The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWELVE




"Christ, how do I git myself inta these things?" one of the Marines behind him in the longboat muttered.

John smiled in the darkness. That was Barrjen. The stocky Marine had managed to volunteer—unofficially, the whole mission was highly off the record—despite his loud relief at making it home last time. In fact, the ones who'd been with him from Ciano to Salini had all volunteered, even Smith with his gimp foot. Some of them had been pretty shamefaced about it, as if they were mentally kicking themselves, but they'd all done it.

It was a moonless night and overcast, typical weather for winter in the Gut. The whaleboat glided silently over the dark water; they might as well have been rowing in a closet, for all that he could see. Water purled under the muffled oars, breath smoked. Only the radium dial of his compass guided them, that and . . .

"Down!" he hissed quietly.

The dozen men in the boat shipped oars and turned their cork-blackened faces downward in the same motion. A few seconds later the quiet thumping of a marine steam engine came over the water. A searchlight stabbed out into the darkness, blinding bright, the arc light flicking over the waves. Behind it was a gaggle of other boats. Fishing boats; the Chosen couldn't shut down the Gut fishery, it was too important to the economy, and too many of the important pelagic species were best caught in darkness. They did send out a gunboat to make sure nobody tried to make a break for the Santander or Union shores, and probably kept the families of the fishermen hostage, too.

The light flicked past them. Weaker lights were breaking out among the fishing boats, lure lanterns strung out over bows and sides. John waited tensely until they were surrounded by the other boats, several dozen of them spread out widely.

"Wait for it . . ."

A thrashing of whitewater as something big broached and snapped for the dangling lantern of a boat, something with a long head full of white teeth. Yells drifted over the water, and he could see a man poised with a harpoon, backlit against the oil lamp. He struck, and a monstrous three-lobed tail came up out of the water. Other boats were closing in, to help with the first catch and wait for the others that would be drawn by the commotion and the blood in the waters.

"Now! Stroke, stroke!"

The Land gunboat was out further in the Gut, hooting its steam whistle and scanning with the searchlight . . . but it was guarding against attempts to get away, not looking for boats making for the ex-Imperial shore. John kept his right hand on the whaleboat's tiller, flicking an occasional glance down at the compass in his left. That was mostly for show; Center kept a ghostly vector arrow floating before his gaze.

there are now echoes from cliffs of the configuration indicated, the machine said. distance one thousand meters and closing.

Thump. John's head whipped around. That was the gunboat's cannon . . . ah. "Just a big 'un," he whispered to the crew.

You got an occasional one of those, even in the shallow waters of the Gut. Nothing like the monsters that made sailing the outer seas hazardous, but too much for a harpooner to handle. There had been very little life on land when humans arrived on Visager, but the oceans more than made up for it. The Chosen officer on the gunboat probably thought of it as sport, something to break the dull routine of night escort work. And very good cover for John.

"We'll be coming up on the cliffs soon," he said quietly. "Half-stroke . . . half-stroke . . ."

The oars shortened their pace, scarcely dipping into the water. He could hear the slow boom of surf now, thudding and hissing on rock. John held up his signal lantern and carefully pressed the shutter: two long, two short, one long.

A flicker answered him, two shorts, repeated—all that they dared use, with the light pointing out to the Gut.

"Yarely now," the lead Marine in the head of the boat said. There was a quiet plop as he swung the lead. "By the mark, six. Six. Five. Six. Four. Four."

Rock loomed up on either hand, just visible as the waves broke and snake-hissed over it. A river broke the cliff near here, cutting a pathway that men or goats could use.

"By the mark, seven. Ten. No bottom at ten."

The pitching of the boat changed, calmer as they moved into the sheltered waters. John felt sweat matting his hair under the black knit stocking cap. The guerillas would be waiting; the guerillas, or a Fourth Bureau reaction squad.

"Rest oars," he said.

