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The sea is Death's garden, and he sows
dead men in the loam. . . .
Francis Marion Crawford
A helmeted gunner raised his head from one of the Quad-Gatling tubs on the shelter deck as Commander Cooke and his aide strode forward to the bridge.
Johnnie started. The equivalent installations on the Holy Trinity had been empty. He'd never been aboard a dreadnought with a full crew.
There were crewmen where Johnnie's subconscious expected only the heat-warped barrels he'd burned out as the raiders escaped from Paradise Harbor. He thought of corpses rising in their coffins.
Corpses didn't do that. But neither did the corpses in Johnnie's mind sleep.
The bridge hatch was open but guarded by a heavily-armed senior petty officer.
"Come along, sir!" the man urged. "We don't none of us want to be out here when the big bastards cut loose again, do we?"
There was the sound of distant gunfire and an occasional flicker of light on the horizon, but for the moment action was limited to the screening forces.
Action. Thick armor cracking, perforating. Hell erupting to spew out over the sea, winking from waves and the eyes within the waves.
The hatch ratcheted shut, closing them within the climate-controlled fastness of the bridge. Johnnie trembled because of what was in his heart, not the drop in air temperature.
The bridge of the Semiramis was very like Wenceslas Dome's governmental accounting office. The differences were that the warship's bridge crew was uniformed, and that its personnel seemed far more alert.
Of course, accountants would be on their toes if they knew that an 18-inch shell might land in their midst at any moment.
The center of the enclosed bridge was a huge plotting table. In the air above it hung a vertical holographic projection of the same data. The hologram was monochrome, but the air projection aligned itself to appear perpendicular to someone viewing it from any point on the bridge.
The console built into the plotting table was vacant. Uncle Dan slid into it and began keying up data.
"Ah, sir?" said a lieutenant Johnnie had never seen. "That's Captain Haynes' station. He's on his way up from the battle center now."
Dan snorted. "When he heard I was coming aboard, you mean? Don't worry, Bailey. When the captain arrives, I'll vacate."
He unbuckled his equipment belt and hung it, the holstered pistol on one side balanced by loaded magazines on the other, from the seat's armrest. Then he resumed his work.
Admiral Bergstrom was at a console with no visual display up but six separate data feeds plugged into his helmet. He turned, looking like a man whose brain was being devoured by wire-thin worms, and peered at Dan in the seat behind him.
"Commander?" Bergstrom said. "Commander. You had crucial information for us, you said?"
"Right," said Dan, one eye on his console display and the other on the plotting table itself. His fingers danced on the keys. "Have you released the subs yet, sir?"
Johnnie looked over his uncle's shoulder. Strung raggedly along the western edge, barely within the confines of the plotting table at its current scale, were two hollow yellow circles and a yellow X: the electronic remains of the Angel dreadnoughts, sinking and sunk respectively, which had pursued the Holy Trinity.
One of the technicians had the last moments of the X marker up on his display. There were more important things for Blackhorse personnel to be considering at the moment, but Johnnie could understand the tech's fascination with the looped image.
Almost anything was more important than that particular ship now.
The vessel had been the Azrael, easily identified because it carried its main battery in three quadruple turrets forward. The unusual layout meant that the thick belt protecting the main magazines and shell rooms was relatively short, saving weight without giving up protection.
It also meant that most of the explosives aboard the battleship were concentrated in a small area.
The holographic image was a sixty-degree oblique, transmitted to the Semiramis by a glider which had risked the night winds to spot the fall of shot. The Azrael was making a course correction, perhaps to bring her heavy guns to bear on the unexpected threat from the main Blackhorse fleet. Her railgun installations blazed blue-white, and her curving wake shivered with phosphorescent life.
The glider's imaging system picked up the dull red streaks of shells plunging downnot by pairs and triplets as Johnnie remembered from the Holy Trinity, but thirty or forty at a time. The Azrael was the simultaneous target for half a dozen Blackhorse dreadnoughts; there was nothing the victim's railgun batteries could do to affect the result.
