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From a find to a check, from a check to a view,
From a view to a death in the morning.
John Woodcock Graves
The hydrofoil strained forward like a horse whirling a sulky down the home stretch.
The jumpseats weren't fitted with terminals, but there were data feeds in the flimsy bulkhead behind them. Johnnie uncoiled one against the tension of its take-up spring and plugged it into the input jack of his helmet. After his AI sorted through the options, he settled on viewing the forward gunsight image on the left side of his visor.
The dreadnought filling that magnified picture had her port secondary batteries and at least forty small-caliber Gatling guns trained on D1528. Any one of the Gatlingsmuch less a single shell from the 6-inch secondariescould reduce the gunboat to pieces small enough to fit in a matchbox.
"We're being queried by Semiramis," said Ensign Stocker.
"I'll take it," said Uncle Dan. He rose, then slid into the command console as Stocker vacated it.
"Kinda hoped you might, sir," the ensign said with a grin.
Johnnie shook his head in wonder at the other young officer. Stocker had decided he was going to have fun with the situationeven though he knew he was being used as a pawn in a high-stakes game between his superiors.
Courage wasn't limited to the willingness to ride a flimsy hydrofoil into battle.
Dan entered his personal code, then authenticated it with his brainwave patterns transmitted by his helmet. "Blackhorse Six," he said, "this is Blackhorse Three aboard the D1528. I need to come aboard the flagship."
Unlike the raiders' transmissions from the Holy Trinity, there were compatible code sets on both vessels. It wasn't impossible that the Warcocks' signals intelligence personnel would intercept the exchangeeven though it was low-power, tight-beam, and sent in tiny snippets over a broad spread of frequencies. The conversation could never be decrypted in time to have tactical effect, however.
Johnnie couldn't hear the response. He knew the message had been received on the flagship's bridge because the Semiramis' Gatling guns all lifted like the arms of troops saluting on the parade ground.
The officer in charge of the anti-hydrofoil batteries had overheard the request. He'd made the instant decision that he didn't want to answer questions about why he'd threatened to blow away Commander Cooke.
The 6-inch turrets moved only to track D1528 as the little vessel closed. An officer at another console had made a different decision. Probably a decision involving Captain Haynes' likely reaction.
"Negative, Pedr," Uncle Dan said. He was speaking forcefully, though he called Admiral Bergstrom by his first name. "The Semiramis needn't stop or even slow. Order the port accommodation ladder lowered, and my aide and I'll come aboard."
Johnnie felt too decoupled to be afraid. He looked at his uncle.
The Semiramis alone could manage about thirty-two knots, but the speed of the battle line as a whole would be slightly slower. The ships would still be travelling fast enough that if someone slipped while hopping from the hydrofoil's deck to the spray-slick surface of the dreadnought's accommodation ladder, impact with the water would be stunning if not fatal.
The creatures in the water would be certainly fatal.
But it really didn't matter.
Ensign Stocker called an order to his helmsman and throttled back. He looked worried. The unspoken basis of Commander Cooke's offer was that Stocker could match the gunboat's speed perfectly to that of the battleship, despite the turbulence of the huge ship's passage through the sea.
"No sir," Dan said, "I can't discuss this by radio. We must come aboard."
They were now so close to the Semiramis that the 6-inch guns couldn't depress enough in their mountings to bear on the hydrofoil. The turrets continued to track, however, as though hoping that the gunboat would somehow leap high enough in the air to be disintegrated by a salvo of hundred-pound shells.
Powder smoke still drifted from the eight eighteen-inch guns to surround the Semiramis like a sickly-sweet aura.
"I appreciate that, Pedr," Dan said. "And the sooner we come aboard, the sooner Ensign Stocker here can carry the rest of my team back to the Clinton for that medical treatment."
Stocker looked at Commander Cooke, then toward the shuddering, whimpering man in the electronics bay. His face was without expression.
The helmsman held D1528 thirty feet off the dreadnought's port quarter. Throttled back to the larger vessel's best speed, the hydrofoil felt sluggish. It had a tendency to follow the corrugations of the sea's surface rather than slicing at the even keel maintained by the telescoping outriggers.
The accommodation ladder hanging from the Semiramis' port quarter began to lower toward the water. A pair of sailors rode the stage down, ready to catch the transferring officers as they jumped across.
Dan stood up, swaying slightly with the hydrofoil's motion. "Right," he said. "Take over, Ensign Stocker. Do your usual excellent job and I won't forget you."
Stocker slid into his console and looked up at the superior officer. "Same for me, huh, sir? Cream their ass."
The ensign's words could have referred to the fleets allied against the Blackhorse, but Johnnie doubted it. He was Senator Gordon's son. He'd seen enough politics in his life to recognize them, even when they were being conducted in uniform.
Johnnie unplugged the data feed and rose as the thread-thin optical fiber coiled back onto its spool.
His uncle looked at him sharply. "Are you up to this, John?" he asked. "Because if you're not . . . ?"
"Sure, I'm fine," Johnnie said. He wasn't sure if that was true. He saw everything around him with unusual clarity, but he seemed to be hovering over his body.
It didn't matter.
He followed Dan to the starboard rail. He felt steady; which was a matter of vague intellectual interest to him, because he knew that the deck underfoot was vibrating badly. The drive motors were being run at well below their optimum rate.
Stocker and his helmsman brought the D1528 in smoothly. The accommodation ladder now hung about eight feet above the average level of the sea, but occasional swells surged dangerously near the platform's underside. At thirty knots, the stage would tear loose if it touched the water.
"Go," said Dan, and Johnnie stepped across the six-inch gap.
A dreadnought sailor was ready to grab him, but Johnnie waved the man away. The gunboat was so precisely controlled that there was less relative motion between the disparate vessels than there would have been in getting off a slidewalk.
Dan followed and continued striding toward the steps leading up to the deck. "Come on, lad," he snapped. "Time's a-wasting."
"They'll winch us up, sir!" called one of the sailors.
Dan gestured brusquely, dismissively, without turning around.
"What is it that we've got to tell Admiral, ah, sir?" Johnnie asked as he pounded up the perforated alloy treads behind his uncle.
The gunboat, freed of its shackling need to keep station, curved away from the accommodation ladder in a roar of thrusters coming up to speed.
"I want to make sure they don't throw the battle away," Dan said. "I told you that."
There were splotches of algae on the Semiramis' side, but not a solid coating as had been the case with the Holy Trinity. This was just the growth since the battleship slipped out of port the day before.
"I don't have anything to add," Johnnie said emotionlessly.
Dan had reached the battleship's deck. A section of rail pivoted to form a gate. He turned and looked back at his nephew.
"Oh, you have something to add, John," he said. His lips were firm as the jaws of a vise. "I didn't lie to the Senator about that."
He strode toward a hatch in the dreadnought's superstructure. X and Y Turrets' huge 18-inch guns had blackened the deck and lifted up a sheet of the plastic covering, then plastered it against the railing.
"But what?" Johnnie demanded.
A staircasea ladderwaylay behind the hatch. "In good time, lad," said Dan's echo-thickened voice as his boots clanged upward. "If not tonight, then later. . . . But I think tonight."
As Johnnie closed the hatch behind him, he heard the squeal of the 6-inch turrets. The secondary batteries were returning to the ready position now that they had tracked D1528 out of sight.
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