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"Good speed!" cried the watch, as the gate bolts undrew;
"Speed!" echoed the wall to us galloping through. . . .
Johnnie took a deep breath. He was one of several members of the raiding party who were gawking like spectators, and there wasn't time for that now.
"Uah, sir?" he said. "I'll bring up the weapon systems. I can do that."
Dan gestured brusquely toward a console. He touched the mute on the helmet through which he'd been talking to the survivor of Team Two. That sailor was now waiting to blow the cable of the bow anchor. "Get to it, then, Gordon," he said.
He looked up almost at once. "Ignore the eighteensand whatever you do, don't switch the railguns live until you're ordered to. The overload will shut down the power boards and then we're screwed for good 'n' all."
Having delivered the necessary information with the same crisp skill he would have spent on a computer keypad, Uncle Dan went back to his business.
Johnnie lowered himself halfway into the seat, then grimaced and shifted to the console next to that one. There was a pool of congealing blood and brains on the first.
The layout of the Holy Trinity's bridge consoles differed from those in the training program Johnnie had usedbut as a practical matter, every ship differed from the next, even those laid down as sisters in the same stocks. Bridge consoles did the same job, and an ensign who couldn't figure out the idiosyncrasies of a new layout had no business in the Blackhorse.
The system was already live. An Angel tech had spent the last moments of his life checking the vessel's fresh-water supply. Johnnie switched screens blindly twice, then got hold of himself and found a menu. He cut quickly to the armament-status panel.
"Engine room secured," said a voice over the Holy Trinity's own communications system. "We've unlocked all the boards." The man speaking wasn't Freisner, the warrant officer who'd led Team Three before the shooting started.
"Acknowledged," Dan responded as his fingers whisked across the control panel. "Send two men forward and check the status of the battle center, will you? I want to make sure that they stay sealed up until all this is over."
"Ah, Force Prime . . . ," said the man in the engine room.
"Team Three?" Dan said sharply. "Are you too shorthanded? Shall I?"
"Negative, negative. We'll take care of it, you just get us the hell outa here."
Johnnie began opening circuits to the Holy Trinity's profusion of weapon systems. Uncle Dan lit the three engines, cold while the dreadnought was at anchor, and brought up the fourth to full drive capacity. Fayette closed watertight doors, both as protection against Angels who might be loose in the ship and because the Holy Trinity was likely to need all the buoyancy she could get. Another technician busied himself with the cameras of the ship's damage assessment/internal security system.
There was a distant ringing sound from forward as the crewmen sealed into their sleeping quarters hammered on bulkheads. The internal divisions of the ship weren't comparable to the thirty-two-inch main beltbut even so, the two-inch bulkheads would hold despite anything unarmed personnel could bring against them in the next century.
The huge vessel sighed as she came to life. Multiple levels of vibration quivered through her fabric; but the change, so evident to those aboard her, was lost in the sounds of human pleasure and the jungle, so far as the residents of Paradise Base were concerned.
The top overlay on the armament board was the 18-inch turrets, but Johnnie knew to ignore them even if Uncle Dan hadn't made that a direct order. The minuscule Blackhorse crew was barely able to operate one of the big turrets, quite apart from the more important tasks involved in getting the Holy Trinity out of Paradise Base. He touched a key and shifted to the secondary turrets.
There were manual interlocks on the 5.25-inch guns, but the legend for Turrets II and IVthose nearest the bow on the starboard sidesaid READY on Johnnie's display. Those were the guns which had been firing in support of the base perimeter. Though they should have been locked down again when firing was complete, nobody had bothered to do so.
Johnnie powered up the turrets one by one, so as not to overload the boards with a surge before the main drives were operating at full capacity. That was a once-in-a-million event to occur from just the power requirements of the secondary batteriesbut it only had to happen once to scuttle the mission.
As the 5.25s came up in sequence, Johnnie checked the railguns. The four domed batteries, one on each corner of the superstructure, were on yellow, STANDBY, status. That meant that although they were shut down, the permanent self-testing procedure indicated that they would operate normally as soon as the correct switches were thrown.
Which would not be until Commander Cooke personally was sure that generator output was sufficient to the load.
"Fayette," said Uncle Dan, "take the helm. Can we turn without backing?"
"Going to be close, sir," muttered the technician. He split his screen, a holographic chart of the harbor on the right and a display of figures and arcs, the Holy Trinity's turning circles under various conditions, on the left. "Gonna be damn close."
Besides the secondaries and railguns, the Holy Trinity's decks carried scores of multi-barrelled automatic weapons to suppress skimmers and torpedo craft at short range. The guns could be aimed and fired either from the weapon installations, like L7521's gun tub, or from consoles on the bridge and in the battle center.
"We can make it," Dan muttered, though it sounded as if he were stating a hope rather than a conclusion. "Rudder full starboard, and port screws alone."