"Flotilla Blanche isn't in the killing zone, yet, Commander," Admiral Bergstrom said. "AhCommander, what is it that had to be explained face to face?"
Great mushrooms of water bloomed on all sides of the Azrael, distorting the wake and twisting the bow as they hollowed the surface into which the cutwater then slid.
A few of the shells which landed aboard the Azrael burst with bright orange flashes because their fuzes were over-sensitive. The dangerous hits merely sparked on the surface of the armor and detonated far within the dreadnought's guts.
The stricken vessel's bow lifted as though she were a flying fish making a desperate attempt to escape. The explosion that engulfed her forequarters was black, streaked with a red as deep as the devil's eye sockets. C Turret sprang fifty feet into the air, shedding hundred-ton fragments like so many bits of confetti.
"We don't need the submarines to finish Flotilla Blanche," Dan said as he shuffled quickly through data on his console. "Or the Warcocks, for that matter. We can do that with gunfire easily enoughif we slow down the Warcocks with our subs so that we catch them before the two fleets join."
He tapped the Execute key with a chopping stroke of his finger. The display quivered, then blanked. "With your permission, sir," Dan said, "I'll send the wolfpacks in now."
A thousand feet above the fiery cauldron, the column of smoke topped out in a ragged anvil. The stern half of the Azrael was sucked into the crater of white water. It bobbed as the sea closed over itself, then vanished with scarcely an additional ripple.
The recorded images ended with a blur of incandescent light.
The loop began again. Johnnie forced his eyes away with difficulty; the technician continued to watch the repeated horror.
There but for the grace of God. . . .
"I don't think . . . ," Admiral Bergstrom began, but his glare turned to a grimace.
The ultra-low-frequency pod beneath the Semiramis' keel began to transmit orders to the Blackhorse submarine fleet at a frequency of between ten and a hundred hertz. Johnnie's bowels quivered.
Due to the sluggish transmission frequency, there was time to abort the command before it reached the submarines lurking on the bottom three miles down. Instead, Bergstrom said, "Oh . . . yes, I suppose you're right."
The submarines were beneath the thermocline, a differential of temperature and salinity in the deep sea which blocked both active and passive sonar. That helped conceal them from the Warcocks, but the subs' best protection was a matter of psychology rather than physics.
The Angel fleet had run the same course without interference. The Warcocks and Flotilla Blanche, now desperately trying to join forces in the northwest quadrant of the Ishtar Basin, assumed the only dangers they need fear were the Blackhorse surface ships which had reduced the Angels to blazing wreckage in a matter of minutes.
The petty officer, alerted by a message through his helmet, activated the control of the hatch he guarded.
"Right," said Dan. He started to get up.
Johnnie's face was still. His mind visualized a pair of raiders wearing Angel khaki as they burst through the hatchway with a cataclysm of rifle and sub-machine gun fire.
Consoles sparking around stray bullets; the chests of neat cream uniforms exploding in blood and smoldering cloth; fingers which were accustomed to stroke keys flailing wildly for pistols almost forgotten beneath polished holster-flaps.
The stink of gunsmoke, and the greater stink of feces when fear and death voided men's bowels.
Captain Haynes squeezed through the hatch before it was really open enough to pass a man of his solid bulk.
Haynes was panting. He must have walkedrunall the way from the deep-buried battle center rather than chance an elevator when any instant could bring a shell and a power failure.
His face was livid, but that was more from anger than from exercise. His left hand gripped so hard on a visicube of his wife that his knuckles were mottled.
"Commander Cooke," Haynes said in a voice like millstones, "you're at my station"
Though by the time the words came out, Uncle Dan had moved to an ordinary console nearby. A quick gesturea twist of his index finger as though it were a boning knifesent the technician there scrambling out of his seat.
Johnnie followed as if he were his uncle's shadow. He was drifting through this ambiance like a thistle seed in a zephyr. He felt nothing, but his senses were sharper than he ever remembered them being.
