The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE




"Dammit!"

Commodore Peter Grisson raised his binoculars again. The dawn light was painting the Chosen dirigible an attractive pink, a tiny toy airship at the limit of visibility to the north. Far out of range of anything the ships below it could do. They all had the new high-angle antiaircraft guns, but the distance was far too great.

I hate that bloody thing, he thought, wishing for a storm. You could get some monsters down here south of the main continent, with nothing but the islands between here and the antarctic ice and nothing at all all the way around the planet east or west to break the winds. His ships, some of them at least, could keep station better than that floating gasbag.

But the ocean was like a millpond, only a trace of white at the tops of the long dark blue waves. The McCormick City and the Randall steamed on, heading east-northeast for their blockade stations off the southern Union coast. They were making eight knots, well below their best cruising speed, because most of the gunboats and naval reserve yachts and whatnot around them couldn't do any better. Certainly the pathetic hermaphrodite—wood-hulled and iron-armored—relics that made up the other six cruisers couldn't. Neither of his two best ships were new, but at least they were steel-hulled and armored, and they'd both had extensive refits recently, virtual rebuilding.

Then a light began to flicker on the nose of the Land dirigible. Grisson smoothed his mustache with a nervous gesture. What would Uncle Maurice do? he thought, and looked at the captain of the McCormick City.

The captain lowered his own binoculars. "Coded, of course," he said neutrally.

"Of course. But Land scout dirigibles carry wireless." The Land's armed forces didn't make as much use of that on land as the Republic's did, but they had plenty for sea service. "So whoever he's signaling is close."

Grisson thought for a moment. The rules of engagement and his own orders from the Admiralty gave him virtually complete discretion. One thing Uncle Maurice wouldn't do was sit with his thumb up his ass waiting for things to happen to him.

I can't run, he knew. Intelligence on the Land naval forces in the area and their Unionaise allies was scanty, but whatever they had was likely to have the legs on his motley squadron. Therefore . . .

"Squadron to come about," he said, giving the new heading. "Signal battle stations and sound general quarters. My compliments to Commander Huskinson, and the torpedo-boat destroyers are to deploy. Tell him I have full confidence in his ships' scouting ability. No ship is to fire unless fired upon or on my order."

Bells rang, signal guns fired, yeomen hoisted signals to the tripod mast of the McCormick City. "Oh, and general signal: The Republic expects every man to do his duty."

Armored panels winched up across the horseshoe shape of the fighting bridge, leaving slits for viewing all around. A signals yeoman bent over his pad near the wireless station, decoding a message.

"Sir. From the destroyers."

Grisson took the yellow flimsy.

Am under attack by Land heavier-than-air twin engine models stop more than a dozen stop smoke plumes detected to northeast eight ships minimum approaching fast stop.

For a moment Grisson's mind gibbered at him. The distance to shore was more than twice the maximum range of any Land-made airplane. Stop that, he told himself. It's happening. Deal with it.

"Signal: Wait for me stop am proceeding your position best speed stop."

The key of the wireless clicked as the operator rattled it off. Eyes were fixed on him from all over the bridge; he could taste salt sweat on his upper lip. He'd known this moment had to come all his professional life—ever since he was a snot-nosed teenage ensign on this very ship, when Maurice Farr faced down the Chosen at Salini and saved fifty thousand lives. I expected this, but not so soon.

"Signal to the fleet. Maximum speed." All of ten knots, if they were to keep together. "Add: We are at war. Expect hostile aircraft before we engage enemy surface forces. Plan alpha. Acknowledge. Stop. Repeat signal until all units have acknowledged receipt."

Some of the reservists would probably be a little slow on signals, and he didn't want anyone haring off on his own.

There was a collective sigh, half of relief. "Yeoman," he went on to the wireless operator, "do you have contact with Karlton?"

"Yessir."

