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Leaf heard OT Wilding say, "That's rock, we stop here," as they struggled past a tangle of thorny, interlacing vines.
The words didn't matter to Leaf. Wilding'd been muttering nonsense for . . . a long time, a lot of stumbling steps whatever the clock time might have been. The last time Wheelwright had dressed the bamboo sores on the officer's back, they had scarlet edges and centers of yellow pus.
But they weren't any of them in shape for a dress parade. Leaf saw only blurs because of the sweat in his eyes. He didn't have the energy to wipe his face with his right cuff. The multitool filled Leaf's right hand, and his left arm helped support Wilding . . .
Who was handsome, and rich, and not a pussy after all. During bouts of fever, the officer-trainee couldn't control his tonguebut he kept his feet moving forward. Their route was mostly uphill and the rifle made a bad crutch, but Wilding didn't flop down and die the way Leaf had maybe expected.
Wilding shook himself out of the motorman's grasp. Swaying like a top about to fall over, Wilding said, "We stop here," in a voice well accustomed to giving orders.
Leaf realized he was ready to fall down himself. Fuckin' A. He rubbed his right eyesocket a little clearer on the point of his shoulder. "Fish!" he shouted to the torpedoman's back. "Get the CO. Mr Wilding wants a word."
And a hell of a bad place to stop for one, but you didn't argue with officers.
There were in a belt of thirty-foot-tall grass which defended its territory against encroaching woody plants by sawing off their stems with glassy nodules along the edges of the narrow grassblades. The competition was as dynamic as that of surf and the shoreline.
Even now in the momentary pause, glitteringly serrated blades twisted close to treat the humans with the same mindless ferocity that would greet an oak or mahogany. All that could be said in favor of going through the grass was that it was possible to cut the stuff. The tangle of thorns to the side was impassible.
Ensign Brainard stepped back from the head of the path he had cleared. His face and hands were smeared with a slick of his own sweat-diluted blood. "What is it?" he asked calmly.
Wilding opened his mouth. He swayed. Leaf reached over to catch him, but the officer-trainee crossed both palms firmly on the butt of his crutch to steady himself.
"That's rock," Wilding said. "Where the berry bush is growing." He gestured with his eyes, but he was clearly afraid that he would topple if so much as nodded his head. "We could rest there. A real rest."
Leaf looked at the tangle. The brambles were woven like a fishnet. Hundreds of small white flowers bloomed among the black stems and foliage, but nothing bigger than a man's arm could penetrate the mass.
A large insect might trust its armor to protect it while browsing on the vines and later berries, but Leaf already had enough experience with surface life to imagine the results. The brambles gave only until the animal was fully within their mass. Then
Just like a fishnet. A thorn-studded fishnet.
The CO looked at the tangle without expression. "We'll go on," he said flatly. "I can't cut that."
"Hey!" said Caffey. "We can blow it clear! With the barakite."
"No," said Wilding. "We'll use the barakite to burn it. We don't want to pulverize the rock."
Brainard looked from Wilding to Leaf. "All right," he said. "Leaf, you'll lay the charges. All right?"
Leaf nodded. "Yessir."
He shrugged to slide the pack straps off his shoulders. At first his muscles wouldn't respond; then the load slipped abruptly. The straps scraped his arms, and the pack itself bruised the backs of his thighs.
"We'll use portions of the barakite from everybody's pack," the ensign continued. "And don't let any ignite that you don't mean to burn."
"Yessir," Leaf muttered. He knelt to begin work.
Brainard turned and cut at the grass rustling lethally closer to the human interlopers. Leaf saw that the CO had difficulty raising the cutting bar enough to use it.
Leaf rolled a ball of explosive between his palms, forming it into a coarse thread. The barakite was tacky in the moist heat, but the plasticizing additive retained its tensile strength so that Leaf could create a creamy white strand as thin as his little finger before the material broke under its own weight.
Caffey began forming a thread of his own when he saw what the motorman was doing. At Brainard's order, the other enlisted men passed blobs of barakite to the chiefs. They were probably glad to be rid of a few pounds of their burdens. . . .
When he had six strands of explosive, each a yard and a half long, the motorman paused. "Okay, that'll do," he muttered to his hands.
