The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER SIXTEEN




"What news from the academy?"

Libert's aide smiled. "The report from Commandant Soubirous is nothing to report, my general."

The pudgy little man nodded seriously and tapped his map. There was enough sunlight through the western entrance of the tent to show clearly what he meant; the Union Military Academy was located at Foret du Loup, out on the rolling plateau country, between the mountains and Unionvil.

"When we have cleared the passes through the Monts du Diable, we must send a column—a strong column—to the relief of the academy. The Reds must not be allowed to crush Commandant Soubirous and the gallant cadets."

Heinrich Hosten coughed discreetly. "My general," he said, in fluent but accented Fransay. "Surely we should be careful not to disperse our forces away from the main schwerepunkt? Ah, the point of primary effort, that is."

"I am familiar with the concept," Libert said.

He looked at the Chosen officer; the foreigner was discreetly dressed in the uniform of a Union Legion officer, without rank tabs but with a tiny gold-on-black sunburst pin on the collar of his tunic.

"Yes, my general," Heinrich said.

"However, this will probably be a long war—and it is perhaps better that way," Libert said. The Chosen in the room reacted with a uniform calm that hid identical surprise. The Unionaise commander smiled thinly.

"This is a political as well as a military struggle. A swift victory would leave us with all the elements that brought on the crisis intact. A steady, methodical advance means that we do not simply defeat but annihilate all the un-Unionist elements. And it gives us time and opportunity to thoroughly cleanse the zones behind our lines, in wartime conditions."

"As you say, sir," Heinrich said. "That presupposes, however, that we succeed in getting out of this damned valley to begin with."

"I have confidence in the plan you and my staff have worked out," Libert said, turning back to the map.

Heinrich ducked his head and left the tent. "Damned odd way of looking at it," he said to Gerta.

"Sensible, actually," Gerta said, smiling and shaking her head, "when you look at it from his point of view. We could stand being a little more methodical ourselves; this whole operation here has the flavor of an improvisation, to me."

They stopped for a moment to watch Protégé workmen and Chosen engineers assembling armored cars from crated parts sent up by rail.

"It's an opportunity," Heinrich said after a while.

"Its a temptation," Gerta said. "We've had less than a decade to consolidate our hold on the Empire—"

"Nine years, six months, two days, counting from the attack on Corona," Heinrich said with a smile of fond reminiscence.

"Quibbler." She punched him lightly on his shoulder. "We should wait for a generation at least before taking on Santander. And this is probably going to mean war with the Republic eventually, if our little friend"—she jerked her head back at the tent—"wins."

"They're getting stronger, too," Heinrich pointed out. "You know the production problems we're having with labor from the New Territories."

"Yes, but we've got the staying power. We don't have an underlying need to believe the world is a warm, fuzzy-pink playground where everyone's nice down deep except for a few villains who'll be defeated at the end of the story. We can get the animals working well enough, given enough time—and the Santies will go to sleep and let down their guard if we don't make obvious threats."

"We're not threatening them, strictly speaking."

"Land forces on their border? Even a Santy can't convince himself that's not a threat. We're waking a sleeping giant, and stiffening his backbone."

Heinrich shrugged. "But if we beat the Santies, everything else is mopping up. Anyway, it's a matter for the Council, nein?"

"Jawohl. Orders are orders. Let's get this battle done."

Heinrich smiled more broadly. "Actually, you've got a different job."

"Oh?"

"Libert's pretty taken with this academy thing. He'd probably spend six months avenging the place and the gallant cadets if it fell, which would be an even worse diversion of effort than marching to relieve it. So we'd better make sure it doesn't fall. . . ."

"Shays."

* * *

"And how are you, sir?" the train steward asked. "Not so great," John mumbled. "Drink, please—water, something like that."

"Sir."

The steward bowed silently as he left the compartment. The revolution hadn't reached this part of the Union yet, evidently. Or perhaps it was just that this was a Santander-owned railway, and close to the border, and John was evidently rich enough to command a whole first-class compartment for himself, and another for half a dozen tough-looking armed men.

The view out the window was much like the eastern provinces of the Republic outside the cities. An upland basin surrounded by mountains with snow gleaming at their tops, the peaks to the west turning crimson with sunset. Grass, tawny with summer, speckled with walking cactus and an occasional clubroot, smelling warm and dusty but fresher than the lowlands to the east. Herds of red-coated cattle and shaggy buffalo and sheep, with herdsmen mounted and armed guarding them. Occasionally a ranch house, with its outbuildings and whitewashed adobe walls; more rarely a stretch of orchards and cultivated fields around a stream channeled for irrigation, very rarely a village or mine with its cottages and church spire.

