Back | Next


May 18, 382 AS. 0156 hours.


Brainard looked at the body of the man he'd killed by incompetence. Bozman's corpse still writhed, animated by the roots which resumed their meal as soon as Wilding let the dead flesh fall.

Something knocked loudly in the forest: a warning, or perhaps merely an insect driving its sucking mouthparts into the veins of a tree.

Wheelwright knelt on the ground. He put his hands over his face and began to blubber. It must have been a general reaction. He and Bozman had barely been on speaking terms after trouble with a prostitute while they were on leave.

"S-stop . . . ," mumbled OT Wilding.

Leaf held Wilding upright, though the motorman himself was glassy-eyed. Fluids oozing from Wilding's back glued his shirt to the flesh. Rings of fungus—black at the edge, purple closer in, and bright scarlet at the center—were converting the pus-smeared fabric to food.

Brainard understood what Wilding was trying to mumble: We can't stop now.

"Right," the ensign said aloud. "Is everybody all right?"

Bozman twitched. Brainard's guts roiled. He gestured toward the corpse with his chin and added, "Everybody else."

Caffey wore a stunned expression. He put an hand on his striker's shoulder and said in a gentle voice, "S'okay, Wheelwright, it's all okay. Just put a sock in it, huh, buddy?"

Brainard looked up along his compass line, then back to the men he commanded. He should have known not to stay in one place for more than an hour. No place on Venus was safe if you gave the planet long enough to sight in on you.

"Right," he said aloud. "Fish, break up Bozman's pack and distribute the contents. We've had our rest. It's time to be moving on."

Wilding had saved them. Wilding, so tortured by pain that he could scarcely speak, had noticed the infiltrating roots. Wilding sounded the warning and, despite his injured leg, had tried to drag Bozman to safety.  

A born leader. If Brainard were half the man his XO was, they'd have a real chance of survival.  

Brainard hefted his pack. The effort made him dizzy. The other men weren't moving.

He would be left alone to die. . . . 

"Technician Caffey, what the hell are you waiting for?" Brainard snarled. "An engraved invitation? Wait a few more minutes and I'm sure the jungle 'll send you one. Just the way it did to Bozman."

The torpedoman blinked. He looked around for the dead man's pack. His limbs moved as if he were heavily drugged.

"Now!" Brainard said.

Leaf shook himself like a swimmer emerging from a pool. He bent over, still keeping one hand in contact with the officer-trainee. He groped for Wilding's makeshift crutch with the other.

Wheelwright helped Caffey rummage through Bozman's pack. They threw out the food packets and passed rifle magazines and chunks of barakite to the living personnel. Newton shrugged into his load with the stolid willingness of an ox.

"It's not far to the top, now," Brainard said.

True enough in terms of feet and inches, but the words sounded as flat in Brainard's own ears as they must in those of his subordinates. The peak was very possibly a lifetime away.

"Stop . . ." OT Wilding moaned.

Brainard helped Leaf fit the rifle butt into Wilding's hand. They had to wrap the injured man's fingers around the plastic for a moment until he could grip of his own accord.

"Don't worry, Hal," Brainard said. "We're not going to stop."

* * *



August 1, 381 AS. 1747 hours.


Officer-Trainee Brainard stared impassively toward the wall behind the table where the members of the Board of Review sat.

The Board was held in a lecture room with full holographic capability. The President of the Board, Captain Glenn, was the Officer in Charge of Screening Forces. He had set the rear-wall projectors to run a reconstruction of the previous week's battle, in which his units had wiped out the Seatiger ambush and set up the Herd's lopsided victory over the Seatiger main body.

Brainard's left arm was bandaged to the shoulder. He wasn't taking in the computer-generated images of heroic battle on the wall toward which his eyes were turned. His mind was too full of remembered terror.

"Though there's no further evidence—" Captain Glenn said.

Lieutenant Cabot Holman started to rise. He sat in the front row—but at the edge of the hall, as far as he could get from OT Brainard's seat in the center.

