The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR




Jeffrey Farr whistled soundlessly. Not that anyone could have heard him in the rear seat of the observation plane; the noise of the engine and the slipstream was too loud. He reached forward and tapped the pilot on the shoulder, circling his hand with the index finger up and pointing it downwards. The pilot nodded and circled, coming down to four thousand feet.

A couple of light pom-poms opened up, winking up at them from the huge piles of turned earth below; then a heavier antiaircraft gun, that stood some chance of reaching them. Black puffs of smoke erupted in the air below, each with a momentary snap of fire at its heart before it lost shape and began to drift away. Ant-tiny, hordes of laborers dove for the shelter of the trenches they had been digging, leaving their tools among the piles of timber, steel sheet and reinforcing rod.

There was a big camera fastened to brackets ahead of the observer's position, but Jeffrey ignored it. He'd seen pictures; this trip was for a personal look.

All right, he thought. Nice job of field engineering. Everything laid out to command the ground to the east, but not just simple positions on ridge tops. Machine-gun bunkers at the base of the ridges, giving maximum fields of fire; heavier bunkers for field guns, revetted positions for heavy mortars on the reverse slopes, with communications trenches and even tunnels to bring reserves forward quickly without leaving them exposed to direct-fire weapons. All-round fields of fire, so that each position could hold out if cut off, and heavier redoubts further back, layer upon layer of them.

They must have half a million men working on this, Jeffrey thought, impressed.

correct to within ten thousand ±6, Center said. assuming an equivalent effort in other sectors of the front, as intelligence reports indicate.

"Well, we'll have to take this into account," Jeffrey said. He tapped the pilot's shoulder again; despite their two-squadron escort, the man was looking nervously east and upward, to where Land attackers would come diving out of the morning sun. The plane banked westward.

* * *

"Thank you gentlemen for meeting on such short notice," Jeffrey said.

They were in the Premier's bunker beneath the hilltop Executive Mansion, nearly a hundred yards underground, as deep as you could get near Santander City without hitting groundwater. The impact of the bombs, a dull crump . . . crump . . . was felt more through the soles of their feet than heard through their ears. Every now and then the overhead electric light flickered, and dust filtered down, making men sneeze at its acrid scent.

"I thought you'd made it suicidal for dirigibles to fly over our territory," Maurice Farr said dryly to the Air Force commander.

The commander flushed and pulled at his mustache. "In daylight, yes. But the speed and altitude advantage of our fighters is fairly narrow. At night, it's much harder. Those might be their new long-range eight-engine bomber planes, too. We're having more of a problem with those."

At the head of the table, Jeffrey held up a hand. "In any case, the error radius of night bombing is so huge that it consumes more of their resources to do it than it does of ours to endure it."

The Premier tapped a pencil sharply on the table. "General, we're losing hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian every time one of those raids breaks through."

Jeffrey dipped his head slightly. "With all due respect, sir, there were a hundred and fifty thousand people in Ensburg—and I doubt ten thousand of them are alive now, and those are in Chosen labor camps."

A pall of silence fell around the table. The siege of Ensburg had been a morale-booster for the whole Republic. Its fall had been a correspondingly serious blow. Jeffrey went on:

"So with all due respect, Mr. Premier, anything that helps keep the enemy back is a positive factor, and that includes attacks that hurt us but hurt him more."

"There's the effect of bombing on civilian morale," the politician pointed out.

observe:

Scenes floated before Jeffrey's eyes: cities reduced to street patterns amid tumbled scorched brick, air-raid shelters full of unmarked corpses asphyxiated as the firestorms above sucked the oxygen from their lungs, fleets of huge four-engined bombers sleeker and more deadly than anything Visager knew raining down incendiaries on a town of half-timbered buildings crowded with refugees while odd-looking monoplane fighters tried to beat them off.

"Sir, our citizens could take a lot more pain than this and still keep going. In any case, if we could turn to the matter at hand?"

The men around the table—generals, admirals, heads of ministries—opened the folders that lay before them. Heading each bundle of documents were aerial photographs of enormous twisting chains of fortifications. Maps followed, and intelligence summaries.