"Then send: Commodore Grisson to Naval HQ. Southern Fleet in contact with Land and Libertist-Unionaise naval forces. Have received unprovoked attack in international waters. Am engaging enemy. Enemy twin engine heavier-than-air attack aircraft sighted at distances exceeding two hundred nautical miles from shore. Long live the Republic. Grisson, Commander, Southern Fleet. Stop. Repeat until you have acknowledgment."

"Yessir."

The rhythm of the engines hammered more swiftly under his feet. The black gang would probably be cursing his name. Insubordinate bastards, Grisson thought, the irrelevancy breaking through the tension that gripped his gut. It'd be a relief when the fleet all finally converted to oil-firing and turbine engines. A few score stokers could contribute more disciplinary offenses and Captain's Mast hearings than the entire crew of a battlewagon.

Neither side was going to have heavy ships here . . . at least, that was what the reports said. The Chosen had a complete squadron of modern protected cruisers in Bassin du Sud: six ships, von Spee-class, the name ship and five consorts. Seventy-five hundred tons, turbine engines—coal-fired though, the Land was short of petroleum—four eight-inch guns in twin turrets fore and aft, each with a triple six-inch turret behind it superimposed on a pedestal mount. They carried pom-poms and quick-firers as well, of course. There would be a squadron of twelve torpedo-boat destroyers as well, and the cruisers carried torpedo tubes, too. Land torpedoes were excellent.

"Captain," he said. "All right; we're going to be at a disadvantage in weight of gun metal and torpedoes both, but less so in gunpower. We'll try to maintain optimum firing distance with the heavier ships and slug it out, while the lighter craft with torpedo capacity close in. Gunboats and others are to engage their destroyers."

"What about our destroyers, sir?"

"I'm going to send them in at the cruisers. They're outnumbered by their equivalents; we'll just have to hope one of them gets lucky. A couple of hits could decide the action, one way or another."

And thank God the practice ammunition allowance was raised last year. Somebody at Navy HQ had insisted on not putting all the increased appropriation into new building.

The McCormick City began to pitch more heavily as the northward turn put the sea on her beam. In less than fifteen minutes he could see the smoke from his quartet of three-stacker destroyers, and beyond them a gray-black smudge that must be the enemy. Black dots were circling in the sky over the destroyers, stooping and diving in turn. The little scout ships were curving and twisting to avoid them, their wakes drawing circles of white froth against the dark blue of the ocean. Their pompoms and high-elevation quick-firers were probing skyward, scattering puffs of black smoke against the cerulean blue of the sky.

"Signal to the destroyers," Grisson said. "Ignore those planes and go for the cruisers."

Aircraft couldn't carry enough bombs to be really dangerous, and their chance of hitting a moving target wasn't big enough to be worth worrying about.

The Land cruisers were hull-up now, their own screen of turtleback destroyers lunging ahead. The smaller Santander craft swarmed forward, disorderly but as willing as a terrier facing a mastiff.

"The signal," Grisson said quietly, "is fire as you bear."

* * *

If you only knew how I begged and pleaded to save your sorry ass, Gerta thought, smiling at the dictator of the Union.

At least General Libert had learned to ignore her gender—she suspected he thought of Chosen as belonging to a different species, in any event. He was being polite, today, here in Unionvil. No reason not to; he'd achieved his objectives.

"In short, the Council of the Land expects me to declare war on Santander," he said dryly. "What incentives do you offer?"

Not shooting you and taking this place over directly, Gerta thought. I used every debt and favor owed me to help convince the General Staff that it wasn't cost-effective. Don't prove me wrong.

"General Libert, if you don't, and we lose this war, the Santies have a certain General Gerard waiting in the wings to replace you. With his army, now deployed along the Santander-Union frontier. I very much doubt that the Republic is going to distinguish you from us in its formal declaration of war, which should get through the House of Assembly any hour now."

