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May 17, 382 AS. 1051 hours.


Leaf's mind split into a part that understood what was happening and another part that still believed he could survive. He'd unlatched the access plate to #2 fan and was sprawled within the nacelle when he felt the torpedoboat lift onto her last crest. Air boomed with the braking effect of the skirts.

Leaf's left hand gripped the fan mount while leg muscles locked his boots against K67's starboard rail and the lip of the nacelle opening. His right hand held the multitool with which he had just loosened journals of the fan's back bearing and squirted in microsphere lubricant. The bitch'd shake herself to shrapnel in forty minutes, but that was half an hour longer than she'd last before burning if the motorman did nothing.

Leaf had had to disconnect the hose feeding cool, dry air to his environmental suit before he crawled into the nacelle. The suit's impermeable membrane trapped his sweat and body heat, steaming him like a shrimp dinner.

The climate wouldn't have time to be fatal, though, because Leaf had also unsnapped his safety line.

Leaf dropped his multitool to grip another handful of rim. The spring lanyard spooled the tool up snugly beneath his right arm. It would come through the next few seconds just fine.

The hovercraft dropped, touched a solid surface, and spun with the momentum of more than 40 knots times her mass.

Leaf's existence was a montage in which serial time no longer ruled:

The barrels of the twin machine-guns in the gun tub cut an arc to port, then to starboard, against the white sky. Yee, strapped into the gunner's seat, swung between the weapons like a participant on a carnival ride.  

Ensign Brainard sat like a statue, his head visible through the cockpit windscreen. He was shouting something into the interphone, but Leaf could only hear the timbre of the CO's voice in a universal roar too great for even the circuitry of his commo helmet to sort out.  

A palm fought with a blackberry at the edge of the jungle. Thorns probed deep into the palm's hard tissues, but its wounds wept a binary sap which smoldered as its chemicals oozed onto the bramble.  

K67's starboard quarter struck hard enough to compress #4 fan against a coral head. The blades exploded upward, through the guards and housing. If that fan had been running hot instead of #2, Leaf would be lunchmeat.  

The sea was a huge spout of vivid green against the sky. The dismembered head of something reptilian slammed its jaws on another fragment of its body.  

Tools, cups, and the holographic image of a naked woman flew from the torpedohouse aft the cockpit. Tech 2 Caffey, the torpedoman, and his striker were harnessed safely into their seats.  

Unlike Leaf.  

Instinct anticipated the shocks where intellect would have been overwhelmed.

Right boot shifted, right side tight against the edge of the access port—God! it hurt, but if he'd been flung sideways the three inches of a moment before, the lip would have broken his pelvis.

Down, chest flat against the mesh guards and the fan still howling at full revs. Inertia slams down a thousand times harder, bulging the mesh and crushing the breath from the motorman's lungs.

Forward—his arms took the strain and he screams but they take the strain. Right side, again, and worse, but alive. He's still all right. Not great; the inside of his visor is speckled with what looked like mud but was blood from when he banged his nose. Broken bones or just pulled muscles? But . . . alive.

K67 slammed down squarely, compressed what was left of her skirts, and sprang three feet into the air before coming to rest. Leaf had nothing to brace him against the last shock. He flew out of the nacelle like a bomb from the tube of a mortar.

He tumbled in the air. He'd lost his helmet, though he didn't know how: the chin strap was supposed to be strong enough to tow a destroyer. Slime and water splashed to envelope him. It was a moment before Leaf realized that he was no longer moving.

And that he was alive.

Leaf gasped a lungful of air. He screamed it back out because of the pain in his ribs. He lay on his back in a pool, floating easily because of the air trapped in his environmental suit.

There was ten feet of open water in every direction he could see. Jointed reeds grew from the margins of the pond. They bent their spiky tips toward him slowly.

Leaf tried to turn his body. He screamed again and his head bobbed under water. When he came up, eyes bulging with fear, he saw the quick flick-flicker of a tongue through the reeds to his right.

The snake eased the remainder of its head into view.

Leaf heard nervous human voices nearby. The wrecked hovercraft must be close, though he couldn't see it the way he lay in the water. "Guys?" he called softly.

