The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER ELEVEN


Gerta Hosten spat in the dry dust of the village street.

"Leutnant, just what the fik do you think you're doing?" she asked.

"Setting the animals an example!" the young officer said.

"An example of what—how to show courage and resistance?" she asked.

The subject of their dispute hung head-down from a rope tied around his ankles and looped over a stout limb of the live oak that shaded the village well. He spat, too, in her direction, then returned to a cracked, tuneless rendition of "Imperial Glory," the former Empire's national anthem. Two hundred or so peasants and artisans stood and watched behind a screen of Protégé infantry; the town's gentry, priests, and other potential troublemakers had already been swept up. The packed villagers smelled of sweat and hatred, their eyes furtive except for a few with the courage to glare. The sun beat down, hot even by Land standards on this late-summer day, but dry enough to make her throat feel gritty.

Gerta sighed, drew her Lauter automatic, jacked the slide, and fired one round into the hanging man's head from less than a meter distance. The flat elastic crack echoed back from the whitewashed stone houses surrounding the village square and from the church that dominated it. The civilians jerked back with a rippling murmur; the Protégé troopers watched her with incurious ox-eyed calm. Blood and bone fragments and glistening bits of brain spattered across the feet of the Protégé who had been waiting with a barbed whip. He gaped in surprise, lifting one foot and then another in slow bewilderment.

"Hauptman—"

"Shut up." Gerta ejected the magazine, returned it to the pouch on her belt beside the holster, and snapped a fresh one into the well of the pistol. "Come."

She put her hand on the lieutenant's shoulder and guided him aside a few steps, leaning toward him confidentially. Young as he was, she didn't think he mistook the smile on her face for an expression of friendliness; on the other hand, she was a full captain and attached to General Staff Intelligence, so he'd probably listen at least a little.

"What exactly did you have planned?" she said.

"Why . . . ammunition was found in the animal's dwelling. I was to execute him, shoot five others taken at random, and then burn the village."

Gerta sighed again. "Leutnant, the logic of our communication with the animals is simple." She clenched one hand and held it before his nose. "It goes like this: 'Dog, here is my fist. Do what I want, or I will hit you with it.'"

"Ya, Hauptman—"

"Shut up. Now, there is an inherent limitation to this form of communication. You can only burn their houses down once—thereby reducing agricultural production in this vicinity by one hundred percent. You can only kill them once. Whereupon they cease to be potentially useful units of labor and become so much dead meat . . . and pork is much cheaper. Do you grasp my meaning, boy?"

"Nein, Hauptman."

This time Gerta repressed the sigh. "Terror is an effective tool of control, but only if it is applied selectively. There is nothing in the universe more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose. If you flog a man to death for having two shotgun shells—loaded with birdshot, he probably simply forgot them—then what incentive is left to prevent them from active resistance?"

"Oh."

The junior officer looked as if he was thinking, which was profoundly reassuring. No Chosen was actually stupid; the Test of Life screened out low IQs quite thoroughly, and had for many generations. That didn't mean that Chosen couldn't be willfully stupid, though—over-rigid, ossified.

"So. You must apply a graduated scale of punishment. Remember, we are not here to exterminate these animals, tempting though the prospect is."

Gerta looked over at the villagers. It was extremely tempting, the thought of simply herding them all into the church and setting it on fire. Perhaps that would be the best policy: just kill off the Empire's population and fill up the waste space with the natural increase of the Land's Protégés. But no. Behfel ist behfel. That would be far too slow, no telling what the other powers would get up to in the meantime. Besides, it was the destiny of the Chosen to rule all the rest of humankind; first here on Visager, ultimately throughout the universe, for all time. Genocide would be a confession of failure, in that sense.

"No doubt the ancestors of our Protégés were just as unruly," the infantry lieutenant said thoughtfully. "However, we domesticated them quite successfully."

"Indeed." Although we had three centuries of isolation for that, and even so I sometimes have my doubts. "Carry on, then."

"What would you suggest, Hauptmann?"

Gerta blinked against the harsh sunlight. "Have you been in garrison here long?"

"Just arrived—the area was lightly swept six months ago, but nobody's been here since."

