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No counsel is more trustworthy than that which is given upon ships that are in peril.
Leonardo da Vinci
Captain Haynes was off M4434 and jogging toward the Base Operations Center before the hydrofoil had been secured to bollards. His pair of lieutenants hesitated, then jumped after him. They were big-ship men. The jig the torpedoboat did as the vessel rebounded from a fender made one of the aides sprawl full-length on the floodlit dock.
Johnnie's reaction to the bad newsthe disastrous news that doomed the Blackhorse, Wenceslas Dome, and perhaps all of Mankindwas relief. Commander Cooke had been right all along; Captain Haynes looked a fool and an incompetent.
Johnnie knew his reaction made sense only on the emotional level, not intellectually . . .
But he was beginning to realize that most people acted on a primarily emotional level, himself included.
Johnnie jumped to solid ground. Like Haynes and his team, he was superfluous to the business of docking and shutting down the hydrofoil's systems.
Unlike Haynes, he hadn't any idea of what he ought to do next.
"Did you have a good trip, then, John?" called a voice from the pool of shadow at the base of one of the light standards.
Johnnie turned and blinked. "Yessir," he said.
He felt his lips rising in a cruel grin. "A better trip than Captain Haynes did, Uncle Dan. I carried out my mission."
Insects brought out by darkness buzzed enthusiastically around the men. The living sound almost buried the hum of the high-frequency generators in the epaulets of Blackhorse uniforms which repelled the bugs.
Johnnie slapped his cheek. Most of the bugs.
Dan gestured in the direction of the BOC. The two men fell in step with an ease that had nothing of training to it, in at least Johnnie's case; he and his uncle were just in synch.
"Haynes didn't let you into the negotiations, did he?" Dan asked when the dock and the men busy there were ten yards behind them.
"No sir." Should he have insisted on being present? "I didn't insist." No excuses. "I viewed the base arrangements and went aboard one of their battleships, the Holy Trinity."
Dan looked at him sharply. "That one," he said. "What's her status?"
"Combat ready. She's dirty because most of her crew's working on the St. Michael, but she's ready to go."
He cleared his throat. "Uncle Dan," he said, "they were going to move you to the screening forces. If the deal had gone through."
"Two birds with one stone, hey?" Dan chuckled. "That's better strategic planning than I'd have given Haynes credit for."
Johnnie's mind revolved possibilities as they marched toward the Operations Center. One of the aides opened the door for Haynes, and the trio disappeared inside.
"If we move very fast," Johnnie said carefully, "I don't think the Angels can have the St. Michael ready for action."
Dan pursed his lips and made a scornful pfft. "The St. Michael isn't going to turn the battle," he said. "For that matter, the Holy Trinity isn't going to turn the battle if it's just one more ship in the line. . . ."
The BOC's lighted facade loomed in front of them.
Johnnie rephrased the question in his mind and said, "Shall I wait in the lobby for you?"
His uncle pushed the first set of doors open. The air conditioning and anticipation made Johnnie shudder.
"No," said Dan. "I need you. To give honest answers to any questions you're asked"
Johnnie opened the inner doors.
"and to cover my back if we have to shoot our way out."
Johnnie blinked. Uncle Dan was smiling.
Probably the last clause was a joke.
Lieutenant Barton and Haynes' two aides waited in Admiral Bergstrom's outer office. The Admiral's secretary smiled tightly and said, "Commander, the Admiral and Captain Haynes are waiting for you."
"Right," said Dan. "For me and Ensign Gordon."
He reached for the door latch.
"Not" began one of Haynes' men as he rose from his chair.
Uncle Dan's eyes met the lieutenant's and spiked him. Johnnie's right hand flexed instinctively as he turned also. He no longer assumed Dan had been joking.
The lieutenant sat down heavily.
"Right," Uncle Dan repeated. He pushed open the door.
"Captain Haynes," he said even before his foot had followed his hand into the inner office, "you excluded Senator Gordon's son from the negotiations which you"
"Cooke, what are you" the captain blustered.
