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The pirate Genoese
Hell-raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit, and corpses up the hold.
James Elroy Flecker
None of the Holy Trinity's guns were firing. B Turret had taken a direct hit which wrecked the roof-mounted fire director and must have penetrated the gun house, because one of the 18-inch tubes pointed skyward at a crazy angle.
Because the guns were not being worked, the turret and barbette were nothing but armored boxes, as safe a target for incoming shells as any on the dreadnought. If the turret had been in operation, one or more of the twelve-hundredweight powder charges in the loading cycle would have burned, sending flames a thousand feet high through the punctured roof.
If the charges had flashed back into the magazine through the loading tube, the whole forward portion of the Holy Trinity would have vanished in a cataclysmic explosion.
Johnnie wondered what it felt like to be dead. Did Sergeant Britten care?
He tried to wipe his face, but his hands weren't clean either.
There was a fire on the shelter deck, just aft of the second funnel. Sparks rose in swirling clouds, sometimes lifting sections of lifeboats and wardroom furnishings with them.
There must have been explosions among the flames, but their sound was lost in the greater chaos around them.
Johnnie reached the ladderway to the bridge. The hatch was missing. While it stood open, the shock of an explosion had caught it and wrenched it from its hinges.
Three shells hit the Holy Trinity, throwing Johnnie to the deck again. One landed among the flames amidships. A huge fireball lifted into the air, separating from the ship to hang above them like the sun on the day of judgment.
As suddenly as it had formed, the globe of fire sucked inward and vanished. The Holy Trinity was alone again with the Hell-lit night.
The dreadnought twisted under hammering shells as the iguana had done when Sergeant Britten's flamethrower bathed it. A shell had pierced the starboard main-belt armor, close beneath where Johnnie pulled himself to his feet. He could not have seen the hole, even if he leaned over the rail, but the fire at its heart threw a bright orange fan across the waves.
The light swept over a mass of writhing tentacles. Squid were battling for the bodies of fish killed by concussion.
Johnnie reached the ladderway again. He clung to the railing, gasping breaths of fiery air in through his mouth because the filters restricted his nostrils.
More shells hit. Johnnie bounced like the clapper in a bell, but he retained his grip on the rail.
If the shell that pierced the main belt had landed ten feet forward and ten feet higher, it would have struck B Turret Magazine instead. Perhaps the barbette would have withstood the impact, but its armor was no thicker than that of the belt which failed.
It would have been quick. Oblivion would be better than this, and even Hell could be no worse.
"You on the bridge ladder!" growled a demon's buzzing voice. "Identify yourself!"
Johnnie shook his head. It seemed a lifetime since he last heard human speech. Words didn't belong in a universe of shock waves that flung men to and fro like the disks of a castanet. The helmet protected his ears, but it couldn't save his soul from the pummeling.
"Awright, sucker" buzzed the voice.
He was being challenged over the intra-ship communicator. A Blackhorse seaman waited on a dark landing above him, preparing to fire at the figure silhouetted against the firelit hatch.
"you had your"
"No!" Johnnie shouted, flinging himself to the side. The shadows might conceal him, though they wouldn't stop a sheaf of ricocheting bullets. "I'm Johnnie Gordon! Ensign Gordon!"
He didn't have time to unclip his ship-structure transmitter, but for this purpose ordinary helmet radio was better anyway. Johnnie and the guard were within a few feet of one another, and the armored ladderway surrounding them acted as a wave guide.
He'd lost his sub-machine gun somewhere. Left it in Turret II, he supposed, though he couldn't remember unslinging the weapon with all that had gone on since he left the bridge.
Johnnie's pistol was in his hand, pointed toward the swatch of darkness which most probably concealed the guard. He'd drawn the gun in an instinctive response to his training, but he didn't think he would shoot even if a blast of shots lit the ladderway's interior.
The Angels' 16-inch shells were killing them fast enough. The Blackhorse team didn't need to join in the job of its own destruction.
"Ensign?" buzzed the guard. "Sir? Geez, you shoulda said something!"
Johnnie got up and holstered his pistol. The stair treads would have been some protection, at least if the guard was firing explosive bullets.
Enough glow leaked into the armored shaft for the light-amplifying visor to work at short distance. The guardJohnnie recognized him, though he didn't know the sailor's namesquatted in the conning tower. He'd smashed the light fixtures to keep them from going on automatically at a human's presence. He was waiting with his rifle aimed through the part-open hatch.
"What the hell's going on?" Johnnie demanded of the man who'd been about to kill him. "What're you"
The Holy Trinity staggered as another shell hit her and the remainder of a large salvo landed close aboard. Metal screamed.
The ship's whipping motion was magnified because Johnnie was a deck higher than he had been before. He wondered how long the dreadnought could endure the unanswerable pounding her enemies were inflicting.
"It's the Angels, sir," the guard explained sheepishly. When the man stood up to greet Johnnie, he disengaged his flexed transmitter, so his words were relatively clear over ordinary intercom. "Bulkheads sprung when the shells hit forward, so the off-duty crew's loose now."
He frowned as his mind sought accuracy. "What survived the shells're loose. Cookie, he figures they may try to take over the bridge."
Even though the two men were face to face, neither could have heard the other's unaided voice over the bedlam of a battleship dying.