She nodded; the Empire was so damned big, after the strait confines of the Land. Maps just didn't convey the reality of it, not the way marching or flying across it did.

"Well, then . . . let your troopers make a selection of the females and have a few hours' recreation. Have the rest of the herd watch. From reports, this is an effective punishment of intermediate severity."

"It is?" The lieutenant's brows rose in puzzlement.

"Animal psychology," Gerta said, drawing herself up and saluting.

"Jawohl. Zum behfel, Hauptman. I will see to it."

Gerta watched him stride off and then vaulted into her waiting steamcar, one hand on the rollbar.

"West," she said to the driver.

The long dusty road stretched out before her, monotonous with rolling hills. Fields of wheat and barley and maize—the corn was tasseling out, the small grains long cut to stubble—and pasture, with every so often a woodlot or orchard, every so often a white-walled village beside a small stream. Dust began to plume up as the driver let out the throttle, and she pulled her neckerchief up over her nose and mouth. The car was coated with the dust and smelled of the peppery-earthy stuff, along with the strong horse-sweat odor of the two Protégé riflemen she had along for escort.

Wealth, I suppose, she thought, looking at the countryside she was surveying for her preliminary report. Warm and fertile and sufficiently well-watered, without the Land's problems of leached soil and erosion and tropical insects and blights. Room for the Chosen to grow.

"We're in the situation of the python that swallowed the pig," she muttered to herself. "Just a matter of time, but uncomfortable in the interval." That was the optimistic interpretation.

Sometimes she thought it was more like the flies who'd conquered the flypaper.

* * *

"Mama!"

Young Maurice Hosten stumped across the grass of the lawn on uncertain eighteen-month legs. Pia Hosten waited, crouching and smiling, the long gauzy white skirts spread about her, and a floppy, flower-crowned hat held down with one hand.

"Mama!"

Pia scooped the child up, laughing. John smiled and turned away, back toward the view over the terrace and gardens. Beyond the fence was what had been a sheep pasture, when this house near Ensburg was the headquarters for a ranch. Ensburg had grown since the Civil War, grown into a manufacturing city of half a million souls; most of the ranch had been split up into market gardens and dairy farms as the outskirts approached, and the old manor had become an industrialists weekend retreat. It still was, the main change being that the owner was John Hosten . . . and that he used it for more than recreation.

"Come on, everybody," he said.

The party picked up their drinks and walked down toward the fence. It was a mild spring afternoon, just warm enough for shirtsleeves but not enough to make the tailcoats and cravats some of the guests wore uncomfortable. They found places along the white-painted boards, in clumps and groups between the beech trees planted along it. Out in the close-cropped meadow stood a contraption built of wire and canvas and wood, two wings and a canard ahead of them, all resting on a tricycle undercarriage of spoked wheels. A man sat between the wings, his hands and feet on the controls, while two more stood behind on the ground with their hands on the pusher-prop attached to the little radial engine.

"For your sake I hope this works, son," Maurice Farr said sotto voce, as he came up beside John. He took a sip at his wine seltzer and smoothed back his graying mustache with his forefinger.

"You don't think this is actually the first trial, do you, Dad?" John said with a quiet smile.

The ex-commodore—he had an admiral's stars and anchors on his epaulets now—laughed and slapped John on the shoulder. "I'm no longer puzzled at how you became that rich that quickly," he said.

If you only knew, Dad, John thought.

wind currents are now optimum, Center hinted.

"Go!" John called.

"Contact!" Jeffrey said from the pilots seat, lowering the goggles from the brow of his leather helmet to his eyes. The long silk scarf around his neck fluttered in the breeze.

The two workers spun the prop. The engine cracked, sputtered, and settled to a buzzing roar. Prop-wash fluttered the clothes of the spectators, and a few of the ladies lost their hats. Men leaped after them, and everyone shaded their eyes against flung grit. Jeffrey shouted again, inaudible at this distance over the noise of the engine, and the two helpers pulled blocks from in front of the undercarriage wheels. The little craft began to accelerate into the wind, slowly at first, with the two men holding on to each wing and trotting alongside, then spurting ahead as they released it. The wheels flexed and bounced over slight irregularities in the ground.

