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There was an instant of silence as the salvo of 8-inch shells drowned their freight-train roar in the shallow water off the port side of Air Cushion Torpedoboat K67. When the shells exploded, their three blasts erupted together from the sea in a spout of sand and water. Toothed life forms snapped and tore at one another even as they seared to death in the sunlight which burned through the clouds of Venus.
"to Orange Leader," Ensign Brainard shouted into his commo helmet. "For God's sake, Holman, we can't hold this heading! Over."
They had to veer to seaward or reverse course. They had to do something, and do it quick or it wouldn't matter.
When shells began to fall unexpectedly on their two-ship scouting element, Lieutenant Holman had ordered K67 and his own K70 to skim the shallow embayment of one of the nameless islands of Gehenna Archipelago. At first, the order had seemed a good idea to Brainard also. The island's central peak, wrapped in festering vegetation, should confuse the radar of the cruiser targeting the two hovercraft.
But radar was never trustworthy on Venus. Solar radiation and magnetic fields twisted radio beams into corkscrews which might or might not bounce back to the receiving antenna. This time the cruiser's luck was good, and Brainard's luck
The shockwave hammered them.
Brainard commanded one of the smallest vessels in Wysocki's HerdHafner's Herd originally, but a 16-inch shell had retired Cinc Hafner. Brainard gripped the cockpit coaming and glared at the waterspout, as though his eyes could force a response from Lieutenant Holman when a laser communicator could not.
K70, their sister-ship and the patrol leader, rocked out from behind the shellbursts, holding course. Instead of taking station ahead or astern of K67, Holman held his vessel 200 yards to seaward. That might be why the cruiser was still getting a Doppler echo separated from the shoreand an aiming point.
The sky screamed with another salvo. Ahead, the further cape of the embayment approached through the haze at K67's flat-out speed of 90 knots.
"Orange Two to Orange Leader!" Brainard shouted, knowing the volume of his voice wouldn't help carry the words to K70 if the laser communicator didn't function . . . and if Lieutenant Holman didn't want to hear. "Sheer off, for God's sake! Over!"
Newton, the coxswain, steadied K67 against the airborne shockwave followed by the surge of water humping over the shallows to pound the hovercraft's skirts. A ten-foot ribbonfish, all teeth and iridescence, swept up on the narrow deck, then slid into the roiling sea again. The fish had locked its jaws onto something round and spiny. In its determination to kill, it seemed oblivious to the notch some other creature had bitten from its belly.
Despite the oncoming shells and the onrushing land, Newton seemed as stolid as the ribbonfish. Perhaps he was. Newton made an excellent coxswain, but Brainard sometimes suspected that the seaman was too stupid to realize there was anything to be afraid of. He would hold course as ordered, even though he knew running up on the island's jagged shore at 90 knots would rip K67's skirts off and strand her crew in the middle of Hell.
The 8-inch salvo burst squarely between the two torpedoboats, hiding K70 momentarily in another deafening uprush of water. The cruiser was firing armor-piercing shells. Its radar must be treating the paired echoes as a return from a single large vessel. When K67 adjusted course to port as they must do in a momentmust do!they would be squarely in the footprint of the next trio of shells.
There was a salvo on the way. Brainard could hear the howl over the intake roar of the fans pressurizing the bubble of air which filled K67's plenum, driving her across the surface by thrust vectored through the skirts.
The starboard forward fan was running hot. Technician 2nd Class Leaf, the motorman, was half inside its nacelle ahead of the gun tub.
He glanced back toward Brainard. The opaque helmet visor hid Leaf's face, but Brainard could imagine the panic in the motorman's eyes. The same terror stared back at Brainard whenever he looked into his soulso he didn't do that, he concentrated on his instruments and his duty and to hell with Lieutenant Holman.
"Coxswain," Brainard ordered on his helmet's interphone channel, "drop twenty knots and adjust course ten degrees to seaward."
That would clear the jaws of land, barely, and avoid their consortif she held her course. If Holman chopped K70's throttles also, the high-speed collision of the two flimsy craft would do as thorough a job as the 8-inch shells could have desired.
