The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN




"A great difference from the beginning of the war, n'est pas?" General Gerard said with melancholy pride.

Many of the soldiers trudging along the sides of the dusty road cheered as the car carrying Gerard and Jeffrey went by. They were almost all Unionaise on this front, not Freedom Brigades, so they were probably cheering the local officer—although Jeffrey was popular enough.

And they do shape a lot better, Jeffrey thought. For one thing, they were all in uniform and almost all had plain bowl-shaped steel helmets, and they all had the Table of Organization and Equipment gear besides. More importantly, they were moving in coherent groups and not getting tangled up or scattering across the countryside. Infantry marching on either side, horse-drawn guns and mule-drawn wagons and ambulances towards the middle, and a fair number of Santander-made trucks, Ferrins, and big squarish Appelthwaits. Occasionally an airplane would pass by overhead, drawing no more than a few curious stares; the men were accustomed to the notion that they had their own air service, these days.

The air was thick with dust and the animal-dung-and-gasoline stink of troops on the move. Around them the central plateau stretched in rolling immensity, with the snowpeaks of the Monts du Nora growing ever closer on the northeast horizon. The grainfields were long since reaped, sere yellow stubble against reddish-yellow earth, with dust smoking off it now and then. Widely spaced vineyards of trained vines looking like bushy cups covered many of the hillsides, and there was an occasional grove of fruit trees or cork oaks. The people all lived in the big clumped villages, looking like heaps of spilled sugar cubes with their flat-roofed houses of whitewashed adobe. The peasants came out to cheer the Loyalist armies; Jeffrey suspected that prudence would make them cheer the Nationalists almost as loudly. Not that the government wasn't more popular than the rebel generals, who brought the landlords back in their train wherever they conquered, but Unionvil's anticlerical policies weren't very popular outside the cities, either.

"Everyone seems to be expecting a military picnic," Jeffrey said, leaning back in the rear seat of the big staff car.

It was Santander-made, of course; a model that wealthy men bought, or wealthy private schools. Six-wheeled, with a collapsible top, and two rows of leather-cushioned seats in the rear. Gerard had had the original seats replaced with narrower, harder models, plus communications gear and maps, with a pintle-mounted twin machine gun set between the driver's compartment and the passengers. Henri Trudeau stood behind the grips of the weapons, carefully scanning the sky.

"Morale is good," Gerard acknowledged. "The men know they've gotten a lot better, these past two years."

"You've done a good job," Jeffrey said.

"And you, my friend. Those suggestions for an accelerated officer-training system helped very much."

Ninety-day wonders, courtesy of Raj and Center, Jeffrey thought. Center had a lot of records of sudden mobilizations for large-scale warfare.

"Well, combat is the best way to identify potential leaders," Jeffrey said. "It's sort of expensive as a sorting process, but it works."

Henri spoke unexpectedly. "Things wouldn't be going this well if you hadn't got those anarchist batards killed off right at the start, sir."

Gerard looked up with a smile; the Loyalist Army was still informal in some respects. Jeffrey shook his head.

"The rebels inflicted heavy casualties on the anarchist militia, that's true," he said judiciously. I'm becoming a politician like John, he thought. "But that's scarcely my fault. They wanted to fight, and I put them where they could fight. Besides, you were with them, Henri."

The Unionaise soldier grinned. "I wanted to win, sir. Which is why I've stuck with you since. And they were a wonderful example, in their way—everyone could see what came of their notions."

Then his head came up. "Watch it!" The machine gun swiveled around on its pivot.

* * *

"Listen up, people."

The selection of Chosen officers who would be supporting the offensive braced to attention inside the green dimness of the tent.

"Colonel Hosten is Military Intelligence for this operation and also our liaison with the Union Nationalist forces. She will conclude the briefing."

Gerta stepped up in front of the map easel. "At ease. The situation is as follows . . ."

She talked for ten crisp minutes, answering the occasional question. What a relief, she thought. Liaison work was a strain; foreigners chattered, they didn't know how to concentrate on the business at hand, they wandered off into irrelevancies. At last she finished.

