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With declining resources and limited firepower, the GammaLAW mission faced utter failure, but Haven and her Exts weren't about to give up without a fight--even if it could be their last . . .
In the middle distance, skimming the dark surface of Lake Ea and outlined by running lights, the hovercraft Northwind was closing on Quant's ship. The safe return of the shore party members from the Grandee Rhodes's stronghold was both gratifying and irritating. The returning Exts would constitute a major increase in the GammaLAW's meager assets, and the Northwind would enhance search and rescue capability by an order of magnitude.
The irritation, of course, was Dextra Haven. From the Northwind she had sent word that she would be heading for the bridge after a quick stop at the signals center--for Quant's bridge--despite his near-order that she lay to the Commissioner's Information Center or to her quarters.
When the hovercraft had come alongside its mother ves sel, casualties had been transferred to medical and the waiting Glorianna Theiss. The dead were moved, as well, for bagging and deposit in a stores locker that would have to serve as a morgue. The deck watch reported damage to the Northwind's plenum skirt, but the hover was pronounced seaworthy nevertheless. That Kurt Elide had manned the controls struck Quant as yet another violation of the laws of the universe.
He was tempted to use the damaged skirt as a rationale for keeping the hovercraft close by the ship for the time being. Having himself been adrift in a survival suit in dangerous waters, he could sympathize with anyone who might be bobbing in the water, awaiting pickup. But that didn't alter the fact that he needed all the firepower he could get or that he would soon have to give thought to mounting an amphibious op to rescue friendlies trapped on the shore. There was also the matter of the Oceanic. If Aquamarine's marine overseer had hard-deleted Terrible Swift Sword, it might be in a mood to cleanse the planet of humankind once and for all.
Quant knew, however, that he would ultimately dispatch the Northwind on search and rescue. To do otherwise would send a disastrous message to the patchwork, greatly understrength ship's company. He had to show all hands that the SWATH ship wasn't a frightened, helpless giant and that she certainly wouldn't abandon her own. With radio-telephone frequencies still jammed as a result of the Sword's annihilation--or the inscrutable work of the Oceanic--one of the GammaLAW's precious microwave amplification units would have to be installed to ensure commo.
"Commissioner on the bridge," the sentry of the watch announced suddenly.
Quant became aware of a flurry of activity. Forgoing the courtesy of asking his indulgence, Dextra Haven had climbed the portside wing ladder and was even then stepping into the captain's holy of holies.
She wore a pair of field pants and what was left of her embroidered bodice. The bodice dangled scraps of ruching and ruffles, and her swooping-bird hairdo was in disarray, yet she somehow managed to project dignity. Haven's hermaphroditic lieutenant was a step behind, looking soldierly in a wearwithal jumpsuit, LAW emergency vest, and helmet. Tonii was still wearing the flechette pistol 'e had fired only moments earlier at incoming antiship missiles launched by AlphaLAW Commissioner Starkweather's now-destroyed Jotan weapons platform. Lod, Haven's liaison with the Exts, was hanging back on the wing of the bridge.
Quant let his displeasure show in his tone. "Madame Haven, you will please lay below with these--" He cut his gaze to Tonii "--individuals. I've no time to brief you or--"
"The mountain has come to Mohammet, Captain. I know you can't leave the bridge, but we have to confer--immediately, if you'd be so kind."
It wasn't a request; she had him over a barrel of military discipline and they both knew it. The GammaLAW mission couldn't withstand a further breakdown in the chain of command. Even so, Quant was about to argue the point until he saw a Manipulant looming at the top of the port bridge wing ladder, an unreadable look on its hardened bunker of a face. "What the hell is that thing doing here?" he barked, all reserve gone.
Haven blew out her breath. "We saved him--after he saved us. I suppose he's grown attached."
"He?" Quant said contemptuously. "Be serious."
Haven swung to the diminutive Lod. "Take Scowl-Jowl below." When he hesitated, she added, "I didn't say to delegate it. See to it yourself."
Lod managed to look both sulky and wary as he motioned the Manipulant to precede him down the ladder. At the same time phone talkers began to vie for Quant's attention, citing status reports and assessments of light damage to the GammaLAW as a consequence of her missile-evasion plow through Lake Ea's aquaculture clutter.
Haven waited out the talkers, gradually comprehending that the conversation was over as far as Quant was concerned. "Captain, be reasonable," she said at last.