Despite everything, John found himself holding his breath as they hit one last bump and stayed up . . . six inches over the turf . . . eight . . . five feet and rising. He let the breath out with a sigh. The plane soared, banking slowly and gracefully and climbing in a wide spiral until it was five hundred feet over the crowd. Voices and arms were raised, a murmured ahhhh.

The two men who'd assisted at the takeoff came over to the fence. John blinked away the vision overlaid on his own of the earth opening out below and people and buildings dwindling to doll-size.

"Father, Edgar and William Wong, the inventors," he said. "Fellows, my father—Admiral Farr."

"Sir," Edgar said, as they shook his hand. "Your son's far too kind. Half the ideas were his, at least, as well as all the money."

His brother shook his head. "We'd still be fiddling around with warping the wing for control if John hadn't suggested moveable ailerons," he said. "And gotten a better chord ratio on the wings. He's quite a head for math, sir."

Maurice Farr smiled acknowledgment without taking his eyes from where his son flew above their heads. The steady droning of the engine buzzed down, like a giant bee.

"It works," he said softly. "Well, well."

"Damned toy," a new voice said.

John turned with a diplomatic bow. General McWriter probably wouldn't have come except for John's wealth and political influence. He stared at the machine and tugged at a white walrus mustache that cut across the boiled-lobster complexion . . . or that might be the tight collar of his brown uniform tunic.

"Damned toy," he said again. "Another thing for the bloody politicians"—there were ladies present, and you could hear the slight hesitation before the mild expletive as the general remembered it—"to waste money on, when we need every penny for real weapons."

"The Chosen found aerial reconnaissance extremely useful in the Empire," he said mildly, turning the uniform cap in his fingers.

McWriter grunted. "Perhaps. According to young Farr's reports."

"According to all reports, General. Including those of my own service, and the Ministry."

The general's grunt showed what he thought of reports from sailors, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Research Bureau.

"They used dirigibles, you'll note," McWriter said, turning to John. "What's the range and speed? How reliable is it?"

"Eighty miles an hour, sir," John said with soft politeness. "Range is about an hour, so far. Engine time to failure is about three hours, give or take."

The general's face went even more purple. "Then what bloody f . . . bloody use is it?" he said, nodding abruptly to the admiral and walking away calling for his aide-de-camp.

"What use is a baby?" John said.

"You're sure it can be improved?" the elder Farr said.

"As sure as if I had a vision from God"—or Center—"about it," John said. "Within a decade, they're going to be flying ten times as far and three times as fast, I'll stake everything I own on it."

"I hope so," Farr said. "Because we are going to need it, very badly. The navy most of all."

"You think so, Admiral?" another man said. Farr started slightly; he hadn't seen the civilian in the brown tailcoat come up.

"Senator Beemody," he said cautiously.

The politician-financier nodded affably. "Admiral. Good to see you again." He held out a hand. "No hard feelings, eh?"

Farr returned the gesture. "Not on my side, sir."

"Well, you're not the one who lost half a million," Beemody said genially. He was a slight dapper man, his mustache trimmed to a black thread over his upper lip. "On the other hand, Jesus Christ with an order from the President couldn't have saved those warehouses, from my skipper's reports . . . and you're quite the golden boy these days, after facing down that Chosen bitch at Salini. We can offer her a better one than her colleagues appear to have found at Corona,'" he quoted with relish. The senator's grin was disarming. "What with one thing and another, grudges would be pretty futile. And I have no time for unproductive gestures, Admiral. You think we'll need these?"

"Damned right we will. Knowing your enemy's location is half the battle in naval warfare. Knowing where he is while he doesn't know where you are is the other half. We've relied on fast cruisers and torpedo-boat destroyers to scout and screen for us, but the Chosen dirigibles are four times faster than the fastest hulls afloat. Plus they can scout from several thousand feet. We need an equivalent and we need it very badly, or we'll be defeated at sea in the event of war."

"Which some think is inevitable," Beemody said thoughtfully. "I'm not entirely sure—but the news out of the Empire certainly seems to support the hypothesis. Admiral. John."

"People can surprise you," Farr said reflectively as the senator moved through the crowd, shaking hands and dropping smiles.

"Beemody knows when to jump on a bandwagon," John said. "And he's big in steel mills, heavy engineering—a naval buildup will be like a license to print money, to him. And he's no fool; I've done enough business with him to know that."