Officer-Trainee Wilding looked up from his navigation/electronic countermeasures console on the other side of the coxswain. "Sir," Wilding's voice crackled over the interphone, "I've tracked the shells back, and it isn't the Battlestars firing"
Wilding had a reporting capsule ready to go, a laser communicator which would transmit its message program when it rose high enough to achieve line of sight with the Herd's main fleet. There was no point in releasing the capsule now. The 90-knot windspeed would shred the ascender balloon before the capsule released from its cradle.
Newton adjusted his throttles and helm. K67 took his input, but her slow response was almost lost in the thunderous vibration of the incoming shells. The cloud cover, lighted a translucent white by the sun only 67 million miles away, quivered with the sound.
These weren't shells fired by a cruiser. This was a main-gun salvo from a dreadnought. The cruiser's fire had not taken effect, so she had passed her radar target to a battleship.
"Hang on!" said Ensign Brainard, but he was only clinging to the cockpit rim with his left hand himself. He threw himself back into his seat; the shock harness gripped him.
Brainard's right hand checked the key on his commo helmet. He had to make sure that it was clicked forward to interphone so the crew could hear him. If he filled his mind with duty to his crew there was no room left for fear.
Shells lifted the sea off K67's port bow. Sand, corals, and innumerable forms of life bulged up and outward in a man-made volcano. The bursting charges released fluorescent green marker dye so that a spotter could differentiate the fall of shot among multiple ships in a fleet engagement.
K67 bucked as the tidal wave swept across her track, but the hovercraft lifted instead of being overwhelmed by the circular chaos. All the world was the white pressure of the shockwave, the simultaneous detonation of several 18-inch shells.
Brainard was weightless. Only the touch of his left hand on the coaming connected him to his vessel. For an instant, he thought that they were safe, that K67 had ridden out even this cataclysmic fury
Then he realized that the hovercraft was dropping off the back side of the wave. When the skirts lifted, they braked K67 like a parachutebut not enough, and their direction was now a vector of their initial course and the 90o side-thrust from the shockwave. K67 was about to slam down on a jagged shoreline at a speed that would rip through the armored belly of a dreadnought, much less a hovercraft's flexible skirts.
Brainard realized one other thing as well. The Battlestars didn't bother with marker dye in their shells. One of the Herd's screening cruisers had seen a big-ship echo where the Herd had no major fleet units. The cruiser had taken the target under fire, then passed the target to a battleship.
From the color of the dye, K67 had just been destroyed by the Elephant, the flagship of Brainard's own fleet.
As Brainard and his momentary consort sauntered up the circular ramp, he glanced down through a haze of alcohol at the ballroom's panorama of metal and jewels and the fabrics which shimmered brightest of all.
He'd seen parties like this one before, but he'd never been present in person. Every Keep's holonews focused on the glittering celebrations that the founding families and their retainers held, on festival days or whenever a special event arose.
This time the event was the imminent war between Wyoming Keep and Asturias Keep. The Callahans, whom Officer-Trainee Wilding said were the most powerful of the Twelve Families directing the affairs of Wyoming, had risen to the occasion. A gathering this splendid would occupy the holoscreens until battle news arrived to entertain the mass of the population.
The common people had their own celebrations in every bar and club throughout Wyoming Keepand Asturias as well, no doubt. Those parties Brainard had seen, as officer-trainee and as civilian, for as far back as he could remember.
Because mercenariesthe surface fleets of the Free Companiesdid the actual fighting, war was only an economic risk to the populace of the domed keeps beneath the seas of Venus. If the Battlestars, the Free Company employed by Asturias, managed to defeat Wysocki's Herd, the leading families of Wyoming Keepthe folk here in this ballroomwould manage to insulate themselves from the worst effects of reparations payments. The common people had little enough to begin with that less would not significantly degrade their manner of life.
Civilians celebrated because battles were exciting. Mercenariesand there were ten or a dozen at this gathering besides Brainard, mostly high officerscaroused because they might be about to die.
