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Rather the scornedthe rejected
the men hemmed in with the spears;
The men of the tattered battalion which fights till it dies,
Dazed with the dust of the battle, the din and the cries,
The men with the broken heads and the blood
running into their eyes.
There were ten of them still alive.
Two of the Blackhorse raiders, men from the engine room, were so badly burned that they had to shuffle along with their arms supported by their comrades' shoulders. Johnnie arranged the makeshift harness of packstraps around them with as much care as possible, but the wounded men still moaned and shuddered through their fog of drugs and toxins.
The gunboat D1528Murderer according to the legend painted across the turret of the 2-inch Gatling gun on its foredeckbobbed in swells reflected from the side of the Holy Trinity. Three of the crew used rifle butts as fenders to prevent the gunboat from being smashed into the side of the sinking dreadnought; others received each member of the raiding party as he came down the skimmer winch and passed the shaken men to such comfort and medical treatment as a hydrofoil could provide.
The sea was lighted for miles by torrents of sparks spewing from the Holy Trinity's stern. Flames reflected from waves, from debris, and from the eyes of things which had learned the chaos of war meant a source of abundant food.
The hydrofoil's crew was clearly nervous. The little craft depended on speed and concealment to survive. Here, stopped dead alongside the brightest beacon in the Ishtar Basin, they had neither, but they were carrying out their orders without complaint.
As the men of the raiding party themselves had done; and had, for the most part, died doing.
Men on the gunboat's deck released the second of the wounded raiders and passed him gently to their fellows in the cockpit. Dan winched up the whining cable at the highest speed of which the drum was capable.
It didn't have far to come. The skimmer port was long under water, and the gunboat's railing was now only ten feet below that of the sinking battleship. At any time in the past five years, that would have been an easy jump for Johnnie, even onto the bobbing deck of a hydrofoil.
At any time but now.
"Go ahead," Johnnie said. "I'll winch you down."
His uncle shook his head. "I'm the captain," he said. "I leave last. Hop in."
He pointed to the harness.
Johnnie wasn't sure whether or not the words were a joke, but he knew that he didn't want to arguewith anyone, about anything. He gripped the cable, intending to ride the clamps down without bothering about the harness.
He swayed and almost blacked out. He'd been all right so long as he had the other crewmen to worry about, to fasten into the jury-rigged harness. . . .
Dan caught him. "That's all right, John," the older man murmured. His right arm was as firm as an iron strap. "Here, we'll ride it together."
The slung rifle slid off Johnnie's shoulder. Dan tossed it to the deck and said, "We won't need that now."
The youth opened his eyes. He saw everything around him with a new clarity. "Right," he said in a voice he could not have recognized as his own. "Leave it for some poor bastard to blow his brains out before he drowns or the fish eat him."
The winch began to unreel at a low setting. Dan supported him, but Johnnie's limbs had their strength back again. Hands reached up from the gunboat's deck to receive them.
The Blackhorse line of battle was in sight, approaching from the southwest. The dreadnoughts' main guns spewed bottle-shaped flames which reflected from the cloud cover. Johnnie had never seen anything like it, even when he was hallucinating from a high fever.
The seventeen battleships were proceeding in a modified line-abreast formation. Admiral Bergstrom kept his fleet's heading at forty-five degrees to their targets beyond the horizon, so that the Blackhorse vessels could fire full broadsides instead of engaging with their forward turrets alone.
"For God's sake!" Dan muttered scornfully. "The Angels only have three battleships. What's he afraid of?"
No incoming shells disturbed the perfect Blackhorse formation. The dreadnoughts' railgun domes were live, trailing faint streamers of ionized air, but they fired only occasional skyward volleys. The Angels had been battered to the point they had scarcely any guns capable of replying to the ships destroying them.
"Got 'em!" shouted one of the crewmen who grabbed Dan and Johnnie. "All clear!"
The hydrofoil's drive was churning a roostertail even before the winch cable had swung back against the Holy Trinity's side.
The Blackhorse fleet was almost upon the burning dreadnought. The nearest of the battleships would pass within two hundred yards. The wake of the massive vessel, proceeding at flank speed, would have crushed D1528 against the Holy Trinity as so much flotsam had the gunboat not gotten under way in time.
Johnnie wondered who had set the fleet's course . . . though subtlety of that sort didn't seem in character for Captain Haynes.
Flames from the Holy Trinity picked out details on the hull and superstructure of the oncoming dreadnought, washing the three shades of gray camouflage into one. Johnnie thought the vessel was the Catherine of Aragon, but his mind was too dull for certainty and it didn't matter anyway.