"Now, let's go out there and kill."

"Inspiring and informative," Heinrich said. The double stars of a general rested easy on his shoulders, standing out from the hybrid uniform of the Eagle Legion, the Land "volunteer" force fighting with the Nationalists. "I suppose you'll go collate some reports?"

Gerta smiled. "Well, actually, Copernik wants detailed reports on the performance of the Von Nelsing two-seater," she said.

Heinrich shrugged his shoulders ruefully. "There are times when I think this whole war is nothing but a laboratory experiment," he said.

"It is," Gerta said. "Good on-the-job training, too."

"True." He frowned. "The problem is, the enemy learns as well—and they needed it more than we. So they improve more for an equal amount of experience. If you play chess with good chess players, you get good."

My darling Heinrich, you are extremely perceptive at times, Gerta thought as she ducked out of the tent and headed for the landing field.

The squadron looked squeaky-clean and factory-new, even the untattered wind sock and the raw pine boards of the messhall. Everything but the pilots. They'd all been transferred from Albatros army-cooperation planes to the new Von Nelsings; Gerta walked around hers admiringly. The fuselage was light plywood, a monocoque hull factory-made in two pieces and then fastened together along a central seam, much stronger than the old fabric models and extremely simple to make, which was crucial these days. There were two engines in cowlings on the lower wings, giving the craft a higher power-to-weight ratio than a fighter; it was heavier than the pursuit planes, but not twice as heavy. Six air-cooled machine guns bristled from the pointed nose, and there was a twin-barreled mount facing backwards from the observer's seat. Protégé groundcrew were fastening four fifty-pound bombs under each wing, and then a one-armed Chosen supervisor came along to inspect. Gerta gave the plane a careful going-over herself. They'd set up a multiple checking system, but with all the new camps full of Imperial deportees making components, it paid to be careful.

"All in readiness, sir," the squadron commander said expressionlessly, saluting.

And it would be even more ready if a hot-dogger from HQ wasn't pushing her way in, Gerta finished for him silently. She didn't mind; she was a hot-dogger from HQ, and she was pushing her way in shamelessly.

She was also a better pilot than any of the youngsters here; she'd been flying since the Land first put heavier-than-air craft into the sky.

"Let's show what these birds can do, then," she said.

The Protégé gunner made a stirrup of her hands and Gerta used it to vault up and climb into the cockpit. Then she stuck a hand down and helped the other woman into the plane. More than half the aircrew were female; they had lower averages on body weight and higher on reflexes, both of which counted on the screening test. This one seemed quite competent, if not a mental giant, and what you needed in an observer-gunner was good eyes and quick hands.

The first planes were already taxiing when she completed her checklist and signaled to the groundcrew to pull the chocks from before the spat-streamlined wheels. This production model seemed very much like the prototypes she'd flown back home, but the airfield was at three thousand feet rather than sea level. She pulled her goggles down over her eyes and followed the crewman with the flags; four more seized the tail of her plane and lifted it around to the proper angle. They held the plane against the growing tug of the motors until she chopped her hand skyward and it leapt forward.

Good acceleration, she noted. There'd been a bit of a tussle between the three aircraft companies over the scarce high-performance engines, with some claiming they were wasted on a cooperation airplane. Smoother on the ground, too. The new oleo shock-absorbers on the wheel struts were reducing the pounding a plane normally took on takeoff. The fabric coverings of the wing rippled slightly, as they always did. Have to see how those experiments with rigid surface wings are going. No reason in theory why the wings shouldn't be load-bearing plywood on internal frames like the body. That would really speed up production.

Up. She pushed the throttles forward and waggled her wings to test the balance of the engines, then banked upward and started glancing down at the ground, smiling to herself with the familiar exhilaration of flight. And there was nothing more fun than strafing missions. There was the Eboreaux River, the town of Selandrons . . . and the irregular line of the trenches. Not a solid maze of redoubts and communications lines like some sections of the front, just field entrenchments. Enemy artillery sparkled along it and through it—their offensive was getting off to a good start, penetrating the thin defenses and thrusting for the river.

