The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE




John Hosten gripped Arturo Bianci's hand. "You're still alive," he said.

The guerilla leader looked closer to sixty than the forty-five or so John knew him to be. His once-stocky frame was weathered down to bone and sinew and a necessary minimum of muscle, and the dense close-cropped cap of hair that topped his seamed, weathered face was the same silver as the stubble on his jaw.

"Not for want of the tedeschi trying," he said. The smile on his face looked unpracticed. "They've had a high price on my head these sixteen years."

He led John back into the cave. It was deep and twisting, opening out into broader caverns within and spreading out into a maze that led miles into the depths of the Collini Paeani. An occasional kerosene lantern cast a puddle of light; now and then an occupied cave showed men sleeping under blankets, working on their weapons, or stacking crates and boxes under waxed tarpaulins. There was even a stable-cavern, where picketed mules drowsed in rows and fodder was stacked ten feet high against one wall. The caves smelled of old smoke, dirt, and damp limestone; there were underground rivers further in, rushing past to who knew where.

"Big operation," John said.

"One of many," Arturo said. "We try not to put too much in one place, in case there is an informer or the tedeschi are lucky with a patrol. More and more come to us. The tedeschi take more land for plantations, and always there are more labor drafts. If a man is marked down for the camps or the factories in Hell"—he used the slang term for the Land—"he can only escape by coming to us."

"Or by volunteering for the army, or the police," John pointed out.

The guerilla leaders face went tight as a clenched fist. "Some do. And of those, some are our men, to be spies, and to wait for the day we call. The enemy do not much trust units they raise here, nor do they dare mix them much with Protégés from the Land."

They came to a medium-sized chamber and pushed through the blankets hung over the entrance. An old woman tended a pot of stew over a small charcoal fire, and a group as ragged and hard-looking as Arturo waited around a rickety table. There was no attempt at introductions, simply a wolfish patience or a slight shifting of the weapons that festooned them. Some of them were tearing at lumps of hard bread, or dunking the chunks in bowls of the stew, eating with the concentration of men who went hungry much of the time. They looked at John expressionlessly, taking in Barrjen and his little squad of middle-aged ex-Marines with wary respect.

John was dressed in high-laced boots and tough tweeds, Santander hunting or hiking clothes. He swung his pack to the table and unbuckled the flap.

"Here," he said, tapping his finger on the map he produced. It was Republic Naval Survey issue, showing a section of the north shore of the Gut a hundred miles east and west of Salmi.

The men around the table were mostly ex-peasants, with a scattering of shopkeepers and artisans, but they'd all learned to read maps since the Chosen conquest. The spot he indicated was at the end of a south-trending bulge, a little almost-island at a narrow part of the great strait.

"Fort Causili," one said. "Old fort, but the tedeschi have been building there. Two, three thousand laborers, and troops, for most of the past year. And they have put in a spur rail line."

John nodded. He took out photographs, blurred from enlargement and hurried camera work, but clear enough. Some were from the air, others taken with concealed instruments by workers on the base. They showed deep pits, concrete revetments with overhead protection set into the cliffs, and at the last, special flatcars with huge cylindrical objects under heavy tarpaulin cover.

"More than a fort," John said. "Those are special long-range guns, six of them. Twelve-inch naval rifles, sleeved down to eight inches and extended. They range most of the way to shoal water on the southern shore . . . and the enemy hold that, it's Union territory. There's another fort there that commands the only passage, it's got heavy siege mortars. Between them they can close the Gut almost exactly at the old Union-Santander border."

A few of the guerilla commanders shrugged. One muttered: "Bad. But so? There is a infantry brigade in that area, dug in, fully prepared. Those of us who wanted to die have done so long ago."

"Very bad," Arturo said. "If they can close the Gut, they can put their own ships on it and use it to move supplies. That will solve many of their problems. It will free troops to be used elsewhere, and free more labor, locomotives. And your navy will not be able to raid along the coast, or drop off supplies to us. Very bad. But Vincini is right, we cannot do more than harass it."

Vincini drew a long knife; it looked as if it had been honed down from a butcher's tool. He traced a circle with the point.

"A quiet area. Few recruits for us. That would change if we staged some operations there—the tedeschi would kill in reply, and that would bring the villagers to our side."

