The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO




Maurice Farr stood at the head of the table in the admiral's quarters of the Great Republic, pride of the Northern Fleet, and stared at the messenger.

The captains and commodores along either side looked up from their turtle soup, some of them spilling drops on their ceremonial summer-white uniforms. The overhead electrics blazed on the polished silver, the gold epaulets, the snowy linen of the tablecloth, and the starched jackets of the stewards serving the dinner. It would take news of real importance to interrupt this occasion.

"Gentlemen," Farr said, quickly scanning the message, "Land forces have attacked the Sierra. Preliminary reports are sketchy, but it looks like they caught them completely flat-footed. Hundreds of transports escorted by squadrons of cruisers and destroyers have landed troops around Barclon in the Rio Arena estuary, and up and down the coast. Air assault troops are landing in Nueva Madrid, and the mountain passes on the northern and southern borders are under simultaneous attack."

Another messenger came in and passed a flimsy to the admiral. He opened it and read: Brothers Katzenjammer have flown the coop. Stop. Never again. Stop. Love, J&J.

Farr's shoulders kept their habitual stiffness, but he sighed imperceptibly. One less thing to worry about personally . . . and the Republic was going to need both his sons in the time ahead.

A babble of conversation had broken out around the table. "Gentlemen!" Silence fell. "Gentlemen, we knew we were at war yesterday."

When the news of Grisson's disaster had come through. And the politicians will blame it on him. Two modern ships and a score of relics and converted yachts against a dozen first-rate cruisers with full support. One of the Land craft had made it back to Bassin du Sud with her pumps running overtime, and several of the others had taken damage. All things considered, it was a miracle the Southern Fleet had been able to inflict that much harm before it was destroyed.

"Now we have a large target. Silence, please."

The tension grew thicker as Maurice Farr sat with his eyes closed, gripping the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

"All right, gentlemen," he said at last. One or two of the hardier had gone on eating their soup, and now paused with their spoons poised. "Here's what we'll do. I'm assuming that all of you have steam up"—you'd better went unspoken—"and we can get under way tonight."

That raised a few brows; a night passage up the Gut would be a definite risk, even after the exercises Farr had put the Northern Fleet through after assuming command six months ago.

"Steaming at fourteen knots, that should place us"—he turned to the map behind him—"here by dawn tomorrow. Then . . ."

* * *

Admiral der See Elise Eberdorf blinked at the communications technician.

"They report what?" she said.

"Sir, the entire Santander Navy Northern Fleet is steaming down the Gut towards us at flank speed, better than fifteen knots. Distance is less than forty miles."

Eberdorf blinked again, staring blindly out the narrow armored windows of the Grossvolk.

"Sixteen battleships, twenty-two fast protected cruisers, auxiliaries in proportion," the man read on. "Approaching—"

That is the entire Northern Fleet, she thought. Less the Constitution, which was downlined with a warped main drive shaft according to the latest intelligence. They were approaching through the southern strait around Trois; they must have left their base last night and made maximum speed all night, ignoring the chance of grounding or mines. Which meant . . .

She looked out at the chaos that covered the waters before Barclon. The Land's gold sunburst on black was flying over most of the city's higher buildings, those still standing. The fires were still burning out of control in some districts, and the forts guarding the harbor mouth were ruins full of rotting flesh. The water was speckled with half the Land's merchant fleet and about a third of its navy, many of them working shore-support and punching out enemy bunkers for the army.

Two-thirds of the Republic's navy was heading this way, and the Republic had a bigger navy to start with.

Fools, she thought with cold anger. I told them that we should concentrate on building battleships.

Enough. Duty was duty; and her duty here was clear.

"Signals," she said crisply. They had waited motionless, but she could sense the slight relief when she began to rap out orders. "To all transports in waves A and B." Those closest to the dock. "Enemy fleet approaching. Beach yourselves upriver."

That way the crews and troops could get off the ships, at least.

"All transports drawing less than five feet are to proceed upriver."

Where they'd be safe from the shells of Santander battlewagons, at least. The animals still held parts of the river not far inland, but that was a lesser risk.

"Waves C through F are to make maximum speed northward." With luck, most of them would have enough time to get under the protection of the guns of the fortresses that marked the seaward junction of the old Sierran border. Imperial forts, but adequately manned and upgunned since the conquest.

"Order to the fleet," she said. Sixty miles . . . just time enough. "Captains to report on board the flagship, with the following exceptions. Battleships Adelreich and Eisenrede are to make all speed north and rendezvous at Corona." Sending them out of harm's way; the navy would need every heavy ship it had to keep control of the vital passage.

"Mine-laying vessels are to proceed to the harbor channels and dump their cargos overboard. Maximum speed; ignore spacing, just do it. End. Oh, and transmit to Naval HQ."

"Sir."

Her chief of staff stepped up beside her, speaking quietly into her ear. "Sir, the enemy will have seven times our weight of broadside. What do you intend to do?"

