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Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl. . . .  

—Oscar Wilde



On Uncle Dan's display, the second ship from the rear of the Warcock line suddenly wreathed itself in flame and powder smoke. She had opened fire with her main guns. A moment later, all the other battleships visible from the glider joined in.

The Warcocks certainly knew that they were still out of range.

They also knew that they were shit outa luck.

"Ah, sir . . . ?" said Captain Haynes as his left hand stroked the image of his wife. "Do you think it might be better to delay firing until we can overwhelm them with a full fleet salvo?"

"No," said Admiral Bergstrom without turning to face his executive officer. "I do not."

"We'll be eating them up piecemeal, Captain," Dan said. He glancing from his display and then back. "Their formation's strung out for nearly five miles."

Johnnie nodded, professionally impressed by the way his uncle managed to keep his tone along the thin neutral path between insulting and conciliatory.

"We'll have plenty of concentration on the rear of their line," Dan continued blandly as he examined the desperate Warcock dreadnoughts, "even if only the eighteens can fire for the first ten minutes."

Haynes' face was a thundercloud, ready to burst in a storm of invective unmerited by anything that had happened in the past few minutes. As his mouth opened to snarl, the portside Gatlings blazed in a sudden fury whose rate of fire made the enveloping armor sing.

Johnnie's training held, though his intellect was dissociated from control of his actions. He reached reflexively for the keypad of the console behind which he stood. The only reason his fingers did not shift the display to the gunnery board and echo the Gatlings' target information—

Was that Uncle Dan's fingers were already doing so.

The ship-shivering burst ended three seconds after it began. There was nothing on the targeting display except a froth where over a thousand 1-inch projectiles had ripped a piece of flotsam.

"Omigod, sorry, sorry," muttered the junior lieutenant whose console was the primary director for the Gatlings. "I thought, I mean. . . ."

He caught himself. His face hardened. "No target," he said crisply. "All clear. No target."

The Semiramis' main fire director rippled off a salvo from A and B Turrets, four 18-inch guns. The dreadnought shook herself like a dog coming in from the wet. The air of the bridge was suddenly hazy because finely-divided dust had vibrated out of every crack and fabric.

The thirty-inch armor covering the bridge flexed noticeably with the waves of compression and rarefaction. Johnnie could not imagine how the sailors manning the open gun tubs survived the muzzle blasts.

Dan switched back his display. The dreadnoughts had ceased cavorting in wild attempts to avoid torpedoes from Blackhorse submarines. The Warcock line reformed and resumed shaping to the northwest. Anti-submarine missiles from the dreadnoughts and their screen were forcing the subs to concentrate on evasion rather than attack—or to press on and die pointlessly.

Yellow symbols on the plotting table hologram indicated that two of the Warcock battleships had been hit, but they were still keeping station. Half a dozen red symbols marked the destruction of attacking submarines.

Johnnie's face did not change. Ships and shells and men; all were expendable.

The rearmost of the Warcock battleships had been the leaders in the pursuit. They were the fastest and generally the most modern members of the fleet, and two of them mounted 18-inch guns.

Semiramis' six railgun batteries began to tear the universe apart, dwarfing the racket of the Gatlings a minute before. Railgun discharges brightened the images of the Warcock vessels as well, but a splotch of white water beside the last ship marked a shell that had gotten through the defensive barrage.

The rising banshee moan of a dropping shell became a background to the crackling of hypervelocity slugs. Johnnie's face did not change, but his body began to shudder uncontrollably. The youth's deep-buried lizard brain remembered that sound. Conscious courage—conscious fatalism—could do nothing to quell the tremors.

The shell burst with a dull crump, thousands of feet short of its intended target.

" . . . oboats in. . . ." the ceiling speaker said during the brief interval the railguns were silent.

If Johnnie cared to hear the details of the report, he could have flexed his helmet to the console, but the information didn't matter except to the men at the gunnery boards. The 6-inch batteries were firing, both port and starboard; a moment later, the Gatlings added their sharp-tongued chant.

Three shells burst directly above the second ship from the rear of the Warcock line, so close that the red-orange flashes and the blots of filthy smoke they left behind were visible in the image transmitted to Dan's console.