The poles came in, noiseless. The boat coasted, slowing . . . and the keel crunched on shingle. Four men leapt overboard into thigh-deep water, fanning out with their weapons ready. The rest followed them a second later, putting their shoulders to the whaleboat's sides and running it forward. John drew the revolver from his shoulder rig and ran forward to leap off the bow.

there, Center said, reading input from his ears too faint for his conscious mind to follow.

He walked forward, sliding his feet to avoid tripping on the uneven surface. A match glowed, cupped in a hand, just long enough for him to recognize the face. Arturo Bianci, the cotadini he'd shipped the arms to, back when the war began. Two years looked to have aged the man ten, which wasn't all that surprising.

A hand gripped his. "No lights," John warned.

Bianci made a sound that was half chuckle. "We have learned, signore. Those of us who live, have learned much."

They had; there were ropes strung from sticks to guide up the steep rocky path. Guerillas joined the Marines in unloading the crates and lashing them to their shoulders with rope slings. John swung crates down from the boat, pleased with the silence and speed . . . and waiting for the moment when lights would spear down from the clifftop and voices sound in Landisch. At last the boat rode high and empty, rocking against the shingle.

"This way," John said.

Harry Smith nodded, and together they pushed it upstream, under an overhang of wild olive and trailing vines. Smith reached in, rocking it to one side with his weight, and pulled the stopper. Water gurgled into the whaleboat, and it sank rapidly in the chest-deep stream.

"I'll put a few rocks in her," Smith said. "She'll be here when y'all get back. So'll I be. Good luck, sir." He racked a shell into the breech of his pump shotgun.

"Thanks. To you, too—we're all going to need it."

* * *

Heinrich Hosten looked at the thing that twitched and mewled on the table. The Fourth Bureau specialist smiled and patted it on what was left of its scalp.

"Yes, I'd say they're definitely planning on something to do with the train," she said. "Can't tell you exactly where, though—the subject didn't know, that's for certain."

Heinrich nodded thanks as he left. Outside he stood thoughtfully beside his horse for a while, looking around at the buildings of the little town, then pulling a map from the case at his side and tilting it so that the lantern outside the Fourth Bureau regional HQ shone on the paper. When he mounted, he turned towards the barracks, his escort of riflemen clattering behind him through the chill night.

"No, don't wake Major van Pelt," he said to the sentry outside the main door. It had been a monastery before the conquest, perfect for its new use; a series of courtyards with small rooms leading off, and large common kitchens, refectories for mess halls. "Who's the officer of the day?"

That turned out to be a very young captain. Heinrich returned her salute, then smiled as he stuffed tobacco into his big curved pipe.

"Hauptman Neumann, what's a junior officer's worst nightmare?"

"Ah . . ." Captain Neumann knotted her brow in thought. "Surprise attack by overwhelming numbers?" she said hopefully.

"Tsk, tsk. That would be an opportunity for an able young officer," Heinrich said genially. "No, a nightmare is what you are about to undergo; an operation conducted with a senior officer along to look over your shoulder and jog your elbow. What forces are stationed here in Campo Fiero?"

"One battalion of the Third Protégé Infantry, currently at ninety-eight percent of full strength, and a squadron of armored cars—five currently ready, three undergoing serious maintenance. That is not counting," she added with an unconscious sniff, "police troops. Plus the usual support elements."

"Troops so-called," Heinrich said, nodding agreement. He turned to the map table that filled one corner of the ready room. "Ah, yes. Now, find me a train schedule. While you're at it—I presume your company is on reaction status? Good. While you're at it, get your troops ready to move, full field kit, but no noise. Nobody to enter or leave the barracks area."

He stared at the map, puffing with the pewter lid of the pipe turned back. Now, he thought happily, if I were a rebellious animal, where would I be?

* * *

"Good choice," John said.

Bianci grunted beside him. "The bridge would have been better, but there are blockhouses there now—a section of infantry and a couple of their accursed machine guns at each end. With signal rockets always at the ready."