Eberdorf's face was skull-like at the best of times, thin weathered skin lying right on the harsh bones. It looked even more like a death's-head as she smiled.

"Do, Helmut?" she said. "We're going to buy some time. And then we're all going to die, I think."

* * *

"Watch it!" someone said on the bridge.

Maurice Farr didn't look around. He also didn't flinch as the Land twin-engine swept overhead, not fifty feet above the tripod mast of the Great Republic. He was looking through the slide-mounted binoculars of the combat bridge as the bombs dropped. One hit squarely on A turret, the forward double twelve-inch gun mount. The ship groaned and twisted, but when the smoke cleared he could see only a star-shaped scar on the hardened surface of the thick rolled and cast armor. Behind him a voice murmured:

"A turret reports one casualty, sir." That was to the Great Republic's captain. "Turret ready for action."

"Give me the ranges," Farr said.

"Eleven thousand, sir. Closing."

Farr nodded. They were slanting in towards the Land ships, like not-quite-parallel lines, but there was shoal water between the fleets, far too shallow for his heavy ships, or even for most cruisers.

"Admiral," the captain of the Great Republic said, "at maximum elevation, I could be making some hits by now with my twelve-inchers."

"As you were, Gridley," Farr said emotionlessly.

"Yes, sir."

Two more Land aircraft were making runs at the Santander flagship, both twin-engine models. One was carrying a torpedo clamped underneath it; the other carried more of the sixty-pound bombs. He stiffened ever so slightly; the torpedo was a real menace, and he hadn't know that aircraft could be rigged for—

The torpedo splashed into the shallow green water. Seconds later it detonated in a huge shower of mud. The Land biplane flew through the column of spray, its engines stuttering. Just then one of the four-barrel pom-poms on the side of the central superstructure cut loose. It was loud even in comparison to the general racket of battle, and the glowing globes of the one-pound shells seemed to flick out and then float, slowing, as they approached it. That was an optical illusion. The explosion when the aircraft flew into a dozen of the little shells was very real; it vanished in a fireball from which bits of smoking debris fell seaward.

The stick of bombs from the next aircraft fell in a neat bracket over the Santander battleship, raising gouts of spray that fell back on the deck. Tentacled things floated limply on the water, or landed on the deck and lashed their barbed organic whips at the riveted steel.

Thud. Flash. Thud. Flash. The eight-inch guns of the Land cruisers on the other side of the shoal were opening up on him. He smiled thinly, observing the fall of shot. Water gouted up, just short of the leading elements of his seventeen battleships—the eighteenth, the President Cummings, was aground on a mudbank back half a kilometer and working frantically to it. The shell splashes were colored, green and orange and bright blue, dye injected into the bursting charges to let observers spot the point of impact. All were just a little short, although the foremost Santander battleship had probably been splashed. Another flotilla of four-stacker destroyers was darting out from behind the Land heavy ships, surging forward over the shoal water impassable to the deeper keels.

For a moment, he abstractly admired their courage. Then he spoke:

"Secondary batteries only, if you please."

"Yes, sir. Admiral, there may be mines in the channel ahead."

"I don't think so; we rushed them. In any case, damn the mines, continue course ahead."

"Yes, sir."

The Great Republic had her weapons arranged as most modern warships did: two heavy turrets fore and aft, in this case twin twelve-inch rifles, and four turrets for the secondary armament, two on either side just forward and abaft the central superstructure. That meant each of the battleships could fire a broadside of four eight-inch secondaries. They bellowed, the muzzle blasts enough to rock every man on the bridge and remind them to keep their mouths open to avoid pressure-flux damage to the eardrums. Shells fell among the Land destroyers, sixty-eight at a time. Four destroyers were hit in the first salvo, disappearing in fire and black smoke and spray as the heavy armor-piercing shells tore into their fragile plate structures.

One destroyer came close enough to the Great Republic to begin to heel aside, the center-mounted three-tube torpedo launcher swinging on its center pivot. Every pom-pom on the battleship cut loose at it, hundreds of one-pounder shells striking from stem to stern of the destroyer's long slender hull. So did the six five-inch quick-firers in sponson mounts along the armored side. Afterwards, Farr decided that it had probably been a pom-pom shell hitting a torpedo warhead that started the explosions, but it might have been a five-incher penetrating into a magazine. The light was blinding, but when he blinked back his sight and threw up a hand against the radiant heat there was still a crater in the water, shrinking as the liquid rushed back into the giant bubble the shock wave had created. Of the destroyer there was very little to see.

Another salvo of Land eight-inch shells went by, overhead this time.

All along the line of Santander battlewagons the main gun turrets were turning, muzzles fairly low—they were close enough now that the flat trajectories of the high-velocity rifles would strike without much elevation. Farr didn't trust high-angle fire at long range; it was deadly when it hit, but the probabilities were low given the current state of fleet gunnery.