It looked intensely peaceful. A hawk stooped at a rabbit flushed by the chufchufchuf of the locomotive, and the carriage swayed with the clacking passage of the rails. John wiped sweat from his forehead and touched the arm in its sling with gingerly fingers, wincing a little. Better, definitely better—he'd thought he was going to lose it, for a while—but still bad. Thank God the doctor had believed what he said about debriding wounds, but then, a massive bribe never hurt.

Home soon, he thought.

The door to the compartment opened again: the steward, immaculate in white jacket and gloves, with a tray of iced lemonade. Behind him were the worried faces of Smith and Barrjen.

"You all right, sir?"

"I would be if people stopped bothering me!" John snapped, then waved a hand. "Sorry. I'm recovering, but I need rest. Thank you for asking."

The two men withdrew with mumbled apologies as the steward unlatched the folding table between the seats and put the tray on it. John took a glass of the lemonade and drank thirstily, then put the cold tumbler to his forehead.

"Shall I put down the bunk, sir?"

John shook his head. "In a little while. Come back in an hour."

"Will you be using the dining car, sir?"

His stomach heaved slightly at the thought. "No. A bowl of broth and a little dry toast in here, if you would." He slipped across a Santander banknote. "In a while."

The steward smiled. "Glad to be of assistance, Your Excellency."

John closed his eyes. When he opened them again with a jerk it was full night outside, with only an occasional lantern-light to compete with the frosted arch of stars and the moons. The collar of his shirt and jacket were soaked with sweat, but he felt much better . . . and very thirsty. He drank more of the lemonade, and pushed the bell for the steward to bring his soup.

I must be reaching second childhood, and I'm not even thirty-five, he thought. Making all this fuss over a superficial wound and a little fever.

Nothing little about a wound turning nasty, Raj said in his mind. I've seen too much of that.

There was a brief flash of hands holding a man down to blood-stained boards. He thrashed and screamed as the bone-saw grated through his thigh, and there was a tub full of severed limbs at the end of the makeshift operating table. Unlike Center's scenarios, Raj's memories carried smell as well; the sickly-sweet oily rot of gas gangrene, this time.

You even had Center worried for a while.

calculations indicate a 23% reduction in the probability of a favorable outcome if John hosten is removed from the equation at this point, Center said. such analysis does not constitute "worry."

How's Jeff doing? he asked.

observe:

and he was looking through his foster-brothers eyes.



Evidently Jeffrey was out making a hands-on inspection, riding a horse along behind the Loyalist lines. Scattered clumps might be a better way to put it than "lines" John thought.

Oh, hi, Jeffrey replied. How's it going?

He pulled up the horse behind a large bonfire. Militiamen and some women were lying around it; a few hardy souls were asleep, others toasting bits of pungent sausage on sticks over the fire, eating stale bread, drinking from clay bottles of wine and water, or just engaging in the universal Unionaise sport of argument. The rifle pits they'd dug were a little further south, and their weapons were scattered about. Perhaps three-quarters were armed, with everything from modern Union-made copies of Santander magazine rifles to black-powder muzzle loaders like something from the Civil War three generations back. One anarchist chieftain had a bandanna around his head, two bandoliers of ammunition across the heavy gut that strained his horizontally striped shirt, three knives, a rifle, and two pistols in his sash.

There was even a machine gun, well dug in behind a loopholed breastwork of sandbags.

Well, somebody knows what they're doing, John observed.

Jeffrey nodded. The Union had compulsory military service; in theory the unlucky men were selected by lot, but you could buy your way out. Any odd collection of working-class individuals like this would have some men with regular army training.

He looked up at the stars; John opened his own eyes, and there was an odd moment of double sight—the same constellations stationary here, and through the window of the moving train four hundred miles northwest. That put Jeffrey in a perfect position to see the starshell go off.

Pop. The actinic blue-white light froze everything in place for an instant, just long enough to hear the whistle of shells turn to a descending ripping-canvas roar.

Jeffrey reacted, diving off the horse into the empty pit behind the machine gun. The guns were light, from the sound of the crumping explosions of the shells, but that wouldn't matter at all if he was in the path of a piece of high-velocity casing.

Somebody else slid in with him, in the same hug-the-bottom-of-the hole posture. They waited through seconds that seemed much longer, then lifted their head in the muffled silence of stunned ears. More starshells burst overhead. . . .

"Five-round stonk," Jeffrey said. A short burst at the maximum rate of fire the gunners could manage. Which meant . . .