John nodded. Oto was up; the smallest of Visager's three moons also moved the fastest, and although it was little more than a bright spark across the sky, it did give some light. Enough to see how the railway track curved around a steep rocky hill here, falling away to a stretch of marsh and then a small creek on the other side. The guerillas numbered about sixty; Bianci hadn't offered to introduce anyone else, which was exactly as it should be.

"We got quite a few trains at first," Bianci said. "But then the tedeschi began making villagers from along the lines ride in carriages at front."

"You can't allow that to stop you," John said.

Bianci glanced his way, a shadowed gleam of eyeball in the faint moonlight, the smell of garlic and sweat.

"We didn't," he said. "But the villagers began to patrol the rail line themselves . . . to protect their families, you understand. So now we pick locations far from any habitation. Like this."

"Good ground, too," John said.

One of the Marines came up the hill, trailing a spool of thin wire. Another squatted next to John, placing a box next to him. It had a plunger with an handbar coming out of the top, and a crank on the side. Bianci leaned close to watch as the Marine cut the wire and split it into two strands, stripping the insulation with his belt knife. The raw copper of the wire matched the hairs on the backs of his huge freckled hands, incongruously delicate as they handled the difficult task in near-darkness.

"Ahh, bellissimo," the Imperial said. "We've been using black powder with friction primers—and since they started putting a car in front of the locomotive, that doesn't work so well."

"We can get detonator sets to you," John said. "But you'll have to come up with the wire—telegraph wire will do well enough."

Bianci nodded again. "That we can do." He looked down at the track hungrily. "Every slave in the rail yards tells us what goes on the cars. This one has military stores, arms and ammunition, medical supplies, and machine parts for a new repair depot north of Salini; the tedeschi have been talking of double-tracking the line from the Pada to the coast . . . why, do you think?"

"They'll be reopening the trade with the Republic and the other countries on the Gut, soon," John replied. "And to be able to move supplies and troops faster. They have—"

Far away to the northwest, the mournful hoot of a locomotive's steam whistle echoed off the hills. Bianci laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Right on time. The trains run on time, since the tedeschi came . . . except when we arrange some delays."

John burrowed a little deeper behind a scree of rock. I have to be here, dammit, he thought. The guerillas had to see that they were getting some support, however minimal. The problem was that the Santander government wasn't ready to really give that support, not yet. It was surprising what you could do with some contacts and a great deal of money, though.

Silence stretched. Bianci raised himself on an elbow. "Odd," he said. "They should be on the flat before this stretch of hills by now."

* * *

"Glad you stopped," Heinrich said, shining his new electric torch up at the escort car.

"Yessir." The vehicle was a standard armored car, fitted with outriggers so that it could ride the rails, and a belt-drive from the wheels to propel it. Doctrine said that fighting vehicles had to have a Chosen in command; in this case, a nervous young private, showing it by bracing to attention in the turret and staring straight ahead, rigid as the twin machine guns prodding the air ahead of him.

"At ease," the Chosen brigadier said. "Now, we want to do this quickly," he added to Captain Neumann. "Unload boxcars four through six."

Greatly daring, the commander of the armored car spoke: "Sir, those are—"

"Military supplies. I'm aware of that, Private." The rigid brace became even tighter. He turned back to Neumann. "Then get the I-beams rigged and we'll load the cars."

Luck had been with him; there had been a stack of steel forms, the type used to frame the concrete of coast-artillery bunkers, in Campo Fiero. Used as ramps, they could get an armored car onto the train . . . with ropes, pulleys, winches, and a lot of pushing. Getting down would be easier, he hoped.

Orders barked sotto voce had the hundred-odd troopers of Neumann's company slinging crates out of boxcars, the Chosen officers pitching in beside their subordinates. Others were unstrapping the steel planks from the armored cars waiting where the little dirt road crossed the rail line. Heinrich moved forward as the crew of sweating Protégé infantry staggered; they were still panting from the five-mile forced march to intercept the train.

But nobody saw us get on, the Chosen officer thought a little smugly, catching the corner of the heavy metal shape. Muscle bulged in his arms and neck as he braced himself and heaved it around, teeth clenched around the stem of his pipe.