He smiled bleakly. I've waited a long time for this, he thought. Aloud:

"You may fire when ready, Gridley."

Sixty-eight twelve-inch guns spoke within two seconds of each other, a line of flame and water rippling away from the muzzle blast all along the two-mile stretch of the Santander gunline. The Great Republic shivered and groaned, her eighteen-thousand-ton mass twisting in protest. The massive projectiles slapped out over the furrows the propellant gasses had dug in the water, reaching the height of their trajectory as the sea flowed back.

Then they began to fall towards the Chosen, multiple tons of steel and high explosive avalanching down. When their hardened heads struck armor plate, it would flow aside like a liquid.

* * *

Heinrich Hosten looked out over the harbor of Barclon with throttled fury. The surface of the water was burning, floating gasoline and heavier oils from the sunken tankers still drifting in flaming patches. The masts of sunken freighters slanted up out of the filthy water, among the floating debris and bodies. A few hulls protruded above the surface, nose-down with the bronze propellers dripping into the filth below. Other columns of smoke showed low on the western horizon, where the Santander battleships and their consorts were heading for home. The air stank of death and burnt petroleum, with the oily reek of the latter far more unpleasant.

"At least the enemy are withdrawing," the naval attaché said.

Heinrich swallowed bile. "Captain Gruenwald, the enemy are withdrawing because they have accomplished their mission and there are no targets left which warrant risking a capital ship. Now, get down there and see what assets we have left—if any. Or get a rifle and make yourself useful. But in either case, get out of my sight."

"Jawohl."

The naval officer clicked heels, did a perfect about-face, and left. Heinrich's head turned like a gun turret to his chief of staff.

"Report?"

"We got about ninety percent of the troops and support personnel off the transports," he said. "Half the supplies, mostly ammunition. Very little of the food"—it had been in the last convoys—"and only about one-quarter of the motor fuel. We may be able to recover a little more from tankers sunk in shallow water."

So much for the masterpiece of my career, Heinrich thought. An operation going absolutely according to plan, which was a minor miracle—until the Santander fleet showed up. It could have been worse. A day earlier, and they'd have slaughtered the entire army at sea.

Aloud: "Well, then. Immediate general order: All motor fuel to be reserved for armored fighting vehicles. The officers can walk or ride horses. Next, the reports from the other elements."

This was a four-pronged invasion: his, down here in the coastal plain; an air assault on Nueva Madrid and points between here and there; and the two overland drives into the mountains on the Sierras northern and southern flanks.

"Sir. Brigadier Hosten reports successful seizure of the central government complex in Nueva Madrid, most of the personnel on the critical list, of the National Armory, and the refinery. The refinery will be operational within six to ten days. She anticipates no problem holding her perimeter until linkup with the main force. All the other air-landing forces report objectives achieved."

Heinrich grunted with qualified relief. The rhythm of operations would be badly disrupted still, but at least he wouldn't run completely dry of fuel when what he had on hand was gone. When he held the triangle of territory based on the Gut and reaching to Nueva Madrid, the bulk of Sierra's population and industry would be under Chosen control.

The aide went on: "General Meitzerhagen reports that the northern passes are now secured and he is advancing south along the line of the railway. Resistance is disorganized but heavy and consistent. Also, there have already been raids on his line of communication."

Heinrich grunted again, running a thick finger down the line of rail leading towards the central lowlands, with a branch westward along the Rio Arena.

"My compliments to General Meitzerhagen, and his followup elements are to secure the line of rail by liquidating the entire population within two days foot-march of the railways."

The aide blinked; that was a little drastic, even by Chosen standards. Cautiously, he asked, "Herr General, will that not distract from our primary mission?"

"No. Santander can interdict the Gut, but they cannot land significant forces here—they don't have enough to spare from the Union border. Hence, the outcome of this campaign is not in doubt, given the forces available here. For reasons you have no need to know, it is now absolutely imperative that we secure the rail passage across the Sierra to our forces in the Union. Guerillas cannot operate without a civilian populace to shelter and feed them. These Sierrans are stubborn animals, and I have no time to tame them by gentle means. Their corpses will give us no trouble except as a public health problem."

"Zum behfel, Herr General."

"And my compliments to Brigadier Hosten: signal Well done."

* * *

"Why, thank you, Heinrich," Gerta muttered to herself, tossing the telegraph form onto her desk.

That had belonged to one of the Executive Council of the Sierra until yesterday morning. There was still a spatter of dried blood across it where a submachine-gun burst had ended that particular politician's term of office; it was beginning to smell pretty high, too. The windows were permanently opened—grenade—which cut it a little; it also let her listen to mop-up squads finishing off the pockets of resistance all across Nueva Madrid.

"Enter," she said; the words were blurred by the bandages across one side of her face, and by the pain of the long gash underneath.