Libert nodded. He looked an insignificant little lump against the splendors of carved and gilded wood in the presidential palace, beneath the high ceilings painted in allegorical frescos. The place had the air of a church, the more so since Libert had had endless processions of thanksgiving going through with incense and swarming priests; most of his popular support came from the more devout areas of the Union.

His eyes were cold and infinitely shrewd. "And if you win, Brigadier, what bargaining power or leverage do I retain?"

"You have your army," Gerta pointed out. "Expensively equipped and armed by us."

Libert stayed silent.

"And you'll have additional territory. I am authorized to offer you the entire area formerly known as the Sierra Democratica y Populara. Provided you assist to the limit of your powers in its pacification, and subject to rights of military transit, mining concessions, investment, and naval bases during and after the war. We get Santander. It's a fair exchange, considering the relative degrees of military effort."

Libert's eyebrows rose. "You offer to turn over a territory you will have conquered yourselves? Generous."

"Quid pro quo," Gerta said. Now, the question is, does Libert realize that we'd turn on him as soon as the Santies are disposed of? He was more than realistic enough, but he might not understand the absoluteness of Chosen ambition.

Libert sipped from the glass of water before him. "The Sierrans have a reputation for . . . stubbornness," he said. "I have studied the histories of the old Union-Sierran wars. This may be comparable to the gift of a honeycomb, without first removing the bees and their stings."

"We intend to smoke out the bees," Gerta said. "Or to put it less poetically, we intend to depopulate the Sierra, with your assistance. Your people aren't fond of the Sierrans"—that was an understatement, if she'd ever made one—"and after the war, you can colonize with your own subjects. There will be land grants for your soldiers, estates for your officers, a virgin field for your business supporters—including intact factories, mines and buildings. We'll leave enough Sierrans for the labor camps."

"Ah." Libert's face was expressionless. "But in the meantime, the Union would need considerable support in order to undertake a foreign war so soon after our civil conflict."

"Could you be more specific?" Gerta said wearily.

"As a matter of fact, Brigadier . . ."

He slid a folder across the table to her, frictionless on the polished mahogany. She opened it and fought not to choke. Oil, wheat, beef, steel, chemicals, machine tools, trucks, weapons—including tanks and aircraft.

"I'm . . ." Gerta ground her teeth and fought to keep her voice normal. "I'm sure something can be arranged. But as you must appreciate, General, we need to strike now."

"That would indeed be the optimum military course," Libert said. And so you must give me what I ask, or risk unacceptable delay, followed unspoken.

"I will consult with my superiors," she said. "We must, however, have a definite answer by dawn."

Or we'll kill you and take this place over ourselves, equally unspoken and equally well understood.

Gerta rose, saluted, and walked out.

"Why do we tolerate this animal's insolence?" young Johan Hosten hissed to her as their boot heels echoed in step through the rococo elegance of the palace's halls.

"Because with Libert cooperating, we gain an additional two hundred thousand troops," she said. "Most of them are fit only for line-of-communication work, but that's still nine divisional equivalents we don't have to detach for garrison work. Plus another hundred thousand that we don't have to use to hold down the Union in our rear while we fight the Santies."

Her aide subsided into disciplined silence—disciplined, but sullen.

I'm going to enjoy our final reckoning with Libert myself, she thought. Aloud: "I'd rather have three teeth drilled than go through another negotiating session with him, that's true," she said.

"Sir . . ."

Gerta looked aside. "Speak. You can't learn if you don't ask."

"Sir, you were against opening our war with Santander this early. Have you changed your mind?"

"That's irrelevant," she said. "We're committed now. Conquer or die." She sighed. "At least my next job is a straightforward combat assignment."

* * *

Air assault was no longer a radical new idea. Most of the troops filing into the dirigibles nestled in the landing cradles of the base were ordinary Protégé infantry, moving with stolid patience in the cool predawn air. A few of the most important targets still rated a visit from the General Staff Commando, and she'd ended up on overall command. Gerta looked around at the faces of the officers; they seemed obscenely young. No younger than she'd been at Corona, mostly.

