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Up the close and down the stair,
Out and in with Burke and Hare.
The teams separated immediately. The eight men picked to capture the engine room, and the pair who would cut the stern cable, went directly aft on the platform deck. The remainder, the bridge assault team and the two men for the bow and bow anchor, took the companionway up two levels to the main deck before dividing again.
The dreadnought's off-duty crewmen should be sleeping peacefully in the air-conditioned comfort of their lower-deck quarters, but none of the assault force would be on that level to chance a meeting.
The bridge team, with Dan, Johnnie, and Sergeant Britten attached as supernumeraries, was officially led by Turret Captain Reiss, a senior warrant officer. As a practical matter, when Commander Cooke was present, Commander Cooke was in charge
And when Ensign Gordon was present, he was jogging forward on point, his eyes wide open to catch movement at their peripheries and the borrowed sub-machine gun ready to end that movement before the victim knew what had hit him.
There was no cover in the dreadnought's empty, drab-painted corridors. Somebody could step out of a compartment at any time and see the Blackhorse assault force, armed to the teeth. There was no reason a member of the Holy Trinity's crew should be here . . . but there was no law of nature forbidding them, either.
Training had made Johnnie good at this sort of business. Now he realized that success required that hethat theyalso be lucky, or at least not unlucky.
Of course, the most immediate bad luck if the raiders were discovered would be that of the Angel crewman, smashed into a bulkhead by Johnnie's burst of explosive bullets.
The armored curve of A Turret barbette bulged into the corridor. Visible beyond it was the barbette supporting B Turret. Johnnie broke stride, trying to remember the layout of a dreadnought from schematics studied at leisure and the brief glimpse he'd had of the Holy Trinity's armored reality as he followed Sal Grumio.
"Sir, should we"
enter the barbette and go up to the shelter deck through the turret? he would have concluded if Uncle Dan, a rifleman faceless behind his reflective visor, had not broken in with, "No, the next compartment forward should be the lower conning room. We'll take the access ladder straight from there to the bridge."
"And take it easy when we're in the ladderway," Sergeant Britten added in a low-voiced snarl. "Remember, even if they're all half asleep, they're going to wonder if it sounds like there's a soccer crowd stampeding toward the bridge."
The lower conn was well within the main armor belt, so the compartment's bulkheads were thin, barely splinter-proof. Even so, the hatch cycled slowly and unwillingly, a minor mechanical fault that Maintenance hadn't gotten around to correcting.
Johnnie took a deep breath in the enforced pause. His body shivered with reaction.
"Let's go," Dan said, leading through the hatchway.
Lights went on as soon as the presence of humans tripped a circuit. Johnnie crouched to spray the first movement, but the lower conn was empty save for the Blackhorse raiders. The hatch to the ladderway was open, for ventilation or from the sheer lazy disinterest of the last man through.
"Sorry, sir," Johnnie muttered to his uncle.
"Nothing to be sorry about," Dan said as he entered the armored staircase behind the muzzle of his rifle.
The helical treads of the ladderway were barely wide enough for men to pass in opposite directions, and there was no way that ten booted humans could climb them without sending a mass of vibrant echoes through the narrow confines. Johnnie reminded himself that the constant flexing of the dreadnought's whole tens of thousands of tons was loud enough to conceal the ringing footsteps from the bridge watch, but there was no emotional comfort in what he knew intellectually was true.
Dan paused briefly on the landing outside the conning tower, directly below the bridge. Again the hatch was open and the compartment empty. Vision slits, presently unshuttered, gave a shadowy view forward over B Turret.
"Force Prime," muttered the command channel in Sergeant Britten's voice, "I ought to be leading."
"No sir," Johnnie gasped. Because of the weight of his pack and the monotony of the steps, he'd had to make a conscious effort to keep his eyes lifted above the next tread. "I should."
"Both of you, shut" Commander Cooke snarled.
The tak-tak-tak of gunfire, not loud but penetrating because it was the sound they all feared, cut him off.
A fuzzy voice over the intra-ship channel crackled, ". . . at the accommodation la . . ." and blurred off as the sound of another burst rattled the night. It was impossible to pinpoint the direction of the echoing sound; from the words, the stern team had run into guards at the accommodation ladder raised along the dreadnought's aft rail.
Johnnie plucked the transmitter cup from his helmet.
"Forget that!" bellowed Uncle Dan. "Come on!"
