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Yes, the Large Birds o' Prey
They will carry us away,
And you'll never see your soldiers any more! 

—Rudyard Kipling



The squall dumped gray water in sheets and ropes across the clear dome of Wenceslas Dome's surface platform. Where the rain met the sea, there was a chaos of foam.

Below that margin, shifting with the swells that buoyed the platform, was the water of the ocean itself. It was green with nutriments and microscopic life.

Very occasionally, a streamlined vision of fins and fangs brushed along the edge of the platform and vanished again into the farther reaches of the ocean. One of the visitors took almost a minute to cruise past as Johnnie watched in amazement.

The hydrofoil that would take them to Blackhorse Base was occasionally visible also—through the homogeneous waters of the ocean, not the streaming wall of rain. The hundred-ton vessel rocked on her main hull with her outriggers raised. Her helmsman kept her headed into the wind with the auxiliary thruster. It was running just above idle, creating a haze of bubbles in the sea beneath the hydrofoil's stern.

The squall's fury could not have prevented the hydrofoil from operating at full speed had the situation required it; but the few minutes the passengers for Blackhorse Base would gain by loading now were outweighed by the needless discomfort of going out in the brief storm.

Besides, some of the passengers still hadn't finished their goodbyes.

Dan wore baggy khaki utilities instead of his dress creams, but he looked as crisp as if he'd been sleeping innocently for the past twelve hours. He grinned at Johnnie and said, "How's your head?"

Johnnie managed to smile back. "My head's fine," he said, more or less truthfully. "My stomach, though. . . . Is this what shipboard's going to feel like?"

After Commander Cooke enrolled his nephew at the Blackhorse recruiting office, he had gone off "on personal business"—leaving Johnnie in the charge of his servant, Sergeant Britten, with orders to have a good time. Britten's notion of what that meant involved at least a dozen of the dives in Wenceslas Dome's warehouse district.

His uncle shrugged. "This dock's got an unpleasant period," he said. "The dampers are set to smooth tidal lift and fall, but they've got too much stiction to be comfortable in a storm."

The landing platform was as large as the Common thousands of feet beneath it on the sea floor. It was a closed, buoyant structure—of necessity, since the elevator tube joining the platform to the Wenceslas Dome had to adjust to variations in sea level.

The platform could hold a thousand people. Fewer than twenty were present now, scattered in clots and morose handfuls across the clear metal like litter on the floor of an empty amphitheater.

All the uniformed passengers were men. The fleets and their surface bases were male enclaves, though the mercenary companies employed some women as technicians and administrative personnel in the domes.

Sergeant Britten was a stocky man whose shaved head made him look older than his years. He played privy solitaire with his back discreetly turned to his master. His seat was the powered pallet holding the slight kit Dan, Johnnie, and the sergeant himself were taking to base.

Over the past five years of association, Wenceslas Dome had become a second home for the men of the Blackhorse. Most of them kept a fully-stocked apartment in the dome for the time they spent on leave and administrative duty. There was no need to carry luggage between here and the base.

When men died, their effects were sold to the survivors and replacements. No need for transport in that event, either.

"A destroyer's a lot worse, of course," Dan went on. He was letting his eyes slide across the landing platform; concentrating on nothing, missing nothing. "But as my aide, you'll be stationed on one of the dreadnoughts, and your stomach won't mind that."

He grinned again. "Even when you're hung over."

"I'm fine," Johnnie said.

A couple sat on a bench a hundred yards from the stage at which the hydrofoil was berthed. The man wore khaki; he was middle aged, balding and powerful. If Dan's hard features suggested an axe blade, then this man was a sledge hammer.

The woman was only a few years younger, but at least from a distance she looked beautiful rather than pretty. They sat side by side. Each had an arm around the other's shoulders, and their free hands were intertwined on their laps.

"Captain Haynes," Dan said, though his eyes seemed to be on the gray, bobbing hull of the hydrofoil. The rain was slacking off. Patches of white sky appeared briefly through the roof before further spasms of rain obscured them. "And his wife Beryl."

"Companion," Johnnie said. "None of the domes recognize legal marriage to a mercenary."

Dan raised an eyebrow at the venom in his nephew's voice. "Companion," he agreed.

Johnnie licked his lips. "Like my mother. Now."

"Yeah, like Peggy," the older man said. "It's been—too long, six months, I think. Since I saw her. But she's doing pretty well."

Dan checked/pretended to check the clock on his wrist. "She's with Commander LaFarge of Flotilla Blanche," he added. "A good man for executing orders, though maybe not the best choice to deal with the unexpected."

Johnnie looked at his uncle. "He's the one she ran off with?"

"That was a long time ago, Johnnie . . . ," Dan said. He shrugged. "No, that one didn't work out. He was killed later, but Peggy'd already left him. She's been with LaFarge for a couple years, now."

The sky was definitely clearing, but the western quadrant—the direction of Blackhorse Base—was still gray.

"If a destroyer's bad," Johnnie said, "then that little thing's going to turn me inside out, huh?" He nodded toward the hydrofoil.

"Don't you believe it," Dan replied. "When one of those is up on its outriggers, she's the best gun-platform you could ask for. Stable as a rock. I remember once . . ."

His voice trailed off when he realized that his nephew was staring fixedly at the Haynes couple again.

"He looks like he loves her," Johnnie said in a low, grating voice.

"Haynes?" Dan said. "I'm sure he does. Beryl's . . . well, I won't insult her by calling her his lucky charm. She's an estimable woman. But she's also the thing Haynes trusts when it's all coming apart and it doesn't look like there's a prayer of surviving."

He chuckled. "Something we all need, Johnnie. That or another line of work."

"But she's just a prostitute!" Johnnie snarled. "A whore!"

Sergeant Britten looked toward them. The sergeant's face was expressionless, but his big scarred hand was already sliding the cards away in a breast pocket where they'd be safe if he had to move suddenly.

Dan put his arm around Johnnie and turned him away. When the younger man resisted the motion, the mercenary's fingers pinched a nerve in his elbow. Johnnie gasped and let himself be manhandled to face the hydrofoil again.

"That was a long time ago," Dan repeated quietly. "If you get wrapped up in some minor problem of your father's from twenty years ago, then the real stuff's going to steamroller you right into the ground. And the world won't even know you existed."

"I'm sorry, Uncle Dan," Johnnie whispered.

"Don't be sorry," the mercenary said. "Be controlled."

He gave his nephew an affectionate squeeze. "That's the best advice you'll ever get, lad. Follow it and you'll rise just like me and the Senator."

A klaxon blatted above the docking valve. "El-seven-five-two-one, ready to ship passengers for Blackhorse Base," warned a voice distorted by the echoing vastness of the platform.

Men sauntered toward the valve. Some women waited; some turned and walked toward the elevator even before the mercenaries had boarded the craft which would take some of them away for the last time.

As Johnnie walked beside his uncle, his mind repeated, " . . . me and the Senator. . . ." It was like pairing fire and ice.


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