It's déjà vu all over again, she thought to herself.

"That concludes the briefing. Are there any questions?"

"Sir, no sir!" they chorused.

Confident. That was good, as long as you didn't overdo it. Most of them had more experience than she'd had, her first trip to see the elephant. Policy had been to rotate officers through the war in the Union, as many as possible without doing too much damage to unit cohesion.

"One final thing. The Sierrans have much the same line of bluster that the animals did here, before we conquered the Empire. They have a word for it in their language . . . machismo, I think it is. There's one crucial difference between the two, though."

She looked around, meeting their eyes. "The Sierrans actually mean it. They couldn't organize an orgy in a whorehouse, but they're not going to roll over at the first tap of the whip either. Don't fuck up because you expect them to run."

"Sir, yes Sir!"

As they scattered to their units she wondered briefly if they'd take the warning seriously. Probably. Most of them had enough experience not to take the legends about Chosen invincibility too literally.

"All over again," she murmured aloud.

"Sir?" her aide said.

Fairly formal considering that they were alone and that Johan Hosten was her eldest son, but they were in a military situation, not a social one. And Johan was still stiffly conscious of being an adult, just past the Test of Life. She remembered that feeling, too.

"It reminds me of the drop on Corona," she said.

Half my lifetime ago. Why do I get this feeling that I keep doing the same things over and over again, only every time it's more difficult and the results are less? All the same, down to the smell of burnt diesel oil. The tension was worse; now she knew what they were heading into. She buckled on her helmet, slung the machine-carbine and began drawing on thin, black leather gloves as they walked through the loading zone. Wood boomed under their boots as they climbed the mobile ramp to a side-door of the gondola built into the hull beneath the great gasbags. Crew dodged around them as she walked back to the main cargo bay; Horst Raske wasn't in charge this time, he was with the new aircraft carrier working-up with the Home Fleet based out of Oathtaking.

What a ratfuck, she thought. The Santies build aircraft carriers, and we waste six months in a pissing match over who gets to build ours. The Councils had finally decided, in truly Solomonic wisdom—she'd read the Christian Bible as part of her Intelligence training—to split the whole operation. Building the hull was to be Navy; the airplanes and the personnel, plus logistics, training and operations, were done by the Air Council. The Navy would command when the fleet was at sea. How truly good that's going to be for operational efficiency, she thought. At least she'd managed to persuade Father to appoint Raske, who didn't confuse territorial spats and service loyalties with duty to the Chosen.

There were a company of the General Staff Commando in the cargo bay, plus a light armored car on a padded cradle that rested on a specially strengthened section of hull. It was one of the new internal-combustion models, and someone had the starter's crank ready in its socket at the front, below the slotted louvers of the armored radiator. Somehow it looked out of place in the hold of an airship, a brutal block of steel in a craft at once massive and gossamer-fragile. They were tasked with taking out the Sierran central command, such as it was. Although she frankly doubted whether that would help or hinder the resistance.

"Make safe," she said. "Lift in five minutes."

They squatted, resting by the packsacks and gripping brackets in the walls and floor. Gerta's station was by an emergency exit; that gave her a view out a narrow slit window. Booming and popping sounds came from above, as hot air from the engine exhausts was vented into the ballonets in the gasbags. More rumbling from below as water poured out of the ballast tanks. The long teardrop shape of the airship quivered and shook, then bounced upwards as the grapnels in the loading cradles released.

The dirigibles were out in force this time; she could see them rising in ordered flocks, one after another turning and rising into the lighter upper sky. The air was calm, giving the airship the motion of a boat on millpond-still water, no more than a slight heeling as it circled for altitude. Down below the airbase was a pattern of harsh arc lights across the flat coastal plain on the Gut's northern shore. The surface fleet with the main army wasn't in sight. They'd left port nearly a day before, to synchronize the attacks. There were biplane fighters and twin-engine support aircraft escorting the airships; as she peered through the small square window in the side of the hull she could see a flight of them dropping back to refuel from the tankers at the rear of the fleet.