An instant later he collided with the other occupant of the hole as they both leapt for the spade grips of the machine gun. "Feed me!" Jeffrey snarled, using his weight and height to lever the Unionaise soldier—it must be the veteran, the one who'd dug the weapon in—aside.

There was light enough to see, thanks to the rebel starshell. The nameless Unionaise ripped open the lid of a stamped-metal rectangular box. Inside were folds of canvas belt with loops holding shiny brass cartridges; he plucked out the end of the belt with its metal tab. Jeffrey had the cover of the feed-guide open and their hands cooperated to guide the belt through as if they had practiced for years. The Unionaise yanked his hand aside as Jeffrey slapped the cover down and jerked the cocking lever back twice, until the shiny tab of the belt hung down on the right side of the weapon.

"Feed me!" he snapped again—it was important for the loader to keep the belt moving evenly, or the gun might jam.

The whole process had taken perhaps twenty seconds. When he looked up to acquire a target, figures in stripped kaftans were sprinting forward all across his front, horribly close. Close enough to see the white snarl of teeth in swarthy, bearded faces and hear individual voices in their shrieking falsetto war cry.

Must've crawled up, his mind gibbered as his thumbs clamped down on the butterfly trigger.

The thick water jacket of the gun swept back and forth, firing a spearhead of flame into the darkness; the starshells were falling to earth under their parachutes, none replacing them. Errife mercenaries fell, some scythed down by the hose of glowing green tracer, some going to ground and returning fire. Muzzle flashes spat at him, and he heard the flat crack of rounds going overhead. Other rifles were firing, too, where militiamen had made it back to their foxholes or started firing from wherever they lay. One jumped up out of the blankets he'd been sleeping in and ran out into the beaten ground, making it a hundred yards southward before his blind panic met a bullet.

"Jesus, there are too many of them!" Jeffrey said, swinging the barrel to try and break up concentrations. The Errife came forward like water through a dam built of branches, flowing around anything hard, probing for empty spots. He fired again and again, clamping down the trigger for short three-second bursts, spent brass tinkling down to roll underfoot and be trodden into the dirt.

A dim figure tumbled into the slit trench with them. The Unionaise soldier dropped the ammunition belt and snatched up an entrenching tool stuck into the soft earth of the trench side and began a chopping stroke that would have buried it in the newcomer's head.

"It's me! Francois!"

With a grunt of effort the first man turned the shovel aside, burying it again in the earth.

"You're late," he panted, turning back to the box. "Get your rifle and make yourself useful."

There was nothing but moonlight and starlight to shoot by now. Just enough to see the stirring of movement to his front.

"What's your name?" Jeffrey said, between bursts.

"Henri," the loader said. "Henri Trudeau." Then: "Watch it!"

Something whirred through the air. They both ducked; behind them Francois stood for a few fatal seconds, still fumbling with the bolt of his rifle. The grenade thumped not far above the lip of the machine gun nest. There was a wet sound from behind them, and Francois' body slumped down. Jeffrey didn't bother to look; he knew what the spray of moisture across the back of his neck came from. Instead, he pushed himself back up while the dust was still stinging his eyes, drawing the automatic pistol at his waist.

An Errife was pointing his rifle at Jeffrey's head from no more than three feet away. He froze for an instant, so close to the enemy trooper that he could hear the tiny click of the firing pin. The rifle did not fire. Bad primer, Jeffrey thought, while his hand brought up the pistol. Crack. The barbarian flopped backwards. Crack. A miss, and the next one was on him, long curved knife flashing upward at his belly. Jeffrey yelled and twisted aside, clubbing at the Errife's head with his automatic. It thumped on bone, muffled by the headcloth twisted around the mercenary's skull. Jeffrey grabbed for his knife wrist and struck twice more with frantic strength, until the robed man slumped back against the rear wall of the trench and Jeffrey jammed the muzzle of his pistol into his stomach and pulled the trigger twice.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jeffrey saw Henri's entrenching tool flashing again and again, used like an ax. The impacts were soft blubbery sounds, underlain by crunching.

"Cochon," the Unionaise wheezed. "Morri, batard—"

"He is dead," Jeffrey said. Henri wheeled, shovel raised, then let it fall. "Now let's get out of here."

The volume of fire was slackening, but the ululating screech of the Errife rose over it—and other voices, screaming in simple agony. The islanders liked to collect souvenirs.

"You go get things in order," Henri said. Til man this gun. You do your job and I'll do—"

"Jesus Christ in a starship couldn't get any order here," Jeffrey said. "Let's get moving. This isn't going to be the last battle."