Ground crawled beneath her, like a map itself from six thousand feet. The cold, thin air slapped at her face, making her cheeks tingle. An occasional puff of black followed the squadron as the converted naval quick-firers the Santies had supplied to the Reds opened up, but there were a lot of targets up here today; aircraft were rising from all along the front, swarming up from the front-line airfields by the hundreds. There were planes on either side as far as she could see, black dots against the blue and white of the sky, the drone of engines filling her ears.

Magnificent, she thought. Even better, the fighter squadron assigned to give them top cover was in place.

Ahead, the squadron commander waggled his wings three times and then banked into a dive. At precise ten-second intervals the others followed. Gerta grinned sharklike as she flipped up the cover on the joystick and put her thumb lightly on the firing button.

* * *

"Those aren't ours," Gerard said sharply, standing.

No, they aren't, Jeffrey thought with sharp alarm. The Loyalists and Brigades didn't use that double-arrowhead formation.

"Get me some reports," Gerard said sharply to the communications technician.

She—the Union forces had a Women's Auxiliary now, too—fiddled with the big crackle-finished Santander wireless set that occupied one side of the great car. There weren't many other sets for the tech to talk to; wireless small enough to get into a land vehicle was a recent development . . . courtesy of Center. Jeffrey kept his eyes on the growing swarm of dots along the western horizon, but he could hear the pattern of dots and dashes through the tech's headphones. Center translated them for him effortlessly, but he waited until the tech finished scribbling on a pad and handed the result to Gerard.

"Sir. Enemy planes in strength attacking the following positions."

Gerard took it and flipped through the maps on the table. "Artillery parks and shell storage areas and fuel dumps behind our lines."

Another series of dots and dashes. "And our airfields. Fortunate that most of our planes are already up."

Jeffrey whistled, leaning against one of the overhead bars and bracing his binoculars. "I make that over two hundred," he said. "Fighters . . . and there are two-engined craft as well."

"The new Von Nelsings we've heard about. That puts a stake through the heart of this offensive."

"I'd say we've run right into a rebel offensive," Jeffrey said.

"Exactly. And I will advance no further into the jaws of a trap. Driver! Pull over!"

The big car nosed over to the side of the road. Several smaller ones full of aides and staff officers drew up around it.

"No clumping!" Gerard ordered sharply. "You, you, you, come here—the rest of you spread out, hundred-yard intervals." He began to rap out orders.

* * *

A fighter cut through the Land formation, the red-white-and-blue spandrels on its wings marking it as a Freedom Brigades craft. The twin machine guns sparkled, and a series of holes punctured the wing to her right; one bullet spanged off the steel-plate cowling of the engine. Behind Gerta, the Protégé gunner screamed with rage as she wrestled the twin-gun mount around, tracer hammering out in the enemy fighter's wake. The Von Nelsing next to her dove after it, but the more nimble pursuit plane turned in a beautifully tight circle, far tighter than the twin-engine craft could manage.

However, Gerta thought, and dove.

That cut across the chord of the Brigade's fighter's circle; the heavier Von Nelsing dove fast. For a moment the wire circle gunsight behind her windscreen slid just enough ahead of the Santy Mark II. Her thumb stabbed on the button, and the six machine guns ahead of her hammered. Over a hundred rounds struck the little biplane fighter in the second that her burst lasted, ripping it open from nose to tail like a knife through wrapping paper. It staggered in the air, collapsed in the middle, and exploded into flame all in the same instant. The burning debris fluttered groundward in pieces, the dense mass of the engine falling fastest.

"And fuck you very much!" Gerta shouted, banking sharply to the right and heading groundward.

The Brigader had interrupted her mission. There was the road, still crowded with troops and transport. The men were running out into the fields on either side, or taking cover in the ditches, but the vehicles were less mobile. She lined up carefully, coming down to less than two hundred feet, ignoring the rifles and machine guns spitting at her. You'd have to be dead lucky to hit a target like this from the ground, plus being a very good shot, and the engines were protected.