"Is this reliable?" the Premier asked.

"Sir, I've seen a good deal of it with my own eyes," Jeffrey said. "And we have the labor gangs working on it penetrated to a fare-thee-well. It's genuine, and it's a major effort. Not just the labor, they've got plenty of that, but the transport capacity it's tying up and the materials. Steel, cement, explosives for the minefields."

"So you're right. They're going to withdraw," the Premier said. "We're beating them!"

"Sir." The elected leader of the Republic looked up at Jeffrey's tone. "Sir, we're making them retreat—and that's not the same thing. We have to consider the strategic consequences. If you'll all turn to Report Four?"

They did; it started with a map. "That line—they're code-naming it the Gothic Line, for some reason—is cursed well laid-out. When it's finished, they'll make a fighting retreat and then sit and wait for us."

"We've pushed them back once, we can do it again!" the Premier said. "No invader can be left on the Republic's soil, whatever the cost."

Christ. Usually the Premier's aggressive pugnacity was a plus for Jeffrey and the conduct of the war; he'd trampled the political opposition into dust, and the people had rallied around him as a symbol of the national will—they were calling him "the Tiger," now. But if he got the bit between his teeth on this—

observe:

Men in khaki uniforms and odd soup-bowl helmets clambered out of trenches and advanced into a moonscape of craters and bits of trees, ends of twisted barbed wire, mud, rotting fragments of once-human flesh. They walked in long neat lines, precisely spaced. From ahead, beyond the uncut barbed wire, the machine guns began to flicker in steady arcs . . .

. . . and men in different uniforms, blue, helmets with a ridge down the center, huddled in a shell crater. Bulbous masks hid their faces, turning them into snouted insectile shapes. Bodies bobbed in the thick muddy water at the bottom of the shell hole, their flesh stained yellow. Somehow he knew that the air was full of an invisible drifting death that would bum out lungs and turn them to bags of thick liquid matter . . .

. . . and a man in neat officer's uniform with a swagger stick in his hand and the red tabs of the staff looked out over a sea of mud churned to the consistency of porridge. It was too viscous even to hold the shape of craters, although it was dimpled like the face of a smallpox victim. Plank walkways lead off into the steady gray rain; about them lay discarded equipment, sunken in the mire. So was a mule, still feebly struggling with only the top quarter of its body showing.

"Good God," the man said, his face gray as the churned and poisoned soil. "Did we send men out to fight in this?" His face crumpled into tears.

Jeffrey shook his head; the problem with visions like that was that the implications stayed with you.

"Sir, right now we've managed to turn the war from one of movement into one of attrition favoring us. This is the Chosen countermove. If we attack their prepared positions, we'll bleed ourselves white; attrition will favor them. Believe me, sir, please—if you've ever trusted my military judgment, trust it now. We'd break ourselves trying. The ground up there favors defense—that's how we survived their initial attack—and those fieldworks of theirs are as impregnable as the mountains. And that's not all."

He stood and took up a pointer, tracing the Gothic Line with its tip. "This shortens their line, and with massive artillery support and good communications from their immediate rear, they can thin out the forces facing us. Which means they can concentrate a real strategic reserve, not just rob Peter to pay Paul, pulling units out of the line to plug in again elsewhere. They haven't had a genuine reserve. If they get one, it frees up the whole situation and concedes a lot of the initiative to them."

The Premier looked at John. "Your guerillas were supposed to tie down their forces," he said.

"They are, Mr. Premier," he said. "They have two hundred thousand men holding their lines of communication in the old Empire, and another hundred thousand in the Sierra, plus most of Libert's Nationalist army. Which, incidentally, is only useful to them as long as Libert's convinced they're going to win. If they had the free use of those forces, we'd have lost the war in their big push last fall."

John looked around the table. "Gentlemen?" There was a murmur of agreement, reluctant in some cases.

"Guerillas can be crucially useful to us," John went on. "But they can't win the war. They can make it possible for us to win it, though."