Henri stared at him for an instant, his face unreadable in the dark. "Bon," he said at last. "Voyons."

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN




"Nothing to report, nothing to report, nothing to fucking report—you had me stuck there for three damned months."

Gerta knocked back a shot of banana gin and followed it with a draught of beer, savoring the hot-cold wham contrast of flavors. The place had been a nobleman's townhouse before the Chosen took Ciano and the Empire with it, and an officer's transit station-cum-club since. Gerta and her husband were sitting on the outdoor terrace, separated from the street by a stretch of clipped grass and a low wall of whitewashed brick. It was hot with late summer, but nothing beside the sticky humidity of this time of year in the Land, and there was an awning overhead. She reached moodily for another chicken, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. At least it wasn't rotten horsemeat, and she'd gotten rid of the body lice.

"And there wouldn't have been anything but a bloody hole in the ground to report at Libert's precious Academy, if I hadn't been there," she said. "The froggie imbecile supposedly in command didn't even remember elementary tricks like putting out plates of water in the basement to detect the vibrations of sappers trying to dig under the walls. And I had to practically stick a knife in his buttocks to get him to listen."

"Still, I hear that got exciting," Heinrich said. "The countermining."

"Too exciting," Gerta said dryly, remembering.

cold wet darkness, water seeping through the belly of her uniform. Squirming down like birth in reverse, and then the dirt crumbling away ahead of her, falling through into the enemy tunnel, slamming against a timber prop, the man's mouth making an O in the dim light of the lanterns as she brought her automatic up . . .



"What took you so long?" she asked again.

"Well, you were the one who thought there was something to Libert's 'methodical' approach," Heinrich said reasonably. He lit his pipe and blew a smoke ring skyward, watching as the shapes of dirigibles heading for the landing field passed across it. "We took so long because every time we took a village we'd stop to shoot everyone suspicious, then everyone Libert's police could winkle out, then waited while Libert appointed everyone from the mayor down to the sewer inspector and checked that things were working smoothly."

"Got stopped butt-cold outside Unionvil, too," Gerta said. "By Imperials, of all things."

"By the Freedom Brigades," Heinrich corrected. He closed the worked pewter lid of his S-shaped pipe and reached for a sandwich. "Imperial refugees, Santies, some Sierrans, Santy officers, damned good equipment and so-so training. But plenty of enthusiasm."

"Well, what are we going to do about it?" Gerta demanded. "I've been working internal-security liaison since I got back."

"Two can play at that game," Heinrich said with satisfaction. "That's why I'm back here. We're going to 'Volunteer'—"

Pop.

The small spiteful crack on the sidewalk outside was almost inaudible under the traffic noise. Gerta was out of her chair and halfway across the lawn with a single raking stride; Heinrich was too big a man to be quite as graceful, but he was less than two paces behind her at the start and they vaulted the wall in tandem, landing facing each way with their automatics out.

A woman ran into Gerta, looking back over her shoulder. She bounced off the Chosen as if she had run into a wall; Gerta grabbed and struck twice, punching with clinical precision. Something tinkled metallically, and the Imperial Protégé collapsed to the brick sidewalk, her face turning scarlet as she struggled to suck breath through a paralyzed diaphragm. Behind her the dense crowd had scattered like mercury on dry ice, leaving a Chosen officer lying facedown. He was doggedly trying to crawl forward when Heinrich stooped over him.

"Lie still," he said. The bark of command penetrated the fog of pain; Heinrich cut cloth and wadded it into a pressure bandage. "Bullet wound, left of the spine, just south of the ribs. Looks nasty."

Gerta came up, nostrils flaring slightly at the iron scent of blood. There was no fecal smell, so the intestine hadn't been perforated, but there were too many essential organs and big blood vessels in that part of the body for comfort. She was dragging the Protégé woman by one ankle, and holding something in the other.

Heinrich looked at it and almost laughed. It was like a child's sketch of a pistol; a short tube, a wire outline for a grip and another piece of wire to act as a spring and drive a striker home on the single cartridge within.

"What sort of weapon is that?" he asked.

"It's not a weapon, it's an assassination tool. One shot and you throw it away; just the thing for killing a straw boss, or one of us on a crowded street."

Heinrich's features clamped down to a mask. After a moment he said: "Wouldn't have thought the Santies would come up with that."

"They're nasty when they get going," Gerta said. "We've been finding more and more of these. The problem is tracing back the chain of contacts. This animal will tell us something, perhaps."

"Indeed."

They looked up; a medic had arrived, with two Land-born Protégé assistants, and a man in civilian clothes. The long leather coat might as well have been a uniform: Fourth Bureau.

