The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER FOURTEEN




Everyone in Bassin du Sud was afraid. John Hosten could taste it, even without Center's quick flickering scans of the people passing by. The narrow crooked streets were less full of people than he'd seen on previous business visits, and the storekeepers stood at the ends of their long narrow shops, ready to drop the rolling metal curtain-doors. Windows were locked behind the scrolled ironwork of their balconies, and similar ironwork doors had been pulled across most of the narrow entranceways that led to interior courtyards. He could still get glimpses down them, the sight of a fountain or a statue in old green bronze, or a line of washing above plain flagstones.

Gerta's smile haunted him, seen through Jeffrey's eyes.

Every time he'd seen her smile like that, people started dying in job lots.

There was something else about the streets, he decided. I hope Jean-Claude is still there. Something very odd about the streets, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

few military personnel, Center said.

Bassin du Sud had a fair-sized Union garrison, plus a navy base. In fact, if he turned, he could see part of it downslope from the rise he was on. His stepfather would have gone into a cold rage at the knots hanging from the rigging of the three hermaphrodite cruisers at the dock, and the state of their upperworks, but . . .

The sound hit a huge soft pillow of air, knocking him backward. Down by the naval docks a hemisphere of fire blossomed upwards, with bits and pieces of iron and wood and crewmen from the three cruisers. A stunned silence followed the explosion, then a great screaming roar like nothing he had ever heard in his life.

A mob, Raj's mental voice said softly. That's the sound of a hunting mob.

Over it came sounds he had no problem recognizing. First a series of dull soft thuds in the distance, like very large doors slamming. Then a burbling, popping sound that went on and on, rising and falling. Artillery and small arms.

"I'm late, God damn it," he said, and began to run. Perhaps too late. The rough pavement was slippery and uncertain under his boots; he kept his right hand near the front of his jacket, ready to go for a weapon.

Careful, lad, Raj cautioned. I don't think foreigners are going to be all that popular around here right now.

The narrow street widened a little, into a small cobbled plaza the shape of an irregular polygon, with a fountain in the middle spilling water into granite horse troughs around it. A bullet spanged through the air. He dove forward and rolled into the cover of the troughs, ignoring the stone gouging at his back, and came up with the automatic ready in his hand.

A man in a monk's brown robe was staggering away from the little church on the other side of the plaza. He was a thick-bodied man, with a kettle belly and a round, plump face. A few hours earlier it might have been a good-natured face, the jolly monk too fond of the table and bottle of the stories. Now it was a mask of blood from a long cut across the tonsured scalp. Dozens of men and women in the rough blue clothing of city laborers were following the monk, jeering and poking him with sticks, spitting and kicking. The cleric's heavy body jerked to the blows, but his wide fixed eyes looked out of blood-wet skin with a desperate fixed expression, as if his mind had convinced itself that the exit to the plaza represented safety.

There was no safety for him. One of the mob tired of the fun. The pried-up cobblestone he swung must have weighed ten pounds; the monk's head burst with a sound much like a watermelon falling six stories onto pavement. He collapsed, his body still twitching beneath the brown robe. John swore softly to himself and rose, letting the pistol fall down by his side. The black crackle finish of the weapon's steel probably wouldn't show much against his frock coat . . . and while the ten rounds in the magazine also wouldn't be much good against a charging mob, he didn't intend to die alone if it came to that.

"Hey, there's one of the Chosen dog-suckers who're in bed with the elite and the Christ-suckers!" someone bawled.

"Santander!" John shouted, in a controlled roar. It cut through the murmur of this little outlier of the mob. "I'm from Santander"—though I was born in Oathtaking and my father's a general on the Council, but there's no need to complicate matters—"on diplomatic business."

He pulled out his passport with his left hand and held it up. Half the crowd probably couldn't read, much less recognize official stamps, but his accentless Fransay and his manner made them hesitate.

"I'm on my way to the Santander consulate right now," he went on, and pointed to the northward where the sound of fighting was heaviest. "Don't you people have business up there?"

The crowd milled, people talking to their neighbors; individuals once more, rather than a beast with a single mind and will. John holstered his weapon and trotted past them, past the church where flame was beginning to lick out the shattered stained-glass windows. A quick glance inside showed the chaos of swift incompetent looting and the body of a nun lying spread-eagled in a huge pool of blood from her gashed-open throat.