The Premier smoothed a thumb across his slightly tobacco-stained white mustache; that and his great shock of snow-colored hair were his political trademarks, along with the gray silk gloves he affected.

"Neither will sitting and looking at the Chosen forts—Chosen forts on our soil," he growled. "Admiral?"

Maurice Farr nodded reluctantly. "We can't risk an attack on the Land Home Fleet in the Passage," he said. "Not at present. It's too far from our bases and too close to theirs. And while our operational efficiency is increasing rapidly, more than theirs—they were already at war readiness—they're building as fast as they can. They've got severe production problems, their labor force doesn't want to work, but they're also experienced at that. If they can complete their latest shipbuilding cycle, our margin of superiority will be severely reduced."

He shrugged. "For the next two years, we have a margin of naval superiority that will remain steady or increase. After that, I can give no assurances."

He looked at his sons and shrugged again. If the Premier requested an analysis within his area of expertise, Maurice Farr would give it.

Jeffrey coughed. "Well, Mr. Premier, the thing is that while the Gothic Line enables the enemy to regain some freedom of action, it does the same for us—and sooner."

The Premier looked at him sharply. Jeffrey went on: "They're not going to come out of those fortifications at us, not after going to that much trouble, and not as long as we maintain a reasonable force facing them. That means we can pull most of our experienced divisions out of the line, recruit them back up to strength, and put the new formations in facing the enemy. That'll give them experience; we don't have to put in full-scale assaults to do that, just patrol aggressively. And so we will have a strategic reserve, and sooner than they will. They don't dare thin their force facing us until those works are complete."

The Premier leaned back in his chair. He'd gotten his start in radical politics—and fought several duels with political opponents and what he considered slanderous journalists, back when that was still legal in some of the western provinces. John reminded himself not to underestimate the man; he was not just the pugnacious bull-at-a-gate extremist some made him out. Plenty of brains behind the shrewd little eyes, and plenty of nerve.

"So," he said. "You think that we can do something with this strategic reserve of yours, in the two years during which we have . . . what is the military phrase?"

"Window of opportunity, Mr. Premier," the military men said.

"Your window of opportunity?" the Premier continued.

"Yes, sir," Jeffrey said. From our window of opportunity to my window of opportunity? he thought. Well, that certainly makes it plain who's to blame if anything goes wrong.

He is a politician, Jeff, Raj thought. A brief mental image, of Raj lying facedown on a magnificent mosaic floor, while a man stood above him shouting, dressed in magnificent metallic robes that blazed under arc lights. I know the breed.

The political leader looked back at Maurice Farr. "What do you say, Admiral?"

"We have to take some action in the next two years," he said with clinical detachment. "As I said, for that period, our strength will increase relative to theirs. But they control three-quarters of the planet's useful land area, resources, and population now; while it'll take time for them to make use of what they've grabbed, eventually they will. Then the balance of forces will start to swing against us. Naval and otherwise."

Most of the military men around the table nodded, reluctantly.

The Premier leaned his elbows on the table, closed one hand into a fist and clasped the other over it, and leaned his chin on his knuckles. The pouched eyes leveled on Jeffrey. "Tell me more," he said.

"Well, sir . . ." he began.

* * *

The elevator was still functioning when the meeting broke up. "God damn, but I hope there aren't any leaks in that bunch," John said, waiting with his foster brother while the first loads went up.

"That's why I confined myself to generalities," Jeffrey replied, yawning. "I can remember when these late nights were a pleasure, not something that made your eyes feel as if they'd been boiled, peeled and dredged in cayenne pepper."

John shook his head. "Useful generalities, though," he fretted.

Jeffrey grinned slightly and punched his arm. "Bro, there's no way we can stop the Fourth Bureau or Militarische Intelligenz from finding out our capabilities, he said. "And from that, deducing our general intentions. What we have to do is keep the precise intentions secret. It'll all depend on that."

John nodded unhappily. "I still don't like it."

"Of course not," Jeffrey said, his voice mock-soothing. "You're a spook. You're not happy unless you know everything about everybody and nobody else knows anything at all."