"Dominate that piece of equipment!" he barked as the Protégés took up the strain.

They obeyed, looking at him out of the corners of their eyes. A slightly awed look; he'd taken two strong men's load for half a minute. The steel clanged down on the side of the flatcar, and the armored vehicle's driver started to back and fill, aligning his wheels with the ramp.

Heinrich stepped back, dusting his palms. Somewhere south of here waited a pack of animals with delusions of grandeur. Somehow that reminded him of Jeffrey Farr, Johan's foster-brother. A good man: sound soldier, a bit soft, but sound. A great pity they'd probably have to kill him someday.

"And I was right," he muttered to himself. "There is going to be good sport here for years."

* * *

"The sun sets, but it also rises," Bianci whispered, putting his hand to the pushbar of the detonator set.

"Hmmm?" John said, startled out of reverie.

"An old saying, signore."

The train whistle hooted again, louder. Always a melancholy sound, John thought, taking a swig from his canteen. Oto was nearly down, but Adele was up, brighter and slower as it rose over the horizon. An armored car running on the rails came first, buzzing along with the belt from its rear wheels slapping and snarling. The turret moved restlessly, probing the darkness. A light fixed above the machine guns swept across the slope. John tensed.

Nothing, he thought, breathing in the scent of the dew-damp thyme crushed beneath his body. Good fire discipline. Not one of the men on the slope had been detected, and not one moved.

"Now," Arturo breathed, spinning the crank on the side of the detonator. Then he pushed down on the plunger.

WHUMP. WHUMP. WHUMP.

Three globes of magenta fire blossomed along the curving stretch of rail. One before the escort car; it braked desperately, throwing roostertails of sparks from its outrigger wheels. Not quite fast enough. The front wheels tumbled into the mass of churned earth and twisted iron that the dynamite had left, and the hull toppled slowly sideways, accelerating to fall on its side and skid down the gravel and earth of the embankment. The locomotive was a little more successful, braking in a squeal of steel on steel that sent fingers of pain into John's ears even half a thousand yards away. The front bogie dropped into the crater the explosive mine left, tipping the nose of the locomotive down. That jacknifed the coal car and first boxcar upward off the tracks, leaving them dangling by the couplings that held them to the engine. The rest of the boxcars jolted to a crashing halt. Most of them partially derailed, lunging to the right or left until brought up by the inertia of the car ahead, leaving the whole train of two dozen cars lying in a zigzag. But none were thrown on their sides. . . .

"Going too slow," Arturo said, puzzled.

Realization crystallized, like a lump in John's gut. "Trap!" he shouted. "Get—"

Schoonk. A mortar threw a starshell high into the sky above them. Blue-white light washed over the stretch of hill and swamp, actinic and harsh to their dark-adapted eyes. Schoonk. Schoonk.

A rippling crackle of small-arms fire broke out across the hillside and from guerillas concealed in the swamp across the embankment; they'd learned that an ambush worked best with two sides. A captured machine gun was in place there, too, its brighter muzzle flashes contrasting with the duller, redder light of the ex-Imperial black-powder rifles most of the partisans carried.

"Pull back!" John shouted into Arturo's ear. "Get out, leave a rearguard and get out now."

The guerilla leader hesitated. With a sound like a giant ripping canvas across the sky, more than a dozen belt-fed Haagen machine guns cut lose from the train. The guerillas' rifle fire was punching through the thin pine boards of the boxcars, but John could see it sparking and ricochetting from steel within. Gunshields; the machine guns were fortress models, with an angled steel plate to protect the gunner. Their fire beat across the hillside like flails of green tracer, intersecting hoses of arched light through the night. Sparks scattered as the high-velocity jacketed bullets spanged off stone; little red glows showed where rounds had cut reeds in the swamp, like the mark of a cigarette touched to thin paper. Scores of Protégé infantry were tumbling out of the cars, too, some falling, more going to ground along the train and returning fire.