What lovely allies, he thought dryly, and mentally waved aside Centers comments. I know, I know.

The streets broadened as he climbed the slope above the harbor and gained the more-or-less level plateau that held the newer part of the city. The press of people grew too, crowds of them pouring in from the dock areas behind him and from the factory-worker suburbs. He dodged around an electric tram standing frozen in the middle of the street, past another burning church—from the columns of smoke, there were fires all over town—and past cars, lying abandoned or passing crammed past capacity. Those held armed men, in civilian clothes or green Assault Guard gendarmerie uniforms with black leather hats, or army and navy gear. All the men in them had red armbands, though, and some had miniature red or black flags flying from their long sword-bayonets. John cursed, kicked, and pushed his way through the crowds, but the press grew closer and closer; it was like being caught in heavy surf, or a strong river current.

Suddenly the crowd surged around him, an eddy this time. He barely cleared the corner onto the Avenue d'Armes when the shooting broke out ahead, louder this time. He was enough taller than the Unionaise crowd to see why. A dozen military steam cars had pulled up and blocked the road fifty yards ahead. They weren't armored vehicles, but they each had a couple of pintle-mounted machine guns. Infantry followed, rushing up and deploying on and around the cars. Their rifles came up in a bristle, and the crews of the machine guns were slapping the covers down and jacking the cocking levers. The fat water jackets of the automatic weapons jerked and quivered with their fearful haste.

John felt a cold rippling sensation over his belly and loins. Everything seemed to move very slowly, giving him plenty of time to consider. A man in front of him was pushing a wheelbarrow full of stones and half-bricks, ammunition for the riot which this no longer was. He squatted—there was no room to bend—gripped the man by waist and ankle, and heaved. The Unionaise pitched forward, flying over the toppling wheelbarrow and into the three men ahead of it, staggering them. They fell backward against the wood and iron in the same instant that John dove forward and down onto the bricks it spilled, into the space it had made, the only open space in the whole vast crowd.

A giant gripped a sheet of canvas in metal gauntlets and ripped. John curled himself into a ball behind the wheelbarrow and bared his teeth at the picture his mind supplied of what was happening ahead. The crowd couldn't retreat, not really, not with so many thousands behind them still pressing forward and the high blank walls on either side.

Twenty machine guns fired continuously, and several hundred magazine rifles as fast as the soldiers could work their bolts and reload. Bodies fell over the wheelbarow, over John, turning his position into a mount that kicked and twitched and bled. He heaved his back against the sliding, thrashing mass; if he let it grow he'd suffocate here, trapped beneath a half-ton of flesh. The barricade of bodies shuddered as bullets smacked home. John was blind in a hot darkness that stank with the iron-copper of blood and slimy feces and body fluids. They ran down over him, matting his clothing, running into his mouth and eyes. He heaved again, feeling his frock coat rip with the strain. Bodies slid, and a draft of fresher air brought him back to conscious thought.

Can't attract attention . . .

Through a gap he could see the rooftops beyond the barricade of war-cars. Something moved there, and something smaller flew though the air.

Crump. The dynamite bomb landed between two cars and rolled under the front wheels of one. It backflipped onto the vehicle next to it with a rending crash of glass and metal; superheated steam flayed men for yards around as the flash-boiler coils in both ruptured. Some officer with strong presence of mind was redirecting fire to the rooftops on either hand, but more dynamite bombs rained down. Crump. Crump. Crump.

There hadn't been time for panic to infect the whole mob, even though hundreds—thousands—had been killed or wounded. Not even Center could have predicted their reaction. The survivors ran forward, and John ran with them. One machine gun snarled back into action briefly, and then the forefront of the mob was scrambling over the ramp of dead and dying that stood four and five bodies deep in front of the wrecked war-cars. He dove over it headfirst, while the surviving soldiers shot down the rioters silhouetted upright on the edge. The automatic was in his hand as he knelt. A green grid of lines settled over his vision, and the aim strobed red as he swung from one target to the next. Crack. A soldier pitched backward from the spade grips of his machine gun with a round blue hole between his eyes and the back blown out of his head by the wadcutter bullet. Crack. An officer folded in the middle as if he'd been gut-punched, then slid forward to lie limply among the other dead. Crack. Crack. The slide locked back and his hands automatically ejected the empty magazine and replaced it with one from the clips attached to the shoulder-holster rig.