"Though as I say, there's no further evidence," Glenn continued heavily, "the Board has agreed to recognize Lieutenant Holman for a few remarks. Lieutenant?"

Captain Glenn was bandaged also. Behind the Board, a hologram of the cruiser Mouflon, Glenn's flagship, ripped the night with bottle-shaped yellow flashes from her 8-inch guns. The Mouflon's superstructure glittered: first with the white sparks of a Seatiger salvo hitting home, then burps of red flame as shells went off within the cruiser's armor.

Glenn was boastful, and he was rumored to have unpleasant sexual tastes; but he had paid his dues.

Cabot Holman saluted the Board, then turned to eye the audience. There were only thirty or thirty-five men within a hall that could have held ten times the number, but thousands of others watched the proceedings in hologram from their quarters.

"You all know what I'm here to say," Holman said. He stared at OT Brainard. Brainard did not turn his head—toward the glare or away from it, though he felt the pressure of Holman's eyes. "You all know what I'm saying is true."

Glenn grimaced. The other Board members were Lieutenant Dabney, from the hydrofoil squadron, and Commander Peewhit, captain of the dreadnought Buffalo. Dabney looked at Peewhit. Peewhit, nodding, said, "The Board will be obliged if you just say your piece, then, Lieutenant."

Holman jerked his chin and faced the Board. "Yes sir," he said, clipping the syllables. "The critical incident of last week's victory occurred when Air-Cushion Torpedoboat K44 blew up a Seatiger destroyer-leader, the Wiesel. That proved the Seatigers had divided their fleet to stage an ambush, and so permitted our forces to defeat the enemy in detail."

Either a director or unlikely chance set the holographic display to the portion of the battle which Holman described. A close-up of the Wiesel filled the back wall. The patrolling hovercraft had caught its target at the most inauspicious time possible. The destroyer-leader was entering the archipelago's main channel from a shallow cross-channel barely twice the vessel's own width. The Wiesel could not turn to comb the torpedo tracks.

But she could shoot. The hologram erupted with salvoes from both triple turrets and from the dozens of multi-barreled automatic weapons on the destroyer-leader's port side.

Brainard found the image eerily unreal. There had been nothing so crisply visible on the morning of July 24; only smoke and glare and the stench of feces oozing from Lieutenant Tonello's bullet-ripped environmental suit.

"K44 drove in to close range to be sure of her kill," Holman said forcefully. "But she had to go it alone!"

The computer-generated hologram illustrated his words. Hovercraft K44, occasionally masked by crisp, ideally-cylindrical waterspouts, drove through the maelstrom from the left foreground.

K44 cut away to the right, pursued by flashing lines of explosive bullets. The computer drew glowing tracks to indicate the hovercraft's torpedoes jinking to negate the Wiesel's attempt to maneuver. There was no attempt to follow K44 trying vainly to escape.

Nothing was known of K44's end. The computer could have supplied the single bright flash of a shell, killing the hovercraft's crew instantly at the moment of victory. But—

All the small-craft men in the audience knew that something more lingering was also the more probable: a bullet-shattered hull sinking slowly in black water, while wounded men screamed and their blood drew the sea's fanged harvesters.

Better to show nothing. . . . 

"If K67 had supported Ted—" Holman continued.

He caught himself, swallowed, and resumed, "If K67 had supported K44, the pair of targets might have confused the Wiesel's gunners so that they both escaped."

He pointed at Brainard. "Instead, this trainee—" Holman's voice made the word a curse "—turned tail and ran, leaving m—k-K44 to take all the fire herself. This coward left my brother to die!"

The holographic destroyer-leader expanded into an orange fireball. The glare mounted until its reflection from the cloud layer lighted the night for ten miles in every direction. It was the perfect beacon to summon the Herd's strength against an ambushing squadron that was to have struck from the flank unawares.

But again, the image was too perfect to mesh with Brainard's memory. In his mind's eye:

Objects were outlined against the yellow-orange mushroom. A gun tub. Twenty square yards of decking which fluttered like a bat's wings. A spread-eagled man who burst into flame at the top of his arc and tumbled toward the sea as a human torch. . . .   

