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They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams,
a wind went with their paws;
With wallowing might and stifled roar
they rolled on one another. . . .
Blackhorse Base was an atoll rather than an embayment of one of the larger land masses. Dozens of separate islands, most of them waving green plumage, formed a pattern like the individual blotches of a jaguar's rosette. Even where the connecting reef rose only occasionally above the sea, life forms clawed at one another for light and food and the sheer joy of slaughter.
By focusing his gunsight past one of those low spots in the reef, Johnnie glimpsed the great gray shapes of Blackhorse dreadnoughts in the central deep-water anchorage.
With a motion more like that of an elevator than a vehicle, L7521 slowed and settled toward the surface of the sea. The main hull slurped down and wallowed as the auxiliary thruster took over the load; the outriggers came out of the water.
Johnnie blinked. Something with suckers and bright, furious eyes stared back at him from the blade of the bow foil. It dropped away with regret as direct sunlight baked the plastic surface to which it clung.
How the creature had ever managed to get and hold a grip at seventy-plus knots. . . .
"Why did we stop out here?" Johnnie asked. They were half a mile from the nearest island, and he could see that the entrance to the central anchorage was some distance farther around the circuit of the atoll.
"Twelve knots only feels like being stopped," Dan chuckled. "Andit isn't good form to come racing up to a fleet's base. Even when it's your own and you're expected."
He pointed to the nearest of the islands which had been cleared for occupation. Railguns, dug into coral revetments, were tracking the hydrofoil.
Johnnie started to focus his gunsight for a closer look at the installations, but his uncle caught his hand. "Real bad idea," Dan said. "Aim your guns straight up."
L7521, now operating as a conventionally-hulled craft, puttered past an island at a safe three hundred yards from its luxuriant vegetation. Something looked out of a mangrove thicket and snarled. A machine-gunner along the starboard railing snarled back with a short burst.
The next island in the loose chain had an oddly leprous appearance. Johnnie thought he saw the shapes of heavy equipment, but there were also patches of vegetation whose green was brighter than that of the other islands.
He squinted. His uncle took a pair of flat electronic binoculars out of the breast pocket and scanned the island.
"We've only cleared three of the islands," Dan explained. "Now that the Blackhorse is expandingthanks to the Senatorwe decided we needed more room for facilities. This latest flap caught us after we'd made an initial pass on Island 4, but long before we'd gotten the soil sterilized. All available personnel are busy bringing ships up to combat standard, so the clearing operation's had to wait."
He handed the binoculars to Johnnie.
Construction equipment including bulldozers, rock plows, and support structures which looked like stranded barges, stood as though choked by the vegetation that crawled over the machines and the ground alike. A sheep's-foot roller had eight-foot trees growing from the soil which clung to its great studded wheels, and another huge device was anonymous within a wrapper of green tentacles.
"How long has the work been abandoned?" Johnnie asked.
"Twenty-seven days," the older man said with grim amusement. "Lets you know why our ancestors decided to colonize the sea floor instead of the land, doesn't it?"
Dan touched the keypad of his helmet and said in a different voice, "L7521 to Base Control. Request permission to engage life forms on Island 4 with the twins. Over."
"Wow!" said Johnnie.
Something had just lifted its head from the prey it was devouring beside a bulldozer. As the actinic radiation bathing Venus mutated the creature's ancestral germ plasm, its legs became shorter and thicker; its body slimmed; and its wing-cases shrank to vestigial nubs to be displayed during courtship rituals.
"Base to L7521," said a bored voice. "Permission denied. We've still got equipment on 4 and it's not for target practice. Over."
The creature's head and great shearing mandibles were still those of a tiger beetle.
"Base, let me rephrase that request," Dan said in a tone that suggested he had a rasp for a tongue. "Director of Planning Cooke aboard L7521 requests permission to engage life forms on Island 4 with the twins. Over."
"Base to L7521," said the voice, no longer bored. "Permission granted. Out."
Johnnie swung the powered mounts and lowered the gun barrels as part of the same movement.
"Wait one," his uncle said as he turned and waved to the hydrofoil's commanding officer in the cockpit.
"Roger, go ahead, sir," Ensign Samuels responded over the com set.
The tiger beetle's head dipped, then rose again. Its jaws were working furiously on the strip of white flesh gripped in its mandibles. The creature's eyes did not shift to follow the vessel, but the sun glinting on different sets of the faceted lenses gave the impression of movement.
Johnnie thumbed his sights to x2, then x5 when he'd acquired the target. He projected a translucent orange ghost ring. At the higher magnification, the broad ring hopped and wobbled with L7521's motion, almost unnoticed until then. Johnnie dialed in mils of elevation until the bottom of the ring no longer skipped down into the bulldozer, then locked the mount's stabilizer
And pressed the firing tit.
Though the twin-sixties were heavy armament in Johnnie's terms, their use on a torpedoboat was more to disconcert enemies a thousand times larger than in the realistic hope of destroying an opponent. The feed drums were loaded with every other round a tracer. The guns spat a lash of glowing fireballsa sight to make a hostile gunner flinch, even if he was behind 20-inch armor and watching through a remote pick-up.