And the doors of the rear boxcars were thrown open from within. Steel planks clanged down, and the dark lurching shape of armored cars showed within. The first skidded down the ramp, landing three-quarters on, almost going over, then steadying. Its engine chuffed loudly as the wheels spun and spattered gravel against the side of the train, and then the turret traversed to send more machine-gun fire against the hillside. Squads of infantry rose and scurried into its shelter, advancing behind it as the car nosed towards the lower slopes of the hill. A grenade crunched with a malignant snap of light. Three more of the war-cars thudded to the ground, crunching through the trackside gravel.

John grabbed Arturo's shoulder. "Get the fuck out of here!" he screamed in the partisan's ear. Then to Barrjen: "Collect the rest. Time to bug out."

"Yes sir."

With a long dragon hiss, a rocket rose from the wrecked train. It kept rising, a thousand yards or more, then burst in a shower of gold—the colors of the Chosen flag, yellow on black.

* * *

"Sound the halt in place," Heinrich Hosten said, standing with his hands on his hips. "And remember, live prisoners."

Troopers were moving down the hillside under the glare of the arc light, prodding at bundles of rags with their bayonets. Occasionally that would bring a response, and the soldiers would pick up the wounded guerilla; cautiously, after the first one who'd stuffed a live grenade under his body was found.

The trumpet sounded, four urgent rising notes. A slow crackle of skirmish fire in the hill country to the west died down. In the comparative silence that followed he could hear the relief train that the signal rocket was intended for, with the rest of the battalion and its equipment. Plus the equipment and workers to repair the track, of course. It was surprisingly difficult to do lasting damage to a railway track without time or plenty of equipment.

"Shall we pursue when the rest of the battalion comes up, Brigadier?" Captain Neumann said.

"Nein," he said. "Too much chance of ambushes in the dark." He got out his map case. "But it would be advisable to push blocking forces here and here. Then in a few hours, we can sweep and see how many of these little birds we can bag."

Captain Neumann looked at the emergency aid station where her wounded were being looked after. There were four bodies with their groundsheets drawn over their faces.

"We only killed twenty or so of them," she said. "This is a bad exchange rate."

"The operation is not over," Heinrich said. "And we have taught them a little lesson, I think."

"That is the problem—when we teach them a lesson, they learn," Neumann said unexpectedly.

Heinrich shrugged. "We must see that we learn more than they," he added, knocking the dottle out of his pipe.

* * *

The cave smelled bad: damp rock, and the wastes of the survivors, since they hadn't dared go outside for the last three days. Weak daylight was leaking through, enough penetrating this far into the cave to turn the absolute blackness into a gray wash of light.

"We failed," Arturo said bitterly.

"We survived," John replied. "Enough of us. Next time we'll do better."

"So will they!" the guerilla said.

"We'll just have to learn faster," John said. "Besides, there are more of us than of them."

He looked toward the light. "Now we'd better check if their patrols are still looking," he said. "It's a fair hike back to the cove."

* * *

John Hosten's wasn't the biggest steam yacht under Santander registry, by a considerable margin; they were a common status symbol among the rising industrial magnates of the Republic. The Windstrider was only about twelve hundred tons displacement. It was the most modern, with some refinements that Center had suggested and John had made in the engineering works he owned. One of them was a wet-well entrance on the side that could be flooded or pumped dry in less than a minute, as well as turbine engines, something no vessel in the Republic's Navy had yet. The little ship lay long and sleek against the morning sun, a black silhouette outlined in crimson.

"Row! Bend yer backs to it, y'scuts!"

Smith's voice had a hard edge from the bows. John knew why; he could hear it without turning from his position at the tiller. A deep chuffing, the hollow sound steam made when exhausted into the stack of a light ship, and the soft continual surf noise of a bow wave curving away from the prow, just on the edge of hearing. The gunboat had picked them up twenty minutes ago, and it had grown from a dot on the horizon to a tiny model boat that grew as he watched, shedding a long plume of black coal smoke behind from its single cylindrical funnel.

"Stroke!" he barked, willing strength to flow from his voice through the crew to the oars. "Stroke! Almost home! Stroke!"