"That was quick," Gerta said neutrally. Not the time for another intercouncil pissing match, she told herself. This was their turf.

"Not quick enough. We had some information, but clearly it was insufficient."

The woman had recovered enough breath to recognize what was standing over her. She tried to crawl away, then screamed when he stamped on her hand.

It died away to a whimper when he knelt beside her and held up something: a jointed metal like a gynecologist's speculum, but with a toothed clamp on the end. Gerta recognized it, an interrogation instrument designed to be inserted in the subject's vagina, clamped on the uterus and tear it out with one strong pull.

"Now, my dear, I would like to ask you some questions," the secret policeman said. "And you would like to avoid pain . . . and there is so much pain you can feel." His hand clamped on her jaw. "No, no, you cannot bite off your tongue. Not yet."

Heinrich stood as the specialists staunched the bleeding of the wounded man, set up a saline drip, and began to ease him onto the stretcher. An unmarked police car drew up as well; the woman was drugged with a swift injection and thrown into the wire cage at the back.

"My oath, but going back into combat down in the Union looks better and better," he said.

Gerta looked morosely at the bloodstain on the deserted sidewalk. "Better and better, but where's it leading?"

"We'll win, of course."

"We won here."

Heinrich hesitated. "You know, you've got a point." He shrugged. "It's the Santies behind all this. If we finish them off, we can pacify successfully."

* * *

"Come on baby, you can do it," Jeffrey crooned.

The dogfight had swirled away into patchy cloud to the west; all he could see were two plumes of smoke rising from the ground where planes had augered in. The engine coughed again, a skip in its regular beat that produced a sympathetic lurch in his own heart. He banked gently over the zigzag trenches that scarred the land below, breaking into knots of strongpoints and bunkers in the ruined buildings of the university complex just south of Unionvil. Even now he shivered slightly at the sight of them; the winter fighting there had been ghastly, stopping the last Nationalist offensive in the very outskirts of the capital city.

"Come on," he said again.

Bits of fabric were streaming back from the cowling and upper wing of his Liberty Hawk II, ripping off as the slipstream worried at the bullet holes. That wasn't his main concern; the Mark I had sometimes had the whole wing cover peel off in circumstances like this, giving the remaining fuselage the aerodynamics of a brick in free-fall, but the new model was sturdier. He really didn't like the sound the engine made, though. Slowly, carefully, he brought the little fighter around and began to descend towards the landing field. Only a mile or two now . . .

And the engine coughed again and died. "Shit," he said with resignation, and yanked at the tab to cut the fuel supply. Then: "Shit!" as he looked down and saw a thickening film of gasoline in the bottom of the cockpit. "I hate it when things like that happen!"

Make a note to write to the design team, Raj prompted. If it had been Center, he would have taken that literally. . . .

A few black puffs of antiaircraft fire blossomed around him. Friendly fire, which was just as dangerous as the opposition's. It petered out; someone must have noticed the red-white-and-blue rondels on his wings, the mark of the Freedom Brigades' Air Service. Then the X shape of the field came into view over a low ridge, a ridge uncomfortably close to the fixed undercarriage. He concentrated on the white line of lime down the center of the graded dirt runway, ignoring the crash-truck that was speeding out to meet him with men clinging to its sides and standing on the running boards. A pom-pom in a circular pit near the edge of the runway tracked him, its twin six-foot barrels looking bloated in their water jackets, but at least that bunch seemed to keep their eyes open—a single fighter of Santander design with its prop stationary was hard to mistake for a Chosen or Nationalist raiding group, but every now and then a gun crew with active imaginations managed it.

Lower. Lower. Wind whistling through the wires and struts, flapping his scarf behind him. Lower . . . touch. The hard rims of the wheels ticked at the ground in a scurf of dry dirt and gravel, ticked again, settled with a rattling thud. The unpowered aircraft slowed rapidly to a halt. Jeffrey snapped open his belts and swung out to the lower wing, then to the ground, and lumbered away as fast as the weight of the parachute and the fleece-lined leather flight suit would let him.

"Motherfucking son of a bitch!" he shouted, throwing the leather helmet and goggles to the ground, followed by the parachute.

"You all right?"

That was one of the Wong brothers. Jeffery rounded on him. "The interrupter gear still isn't working right," he said as the crew from the crash truck swarmed over the Hawk, fire extinguishers at the ready.

"My guns both jammed. Which left me a sitting duck. And the fuel lines are still leaking into the pilot's compartment when the integral tank gets cut—do you have any fucking idea how good that is for pilot morale?"