You put on a safety line and climbed out on the upper wing with the wind trying to pitch you off—sometimes you did, and had to haul yourself back on. In a single-seater, someone from the airship had to slide on a body-hoop down the flexing, whipping hose. Then you had to fasten the valves, dog them tight, and keep the tiny airplane and huge airship at precisely matching speeds, because if you didn't the hose broke, or the valve tore out of the wing by the roots. If that happened the entire aircraft was likely to be drenched in half-vaporized gasoline and turn into an exploding fireball when it hit the red-hot metal surfaces of the engine. . . .

She raised her voice: "Listen up!

They were over the surface fleet now; hundreds of transports from ports all along the northern shore of the Gut, escorted by squadrons of cruisers and destroyers. The ships cut white arrowheads on the green-blue water six thousand feet below.

"Magnificent," Johan Hosten whispered.

This time Gerta nodded. It was a magnificent accomplishment, throwing a hundred thousand troops and supporting arms into action, fully equipped and briefed, at such short notice.

But we were supposed to fight Santander in another five to eight years. With our new battleship fleet ready, and another fifty divisions and a thousand tanks. Now . . . we're reacting, not initiating. The enemy should be responding to our moves, not us to theirs.

"Thirty minutes to drop!"

* * *

"This is a new one," Jeffrey shouted over the explosions.

"Too damned familiar, if you ask me," John said grimly, checking his rifle.

It was a Sierran-made copy of the Chosen weapon. They'd managed a few improvements, mostly because everything was expensively machined. No cost-cutting use of stampings here, by God—which meant that only about half of the Sierrans had them. The rest were making do with a tube-magazine black-powder weapon, also a fine example of its type.

"I've been caught in far too many goddamned Land invasions."

"Yes, but it's the first time we've been in one together," Jeffrey pointed out. There was gray in his rust-colored hair, but the grin took years off him.

"Let's go make ourselves useful."

"Yup. No hiding in embassies this time." Jeffrey sobered. "Damned bad news about Grisson. He was a good man; Dad thought a lot of him."

"Going to be a lot of good men die before this one's over," John said.

"Hopefully not us. . . . Watch it!"

The room shook from a near-miss. Dust and bits of plaster fell around them. The Santander embassy was in coastal Barclon, where most of the business was done, rather than in inland Nueva Madrid, the ceremonial capital. Right now that meant it was within range of the eight-inch guns of the offshore Land cruisers, as well as the aircraft. The Sierran antiaircraft militia was putting a lot of metal into the air; too much for dirigibles to sail calmly overhead and drop their enormous bombloads, which was something to be thankful for.

An embassy staffer ran down the stairs. Her face was paler than the plaster dust that spattered her face and dress, and she waved a notepad.

"They're dropping troops on Nueva Madrid," she said, her voice rising a little. "And they're attacking from north and south over the mountains, too. Sanlucar has fallen—the last message said shells were bursting inside the fortress."

John's eyebrows went up. That was the main fortress-city guarding the passes from the old Empire south into the Sierra.

The staffer went on: "And the Chosen Council has issued a statement, demanding that we declare ourselves strictly neutral in the Sierran-Land war, and 'cease all hostile and unfriendly actions.'"

Ambassador Beemer nodded, checking the old-fashioned revolver in the shoulder holster beneath his formal morning coat.

"Not a chance," he said. He looked up at John and Jeffrey. "Admiral Farr is never going to forgive me. I should have sent you home yesterday."

"We both thought the Chosen would wait until the Sierrans voted," John said.

"Why? It was obvious which way it was going to go." He hesitated. "They'll be landing troops here?"

"Sure as they grow corn in Pokips," Jeffrey said. "Coordination is a strong point of theirs. In fact, I'd give you odds they're landing on both sides of the city right now."