Then, almost under his breath, "We've had it if we back and fill. Why in hell couldn't they line her up with the harbor mouth before they anchored?"
Johnnie aimed his light-pen at the icon which would switch on all the automatic weaponsthen paused. Not yet.
The multiple installations' sleet of explosive bullets could be useful in a few minutes; but with guns of that sort, there was always the possibility that the charging command would fire a round.
Small arms firing within the dreadnought's armored sanctuary hadn't alerted the shore defenses, but a 1-inch slug screaming over the barracks sure as hell would. There would be time enough to ready the light weapons after the alarm was given.
"I dunno," Fayette said. "Sir. Maybe if you back one of the starboard screws, that might do it. Might."
"Ah. Secondary batteries ready, sir," Johnnie said. "Turrets Eye-Eye and Eye-Vee are unlocked and prepared for loading."
"Which are those, Gordon?" Dan demanded. "I don't know the layout of this ship."
"Forward starboard, sir," Johnnie said, swallowing. Being treated as just another member of the team had advantages. It gave him the feeling of being a cog, rather than the person on whom the whole operation would stand or fail.
Dan nodded. "Reiss and Mertoh," he said to the man who, bloody-handed, had finished moving the corpses behind a shattered console. "Go unlock the secondary guns on the port side. When you're done, stay in the forward turret and crew it if needs be."
The sailors trotted off the bridge, obviously pleased to have a job within their competence. As they disappeared, the voice of one of the men drifted back, saying, "But we can't keep 'em firing, just the two of us, can we?"
"Team Two," Uncle Dan said, using the intra-ship communicator from his helmet to reach the man waiting at the bow. "Report."
"Ready. Ready, ready," buzzed the answer in Johnnie's earphones.
Fayette touched a control. A combination of hum and high-pitched whine from the dreadnought's stern made her quiver.
"Team Three, report."
"Engine room ready, sir," replied the unfamiliar voice over the ship's intercom. "All four powerplants are at eighty percent or better."
"Team Four, report."
Johnnie wondered if his own face was as set and strained as those of everyone he could see on the bridge. His light-pen poised, ready to click the automatic weapons live.
"Ready t' go, sir. I see movement on the shore."
Of course there was movement on the shore: this was a busy naval base. But it was lonely enough on the bridge with a group of other men; what must it be like to crouch on the stern of a hostile warship, unsure whether the next sound would be an order from your distant leaderor the challenge of a party of heavily-armed Angels?
"Full starboard rudder, sir," said Fayette before he was asked.
"All right, gentlemen," Dan said. "Then let's do it." He slid a control forward. "Teams Two and Four, fire your charges."
Johnnie looked forward, out the unshuttered viewslit. There was a bright white flash as the ribbon charge which was coiled around the anchor cable went off. The noise was sharp but, for the men on the bridge, almost hidden by vibration from the drive shafts Dan had just engaged.
The Holy Trinity gave a double lurch as both the bow and stern lines parted.
The raiders could have hoisted the anchors easily, but that process was both time-consuming and extremely noisy. The quick and dirty method was the only way this operation was going to work.
Johnnie thought of the Angels' bridge watch, bit his tongue; and thought about the crisp holographic display in front of him instead.
"Base to Holy Trinity," said the ship-to-shore link in a voice which combined boredom and petulance. "Report your status. Did you have an explosion aboard? Over."
"Holy Trinity to Base," Dan answered calmly. "Everything here is nominal. Over."
Lights on the shore were moving noticeably through the viewslit. The two engaged drive shafts were turning at only a handful of rpm, but the torque of the huge screws was enough to swing the dreadnought even at that slow speed.
"Base to Holy Trinity," the voice said, no longer quite so bored. "Are you drifting? Over."
"Negative, Paradise Base," Dan said in a voice too sullenly emotionless to trip any warning bells in a listener's mind. "Our position hasn't changed in a month and a half. Suggest you check your database. Over."
Not only did the dreadnought move in relation to the fixed lights of the land, the bow was curving closer to the harbor's southern shore. On the holographic plot, the stern of the docked St. Michael stuck out dangerously far. Johnnie remembered the helmsman's doubts about whether they would be able to clear the shore installations.
"Holy Trinity," ordered the duty officer on shore, no longer in the least bored, "put the officer of the day on at once. At once!"
"Base," said Dan, "the Oh-Oh-Dee's in the head and"
A raucous klaxon sounded from the center of Paradise Base. Jungle beasts echoed what they took for a challenge.
"Fuck your mother with a spade," said Dan very distinctly.
Johnnie clicked his light-pen, waiting all this time.
"Starboard screws astern," said Fayette. "She wallows like a pig! Astern starboard!"
Uncle Dan slammed back one of the slide switches he'd configured as a throttle. Johnnie moved his pen, poised, and clicked it again. The Holy Trinity exploded in glare, smoke, and racket as all her automatic weapons fired at once.