John blinked, breathing hoarsely. His hand shook slightly as he holstered the automatic and he blinked again and again, trying to shed the glassy sensation that made him feel like an abandoned hand-puppet.

I never liked it either, Raj said. There was the momentary image of a room in a tower, with half a dozen men sprawled in death across tables and benches. It's necessary, sometimes. Brace up, lad. Work to be done.

John nodded and wiped at the congealing blood on his face. Well, that didn't work. He stripped off his businessman's frock coat and used the relatively dry lining instead, cleaning away enough so that his eyes didn't stick shut and spitting to clear the taste out of his mouth. Then he bent to pick up a soldier's fallen rifle and bandolier; the weapon was Land-made or a copy. No, Oathtaking armory marks. He thumbed two stripper clips into the magazine and slapped the bolt home before working his way to the edge of the crowd. Not much chance his contact would be at home, but it wasn't far and he had to check.

Snipers were firing from the towers of the Bassin du Sud cathedral. The Maison Municipal was directly across from it, with improvised barricades of furniture and planter boxes full of flowers in front of the entrances and people shooting back from behind them, and from the windows above. John went down on his belly and leopard-crawled along the sidewalk from one piece of cover to the next. When he was halfway across an explosion lifted him and slammed him against the wall of the building, leaving him half-stunned as the cathedral facade slid into the square in a slow-motion collapse, falling almost vertically. Quarter-ton limestone building blocks mixed with gargoyles and fretwork and fragments of glass avalanched across the pavement. John pressed his face into the sidewalk and hoped that the plane trees and benches to his right would stop anything that bounced this far. There was a pattering of rubble, and something grazed his buttocks hard enough to sting; then a cloud of choking dust swept across him, making him sneeze repeatedly. The earthquake rumble died down, and he doggedly resumed his crawl.

Willing hands pulled him over the barricade; the crowd behind it included everyone from Assault Guards to female file clerks, armed with everything conceivable, including fireplace pokers and Y-fork kid's catapults. Many of the people there were standing on the piled furniture and cheering the ruin of the cathedral, despite the fact that hostile fire was coming from other buildings around the plaza as well. John prudently rolled to one side before coming erect, grunting slightly as his bruises twinged. An Assault Guard looked at him, unconsciously fingering the pistol at his side.

"Who are you?" he said.

"I'm here to see Jean-Claude Deschines," John replied.

"Just like that?" The gendarme had narrow eyes and a heavy black stubble. "I asked who you are."

"And I asked to see Jean-Claude. Tell him John is here with the package he was expecting."

The other man's eyes narrowed; he nodded and trotted off. John set his back against a twisting granite column and wrestled his breath and heartbeat back under control, ignoring the sporadic shooting and cheering and trying to ignore the deadly whine of the occasional ricochet making it through the barricaded windows. Ten years ago he wouldn't have been breathing hard. . . . The entrance hall was dark because of those barricades, just enough light to see the big curving staircase at its rear, and the usual allegorical murals depicting Progress and Harmony and Industry, the sort of thing the Syndicat d'Initative put up in any Unionaise town hall. One did catch his eye, a mosaic piece showing Bassin du Sud as it had looked a couple of centuries ago, with only the grim bulk of the castle on its hill, and a small walled village at its feet. That castle had been built as a base to stop Errife corsairs, back when the island pirates had virtually owned the coast, setting up bases and raiding far inland for slaves and loot.

The castle was still there. And it was the garrison HQ for the Bassin du Sud military district. The curtain walls and moats and arrowslits weren't all that relevant anymore, but there were heavy shore-defense mortars in the courtyards, Land-made breechloaders, capable of commanding the harbor if the plotters consolidated their hold on the garrison.

A tall man with a swag belly clattered down the staircase; he had a police carbine over his shoulder and a pistol thrust through the sash around his waist.

"Jean!" he roared genially, and came toward John with open arms for the hug and kiss on both cheeks that was the standard friendly greeting in the Union. At the last moment he recoiled.

John looked down briefly at his shirt. "Most of it's other people's blood," he said helpfully.

"Name of a dog! You were caught in the street fighting?"

