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Rolled to starboard, rolled to larboard,
when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his
foam-mountains on the sea.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Johnnie reflexively set the gunsight controls to search modethen realized he wasn't alone in a simulator where he'd be graded by electronics. He looked at his uncle in embarrassment, poising his hand to switch back to direct targeting.
Dan raised an eyebrow.
"Ah, was that right?" Johnnie asked. "The sights?"
In search mode, the holographic sight picture relayed the image from the masthead sensors above the cockpit, the highest point on the little vessel. At the moment their image was a three-dimensional radar panorama: 320O of empty sea, with a sprinkling of low islands on the northern and northwestern horizon.
"Sure," said his uncle. "Isn't it what your simulator told you to do?"
"Yeah, but . . ."
L7521 was running at speed, slicing over the swells like an amusement-ride car on rails. Froth and flotsam snapped by to either side of the hydrofoil at startling speed, contrasting queasily with the large-scale hologram which scarcely changed at all.
"John, I designed your training programs myself," Dan said. "They couldn't cover everything, but what they taught you is Blackhorse standard."
He grinned, devil-may-care Uncle Dan again. "Life can't cover everything either, lad. Though it took me a while to figure that out myself."
Johnnie traversed the guns ten degrees, using the left-grip control, to swing them to the marked bearing of one of the distant islands. He then touched the right grip, bringing the sight picture back to direct.
For a moment, the hologram was an electronic image of the sea itself. Then the hydrofoil crested a swell and the sights centered on a blur of a gray slightly darker than that of the water. Johnnie dialed up the magnification to its full forty powers and thumbed in stabilization. The gun barrels rose automatically as L7521's bow slid into another kilometer-wide trough.
Just before the gunsight's direct viewpoint was covered by waves, the men in the gun tub saw something with jaws of yellow fangs lift above the vegetation and stare toward them. Nictitating membranes wiped sideways, dulling the eyes.
An image of sea water rose to fill the gunsight. Johnnie switched back to search mode.
He looked at his uncle, hunched below the tub's armor in the assistant's seat. The halo of spray from the steerable front foil soaked Dan as thoroughly as it did the younger man, but there was no sign of discomfort on his smiling face.
"You've been planning for . . . for years to do this, haven't you?" Johnnie said. "Bring me into the Blackhorse as soon as you couldtwist the Senator's arm."
Dan shrugged. "The training programs? I wouldn't have forced you, lad. You wanted to learn, so you might as well learn the right way. Even the Senator agreed with that. Otherwise you might have run off and joined some jackleg outfit that'd get you killedif you were lucky."
The implications of what he'd just heard spread across Johnnie's mind like the base of a slime mold, then burst into feculent words: "You don't think I'm good enough for a real company, Uncle Dan? You don't think I could get into the Blackhorse without you pulling strings?"
The older man shook his head. "Wrong wording," he said calmly, as though he were unaware of the shock and horror behind his nephew's flat statement.
"You don't think that any real company's going to enlist the son of A. Rolfe Gordon against the Senator's will, do you?" Dan explained. "War's a business, Johnnie. Admirals put their lives on the line, sure; but they're gambling on a lot more than the chance of getting killed. Nobody competentnobody competent enough to command a successful companywould offend the most powerful politician on Venus."
"He may not be for long," Johnnie said in mingled regret and anger. "Heidigger and Carolina won't let him stay if they win."
"Even then no fleet is going to offend the Senator for nothing," Dan continued. "Nobody in the history of Venus has been able to do what your father's already manageda free association of three domes, forced by the populace and against the will of the oligarchs who'd been running the show until then."
"But if he fails" Johnnie said.
"If he fails this time," his uncle said, riding over the interjection, "there's still the chance he'll be back in power later. Politicians have long memoriesand so do Admirals."
Dan focused on the sight picture, then frowned and rose from his seat to look over the armor. "Cover that," he ordered, pointing off the right bow. "Samuels is going to pass too close."
The sights went direct when Johnnie swung the guns with his right-hand control. The panoramic blur of land against sea became a huge mass to the leftprobably the sub-continental Omphalos Sathanou, though that meant the hydrofoil's speed had been above the seventy knots Johnnie was guessing. To the right was an unnamed islet from which trailed a fur of water-brushing tree branches.
"All weapon stations, track right," Johnnie's earphones ordered in a voice that wasn't his uncle's.
The strait separating Omphalos from its minor satellite was a quarter mile broad, but only within a hundred feet of the islet was there a band of water which had enough current to clear it of mud and tannin. To the islet's rightsouthclumps of reeds warned that the water there was dangerously shallow also.
Dan charged and aimed the automatic rifle which had been placed between his seat and the armored tub. "Bloody cowboy," he muttered.
"What is it?" Johnnie asked, trying to scan both the holographic image and the expanse of green/brown/corpse-finger white beyond it. "What am I looking for?"
"Any damn thing that moves."
"Watch it," the ensign in the cockpit ordered.
Dan glanced sideways toward his nephew. "Remember," he said, "this is who you get crewing hydrofoils. Don't ever pretend people are going to be other than you know they're going to be."
L7521 slammed past the islet, her drive noise echoing as a thrum/thrum/thrum from the vegetation. The vessel's outriggers threw up triple roostertails. The wakes hunched waist-high across the shallows, churning mud from the bottom.
A ripple of fans waved nervously, the raking gills of giant barnacles or tube-worms.
A tentaclea tendril?shot out of the forest toward the L7521. It was gray and featureless, suggesting neither the plant kingdom nor the animal. Everything behind the rounded tip was a twisting cylinder a yard in circumference. The creature's lunge carried it a hundred feet over the water churned by the disappearing hydrofoil.
A sailor on the stern rail fired his machine-gun. The pintle-mounted weapon wobbled, throwing its helix of golden tracers above the creature. Johnnie, glancing over his shoulder at the target his own weapons wouldn't bear on, thought a few of the bullets might possibly have hit.
"What was it?" Johnnie asked.
"Cover your sector," his uncle ordered, gesturing the twin mount forward as his right hand returned the rifle to the slot beside his seat. "Don't worry about the stuff that's over."
"Yessir," Johnnie muttered, his face cold. The hydrofoil banked slightly, hiding the creature which was already withdrawing into the vegetation from which it had sprung.
Uncle Dan grinned. "Good job, John," he said. "A lot of veterans would've shot off ammo they might need later."
"I won't get out of position again . . . sir," Johnnie said.
"Wish I was sure that I wouldn't," Dan said.
The older man looked back past the stern, where even the islet was rapidly disappearing. "What was it?" he added. "Something big and nasty and fast. But not fast enough. May all our problems be like that."
"Uncle Dan," Johnnie said, keeping his eyes rigidly on his sight hologram. "Is the Senator a coward?"
"Arthur?" the mercenary officer said. "Hell no! Where did you get that idea?"
"He joined the Blackhorse when you did"
"Right. He met your mother when she was seeing me off for training."
"but he resigned after his first battle. He was afraid."
"He wasn't any more scared than I was," Dan said. "The Elizabeth got hammered out of line. Damned lucky we weren't sunk. . . ."
He put his arm on Johnnie's shoulder and kept it there until the younger man met his eyes. "Listen to me, Johnnie," Dan went on. "Arthur's first battle convinced him that Venus had to be united, so that some day there wouldn't be any battles. That doesn't make him a coward."
Johnnie nodded. "But he was wrong, wasn't he? I mean, you can't change human nature, can you?"
Dan grinned without humor. "I hope Arthur wasn't wrong," he said. "Because it convinced me of the same thing."
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