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West and away the wheels of darkness roll,
Day's beamy banner up the east is borne,
Spectres and fears, the nightmare and her foal,
Drown in the golden deluge of the morn. 

—A. E. Housman



The door behind the dozen passengers closed, sealing the surface platform from the spray or worse that would enter when the outer lock opened. The air was hot, not warm; the humidity was saturated.

Captain Haynes turned in the passageway and stared first at Johnnie, then at his uncle. "Who's the civilian, Cooke?" Haynes demanded.

"John Gordon, Captain Haynes," Dan answered in a polite rather than merely correct tone. "He's a recruit."

The passageway rose and fell with a teeter-totter motion that didn't disconcert Johnnie as much as the slower rocking of the platform itself. The wet floor was treacherous, despite its patterned surface and the suction-grip soles on Johnnie's new sea boots.

"I believe Personnel still falls within the duties of the XO, doesn't it, Cooke?" Haynes said with heavy sarcasm. "Have I signed off on him? Because if I haven't, he shouldn't be in uniform."

The outer door opened with a slurping sound and a gush of algae-laden water. A rating from the hydrofoil looked in and shouted, "Will you get your butts—" before he realized that the hold-up in the passageway was caused by the Blackhorse executive officer. He ducked back out of sight.

"Captain," said Dan quietly, "this isn't something I want to discuss without Admiral Bergstrom, and it isn't something I want to discuss here."

He nodded back over his shoulder where the remainder of the passengers, enlisted men and junior officers, waited blank-faced. A few of them pretended not to listen.

Johnnie was rigid. He'd spent his life thus far training to be an officer in a mercenary fleet. His studies and simulations ranged from small arms to fleet fire control, from calisthenics to the logistical problems of feeding thousands of men with the usual assortment of dietary quirks, taboos, and allergies.

But he'd always been the son of Senator A. Rolfe Gordon. He'd never been treated like an object: like a side of meat of doubtful quality.

The passageway rose and fell; and rose. More seawater sloshed in. The sky was a hazy white like glowing iron, and the atmosphere weighed on Johnnie's shoulders like bags of wet sand.

"His name's Gordon?" Haynes said.

"That's right."

Haynes grimaced, then turned. "We'll discuss it with the Admiral," he muttered over his shoulder as he stomped aboard the waiting vessel.

L7521 was a torpedoboat. There were three long grooves on either side of her main hull, like the fullers of a knifeblade. For the hydrofoil's present duty as a high-speed ferry, those weapon stations were empty, but torpedoes could be fitted in a matter of minutes by trained crews in a carrier's arming bay.

A tub forward held a pair of .60-caliber rotary-breech machine-guns, while at the stern was a cage of six high-velocity ramjet penetrators which could punch a hole in anything lighter than the main-belt armor of a battleship. Several additional automatic weapons were clamped to L7521's railings, perhaps unofficially by crewmen who wanted to be able to shoot back with something, even if the rational part of their mind knew it was something useless.

It was an impressive display, though Johnnie knew the vessel's gun armament was minor compared to that of the hydrofoil gunboats whose duty was to keep hostile torpedoboats from pressing home their attacks on the main fleet. And compared to a dreadnought of sixty, eighty, or a hundred-thousand deadweight tons. . . . 

The hydrofoil's real defenses weren't her guns, of course, or even her speed—though her ability to maintain seventy knots as long as there was fuel for the thrusters was certainly a help. The thing that had kept L7521 alive through previous battles and which might save her again was the fact she was so hard to see.

Powered aircraft played no part in the wars which puffed in brief fury across the seas of Venus like so many afternoon squalls. No combination of altitude and absorbent materials could conceal from modern sensors an aircraft's engine and the necessary turbulence of powered flight. And after the quarry was seen—

Battleships and cruisers carried railguns as secondary armament. The slugs they accelerated through the atmosphere hit at a significant fraction of light speed; significant, at least, to anything with less than a foot of armor plate to protect it.

No powered aircraft could survive more than three seconds after coming within line of sight of a hostile fleet. Gliders, travelling with the air currents instead of through them and communicating with their carrier through miles of gossamer fiber-optics cable, were a risky but useful means of reconnaissance; but under no circumstances could a glider become a useful weapons platform.

Light surface craft could be designed to carry out most of the tasks of an attack aircraft and survive.

Survive long enough to carry out the attack, at any rate. War is a business of risks and probabilities.

The advantage a boat had over an aircraft was the medium in which it operated. Unlike the air, sea water is neither stable nor fully homogeneous. Swells, froth, and wave-blown droplets all have radically different appearances to active and passive sensors.

If the vessel was small—in radar cross-section—over-the-horizon systems could not distinguish it from the waves on which it skittered. Look-down Doppler aircraft radars were a technically possible answer, but an aircraft with a powerful emitter operating was even more of a suicide pact for its crew than an aircraft that wasn't calling attention to itself for a hundred miles in every direction.