"Lieutenant Holman," said Captain Glenn, "I promised you an opportunity to speak your mind. I appreciate your personal loss, but—"

Glenn's voice thinned. After the battle, the medics had taken a shell-splinter three inches long from Glenn's shoulder. Its jagged tip had been deep in the bone. His temper, never mild, had stretched as far as it was going to go with the need to show understanding for a junior lieutenant.

"—the Board will confer now and determine its findings."

Holman sat down abruptly. He flushed with anger.

"I don't think we need to adjourn, do we?" said Commander Peewhit. "I have an O-Group scheduled aboard the Buffalo at nineteen hundred that I'd like to get to."

Captain Glenn glared at the hall. Holman bit his lips but said nothing.

"No," said Glenn. "We'll just talk here for a moment."

The members of the Board of Review slid their chairs into a trefoil. A privacy screen sprang up around them to distort the passage of light and sound waves. Their figures were ghost images on the other side of a gray discontinuity.

The audience began to whisper among itself. Most of those present in the hall had some connection with the proceedings. The other surviving members of K67's crew formed a tight group two rows behind Brainard.

Cabot Holman stared at the officer-trainee with the fixity of a weasel for a rabbit. Brainard looked toward the computer panorama. His mind sorted through disconnected images, all of them terrifying.

The privacy screen dissolved. The Board members faced around. Dabney stifled a yawn. Glenn tried to scratch his bandaged shoulderblade with his good hand, but he couldn't stretch far enough.

"Right," said Glenn, glaring at the audience again.

The wall behind Glenn showed an overhead view of the Gehenna Archipelago as Herd vessels concentrated their fire against the hopelessly outnumbered ambush squadron. Glenn's screening forces were supported by a squadron of dreadnoughts. Every time a Seatiger ship was spotted or revealed itself by firing, salvoes of 18-inch shells blew the victim to scrap.

The holographic screen went gray.

"The Board has reviewed the actions of the officers and men of torpedoboat K67, patrolling against the Seatigers the morning of July 23," said Captain Glenn. "We find the salient points to be as follows."

The face of Tech 2 Leaf appeared on the back wall. The motorman looked even more pugnacious when his features were expanded to the size of monumental sculpture. Leaf had given his evidence with a brutal directness that suggested he was willing to beat the hell out of anybody who doubted him.

"The crew of K67 believed their vessel was making its torpedo run alone," said Captain Glenn.

Leaf's holographic image said, "The target's automatics opened up—that's before the main guns fired. Right then I seen K44 pop all four of her decoys and sheer to port. I had a good place to see 'cause I was checkin' Fan Three and Holman, his boat was on our port quarter."

Leaf's image looked aside. Brainard had expected the motorman to spit, even here in front of the Board of Review. It had probably been a near thing.

Not quite. Leaf stared at the hologram pick-up and said, "I figured they'd cut 'n' run back up the channel we just came out of. I still figure that."

Glenn or a separate director blanked the holographic screen again. The captain resumed, "At the point Officer-Trainee Brainard broke off the action, K67 had received heavy damage."

This time the holographic screen was split. The face of Tech 2 Caffey gave evidence on the left side, while a damage assessment record made after K67 limped back aboard her tender showed to the right.

"I'd got my fish," Caffey said. The torpedoman was a slicker operator than Leaf, but recent memories gave his testimony a punchy credibility Caffey did not always command. "I was tracking. Then bam! The console was gone, just gone. Three explosive shells hit it."

The damage-assessment camera tracked over the torpedo station. Wires dangled from the dual-tracking console. What was left of the faceplate lay on the deck, distorted by electrical fires which followed the shell bursts. Blood spattered the deck and bulkheads.

"Wheelwright was hit," said Caffey's image. The torpedoman was trying very hard to sound calm. "He's my striker. Shrapnel in his legs, but he'd fallen down and I thought it was pretty bad. The interphone was out, and my suit lost its air. Turned out the hose was cut. I didn't know."