"botched. Botched," Dan continued in a rising voice as his left hand gestured Johnnie through the door beside him and let it close of its own weight. "For that reason alone it would be necessary for Ensign Gordon to be present now."
"Then I want Lieutenant Platt"
"Walter," snapped Admiral Bergstrom, "for God's sake, shut up!"
The room froze.
"Gordon," the Commander in Chief resumed in a tired voice, "sit down. No trick shooting this time. Daniel, you sit down also."
He looked from one of his senior officers to the other. "We don't need to chew each other up, gentlemen," he said. "There are three very competent fleets out there" he gestured "ready and willing to accomplish the task."
Johnnie slid cautiously into the seat nearest the door. It was plainer than the units in his father's office, but the data bank/hologram projector linkage was state-of-the-art.
"Sorry, sir," muttered Captain Haynes. "I'm"
He grimaced. There was a visicube of his wife on the console of his seat. His hands revolved it. "We're all upset."
"Perhaps," Uncle Dan suggested quietly as he too sat, "Koslowski, Molp, and Randleman should be present?"
Bergstrom shook his head. "We'll need the other squadron commanders when it's time for detailed planning," he said. "But first we have to decide what to do . . . and that's a matter for the three of us, isn't it, gentlemen?"
He nodded ironically toward Johnnie. "And for Senator Gordon's representative, of course."
"There's no certainty in battle," Haynes said, speaking distinctly but toward the image in his hands. "Sure, we're outnumbered, but that doesn't mean we can't engage and win."
"If we met the others one at a time," said the Commander in Chief, "we could possibly defeat them all in detail. But"
"If we station ourselves in the Kanjar Straits," Haynes said eagerly, "if we do it right awaythey can't use their full strength against us. Then"
"Then they put out a screen of subs and light forces on the ocean side of the Straits and let us rot until our hulls are foul and we have to return to base to refuel," Uncle Dan broke in without raising his voice. "When we attempt to do that, their combined fleets sail from baseclean and fully preparedrun us down while we skirmish with their screen, and send us to the bottom."
"Are you saying we should surrender now?" Haynes demanded. "Are you saying that?"
Dan didn't speak. Admiral Bergstrom played with a piece of rusty shell casing on his desk, then looked directly at Haynes. "Frankly, Walter," he said, "I don't see much point in fighting a battle we're certain to lose, either. Lose badly."
"Sir," said Haynes, "honor demands we fulfil our contract to the best of our abilities."
"Honor won't win a battle against overwhelming strength," Uncle Dan said.
He ignored Johnnie completely. The other senior officers kept flicking their eyes toward the man they thought was the political envoy from Wenceslas Dome.
"Honor won't even bury us," Dan continued calmly. "Though of course that won't matter so long as the fish are on the job. I could not in good conscience recommend we engage if I didn't think we could win."
Captain Haynes opened his mouthand closed it without speaking.
"Daniel," Admiral Bergstrom said. "This isn't a time for games."
"Sorry," Dan said; sounding for the first time in Johnnie's hearing as though he felt he'd made an error.
Dan's fingertips worked the projector controls of his chair. He cleared his throat and resumed, "My aide, Ensign Gordon, reconnoitered Paradise Base for us during the negotiations. John, will you sketch in the location of the Angel units for us now?"
A holographic representation of Paradise Base, plucked from the BOC's data banks, glowed in the air of the office. Johnnie snapped open the cover of his own controls, slid the magenta cursor along the docks with his joystick, and began tapping a function key. The software was the same as that he'd trained on. . . .
"Twelve destroyers here," Johnnie said crisply. His pulse slowed and the nervous flush left his face now that he had a task to perform. "Two cruisers, bow inward, on the west side of this dock"
He hit a different function key twice, then used his joystick to adjust the attitude of the holographic images. "They appeared to be combat ready, but I have no hard evidence on the subject. Here"
"was a mothership with five submarines. Six, actually, but one had floats attached for buoyancy and I can't imagine that she's serviceable."