The dreadnought's twelve 16-inch guns were now silent, but there were squeals as the secondary batteries clustered along her mid-section rotated to track the hydrofoil as the little vessel turned desperately to bring her bow into the oncoming wake. The paired 5-inch guns glared at D1528 like the eyes of attack dogs, straining at their leashes.
"Bastards!" snarled the ensign commanding the gunboat as he lifted Johnnie over the cockpit coaming. "They probably think it's a joke!"
D1528 rode over the wake with a snarl and a lurch. The ensign used the drop on the far side to deploy the gunboat's outriggers thirty seconds before her forward motion alone would have permitted it.
Dan swung himself into the cockpit. The motion was smooth and athletic. He seemed as fit as he had been two days before in Admiral Bergstrom's office.
Unless you looked carefully at his eyes.
"Nice job, Stocker," Dan said to the ensign.
Johnnie blinked. The name stencilled on the gunboat officer's helmet was worn and illegible in this light. Did Uncle Dan know all the Blackhorse officers by sight?
Stocker looked up from the horizontal plotting screen. "Thank you, sir!" he said.
D1528 was beating up to speed. Lifted on her foils, the gunboat was amazingly stable even though cross-cutting wakes corrugated the sea.
"Where are you supposed to take us?" Dan asked, as if idly.
He was using helmet intercom. A red bead in Johnnie's visor indicated that Dan had chosen a command channel that the gunboat's enlisted crew couldn't overhear.
The hydrofoil was headed in the opposite direction from the battleships. The big ships were almost hull-down, their locations on the northeastern horizon marked primarily by the glowing discharges from railguns on alert status.
All the guns had ceased firing. The Angels must have surrenderedwhatever was left of themand the Warcocks were not yet in range.
Ensign Stocker looked up from the plot again. This time a guarded expression had replaced the earlier pleasure. "Ah, well, I'm to carry you to the cruiser Clinton," he said. "She's the command ship for the rear screen. Plenty of room aboard her and, you know, first-rate medical facilities."
Stocker nodded toward the hydrofoil's electronics bay. One of the wounded raiders sat in the open hatchway, babbling to himself while a gunboat crewman tried to comfort him.
"Admiral Bergstrom is aboard the Semiramis?" Dan asked.
Stocker nodded cautiously. "Yes . . . ," he said. "Sir."
"Take us to the Semiramis, Ensign," Dan said.
The cockpit was cramped. Commander Cooke and the two ensigns were within arms' length of one another, but for an instant there was a cold crystal wall between Stocker and the others.
"Sir, Captain Haynes specifically ordered . . . ," the gunboat officer began.
Dan grinned at him.
Stocker braced to attention. "Aye aye sir!" he said crisply. He turned to the plotting table, then began snapping orders to his helmsman over an intra-ship push.
There was a pair of jumpseats against the back wall of the cockpit. Dan pulled one down for Johnnie, then sat in the other himself.
D1528 came about in a wide arc, banking on her outriggers. The only certain marker in the sea, the flaming pyre that had been the Holy Trinity, began to slide back across the western horizon as gunboat reversed course to pursue the battle line.
"Uncah . . . ," Johnnie said. "I mean, sir?"
Uncle Dan put an arm around the younger man's shoulders and squeezed him.
"Uncle Dan, was it worth it? Was it worth"
Johnnie closed his eyes, but he couldn't close out the crowding memories.
"Ask me when it's over, John," his uncle said. He leaned his head close to Johnnie's so that they could speak without using their helmet radios.
The dreadnoughts were coming in sight again. Rather, the combing bow-waves kicked up by huge vessels moving at speed reflected the sky glow on the horizon.
"You mean, after we've beat the Warcocks and Flotilla Blanche?" Johnnie said. "If we beat them."
"Oh, we'll beat them," Dan said. "This war's as good as won; or will be as soon as I'm on the bridge of the Semiramis to make sure Haynes and the Admiral don't throw it away from too much caution.
"But what I meant," he continued, "is we won't know if it's worthwhile until there's a united government on Venus and Mankind is at peace."
Johnnie turned from the horizon beyond the cockpit windscreen and stared at his uncle. "We won't live to see that," he said. "Will we?"
Dan shook his head. He smiled. His face was as gentle as Johnnie had ever seen it, but the expression was without humor.
"They won'tMan won'twin in our lifetime," he said. "But we might live long enough to see us all lose. Long enough to see Venus turned into a fireball, and the last tomb of Mankind in the universe."
Johnnie nodded, but his mind was too tired to visualize Mankind as an entity.
Besides, his last glimpses of Sergeant Britten and Sal Grumio kept getting in the way.
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