The other camera shifted aft from the torpedo station. There was a gap on the stern rail so empty that Brainard had to think to remember what should have been in that place.

"A salvo came in, then," the torpedoman continued. "Main gun. I swear I thought they was firing eighteens."

He forced a smile, but the magnified image showed sweat beading at the line of Caffey's close-cropped hair. "Right overhead. There's a flash, just a flash, and the balloon rig's gone. A shell hit it, but it didn't go off till it hit the sea. That's why we're any of us here. They was using armor-piercing shells with time-delay fuzes, so the one that hit us didn't go off till it was in the sea."

The damage-assessment picture switched to a general port-side view of K67. There were more than thirty thumb-sized dimples in the hovercraft's skirts. Each of the explosive bullets had further gashed the flexible fabric with stars of shrapnel around the black central hole.

"I shouted to the cockpit then," Caffey said. "I said, 'Get us the fuck out of here.' I don't know if they could hear me with the interphone shot away. Anyhow, I thought they was all dead."

He took a deep breath. The other camera steadied on the cockpit. Seventeen holes showed in the port-side bulkhead. Only a glittering memory of the shatterproof windscreen clung to its frame.

How did they miss me? Brainard thought. Then he thought, Why? 

"I felt her take the helm," said the torpedoman's sweating image. "And I prayed to God, because I didn't think anybody else could bring us outa that one. But I was wrong. Mr Brainard could. Mr Brainard brought us out."

The holograms froze, but whoever was directing the display let them hang in the air for several seconds after Caffey ended his testimony.

Captain Glenn cleared his throat. The images vanished into a gray backdrop.

"The findings of the Board are as follows," Glenn said. He glared at the room. "The crew of torpedocraft K67 reasonably believed themselves to be in action alone. The only evidence that their consort did not withdraw when the patrol came under heavy fire—"

The captain nodded appreciatively to Lieutenant Cabot Holman.

"—is that the Wiesel was destroyed after K67's own torpedo-guidance apparatus had been put out of action. All honor to Ensign Edward Holman and his crew, who attacked from an unexpected angle while the target concentrated its fire on K67."

The change in Captain Glenn's voice as he continued was as slight as the click of a pistol's hammer rising to the half-cock notch. "The first duty of the patrolling hovercraft after they had released their weapons was to report the existence of the Seatiger ambush. Indeed—"

The screen commander's face hardened still further.

"—one might say the duty to report was more important than any potential effect four torpedoes could have on the enemy—"

Glenn's visage cleared. "But in any case, Lieutenant Tonello lived and died by his decision, and we do not choose to second-guess him now. When Officer-Trainee Brainard took command, he extricated his vessel from a difficult situation and withdrew at the best possible speed to give his report—in person, since K67's laser communicator had been rendered inoperative by battle damage."

The two junior members of the Board of Review watched Brainard with alert, open faces. Brainard stared past them, toward a wall as gray as his soul.

"Mr Brainard, will you stand," said Glenn.

Brainard wasn't sure his legs would obey, but they did.

"Our recommendation, therefore, is as follows," the captain said: "That Officer-Trainee Brainard be commended for his actions on the night of July 22-23. That Officer-Trainee Brainard be granted a meritorious promotion to the rank of ensign."

Glenn surveyed the hall. "Lastly, that Ensign Brainard be confirmed in command of Air-Cushion Torpedoboat K67 as soon as he has recovered from the injuries he received in action against the enemy."

The audience unexpectedly dissolved into cheers.

Brainard blinked. His skin crawled with hot needles. Men pounded him on the back. The three members of the Board were coming around their table with arms out to shake Brainard's hand.

Across the bobbing faces Brainard saw the glaring eyes of Lieutenant Cabot Holman—the only other man in the hall who knew, as Brainard knew, that Brainard was a coward who had fled from battle with no thought in his mind but of escape.


Back | Next