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Venus looked on Helen's face,
(O Troy Town!)
Knew far off an hour and place,
And fire lit with the heart's desire;
Laughed and said, "Thy gift hath grace!" 

—Dante Gabriel Rossetti



Sal pushed the hatch control. "Come on, Johnnie," he said. "You up to a fast ride down?"

"Elevators at last?" Johnnie asked. "Sure, I'm up to anything."

"Bring 'em around to the starboard quarter, Lieutenant Hammond," the Angel ensign called back to the OOD as the hatch closed behind them. "Anything it is, my friend. You're going by the skimmer winch."

They clanged down the companionway from the conning tower more easily than they'd come up it, and perhaps a little faster; but a part of Johnnie's mind kept imagining his uncle sneering, "Arthur, your idiot son broke his neck running down stairs. . . ." 

The air was thick with powder fumes. The breeze riffling across the harbor brought with it faint hints of burned vegetation and phosphorous—though that might have been Johnnie's imagination.

Voices cursed from the forward 5.25-inch turret. The men sent to clear the stoppage began to hammer, an uncontrolled sound that struck Johnnie as a doubtful way to deal with high explosive.

Sal opened a coverplate on the starboard foredeck and lifted up a folded, telescoping derrick. The cover was cross-dogged, but even so Johnnie doubted that it would survive the muzzle blasts of the 18-inch guns firing above it. After a battle there would be considerable damage to all the dreadnoughts, whether or not they'd been struck by enemy shells.

Sal spread the extensions that were meant to clamp the lifting points of a skimmer. "Hop in," he said. "Your limousine awaits."

His face turned serious. "Ah—but if you think you might slip, we'll go by the regular landing stage."

M4434 had pulled away from the dock and was curving toward the Holy Trinity. Flotsam and the opalescent stains of oil wobbled in the hydrofoil's wake; the motion brought bright flashing teeth to life in the harbor as well.

"I'm fine," said Johnnie, setting one boot on either clamp and gripping the hinge where the arms joined. He was sure he'd be all right; and he'd rather drop into the watery killing ground below than admit to Sal he was afraid. "Lower away!"

With a loud squealing—from the winch brakes rather than the monocrystalline cable—Johnnie dropped smoothly toward the harbor. Sal waved from the control box.

As the dreadnought's gray-green hull slid past, Johnnie looked down—and rotated dizzyingly as the motion changed his center of mass. A skimmer would be held by three arms, not two and the hinge. He braced himself erect again, as though he were preparing to be shot.

"I don't want us staving our sides in with this nonsense!" Captain Haynes shouted from close by. "Be ready to fend off forward!"

Strong hands caught Johnnie by both forearms and pulled him in, over the amidships rail. "Step back, sir," said Walcheron.

Johnnie obeyed. Because the sailors were holding him, he didn't fall back into the cockpit when his heel stubbed the coaming.

"I'm okay," he gasped, realizing as he spoke that he really was.

"Bring us around, Watkins," Haynes ordered the torpedoboat's commander. "Let's get home, man!"

The cable hummed its way back onto the take-up reel. Johnnie looked up. Sal was peering down past the pronounced flare that directed waves like a plowshare instead of sweeping them into the superstructure when the dreadnought was at speed.

The young Angel officer waved. Johnnie started to return the gesture, but he had to grab the rail as the M4434 accelerated in a tight turn.

"Good hunting, John!" Sal shouted past the rumble of the auxiliary thruster.

Johnnie started forward toward the gun tub.

"Ensign Gordon," Haynes ordered. "Come into the cockpit with me."

The guard boat, more than a half mile away, had already drawn back the net's inner layer. The hydrofoil headed for the gap at all the speed the hull motor alone could provide. The little vessel bucked and pitched as it crossed the vestiges of its own wake.

Johnnie swung his legs over the low bulkhead, trying not to kick any of the five men already in the small enclosure. "Yes sir?" he said. He wondered if he ought to salute.

Haynes, seated at one of the paired control consoles, looked up at him. "Who told you to go buggering off on your own, Gordon?" he demanded. "It would've served you right if I'd just left you to find your own way back, you know."

The hydrofoil's helmsman and the commanding officer—an ensign—kept their eyes studiously on the business of running the boat, but Haynes' two staff lieutenants stared at Johnnie with sycophantic amusement.

"I—" Johnnie began, but this was a test too—life was a test—and he wasn't going to tell this man what directions he'd gotten from Uncle Dan.

"Sir," he resumed, "I thought this was a good opportunity to familiarize myself with the Angels' operation, seeing that we may be acting in concert with them in the coming action."

"Did you think that indeed, Ensign?" the captain said with a sort of heavy playfulness. Even his initial attack had lacked the anger Johnnie would have expected to underlie the words. "That we'd be 'acting in concert' with Admiral Braun?"