The woman on Brainard's arm drew herself possessively closer to him. What was her name? He couldn't remember.
The ramp to the chambers on the high second level was designed to permit those on it to see and be seen by the crowd in the ballroom itself. The ramp was broad and sloped gently, making a full circuit of the big room in its ascent.
Two couples were coming down together as Brainard and his companion went up. The women were strikingly beautiful in jumpsuits of pastel chiffon. The fabric was almost transparent.
The men wore lieutenant-commander's braid on the blue-and-silver dress uniforms of Wysocki's Herd.
"Oh, Lieutenant Brainard!" bubbled the woman in chartreuse as she fumbled to take the ensign's free hand. The other three strangers carried drinks, but this woman's expression was brighter than alcohol alone would paint it. "I'm so glad to see you! Prince HalHal Wilding, you knowpromised to introduce me to you!"
The woman in pink let her half-empty glass fall and said, "Prince Hal is a very dear friend of mine!" She tried to insert herself between Brainard and the other woman, but Chartreuse had a surprising amount of muscle in her plump arms. "Would you like me to show you over the house?"
Brainard stared at the two men. Their uniforms were real. Their complexions probably resulted from make-up, but the men looked as if they had the deep mahogany tans which high-energy rays penetrating the cloud layers burned into the exposed skin of Free Companions on the surface.
But the eyes were wrong. The men were phonies, rich civilians in costume, and they turned away from the expression they saw on Brainard's face.
The woman on Brainard's arm gave Pink and Chartreuse a look as cold as the ensign's own. "Dearests . . . ," she said, drawing out the sibilants into a hiss. "I'm going to show Ensign Brainard the house myself. After all, dearests . . . it is my family's house, isn't it?"
Drink buzzed in Brainard's mind. He supposed his consort was a Callahan.
She must have done something with her dress when she saw rivals approaching. Now it was formed of two slitted layers instead of a single piece of fabric. The woman smiled at Brainard and shifted her stance, so that her erect pink nipples peeked out at him.
The two couples passed on down the ramp, snarling among themselves in low voices. From across the ballroom, Officer-Trainee Wilding, surrounded by his own harem and the cameras of a holonews team, glanced up and met Brainard's eyes.
The ensign saluted sardonically. Prince Hal, was it? He'd known that K67's new second-in-command was a member of the Twelve Families; that was how he'd gotten Brainard an invitation to this party, after all. But Brainard hadn't been born in Wyoming Keep, so he'd had no idea that Wilding was prominent even within his class.
A footman in magenta livery with buff facings knelt to pick up the dropped glass. The tail of the servant's coat brushed Brainard's leg. His consort noticed the contact. She squealed and lashed out with her foot, displaying a slender leg and a line of blond fuzz from her pubic wedge to her navel.
Brainard caught her so that the kick missed its target. The footman scuttled away without looking back.
"We had to lay on extra help for the party," the woman said pettishly. "Some of them are worse than useless."
She hugged herself close to the ensign again. "Come along," she said. She giggled. "But not too fast."
Brainard's face did not change. They resumed their stately progress up the ramp. His consort wanted everyone to see that she had snagged a certified combat hero for the evening. Well, that was all right with him. . . .
The ballroom's high ceiling was a holographic projection of the terraforming and settlement of Venus. In the opening scenes of the loop, huge cylinders arrived, filled with bacteria gene-tailored to live and grow in the Venerian atmosphere. The waste products of bacterial growth included oxygen and water vapor. Rain fell in torrents that finally, as the atmosphere cleared, reached and pooled in oceans over most of the planetary surface.
The terraformers' centuries-long plan continued. Later cylinders spewed the seeds and eggs of multicelled lifeforms onto the newly receptive planet. Trees of myriad species; vines, grasses and epiphytes; all the diversity of Earth, plus multiple mutations for every original species. Through the burgeoning jungles stalked beastsinsects, arachnids, crustaceans; even the forms of backboned life which were simple enough that the young did not require parental care. All were genetically tailored to the new environment.