Sweat glistened on their faces, mouths gasping for air. A new sound came through the air, a muffled droning.

"Smith!"

One-handed, John tossed the binoculars to the ex-Marine. He took them and looked upward. "Oh, shit, sir. One of them gasbag things. Just comin' into sight, like."

"How many engine pods?"

"Four. No, four at the sides an' one sort of at the back."

"Skytiger. Patrol class," John said. Center helpfully offered schematics and performance specifications. "They've got a squadron of them operating out of Salini now."

The Windstrider was very close. John felt himself leaning forward in a static wave of tension, and grinned tautly at himself. If things went badly, the yacht was no protection at all, merely a way to get a lot of other people killed with him. And his subconscious still felt as if he was racing for absolute safety. A ghost-memory plucked at him, something not his own. Raj Whitehall spurring his riding dog for a barge, with enemies at his heels. . . .

Damn, he thought. You seem to have had a much more picturesque life than me.

Adventure is somebody else in deep shit, far, far away, Raj said. And I think you're about to be that somebody. Focus, lad, focus.

The long hull loomed up. John threw his weight on the tiller and the whaleboat heeled sharply, turning in its own length to curve around the bow and come down the side away from the Land gunboat. The narrow black slit of the loading door came up fast, perhaps too fast. . . .

"Ship oars!" he called.

The long ashwood shafts came inboard with a toss; Marines were well-trained in small-boat operations. One caught the edge of the steel slit nonetheless, snapping off and punching a rower in the ribs with enough force to bring an agonized grunt. The whaleboat shot into the gloom of the inner well; the overhead arc light seemed to grow brighter as the metal door slid shut. The air was humid, hot, with a smell of machine oil and sweat.

The crew collapsed over their oars, wheezing, faces red and dripping. John vaulted onto the sisal mats that covered the decking—an irony there, since the fiber had probably been imported from the Land—nodded in return to the crew's salutes, and took the staircase three rungs at a time. The hatchway to the boat chamber clanged shut below him; someone dogged it shut below, and a crewman threw matting over the hatch, leaving it looking identical to the rest of the corridor. He stepped through a doorway, and suddenly he was in the passenger section of the yacht. Soft colorful Sierran carpets underfoot, walnut panelling . . . by the time he reached his cabin, his valet was already towelling down his torso. He changed with rapid, precise movements, stuck a cigarette into a sea-ivory holder, and strolled out on deck.

"About bloody time," Jeffrey observed, making a show of looking at the approaching Chosen gunboat with his binoculars. "How'd it go?"

"You saw it—a damned ratfu—er, walking disaster."

Pia came up and took John's arm. "Tedeschi pigs," she muttered under her breath. Her eyes were fixed on the Chosen vessel, as well.

Good thing she's not on the guns, John thought.

There were four guns on the yacht, port and starboard forward and aft of the mid-hull superstructure. Nothing too remarkable about that; any vessel on Visager's seas had to have some armament, given the size and disposition of the marine life. The two-and-a-half-inch naval quick-firers on pedestal mounts were not entirely typical, however—nor was the fact that they could elevate to ninety degrees. Two were, their muzzles tracking the leisurely approach of the Chosen dirigible; the other two followed the gunboat. That had a three-inch gun behind a shield on the forecastle, another at the stern, and pom-poms—scaled-up machine guns firing a one-pound shell—bristling from either flank. The Chosen captain wouldn't be worried about the purely physical aspects of any confrontation, even without the airship. Although that confidence was possibly overstated, since the yacht had an underwater torpedo tube on either side.

"Try to look like a man on his honeymoon," John told his stepbrother.

"I'm trying," Jeffrey replied through clenched teeth. "He's signaling . . ." A bright light flickered from the Chosen gunboat. "Heave to and prepare to be boarded," he read. "Arrogant bastards, aren't they?"

"Jeffrey?" Lola Farr, nee Chiavri, came up the companionway to the bridge, holding on to her hat. "Is there—" She caught sight of the Chosen vessels. "Oh!"

