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"Move it! We're only going to get one shot!"
Kosutic turned from the harpoon gun crew to watch the Marines fanning out along the starboard rail. The ships hadn't come about, and the shattered schooner, which had been in the lead position, was slowly falling astern. If the harpoon gun didn't get into action quickly, it might not get a shot. Not unless they came around for one, and Pahner would never agree to that. He was trying to get the prince's ship away from that . . . that . . . thing as fast as he could.
At least the harpoon gear had been set up, ready, by the gun when all hell broke loose. It was against normal practice to pile charges for the ship's guns on deck. Partly that was because black powder was too dangerous. Sparks or open flame weren't the only things that could set it off; even the friction of grinding a few loose or spilled grains underfoot could do that, under the wrong conditions. But mostly it was because it would have been too easy for the powder to become wet and useless. But this particular weapon had been designed for just this contingency, and the need to get it into action as quickly as possible had dictated ready availability of ammunition. The humans had empty stores containers, plasteel boxes that maintained temperature and humidity, and one of those had been pressed into duty as a standby magazine.
Now the Mardukan gun crew threw back the lid and snatched out the first cartridge. The charge bag was small, only half a kilo or so of powder. But it would throw the harpoon far enough, and without shattering the hardwood shaft.
As the gunner shoved the charge into the muzzle, the assistant gunner assembled the harpoon. Fitting the steel head to the shaft took only a moment, then the coiled line was attached with a human-designed clip. Last, the plug-based shaft was shoved down the barrel of the cannon, acting as its own ramrod.
But drilled and quick as the gun crew was, all of that took time. Time Sea Skimmer didn't have.
Krindi Fain had often wondered if he was going to die. He'd wondered the time a stone wall fell on the crew he was working with. That time, he'd been sheltered by a few sticks of scaffolding, and he'd survived. He'd wondered again, as a private in his first pike battle, by the canals of Diaspra. And he'd wondered repeatedly while fighting the Boman inside and outside of Sindi. But he hadn't known he was going to die.
The beast opened up its maw, and he grunted in anger as he saw it surging up behind the sinking ship once again. He could see bits of wood and cloth, and red flesh, sticking to the thousands of teeth lining the inside of the fish's mouth. But he still didn't scream. He was frightened. God of Water knew he was! But he was going to go to his God as a soldier and a leader, not a coward.
And so, instead of screaming, he paused for a moment. That brief pause, so necessary for everyone to get fully lined up. And then, he yelled "Fire!"
Five of his men were still more or less on their feet, with their wits sufficiently about them to obey his command, but they were almost incidental. The two things that drove the fish off were Erkum and the prince.
The five rifle bullets all impacted on various places in and around the mouth. Two of them even penetrated up into the skull of the fish, but none of them did any vital damage, nor did they particularly "hurt."
Erkum's round, on the other hand, hurt like hell.
The sixty-five-millimeter bullet penetrated the roof of the mouth and traveled upward, blowing a massive tube through the skull of the sea monster. By coincidenceit could have been nothing else, given the quality of the marksmanthe huge slug severed the right optical nerve, blinding the fish on that side, and blew out the top of its skull in a welter of gore.
At almost the same moment, the prince's round entered the back of the beast's head.
It wasn't the pith shot Roger had been trying for, but the round was much higher velocity than anything the Mardukans had, and it generated a significant "hydrostatic shock" cavitythe region in a body that was damaged by the shock wave of a bullet. In this case, the prince had missed his shot down and slightly to the right, but the region that the shot passed through was directly beneath the spinal cord, and the shock wave slapped against that vital nerve.
The combined result was that instead of slurping down the rest of the Sea Skimmer, the fish thrashed away to port and dove. But it did so wildly, uncontrolled. It was half-blind, there was damage to its spinal cord, and half its muscles weren't responding properly.
This food had spines.
"Pentzikis, come about to port and engage. Sea Foam, come to starboard and engage. Tor Coll, prepare depth charges."
Pahner glanced at the prince, who was still tracking the thrashing shadow. He didn't know if Roger had gotten off another impossible shot, or if it was the flurry of blasts from the sinking ship. But whichever it had been, it had at least momentarily dissuaded the fish. Now to put it down.