"Darling," Pia's voice broke in. She hugged his arm; the nursemaid was behind her with the child. "Father." Her eyes went up to the aircraft that was circling downward above them. "I would love to do that someday."

John put an arm around her shoulders. "Maybe in a few years," he said. "Here comes Jeffrey."

The plane ghosted down, seemed to float for an instant, then touched with a lurching sway. The Wong brothers ran out to grip the wingtips and keep its head into the wind; other workers brought cords and tarpaulins to stake it down. Jeffrey Farr swung down from the controls, pulling off his helmet and waving to the cheers of the crowd. He vaulted the fence easily with one hand on a post, then walked towards his father and stepbrother. One arm was around the waist of a pretty dark girl who clung and looked up at him, laughing.

"I see you've already found a way to profit from the glamour of flight, Jeff," John said, bending over her hand.

"Too late," Jeffrey replied. "Meant to tell you, you're going to be best man."

John looked up quickly, to find Pia laughing at him. "Some things even the wife of your bosom doesn't tell you," he said resignedly.

And I told Center not to tell you, either, Raj said. There was a smile in the disembodied voice.

"Well, I haven't told Mother yet, either," Jeffrey said. "There are limits to even my courage."

"I'm sure your mother will be delighted," the elder Farr said, bending over Lola's hand in his turn. "But not surprised, after the last year. The Empire has conquered both her sons, it seems."

Pia's face went rigid for an instant, and then she forced gaiety back to it. "A fall wedding, perhaps?"

Jeffrey nodded. "And John won't escape mine—although I should bar him from the church, the way he got hitched without me there, the inconsiderate bastard."

John chuckled. "I'm sure you could see it as vividly as if you'd really been there," he said dryly. "How does she fly?'

"Too businesslike, that's your problem." Jeffrey shrugged. "Sweet, for a machine that underpowered. Very maneuverable, now that the movement of the flaps is extended. The canard keeps the stalling speed low, but I think it'll have to go when you move to an enclosed cockpit; the eddy currents around it close to the ground are tricky. Apart from that, she needs a better engine and something to cut the wind."

"And you must make a speech about it," Pia said, putting her hand through John's elbow.

"Damn," he muttered, looking at the assembly.

About fifty people. Important people, high-ranking military officers, industrialists, reporters for the major papers and wire services, politicians on the military committees.

"It is part of your job," Pia said relentlessly.

John sighed and straightened his lapels. Nobody had ever said the job would be agreeable.

* * *

"So much for reports that it could not be done," Karl Hosten said, looking down at the summaries.

Gerta Hosten closed her own file folder with a snap. "Well, sir, it was scarcely a secret that powered heavier-than-air flight was possible. We are here, and not on ancient Terra, after all."

"But our ancestors did not arrive in winged vehicles with propellers," the Chosen general said with a sigh.

Gerta looked up with concern. There was more white than gray in her foster-father's face now, and his face looked tired even at ten in the morning. Duty is duty, she reminded herself. Not all the work of conquest was done out on the battlefield.

She was back in Corpenik for a while herself. There wasn't much in the way of fighting left in the Empire—former Empire, now the New Territories—for one thing, and for another she was pregnant again, enough months along to rate desk duty for a while. The whitewashed office in the General Staff HQ building was on the third floor; she could see out over the courtyard wall from here, to a vast construction site where gangs of slave labor from the New Territories dug at the red volcanic earth of the central plateau, filling the warm damp air with the scent of mud. Some office building, she supposed; bureaucrats were a growth industry these days. The Land's government had always been tightly centralized and omnicompetent, and there was a lot more for it to do. Or it might be factories. A lot of those were going up, too.

She looked down at the folder. "According to John's report, the Santies are going to push these heavier-than-air craft mainly because their experiments with dirigibles have been such a disaster."

General Hosten nodded and pushed a finger at a photograph. It was a grainy newspaper print, showing the ghost outline of a wrecked and burned airship strewn across a bare grassy hillside with mountains in the distance.

"I am not surprised. Success or failure in airship design is mostly a matter of details, and an infinite capacity for taking pains is our great strength."