Now. She yanked at the bomb release and fought to hold the plane steady as the fifty pounders dropped from beneath each wing. The explosions in her wake were heavier than shells of the same weight; less had to go into a strong casing, leaving more room for explosives. They straddled the roadway, raising poplar shapes of dirt and rock, also wood and metal and flesh. The guns in the nose of her airplane stammered, drawing a cone of fire up the center of the road.

* * *

Jeffrey dove for the floor of the car, pulling Gerard after him. Hot brass from the twin mounting fountained over them both. Bullets cracked by and pinged from the metal of the car. There was a fountain of sparks from the wireless and the operator gave a choked cry and slumped down on them with a boneless finality that Jeffrey recognized all too well, even before the blood confirmed it. It was amazing how much blood even a small human body contained. A second later there was another explosion, huge but somehow soft and followed by a pillow of hot air; a wagon of galvanized iron gasoline cans had gone up.

The two men heaved themselves erect; Gerard paused for an instant to close the staring eyes of the wireless operator. Henri was still swinging the twin-barrel mount, hoping for another target. The driver slumped in the front seat, lying backward with the top clipped off his head and his brains spattered back through the compartment. Other vehicles were burning up and down the road, and some of the roadside trees as well. A riderless horse ran by, its eyes staring in terror. Other animals were screaming in uncomprehending pain. The officers who'd gathered around Gerard were bandaging their wounded and counting their dead.

"You all right?" Jeffrey asked.

Gerard daubed at his spattered uniform tunic and then abandoned the effort. "Bien, suffisient. Yourself?"

"None of it's mine."

"Then let us see what we can do to remedy this—what is it, your expression?"

"Ratfuck."

"This ratfuck, then."

* * *

"Damn, they actually got them to work," Jeffrey said, scratching. Damn. Lice again. I may be a lousy general, but I'd rather it wasn't literal.

Two weeks into the latest offensive, and the Loyalists were already back nearly a hundred miles from their start-lines. One of the reasons was parked in the valley below them. It was a rhomboid shape more than forty feet long and twenty wide, thick plates of cast steel massively bolted together. The top held a boxy turret with a naval four-inch gun mounted in it, and each corner of the machine had a smaller turret with two machine guns; a field mortar's stubby barrel showed from the top as well, to deal with targets out of direct line of sight. There were drive sprockets in four places along the top of each tread, and steam leaked from half a dozen apertures. The long shadows of evening made it look even larger than it was, gave a hulking, prehistoric menace to the outline.

A Loyalist field-gun lay tilted on one wheel in front of the Land tank, its horses and men dead around it. Three lighter tanks had clanked on by up the valley towards the tableland, and only a few infantry and crew stood around the monster, the crew pulling maintenance through open panels, inspecting the tracks, or just enjoying spring air that must be like wine from heaven after the black, dank heat of the interior. A thick hose extended from its rear deck to the village well, jerking and bulging occasionally as the pump filled its tanks with water.

"That thing must weight fifty tons." And we gave them the idea. Some disinformation. You had to hand it to the Chosen engineers; they were perennially overoptimistic, but their hubris brought some amazing tour-de-force technical feats at times.

the vehicle weighs sixty one point four three tons, Center said. maximum armor thickness is four inches at thirty degrees slope. estimated range eighty miles under optimum conditions. mechanical reliability and ergonomics are poor. cost effectiveness is low.

Beside him on the ridge Henri was staring at the Land tank, his mouth making small chewing motions. Jeffrey had a hundred-odd men with him, Brigade troops and Loyalists, whatever had been left when the front broke. Many of them were taking a look and beginning to sidle backwards. There was a phrase for it now: "tank panic." The ordinary ones were bad enough, but these new monsters were worse.

"No movement," he snapped.