John nodded. "Nearly got massacred by some soldiers with car-mounted machine guns, but somebody dropped dynamite on them. There seem to be a lot of explosions going on today." He jerked his head towards the doors leading out onto the plaza.

"My faith, yes," the mayor of Bassin du Sud said happily. "Copper miners. I . . . ah . . . arranged for a special train to bring in a few hundred of them from up in the hills. Ingenious fellows, aren't they?"

John nodded. They were also anarchists almost to a man, those that weren't members of the radical wing of the Travailleur party. A few years ago, when the Conservatives had been in power, they'd taken up arms in a revolt halfway between a damned violent strike and outright revolution. The government had turned General Libert's Legionnaires and Errife loose on them when the regular army couldn't put the insurrection down.

"You're going to need more than dynamite and hunting shotguns to get the garrison out of the castle. Especially if you want to do it before Libert arrives. What've you got in the way of ships to stop him crossing?"

"Three cruisers were lost."

"I saw it. Sabotage?'

The mayor nodded. "Time bombs in the magazines, we think. But there's one corsair-class commerce raider, and some torpedo boats. There were nothing but merchantmen in Errif harbor at last report."

"That's last report. He may shuttle men over by air. Chosen 'volunteers' under 'private contract.' In fact, I wouldn't put it past the Chosen to escort his troopships in with a squadron of cruisers."

"That would mean war!" The mayor's natural olive changed to a pasty gray. "War with the Republic."

"Not if they could claim a local government invited them in."

"Nobody could—"

"Mon ami, you don't know what Santander lawyers are like. They could argue the devil into the Throne of God—or at least tie everything up on the question for a year or better. Which is why you have to get some transport down to my ship; she's stuffed to the gills with rifles, machine guns, ammunition, explosives, mortars, and field-guns."

Jean-Claude nodded decisively. "Bon." He turned and began to shout orders.

* * *

Gerta Hosten put her eye to a crack in the worn planks of the boathouse. It was crowded, with the half-dozen Chosen commandos and the fishing boat pulled up on the ways, and the stink of old fish was soaked into the oak and pine timbers. The rubber skinsuit she was wearing was hot and clammy out of the water; she shrugged back the weight of the air tank on her back and peered down the docks.

"Still burning nicely," she said, looking over to the naval dockyards. "The storehouses and wharfs are burning, too. Considerate of the enemy to use wooden hulls."

Obsolete, but this was a complete backwater in military terms. All the Union's few modern warships were up in the Gut, and it would take weeks to bring any down here. By then this action would be settled, one way or another. Her companions were too well disciplined to cheer, but a low mutter of satisfaction went through them. Then someone spoke softly:

"Native coming." They wheeled and crouched, hands reaching for weapons. "It's ours."

The Unionaise knocked at the door, three quick and then two at longer intervals. One of the commandos opened it enough for him to sidle in; he looked around at the hard-set faces and swallowed uneasily.

"What news, Louis?" Gerta said, in his language. She spoke all four of Visager's major tongues with accentless fluency.

"Our men are pinned in the garrison and the seafront batteries," he said. "The syndicistes are slaughtering everyone they can catch—everyone wearing a gentleman's cravat, even, priests, nuns . . ."

The Chosen shrugged. What else would you do, when you had the upper hand in a situation like this? Louis swallowed and went on:

"And they are handing out arms to all the rabble of the city."

"Where are they getting them?" Gerta asked. According to the last reports, most of the weapons in Bassin du Sud were in the castle or the fortified gun emplacements that guarded the harbor mouth.

"There is a Santander ship in dock, one that came in a few days ago but did not unload. The cargo is weapons, all types—fine modern weapons. They are handing them out at the dock and sending wagons and trucks full of others all around the city."

"Damn," Gerta swore mildly. That would put a spanner in the gears. "Show me."

She unfolded a waterproof map of the harbor and spread it on the gunwale of the fishing boat. Louis bent over it, squinting in the half darkness until she moved it to a spot where a sliver of sunlight fell through the boards.

"Here," he said, tapping a finger down. "Quay Seven, Western Dock."

"Hmmm." Gerta measured the distance between her index and little fingers and then moved them down to the scale at the bottom of the map. "About half a mile, say three-quarters, as we'll swim."

Bassin du Sud had a harbor net, but like all harbors the filth and garbage in the water attracted marine life. And on Visager, marine life meant death more often than not. They'd already lost two members of the team.