The snake's head was wedge-shaped and the size of a barrel; there must be at least a hundred feet of gray-brown body behind it. A nictitating membrane swept sideways across the one glittering eye that fixed on the motorman.

"Help!" Leaf shouted.

"Good God, man!" Brainard shouted back. "Don't move!"

That was when Leaf saw the spider peering with its eight tiny eyes from the reeds to his left.

The spider extended its long forelegs cautiously, spanning two yards. Their tips were brushes of fine hair which dimpled the surface of the black water but did not sink through it.

Leaf tried to hug himself in fear, but his head started to sink again as soon as his arms moved. He froze, unwilling to close his eyes but terrified by what he saw through them.

He wasn't carrying a sidearm. The multitool could be pressed into service as a weapon, but he'd be underwater sure if he tried to draw it down from its take-up spool.

The snake cocked its head further to the side, interested in the spider's stealthy movement. The forked tongue lapped the air for a taste of its potential rival. The arachnid poised, more still than the gently-lapping water, while the reed tops bent above it.

Men talked behind him, but Leaf couldn't make out the words. They spoke softly, as if to avoid drawing the attention of the two monsters away from Leaf. He heard a squeal as the gun tub was cranked around by hand. The hovercraft's motors must have shut down during the crash.

Neither of the beasts would die easily. If one was shot, both would go berserk. They'd finish Leaf in their death throes, even if a stray bullet didn't get him first.

The motorman's body stuttered in a sequence of trembles, then tensed with pain. Both spasmodic movements were beyond his conscious control.

"Leaf," Ensign Brainard repeated, "whatever you do, don't move. Do you understand?"

"Yessir." His voice was a cracked whisper, but perhaps they saw his lips move.

The rifle shot startled him. The high-velocity bullet missed everything. It lifted a column of spray from the far edge of the pool.

God, he's missed!  

The snake struck at the water spout. The spider leaped from the other side of the pool to sink its fangs into the reptile's neck, and the gun tub's twin .75-caliber machine-guns laced both creatures with high explosive.

Something wriggled through the air to the motorman. He shouted in fear before he realized what it was—a safety line—and grabbed with both hands. A firm pull dragged him toward land.

Explosive bullets had blown the spider's abdomen away from its cephalothorax, but its mandibles continued to worry the snake's neck. A long burst from Yee's revolver-breech machine-guns walked down the snake's body.

Something clung to Leaf's legs, then slipped away from the smooth fabric of his environmental suit. The water around the blasted, still battling, monsters blurred, then turned pale.

A hand gripped Leaf's hands. He lunged convulsively to the shore, where Officer-Trainee Wilding knelt to spread his weight better over the liquescent bog.

Leaf glanced over his shoulder. A membrane as pink as the inside of a stomach had risen through the water. It enfolded the snake and spider. The torn bodies, still thrashing, dissolved into pink slime which the membrane sucked in.

* * *



May 11, 382 AS. 0109 hours.


Leaf sat on a crate of empty bottles, ignoring the whore who tried to entice him by brushing his face with her pink tits. His back leaned against the brothel's piccolo as it blared out—for the twentieth time in a row—a song that had been popular when Leaf was a kid. He could barely hear the words, but he mouthed them by memory: " . . . Tennessee. . . . Tee for Thelma, She made a fool outa me. . . ."

Leaf closed his eyes. His glass was empty, but he was too drunk to get up and buy another drink. The bottle rims stabbed his buttocks like a bed of blunt needles, but they were a better seat than the slimy floor, and he wasn't sure he was able to stand just now.

The Año Nuevo's ground-floor reception area was stiff with sound. The orders sailors bawled to the tapster behind the semicircular bar were more often than not misheard, but at this time of night it didn't make any difference. Men drank whatever was put before them.

The separate staircases down to the basement and sub-basement were on either side of a low stage. The sub-basement was a credit cheaper, but it was damp and stank like a sewer; if you cared, which most of the Año Nuevo's customers didn't. The evening's floor show was over. The huge holonews display on the wall behind the stage was tuned to a party thrown by the local upper crust.

"Gonna buy me a shotgun wif a great big shiny bar'l. . . ."