Her son snapped to attention. "Sir. The last fires in the refinery are out. Here are the casualty reports. The technicians say that the water supply can be restarted as soon as we hold the reservoir; Colonel von Seedow asks permission to—"

Colonel von Seedow came in, walking rather stiffly.

"You may go, Fahnrich," she said. Johan was young enough to still be entranced by military formality.

Von Seedow saluted more casually. "It's an easy enough target," she said. "My scouts report that the enemy aren't holding it in force, and I'd rather we didn't give them time to think of poisoning it."

Gerta considered; she was tasked with taking the capital and a set surrounding area and holding until relieved. On the other hand, she had considerable latitude, resistance had been light, and just sitting on her behind waiting had never been her long suit.

Speaking of which . . . "That a wound, Maxine?" she said, as the other Chosen officer sat in a gingerly fashion.

"In a manner of speaking, Brigadier. You don't like girls, do you?

Gerta blinked; it was a rather odd question at this point. "No. About as entertaining as a gynecological exam, for me. Why?"

"Well, in that case my warning is superfluous, but watch out for the ones here. They bite."

They shared a chuckle, and Gerta pulled out the appropriate map. "Through here?" she said, drawing a line with her finger to the irregular blue circle of the reservoir.

"Ya. And a couple of companies around here. Can you spare me some armored cars?"

"That's no problem, we only lost two in action."

Maxine von Seedow ran a hand over the blond stubble that topped her long, rather boney face. "Good. We did lose more infantry than I anticipated."

"Stubborn beasts, locally."

Von Seedow rose, wincing slightly. "Tell me about it, Brigadier. In my opinion, we should exterminate them. I should have the reservoir by nightfall."

"Good. The last thing I want is an epidemic of dysentery. Or rather, the last thing you want is an epidemic of dysentery."

Maxine raised her pale eyebrows.

"In their infinite wisdom, the General Staff are pulling me out. They've got another hole and need a cork."

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE




"War! Extra, extra, read all about it—Republic at war with Chosen! Admiral Farr smashes Chosen fleet!"

"Well, part of it," Jeffrey Farr said, snatching a copy thrust into his hands and flipping a fifty-cent piece back.

The car was moving slowly enough for that; the streets of Santander City were packed. Militiamen were rushing to their mobilization stations, air-raid wardens in their new armbands and helmets were standing on stepladders to tape over the streetlights, and everybody and his Aunt Sally were milling around talking to each other. Smith pulled the car over to the curb for ten minutes while a unit of Regulars—Premier's Guard, but in field kit—headed towards the main railway station. The newspaper was full of screaming headlines three inches high, and so were the mobilization notices being pasted up on every flat surface by members of the Women's Auxiliary, who also wore armbands.

The crowds cheered the soldiers as they marched. John nodded. "Hope they're still as enthusiastic in a year," he said grimly.

"Hope we're alive in a year," Jeffrey replied, scanning the article. His lips shaped a soundless whistle. "Hot damn, but it looks like Dad completely cleaned their clocks. Eight cruisers, a battleship, and half their transports. Good way to start the war."

"Improves our chances," John said. "I wonder if Center—"

admiral farr's actions indicate the limit of stochastic multivariate analysis, Center said. in your terms: a pleasant surprise, probability of favorable outcome to the struggle as a whole is increased by 7%, ±1.

Jeffrey nodded. "Wonder what they'll do now," he mused. "What'd you do, in their boots?"

"Stand pat," John said at once. "Fortify the line of the Union-Santander border, concentrate on pacifying the occupied territories, and build ships and aircraft like crazy—taking Chosen personnel out of the armies to do it, if I had to. Absolutely no way we could fight our way through the mountains."

Good lad, Raj said. That would make their tactics serve their strategy.

correct, Center replied, dispassionate as always. the strategy john hosten has outlined would give probability of chosen victory within a decade of over 75%; probability of long-term stalemate 10%; probability of santander victory 15%. in addition, in this scenario there is a distinct possibility of immediate and long-term setback to human civilization on visager, as the effort of prolonged total war and the development of weapons of mass destruction undermines the viability of both parties.

"Fortunately, they're not likely to do that," Jeffrey said. "The Chosen always did tend to mistake operations for strategy,"

probability of full-scale chosen attack on santander border is 85%, ±7, Center confirmed.

"They'll try to roll right over us," John said. "The question is, can we hold them?"

"We'd better," Jeffrey said. "If we don't hold them in the passes, if they break through into the open basin country west of Alai, we're royally fucked. The provincial militias just don't have the experience or cohesion to fight open-field battles of maneuver yet."

"The Regulars will have to hold them, then."

Jeffrey's face was tired and stubbled; now it looked old. "And Gerard's men," he said softly. "There in the front line."

John looked at him. "That'll be pretty brutal," he warned. "They'll be facing the Land's army—in the civil war, it was mostly Libert's troops with a few Land units as stiffeners."