"Yessir," Johnnie said.

The helmsman throttled back as the torpedoboat entered the netted lock area. Crewmen had rifles and grenade launchers ready in case there was a repetition of the excitement when they locked through from the open sea.

The guard boat's hull bore a line of fresh patches where stray bullets had raked her. All the visible members of her crew were waving.

"Well, Gordon," Haynes said, "you're right. Perhaps I shouldn't judge you by the maternal side of your family."

Johnnie kept his lips pressed together. Uncle Dan didn't need a junior ensign to defend him, and anyway—don't be sorry. Be controlled.

The hydrofoil's commander muttered an order. M4434 speeded up again. The bow slapped, then rose, and the outriggers began to extend in iridescent domes of spray. Johnnie gripped the coaming behind him with both hands.

To his amazement, Captain Haynes squeezed deeper into the console and motioned Johnnie down onto the corner of the seat beside him.

"Admiral Braun is calling a company meeting right now, Gordon," the captain said. "He and Admiral Bergstrom will handshake by radio, probably before we've gotten back to Blackhorse Base. Would you like to know how I arranged it?"

"Ah, yessir." He had to put his mouth close to the pick-up over the ear of Haynes' commo helmet to be sure the captain heard him.

"Not more money," Haynes said, gloating over his triumph and his captive audience. "That's what your uncle would have tried, but I know Admiral Braun. I offered him the chance to merge his fleet with the Blackhorse on favorable—though reasonable—terms."

Johnnie waited for more. "Yes sir?" he prompted when he saw Captain Haynes' face darken at what he was reading as dumb insolence.

"Yes . . . ," Haynes said, purring the word like a zoo-fattened lion. "Quite reasonable. All the Angel officers and men in the rank of lieutenant or below transfer with an additional ninety days in grade for the purpose of bonus distribution. That's fair, isn't it, Ensign? For an additional five battleships plus supporting units?"

"Yes sir," Johnnie said. "That seems a very fair deal."

It did. Johnnie didn't see where the catch was, unless Haynes were simply preening over his success . . . and there seemed to be more in his tone than that.

The hydrofoil had risen to full speed. With a load of torpedoes aboard she would have been a few knots slower, but the additional weight might have damped some of the high-frequency vibration Johnnie noticed now that he was out of the wind's buffeting.

"And as for Admiral Braun himself," Haynes continued, "he receives the rank of captain and moves into the number three slot in the Blackhorse. Director of Planning."

"That's Uncle Dan's position." Part of Johnnie's mind was amazed by the cold lack of emotion with which his tongue had formed the words.

"It was Commander Cooke's position," Haynes smirked. "He'll move, I think—obviously Admiral Bergstrom and I need to work out the internal details—Commander Cooke will become Commodore of Screening Forces. . . . A position of expanded responsibility since Blackhorse is being reinforced by the Angels in that category too."

"Sir," said Johnnie's ice-cold tongue. He was speaking loudly to be heard, but he wasn't shouting; he was sure he wasn't shouting. "The Angels are heavy in capital ships. not destroyers. Their adjuncts to our screening forces are insignificant."

And the water beneath is wet and full of hungry things, Johnnie's mind gibed at him, since we're stating the bloody obvious now. 

"Yes, well, Ensign," said Captain Haynes. "Our first duty is to our employers, Wenceslas Dome, you know. I'm sure your father could explain that to you if you don't understand it already. If some individuals have to pay a price in the accomplishment of that duty, well—soldiers have to be willing to pay the price, don't they?"

"Sir," said Johnnie. "I request permission to join Seaman Walcheron in the forward gun tub."

Haynes made a contemptuous shooing motion with the backs of his fingers. "Go on, then, Gordon," he said. "Maybe your uncle will take you with him to Flotilla Blanche—if he really has an offer from Admiral de Lessups the way he claims. And if there's anything left of Flotilla Blanche after we engage them!"

* * *

Johnnie sat in the assistant gunner's seat with his head cradled in his hands. The sunset was fiery and brilliant, hurling the torpedoboat's distorted shadow hundreds of yards astern of the racing vessel, but the young ensign had no stomach for visions of the new surface world of which he'd become so recently a part.

Walcheron's commo helmet was hooked into the base-to-ship frequency. He heard the message sent to Captain Haynes when M4434 was only three miles from Blackhorse Base, then repeated the gist of it for Johnnie.

Heidigger and Carolina had just declared war. They had hired Flotilla Blanche and the Warcocks, as expected.

The Angels had signed with Heidigger Dome as well.

Admiral Braun had suckered Captain Haynes. There wasn't a chance now of associating another company before the Blackhorse alone faced her triple opponents.


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