The elevator rattled to a stop at the bottom of the shaft, and the sliding-mesh doors opened. They stepped in; the little square was decorated in the red plush carpet, mirrors, and carved walnut of the upper part of the Executive Mansion, not like the utilitarian warrens beneath added in the years before the war. The attendant pushed the doors closed and reached for the polished wood and brass of the lever that controlled it.

"Ground floor, I presume, gentlemen?" he said, with a slight Imperial accent.

John nodded, and said in the man's own language, "How is it up top, Mario?"

The elevator operator grinned at the patron who'd found him this job. "Bad, signore," he replied. "The tedeschi swine are out in force tonight. God and Mary and the Saints keep you safe."

"Amen," John said, and took his cigarette case out of his jacket. The cigarillos within were dark with a gold band; he offered it to the other men, then snapped his lighter.

The smoke was rich and pungent. "Sierran," Jeffrey said. "Punch-punch claros. We won't be seeing any more of those for a while."

The elevator operator nodded somberly. "The tedeschi have gone mad there, signore," he said. "They act as beasts in the Empire, but now in the Sierra . . ."

"I think they're mad with frustration," John said. "Ciao, Mario. My regards to your family."

"Signore. And many thanks for Antonio's scholarship."

"He earned it."

"Is there anywhere you don't have them stashed?" Jeffrey said, as they walked out to the entrance—the nonceremonial one, for unofficial guests.

"It never hurts to have friends in . . ." John began, as they accepted hat and cane, uniform cap, and swagger stick, from the attendant. Then he paused on the polished marble of the steps. "Shit."

They both stopped on the uppermost stair. The Executive Mansion had an excellent hilltop site. From here they could see for miles: darkened streets, the swift flicker of emergency vehicle headlights with the top halves painted black to make them less visible from above. Fires burned out of control down by the canals and the riverside warehouses, blotches of soft light amid the blackout darkness. Searchlights probed upward like fingers, like hands reaching for the machines that tormented the city below, sliding off the undersides of clouds and vanishing in the gaps between. Every few seconds an antiaircraft gun would fire, a flicker of light and a flat brraack, then the shell would burst far above, sometimes lighting a cloud from within for an instant. When they finally fell silent, sirens spoke all over the great city, a rising-falling wail that signaled the "all clear." As they died, the lesser sirens of fire engines could be heard, and the clangor of bells.

"And now they'll sleep for a little while," John said softly. "Those that can. Tomorrow they'll get out of bed and go to work."

Jeffrey nodded. "You're right. Center's right, this is hurting the Chosen more than us . . . but it's got to stop, nevertheless."

Harry Smith was waiting in the car; dozing, actually, with his head resting on his gloved hands. He woke as the two men approached. "Sorry, sir, Mr. Jeffrey."

"Why the hell weren't you in the shelter?" John asked, his voice hovering between resignation and annoyance.

"Wanted to keep an eye on the car," Smith said.

John sighed. "Home."

Home was in the North Hill suburbs, beyond Embassy Row. There was little direct damage there; no factories, and none of the densely packed working-class housing common further south on the bank of the river, or across it. The streetlights were still blacked out, and so were the houses. The steamcar slid quietly through the darkened streets, passing an occasional Air Raid Precautions patrol, helmeted but with no uniforms beyond armbands—many of them were Women's Auxiliary volunteers. Once, an ambulance went by with its bell clanging, and once, they had to detour around a random hit, a great crater in the middle of the street with water hissing ten feet high from a broken main. There might be gas, too; sawhorse barricades were already up, and Municipal Services trucks were disgorging men in workman's overalls.

"That looks a bit like our place did," Jeffrey said; the younger Farr's household had been the recipient of several Land two hundred and fifty pounders, luckily while everyone was out. "Thanks again for saving us from the horrors of Government Issue Married Quarters, officers for the use of."

John snorted. The car paused for a moment at wrought-iron gates, and then the tires hummed on the brick of a long driveway.

"Get some sleep," John said to Smith. "We're going on a trip in a few days."