Caffey held out a canteen. "Have some water first," he said.
Leaf was too exhausted to argue with any suggestion. "Yeah, sure," he said. He reached for his own canteen.
Water was no problem. The condensing jacket on each crewman's canteen would fill the quart flask within ten minutes in this saturated atmosphere.
"Naw," said the torpedoman. "Use mine."
Leaf took the canteen and drank deeply. His eyes flashed open.
For the first time he noticed that the torpedoman carried two canteens. This one was full of rum.
Caffey grinned. "Essential to life," he said.
"You bet," said Leaf. "Now, everybody keep the hell back."
The brambles trembled softly toward him. He thought for a moment, then said, "Sir, lemme borrow the rifle, okay?"
Brainard handed the weapon over without comment. Leaf set one end of a barakite thread over the flash hider at the rifle's muzzle and used the weapon to feed the explosive through the thorns.
A black twig two feet into the mass suddenly flared its "bark" into a pincushion of spines tipped with brilliant blue. Leaf shouted and jumped backward.
Two black eyes winked at him; a forked tongue dabbed at the air. The tiny lizard folded its scales as suddenly as it had erected them and scurried back into the tangle.
Caffey had his machine-gun leveled.
"What?" Ensign Brainard demanded. "What?"
Leaf took a deep breath. "Nothing," he said. "Stay clear."
He checked around him. Wheelwright supported OT Wilding, and Brainard had dragged Leaf's own pack a safe three yards away. The barakite strands lying on the ground were as good a compromise as Leaf could judge between being out of the way and being ready to use. . . .
He tucked the first thread another inch into the brambles which were already closing on it, withdrew the rifle and tossed it to Brainard, and lit the barakite with his multitool.
Leaf instinctively covered his ears as he ducked away, but the sound was a vicious snarl rather than an explosion. A wave of heat slapped his back.
When the motorman looked around, the half-consumed strand had already fallen to land on rock through the gap its radiance cleared. For several feet to either side, the brambles themselves burned with sullen orange flames, dim by contrast with the blue-white dazzle which had ignited them. Even beyond that range, vines drew back as heat seared away their moisture.
A haze of barakite residues oozed through the tangle. Leaf grabbed a second strand of explosive. He sucked in another deep breath and plunged into the sudden clearing while blobs of barakite still sputtered, cracking rock with the last of their energy.
There was no time for finesse now, but there was less need for it also. The initial blast of heat had stunned the brambles and robbed them of much of their thorn-clawed speed. Leaf tossed his thread of barakite over a slope of vines whose outer surface was already baked brown.
"Here!" shouted Caffey and handed the motorman more barakite.
Leaf laid that strand at an angle to the first, so the near ends were close together. "G' back!" he ordered, but Fish had already skipped to safety. Leaf lighted the explosive.
The barakite hissed forward with teeth of flame. Brambles ignited, roaring in green agony. Rock, calcined and broken, glinted from the drifting ash. The three remaining strands would be enough to clear the outcrop's entire surface.
K67's whole crew was cheering Leaf.
The motorman reached for more barakite by reflex. Screams filled his ears, and his eyes stared at a curtain of rolling oil flames.
Tech 3 Leaf unsealed the front of his clown suit and removed the two-pound strand of barakite which he had wound around his waist. Sweat gave the surface of the explosive a greasy feel. More barakite appeared from beneath the carnival clothing of the other three members of the gang.
Silent fireworks flared above the Commons of Wyoming Keep. Light flickered from the zenith of the impervium dome and reflected even here, to the narrow back alleys of the warehouse district against the dome's outer curve. The air sighed as tens of thousands of throats cheered simultaneously.
"Oh, my god, they're gonna hear this sure," moaned Epling, a hydrofoil gunner now dressed as a cherub. "The Patrol'll be down on us before we even get a drink!"
The buildings were thick ceramic castings. The material was hard as glass and so strong that a warehouse had remained undamaged when an out-of-control truck demolished itself against the structure. Originally the ceramic had a pink tinge, but the grime of centuries had turned everything in the district gray.
"Just button your lip, Epling," Tech 3 Caffey said. "Leaf knows what he's doing. Don't you, Leafie?"
