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An' now the hugly bullets come peckin' through the dust,
An' no one wants to face 'em, but every beggar must. . . .
The port outer drive shaft was shut down. The length of cable, caught in the free-spinning screw and streaming back in the wake, still twisted the Holy Trinity with a rhythmic vibration.
An hour and a half of the jolting, with no real work to take Johnnie's mind off it, was putting him to sleep.
His head jerked up an instant before it touched the console. His skin was flushed and his head buzzed. He looked around quickly to see who might have noticed his lapse, but all the faces he saw were drawn and focused on their own internal fears.
Even Uncle Dan.
". . . glider activity," one of the technicians was reporting earnestly to the commander, "and the masts of destroyers are already on the horizon."
"The battleships must be under way by now," Fayette chipped in gloomily. "I can't get this pig above twenty-three knots with a fouled screw. No way. Sir."
"We're here to draw them, aren't we?" Dan said. The words were nonchalant, but there was nothing light in either his tone or his expression. "We're just doing a better job than we'd counted on."
"We ain't going to run as far southeast as planned, neither," somebody muttered.
Dan had connected the main radio to the ship's internal communications system, so that the scattered Blackhorse parties would know as much about the situation as he did himself. As a result, the message from Blackhorse Command, broken oddly by static because of the nature of frequency-hopping transmission, came through the public-address speaker in the center of the bridge.
"Three," said the emotionless voice. "this is Six. There is heavy enemy activity to your north and west. The plan is inoperative. I say again, the plan is inoperative. Six over."
Everyone looked at Dan. He licked his lips and said, "Six, this is Three. What are your orders? Three over."
During the perceptible pause before the response came, Sergeant Britten removed the magazine from his rifle, checked it, and reloaded his weapon. There were beads of sweat on his face.
"Three, this is Six," said the distant voice. "Use your own initiative. I have no orders for you. Six out."
"Six, what do you mean?" Uncle Dan shouted into the pick-up wand. "We don't have any initiative! One of the props is fouled. Six, what are your orders? Three over!"
"Three, this is Six," Headquarters repeated. "I say again, we have no orders for you. Save what you can. Six out."
Dan put down the wand. "Fayette," he said calmly, "bring us onto a course of one-twenty-three degrees. Flank speed."
He grinned. His face looked like a skull stained dark by oxides. "Or as close as we can get to flank speed, with three screws and a sea anchor," he added.
The helmsman made a series of quick control changes. The Holy Trinity was too big to react suddenly to anything, but Johnnie felt the ship slowly heel as she started to come around in the severe course change.
"Hey, cheer up, guys," Dan said brightly. "That was all an act for the other side. You know that."
Johnnie tried to smile. He did know that the exchange of messages had been scripted.
The words still felt real when he heard them delivered; and for that matter, the Holy Trinity's situation was just as bad as if the whole thing were exactly as their allied enemies were intended to think.
"The destroyer bearing three-four-zero degrees absolute," said a worried technician, "is pinging us with his laser rangefinder."
"John, that was good work," Uncle Dan said. "With the machine guns."
"Thank you, sir."
"Not a cloud in the sky," Fayette muttered as he stared at the unsympathetic prop-revolution read-outs. "We need a bloody storm, and we get the best weather I've seen in seven years on the surface."
Dan touched a control on his console. "I'll take over gunnery now, Gordon," he said as his display duplicated the holograms before Johnnie.
The commander's finger tapped a key in a short, repetitive motion. At each downstroke, the Holy Trinity staggered as her generators accepted the demands of the railguns' warming coils. READY/READY/READY/READY replaced the STANDBY legends on Johnnie's display.
Johnnie was redundant now.
"The destroyers aren't closing, but they're moving up on either quarter," said the tech who was running the surveillance boards. "I think they're trying to get us in a scissors for a torpedo attack."
"Right," said Uncle Dan, throwing another switch. "Britten, take Lajoie from the bow and man the forward starboard five-two turret. If there's a jam"
"I'll go with him," Johnnie interrupted. "Sir."
Dan looked at his nephew. There was nothing in his eyes but calculation. "Right," he said again. "If you can't clear a problem fast, just shift back to the next turret."
"Yessir!" Sergeant Britten said, starting for the hatch before the commander finished speaking.
Johnnie was only a step behind him.
"Good luck!" Uncle Dan called to their backs; and he certainly meant the words, but Johnnie knew the wish wasn't the most important thing on Commander Cooke's mind just now.
The ladderway amplified vibration from the fouled drive shaft into a high-frequency buzz. Sergeant Britten had both hands free. He hopped three steps at a time, guiding himself by the handrail. Johnnie's sub-machine gun was slung over his right shoulder, where it clanged against the curving bulkhead as he followed.
If they ran into Angel crewmen still loose, Britten might regret abandoning his rifle on the bridge . . . but that was probably the wrong thing to worry about.
The hatch from the ladderway out onto the shelter deck was open. Reiss and Mertoh must have left it that way when they passed through on their way to unlock the port 5.25-inch turrets. Johnnie wasn't sure that was a good idea with the ship going into actionbut it speeded him and Britten now, and he didn't take the time to close it himself.
There was a lengthy whine and series of clanks from above them. Johnnie skidded, unslinging his sub-machine gun as he looked upward to find the cause. There was nothing to see on the superstructure looming against the gray sky.
"Forget it, kid!" Sergeant Britten shouted as he disappeared into Turret II. Interior lights went on, turning the hatchway into a rectangle with rounded corners. The sergeant's voice resumed, blurry and dull with echoes, "They're just shuttering the bridge viewslits."