The massive bridge hatch was opening. An enlisted man, slinging a sub-machine gun and looking back over his shoulder to hear a shouted order, was halfway through the opening when Dan's rifle blew him back in a sparkle of explosive bullets. Muzzle blasts in the confined space stung Johnnie's bare hands and chin.
Dan jumped through the hatchway, firing. The hatch staggered, then began to close. Johnnie brushed both the hatch and its jamb as he followed his uncle into the bright-lit interior.
A junior lieutenant lay against a bulkhead painted with his blood. He'd been reaching for his pistol, but his outstretched left hand had already thrown the master switch that closed and dogged all the bridge hatches.
Dan fired. His shots blasted a console and the bulkhead beyond the ducking officer of the day.
Johnnie killed three techs still at their consoles, two of them scrabbling for pistols and the thirdthe dangerous oneshouting into his communicator.
Training held. A pair of explosive bullets hit each man in the head. One of the techs leaped to his feet and sprang across the bridge, caroming between consoles and bulkheads and spraying blood in a fountain. The officer of the day jumped up, screaming in horror at the sight.
This time Dan's bullets stitched him across the chest.
Somebody fired a pistol from the far wing of the bridge. The bullet was a solid which ricocheted off the armored roof, as dangerous to surviving Angels as it was to the attacking force.
"Get the hatch control!" Johnnie shouted to his uncle as he charged the gunman.
The muzzle of the pistol poked cautiously up from behind a console. Johnnie jumped to the top of the unit, surrounded by a flare of holographic movement triggered by his boot soles.
A pair of Angel technicians huddled on the other side. One had his hands folded over his head and his face against the decking; the other held his pistol as though it were a crucifix and Johnnie was Satan himself.
Not Satan but Death. The explosive bullets splashed bits of the man's terrified face in a three-foot circle.
"Get up!" Johnnie shouted to the remaining technician, the only survivor of the bridge watch.
The man moaned. Johnnie jumped down and kicked the fellow. "Get up!" he repeated. He continued prodding the prisoner with his boot until the man obeyed, still hiding his face with his hands.
The air-conditioning made Johnnie shiver. His pack was suddenly an unbearable weight. He'd meant to take it off just before the attack, but there hadn't been time. . . .
He shrugged off the load of equipment and ammunitiona dead man's load replacing the one he'd lost in the jungleand let it thump to the bloody deck. He turned.
Uncle Dan was bent over an undamaged console. He snapped switches with his hands while he spoke through the intra-ship transmitter flexed to his helmet. Muted queries rasped through the Holy Trinity's own intercom.
The bridge hatch hadn't closed completely because of the corpse slumped in it, but it had only cycled a body's width open by the time Johnnie looked around. Sergeant Britten rushed through with his rifle poisedlocked onto the two figures standing at the far wing of the bridge
"Don't!" Johnnie screamed as he flattened.
Britten's rifle slammed the prisoner into the armored bulkhead and held him there in an explosive dazzle until the magazine was empty. When the Angel technician finally fell, there was almost nothing left of his body from the beltline to collar.
"Don't shoot!" Johnnie called. He lifted the butt of his sub-machine gun a hand's breadth above the console. "Don't shoot!"
Johnnie raised his head. Sergeant Britten had frozen with the empty rifle still at his shoulder. Now he flung it down as though it had bitten him. Its barrel glowed white from the long burst. The rest of the assault team had stopped behind the sergeant.
"Fayette," ordered Uncle Dan without looking up from what he was doing. "Take over here while I try to raise Team Two. Benns and Forrest, reinforce Team Three. They've captured the engine room, but they're a couple of men short because of things breaking early."
Uncle Dan raised his head. "For God's sake!" he shouted. "Did you think this was going to be a picnic? Get moving, you men!"
The Blackhorse raiders shuddered back into action. Two men disappeared back down the ladderway to replace casualties from the attack on the engine room. A tech slid into the seat the commander vacated to finish locking a selection of the dreadnought's watertight doors. The console's holographic display showed that the crucial hatches, to the battle center and to the crew's quarters forward, were already sealed beyond the capacity of those within to countermand.
A pair of men, unordered, began shifting the corpses of the bridge watch to a corner where they would be out of the way and not particularly visible.
Uncle Dan looked around somberly. "Believe me," he said, "you're going to see worse before this is over."
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