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"When we get onto the honeysuckle, sir," said Leaf, "I'm gonna be holding you from behind. Okay? Like this."
Wilding's rifle was three inches shorter without the muzzle brake. He leaned against the "crutch" with an insouciant grin nonetheless. He made no comment as the motorman stepped around him to grip his left wrist and the tunic over his right shoulder.
Leaf felt Wilding shiver. The officer's wrist was cold and clammy. That was okay, not great but okay. There'd been spells of chills before and Wilding still seemed to be
Hell, within parameters. Like a drive motor. Nobody expected perfect; just functional, and they were all functional, more or less.
"Right," said Ensign Brainard. "I'll take the flare."
Caffey uncapped the short cylinder instead of handing it to Brainard immediately. He looked at a patch of sky beyond the ensign's right ear and said in a mild voice, "You've got a lot of experience with these, then, sir?"
Brainard chopped out a laugh. "Not as much as you do, Fish," he said. "Sorry."
He surveyed his crew. Leaf straightened instinctively as he met the CO's eyes. Brainard looked back at the torpedoman and said, "Whenever you're ready."
Caffey switched the cap to the back end of the flare, where its firing pin touched the recessed primer. He aimed the tube in his left hand, then rapped the cap sharply. The charge blew the three packets out in a flat arc toward where the bridge of honeysuckle touched the hovercraft's deck.
The magnesium filler ignited while the packets were still in the air. The wavering glare was bright even against the white shimmer of daylight on Venus.
"What do we do if it don't catch the first" began Wheelwright.
Orange flame overwhelmed the flare's white intensity. The brown, twisted vines blazed up with a roar and a propagation rate just short of that of diesel fuel. The fire's violence threw bits of stem and leaves into the air. The miniature brands were consumed to black ash before they reached the top of their curves.
The hovercraft vanished beneath a curtain of fire. Leaf couldn't believe there'd be anything left when the flames died away. The bridge of honeysuckle became a tube of roaring light. Loud crashing sounds like gunshots blew fragments away when pockets of sap deep in the core vine were heated to steam pressure beyond the strength of cell walls.
The mass of honeysuckle which controlled the shore across the strip of sand was green with nutrients sucked from the soil. The plant trembled and drew back under the stress of heat, but the line of conflagration halted as if the upper edge of the beach were a wall.
The hovercraft re-emerged. Its mottled gray finish was now overpatterned with the black/gray/white of ash. Orange hot-spots continued to dance on the deck, but the stunning roar had ceased.
The bridge still arched across sand and water. When the withered foliage was stripped away, it left a coarsely-woven hawser of interlaced stems. The mass was almost a yard in diameter, but its surface was neither flat nor regular.
"Right," ordered Ensign Brainard. "Caffey, lead Mr Wilding while Leaf follows. Let's go."
When the crew shambled to the bridge at their best possible speed, Leaf realized how badly off they were. He and Caffey carried the officer-trainee by the elbows. Wilding twice had to brace them with his crutch and to keep them all from falling down.
Newton was pretty much okaymaybe having no brains was an advantage in this crapbut the CO wobbled when he reached the top of the core vines. He gave Newton a hand, then stumbled aboard the hovercraft as the coxswain hauled the others up.
A four-foot climb with hand and footholds should have been easy. It wasn't.
The stems had a coating of ash, but the heat-cracked surface kept them from being slippery. Wilding managed to stride across the twisted vines as though he had two good ankles. He was chuckling. Leaf figured that was the fever, but maybe the Founding Families really were supermen. . . .
The hovercraft's deck had rippled in the fire, but it was still firm and better 'n' pussy after a week at sea. Close up, the vessel's pennant was visible number on the side of the cockpit. K44, but they'd known that. . . .
Caffey, his escort job done, let go of the officer-trainee. He clamped his machine-gun onto the railing where it covered the shore from which they had just escaped.
"The communicator's here but the ascender's gone!" Brainard shouted from the cockpit. "We've got fuel!"
Honeysuckle aboard the vessel had burned itself into a slime of ash. Leaf slipped and barely caught himself. Wilding sprawled onto the deck where he'd be fine, just fine, while the motorman did his real job.
They hadn't any of them said it. Maybe they hadn't even admitted it to themselves. But now that K67's crew was back aboard a hovercraft, they were going to sail off this fucking hellhole if they had to paddle with their feet!
Leaf slid into the motorman's scuttle. Ensign Brainard had lighted the auxiliary power unit, so the drive status panel was live. Number Three fan was flatlined.
A glance to the side showed the motorman why: an armor-piercing shell had sledged away the top half of the housing and everything within the nacelle. "Armor-piercing," because HE Common would've detonated on impact, leaving nothing of the hovercraft that you couldn't pack in a shoebox.
But the other three fans would lift a hovercraft with no sweat, so long as the skirts were
"The skirts're shot to shit," Caffey called. He was in the cockpit with the CO, using the portside console. Nobody needed a torpedoman right now, and OT Wilding was doing good just to sit up straight against a post. "Nothing we can't patch, though."