Torpedoboats like L7521 were skeletonized blobs built of plastics which were transparent through much of the electro-optical band. Their only metal parts were in their gun mechanisms and powerplants, both of which were shielded by layers of radar-absorbent materials. If a hostile emitter did manage to lock on at short range, the little vessels mounted an electronic suite that could be expected to spoof the enemy for up to ten seconds—

Long enough to drop all six torpedoes before counterfire ripped the launch platform to shards of plastic and bloody froth.

The best countermeasures were teams of similarly-designed hydrofoil gunboats to extend the fleet's sensor range. Vicious battles were fought on the rolling wastes of No-Man's-Sea between opposing fleets. The gunboats' heavy armament meant that these blazing encounters almost always spelled death to the torpedoboat—but a regularly-spaced line of patches across L7521's main hull proved that she'd survived once; and therefore might survive again.

"Sir," said the young officer in the central cockpit, nodding to Captain Haynes. "Sir . . . ," and a nod for Commander Cooke.

The hydrofoil's cockpit had seats for four and room for several more standees. It looked like the best place to stay reasonably dry and still see what was going on, though the countermeasures/torpedo control station within the main hull forward was probably more comfortable.

Seamen among the passengers were already snapping lifelines to the vessel's railing. The small-boat men seemed cheerful, but the battleship sailors were grumbling seriously.

"Morning, Samuels," said Uncle Dan. "Get me a couple helmets and you can stand down the forward watch for this run. I'll take the gun tub with Recruit Gordon here."

The young officer's face blanked to wipe his incipient frown. "Ah, sir . . ." he said. "One of the scout gliders thought he saw some activity along our route back. I think I'd like to keep a qualified crew at the weapon stations."

"Ensign Samuels," said Dan sharply, "I was qualified on hydrofoil twin-mounts before you were out of diapers. Commo helmets, if you please."

Captain Haynes had appropriated one of the cockpit seats. He looked up from the control console with an unreadable expression. Johnnie expected him to speak, but apparently the XO wasn't willing to argue against the privileges of rank—even when it was Commander Cooke's rank.

The hydrofoil's commander gave Dan a flustered salute. "Aye-aye, sir," he said.

He turned and called forward, "Alexander and Jones, you're relieved. Give, ah, give your commo helmets to the Director of Planning and his assistant."

Two ratings had climbed out of the forward position before Johnnie and his uncle reached it along the narrow catwalk.

One them grinned as he handed Johnnie a helmet made of the same gray-green plastic as the torpedoboat itself. "Enjoy yer ride, kid," the seaman said. "It's just like the battlewagons—showers in every stateroom."

Johnnie donned the helmet and started to sit in the low-mounted assistant gunner's seat. The AG's job was to pass fresh magazines and take over if his Number One—necessarily more exposed—bought it. Dan smiled and waved his nephew to the main seat instead.

"Go on," Dan said. "You've got simulator hours on the twins, don't you?"

"Yeah, but I'm not qualified—"

The older man waved a hand in dismissal. "I'm qualified to judge," he said. "Maybe you'll—"

He touched the keypad on the side of the helmet he wore. "Set your helmet on 3," he continued, his voice now coming through the earphones in Johnnie's helmet. "That'll give us some privacy."

As Johnnie obeyed—hesitating, but managing to find the correct button without taking the helmet off to look at it—Dan continued, "As I say, maybe we'll find you something more interesting that a simulator target."

L7521 got under way, rumbling away from the dock on the single thruster at the stern of its main hull. The outriggers, one at the bow and two at the stern—the latter with thrusters of their own—began to crank down into the sea. When waves clipped the foils' broad vees, rainbows of mist sprayed about the vessel.

Johnnie thumbed the gunsight live. The holographic sight picture was exactly like that of his simulator back in Wenceslas Dome: a rolling seascape onto which the data banks would soon inject a target.

Reality might do the same.

The vessel worked up to about ten knots on the auxiliary thruster alone. The bow started to lift in a sun-drenched globe of spray. The stern-foil powerplants cut in and L7521 surged ahead.

"You think we're going to have to fight on the way to the base, then?" Johnnie asked, wondering if his uncle could hear him over the wind and drive noise.

The helmets did their job. Dan's chuckle was as clear as it had been in the Senator's office. "I think there's usually something on the surface of Venus that'll do for target practice," he said. "Why? Are you worried?"

Johnnie checked the traverse and elevation controls in both handgrips. The action felt normal, natural. The simulator had prepared him very well, though the amount of vibration through the seat and the baseplate was a surprise.

"I'm . . . ," Johnnie said. The wind pushed his head and shoulders fiercely, but the boat continued to accelerate. They must already be at fifty knots, though the absence of fixed objects disoriented him.

"Uncle Dan," Johnnie said, "I'm afraid I won't be good enough. I'm afraid I'm going to embarrass you. . . . But I'm not afraid of fighting."

"That's good, lad," Dan said in a matter-of-fact voice. "Because you're going to be fighting. If not on this run, then real soon. That I can promise."

The vibration of L7521's drives and hull reached a harmonic. For a moment, it seemed as though the vessel herself was screaming with mad laughter as she rushed toward the western horizon.


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