Wong made soothing motions with his hands. "As soon as we can get more rubber, we can make the tanks self-sealing," he said.

Jeffrey snorted. The Land had all the natural rubber on Visager—the only places that could grow it were the Land itself and the northernmost peninsula of what had once been the Empire. John's factories were just beginning to produce a trickle of synthetic rubber from oil, but it was fiendishly expensive and the Land would cut off the natural type the minute their extremely efficient spies caught Santander using it for military purposes.

Crazy war, he thought. We're fighting here in the Union, but it's all "volunteers" and normal trade goes on.

"And the latest Land fighter is still better than ours."

"The triplane?" Wong said with interest.

"Yes, the Skyshark. It's almost as fast as our Mark II and it's got a better turning radius in starboard turns."

Wong took out a notepad and began to scribble as they walked back towards the squadron HQ; behind them the crew hitched up the plane and pulled it away towards the hangar and revetments, half a dozen walking behind with a grip on its wings to steady it. A group was waiting for Jeffrey.

"You should not risk yourself so, General Farr," General Pierre Gerard said.

"You must be really pissed, Pierre; you never call me that otherwise."

The loyalist officer shrugged, a very Unionaise gesture. "Still, it is true. And someone must tell you."

You, John, my wife, and my two invisible friends, Jeffrey thought. And I can never get away from those two.

"I have to have hands-on experience to work effectively with the designers," he said, looking over his shoulder for Wong. The little engineer and ex-bicycle manufacturer was trotting off to take a look at the shot-up Mark II. "Also to help refine our tactics for the pilot schools. We're sending them up with less than thirty hours' flight time, so at least we should be teaching them the right things."

They walked into the HQ, a spare temporary structure of boards and two-by-fours. John stripped out of the flight suit, shivering slightly as the chill spring air of the central plateau hit the sweat-damp fabric of his summer-weight uniform.

"What is your appraisal?" Gerard said.

"The enemy have more and better planes than we do," Jeffrey said, sitting down and accepting the coffee an orderly brought. Coffee was another thing they were going to miss if—when—all trade with the Land was cut off. "And better pilots, more experienced. If it's any consolation, we're improving faster than they are, but we're starting from a lower base."

Gerard frowned, looking down at his hands on the rough table. "My friend, this is bad news. Although perhaps the government will listen now when I tell them the offensive on the eastern front is a bad idea."

Jeffrey halted the coffee cup halfway to his mouth. "They're still going ahead with that?" he asked incredulously.

"And they will strip men, guns, aircraft from every other front for it," he said. "The Committee talks of recapturing Marsai and splitting the rebel zone in half."

"The Committee has its head up its collective butt," Jeffrey said.

Gerard's head swiveled around. Unfair, Jeffrey chided himself. He could say that; the Committee of Public Safety had no jurisdiction over Brigade members, they'd insisted on that from the beginning. Gerard was in high favor after helping to stop Libert's thrust for the capital in the opening months of the war, but even so the Committee's name was nothing to take in vain. Chairman Vincen seemed to think that if he made himself into a worse mad bastard than Libert and the Chosen, he could beat Libert and the Chosen. It didn't necessarily work that way, but desperate men weren't the best logicians.

Gerard cleared his throat "And it will be even more difficult if they can continue to use Land dirigibles to shift troops and supplies at will behind their lines."

"They can as long as they can keep our planes from punching through," Jeffrey said. "Those gasbags are sitting targets for fighters, but we don't have the numbers or the range to penetrate their own fighter screens.

Gerard's bulldog face grew longer. "Then they will be able to shift faster than I can—what is that expression you used?"

Jeffrey sighed. "They can get inside your decision curve. I just hope things are going better back home."

* * *

Admiral Arthur Cunningham was a big, thickset man, with graying blond hair. Right now his face and bull neck were turning red with throttled rage, and he pulled at his walrus mustache as he stared at the ship model in the center of the glossy ebony table.

The hull was a large merchant variety, an eight-thousand-ton bulk carrier of the type used to ferry manganese ore from the Southern Islands under Santander protectorate. The top had been sliced off and replaced with a long flat rectangular surface; the funnels ran up into an island on the port side, and a section had lowered like an elevator to show rows of biplanes in the huge hold below the flight deck.

"Its an abortion," Cunningham said.

"It's what we need for scouting," Maurice Farr corrected.

The rings on his sleeves and the epaulets on his shoulders marked him as a rear admiral, and kept Cunningham superficially respectful. Nobody could mistake his expression, or the meaning in the look he shot John Hosten where he sat beside his father.