"Who's got the adhesive?" Leaf asked.
Caffey tossed him a finger-sized spray can. Caffey wore a pirate costume, with a broad-brimmed hat over his domino mask.
Leaf spritzed the warehouse wall five feet above the ground and pressed his strand of barakite against it. The adhesive held, despite sweat and the filthy ceramic. Leaf ran the spray down the wall, squeezing the explosive firmly against the surface.
More fireworks went off in sheets of flame. Braudel, dressed as a skeleton, held a tiny infra-red lamp. The goggles beneath Leaf's clown mask filtered out the multicolored splendor of the display.
Leaf began attaching the second strip of barakite parallel to the ground, with one end in contact with the upper end of the first strand. He was outlining a square doorway on the warehouse's featureless back wall.
"My god," Epling muttered, "they'll lock us up 'n throw away the key. They'll give us life sentences to the netters and we'll just cruise up 'n down till something eats us."
Braudel chuckled. "That's better 'n what Cinc Hafner's gonna do if he learns we scooped this shit outa one a' Caffey's torpedoes, hey?"
"Look, cut it out," Caffey growled. "You'll see. It'll go slicker 'n snot. All the Patrol that isn't keeping the lid on parties is off partying themself. And there won't be a sound. Leaf knows what he's doing."
The third strip of barakite formed the other vertical. Leaf's body trembled. Present reality, his hands forming the explosive against the sheer wall, was a thin overlay to the quivering surface of memory.
In his mind, the distant cheers of the crowd became screams.
"Anyhow," Caffey added defensively, "d'ye think it's going to matter if a warhead weighs a ton or just a ton less spit? And that's only if the fish hits, which they mostly don't."
Leaf set the last stand of barakite where the warehouse wall joined the alley floor in a smooth curve. Pavement and building had been cast as a single unit only a few decades after the dome of Wyoming Keep had been completed.
"Boy, I can taste the booze already!" Braudel said lovingly. "You know, this won't be cheap-ass shit. You 'n' me, we couldn't buy stuff this good if we had all the fuckin' money on Venus! This is Twelve Families booze!"
"Okay," Leaf heard his voice say. "It's ready."
He took out his multitool. The lanyard pulled open the blouse of his clown suit.
Braudel and Epling stepped, then scurried toward opposite ends of the alley.
"No, it's all right!" Caffey growled after them. "I tell you, there won't be a bang!"
"Maybe from the wall, Fish," Leaf said in a distant voice. "Pieces may fly off it."
"Christ!" snarled the torpedoman. "We come this far. Just do it!"
Leaf triggered the multitool's welder. He knelt, then touched the arc to one of the bottom corners of the barakite frame. Coiling fumes as white and solid as bones lifted from the explosive.
Caffey grabbed Leaf's shoulder and dragged him back a few steps. "Not that goddam close, for chrissake!" the torpedoman grunted.
The barakite caught with an echoing hiss which gave the lie to Caffey's promise of silence. Blue-white brilliance flowed up and across the refractory surface. The flames shivered through curtains of their own smoke.
The ribbons of light joined at the far corner so that for a moment fire outlined the square of wall. The hiss built into a snarl like that of a chainsaw, bouncing between the warehouse and the dome. Epling and Braudel drew closer again. Their postures indicated the nervousness which their masks attempted to conceal.
"Christ," Caffey murmured. "Is it going to"
The outlined square of ceramic shattered.
Intense heat torqued the cast wall. The internal stresses finally overwhelmed the structure's ability to withstand them. Twenty-five cubic feet of ceramic disintegrated into a quivering pile of needles an inch long or shorter.
Globs of barakite, flung aside by the structure's shrug of release, vented their last energy up and down the alley. A dozen speckles of fire smoldered on Leaf's costume.
"Perfect, Leafie!" Caffey cried as he clapped the assistant motorman on the back. "Perfect!"
"Right, let's get it!" Braudel said. He stepped through the opening, ducking to clear the knife-edged transom. The pile of needles shifted like sand beneath the mercenary's boots.
Fireworks shimmered above the column, and the carnival crowd cheered. Leaf's mind echoed with the screams of his burning brother.
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