The terraformers' success was beyond planalmost beyond comprehension. Human-engineered changes to gene plasm had coupled eagerly with the virgin environment and the high level of ionizing radiation penetrating the clouds of water vapor. The result was a hell of aggressive mutations like nothing ever seen on Earth. Perhaps the artificial ecosystem was unique in the universe.
The new conditions changed but did not force the abandonment of plans for the human colonization of Venus. Now the holographic views showed how the planners set up their first colonies in undersea domes at the edges of continental shelves, as nearly barrenand therefore safeas any region of the planet. Colonization of the surface, turgid with ragingly lethal lifeforms, would come laterwhen the domed keeps could themselves support the effort.
But before that day came, Earth had destroyed itself in a nuclear holocaust which turned the atmosphere's welcoming blue into a hideous white companion star for the sun.
Human life continued in the Keeps of Venus, but the Venerian surface was reserved for the Free Companies and their proxy wars. Holographic dreadnoughts flashed at one another in the final scene of the ceiling decorationand the looped image reverted to the lifeless chaos which preceded terraforming.
In the ballroom below, couples danced and drank and laughed in brilliant, tinkling voices.
The ramp ended at the balcony which gave access to fifty upper-level rooms. Most of the rooms near the ramp were already marked by the discrete In Use notations which appeared when the inner lock was turned. A few doors were open. Within, servants in livery changed washable couch-covers, disposed of used glasses and drug paraphernalia, and occasionally removed the torn or forgotten undergarments of previous temporary occupants.
"There's an empty bed further along," Brainard's consort said.
The ensign's brain was foggy with alcohol. The woman's pleasant, contralto voice came from a blur of warm flesh, not a form.
She chuckled. "But the night's still young. They'll be lining up before daybreak."
Though there were toilet facilities just off the dance floor, there was another set at 90o and 270o from where the ramp joined this level. Brainard and his consort were nearing the men's room. Male guests stood near the door, lounging against the balcony or wall; chatting and looking idly about.
There were empty stalls inside. These folk were held by ennui or inertia, not need. All were civilians. Their expressions quivered with various shades of envy as they eyed Brainard and the woman.
A mercenary officer stepped out of the men's roomLieutenant Cabot Holman, Brainard's immediate superior. He was a forceful, blocky man, not as tall as the ensign but heavier in a muscular way. At the moment, he was flushed with drink.
Brainard nodded with minimal politeness. He stepped closer to the rail so that Holman could pretend to ignore him if he so desired. The two officers would never have been friends, even if it hadn't been for Holman's younger brother. . . .
Holman looked up, saw Brainard, and let his gaze glance aside like an arrow sparking away from rock.
Holman froze. His red face went livid, then white. Brainard blinked at him, wondering if the lieutenant was about to have a seizure from something he had consumed in the name of entertainment.
"Stephanie, you slut!" Holman shouted. He looked queasy.
It took Brainard's dazed mind a moment to remember that his consort had introduced herself as, "StephanieStephanie Callahan, dear one."
"And with the bastard who killed Ted, too!" bellowed Holman.
People stared. Doors opened around the second level; folk in the ballroom below craned their necks for a better view.
"I didn't kill your brother!" Brainard said. He'd drunk too much. His tone was more of a snarl than his conscious mind had intended.
Holman punched him in the mouth. It felt like being too close to the breech of a recoiling cannon.
Brainard staggered, numb all over. The balcony rail was against the small of his back. The wide arc to his front was a blur of screams and faces filled with wolfish glee.
Another door slammed open. Captain Glenn, Officer in Charge of the Herd's screening forces, stepped onto the balcony. Glenn was stark naked except for his flat uniform hat, covered with gold braid.
"What in the hell is going on out here?" the captain bellowed. Two girls peeked out of the doorway behind him. Neither of them seemed more than pubescent.
Holman knelt on the balcony and put his hands to his face. The knuckles of his right hand were bloody.
"He killed my brother Ted," Holman sobbed; then he vomited onto the floor.
On the ballroom ceiling, the holographic display again formed itself into a ravening jungle.
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