Nobody was going to fall for the "merchantmen" full of soldiers, not after the attack on Corona. There wasn't any way to prevent ships loitering offshore, though.

"Then I suppose . . . well, according to diplomatic practice, the Chosen should intern us and exchange us for their own embassy personnel in Santander City."

Beemer didn't sound very confident. John nodded. "Sir, I'd recommend suicide before falling into Chosen hands—and that's assuming you get past the kill-crazy Protégés in the first wave. If the Chosen win, international law won't exist anymore, because there will be only one nation. And if they lose, they don't expect to be around to take the blame."

Beemer's head turned, as if calculating their chances. North and south the armies of the Land were pouring over the mountain passes into the Sierra. West was the Chosen . . .

"Sir, I made arrangements, just in case. If we can get to the docks . . ."

Beemer started to object, then nodded. "You're a resourceful young man," he said mildly. "I'll get our people together."

Luckily there were only about half a dozen Santander citizen staff on hand; most of them had been sent home last week, when the crisis began. None of the Sierran employees were here; they'd all headed for their militia stations and the fighting half an hour ago. Two of the embassy limousines could hold them all, with a little crowding. John took his seat beside Harry Smith, sitting up on one knee with the rifle ready.

"Just like old times, eh?" he said.

Smith grinned tautly. "Barrjen is going to be mad as hell," he said. "I talked him into staying home for this one."

Another salvo of heavy shells went by overhead just as the limousines cleared the gates of the embassy compound. They struck upslope, and blast and debris rattled off the thin metal of the cars' roofs. John had a panoramic view of Barclon burning, pillars of familiar greasy black smoke rising into the air. He could also see the Land naval gunline out in the harbor, cruising slowly along the riverside town. There weren't any battleships, but there were a couple of extremely odd-looking ships, more like huge armored barges than conventional warships. Each had a barbette with a raised edge in the center and the stubby muzzle of a heavy fortress howitzer protruding from it.

Well, I guess that explains what happened to the harbor forts, John thought. Coastal forts were designed to shoot it out with high-velocity naval rifles, weapons with flat trajectories. They'd be extremely vulnerable to plunging fire. We'd better move fast.

estimated time to chosen landing in barclon itself is less than thirty minutes, Center said.

Land aircraft were circling the city, spotting for the naval guns. John looked up at them with a silent snarl of hatred.

I'd have sworn that dirigible aircraft carrier idea was completely worthless, he thought.

It was, lad, Raj said quietly. At a guess, I'd say they retreated to something less ambitious—using the dirigibles to carry fuel and arranging some sort of midair hookup.

correct. probability approaches unity.

The streets were surprisingly free of crowds; what there were seemed to be moving to some purpose: armed men heading for the docks or the suburbs to the south, women with first-aid armbands or the civil-defense blue dot. Smith kept his foot on the throttle and made good use of the air horn. More barges were appearing from behind the Land fleet, coastal craft hastily converted to military use. They were black with men. Behind them lighter ships, gunboats and destroyers, moved in to give point-blank support to the landing parties with their quick-firers and pom-poms.

"Here!" John shouted.

The limousines lurched to a stop and the Santander citizens tumbled out, white-faced but moving quickly. Jeffrey and Henri brought up the rear; John stopped to drop grenades down the fuel tanks of both. Their pins were pulled, but the spoons were wrapped in tape. John hoped some Land patrol was using the cars by the time the gasoline dissolved the adhesive tape.

They had stopped in front of a boathouse in the fishing section of the port, a typical long shed with doors opening onto the water where a boat could be hauled out on rollers. This one was more substantial than most but just as rundown.

"Do you think a boat can make it out past the Land Navy?" Beemer asked dubiously.