Jeffrey's lips thinned. "Gerard's men are half the formed, regular units we have," he said. "We need time. If we spend all our cadre resisting the first attacks, who's going to teach the rush of volunteers? We've split up the Freedom Brigades people to the training camps, too."

John sighed and nodded. "Behfel ist behfel."

* * *

"Good God, what is that?" the HQ staffer said.

Jeffrey Farr looked up from the table. All across the eastern horizon light flickered and died, flickered and died, bright against the morning. The continuous thudding rumble was a background to everything, not so much loud as all-pervasive.

"That's the Land artillery," he said quietly. "Hurricane bombardment. Start sweating when it stops, because the troops will come in on the heels of it."

He turned back to the other men around the table, most in Santander brown, and many looking uncomfortable in it.

"General Parks, your division was federalized two weeks ago. It should be here by now."

"Sir . . ." Parks had a smooth western accent. "It's corn planting season, as I'm sure you're aware, and—"

"And the Chosen will eat the harvest if we don't stop them," Jeffrey said. "General Parks, get what's at the concentration points here, and do it fast. Or turn your command over to your 2-IC." Who, unlike Parks, was a regular, one of the skeleton cadre that first-line provincial militia units had been ordered to maintain several years ago, when the Union civil war began ratcheting up tensions. "I think that'll be all; you may return to your units, gentlemen."

He looked down at the map, took a cup of coffee from the orderly and scalded his lips slightly, barely noticing. The markers for the units under his command were accurate as of last night. Fifty thousand veterans of the Unionaise civil war; another hundred thousand regulars from the Republic's standing army, and many of the officers and NCOs had experience in that war, too. Two hundred and fifty thousand federalized militia units; they were well equipped, but their training ranged from almost as good as the Regulars to abysmal. More arriving every hour.

Half a million Land troops were going to hit them in a couple of hours, supported by scores of heavy tanks, hundreds of light ones, thousands of aircraft.

"None of Libert's men?" Gerard said quietly, tracing the unit designators for the enemy forces.

"No. They're moving east—east and north, into the Sierra."

"Good," Gerard said quietly. Jeffrey looked up at him. The compact little Unionaise was smiling. "Not pleasant, fighting one's own countrymen."

"Pierre . . ." Jeffrey said.

Gerard picked up his helmet and gloves, saluted. "My friend, we must win this war. To this, everything else is subordinate."

They shook hands. Gerard went on: "Libert thinks he can ride the tiger. It is only a matter of time until he joins the other victims in the meat locker."

"I think he's counting on us breaking the tiger's teeth," Jeffrey said. "God go with you."

"How not? If there was ever anyone who fought with His blessing, it is here and now."

"Damn," Jeffrey said softly, watching the Unionaise walk towards his staff car. "I hate sending men out to die."

If you didn't, you wouldn't be the man you are, Raj said. But you'll do it, nonetheless.

Maurice Hosten stamped on the rudder pedal and wrenched the joystick sideways.

His biplane stood on one wing, nose down, and dove into a curve. The Land fighter shot past him with its machine guns stuttering, banking itself to try and follow his turn. He spiraled up into an Immelmann and his plane cartwheeled, cutting the cord of his opponent's circle. His finger clenched down on the firing stud.

"Fuck!" The deflection angle wasn't right; he could feel it even before the guns stuttered.

Spent brass spun behind him, sparkling in the sunlight, falling through thin air to the jagged mountain foothills six thousand feet below. Acrid propellant mingled with the smells of exhaust fumes and castor oil blowing back into his face. Land and cloud heeled crazily below him as he pulled the stick back into his stomach, pulled until gravity rippled his face backward on the bone and vision became edged with gray.

Got the bastard, got him—

Something warned him. It was too quick for thought; stick hard right, rudder right . . . and another Land triplane lanced through the space he'd been in, diving out of the sun. His leather-helmeted head jerked back and forth, hard enough to saw his skin if it hadn't been for the silk scarf. The rest of his squadron were gone, not just his wingman—he'd seen the Land fighter bounce Tom—but all the rest as well. The sky was empty, except for his own plane and the two Chosen pilots.

Nothing for it. He pushed the throttles home and dove into cloud, thankful it was close. Careful, now. Easy to get turned around in here. Easy even to lose track of which way was up and end up flying upside down into a hillside convinced you were climbing. There was just enough visibility to see his instruments' radium glow: horizon, compass, airspeed indicator. One hundred thirty-eight; the Mark IV was a sweet bird.

When he came out of the cloudbank there was nobody in sight. He kept twisting backward to check the sun; that was the most dangerous angle, always. The ground below looked strange, but then, it usually did. Check for mountain peaks, check for rivers, roads, the spaces between them.

"That's the Skinder," he decided, looking at the twisting river. "Ensburg's thataway."

Ensburg had been under siege from the Chosen for a month. So that train of wagons on the road was undoubtedly a righteous target. And he still had more than half a tank of fuel.