"Nothing for it," she said. "Hans, Erika, Otto, you'll come with me. The rest of you, launch the boat and bring it here." She tapped a finger on the map; the others crowded around to memorize their positions. "Function check now."

Everyone went over everyone else's air tanks, regulators, and other gear. Hard hat suits with air pumped down a hose had been in use for fifty or sixty years, but this equipment was barely out of the experimental stage.

"Air pressure."

"Check."

"Regulator and hose."

"Check."

"Spear-bomb gun."

"Check."

"Mines."

"Check and ready."

The last of the foot-thick disks went into the teardrop-shaped container, and the man in charge of it adjusted the internal weights that kept it at neutral buoyancy Gerta pulled the goggles down over her face and put the rubber-tasting mouthpiece between her lips. She checked her watch: 18:00 hours, two hours until sunset. Ideal, if nothing held them up seriously. Lifting her feet carefully to avoid tripping on her fins, she waded into the water.

* * *

The Merchant Venture had her deck-guns manned and ready when John leapt off the running board of the truck and down onto the dock at the foot of the gangway. She also had full steam up and her deck-cranes rigged to unload cargo.

"Go!" John said, trotting towards the deck.

"Is that you, sir?" Barrjen blurted.

The blood on his face must look even more ghastly now that it had a chance to dry.

"Not mine," he said again. "Get the first load down on the dock," he went on. "Get some crewmen up here and form a chain to hand rifles and bandoliers down to anyone who comes up and asks for one."

The ex-Marine blinked at that, but slung his own weapon and began barking orders. It was a relief sometimes, having someone who didn't argue with you all the time.

Stevedores were pushing rail flats onto the tracks alongside the Santander merchant ship; Jean-Claude had gotten them out of the fighting and moving fast enough. Steam chugged and a winch whirred with a smell of scorched castor oil on the deck ahead of the ship's central island bridge. The crates coming out of the hold were the heavier stuff: field-guns and mortars and their ammunition. More trucks were arriving, honking their air-bulb horns, and growing crowds of people with Assault Guards to shove them into some sort of line.

"Damndest fucking way—begging your pardon, sir—I've ever seen of unloading a ship," Adams, the vessel's first mate, said unhappily.

"No alternative at present," John said.

He lifted his eyes to the hills. Chateau du Sud was invisible from here, all but the pepperpot roof of one of the towers. That gave them direct observation for the fall of shot, though; and those 240mm Schlenki Emma up there could drop their shells right through the deck. When the stored ammunition and explosives went off, it would make the destruction of the Unionaise cruisers earlier in the day look like a fart in a teacup.

Long narrow crates full of rifles and short square ones full of ammunition began going down the gangways hand to hand, then out into the eager crowd. John restrained an impulse to get into the chain and swing some weight, and another to look up at the castle again. Nothing he could do now but wait. At least there was also nothing the rebels or their Chosen backers could do to him either, except fire those guns . . . and they didn't seem to suspect what was going on. Yet.

* * *

The harbor water was murky and dark, tasting of oil and rot. Gerta felt the reach of the tentacle before she saw it, flicking up from the mud and scattered debris of the bottom, thick as a big man's arm and coated on one side with oval suckers and barbed bone hooks. The back of it buffeted her aside, tumbling her through the water like a stick. It wrapped itself around Hans Dieter with the snapping quickness of a frog's tongue closing around a fly. Then it jerked him downward, screaming through the muffling water. Blood and gouting air bubbles trailed behind him; so did the streamlined container of limpet mines, anchored by a stout cord to his waistbelt.

Scheisse, Gerta thought.

Her body reacted automatically, stabilizing her spin, jackknifing and plunging downward as fast as her fins could drive her. The darkness grew swiftly, but the creature was moving upward with its strike. Ten meters long, a torpedo shape with a three-lobed tail; the mouth had three flaps as well, fringed with teeth like ivory spikes around a rasping sucker tongue, with a huge reddish eye above each. The tentacles were threefold. A second had closed around Hans' legs, pulling his legs loose from his torso and guiding them into the sausage-machine maw. The third lashed out at her.