"Grenadiers to the rigging. Set for delayI want some penetration on this thing, people," Pahner continued, cutting off a fresh slice of bisti root and slipping it into his mouth. The general outline of this fight had been worked out in advanceas well as it could be, at least, when no one had ever actually seen whatever it was that ate ships in this stretch of ocean. Well, never seen it and lived to report it, at any rate. But, as usual, the enemy wasn't playing by the plans. It had been assumed that they'd at least get a glimpse of the beast before it struck, which should have given them at least some chance of driving it off first. Now, all they could do was fight for the remaining six ships and hope to rescue a few of the survivors.
Sea Skimmer was sinking fast by the stern, but she was going down without a list. If they could finish the fish off in a few shots and send in boats, they might save most of those on her deck. The ones below deck were doomed, unless they could fight their way to the main hatch or swim out. It was still a hell of a way to lose a quarter of a battalion, its commander, and probably a damned fine junior officer with them. But there hadn't been many good places to die on this damned trek.
He glanced at Roger again, and shook his head. The prince had headed for the shrouds and was trying to get a better vantage point. Give him credit for trying, but Pahner doubted the prince's rifle was going to win this round.
As he thought that, the first harpoon gun boomed.
"I doubt that even you can do anything with a pistol, cousin," Honal said with a handclap of grim humor. His cousin, the former crown prince of Therdan, had drawn all four pistols at the first cry and had them trained over the side before the warning's echoes had faded.
"True," Rastar said now, and reholstered three of the percussion revolvers. "But if it comes after us, I'll at least let it know I'm here."
"Best stand clear, whatever else you do," Honal said dryly. "Our fine sailor friends are about to see if a harpoon is better than a pistol!"
"Well, that depends on the harpoon and the pistol," Rastar grunted in laughter. "After all, it's not what you use; it's how you use it!"
"And I intend to use it well!" the chief of the gun crew called. "But if you're in the way of the line as it flies, you'll be a red smear! Clear!"
The gun was fitted with a percussion cap hammer lock. Now the gun captain gave Honal and Rastar a heartbeat to duck to the side, then took a deep breath and yanked the firing lanyard.
The bang wasn't really all that loud, but the smoke cloud covered the entire foredeck, and there was a whippity-thwhip! as the coil of hawser at the base of the pintle reeled out. Then there was a cry from the rigging.
"Rig the line!" the gun captain bellowed, and the crew warped the five-centimeter hawser around a bollard as the rope began to scream and smoke.
"Prepare to come about on the port tack!" Pentzikis' captain shouted.
"Rig the line into the clamps!" the gun crew chief called. "The damn thing is going to go right under the keel! If the captain's not careful, it'll take us right over on our side!"
"Let that line run!" the ship's captain barked. "Come onto it when we're on tack!"
"Haul away!" the gunner cried. "We're getting slack!"
"Hold on!" Rastar shouted. "The Tor Coll is about to run across the rope!"
"Contact!" Sergeant Angell called over the company net from Tor Coll's afterdeck. "Sir, we have solid contact."
"Right," Pahner acknowledged, glancing at the formation. "Have your captain keep falling off to port. I want you to take a heading of nearly due south and try to drag this thing off Sea Skimmer. Sea Foam, take another shot. All units, engage with care. Try to get some rounds on it, but don't hit the other ships."
Hooker's own harpoon gun boomed behind him as the schooner came around to starboard. It wasn't, strictly speaking, proper. The ship with the prince on it should be sailing out of harm's way, not into it. But with the fish pinned, it was probably safe enough.
Tor Coll passed above the thrashing shadow, and a huge white and green waterspout appeared behind the schooner. The depth charges used a combination of a grenade detonator and local blasting powder. Pahner hadn't been sure they would function as intended, but it turned out that they worked just fine. Bilali's very first drop scored a direct hit, and the monster fish flopped a few more times, then drifted gently to the surface, belly-up. Its underside was apparently covered in chromatospores, since it was flickering through a riot of colors when it broke the waves. It rippled a dozen shades of violet, then through the spectrum until it began flickering green, and finally stopped and slowly turned a cream color.
"Get that target longboat alongside Sea Skimmer. Launch all the ships' boats, and let's start recovering survivors. Warrant Officer Dobrescu!"
"Yes, Captain?" a calm tenor replied. Pahner glanced over his shoulder, and saw the speaker standing beside the mainmast while he gazed at the floating monster with an air of almost detached contemplation.