Maurice pushed the stick forward and put his finger back on the firing button. Every shell and box of hardtack that didn't make it to the lines outside Ensburg counted.

* * *

"Damn, that's ugly," Jeffrey said, swinging down from his staff car.

The huge Land tank was burnt out, smelling of human fat melted into the ground and turning rancid in the summer heat. The commander still stood in the main gun turret, turned to a calcined statue of charcoal, roughly human-shaped.

"This way, sir," the major . . . Carruthers, that's his name . . . said. "And careful—there are Lander snipers on that ridge back there."

The major was young, stubble-chinned and filthy, with a peeling sunburn on his nose. From the way he scratched, he was never alone these days. He'd probably been a small-town lawyer or banker three months ago; he was also fairly cheerful, which was a good sign.

"We caught it with a field-gun back in that farmhouse," he said, waving over one shoulder.

Jeffrey looked back; the building was stone blocks, gutted and roofless, marked with long black streaks above the windows where the fire has risen. There was a barn nearby, reduced to charred stumps of timbers and a big stone water tank. The orchard was ragged stumps.

"Caught it in the side as it went by." He pointed; one of the powered bogies that held the massive war machine up was shattered and twisted. "Then we hit it with teams carrying satchel charges, while the rest of us gave covering fire."

The ex-militia major sobered. "Lost a lot of good men doing it, sir. But I can tell you, we were relieved. Those things are so cursed hard to stop!"

"I know," Jeffrey said dryly, looking to his right down the eastward reach of the valley. The Santander positions had been a mile up that way, before the Chosen brought up the tank.

"This is dead ground, sir. You can straighten up."

Jeffrey did so, watching the engineers swarming over the tank, checking for improvements and modifications. "The good news about these monsters, major, comes in threes," he said, tapping its flank. "There aren't very many of them; they break down a lot; and now that the lines aren't moving much, the enemy don't get to recover and repair them very often."

"Well, that's some consolation, sir," Carruthers said dubiously. "They're still a cursed serious problem out here."

"We all have problems, Major Carruthers."

* * *

The factory room was long, lit by grimy glass-paned skylights, open now to let in a little air; the air of Oathtaking, heavy and thick at the best of times, and laden with a sour acid smog of coal smoke and chemicals when the wind was from the sea. Right now it also smelled of the man who was hanging on an iron hook driven into the base of his skull. The hook was set over the entrance door, where the workers passed each morning and evening as they were taken from the camp on the city's outskirts. The body had been there for two days now, ever since the shop fell below quota for an entire week. Sometimes it moved a little as the maggots did their work.

There was a blackboard beside the door, with chalked numbers on it. This week's production was nearly eight percent over quota. A cheerful banner announced the prizes that the production group would receive if they could sustain that for another seven days: a pint of wine for each man, beef and fresh fruit, tobacco, and two hours each with an inmate from the women's camp.

Tomaso Guiardini smiled as he looked at the banner. He smiled again as he looked down at the bearing race in the clamp before him. It was a metal circle; the inner surface moved smoothly under his hand, where it rested on the ball-bearings in the race formed by the outer U-shaped portion.

Very smoothly. Nothing to tell that there were metal filings mixed with the lubricating matrix inside. Nothing except the way the bearing race would seize up and burn when subjected to heavy use, in about one-tenth the normal time.

He looked up again at the banner. Perhaps the woman would be pretty, maybe with long, soft hair. Mostly the Chosen shaved the inmates' scalps, though.

He glanced around. The foreman was looking over somebody else's shoulder. Tomaso took two steps and swept a handful of metal shavings from the lathe across the aisle, dropping them into the pocket of his grease-stained overall, and was back at his bench before the Protégé foreman—he was a one-eyed veteran with a limp, and a steel-cored rubber truncheon thonged to his wrist—could turn around.

* * *

"Dad!" Maurice Hosten checked his step. "I mean, sir. Ah, just a second."

He pulled off the leather flyer's helmet and turned to give some directions to the ground crew; the blue-black curls of his hair caught the sun, and the strong line of his jaw showed a faint shadow of dense beard of exactly the same color. His plane had more bullet holes in the upper wing, and part of the tail looked as if it had been chewed. There were a row of markings on the fuselage below the cockpit, too—Chosen sunbursts with a red line drawn through of them. Eight in all, and the outline of an airship.

John Hosten's blond hair was broadly streaked with gray now, and as he watched the young man's springy step he was abruptly conscious that he was no longer anything but unambiguously middle-aged. He still buckled his belt at the same notch, he could do most of what he had been able to—hell, his biological father was running the Land's General Staff with ruthless competence and he was thirty years older—but doing it took a higher price every passing year.

Maurice, though, he certainly isn't a boy any longer.

War doesn't give you much chance at youth, Raj agreed, with an edge of sadness to his mental voice.

The young pilot turned back. "Good to see you, Dad."