Discipline held enough to keep his makeshift battle group from dissolving right there. Then again, the ones who'd felt like quitting had mostly gone in the days since the rebel counterattack and its Land spearheads had broken through the Loyalist front. These were the ones with some stick to them.

"Gather around, everyone but the scouts." He waited while the quiet movement went on; the men had good "fieldcraft, at least. "All right, there's a heavy tank down there. They're dangerous, but they're also slow and clumsy, and the enemy doesn't have very many of them. We're behind their lines now, and they feel fairly safe. As soon as it's dark, I'm leading a forlorn hope down there to take it out with explosives. I need some volunteers. The rest will cover our retreat, and we'll break out to our own front. Who's with me?"

He waited a moment, then blinked in surprise as more than half lifted their hands. A nod of thanks; there was nothing much to say at a time like this.

"Ten men, no more. Henri, Duquesne, Smith, Woolstone, McAndrews—"

Night fell swiftly, and the highland air chilled. The commandos spent the time checking over their weapons, and making up grenade bundles—taking one stick grenade and tying the heads of a dozen more around it. Those who thought several days' stubble and grime insufficient blacked their faces and hands with mud; a few prayed.

"How does a general keep getting himself into this merde, sir?" Henri asked, grinning.

"Going up to the front to see what's going on," Jeffrey said. "It's a fault, but then so are women and wine."

He looked up; it was full dark, and still early enough in spring to be overcast.

Rain? he asked.

chance of precipitation is 53%, ±5, Center replied.

"We'll go with it," he said aloud. "Spread out. Avoid the sentries if you can; if you can't, keep it quiet."

The commandos moved down from the ridge, through the aromatic scrub and into the stubblefields of the valley bottom. There was little noise; the men with him had all been at the front for long enough to learn night-patrol work. I'd have had more posts and a roving patrol here, he thought.

Whoever was in charge wanted to keep pursuing as fast as he could, Raj said. He left the minimum possible with the tank when it broke down. Sound thinking. The chances of a Loyalist band big enough to cause trouble being bypassed are low. But even low probabilities happen sometimes.

There was a low choked cry from off to the left in the darkness, and a wet thudding sound. We're going to

A rifle cracked, the muzzle flash bright in the darkness. Jeffrey could see the crew around the tank scrambling up out of their blankets and heading for their machine; half or better of them would be Chosen and deadly dangerous even surprised in their sleep. He tossed his pistol into his left hand and drew the bundle of grenades out of the cloth satchel at his side, running forward, stumbling and cursing as clods and brush caught at his feet. Abruptly the landscape went brighter, to something like twilight level. Thanks, he thought; Center was reprocessing the input of his eyes and feeding it back to his visual cortex. It no longer felt eerie after more than twenty-five years with Center in his brain.

A red aiming dot settled on a panicked Protégé soldier staring wildly about him in the near-complete darkness. Jeffrey fired, then dove and rolled to avoid the bullets that cracked out at the muzzle flash of his weapon. He didn't need to check on the enemy soldier. The dot had been resting right above one ear. A series of vicious blindsided firefights was crackling around the rebel encampment, men firing at sounds and movement glimpsed in split seconds. Or firing at what they thought was sound or movement.

Chooonk. The mortar in the turret of the Land heavy tank fired. Jeffrey dove to the ground again, squeezing his eyes shut. Reflected light from the ground still dazzled him for an instant as the starshell went off.

What was really frightening was a high-pitched chuff and squeal of steel on steel. The tank was live; they must have kept the flash-boilers warm for quick readiness. He'd counted on the half hour it took to bring the huge machine on-line.

One of the corner turrets cut loose, beating the ground with a twin flail of lead and green tracer. Then the four-inch gun in the main turret fired. That must be more for intimidation than anything else, since they didn't have a target worth a heavy shell. It was intimidating, a huge leaf-shaped blade of flame, the ripping crash and the crump of high explosive from the hillside where the load struck.