Whereas our great weakness is obsession with details at the expense of the larger picture, Gerta thought, silently. There were things you didn't say to a General Staff panjandrum, even if he was your father.

"Still, we'll have to follow suit," Gerta said. "Dirigibles are potentially very vulnerable to aircraft of this type, and they could be very useful in themselves."

Karl nodded thoughtfully, running a finger along his heavy jawline. "I will raise the matter in the next staff meeting," he said. "The Air Council must be informed, of course." Looking down at the folder: "Johan has done good service here."

He was frowning, nonetheless. Gerta noted the expression and looked quickly away. Not completely comfortable with it, she thought. Didn't expect Johnny ever to be false to a cause, even for the Chosen. She agreed, for completely different reasons, but again, it wasn't the time to mention it.

"Sir, the next item is the Far Western Islands appropriation."

Karl nodded and opened the file. "It seems clearcut," he said. "The islands have a climate that is, if anything, more difficult than the Land; the distance is extreme"—over eight thousand miles—"and the value of the minerals barely more than the cost of extraction."

Gerta licked her lips. "Sir, with respect, I would strongly advise against abandoning the base there at present."

Karl's eyebrows rose. "Why? It scarcely seems cost-effective, now that the Empire is ours."

"Sir, the Empire is poor in minerals, particularly energy sources. Our processing industries here in the Land will be expanding dramatically and the petroleum in the Islands may come in very useful. Besides, I just don't like giving up territory we've spent lives in taking."

He nodded slowly. "Perhaps. I will take the matter under advisement. Next, we have the report on our agents in the Union del Est." He smiled bleakly. "The Republic of Santander is not the only party who can play the game of stirring up trouble on the borders."

* * *

"Fuck it!"

Jeffrey Farr swore into the sudden ringing silence within the tank. The only sound was a dying clatter as something beat itself into oblivion against something equally metallic and unyielding.

He pushed up the greasy goggles and stuck his head out of the top deck. Black oily smoke was pouring up out of the grillwork over the rear deck; luckily there was a stiff breeze from the east, carrying most of it away. The rest of the four-man crew bailed out with a haste bred of several months' experience with Dirty Gerty and her foibles, standing at a respectful distance with their football-style leather helmets in their hands.

Jeffrey climbed down himself, conscious that he was thirty-one years old, not the late teens of the other crewmen. Not that he wasn't as agile, it just hurt a little more; and he was tired, mortally tired.

"Filter again?" said the head mechanic of Pokips Motors, the civilian contractors.

"I think," Jeffrey replied, spitting the smell of burning gasoline and lubricating oil out of his mouth and taking a swig from the canteen someone offered. "Then that tore a fuel line or broke the oil reservoir."

The military reservation they were using was on the southern edge of the Santander River valley, two hundred miles west of the capital. A stretch of flatland, then some tree-covered loess hills leading down to the floodplain, ten thousand acres or so. A holdover from days before land prices rose so high; this was prime corn-and-hog country—cattle, too—all around. Most of this section was now torn up by the jointed-metal tracks of Gerty and her kindred, and by the huge wheels of the steam traction engines that winched them home when they broke down, which was incessantly. Gerty was the latest model: a riveted steel box on tracks, about twenty feet long and eight wide, with a stationary round pillbox on top meant to represent a turret. The engineers were still working on the turret ring and traversing mechanism, and hopefully close to finishing them.

"Th' prollem is," the mechanic said, "yer overstrainin' the engines somethin' fierce. Got enough horsepower, right enough—two seventy-five-horsepower saloon-car engines, right enough. But the torque loads more'n they wuz designed to stand."

"Well, we'll have to redesign them, won't we?"

Jeffrey kept his voice neutral. The man was trying his best to do his job; it wasn't his fault that engineering talent was so much thinner on the ground here in the western provinces of Santander. It was yeoman-and-squire country here, and always had been. Outside the eastern uplands, manufacturing was mostly limited to the port cities and focused on maritime trade and textiles. The problem was that this was prime tank country; the provincial militias here were actually interested in the prospect of armored warfare. Nobody but a few dinosaurs like General McWriter thought much of the prospects of horsed cavalry anymore, not after what had happened in the Empire.