"Farr, I'm surprised. I expect politicians to act this way." From his tone, he also expected them to have sexual intercourse with sheep. "You're a navy man and the son of a navy man. Why are you doing this?"

"We work for politicians, Cunningham—there's a little thing called the Constitution that more or less tells us to. And in this instance, the politicians are right. We need aerial scouting if we're going to match the Land's fleet; otherwise they'll be able to lead us around like a bull with a ring in its nose."

"We need airships with decent open-sea range, not flying toys on this abortion of a so-called ship!" Cunningham said, his voice rising toward a bellow and his fist making the coffee cups rattle.

John spoke: "We've tried, Admiral Cunningham. Here."

He pulled glossy photographs from an envelope and slid them across the table. "You see the results."

The frame spread across a hillside was just recognizable as a dirigible's, after the fire.

"The Land is too far ahead of us on the learning curve with lighter-than-air craft. They've got the diesels, the hull design, and most of all, plenty of experienced construction teams and crews. We can't match them, not at acceptable cost, not with everything else we're trying to do. And land-based aircraft just don't have the range to give cover and reconnaissance to a fleet at sea. Hence, we need the . . . aircraft carriers, we're calling them."

"Your shipyards need the contracts, you mean," Cunningham said bluntly. "Farr, this is diverting effort from capital ships."

Farr shook his head. "Look, Arthur, you know very well the bottleneck there is the heavy guns and the armor-rolling capacity."

Cunningham rose and settled his gold-crusted cap. "If you will excuse, me, sir—" he began.

"Admiral Cunningham, sit down!" Farr barked.

After a moment's glaring test of wills, the other man obeyed. "Admiral Cunningham, your objections are noted. You will now cooperate fully in carrying out the decisions of the Minister of Marine and the Naval Staff, or you will tender your resignation immediately. Is that clear?"

Twenty minutes later John Hosten sank back in his chair, shaking his head as he looked at the door that Cunningham had carefully not slammed behind him.

"I hope there aren't too many more like him, Dad," he said.

Maurice Farr sighed. His close-cut hair and mustache were gray now, but he looked as trim as he had when he stood on the docks of Oathtaking nearly two decades before.

"I'm afraid there are quite a few," he said. "A lot of the officers are convinced that this is being forced on the navy by politicians—and Highlander politicians from the east, at that, with their industrialist friends." He smiled. "They're right, aren't they?"

"But—" John began, then caught the look in his stepfather's eye. "You can still get me going, can't you?"

Farr laughed. "You take everything a bit too seriously, son," he said. "Don't worry; Artie Cunningham would rather eat his young than resign just before the first big naval war in a generation. If he has to swallow that"—he nodded at the model of the aircraft carrier that filled the center of the big table—"he'll swallow it, for the sake of the battlewagons."

Farr lit a cigarette. "He's not stupid, just rather specialized," he went on. "I can understand him; I'm a cannon-and-armorplate sailor myself. But I don't like operating blind." He stared at the model. "I do hope this concept's as workable as you and Jeffrey say. It looks good on paper, certainly, but I don't like ordering straight from the drawing board."

"Dad, I'm as sure as if I'd seen them fight battles myself."

pearl harbor, Center said helpfully. the pursuit of the bismark. taranto. midway—

Great, and how do I tell Dad that? John replied. Hastily: That was a rhetorical question.

Maurice Farr rose and began stacking papers in his briefcase. "No rest for the wicked—I've got to get back to HQ and deal with more bumpf. God, for a fleet command."

"Not long, I think, Dad," John said.

A long moment after his stepfather had left John heard the door behind him open.

"Touching," a voice said in Landisch.

"English," John said sharply. "Tradecraft."

"Oh, indeed."

The man—he was dressed in Santander civilian clothes, with a well-known yachting club's pattern of cravat—came and sat not far from John. He looked at a duplicate set of the airshipwreck photos.

"What caused this?"

"The design was overweight and underpowered; they took out a section in the center and enlarged it to take an extra gasbag. The bag chafed against the bolts internally, and they had a terrible problem with leaks. Probably they nosed in on that hill in the dark, or there was a fire from static discharge, or both."

"Sloppy," the Chosen officer said, tucking the pictures away. He nodded to the model of the aircraft carrier. "Will this work?"

"Probably, after a fashion. I can't turn down all the good ideas, you know—not and keep my standing with the military and defense industries."

"Indeed."

"I suppose we'll have to build them, too. Dirigibles are so vulnerable to heavier-than-air pursuit planes."

"Perhaps," the intelligence officer said. "And perhaps not."