"Right," said Johnnie. If the Angels recaptured the bridge, they would radio their fellows and stop the rain of shells. Somebody aboard the Holy Trinity might survive then.
"Well, carry on," Johnnie muttered as he started climbing the last flight of steps to the bridge. He had to pause midway as the treads rang and jounced beneath him in response to a fresh salvo.
Johnnie stepped through the bridge hatch and staggered because the deck was momentarily stable. Dan, Fayette, and another technician were the only living humans present. They did not notice his arrival.
Several of the consoles showed holographic displays of the Holy Trinity's interior. Fires filled compartments, lending their hellish radiance to the as-yet undamaged bridge.
"Uncle Dan!" Johnnie blurted. "Sergeant Britten's dead!"
The three men at the consoles reacted. Fayette ducked, the other technician snatched clumsily for his shouldered pistol
And Commander Cooke had the rifle from across his lap pointed at Johnnie's chest before his eyes told his brain not to take up the last pressure on the trigger.
Dan lowered the rifle. Johnnie let out his breath.
Sergeant Britten was dead. The entire Angels' bridge watch was dead. Many of the Blackhorse raiders whose packs and equipment littered the deck between the consoles were dead, trying to accomplish whatever final tasks Commander Cooke had set them.
Very shortly, everyone aboard the Holy Trinity would be dead. A few minutes one way or the other wouldn't really have mattered to Johnnie.
"Right," said Uncle Dan. He shifted his grip to the balance point of the rifle and tossed the weapon to his nephew. "Watch the hatch here, Gordon. We've got Caleif below in the conn room, but we don't need another surprise like you just gave us."
He turned back to his console. It was set to a damage-control schematic with symbols rather than grim analogue realities to show the hammering the battleship had received. Fayette resumed speaking to someone in the engine room. The other technician continued a program of controlled portside flooding to balance the amount of sea they'd taken in through shell holes at the starboard waterline.
The Holy Trinity bucked and shuddered at the heart of a fluorescent maelstrom. Salvoes from all three of the pursuing dreadnoughts arrived simultaneously. Waterspouts dyed red, blue, and yellow sprang up around the stricken vessel, and at least six more of the shells smashed home.
A 16-inch shell landed on the roof of the bridge.
Johnnie felt himself suspended in black air. Every working piece of electronics in the big room shorted as the concussion pulverized insulation and fractured matrixes. The regular lighting went out. The emergency glowstrips which replaced it had to struggle through a suspension of thick dust.
He didn't remember being thrown to the deck, but that was where he found himself lying when the world ceased to vibrate and the dust settled enough for him to see again.
The overhead armor had held. The shutters had been blown away from the viewslit, so another hit on the bridge would surely kill them all. One of the consoles muttered to itself as it melted around the blue flame at its core.
Fayette bawled something unintelligible and bolted through the hatch. A burst of explosive bullets up the ladderway hurled his corpse back onto the bridge.
"Angels!" Johnnie shouted as he fired an explosive placeholder over the body. He knew bullets fired from this angle couldn't hit anyone when they burst in the ladderway, but he hoped the sleet of zinging, stinging fragments would make the desperate Angels hesitate while Johnnie's thumb switched his feed to solid projectiles that would ricochet.
"Get out of" screamed someone behind as Johnnie thrust his rifle into the hatch opening, tilted the muzzle down, and triggered a one-handed burst which left as much of his body as possible behind the steel bulkhead.
"the way!" Dan finished as his body slammed against the same hope of cover Johnnie was using.
Dan fired a flamethrower through the hatch.
Johnnie's helmet visor blacked out the direct line of the magnesium-enriched fuel, but its white streak flooded the bridge like the reflection of an arc lamp. The flamethrower's nozzle tried to lift in the commander's hands, but he kept it aimed down in a perfect three-cushion shot along the shaft's inner surface.
There were only a few seconds' worth of fuel remaining in the bottle. The flame died abruptly. The yellow flash of a secondary explosion in the ladderway, grenades or ammunition, was dull by comparison.
There were still screams.
Johnnie strode through the hatch. Glowing metal walls provided light for his visor to amplify.
Caleif and three Angels sprawled below. Another Angel whose uniform was on fire clawed blindly at the conning room bulkhead.
The living figure turned. Both eyes were gone, and the flesh had melted away from the left half of his face.
Johnnie fired instinctively, sending the screaming remains of Ensign Sal Grumio to join his brother and the rest of the Dragger's crew.
Nothing else moved. Johnnie stepped back onto the bridge.
Uncle Dan and the surviving technician stared at him. None of the three men spoke.
The deck was tilted at a noticeable angle. Fires were visible across most of the 270O panorama of the unshuttered viewslit. The slime forward had baked dry in the heat of the deck beneath it. The algae now burned with its own smoky flame.
The Holy Trinity's bow dipped toward the sea, but the dreadnought no longer had enough way on to sweep waves across the sullen fire.
No shells had fallen since the horrendous triple salvo.
"Look!" croaked the technician as he pointed to the southwestern sky. "Look!"
The horizon brightened as though the red gates of Hell had been thrown open.
Dan was kneading the singed back of his left hand with the fingers of his right. His face was terrible. "Bloody well about time," he snarled.
Patterns of red specks roared high overhead. They were full salvoes from the seventeen battle-ready dreadnoughts of Blackhorse Fleet, slamming Commander Cooke's trap closed on the Angels.
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