The brothel's star turn was a black-haired, black-eyed minx named Susie. She was a tall woman compressed into five feet of height: large breasts and broad hips, but with a distinct waist separating them. She was a looker by local standards, though that wasn't the main reason for her popularity.

Every evening, the girls collected a half- or quarter-credit from each of the customers to pay for Susie's time, and some lucky guy got a freebie on the stage. Tonight, Susie's choice—a sailor from the dreadnought Elephant—had already been too drunk to perform effectively. That made the entertainment even better for the half of the brothel's clientele who weren't battleship sailors.

"Gonna shoot that Thelma . . . ," Leaf sang.

Two couples on the stage now were giving a pretty good informal show of their own. If the sailors thought they were going to save a room charge, they were wrong. Above them, glittering party-goers smirked through interviews on the holographic display, their words lost in the general racket.

" . . . just to see her jump an' fall."

The music, a vibration through the motorman's spine, ended as the piccolo shut off. Leaf sighed with his eyes closed and fumbled in the pocket of his tunic. He still had a few half-credit coins left. He slipped one out and raised it toward the slot above and behind him, moving by practiced reflex.

"Tee for Texas," he mouthed. "Tee for Tennessee . . ."

A hand closed over Leaf's groping hand.

"Go away, honey," he muttered tiredly. "I'm fucked out, believe me."

"I said, are you gonna shut that noise off or am I gonna bust your head?" a voice shouted in his ear.

Leaf's eyes flashed open. He wasn't drunk any more, but his skin was very cold.

The whore had gone to plow more useful fields. Another sailor bent close to the motorman's face. The tally around his cap read Elephant, not a big surprise. He was a young fellow, six inches taller than Leaf and muscular. His flush was drink or anger or both.

Almost certainly both.

"Got a problem with something, sonny?" Leaf said as he rose smoothly to his feet. Leaf wasn't shouting, but the general volume of noise had dropped enough that most of those in the reception room could hear him. He let the coin drop to free his hand. "Can't get your dick stiff, maybe?"

This wasn't the sailor from the floor show, but he'd heard the story. He reacted without hesitation, punching Leaf in the face.

Leaf had ten years in the Herd and a lot of bar fights behind him. He shifted his head so that the fist glanced along his jawbone. It would leave a bruise, but for the moment Leaf scarcely noticed it against the rush of alcohol and adrenaline.

He flung himself backward into the piccolo as though the punch had caught him squarely, then sprawled on the floor. If the other sailor was smart, he'd try to put the boot in—and then it was going to get interesting.

He wasn't smart. "And leave it fucking off!" the battleship sailor shouted as he turned toward the bar instead of finishing what he'd started. "Flitterboat pussies!"

Leaf came off the floor. The crate of bottles was in his hands, swinging in a sideways arc.

Shouted warnings started the kid's head rotating to see what was happening behind him, but it was already too late. The crate hit him at the center of mass. Bottles flew out. The impact smashed ribs and flung the victim over the bar. He caromed off the tapster who had already jerked down the alarm lever.

It was too late for that as well. Even before the crate landed, battleship sailors and crewmen from smaller vessels began to fight one another all over the reception area.

Some of the girls joined in, shrieking with fury. It wasn't any business of theirs . . . but then, all the sailors were from the same Free Company.

Leaf ran for the stairs to the sub-basement. He collided with a redhead in a string top which displayed all the little she had. The whore seemed to have lost her client below. She grabbed Leaf with both hands and began mechanically to proposition him.

"Move it, bit'h!" the motorman snarled, realizing that the right side of his jaw was numb. He pulled himself free.

There was an emergency exit from the sub-basement into a drainage tunnel, and this was an emergency by Leaf's standards. In a matter of minutes the Año Nuevo would be full of stormtroopers with truncheons and stun gas, Wyoming Keep's Patrol or the Herd's own shore police. Leaf didn't intend to be around while the authorities sorted out how the fight had started.

The holographic display was still tuned to the upper-crust party. Leaf dived past it, but the voice of the commentator followed him down the stairwell saying, "And why is Prince Hal wearing the uniform of a high officer in Wysocki's Herd? Because it's his uniform! Yes, really, darlings, the most eligible bachelor in Wyoming Keep is a Free Companion!"


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