Chief Warrant Officer Dobrescu had been one of DeGlopper's shuttle pilots. Flying a shuttle was a relatively safe job, although it hadn't quite worked out that was this time around. But in a previous life, he had been a Raider Commando medic, a person trained not only to stabilize a combat casualty, but to repair one if necessary. His accidental inclusion on the trip had been, literally, a lifesaver. A factor he was sometimes at pains to point out, not to mention complain about.
"I want you to prepare to receive casualties. If there are none, or if they're limited, I'll want your input on our little find here."
"Yes, Sir," the medic replied. "Of course, I'm a shuttle pilot, not a xenobiologist, but it looks like a coll fish to me. And that's my professional opinion."
"It's a coll fish," Captain T'Sool said. Ima Hooker's captain rubbed his horns, then clapped his hands. "It's impossible, but may the White Lady damn me if it isn't one."
One of the Hooker's sailor's held up a dripping bag in both true-hands. The oil-filled sac was common to the coll fish, part of its buoyancy system. But in normal-sized ones, the sac was the size of the last joint of a human thumb and filled with what, to Mardukans, was a deadly poison. As it had turned out, that oil was possibly the only substance on the planet that the Marines' nanites packs could convert into the numerous lipid-based vitamins and amino acids the planet's food lacked.
"Well," Kosutic said. "At least we've got plenty of feed for the civan. And that's enough coll oil to keep us for quite a while," she added, gazing at an oil sac that was at least a meter across.
"It's still a net zero," Pahner growled. "We lost an entire ship getting it, along with half of its crew, damned near two full companies of infantry, and three more Marines. I don't like losing troops."
"Neither do I," Kosutic agreed. "And this trip says it all. His Putridness' hand has certainly been over us the whole time."
"What just happened?" Eleanora O'Casey asked, as she climbed up through the main hatch to the deck.
The prince's chief of staff was the only remaining "civilian" caught on the planet with him. Although none of the shuttle pilots had been as prepared for the conditions here as the Marines, they'd at least had some background in rough conditions survival and a basic military nanite pack. But prior to the crash landing of the shuttles on the backside of the planet, the chief of staff had never set foot outside a city, and her nanitessuch as they werewere designed for a nice, safe, civilized environment.
The "adventure" had had some benefits for her. She was in the best shape she'd ever been in her life. But her stomach, never the most robust, had not taken the journey well, and it was taking the voyage aboard ship even worse. Now the short brunette turned her head from side to side, counting masts.
"Aren't we missing one ship?" she asked.
"Not quite yet," Pahner said dryly. "But it won't be long now." He pointed over the side, to where Sea Skimmer's shattered hull was beginning its final plunge. "We've discovered what ate the other expeditions," he added.
O'Casey walked to the side of the gently rocking schooner, and her eyes widened.
"Ooooooh!" she gasped, and quickly ran to the far rail, where she wouldn't get anything on the Mardukans butchering the vast fish.
"Well, I guess she won't be coming to dinner," Kosutic observed with a shake of her head.
"I guess this stuff gets tougher as it gets older."
Julian bounced the tines of his fork off of the slab of coll fish on his plate to emphasize his point.
There'd been no more attacks on the ship, and soundings indicated that the area in which Sea Skimmer had been ambushed was a seamount. Dobrescu theorized that a line of such seamounts might be the haunt of the gigantic coll fish. If he was right, it might be possible to create an industry to harvest the species, once its habits were better understood. The profit would certainly be worth it, if it didn't involve losing a ship every time.
"It probably does," the medic agreed now. "Not that anyone in K'Vaern's Cove ever saw a coll fish this big to give us any sort of meter stick." He rolled the head-sized opalescent pearl back and forth on the table top, and the bright, omnipresent cloud-light of Marduk made it seem to float above the surface.
"On the other hand, this thing seems to be identical to the ones from the smaller fish," he went on, rapping the pearl with a knuckle. "It's a hell of a lot bigger, of course, and it has more layers. There's a bone directly under it that's layered as well, and I'd suspect from the markings that the layers indicate its age. And these things must grow fast as hell, too. If I've figured out how to calculate its age properly, this fish was less than five times as old as the ones we ate in K'Vaern's Cove."