He couldn't fault the men he'd left behind on the ridge. They opened fire on the camp and the Chosen tank, dozens of winking fireflies showing from their rifles. Sparks danced over the heavy armor of the panzer as it shed the small-arms bullets like so many hailstones . . . but it did force the commander to stay buttoned up, vision limited to whatever showed through the narrow vision blocks that ringed the cupola on top of the tank.

Schoonk. Another starshell. The machine-gun turrets were beating at the ridge, trying to suppress the riflemen there, and doing a good job of it. The enemy infantry were taking cover behind the tank, firing around it Then it began to move, grinding across the little valley towards the ridge. Towards him.

Stupid, Jeffrey thought as he hugged the dusty earth, blinking it out of his eyes. The Loyalist force didn't have anything that could threaten the four-inch armor plate of the Land war machine. That's the Chosen for you. Aggressive to a fault, ready to attack whether it was necessary or not.

Of course, if he was unlucky they'd reduce his own personal ass to a grease spot in this stubblefield.

The earth shook as the massive weight ground slowly, slowly towards him. The machine gun bursts from the four turrets and the coaxial weapon blended together into a continuous chattering punctuated by the occasional chugging of the mortar, firing illuminating rounds or high explosive to probe the dead ground behind the ridge. Closer. Closer.

Now it was looming over him. Good. No one had noticed him in the dark and the flickering shadows of the descending starshells as they wobbled on their parachutes. Steel screamed in protest and the earth groaned with a creaking sound as the walking fortress rolled towards him, lurching as the driver tried to keep the treads working at equal speeds. His stomach felt watery, and his testicles were trying to crawl up into it for comfort: "tank panic" felt a lot more understandable, even sensible, right now.

Black shadow passed over him as the prow moved by. There should be more than two feet of clearance between the tank's belly and the dirt. More than enough for him, if this was one of the ones without hinged blades fitted to the bottom. He rolled on his back, despite the voice at the back of his head screaming that he should bury his face in the dirt. The pitted, rusty surface of the hull was moving only inches from his face, closer when a bolthead went by: And there were the big eyebolt rings near the rear, fitted for use with a towing line.

He dropped his pistol on his stomach and reached out with both hands. There, He pushed the handle of the stick grenade through the bolt. His cap stuffed in beside it snugged it close enough not to move for a few seconds. He scooped up the pistol again with his right hand, and kept hold of the pull-tab at the base of the stick grenade with his left, letting the motion of the tank pull it loose, arming the weapon.

Don't stop now, baby, please, he thought.

It didn't. The commander must have been waiting until he was closer to use the main gun again, and the automatic weapons were reasonably effective on the move. The weight rolled from overhead, like freedom from the grave. Jeffrey began to crawl frantically, then rose and ran two dozen paces.

The first explosion was muffled by the bulk of the tank. It seemed absurdly small beneath the huge bulk of the Land vehicle, but even on something weighing sixty tons the armor couldn't be thick everywhere. The tank came to a lurching halt, although one machine-gun turret continued to fire for fifteen seconds. Then there was a second explosion, this one inside the tank. Steam jetted from the back deck, then a few seconds later from every opening and crack in the hull, squealing into the night like so many locomotive whistles. Jeffrey could feel his skin crawl slightly at the thought of what it must have been like inside, the sudden wash of superheated vapor flaying the crew alive.

That did not stop his pumping run. A low wall of crumbling stone and adobe showed ahead of him; he hurdled it and went to the ground with his face pressed to the dirt. Hot metal was in contact with ruptured shell casings and vaporized gasoline, and right about—

Whump. The fuel and ammunition went off together, and the Land panzer came apart along the lines where the sheets of cast and rolled armor were riveted together. Chunks plowed into the wall a few feet from him, showering powdered dirt and small stones with painful force. He raised his head cautiously; he could see nothing moving near the twisted wreckage of the tank, although the light from the burning remnants was bright enough to read by. The turret lay on its side a few yards distant; further out still were bodies that lay still. Mostly still.

"I hope none of them were mine," he muttered. His voice sounded faint and faraway in his ringing ears. Louder: "Rally here! Rally here!"
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