Johnnie didn't bother to aim individual tubs; that wasn't the point. He was trying to create confusion with guns that were too small to do serious damage.
And at the moment, confusion was the most serious damage the Blackhorse raiders could do.
Some of the bullets arched into the wilderness, shredding foliage in a minor sideshow to the destruction the jungle regularly wreaked upon itself. A few rounds hit the other dreadnoughts anchored in mid-harbor, scarring paint or even starting minor fires.
A plurality of the streaming tracers, randomly aimed but as heavy as the first rush of a rainstorm, raked the Angel shore installations. Lamp standards went down, windows blew out; concrete walls cracked and cratered under the wild shooting.
Smoke from the multiple machine guns wreathed the Holy Trinity, fogging the muzzle blasts and turning the tracers into fingers of lightning which reached from a stormcloud. Minutes of constant operation caused one weapon after another to jam and drop out of the fusillade. The barrels of those still firing glowed an orange which verged on yellow.
Johnnie looked from the forward viewslit, toward the plot in front of the helmsman; then back again. The reality of the great drydock growing before their bow was more vivid than the hologram, but they both indicated the same thing: Holy Trinity would collide with a mass of concrete and steel through which not even her own size and power could carry her.
There was a long, shuddering tremor as the outer starboard propellor began to bite the water in reverse while the port screws continued to drive forward. The bow swung sideways, like the head of a horse fighting a hand jerking its reins.
They were clear.
There was a puff of powdered concrete as the dreadnought's swelling port side ticked the end of the drydocktens of thousands of tons slipping past one another on either side, touching in a lovetap that could be repaired with a bucket of paint, if anybody cared.
The Holy Trinity headed for the harbor mouth, answering to her rudder alone. Uncle Dan shifted all four drive-shaft controls into their full-forward position, but it would be many minutes before the inertia of the huge screws and the mass of water they churned permitted a response.
Most of the automatic weapons were silent, choked by feeding jams or chambers so hot that rounds had exploded within before the breeches were closed. Johnnie shut down the few remaining guns. A pall of powder smoke drifted like an amoeba above the harbor.
Audible across the bridge in the relative silence, Dan spoke into a handset coupled to the dreadnought's radio, "Six, this is Three. The situation is Able, I say again, Able."
Sergeant Britten hovered behind the commander. He winced as he heard the words and warned, "Sir, sirwe don't have compatible code sets aboard this bitch. You're broadcasting in clear."
Beyond the Holy Trinity's cutwater, the running lights of the Dragger, guarding the harbor mouth, spread from a single blob to individual points. There was a series of red flashes from the tender's deck, then a stream of machine-gun tracers. If the bullets struck the dreadnought at all, their impacts were indistinguishable in the noise of the ship working.
"Six," Dan continued, "we will rendezvous at Reference Point K, I say"
"Sir!" Sergeant Britten blurted.
"again, Reference Point K. Three out."
He laid down the handset and met Britten's eyes.
The sergeant was wringing his hand. "Sir," he mumbled, "oh, sir, we're screwed. Two years ago we were operating with the Warcocks and they know Reference Point K is the Kanjar Straits. They'll cut off to the west, and Flotilla Blanche'll come tearing through to block the Straits for our main fleet."
The Holy Trinity's vibration lessened somewhat. The starboard screws had slowly accelerated, so that Fayette was able to lessen the amount of rudder needed to keep the vessel on a straight course.
"They'll try, at least," Uncle Dan said calmly.
A bullet from the Dragger struck the viewslit and blotched the armor glass with gray metal.
"Sir, they'll do it!" Britten cried. "Even if our ships're already in the Straits"
"They're not in the Straits," Dan interrupted crisply. He swept his cold eyes around the faces of the other men on the bridge, all of them staring at him. "There's just a submarine surfaced fifty miles back in the ocean, broadcasting as if it was Blackhorse Command."
He took a deep breath. "That'll work until morning, when they can get up a full complement of gliders on the thermals. The real fleet has entered Ishtar Basin from the southeast, in the direction the Warcocks are going to force us to turn. And then"
The Holy Trinity staggered as she cut the heavy cable supporting the inner net across Paradise Harbor. The guardship vanished beneath the dreadnought's bow. Moments later there was a barely perceptible crunch. The white froth of the bow wave was speckled with debris, fragments of the Dragger and her crew as they slid back inexorably toward the churning propellers.
"we'll have another surprise for them." Dan continued.
For a moment, his mask of clam slipped into something equally quiet but much more bleak. "Assuming that the Angels don't take care of us themselves before then," he said.
The Holy Trinity, accelerating with the ponderous grace of an elephant, crashed through the outer cable as well. There was a metallic scream astern as somethingnet, cable, or a portion of the shattered guardshipfouled one of the dreadnought's screws.
But they were out of the harborand out of the series of events they could control. Whatever happened next was a matter for othersand for God.
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