"Don't worry," Jeffrey said. He nodded his head upward towards the pole mast in front of the yacht's funnel. The flag of the Republic of the Santander snapped in the breeze. "They're not going to start a war."

Although they might be quite willing to endure an embarrassing diplomatic accident, John thought morbidly. He wished Pia and Lola weren't along, but then, it would look odd if they weren't, given the cover story. And Pia wouldn't stay if I nailed her feet to the kitchen floor.

"Captain," John said quietly to the grizzle-bearded man who stood beside the wheel with his hands clasped behind his back. "Signal Santander ship, International Waters, and sheer off."

"Sir." He passed along the orders. "Shall I make speed?"

"No, just maintain your course," John said. The Windstrider could probably outrun the Chosen gunboat, but not the airship—or a cannon shell, for that matter. "Act naturally, everyone."

Jeffrey grinned. "Natural, under the circumstances, would be scared s—spitless."

"Act arrogant, then; the Chosen understand that."

John looked around at the bridge of the yacht. It was horseshoe-shaped, with another horseshoe within it; the inner one was enclosed, a curved waist-high wall of white-painted steel with windows above that, meeting the roof above. That held the wheel, binnacle, engine-room telegraph, and chart table. The outer semicircle was open save for a railing of teak and brass and empty save for the two couples and a few stewards. They were in cream-colored livery; Jeffrey wore a summer-weight brown colonel's uniform, and John white ducks, the sort of outfit a wealthy man might wear for playing tennis . . . or yachting. Pia and Lola were in gauzy warm-weather dresses of peach and lavender, looking expensive and haughty.

Perfect, John thought.

The gunboat was running on a converging course, white water foaming back from its bow. As he watched, it swung parallel to the yacht, almost alongside, and slowed to match speed. John smiled tightly and touched Pia's hand where it rested in the crook of his arm. She gave his arm a squeeze and released it. He took a drag on the cigarette, suppressing a cough, and strolled in a jaunty fashion to the starboard wing of the open space. His hand rested on the railing, casually touching a certain bronze fitting.

The vessels were less than a dozen yards apart—showing good handling on the part of both crews. That meant that the gunboat was less than a dozen yards from the sixteen-inch midships torpedo tube, armed and flooded. The fitting under his hand was connected to a simple bell-telegraph and light; if he pressed it twice, the men crouched behind the little circular door would pull levers . . . and a slug of high-pressure compressed air would shove the tin fish out of the tube. A few seconds and the Chosen gunboat would be a broken-backed hulk sliding under the waters.

Of course, that would ruin his cover; the airship would report back, or someone in the yacht's crew would talk even if they got lucky . . .

"Ahoy there!" a voice bellowed through a speaking trumpet from the low bridge of the gunboat. Its Santander English was accented but fluent. "'Tis iz Leutnant der See Annika Tirnwitz. Prepare to be boarded."

Cannon and pom-poms and machine guns were trained with unnerving steadiness on him, ready to rake the Windstrider into burning wreckage in seconds—about as many seconds as the torpedo would take to do its work. The gray-uniformed crew waited in motionless tension, all except for a dozen who were shouldering rifles and making ready to swing a launch from its davits. John pitched his voice to carry.

"This is sovereign territory of the Republic of the Santander. You have no authority here and any act of aggression will be resisted."

"That iz un private vessel! You do not diplomatic immunity haff!"

John pointed up to the flag. "Leutnant, you may come aboard with no more than one other member of your crew. Otherwise, I must ask you to get out of my way."

Half-heard orders carried from the gunboat to the yacht. Most of the boarding party who'd been preparing the launch grounded arms and stood easy; the little boat slid down into the water, and several figures in Land uniform slid down ropes from the gunboat's deck to man it. Smuts of black smoke broke from the slender funnel at its stern, a small steam engine chugged, and the launch angled in towards the Santander ship.

"Captain," John called over his shoulder. "Party to greet the Leutnant. And a rope ladder, if you please."