Quant was busy checking surface radar plots. The equipment had been seriously glitched by EMP from the exploded Terrible Swift Sword. "Madame, this is hardly the time."
"Would you oblige me to make it a direct order?"
Tonii, unblinking, watched Quant over 'er mistress's shoulder. The undeniable comeliness of the gynander's face only increased Quant's loathing.
"Very well, madame," he said, straightening. "My sea cabin, if you please."
He gave the conn over to Lieutenant Gairaszhek and led Haven out the starboard wing of the bridge, around and into the spartan compartment that served as his working and sleeping space while under way. She left Tonii behind in the pilot house. Quant closed the cabin door and stood by the bunk, leaving it for Haven to take the one chair, but she ignored it. Glancing around, she remarked, "Not the love hotel decor Hallowed Hall preferred, is it?"
The reference to the ship's former commander worked a change in Quant. Getting a grip on his temper with the firmness of long practice, he removed his helmet and set it on the bunk. "I would respectfully ask you to be brief."
Haven ran a hand through her curls. "I take it we're in agreement about the destruction of the Sword? I mean, that the Oceanic was responsible, not the Roke."
Quant's initial assumption was that the aliens had destroyed the starship; after all, one of their vessels had engaged the Sword shortly after its arrival in the Eyewash system. There had been no follow-up attack by the Roke, and all the evidence suggested that the Oceanic had wiped out the Sword by launching a storm of electrical energy up along the tether the ship had dropped into the Amnion, as Aquamarine's single sea was known.
"Madame, what compelled Captain Nerbu to choose that moment to embark on a fishing expedition?"
Haven snorted. "It was Starkweather's idea. On the end of the tether was Raoul Zinsser's sampling device."
"Pitfall?" Quant said in genuine surprise.
"Starkweather apparently cracked Pitfall's operating codes. No, Captain, I don't think Zinsser had any complicity in it. As to the timing, Buck was hoping to prove to Rhodes and the other grandees that he could dominate the Oceanic. He promised them that he'd dump Pitfall's dredgings in the middle of the Panhard desert."
Quant was shaking his head in angry disbelief. "Do Rhodes and the others understand what happened?"
"They understand that the Sword is gone. They suspect that we deliberately antagonized the Oceanic in the hope that it would lay waste to what passes for civilization here."
"In advance of a 'legal annexation' by the forces of Periapt," Quant said knowingly.
"And Zinsser--how did he react to this?"
Haven managed to make her lush lips a thin line. "I wish I could tell you, but we couldn't locate him. Or Burning, Ghost, and Mason."
"Captured or killed?"
Haven shook her head. "We'll know that if and when Rhodes or some other grandee issues hostage demands. There's more at work here than even Rhodes realizes. The person who touched off the firefight in Wall Water wasn't one of Rhodes's praetorians or Starkweather's Manipulants. It was a follower of Mason's son, Purifyre."
Quant was perplexed. A votary of the Creed of Human Enlightenment, Purifyre was a man of peace, or so the members of the GammaLAW mission had been led to believe.
"I'm as puzzled as anyone," Haven said, as if reading his thoughts. "But I know one thing: We need the cooperation of the Aquam if we're going to deal with the Oceanic."
Quant shot her a look. "It seems to me that we have more pressing concerns than rapprochement with the Oceanic. To begin with, madame, this ship must be made secure from attack. Once the Aquam realize that we have no way off their world, they'll try every means to take the GammaLAW by force."
Haven nodded, though distractedly. "I concur, Captain. But I'm more convinced than ever that the Oceanic can provide a resolution to the Roke Conflict. In light of what it did tonight, it's no wonder that the Roke have steered wide of Aquamarine for who knows how many millennia." She looked at him. "There's a secret here, Captain, just waiting to be discovered. In the shape we're in, discovering it is our best means of survival."
Quant confused her by moving into her personal space. But instead of offering an encouraging embrace or some more intimate exchange, he said, "I hope you'll understand when I ask you to lay below to the CIC or your quarters and let me get back to keeping us afloat."
Haven gazed at him poker-faced, quoting Plain Ned Ward's words regarding a sea captain. "'For 'tis impudence for any to approach him within the length of a boat hook.' Plain Ned tacked a grin on to it. Of course I'll do as you ask--for the time being."