John unlocked the doors. "No, I don't, sir," he said. "Therefore—"

Even with the sound of the bombardment in their ears, a few of the embassy staff paused to gawk. Within the dim barnlike space of the shed was a large biplane; each lower wing bore two engines back to back, with props at the leading and trailing edge. The body of the craft was a smooth oval of stressed plywood, broken by circular windows; the cockpit was separate, with only a windscreen ahead of it. Two air-cooled machine guns were mounted on a scarf ring in the center of the fuselage, where the upper wing merged with it. Bearing the planes weight were two long floats, like decked-over canoes.

"Fueled and ready to go," John said. "Prototype—the navy's ordering a dozen. Jeff! Get some hands on the props!"

Bright sunlight made him blink as the big sliding doors were thrown back. The body of the airplane began to quiver as men spun the props and the engines coughed into life in puffs of blue smoke. He looked back into the body of the aircraft; Jeff's Unionaise bodyguard was stepping up into the firing rest beneath the machine guns. His foster-brother slid into the other seat in front of the controls, while Smith showed frightened embassy staff how to snap their seatbelts shut as they took their places along either side of the big biplane.

"Good thinking," Jeffrey said.

"I like gadgets," John said. He looked ahead. "I didn't think the Chosen could get aircraft here to support a landing, though."

"Neither did I." He ran his hands over the controls. "Shall I?"

"You're the expert, Jeff."

Jeffrey Farr had run up quite a score in the aerial fighting over the Union. It was partly innate talent, but also because Center could put an absolutely accurate gunsight in front of his eyes, one that effortlessly calculated the complex ballistics of firing from one fast-moving plane and hitting an equally elusive target.

The engines bellowed, and the biplane wallowed out onto the surface of Barclon's harbor. The sun was behind them, still low in the east, but the wind was coming directly down the Gut; the corsairs' wind, they'd called it in the old days. Right now it meant charging straight into the line of muzzle flashes from the heavy guns of the Land fleet. One landed not three hundred yards away; the undershot produced a momentary tower of white water and black mud, and a wave that rocked the seaplane on its floats.

"Time's a-wasting," Jeffrey said, and opened the throttles.

The line of gray-painted warships grew with terrifying speed, closer and closer. Nice spacing, Jeffrey thought absently. Dad would approve. It wasn't easy to get warships moving so precisely and keeping such good station in the midst of action. He supposed this was action, although he couldn't see much in the way of shooting back—just an occasional burst from a field-gun shell, militia firing from the harbor mouth streets.

The floatplane skipped across the slight harbor swell, throwing roostertails of spray from the prows of the floats. It was odd and a little unsettling to taxi in a plane that was horizontal and not down at the rear where the tail wheel rested. The craft felt a little sluggish; probably loaded to capacity with all these people, and the fuel tanks were full, too. But it was feeling lighter, the salt spray on his lips less as the floats began to flick across the surface of the waves rather than resting fully in the water. The controls bucked a little in his hands, and he drew back on the yoke.

Bounce. Bounce. Bounce, and up. He climbed slowly, not trying to avoid the Chosen ships. Let 'em think we're one of theirs. There certainly weren't any Sierran aircraft in the air today. For that matter there hadn't been more than a couple of dozen of them to begin with, and he'd bet the Chosen had taken them all out in the first few minutes of the strike, somehow. Infiltrated a strike commando days ago and activated them at a predetermined time, at a guess.

correct. probability 87%, ±5.

The sheer numbers of ships behind the gunline was stunning, and their upperworks were all gray-black with troops.

"Must be a hundred thousand of them," he said. "That's a big gamble; over fifteen percent of their total strength."

John had worries more immediate than strategy. "Fighter coming down to look us over," he shouted back over the thundering roar of the airsteam.

The biplane swooping towards them had the rounded cowling of a von Nelsing, but the wings looked a little different, plywood covered and with teardrop-section struts instead of the old bracing wires and angle-iron.

"How fast is this thing?" he asked.

one hundred fourteen miles an hour in level flight at three thousand feet, Center said. the latest mark of von nelsing pursuit plane has a maximum speed of one hundred forty miles an hour.