Johnnie took a final look at the horizon astern. He could see nothing, but he had no doubt that destroyers maneuvered there like hunting dogs preparing to cut out a wildebeest.
Turret II made a keening noise as its magnetic gimbals raised it from the barbette. Johnnie jumped through the hatch just as the turret began to rotate its guns sternward.
The turret was being operated from the bridge. Sergeant Britten bent over a control panel, but that was set to the holographic remotes from the magazine and lift tube.
The personnel hatch in the turret floor was closed and dogged. Johnnie doubted that it would be worthwhile trying to clear a malfunction below, but standard operating procedure required that the turret crews keep in touch with all portions of the operation.
There wasn't much standard about this operation.
"Secondaries report," ordered a crackly voice from the speaker in the roof.
The breeches rotated an eighth of a turn to unlock the interrupted-screw locking mechanism, then drew back. The 5.25-inch bores looked incredibly small against the thick tubes of metal encircling them.
"Forward port ready," said Reiss' voice from the speaker.
Cased roundsnot separate shells and powder charges as with the 18-inch main gunsmoved up for the lift tube and into the paired loading cages. The cages paused for a moment, then ratcheted forward to ram the shells home ahead of the closing breeches.
Britten threw a switch. A panoramic display quivered to life on the turret face above the guns. It showed the horizon with a speck that swelled into the blurred image of a warship's superstructure as the sergeant turned a control.
"Turret Eye-Eye ready," he reported with satisfaction.
"Stand by," warned the bridge.
"For swattin' destroyers," Britten said to Johnnie, "these"
He pointed to the 5.25s just as the breeches lowered to elevate the muzzles from their rest position. The guns were poised like hounds, waiting for the gunnery controller to slip their electronic leashes. "These're better'n the big mothers, the eighteens. Now, with only two turrets live, we might have a problem if the Angels had a decent destroyer force, which they"
The guns slammed, one and the other. The breeches spewed out the empty cases as the rammers fed fresh rounds into the smoking bores and the lift tube raised the next sequence for the loading cages to grip. Ten seconds after the first shots, the next salvo was on the way and the third was loading.
Johnnie's helmet protected his ears, but the floor jumped and the blasts echoing through the open hatch behind them were punishing blows. The air was a hazy gray from smoke. When his nose filters clamped down, Johnnie opened his mouth. Though he only breathed through his nostrils, caustic gases seared the membranes at the back of his throat.
Hammers struck the Holy Trinity, in time with the recoiling guns of Turret II but syncopating them. Turret I on the other side of the superstructure was firing at another of the shadowing destroyers.
There were rhythmic red flashes from the ship on the display. For a moment Johnnie thought he was watching their own shells hit, but it was too soon for impacts on a distant target.
The flashes came in threesbow, bow, and sternwhile Turret II salvoed shells in pairs. He was watching the muzzle flashes of the destroyer's own guns.
Aimed at him.
Sergeant Britten pointed and grinned. "Don't sweat that, kid," he shouted over the deafening pulse of the 5.25s. "Torpedoes can hurt us, but"
The center of the destroyer's image disappeared behind a waterspouta near miss, short. By the dreadnought's standards, the 5.25s were small guns, but the explosion of one of their shells lifted tons of water.
There was another spout on the far side of the target. The fire director had straddled the destroyer with the first salvo.
The second, third, and fourth pairs of shells landed before the destroyer's captain could even start to maneuver out of the killing zone. The bursting charges were a deeper red than the muzzle flashes with which they mingled, and their sullen light was dirtied further by tendrils of the black smoke from which they erupted.
A shell casing stuck in the breech of the left-hand gun, just as the deck rippled with a clang! that knocked Johnnie off balance. He grabbed a stanchion while two more Angel shells rang against the dreadnought's hull.
"Come on, kid!" Sergeant Britten shouted. There was a toolrack welded to the side of the turret. Britten snatched a pry-bar from it and leaped to the jammed gun.
The right-hand tube continued to cycle at ten-second intervals, but the left was frozen in the full-recoil position. The breech stood open, but the empty case was jammed into the threads deep in the cavity.
Johnnie reached for another pry-bar but seized a maul instead when the ship quivered to another shock. He didn't know what he was supposed to do anyway, so one tool was as good as another.
He staggered across to join the sergeant. He was suddenly terrified that he'd stumble into the path of the recoiling gun and be crushed like a bug on a windshield.
The destroyer they had been engaging sheared away. Her superstructure glowed orange, and flames licked above her mast peaks. Pairs of shells still in the lethal circuit continued to strike and smash, fanning the blaze.
Turret I had ceased firing, but the clang! of a hostile shell hitting astern echoed through the Holy Trinity.
The sergeant thrust the point of his bar into the breech opening and levered fiercely to free the stuck case. His bare arms were black with powder fouling except where drops of sweat jewelled the skin.
The image of the burning destroyer dropped over the horizon. A pillar of spark-shot smoke trailed back along the crippled vessel's course.
A huge orange bubble swelled into the display, then shrank back. The destroyer's bow and stern lifted momentarily as if they were vertical brackets enclosing the space of the explosion.
The right-hand gun ceased firing, though shells already on the way continued to lift columns of spray and debris on the far horizon.
In the silence of the gun turret, Johnnie thought he heard the screams of men burning, men cartwheeling toward the jaws rising from the waves to meet them. But the cries were only in his mind.
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