She whirled, poising the speargun, and fired. A slug of compressed air sent the bulbous-headed spear flashing down and kicked her back; she could feel the schunnnk as the mechanism cycled in her hands. The spear slammed into the base of the tentacle just as the hooks slashed through her skinsuit and tore at her flesh. She shouted into the rubber of the mouthpiece, tasting water around it, and curled herself into a ball. The shock of the explosion thumped at her, sending her spinning off into the murky water.

It had been muffled by flesh. There was inky-looking blood all around her. She extended arms and legs frantically to kill the spin. That saved her life; the long shape of the killer piscoid floundered by where she would have been, flailing the water with its two intact tentacles, mouth gaping. Gerta fought to control her speargun while the creature bent itself double to attack again. There was a crater in the rubbery flesh where its third tentacle had been, gouting blood into the water, but that didn't seem to be fazing it much. The mouth opened as broad as the reach of her arms, the other two tentacles trailing back in its wake and still holding bits of Hans. Some crazed corner of her mind wondered if it was coming at her or up at her or down . . .

No matter. One last chance . . . she fired.

The mouth closed in reflex as something entered it. Swallowing was equally automatic. This time she had a perfect view of the consequences. The smooth body behind the eyes was as thick as her own torso. Now it belled out like a gun barrel fired when the weapon's muzzle was stuffed with dirt. The mouth flew open the way a flower did in stop-motion photography, with bits and pieces of internal organ and of Hans Dieter shooting out at her. The predator fish drifted downward, quivering and jerking as its nervous system fired at random.

Got to get out of here, she thought. The blood and vibrations would attract scavengers from all over the harbor. And then: Where are the mines?

Otto swam up pulling the container, Gerta felt her shoulders unknot in relief, enough that she was dizzy and nauseous for an instant before control clamped down. It had been so quick . . . and Hans had been a good troop. She grabbed a handhold on the other side of the container and signaled to Elke with her free hand, telling her to take over the watch. It would be faster with two pulling, and they'd lost time.

The additional risk was something they'd just have to take.

* * *

"About half done," John said to himself.

He half turned to speak to Adams when the deck surged under his feet. Water spouted up between the dock and the hull, a fountain surge that drenched the whole front of the ship. Seconds later the hull shuddered again, and another mass of water fell across her midships; and a third, this time at the stern. Dead sea-things bobbed to the surface.

John looked up reflexively. But there had been no sound of a heavy shell dropping across the sky. Torpedo? his mind gibbered. There wasn't more than a yard or two between dock and hull . . .

a mine, Center said. attached to the hull by strong magnets, put in place by divers with artificial breathing apparatus. probability approaches unity.

Crewmen vomited out of the hatches, screaming. A second wave came a few seconds later, dripping and sodden with seawater, some of them dragging wounded crewmates. John stood staring blankly, fists squeezing at either side of his head. Then the deck began to tilt towards the quayside, scores of tons of water dragging the port rail down. His ears rang, so loudly that for a moment he couldn't hear Barrjen's shouted questions.

John shook his head like a wet dog and grabbed Adams' shoulder. "Where are the starboard stopcocks?" he said, then screamed it into the man's ear until the expression of stunned incredulity faded.

"What?"

"The stopcocks! We've got to counterflood or she'll capsize!"

"But if we flood, she'll fookin' sink."

"There's only ten feet of water under her keel; we can salvage the cargo and float her later, but if we don't flood she'll capsize, man. Now!"

He could feel the force of his will penetrate the seaman's mental fog. "Right," the mate said, wiping a hand across his face. "This way."

"I'll come, sir," Barrjen said.

"Good man. Let's go."

The companionway down from the bridge was steep and slippery with oily soot from the funnels at the best of times. Now it was canted over at thirty degrees, and John went down it in a controlled fall. The hatchway below flapped open, abandoned in the rush to get away from the waters pouring through the rent hull. He dropped through it into water already ankle-deep, bracing himself against the wall with one hand to keep erect on the tilting deck.

"Don't tell me," he said as Adams staggered beside him. "The stopcocks are on the other side of the ship."

"Yessir."

"No time like the present," John said grimly, and gave him a boost forward. The trip across the beam of the ship became steadily more like a climb. Adams staggered ahead, pushed from behind by John and the ex-Marine. At last they came to a complex of wheels and pipes.

"That one!" Adams shouted, pointing. Then he looked down the side of the ship. "Oh, Jesus, the barnacles are showing—Jesus Son of God, Mary Mother, she's going to go over."

