?”

“Granted, at ease”

He planted his feet apart slightly further apart, clasped hands firmly behind his back, then hesitated.

“Go on Bagshot,” I prompted, having read his name-tag by now.

“Well, its like this Sir....” he stalled again, then visibly summoned the nerve to continue, then it all came out in a rush.

“The suits are murder down there Sir!” his gaze flickered to my own jump-suit, which (admittedly assisted by woollen underwear) had recently kept me fairly comfortable in the icy blast on deck, “I mean, they're hot enough on a normal day, but we're not tanked for cruise, are we, and we'll be going to flank and staying there. You know how hot the boiler gets?”

I certainly did, I'd seen Brunelium boilers glowing a dull red in testing, and burned myself on them more than once. I nodded once.

“And with the vents battened down...” he shrugged.

I could picture it; only so much heat can be dumped into the lift-tanks, even running battle-mix, and the radiators outside the hull can only do so much, even here. I understood the problem, but still...

“Look man, what will you do if we have to abandon ship?”

“But, Sir, I'm in Engineering!” as if that explained everything.

“What d'you mean?”

“We never get out anyway. We're down there, Sir, bottom aft end of the citadel.” he was warming to his theme, clearly something was needing to be said, “We're in the most protected part of the ship. That's fine most of the time, Sir, but if the worst happens we're either blown up if the mag goes, boiled if the coolant fails, drowned or crushed if we hit the surface, and if the boiler's damaged.... Well, in that case we'd rather die quickly Sir.”

“I understand all that, but you've got an escape tube haven't you? I've seen the hatch in the floor.”

“Yes Sir, but if we're falling fast its impossible, and if we aren't...... it's no use below a thousand feet anyway.”

“Well, don't leave it that late!”

“Have to Sir. If we're trying to put down gently the ship needs us all the way.”

“And if you're ordered?”

“No, Sir. I'll stay at my post, Sir!”

Clearly I wasn't going to win this one. I decided to give up gracefully and let him have his way.

“Very well then,” I sighed, “carry on, but don't tell anyone I said so.”

“Wouldn't dream of it, Sir.” he grinned.

“You're a brave man Bagshot, its a pleasure to serve with you.”

“The pleasure's all mine Sir!” and his grin widened as if he'd been given the Victoria Cross, I suspected there was a good chance he would be, most likely posthumous.

“Good luck then, hope to see you on the other side.”

I extended my hand. After a moment's hesitation at the unprecedented flouting of protocol, he reached out his own and clasped it.

As we shook I detected an additional faint quiver in his own, and I understood.

 

© Marcus Brook 2017

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