Jeffrey felt his skin roughen. The machine guns flickered in his mind, and the long rows of horsemen collapsed in kicking, screaming chaos . . .

"Transmission," he said. "We need a more robust transmission."

"What've yer got in mind?"

Jeffrey pulled out a diagram. "Friction plate," he said. "It's not elegant, but I think it won't keep breaking like this chain drive setup. Like you say, these tanks just have too much inertia for a system designed for three-ton touring cars."

"Hmmmm." The mechanic studied the diagram. "Interestin'."

He looked up at Gerty. A couple of his men had gotten the engine grille up and were spraying water on the flames flickering there.

"How'd them Chosen bastids keep theirs going?" he asked. "Heavier'n this, I hears."

"They use steam engines and mostly they don't keep going," Jeffrey said. "We need something reliable enough to do exploitation as well as breakthrough."

The mechanic looked down at the diagram again. "Need some fancy machinin' fer this."

"Hosten Engineering can do you up a model, and jigs," Jeffrey said. "They've got the plans."

* * *

John Hosten leaned back in the chair and sipped his lemonade. Oathtaking was hot, as usual, and sticky-humid, as usual, and the air was thick with coal smoke. The hotel was close by the docks; they'd extended hugely since his last visit, new berths extending further into what had been coastal forest reserve and farmland. In fact, he could see one freighter unloading now from this fourth-floor veranda. It was a smallish ship of fifteen hundred tons, swinging sacks of grain ashore with its own booms and steam winches. As he watched the net fell the last four feet to the granite paving blocks of the wharf. Half the bottom layer split, spraying wheat across the stone and into the harbor. Screams and curses rang faintly as the cable paid out limply on top of the heap. Stevedores scurried about, overseers lashing with their rubber truncheons. Eventually a line formed, trotting off with the undamaged sacks on their backs. Others started sweeping up the remainder with brooms and dumping it in a collection of boxes and barrels.

God, I'm glad I don't have to eat that, he thought silently. In this heat and humidity, they'd be lucky not to get ergot all over it.

He nodded towards the dock. "You'd get less spoilage if you moved to bulk-handling facilities," he said mildly. "Elevators, screw-tube systems, that sort of thing."

Gerta Hosten raised her eyes from the diagrams before her. "We're not short of labor," she said, with a smile that didn't reach the cold, dark eyes.

Meaning they are short of the type of labor that bulk transport would need, Raj said thoughtfully.

An image drew itself at the back of John's consciousness: short, dark-skinned men with iron collars around their necks loading a train—an unbelievably primitive train, with an engine like something out of a museum, an open platform and a tall, thin smokestack topped with sheet-metal petals. Each staggered sweating under a bundle of dried fish secured in netting, heaving it painfully onto the flatcars. Other men watched them, soldiers with single-shot rifles mounted on giant dogs. Occasionally a dog would snap its great jaws with a door-slamming sound and the laborers would shuffle a little faster.

Who needs wheelbarrows when you've got enough slaves? Raj said with ironic distaste. We got over that, eventually. Thanks to Center.

and to you, raj whitehall, Center replied.

John reached into the inner pocket of his light cotton jacket and took out his cigarette case. From what he'd described, the centralized god-king autocracy Raj Whitehall had been born into had been almost as nasty as the Chosen—more desirable only because Center and Raj could put their own man on the throne and use that as the fulcrum to move society off dead center. There seem to be more wrong paths than right, he thought.

correct. high-coercion societies locked in stasis alternating with barbarism are the maximum probability for postneolithic humanity, Center observed dispassionately. the original breakthrough to modernity on earth was the result of multiple low-probability historical accidents, observe—

Later we may have time for lectures, Raj observed. Meanwhile, John has a job of work to do.

Gerta looked up again, stacking the reports neatly on the hotel room's table, and took a long drink of water.

"This . . . Whippet?"

"It's a type of racing dog," John said helpfully.

"This Whippet looks like a very useful panzer, if you . . . if the Santies can get it working," she observed.

"True enough," John said. "There's a lot of controversy. The western provinces are pushing it, but the easterners want more effort to go into aircraft. And they have most of the internal-combustion manufacturing capacity."

"Yes, I read the speech of this . . . Senator Damian? The representative from Ensburg, in any case—you thoughtfully supplied it with the latest reports. 'I put my faith in our mountains'; a very colorful phrase."