"No she isn't," John said, fighting off a moments image of drowning in the dark with air only a few unreachable feet away through the hull. He spat on his hands. "Let's do it."

The spoked steel wheel was about a yard in diameter, locked by a chain and pin. Adams snatched it out, and John locked his hands on the wheel. It moved a quarter of an inch, stopped, moved again, halted. John braced a foot against the wall and heaved until his muscles crackled and threatened to tear loose from his pelvis.

"Jammed," Adams said. "Must've jammed—shaft torqued by the explosion."

"Then we'll unjam it."

John looked around. Resting in brackets on the side of the central island of the ship were an ax, sledgehammer, and prybar.

"Jam these through the spokes," he said briskly. "Here and here. Now both of you together, heave."

They strained; there was silence except for grunts of effort and the distant shouts on the dock. Then the ax handle snapped across with a gunshot crack. Barrjen skipped aside with a curse as the axhead whipped past him and bounced off the wall, leaving a streak of shiny metal scraped free of paint on the wall.

"Fuck this," John shouted.

He snatched the sledgehammer from Adams hands, jammed the crowbar firmly in place, and braced himself to strike. That was difficult; the ship was well past its center of gravity now, A few more minutes, and the intakes for the flood valves would be above the surface. That would happen seconds before she went over.

Clung. The vibrating jolt shivered painfully back up his arms, into his shoulders, starting a pain in the small of his back. He took a deep breath as the sledge swung up again, focused, exhaled in a grunt of total concentration as the hammer came down. Clung. Clung. Clung.

Adams' nerve broke and he fled back up the ladder. Two strikes later Barrjen spoke, at first a breathy whisper as he stared at the wheel with sweat running down his face.

"She's moving." Then a shout: "The boor's moving!"

It was; John had to reposition himself as it turned a quarter revolution. Easier now. He flung the sledgehammer aside and pulled the crowbar free, grabbing at the wheel with his hands. Barrjen did likewise on the other side. Both men strained at the reluctant metal, faces red and gasping with the effort, bodies knotted into straining statue-shapes. The wheel jerked, moved, jerked. Then spun, faster and faster.

A new sound came from beneath their feet, a vibrating rumble.

"Either that works, or she's already too far gone," John gasped. "Let's see from the dock."

There was a crowd waiting. They cheered as John and the stocky ex-Marine jumped from the tilted deck to the wharfside, a score of hands reaching to steady them. John ignored the babbled questions. He did take a proffered flask of brandy, sipping once or twice before handing it back and never taking his eyes from the ship.

"She's not tilting any further," Barrjen said.

"And she's settling fast."

Four minutes and the decks were awash. Another and they heard a deep rumbling bong, a sound felt through the soles of their feet more than through the ears. The funnels, central island and crane-masts of the merchantman trembled through a thirty-degree arc to a position that was nearly vertical as the relatively flat bottom of the ship rolled it nearly upright on the mud of the harbor bottom.

John flexed his hands and took a deep breath. "Right," he said, when the cheers died down. "Get some small explosive charges here, we'll want to kill off any sea life." Scavengers were swarming in. "We'll need diving suits, air pumps, more ropes. Get moving!"

He looked up into the darkening evening sky, then over towards the castle. He was just in time to see the great bottle-shaped spearhead of flame show over the courtyard walls. The siege howitzers were in action at last. His shoulders tensed as he listened to the whirring, ripping sound of the shell's passage, toning lower and lower as it approached. The three-hundred-pound projectile came closer, closer . . . then went by overhead. John pivoted on one heel, part of a mass movement that turned the crowd like sunflowers following the sun across the sky. A red gout of flame billowed up from the gun batteries holding the approaches to the harbor. Seconds later the other heavy howitzer in the castle fired, and the high-velocity guns in the batteries were in fixed revetments. They couldn't be turned to face the castle, and wouldn't be able to elevate that high if they did. . . .

"I'll be damned," John said softly. "The garrison went over to the government side."

Probably after killing all their officers. The Unionaise regular army was short-service conscript.

Barrjen pounded him on the back. "We won, eh, sir? Goddam."

John shook his head. "We won some time." He looked at the celebrating crowd. "Let's see if we can get the snail-eaters to make some use of it."
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