"And you, son." He pulled the young man into a brief embrace. "That's from your mother."

"How is she?"

"Still working too hard," John said. "We meet at breakfast, most days."

Maurice chuckled and shook his head. "Doing wonders, though. The food's actually edible since the Auxiliary took over the mess." They began walking back towards the pine-board buildings to one side of the dirt strip.

"I wish everything was going as well," he said, with a quick scowl.

"I'm listening," John said.

"You always did, Dad," Maurice said. He ran a hand through his hair. "Look, the war's less than six months old—and there are only three other pilots in this squadron besides me who were in at the start. And one of them had experience in the Union civil war."

"Bad, I know."

"Dad, we're losing nearly two-thirds of the new pilots in the first week they're assigned to active patrols."

60% in the first ten days, Center said inside his head. a slight exaggeration.

"The Chosen pilots, they're good. And they've got experience. Our planes are about as good now, but Christ, the new chums, they've got maybe twenty hours flying time when they get here. It's like sending puppies up against Dobermans! I have to force myself to learn their f—sorry, their goddamned names."

"You were almost as green," John pointed out.

"Dad, that's not the same thing, and you know it. I had Uncle Jeff teaching me before the war, and I'm . . . lucky."

He's a natural, Raj said clinically. It's the same with any type of combat—swords, pistols, bayonet fighting. Novices do most of the dying, experienced men do most of the killing, and a few learn faster than anyone else. This boy of yours is a fast learner; I know the type.

"What do you suggest, son?"

"I—" Maurice hesitated, and ran his fingers through his hair again. "What we really need is more instructors—experienced instructors—back at the flying schools."

"You want the job?" John said.

"Christ no! I . . . oh." He trailed off uncertainly.

"Well, that's one reason," John said. "For another, we don't have time to stretch the training. The Chosen were getting ready for this war for a long time. Our men have to learn on the job, and they pay for it in blood; not just you pilots, but the ground troops as well. We've lost two hundred and fifty thousand casualties."

Maurice's eyes went wide, and he gave a small grunt of incredulous horror.

"Yes, we don't publicize the overall figures; and that doesn't count the Union Loyalist troops; they were virtually wiped out. The weekly dead-and-missing list in the newspapers is bad enough. In Ensburg, they're eating rats and their own dead. We estimate half the population of the Sierra is gone, and in the Empire, we're supplying guerillas who keep operating even though they know a hundred hostages will be shot for every soldier killed, five hundred for every Chosen. But we stopped them. They thought they could run right over us the way they did the Empire, or the Sierra . . . and they didn't. They've nowhere gotten more than a hundred miles in from the old Union border, and our numbers are starting to mount. The Chosen are butchers, and we're paying a high butcher's bill, but we're learning."

Maurice shook his head. "Dad," he said slowly, "I wouldn't have your job for anything."

"Not many of us are doing what we'd really like," John said. "Duty's duty." He clapped his hand on his sons shoulder. "But we're doing our best—and you're doing damned well."

* * *

None of the command group was surprised when Gerta Hosten arrived; if they had been, she'd have put in a report that would ensure their next command was of a rifle platoon on the Confrontation Line. The pickets and ambush patrols passed her through after due checks, and she found the brigade commander consulting with his subordinates next to two parked vehicles in what had been Pueblo Vieho before the forces of the Land arrived in the Sierra the previous spring. A lieutenant was talking, pointing out the path her command had taken through the pine woods further up the mountain slopes, above the high pastures.

Gerta vaulted out of her command car—it was a six-wheeled armored car chassis with the turret and top deck removed—and exchanged salutes and clasped wrists with the commander. "'Tag, Ektar," she said. "How are things in the quiet sector? Missed you by about an hour at your headquarters,"

"Just coming up to see how things are going at the business end," Ektar Feldenkopf said. "Not a bad bag: seventeen men, twenty-four women, and a round dozen of their brats. The yield from these sweeps has been falling off."

The air of the high Sierran valley was cool and crisp even in late summer. Most of it had been pasture, growing rank now. The burnt snags of the village's log houses didn't smell any more, or the bodies underneath them. There were still traces of gingerbread carving around the eaves. Several skeletons lay on the dirt road leading to the lowlands, where the clean-up squad had shot them as they fled into the darkness from their burning houses. The bodies laid out in the overgrown mud of the street had probably run the other way, up into the forests and the mountains, to survive a little longer and steal down to try and raid the conqueror's supply lines. The women and children taken alive knelt in a row beyond the corpses, hands secured behind their backs.

"Which means either they're getting thinner on the ground, or better at hiding, or both."

"Both, I think—the interrogations will tell us something. The males had a rifle each and about twenty rounds, plus some handguns, but no explosives."

Johan was looking at one of the prisoners, a blond who probably looked extremely pretty when she was better fed and didn't have dried blood from a blow to the nose over most of her face. Gerta smiled indulgently; young men had single-track minds, and he'd been doing his work very well. He had some scars of his own now, although nothing like the one that seamed the side of her face since the drop on Nueva Madrid, and drew the left corner of her face up in a permanent slight smile.