Her strong, calloused fingers turned the sheaf of papers over. "Now, this, this Land-Cruiser, it's going to give the Army Council's engineers hives."

The blueprints on the table showed a massive boxy machine, mounting a six-inch gun on its centerline, a two-inch quick-firer in a turret above, and six machine-guns in sponsons on either side.

"What a monstrosity," she went on. "If the Santies are having trouble making the Whippet go, how do they expect this . . . this thing to move?"

John leaned forward. A lot of work, mostly Center's, had gone into the Land-Cruiser. It was no easy task to design something beyond Visager's current technological level, but just beyond, close enough that competent engineers would be kept busy on the tantalizing quest for this particular Holy Grail. Disinformation was much more than simple lying.

"Each bogie has its own engine," he pointed out.

The huge machine rested on four bogies on either side, each riding on a pivot with bell-crank springs. "See, there's a drive train run through this flexible shaft coupling, and then through meshed gears to the toothed sprocket here between the load-bearing wheels."

"Porschmidt will love this. Unfortunately."

At John's glance she went on: "The new head of Technical Development. He's brilliant, but he keeps trying to make bad designs good instead of junking them—he'd rather design three force pumps and an auxiliary circulation system into an engine rather than just turn a part over to keep it from leaking. You should see what he did to the heavy field gun. It's enough to make a Test of Life examiner cry. He's the sort who gives engineering a bad name; convinced that just because its his, his shit doesn't stink."

"Well, if the Republic's wasting its time, so much the better," John said with a smile.

"Ya. Only, is the Republic wasting its time, or are you wasting ours?"

John kept the expression on his face genial, as his testicles tried to climb back into his abdomen. It was impossible to have a cold sweat in Oathtaking's climate, but you could feel clammy-nauseated.

"Gerta, min soester, do you think so little of me?"

"Johan, min brueder, I think very highly of you. I think somehow you're fucking Military Intelligence up the butt and making them like it." She grinned, and this time the expression went all the way through. "But you're giving us so much real information to sweeten the pot that I can't convince anyone of it . . . yet."

She sighed, relaxed, and put the documents away in her attaché case, spinning the combination lock. Then she poured some banana gin from the carafe into her water, and a dollop into his lemonade. "Now I'm officially off-duty."

He sipped; the oily-sweet kick of the distillate seemed to match the surroundings, somehow. And one wouldn't affect his judgement noticeably.

"So, I hear you've adopted a child," Gerta said.

"Yes. See, I am practicing Chosen custom, as far as I can." They both laughed. "How's your youngest?'

"A shapeless lump of protoplasm, the way they all are at that age," Gerta said.

She pulled a picture from her uniform tunic. A baby looked out, with one chubby hand stuffed in its mouth; the fuzzy background was probably a Protégé wetnurse, from the linen bodice.

"Young Sigvard. That's four, now; I think I've done my duty by the Chosen, don't you? It's an interesting experience, pregnancy, but I wouldn't want to overindulge."

"And the adoptees?"

"Good children, every one," Gerta said. "The one good thing about desk duty is that I get to see more of them; they've been practically living in Father's house most of the time, the last two years, what with the war."

John produced a snapshot of Pia and Maurice junior; Gerta looked at it critically. "Sound enough stock," she said . . . which was a high compliment, by the standards of the Land.

"I hear Heinrich made brigadier?"

"Ya, same dispatch-and-notice list that bumped me to full colonel," Gerta said, leaning back and stretching. "They added another six divisions to the regular roster, lots of new hats to go around. Especially with all the demotions and such after the Campaign Study."

John nodded. The General Staff had high standards; there had been a lot of shaking up after the campaign in the Empire. Mere success wasn't good enough . . .

Mark of a good army, lad, Raj said. Anyone can learn from his mistakes. It takes sound doctrine to be able to learn from winning.

"Enough other compensations to go around, I suppose," he said aloud.

Gerta chuckled. "Well, the Council has been handing out estates fairly liberally. Mostly in the west, around Corona, to start with. Too much unrest for it to be safe for us to scatter ourselves around widely, just yet." A shrug. "We'll deal with that in due course."
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