"How can that be?" Roger asked while he sawed at the tough flesh. He wasn't particularly hungry, and the meat was both oily and unpleasantly fishy, unlike the normally dry and "white" coll fish. But he'd learned that you just ate. You never knew if there would be worse tomorrow. "This thing was at least a hundred times that size!"
"More like forty or fifty, Your Highness," Despreaux corrected. She and Julian were relatively junior, but both of them had become a regular part of the command conferences. Julian by dint of his background in intelligence, and Despreaux because she kept Roger calm. Of course, her background in communications and tactics helped.
"The layers indicate massive growth spurts," Dobrescu said with a shrug, "but the genetic material is identical. These things could interbreed with the K'Vaern's Cove variety; ergo they're the same species. I suspect that studying their life-history would be difficult. At a guess, they probably breed inshore, or even in freshwater. Then, as they grow, they begin jockeying for territories. If they get the territory of a larger version, they grow very fast to 'fill' the territory." He paused and rolled the pearl again. "I also suspect that if we went back through this area, we wouldn't run into another specimen this large. But there would still be some damned big coll fish around."
"And in a few years . . ." Pahner said with a nod. "By the way, Your Highness, nice shot."
"Excuse me?" Roger gave the fish another stab, then gave up. He wasn't the first to do so, by any means.
The heavyset red and black striped beast occupying the entire corner of the compartment knew its cue. Roger had picked the pet up quite by accident at the village of D'Nal Cord many months before. The lizardlike creatures fulfilled the role of dogs among Cord's people, although Roger had seen no sign of any similar species elsewhere on their travels.
Now Dogzard stood up and gave a vertebrae-popping stretch that extended her practically from one end of the compartment to the other. Being the only scavenger in a group that had blasted its way through endless carnivore-infested jungles had been good for the former "runt," and if she ever returned to her village, she would be double the size of any of the ones that had stayed behind.
Now she flipped out her tongue and regarded Roger's plate carefully as he held it towards her. After a brief moment verifying that, yes, this was food and, yes, she was permitted to have it, her head snapped forward in one of its lightning fast strikes, and the chunk of meat disappeared from the plate.
Satisfied that that was all for now, she returned to the corner to await the next meal. Or to fight. Whichever.
"There was a good solid crack on that vertebra," Dobrescu replied for Pahner in response to Roger's question. "One of the reasons, at least, that it didn't come back at that ship was your shot."
Dobrescu flicked his own lump of fish towards the prince's pet. The chunk of meat never came within a meter of the deck before it disappeared.
"There was also a fist-sized hole through the roof of its mouth," the warrant officer continued, and raised an eyebrow in question as he glanced at the junior Mardukan at the foot of the table.
Fain was desperately trying to figure out the tableware. He'd tried watching Honal, Rastar, Chim Pri, and Cord, but that wasn't much help. The Mardukan officers had never quite mastered the knife and fork, either, and Roger's asitechnically, a slave, although Fain rather doubted that anyone would ever make the mistake of treating D'Nal Cord as anyone's menialrefused to use them at all.
In Cord's case, at least, Fain suspected, the refusal was mostly a pose. The old Mardukan shaman took considerable pains to maintain his identity as a primitive tribesman, but it was obvious to the Diaspran that the asi's knowledgeand brainwere more than a match for any Water Priest he'd ever met. In the others' case, the captain was less certain. Honal had hacked off a chunk of the rubbery meat and was gnawing on it, while Rastar and Pri had lifted slightly larger chunks and were doing much the same. The human ability to hold the meat down with a fork and cut off small pieces was apparently beyond them.
Now, trapped by the medic's implied question, Krindi cleared his throat and nodded in a human gesture many of the mercenaries had picked up.
"That would be Erkum," he said. "At least one shot, perhaps more. It was very . . . confused on board, of course."
"Not so confused that you lost your head," Pahner noted, and took a sip of water. "You had everyone with a weapon fire a volley. I doubt most of the Marines would have kept control of their units that well."
"Thank you, Sir." Fain rubbed a horn. "But from what I've seen, I will politely disagree. Certainly, you and Prince Roger kept control of yours."
"No, I didn't," Roger said. He reached for the pitcher of water and poured himself another glass. "I should have been giving orders, not shooting myself. But I got angry. Those were good troops."