John nodded; the guerillas always struck away from their base areas. The Chosen killed hostages from the areas where the attacks occurred, which merely convinced the locals they might as well be hung for sheep as lambs.

"I'm not asking you to take the base yourselves," he said. "But believe me, we cannot allow the enemy to complete it. If they command the Gut, they have gone far towards winning the war—if Santander falls, your cause is hopeless."

That earned him some glares, but reluctant nods as well. He went on:

"Remember, all the world is at war. We attack the enemy in many places. You cannot take the base alone, but you can help. Here is what I propose—"

* * *

Angelo Pesalozi grunted as the Santander sailors hauled him over the gunwale of the motor torpedo boat. The Protégé looked around. The little vessel was blacked out, but there was enough starlight and reflected light from the moons to see it. There was an elemental simplicity to the design; a sharp-prowed plywood hull, shallow but exquisitely shaped. The forward deck held a double-barreled pom-pom behind a thin shield, but the real weapons were on either side: a pair of eighteen-inch naval torpedoes in sealed sheet-steel launch tubes. There was a small deckhouse around the wheel amidships, and a wooden coaming over the big aircraft engines at the stern that could hurl the frail concoction through a calm sea at better than thirty knots. Right now it was burbling in a low rumbling purr, like the world's biggest cat, muffled by a tin box full of baffles at the stern that showed the hasty marks of an improvised fitting. The blue exhaust filled the night with its tang and the wind was too calm to disturb it much.

A dozen more like it waited outside the harbor of Bassin du Sud. Not a scrap of metal gleamed, and the faces of the crews were equally dark with burnt cork and black wool stocking-caps. The commander of the little flotilla was the oldest man in the crews, and he was several years short of thirty; most of his subordinates had been fishermen two years ago, or scions of families wealthy enough to own motorboats. Kneally's father was a newspaper magnate with ambitions for his sons. His wasn't the only grin as he extended his hand to the heavyset Protégé.

"Welcome aboard," he said, in fair Landisch. "Commander James Frederick Kneally, at your service. You've got it?"

Silent, Angelo reached inside his jacket and pulled out an oilskin map. The Santander naval officer unwrapped it and spread it on the engine coaming, clicking on a small shaded flashlight.

"Oh, very nice," Kneally breathed. No changes from the ones Intelligence had given them back in Karlton.

A Land Naval Service-issue map, with the minefields marked in red, compass deviations, bearings, the lot; typical Chosen thoroughness. The Santander officer laid his compass on the map and looked up. Two lights flashed from different parts of the hills above Bassin du Sud, and he was busy with straight-edge and slide rule for a moment.

"Right here," Kneally said, marking the map. "All right. Thanks again."

The Protégé dipped his head. "I must return; I am on an errand for my master that gives me some freedom from suspicion, but not much. Give me ten minutes."

The flotilla commander shook his hand again, then returned entranced to the map as he was handed back over the side to his little steam launch. He half-noticed that the tiny pennant at the rear was the checked black-and-white of the Land General Staff, then dismissed it.

"Helm," he said. "Prepare to follow a course to my direction, dead slow. Signal to the flotilla, follow in line astern."

A dim blue light just above the waterline snapped on at the very stern of the lead torpedo boat. The man at the wheel spat overside and wiped first one hand, then the other on his duck trousers. The commander ducked his head through a hole in the coaming, into the stuffy darkness of the engine compartment. The petty officer in charge and his two ratings crouched by the big internal-combustion motors like acolytes worshiping some god of iron and brass, tools and oil can at the ready. They'd spent the past week going over every part and link and piece of the motor train as if their lives depended on it. Which, of course, they did.

"Ready?"

"Ready as we'll ever be, sir."

He pulled himself back up and looked at the stars. One moon full, the other half, a little scattered cloud, dead calm with only the inevitable southern ocean swell. Inside the breakwaters of the harbor it would be as calm as a bathtub. He looked at the map again, noting the markings on currents.

"Three knots," he said quietly to the helm. "Come about twelve degrees and maintain for four minutes. Carefully now. It's a tight fit."

"Tight as a cabin boy's bum, sir," the helmsman agreed, and let out the throttle inch by careful inch.