* * *

"Straight and level, straight and level, damn your eyes," Horst Raske said, in a tone that was as close to a prayer as one of the Chosen was likely to get.

The bridge of the Grey Tiger was vibrating itself, very slightly, despite the skilled hands on the wheels and controls set about the U-shaped space. Through the vast semicircle of clear window they could see the teardrop shape of the experimental airship carrier Orca as she quivered in the clear air over the Land's central plateau, a hundred miles north of Copernik. The craft was huge, nearly a thousand feet from nose to stern, with beautiful swept control fins in an X at the rear, its smooth sheet-aluminum hull showing it to be one of the new metalclads.

Underneath it a small biplane fighter was making another run, first matching speeds with the dirigible, then edging upwards. A strong metal loop was fastened to the biplane's upper wing, and a long trapezoidal hook mechanism dangled below the airship's belly. The fighter swayed and dipped as it rose into the buffeting wake of the huge dirigible, then again as it hit the prop-wash of the six bellowing high-speed diesels. It rose sharply, and the observers on the Grey Tigers bridge sucked in their breaths, certain it would crash into the thin structure of the airship's belly.

Instead it pulled nose-up, almost stalling, then slipped into contact with the hook. A cable locked the mechanism shut, and it moved smoothly backwards with the aircraft pivoting and jerking on the hook-and-ring connection. The rise stopped with the biplane just below the entrance hatch intended for it,

"What?" Professor Director Gunter Porschmidt spoke with his usual quick, slightly angry tone. Some of the white-coated assistants around him moved away a little. "What? Why do they wait?"

Gerta Hosten replied. "Because, Herr Professor, the plane will only fit into the entrance hatch if aligned precisely with the airship's keel . . . and it is difficult to get it to point that way traveling at ninety miles per hour."

Porschmidt blinked at her. "Oh. Yes, yes, make a note." One of the assistants scribbled busily.

Tiny human figures on ropes dropped out of the airship's belly. Laboriously, they fixed rope tackle to the biplane's wings and body, and the trapeze swung it up once more. On the second try—the first crumpled a wing against the side of the hatch—they got it through. Porschmidt beamed, and there was a discreet murmur of applause from the Research Council officials with him.

"Good, good," the chief scientist said. "But perhaps we should assign a better pilot to the next series of tests?"

"The pilot is Eva Sommers," Gerta said. "Her reflexes were among the ten best ever recorded in the Test of Life; she has fifteen kills to her credit from the war down in the Union and is currently the Air Council's best test pilot."

"Oh." Porschmidt shrugged. "Well, the purpose of operational testing is to improve the product."

"Herr Professor?"

"Yes?"

"While this is undoubtedly a great technical achievement," Gerta said, "given our current quality control problems, don't you think—"

He made a dismissive gesture. "The Chosen Council told me to design a device which would give us greater heavier-than-air scouting capacity than the enemy's new ship-borne aeroplanes. Production is not my department."

Horst Raske waited until they had left his bridge before putting a hand to his forehead and sighing.

"Well, this proves one thing conclusively," Gerta said, watching the Orca turn away.

"What?"

"That the Chosen are still Visager's supreme toymakers," she added.

"Brigadier, I do not think that is funny."

"It isn't. Porschmidt falling out a hatchway without a parachute at six thousand feet, that would be funny."

"If only the man were an incompetent!"

"If he were an incompetent, he wouldn't have passed the Test of Life," Gerta said. "Unfortunately, that is no guarantee that he will not be wrong—just that he'll be plausibly, brilliantly wrong with ideas that sound wonderful and are just a tantalizing inch beyond realization."

Raske shuddered. "I hope some of his ideas work out better than that." He nodded towards the disappearing airship. "When I think of the conventional models we could have made for the same expenditure of money and skilled manpower . . . and you're right, quality control has fallen off appallingly."

"A complete waste of—" Gerta stopped, struck. "Wait a minute. The problem there is hull turbulence, right?"

Raske looked at her. "Yes. No way to eliminate it, that I can see. An airship pushes aside a lot of air, and that's all there is to it."

"But fifty, sixty feet down there's less problem?"

"Of course—but you can't put the hook gear that far down. The leverage would snap it off at the first strain."

"Yes, but why do we want to hoist the plane aboard the airship's cargo bay?"

She began to talk. Raske listened, his face gradually losing its hangdog expression.

"Now why can't Porschmidt come up with ideas like that?" he asked.

"Oh, some of Porschmidt's brainchildren work well enough, better than I expected." Gerta said. She smiled. "As our friends to the south will soon find out."
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