Caffey opened the repair locker which formed the cockpit's aft bulkhead. Newton and Wheelwright were forward, sawing at the bridge of honeysuckle. The coxswain's cutting bar was out of power, but he still made chips fly with powerful strokes of his arms.
"Caffey," Ensign Brainard ordered. "Shoot that vine apart with the machine-gun. Burned like this, you'll be able to do it."
Leaf got out of his scuttle. After a moment's relaxation, his arms cramped with agony as he forced them to raise part of his weight.
"Sir, we're short of ammo" the torpedoman said doubtfully.
Leaf started forward to the plenum-chamber access port. Wilding gave the motorman a thumbs-up and chirped something. It sounded like, "Teamwork in the jungle! Keep it up!"
"We're shorter on time!" Brainard snapped. "I've seen what that vine can do when it gets its growth spurt."
Tendrils lifted across the beach. The mass of honeysuckle had begun to recover from its singeing. The blackened core stems showed no sign of life, but nobody was going to press an argument with this CO. Caffey stepped to his gun and aimed.
Leaf tugged the screw dog recessed in the center of the access port. The vine that bound it had burned away, but grit and ash clogged the threads. The double handles fought Leaf for a moment, then spun.
Caffey fired a short burst that sent spray back over the rail. The surface of the clear sea multiplied both the muzzle blasts and the whack of bullets parting the dry stems. A second burstthen three shots as the machine-gun expended the few rounds remaining in their last drum of ammunition.
Leaf turned the handle to its stop so that it withdrew the dogs in all four sides of the port. He lifted the panel against the friction of its hinges.
"That's got it, sir!" the torpedoman announced.
"Newton," Leaf called. "Cover me with your rifle in case there's something down here who"
He'd raised the edge of the port about halfway. Because the hovercraft sat on the shelving bottom, not a bubble of air, the water level within was close to the underside of the vessel's deck. Sunlight through the opening showed shapes but not details because the motorman's eyes were adapted to the open sky.
The motion was inhumanly fast, but the storm of cavitation bubbles in the water gave Leaf just enough warning. He threw his weight onto the upper side of the panel before the creature slammed against it from below.
The shock lifted him, but the creature recoiled also. The access port closed. Leaf spun the dogging handle to keep it that way. "Jesus!" he cried. "There's a moray down there longer 'n the boat!"
"I'll take care of it!" said Wheelwright. He reached for his backpack on the deck. "I've got a grenade!"
"Are you crazy?" Leaf demanded. "You'll kill us all!"
The hovercraft shuddered as the eel's sinuous body brushed the skirts from the inside. The creature was agitated with the thought of prey.
Caffey looked at the motorman in surprise. "Hey, it's no sweat, Leafie," he said soothingly. "Concussion'll kill the moray, but the water down there'll stop the shrapnel before it gets to the skirts."
The torpedoman's toe tapped the deck. "Or us. It's no sweat."
"Naw," said Leaf. He'd forgotten that the others hadn't seen what he saw when the port was open. "That's not what I mean. The torpedoes are still on their hooks down there. If the grenade sets one of them off"
Memory strangled his voice.
Leaf didn't have to finish. Caffey knew what a torpedo could do, even to a vessel a thousand times the size of this little hovercraft.
But that's impossible!" the CO blurted.
Leaf looked at him. Ensign Brainard's face was suddenly gray. "This is K44, and they torpedoed the Wiesel to save our lives!"
Technician 2nd Class Leaf filled his glass from the pitcher and said, "'Bout time you fetch us some more beer, kid," to K67's assistant motorman.
Bozman looked doubtfully at the pitcher, then over his shoulder toward the long, crowded bar of the Dirtside Saloon. "There's plenty left," he said, raising his voice slightly more than the saloon's ambient noise required. "And anyway, I got the last one."
Caffey filled his own glass, then poured the remainder of the pitcher into Bozman's half-full tumbler. He banged the empty pitcher back on the table among its four brethren.
Caffey grinned at Leaf's striker. "You were saying, kid?"
"I was saying," growled Bozman, "that I got the last two."
Leaf belched. "That's the price newbies pay for being allowed to sit with vets like me and Fish," he said. "Pay gladly, if they're smart."
The motorman's voice was mellowfor Leaf. The beer had given him enough of a buzz to dull memories the afternoon's Board of Review had churned up. He basked in the glow of being alive.
The Herd, like all the Free Companies, granted its personnel liberal leave to browse the rich entertainments of the keeps. Despite that, men on base duty needed after-hours relaxation; base facilities gave credit against pay; and a certain percentage of mercenaries found they simply didn't like the company of civilians.
The Dirtside Saloon was one of scores of bars within Hafner Base's fortified perimeter. It was full of men, and so were all its sister clubs and saloons.
"Got through another, didn't we, Leafie?" Caffey said in a reflective tone. "Been a few of those."