Captain Haynes seated himself with the swaggering certainty of a dog staking out its territory. He set the visicube on the plotting table before him. "Sir," he said to Admiral Bergstrom "I felt the ULF communicator activate while I was on the way here. What"
"Pedr thought," Dan broke in, "that unless we slow the Warcocks' withdrawal, they'll be able to join Flotilla Blanche before we bring them to battle. If they have to zigzag because of submarine attack"
"Let them join!" Haynes snapped. "Then our subs take care of both of them!"
The Warcocks' ten battleships were in a straggling line-ahead on the plotting table. The new emergency had further disturbed a formation that had been rough to begin with.
The Warcocks left their base in a rush to block the Holy Trinity from the presumed destination of the Blackhorse fleet at the Kanjar Straits to the northwest. When the stolen dreadnought turned southwest, Admiral Helwig had thrown his Warcocks into the pursuitas though the Angels' own three battleships would not be sufficient.
Now they were racing back to the northwest again, hoping to join Flotilla Blanche as it streamed from the position it had taken at the mouth of the straits.
The light forces of Flotilla Blanche speckled the upper edge of the plotting table. The Warcock screen of cruisers and destroyers formed a broad arc between their dreadnoughts and the oncoming Blackhorse fleet. They were well positioned to block torpedo attack by Blackhorse hydrofoils, but they could do nothing to stop the one- and two-ton shells from the dreadnoughts which would rumble overhead as soon as the range closed to thirty miles or so.
They weren't in a good position to defend against the submarine ambush the Warcocks had blundered into the center of, either.
"Subs can't destroy them," Dan said, speaking loudly enough to be heard by everyone on the bridge. "These are good outfits, both of them. We can just cause confusion, as we decided in the planning"
"The Admiral and I" Haynes shouted.
Admiral Bergstrom's face was suffused with the frustrated pain of a child listening to his parents quarrel. He must have been a decisive man at one time, but age and his rumored drug habit had rotted away the hard core of his personality.
"changed that plan, Commander, while you were off having your fun playing soldiers!"
"Oh, God!" muttered a lieutenant commander, who then buried his face in his display. Everyone, even Captain Haynes, looked embarrassed.
Everyone but Dan and Johnnie. Their burned, bloodied, torn fatigues left them immune to embarrassment by any of the clean-uniformed personnel on Semiramis' bridge.
Besides, there was no room in Johnnie's eyes for embarrassment or any other emotion.
The starboard secondaries opened fire. The enclosed bridge damped the shock of the muzzle blasts, but the hull belled as the guns' thick steel breeches expanded from the pressures they contained.
"Torpedoboat attack in sector A-12," explained a lieutenant loudly.
Any of the bridge personnel could have learned that data from their own consoles, but the statement served its real purpose of breaking the vicious argument between two of the fleet's most senior officers. Admiral Bergstrom gave the lieutenant a look of gratitude. The emotional temperature of the big room dropped to normal human levels.
"All right," muttered Captain Haynes as he twisted his face toward the plotting table. "We've got a battle to fight, let's not forget."
Dan's fingers worked his keypad though he continued to watch the side of Haynes' determinedly-averted face for some moments longer. A distantblurry despite being computer-enhancedview of the Warcock line appeared on his console.
The display above the plotting table showed sudden chaos within the hostile battlefleet. None of the ship symbols indicated damage, but the dreadnoughts had started to curvet like theater-goers after someone noticed smoke.
"Revised estimate of time to engagement," said public-address speaker in the mechanical voice of the battle center computer. "Three minutes thirty seconds for leading El Paso elements; sixteen to seventeen minutes for all El Paso elements."
Captain Haynes opened his mouth and reached for the transmit key of his console.
"I'll take care of this, Captain," Admiral Bergstrom said coolly. He pressed his own transmitter and said, "Blackhorse Six to all El Paso elements. You may fire as you bear, gentlemen. Blackhorse Six out."
For this operation, "El Paso" was the code name for the dreadnoughts.
An ensign at the far end of the bridge shouted, "Yippee!"
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