Smith grinned. "With some old friends, sir?" John nodded. Smith put on a good imitation of an upper-class drawl. "Just the time of year one likes a little vacation on the Gut, eh?"

A sleepy butler opened the front doors of the big, rambling brick house. He stumbled backward as a four-year-old made a dash past his legs and down the stairs, leaping for Jeffrey.

"Daddy!" The girl wound herself around him, clinging to his belt. "Daddy, we all went and sat inna basement and sang!"

"That's good, punkin, but it's past your bedtime," Jeffrey said, hoisting her up.

She wrinkled her nose. "You smell funny, Daddy."

"Blame the Premier and his tobacco—ah, here's Irene."

A nursemaid came out, clutching her sleeping robe around her and clucking anxiously. "There she is, Mr. Jeffrey. Honestly, sometimes I think that child is part ape!"

"A born commando. Off to bed, punkin." John was still smiling as he walked up the stairs, fending off the butler's offer to wake the cook. There were advantages to being a very rich man, but a good deal of petty annoyance came with it as well. He might have raided the icebox and made a sandwich himself, if he'd been living in a middle-class apartment, but rousting someone out of bed at one o'clock to slap some chicken between two pieces of bread was more trouble than it was worth and hubristic besides.

The light was still on in the bedroom, but Pia was asleep. Her reading glasses were lying on top of a stack of documents on the carved teak sidetable beside a silver-framed picture of Maurice in his pilot's uniform. John smiled; his wife was living proof that not all Imperial woman got heavy after thirty. Just magnificent, he thought, undoing his cravat.

She woke, stirred, and smiled at him. "Hello, darling," she said. "I can smell the Premier's tobacco, so I know you told the truth, it was politicians and not a mistress."

John grinned. "You can have proof positive in a moment, if you'll stay awake."

"Hurry then."

* * *

Gerta forced her hands to relax from their white-knuckled grip on the armored side of the car.

"I hope you're getting every moment of this," she muttered to the cameraman beside her.

The Protégé nodded without pulling away from the eyepiece of the big clumsy machine clamped to the side of the vehicle. His hand cranked the handle with metronomic regularity, and geared mechanisms whirred within it. Beside it a small searchlight added to the dawn gloaming, bringing the ambient light up enough to make filming practical.

The huge biplane bombardment aircraft was staggering in towards its landing . . . or crash, whichever. The long fuselage was tublike, with open circular pits for the pilot and copilot, and others for bombardiers and gunners. Between each of the long wings were four engine pods, each pod mounting a puller and pusher set. The undercarriage settled towards the ground, struck dust from the packed earth. Gravel spurted. On the second impact, the splayed legs of the big wheels spread further, the whole plane sinking closer to the ground as it raced across the runway. Then the bottom touched in a shower of sparks and tearing of wood and fabric. Half the lower part of the fuselage abraded away as it gradually came to a halt, spinning around like a top once or twice before it did. Rescue teams raced out, bells ringing, although the props didn't quite touch the earth and nothing caught fire . . . this time.

"Got that?"

"Yes, sir," the Protégé replied, and began the complex process of changing a reel of film.

Gerta pulled her uniform cap off, crumpling it in her hand. That was the only outward sign of her rage; she sternly repressed the impulse to throw it down and stamp on it.

The squadron commander came over to her open-topped car. "I understand completely, Brigadier," he said. "Will your film do any good?"

"Well, I can now confirm with visual aids that we lose ten percent of those things in normal operations with each mission, not counting enemy action. When I think of how many fighters or ground-attack aircraft we could have for the same resources—"

"Just get them to stop telling us to fly these abortions," the man said. He was very young, not more than twenty-five; turnover in the bomber squadrons was heavy. "It isn't that we mind dying for the Chosen, you understand—"

"—it's just that you'd like it to have some sort of point," Gerta finished for him. "I'll do my best. Porschmidt has a lot of friends in high places."

"I'd like to take them to a high place—over Santander City or Bosson, and dump them off with the rest of the bombload."

Gerta nodded. "If it's any consolation, we're doing some things that are smarter than this."

"It couldn't be worse."
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