"It's not their bloody subs that we're worried about," muttered Captain Haynes as he stared at his wife's picture. "I only wish it was."
"The dreadnought St. Michael here in drydock," Johnnie said, ignoring the comment. "Local personnel believed that she'd be combat ready shortly, perhaps as soon as twenty-four hours. The Holy Trinity"
He toyed with the joystick to align the huge ship's image correctly near the harbor's jungle margin to the north.
"And three more dreadnoughts, which I believe to be the Azrael"
"the Spiritus Sancti"
"and the Elijah, though with these three I'm going by silhouette matching, not local information."
"That doesn't matter," said Uncle Dan.
"Perhaps you'd like to tell us exactly what does matter, Commander Cooke?" Haynes said sharply. "Where the vessels are when they form a battle line against us may be important, but"
Uncle Dan faced his rival and said, "The Holy Trinity matters. I propose taking fifty men on two of our submarines and cutting her out tomorrow night. Stealing the most powerful unit in the three fleets we face."
"There's a way through the minefields and nets?" the Commander in Chief said in amazement. "You've found a path?"
"No sir," Dan said. "We'll go overland here"
He slid the cursor to jungle-clad neck of land to the north of the harbor, beyond the plug of igneous rock which protected the outpost on the tip.
"carrying boats with us, then board our target at night. She has only a skeleton crew."
"No," said Admiral Bergstrom. "Through the junglethat's suicide."
"I don't believe so, sir," Dan rejoined. "With proper planningand I have been planning this for some time, as a contingency in the event"
"As a plan for throwing away fifty men, there are easier ways," Haynes snapped.
"in the event Admiral Braun behaved as I expected him to," Dan went on forcefully. "With proper planning, and the special skills which Ensign Gordon here brings to the endeavor, I believe we have a high likelihood of success."
He looked at Johnnie; looked at the Commander in Chief; and said, straight toward Captain Haynes with their eyes locked, "I will of course expect to lead the cutting-out expedition myself."
Johnnie's face turned toward the display, but his mind fleshed out the holographic blur with memories of the green-black Hell he'd seen from the deck of hydrofoils and the dreadnought herself.
Haynes glared at his rival, then glanced down at the visicube in his lap. "Commander," he said to his wife's image, "I don't question your personal courage. But if you choose to commit suicide, there's no reason to take forty-nine other men with you. We'll need them for the battle."
"The battle, as you propose it, would be suicide on a much larger scale, Captain," Dan said coldly.
"You'd scuttle the Holy Trinity with explosives, then?" said Admiral Bergstrom. "Interesting, but surely it wouldn't require so large a force . . . would it?"
"We'll need a considerable force to fight our way through the neck of jungle," Dan explained. "I'm not pretending that this will be an easy jobonly that it's possible, practical."
He cleared his throat. "And no, we won't be sinking the ship, we'll be stealing her. As I said. It's actually safer to leave the harbor with a dreadnought under us than it would be in any other fashion"
"You can't sail a dreadnought with fifty men!" Haynes said.
"We can't fight a dreadnought with fifty men," Dan replied. "We won't try. We can sail her out of the harbor and join the rest of the Blackhorse."
Haynes stared but did not speak.
"One ship isn't going to tip the balance," Admiral Bergstrom said musingly. For the first time during the meeting, his voice had animation. "Though the Holy Trinity is a very large ship. . . ."
"That's part of the plan," said Uncle Dan as his fingers sorted files from the data bank and picked one. "The other part involves the probable response by our . . ."
The image of Paradise Base vanished and was replaced by a large-scale map of the entire Ishtar Basin.
" . . . the response by our opponents."
As his uncle began to lay out the details of the plan on which he proposed to venture his life and Mankind's future, Johnnie's mind filled with visions of vegetable dragons and great, fire-wrapped beasts crashing through the jungle toward him.
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