"Thank you so much," Jeffrey said.

No chance of outrunning it. He looked down; they were over the tail end of the Chosen fleet, the last straggle of commandeered trawlers rigged for minesweeping or laying, and a screen of four-stacker destroyers. Ahead he could just make out a line of dirigibles, keeping watch up the Gut. Another thirty miles or so and he'd be in sight of the Isle of Trois, the big island that filled most of the eastern end of the narrow sea.

"How long do you think it'll take—"

"For the pilot to twig that we aren't Land Air Service?" John said. "About three minutes."

Land pilots were all Chosen, trained to use their initiative. Not much doubt about what this one would chose to do.

"You tell Henri," Jeffrey said. "We'd better be quick about this."

He pushed the stick forward, putting the big plane on a downward slope. Its weight made it faster thus, and reducing the dimensions the nimble enemy fighter could use also improved the situation. The higher buzz of the von Nelsing's engine grew stronger. He could almost hear the chick-chack sound as the pilot armed the twin machine guns in the nose.

The water came closer, until he could see the thick white lines along the tops of the waves, running west to east as they almost always did in the Gut this time of year. The wind was more variable here, gusting and falling away. His hands were busy on stick and rudder pedals, keeping the big aircraft level. In the rearview mirror the machine-gun position was empty, with the guns pointing backward as if locked in their rest positions.

John came back. "He's ready," he said. Reaching down the side of the cockpit, he came up with a pump-action shotgun and held it across his lap. "Whenever you signal."

Jeffrey wished he could spit to clear the gummy texture out of his mouth. This was like trying to fight while stuck neck-deep down a whale's blowhole. The fighter crept up from behind them, a hundred feet or so above. He could see the goggled face craning and bending to get a glimpse of them, and waved cheerfully up at him. Or her. Who knew, that might even be Gerta Hosten. . . .

probability 3%, ±1, Center said.

Shut up.

The aircraft grew closer. The Chosen pilot waggled his wings and pointed backward with an exaggerated gesture; he was getting impatient. So—

"Now!"

He banked the plane sideways, towards the enemy. The Chosen pilot acted the way pilots did, on instinct, pulling up sharply for height. Henri erupted out of the open gun mount, slamming the guns up to their maximum ninety degrees. For a moment the bigger biplane seemed joined to the fighter above it by twin bars of tracer, then the von Nelsing staggered in the air and peeled away trailing smoke. John stood in the open cockpit, shielding his eyes with one hand and grabbing at the edge of the cowling to brace the blocky strength of his upper torso against the savage pull of the slipstream.

"Pilot's dead or unconscious," he said aloud as he dropped back. Seconds later the fighter plowed into the surface of the water at full diving speed and a seventy-degree angle. It disintegrated, the engine continuing its plunge towards the shallow bottom of the Gut and the fuselage and wings scattering in fragments of wood, some burning.

Henri shouted in triumph, and the passengers cheered. John continued to crane his head backward and around. "Hope nobody saw that," he said.

Jeffrey nodded. "By the way, brother of mine, where the hell are we headed?"

"I've got a couple of trawlers spotted up the Gut with fuel under the hatches," John said. "All just in case. If they're not there, there's an inflatable dinghy in the baggage compartment."

"And if that doesn't work, we'll swim," Jeffrey said, flying one-handed while he felt in the pockets of his tunic for his cigarettes.

"No, actually, I've got a motor launch hidden in a cove on the east coast of Trois," John said seriously.

Jeffrey laughed. "And a slingshot in your underwear," he said. More soberly: "I hate like hell being cut off like this. What's going on, and who's doing what?"

"I suspect the Chosen are doing most of the doing right now," John replied. "I just hope we're not the only ones keeping our heads while all about are losing theirs."

"If we are, they'll blame it on us," Jeffrey said. "I'll bet Dad's doing something constructive, though."



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