Whistles fluted as the Chosen officer came over the side. The escort for her and the Protégé seaman who followed behind were distantly polite; the rest of the crew glared. Everyone was wearing a cutlass and revolver, and carbines stood ready to hand.

Aren't you laying it on a bit thick? Jeffrey thought, the familiar mental voice relayed by Center. You're supposed to be secretly on their side, after all.

That's exactly it, John replied. A good double agent plays his part well—and my part is a wealthy playboy who dabbles in diplomacy, but who is secretly a Foreign Office spook and violently anti-Chosen.

The irony of it was that the best way to convince his Chosen handlers that he was a competent double agent was to act the way he would if he wasn't a double agent, except for his reports to them—he was an information conduit, not an agent of influence. Which meant, of course, that they could never be sure he wasn't a triple agent, but that was par for the course.

Espionage could make your head hurt.

Annika Tirnwitz was a tall lanky woman of about thirty, with a brush of close-cropped brown hair and a face tanned and weatherbeaten to the color of oiled wood. Her blue eyes were like gunsights, tracking methodically across the yacht, missing nothing. John thought he saw a little surprise at the quality of the crew and the arms, but . . .

correct, Center thought. subject tirnwitz is surprised. A holograph appeared over her face, showing temperature patterns and pupil dilation. A sidebar showed pulse rate and blood pressure. subject is also experiencing well-controlled apprehension.

"Leutnant der See Annika Tirnwitz," the Chosen said, with a slight stiff nod. "Who is in command here?"

John replied in kind. In accentless Landisch he replied: "Johan Hosten, owner-aboard. What can I do for you, Leutnant?"

subject's apprehension level has increased markedly.

Nice to know that he wasn't the only one feeling nervous here, and even nicer that he had Center to reveal what was behind that poker face. Of course, only a fool wouldn't be a little fearful of the possible consequences of a fight here. Not the physical ones—cowards didn't make it through the Test of Life—but the political repercussions. Relations between the Land and Santander had never been all that good, and since the fall of the Empire they'd gone straight down the toilet. The press back home was having a field day with the atrocity stories the refugees were bringing in; the Chosen were too insular to even try countermeasures, they didn't understand the impact that sort of thing had on public opinion in the Republic. John's own papers were leading the charge . . . and the stories were mostly true, at that.

The Chosen did understand status and territory and pissing matches, though. Sinking the yacht of a wealthy, powerful man related to a Santander Navy admiral . . .

"Herr Hosten?" Tirnwitz said. She cleared her throat. "My vessel was pursuing a small boat. Carrying subversive terrorist elements."

John made a sweeping wave of his hand. "As you can see, Leutnant, there's no boat here except our ship's lifeboats, all of which are secured and lashed down . . . and dry."

His eyes lifted slightly to the dirigible. It was much closer now, but when he'd come aboard it had been too far to the north to see what actually happened.

Tirnwitz's lips thinned in frustration. The Windstrider's boats were lashed down and tight in their davits; nobody could have hoisted one aboard in the time they'd had. Nor could a whaleboat have made it over the horizon in the yacht's shelter . . . although possibly the men on one could have scrambled aboard and pulled the plug on their boat.

He could see that thought going through Tirnwitz's head. "I must make inspection and question your crew," she said after a moment.

"Impossible," John replied.

Jeffrey moved up to his side. "And to paraphrase what my father said in Salini last year, if you want to start a war, this is as good a place as any."

Pia waved a steward forward with a tray; it looked rather incongruous when combined with the cutlass and revolver at his waist, and the short rifle slung over his shoulder.

"Perhaps the Leutnant would like some refreshments?" she said with silky malice. "Before she returns to her ship."

The sailor behind the Chosen captain growled and half moved, then sank back quivering with rage at a finger-motion from her. She stared at Pia for a moment.

"An Imperial. The animals are less insolent in the New Territories these days," she said. "Teaching them manners can be diverting." She nodded to John. "Someday we may serve Santander refreshments, a drink you'll find unpleasant. Guten tag."
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