"All right," she said. "But don't undo her hands and watch out for the teeth. Remember Hauptman von Seedow."

The three Chosen shared a brief chuckle; poor Maxine had been laid up in a field hospital for a month with her infected bite, and the joke was still doing the rounds of every officers' mess in the Land's armed forces. She'd nearly punched one wit who offered her a recipe for a poultice.

She'll never live it down, Gerta thought, as her son walked over to the prisoners. Still chuckling, he hauled the girl—she was about his own age—to her feet by her hair and marched her off behind the ruins of one of the buildings.

"How are they surviving?" Gerta asked. None of them were what you'd call well-fleshed, but they weren't on the verge of starvation either.

"These mountain villages, they store cheese and dried milk and so on up in the caves," the officer said, waving towards the jagged snow-capped mountains to the north. "There are a lot of caves up there. And there's game, deer and bison, rabbits ana so forth, and a lot of cattle and sheep and pigs gone wild in the woods. Half-wild to begin with. Still, they're getting hungrier, and we're whittling them down. It's good rest and recreation for units pulled out of the line."

"How do the Unionaise shape?" she asked.

There was a brigade of them down the valley a ways, at the crossroads twenty miles west of the railroad, under their own officers, but also under the operational control of the Land regional command.

"Not bad," the officer said, as a shrill scream sounded from behind the wrecked building. It trailed off into sobs. "Not as energetic at their patrolling as I'd like. Good enough for this work, I'd say; I couldn't swear how they'd do in heavy combat. Settling in to that town as if they owned the place."

"They think they do," Gerta replied. "Well, things appear to be under control here. Which is more than I can say about some other places."

The garrison commander frowned and lowered his voice. "How does the Confrontation Line develop? The official reports seem . . . overly optimistic."

Gerta spoke quietly as well. "Not so well. We're killing the Santies by the shitload, that part of the official story is true enough. They keep attacking us with more enthusiasm than sense, but it's getting more expensive, and we're not taking much territory. Ensburg's still holding out."

"Still?" The man's brows rose. "They must be starving."

"They are. I was in the siege lines last week; nothing left inside but rubble, and you can smell the stink of their funeral pyres. Starvation, typhus, whatever—but they're not giving up."

She spat into the dirt. "If that monomaniac imbecile Meitzerhagen hadn't killed the garrison of Fort William after they surrendered and bellowed the fact to the world, they might have been more inclined to give up. So would a lot of the other garrisons we cut off in the first push; mopping them up took time the Santies used to get themselves organized. We lost momentum."

The other officer nodded. "Meitzerhagen's a sledgehammer," he said. "The problem is—"

"—not all problems are nails," she finished.

"Stalemate, for the present, then."

"Ja. We can push them, but we outrun our supplies. And even when we beat them, they don't run, and there are always more of them. Their equipment's good, too. Now that they're learning how to use it . . ." She shrugged.

"How is our logistical situation, then?"

"It sucks wet dogshit. We can't move dirigibles within a hundred miles of the front in daylight, the road net's terrible, the terrain favors defense . . . and the Santies are right in the middle of their main industrial area, with their best farmlands only a few hundred miles away on first-class rails and roads."

"I presume the staff is evolving a counterstrategy."

"Ya. No details of course, but let's just say that we're going to encourage their enthusiasm and prepare to receive it. Also if we can't use the Gut, there's no reason they should be able to either."

The officer sighed and nodded. "Well, you can tell them that my brigade at least is doing its job," he said. "Trying to keep the rail lines through the Sierra working would have been a nightmare if we'd used conventional occupation techniques. Bad enough as it is."

Young Johan returned, pushing the dazed and naked Sierran girl before him. He dropped into parade rest behind Gerta, smiling faintly as the prisoner stumbled back to kneel with the others.

"In a year or two, there won't be any left to speak of. . . . Speaking of which, you said there was a new directive?"

Gerta nodded. "Ya, we're running short of labor for the construction gangs, importing from the New Territories is inconvenient, big projects all over, and the local animals might as well give some value before they die," she said. "Send down noncombatant adults fit for heavy work—ones that give up when you catch them. Keep killing all those found in arms or not useful. Except children under about five. As an experiment, we're sending those back to the Land to be raised by senior Protégé-soldier families."

Long-serving Protégé soldiers were allowed to marry, as a special privilege for good service. "They might be useful, that way, in the long term. At your discretion, though; don't tie up transport if you're busy."

The other Chosen nodded. "Jawohl. Odd to think of us running short of manual workers, though."

"Well, even the New Territories' population has dropped considerably," she said. "We'll have to be less wasteful after the war."

Gerta returned his salute and turned to her open-topped armored car. When you carried a hatchet for the General Staff, your work was never done.



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