"Hmmm." Kosutic frowned. "I don't know, Your Highness. Let the cobbler stick to his last, as it were." The slight frown became a smile. "I have to admit that having you with a weapon in your hand never seems to be a bad idea."
Pahner smiled at the chuckles around the table, then nodded.
"Whether His Highness should've been shooting or ordering, we need to find a berth for Captain Fain. The infantry side was already short, so I'm just going to consolidate your personnel into a combined company. We lost Turkol Bes on the Sea Skimmer along with your boys, so we need a replacement for Captain Yair, who will be promoted to major and take Bes' place. Initially, I'm going to attach you to His Highness as a sort of aide-de-camp. The bulk of your company's survivors are already aboard the Hooker. We'll work them into the rest of her detachment, and giving you a little experience with the 'staff' will give you a chance to see how things run. Hopefully, we'll have you fully on board by the time we land. Clear?"
"Yes, Sir." Fain kept his face placid, but seeing "his" company lose its identity was not pleasant, however necessary its survivors' absorption might be. "One question . . ."
"Yes, you can hang onto Pol," Roger said with a very Mardukan grunt of laughter.
"Please do," Captainno, MajorYair endorsed. "You're the only one who can handle him."
"We don't know how many more of these things there might be," Pahner continued in a "that's settled" tone of voice, and gestured at the pearl Dobrescu was still fondling. "Or any damned thing else about threats along the way. But we've found out we can kill them, at least. Any suggestions about how to keep them from doing this again?"
"Mount a cannon at the rear. Maybe a couple," Fain said without thinking, then stopped when everyone looked at him.
"Go on," Roger said, nodding. "Although I think I know where you're going."
"Keep them loaded," Fain continued. "Ready to fire, with a crew to man them at all times. When it surfaces, fire. You have about a second and a half from when they appear to when you have to shoot."
"You'd have to have somebody being very vigilant on a continuous basis." Julian shook his head. "Then you'd have to make sure the powder didn't get wet and misfire. I don't think we have the technical capability to do that without modifications we'd need a shipyard to carry out."
"But a defense at the rear . . ." Roger rubbed a fingertip on the table, obviously intrigued by the notion. Then a sudden, wicked grin lit his somber face like a rising sun. "Who says it has to be a local cannon?" he demanded.
"Ouch!" Kosutic laughed. "You've got an evil mind, Your Highness."
"Of course!" Julian's eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. "Set up a plasma cannon on manjack mode. If something disturbs the sensor area: Blam!"
"Bead," Pahner corrected. Julian looked at him, and the captain waggled one hand palm-down above the table. "Those things get too close for a plasma cannon. We'd torch the ship."
"Yeah, you're right." Julian nodded. "I'll get it set up," he said, then wiped his mouth and looked unenthusiastically down at the chunk of meat still sitting on his plate. "You want me to break out some ration packs?" he asked in a decidedly hopeful voice.
"No." Pahner shook his head. "We need to eat what we've got. Until we know how long this journey is going to be, we still need to conserve our off-world supplies." He paused and took a breath. "And we also need to shut down the radios. We're getting close enough to the ports that we have to worry about radio bounce. They're low-intercept, but if the port has any notion that we're here, we're in the deep."
"So how do we communicate between the ships, Sir?" Despreaux asked. The sergeant had been particularly quiet all evening, but she was one of the two NCOs in charge of maintaining communications. With Julian setting up the weapons, it was her job to plan a jury-rigged replacement com net for the flotilla's units.
"Com lasers, flags, guns, flashing lights," Pahner said. "I don't care. But no radios."
"Yes, Sir," Despreaux said, making a note on her toot. "So we can use our tac-lights, for example?"
"Yes." Pahner paused again and slipped in a strip of bisti root while he thought. "In addition, the sailors in K'Vaern's Cove reported that piracy is not an unknown thing on Marduk. Now, why am I not surprised?"
Most of the group chuckled again. Practically every step of the journey had been contested by local warlords, barbarians, or bandits. It would have been a massive shock to their systems if it turned out these waters were any different.
"When we approach the far continent, we'll need to keep a sharp lookout for encroaching ships," Pahner continued. "And for these fish. And for anything else that doesn't look right."
"And His Dark Majesty only knows what's going to come next," Kosutic agreed with a smile.
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