The Dirtside was lighted by bands of muted green which drifted slowly across the ceiling. The illumination was adequate for the duty squad of Shore Police who kept watch through their image-intensification visors, but Leaf found it hard to be sure of the torpedoman's expression.
"There was a few of them back on Block Eighty-One," Leaf rasped. "Fuck it. Any one you walk away from."
"You two knew each other when you were growing up, didn't you?" Bozman said over the rim of his glass. He was careful not to look at either of the chiefs as he spoke.
"In a manner of speaking, kid," Caffey said.
Leaf laughed without humor. The lights in his mind brightened to billowing red flames for a moment before sinking back into the bar's cool green. "We wasn't friends, if that's what you mean."
"Hell, Leafie," the torpedoman said. "We didn't kill each other. That counts for something on Block Eighty-One." The liquid in Caffey's glass trembled as his fist tightened. His eyes were unfocused. "D'ye ever go back, Leafie?" he asked. All the joking, all the easy fellowship, had been flayed from his voice.
Leaf gulped his beer. "Hell, no," he said. "Hell, no."
Caffey looked at the assistant motorman. "Kid," he ordered, "get us another pitcher."
Bozman bobbed his head and scraped his chair back from the table. The noncoms stared at his back as he fought through the press to the bar, but their minds were on other things.
"You're smart," Caffey said. "I went back the once. Half the guys we knew was dead, and the rest of them was in jail. On on the netters for life, if that counts as life. It's a jungle back there, Leafie. It's worse 'n what's out beyond the perimeter."
The automatic cannon which guarded the electrified frontier of Hafner Base crashed a regular accompaniment to Herd life. It was only by concentrating that the mercenaries noticed them. Leaf's experienced ears could differentiate muzzle blasts from the slightly-sharper counterpoint of shells bursting at the jungle rim. Occasionally, a heavier gun would join in to deal with a particular threat.
"God," Leaf muttered.
Bozman was back with a pticher so full that it sloshed when he set it on the table. The motorman blinked. Caffey looked surprised too. It hadn't seemed there'd been enough time. . . .
"Look," said Bozman as he sat down again, "I got a question. Not"
Both noncoms jerked their heads around like gun turrets, ready to fire.
"about any of that," the assistant motorman blurted quickly. "About the Board of Review this afternoon." He forced a smile.
Neither of the chiefs smiled back. "Go ahead," Leaf said.
Bozman licked his lips. "Look," he said. "It's about you guys testifying that K44 sheered off when the shooting started. I didn't say nothing to the Board"
"Not as dumb as he looks," Caffey said to Leaf. His voice was as playful as a cat killing.
"I didn't say nothing," Bozman continued, staring determinedly at the table, "but I saw K44 running in ahead of us all the way."
He swallowed and looked up again, attempting another smile. "I mean, y'know, I thought I did."
Caffey started to laugh. Bozman's expression became so gogglingly silly that the motorman laughed the harder. Leaf leaned over to slap his striker on the back.
"Oh, kid," the motorman chortled. "I forget what a goddam newbie you are!"
Bozman looked as stiff and angry as a whore with a broom stuffed up her backside. "But I saw" he said.
"Our shadow," Leaf interrupted. "You saw our shadow. When the starshells dropped, they threw shadows over the waves ahead of us."
The assistant torpedoman opened his mouth in amazement.
"Don't feel bad," Leaf added. "It happens a lot."
Caffey belched and poured himself another beer. "It happens a lot to newbies," he said.
Both noncoms were relaxed and buoyant again. The motorman slid his own glass over to be filled.
"You didn't know Ted Holman, kid," he said, "so I'll tell you: he didn't have any balls. His brother kept pushin' him t'be a hero, but Teddy just wasn't cut out fer that. There's less chance he ran K44 in ahead of us than there is this glass is gonna turn t' gold in my hand."
He raised it, then drank. "Nope, still beer."
Caffey laughed. "I'll tell you something else, kid," he said. "I don't believe K44 circled around and came back, neither."
"But they had to come back," Bozman exclaimed. "They torpedoed the Wiesel. I know that happened!"
"We did for the Wiesel," Caffey said.
He raised his left hand to silence Bozman's certain protest. "I know, the console was shot away for our fish lost guidancebut that don't mean they stopped and rolled belly up. Tonello aimed the boat for a hand's-off run, and the Wiesel wasn't doing any maneuvering the way she was caught in the channel like that."
"Ted Holman's welcome to be a dead hero," the motorman said between swallows, "seeings as he's dead. But I figure K44 took a shell up the ass as she ran."
"You can't outrun a bullet, after all," Caffey agreed philosophically.
"I tell you," said Leaf, watching the patterns his blunt fingertip drew in the condensate on his glass. "I'd sooner have a skipper with the guts to still do the job when the shit hits the fan. It's safer. And sooner or later in this business, the shit always hits the fan."
"Hell, in life," the torpedoman muttered.
"Lieutenant Tonello was a goddam good skipper that way," Leaf said. He slid his empty glass to Caffey.
"And you know?" he continued. "I think this new kid Brainard may be even better."
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