Most of the salvo screaming in a few seconds later struck on or around the dreadnought.

The forward superstructure, including the bridge, warped and shredded. There was a glowing pockmark where armor of particular thickness had been heated white-hot by a sixteen-inch shell.

A shell penetrated X Turret magazine. Instead of an explosion, a yellow flash hundreds of feet high blazed from every interstice of the turret and rear hull. As the initial glare sucked itself back within the blackened armor, the Y Turret magazine flashed over and burned with identical fury.

Johnnie keyed intercom mode on his helmet, the channel reserved for members of the raiding party. Him and his uncle; no one else within range . . . and scarcely anyone else alive.

"They're screwing up," he said flatly. "Their railguns are on automatic mode, but then they only react to direct threats. The poor bastards at the end of the line are on their own."

Like we were in the Holy Trinity. 

Dan made a quick series of keystrokes without bothering to check whether or not the input was necessary. "Blackhorse Three to El Paso elements," he said to his console. "Your railguns are now firing on Sector Defense Mode. You will not switch them to Local Defense without orders from the flagship or an acting flagship. Out."

He turned to look up at his nephew. The 18-inch guns boomed out another salvo just then, but Johnnie could see his lips forming, " . . . safe than sorry."

The third and fourth ships from the rear of the Warcock formation winked amidst waterspouts. The second had fallen out of line, her whole stern a mass of flames ignited by the powder flash.

The final vessel seemed to bear a charmed life with no shells falling near it, but her course had begun to diverge from that of the remaining dreadnoughts. Carats on the plotting-table display indicated that several torpedoes had gotten home and had jammed the ship's rudder.

"Sir," said Uncle Dan, "with your permission, I'll signal General Chase." His voice echoed in Johnnie's helmet: he was using an open frequency that everyone on the bridge could overhear, rather than the command channel.

Because he was Commander Daniel Cooke, that wasn't an accident or oversight. He wanted the statement public, because he knew that every one of the pumped-up officers who heard it would regard arguments against General Chase as cowardice rather than caution.

The screens along the bulkheads, taking the place of the now-shuttered viewslits, showed a dozen pyres on the sea. The Warcock light forces were making desperate attempts to slow the hostile battle-line, but the Blackhorse screen and the dreadnoughts' massed secondaries immolated the attackers as victims.

The Blackhorse battleships formed an arc with the ends slightly advanced. The Warcocks were in line-ahead, roughly centered within the pursuing arc. There were between two and six railgun installations on each Blackhorse dreadnought, and every one of them could sweep the sky above all seventeen ships in the formation.

If the Blackhorse formation broke up and each dreadnought proceeded at her own best speed, the defenses became porous.

But it was the only way the Blackhorse could be certain of running down the ships at the head of the Warcock line.

"Sir, I—" Captain Haynes began. Though he spoke to Admiral Bergstrom, he looked across the short intervening distance to his rival.

Dan grinned at him.

Haynes' face suffused with blood and rage. He closed his mouth like a door slamming.

The Admiral turned in his seat. His expression was unreadable. He looked up at the plotting display, then lowered his eyes to his executive officer.

"Yes," he said as the eighteens fired. His lips seemed to be slightly out of synch because his voice came over the radio a microsecond sooner than air would have transmitted the words. "Let's end this, shall we?"

Dan waited an instant to be sure that he, rather than Admiral Bergstrom, was to give the order. Then, with a wink to Captain Haynes, he keyed his console and said, "Blackhorse Six to El Paso element. General Chase. I say again, General Chase. Let's have 'em for breakfast, boys! Out!"

As a period to the command, the secondary magazines of a ship near the center of the Warcock line blew up. For a moment, inertia held the dreadnought on course. Her superstructure was missing and there was a scallop from the middle of her hull as though she were a minnow bitten by a piranha.

The stricken vessel slewed to the side. Her bow listed to starboard, her stern to port.

"Sir!" said a communications tech. "The Warcocks are calling for you on Frequency 7 to discuss surrender. Shall I transfer the call?"

Another heavy shell burst, close enough to be felt but still harmlessly far in the air.

"Yes, yes, of course!" Bergstrom snapped, prodding at his console with what seemed to Johnnie to be drunken precision.