The guns belched two solid, pulsing lines of gold which converged at the laser-calculated range to the target. The lining of Johnnie's helmet clamped firmly over his ears like a punch to both sides of his head. The muzzle blasts slapped his face as the guns recoiled alternately.
Blinking with the double shock to his vision and skin, Johnnie lifted his thumb from the trigger.
The tiger beetle charged. It climbed over the bulldozer with a swift fluidity which suggested it had scores of legs instead of six.
The charge was blind reflex. The creature's head had vanished. The short burst of high-explosive .60-caliber bullets had blown eyes and brain to jelly in a dozen red flashes.
All the guns mounted on the starboard rail began firing. Passengers joined in with automatic rifles and even pistols. The beetle's armor sparkled with the dusting of tiny bullets exploding harmlessly across it.
While the others banged ineffectively at the headless creature, Johnnie switched his feed selector from X to Ssolids instead of high explosive. He squeezed the trigger again and held it down. His long burst halted the charging beetle, then knocked it backward.
Though the mechanism still fed from the same loading drums as when the guns were set to the S position, the bursting charges in the bullets did not get the jolt of electricity necessary to prime them. Instead of exploding against the first object they struck, the bullets smashed their way through to the creature's vitals, ripping the heart and the ganglia controlling the shimmering legs.
Johnnie stopped firing. He raised the barrels of his gun and rotated them in line with the vessel's axis again.
Lubricant and powder smoke oozed out of the mechanism, filling the gun tub with their sickening mixture.
The tiger beetle lay on the island's margin. The right side of its thorax was staved in and leaking white fluid. Its legs twitched feebly, but smaller predators were already appearing both from land and water to feast on the unexpected bounty.
Uncle Dan smiled at Johnnie. "Told you I'd find you some target practice," he said.
L7521 burbled past Island 3, a mass of shops and barracks formed of concrete and stabilized earth. There were variations of style and color, but no semblance of formal art. Despiteor perhaps because ofthat, the buildings made a pleasing whole and seemed in keeping with the harsh ambiance of sea and sky around them.
The net-protected entrance to the central lagoon was between Islands 3 and 2. Railgun emplacements flanked it. On the tip of either island was an openly displayed depth-charge mortar.
"Shouldn't they be in pits?" Johnnie said, nodding toward the mortars as winches drew open the outer pair of nets.
"They aren't for submarines," the Blackhorse officer explained. "Subs wouldn't get this close through the outer ring of sea-bottom sensors. But some of the local life forms are about as dangerous as a hostile sub."
The torpedoboat slid through the narrow opening, then waited at idle as men on shore made certain that nothing had entered with L7521. Only when security was satisfied did the inner nets part to allow the little vessel into the lagoon.
Long quays reached out from the three inhabited islands. Vessels up through the size of cruisers were moored to them, three and four deep. There were scores of submarines, their smooth black backs awash almost to the conning towers. Johnnie suspected that there were more than the ninety subs which Wenceslas' data bank credited to the Blackhorse.
The heavy ships, the dreadnoughts and the two carriers, were anchored out in the lagoon. Swarms of lighters, some of them of five hundred tons but looking like water beetles by comparison, surged between the big ships and the quays.
A railgun crashed angrily. Johnnie jumped and touched his grip controls. The shooting was just the weapon on the west end of Island 1 discouraging a visitorperhaps another beetlefrom the uncleared portion of the atoll.
Four heavy vessels were visible only as portions of superstructure poking out above the drydocks on Island 1. "New construction?" Johnnie asked, nodding.
"Two of them are," Dan agreed. "Work's stopped for now while we concentrate on the ships we'll be able to use within the next week . . . which itself may be a little optimistic on time. The other two are battle damage."
He brushed his lips with the back of his hand, a trivial gesture unless you happened to be watching his bleak eyes as he did it. His voice had gone slightly harsh as he added, "The Catherine may be ready in time. The Isabella won't be."
"The Isabella was your squadron flagship three months ago, wasn't she?" Johnnie said.
"Yep," said Dan. He laughedor cackled. "But you should see the other guy."
Then he shook himself like a dog coming in from the rain; and when he met his nephew's eyes again, he was wearing his familiar, insouciant grin.
L7521 slid up to a landing stage built out from a quay on Island 2. Seamen at bow and stern belayed lines tossed from the stage, but they didn't tie them off.
Ensign Samuels cursed as his vessel slipped back from the worn rubber fender and grunched solidly against the stage. "All passengers ashore," he ordered over the cockpit loudspeaker. "And step on it. If you please. Sirs."
Uncle Dan took off the borrowed commo helmet and set it on his seat.
"Let's go, Provisional Recruit Gordon," he said with a smile. "And see if we can get Admiral Bergstrom to confirm you."
The passengers from the stern and cockpit were already hopping onto the landing stage. Captain Haynes jumped with surprising grace; looked back over his shoulder at Dan and Johnnie; and began striding down the catwalktoward the Base Operations Center.
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