"Blackhorse to all Blackhorse elements," Uncle Dan said. "Cease firing offensive—"

The booming main guns from the battleship immediately to starboard rocked the Semiramis.

"—weapons. They're giving up! Cease—"

Captain Haynes rose from his seat. "You have no right to give that order, Cooke!" he shouted.

"—fire, they're surrendering. Out."

The hammering snarl of the railguns was a reminder that at this range, shells would continue to fall for almost a minute—on the Blackhorse and on their opponents.

Flashes covered the stern of another Warcock dreadnought on the display. When the blasts ended, the guns of Y Turret were cocked sideways and the deck aft was a smoking shambles.

Uncle Dan stood up. He moved gracefully and at seeming leisure, like a cat awakening. "Do you have something to say to me, Captain Haynes?" he said.

The railguns cut off. Instead of silence, the bridge filled with the sound of a voice rasping from the roof speaker, "—der unconditionally to you, Admiral Bergstrom. We, I . . ."

The voice broke. Whether it was Admiral Helwig or subordinate promoted into his place by Blackhorse shells, there was no doubt of the sincere desperation of the Warcocks' commander.

Johnnie understood how the man must feel. All the few survivors of the Holy Trinity would understand that run-through-a-hammermill feeling.

Captain Haynes swallowed. "Remember we've still got Flotilla Blanche to deal with," he said. His tone was almost an apology.

He started to sit down.

"If you can spare us medical help—" the Warcock officer said.

"Admiral de Lessups can do basic math, Captain," Dan said harshly. "He can match twelve dreadnoughts against seventeen in his head—and he's not so stupid that he'll try the result for real."

"—we'd be very thankful."

Haynes' face worked. Johnnie could see that the stocky captain was still trying to disengage from an argument he had lost as soon as he opened his mouth. "We're low on main-gun ammu—"

"Not so low we can't hammer Flotilla Blanche to the bottom, Captain!" Dan shouted. His face was red, and his voice was full of the ragged fury Johnnie had heard him counterfeit in Senator Gordon's office. "They know that and we know that! You know it!"

"That won't be possible until we've dealt with Flotilla Blanche," said Bergstrom over the roof speaker. "As soon—"

"Commander," Haynes said, looking at his clenched fingers, "I think we're both overwrought. I think we—"

"You know what the real problem is?" Dan said rhetorically. His eyes swept the other personnel on the bridge. He waved his arm. "The real problem is that Haynes has learned about me and Beryl, and he's willing to give up a victory just so it won't be a victory I planned!"

Admiral Bergstrom turned around and snapped, "Hold it down, for God's sake!" He straightened to resume his conversation with the Warcock officer.

Several of the listening officers gasped or turned away. Johnnie would have felt shock himself if he were able to feel any emotion at the moment.

Captain Haynes blinked. He was no longer angry; amazement had driven out every other reaction.

"Cooke," he said in wonderment, "were you wounded in the head? That's ridiculous."

Uncle Dan took a step forward and reached out. His index finger pressed the touch-plate of the visicube on the plotting table. He backed away.

"You may proceed to your home port—" Admiral Bergstrom was saying.

"Dan, darling, dearest Dan," squeaked the voice from the image of Beryl Haynes. "I wish you were here with me now so that you could kiss—" 

"—leaving only enough undamaged vessels at sea to aid those—"

Haynes went red, then white. Johnnie could barely see the seated captain past his uncle's torso.

"—my nipples, so that you could—" 

"—which are in danger of sinking," said the Admiral's voice.

Haynes lurched to his feet. His hand groped at his pistol holster.

"—bite my nipples the way—" 

"I'm unarmed!" Dan shouted. He raised his hands from elbow level. His holster hung from the chair behind Haynes.

Captain Haynes swung up his pistol.

Johnnie's face was calm, his mind empty of everything but trained reflex. He drew and fired twice over his uncle's shoulder.

Haynes' head swelled as both bullets exploded within his brain.

"—that's ecstasy for me . . ." concluded the visicube.

Haynes' arms, flailing as he fell, brushed the image of his wife to the floor.

Johnnie's fingers began to load a fresh magazine into his pistol.


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