The muffler on the stern burbled a little louder, and the commander winced. The Chosen had beefed up the port defenses considerably, and while he had what looked like perfect intelligence on them, knowing exactly how a 250-pound prizefighter would throw a right hook did you little good if you were a ninety-pound weed with a glass jaw. Kneally's boats were plywood shells over explosives and highly volatile fuel; a heavy machine gun could turn them to burning splinters, much less a pom-pom, much less a 240mm shell from the Emmas in the castle or the harbor forts. And there were gunboats constantly patrolling.

The minefields were laid with the clear passages staggered by horizontal lanes, making doglegs nobody could negotiate by luck. It would be difficult enough in daylight, with a pilot conning the helm; the enemy had lost a couple of supply ships to their own mines.

"Gently, gently. Blink the stern light. Now come about to port, ninety degrees. Gently, man, gently."

Sweat soaked his stocking cap and stung in the shaving cuts on his chin. The mines were down there, dull iron balls studded with pressure-sensitive brass horns, floating like malignant flowers on their chain tethers. He wiped his face with the back of his jacket. The lights of Bassin du Sud were coming into view; there were a few of them, mostly low down by the water. Maybe we should have staged an air raid at the same time, he thought. Get them looking up. No, the brass were right for once. It would just get them awake and ready, and a crew could swing a quick-firer from ninety degrees to horizontal a lot faster than they could get out of their racks and on line.

Something bumped against the hull forward. Bump . . . bump . . . bump . . .

His stomach lurched. Every man on board froze, except for the helm's careful twitch at the wheel. Then the crew of MTB 109 shuddered and relaxed as the sound died astern, and the sudden annihilating blast didn't lift their craft out of the water broken-backed. Another turn ahead. He looked behind. Barely possible to make out MTB 110. Good. This follow-the-leader put his nerves even more on edge; small errors could accumulate and throw the last boats right into the mines. Although God knew they'd practiced often enough at the mockups back at base in Karlton. The base there had never been much, but it rattled empty since the Southern Fleet was wiped out in the opening days of the war.

The ships that slaughtered four thousand Santander sailors were waiting ahead . . . and they'd carefully spent half a day shooting or running down the survivors in the water, too. His teeth showed white in his darkened face.

"All right, we're out." If the map was complete. "Signal to deploy."

He brought up his binoculars and squinted. There was just enough background scatter to see the line of Land cruisers silhouetted against the diffuse glow . . . he hoped. They were a couple of thousand yards away, smoke visible from one or two stacks on each ship, keeping some steam up; a boom with antitorpedo netting out, floating low, a line across the dead calm of the harbor. And the lights of a patrol boat, low-powered searchlights looking for infiltrators or defectors trying to make it out in rubber dinghies.

The Santander torpedo boats spread out into line abreast. "Six knots," Kneally said.

The engines burbled a little louder. How long? Eventually they were going to notice. . . .

A searchlight speared out at them and an alarm wailed.

"Goose it, Chief! Goose it!"

The helm slammed the throttles forward. Now the engines roared, a shattering noise no muffler could mute. White water peeled back from the bows in two high roostertails of spray, throwing salt across his lips. Lights flicked on along the line of Land cruisers, and starshells blossomed high above.

"Too late, you leather-sucking perverts!" Kneally yelled.

The boom was less than five hundred yards ahead. There was just time enough for the torpedo boats to reach the maximum safe speed. Kneally clamped his hands on the bracket ahead of him and braced himself The smooth strip of reinforcing steel down the torpedo boat's keel slalomed it into the air in an arc that ended in an enormous splash that threw water twice the height of the little vessel's stub signal mast. Then each pair was driving for a cruiser's side, and the big ships loomed like gray steel cliffs. Cliffs speckled with fire, as the first pom-pom crews made it to their stations and began to open fire.

The MTB 109 was skipping forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between thumb and forefinger. One-pound shells pocked the water around it, and the boat's own forward pom-pom was punching out a stream of bright fire-globes itself. They wouldn't harm the cruiser, but they might throw off the crews of the bigger ship's antitorpedo-boat armament. A quick-firer banged from its sponson mount, and a shell threw up a fountain of spray to their left. All the time, Kneally's mind was estimating distances with the skill of endless practice.

"Ready—"

THUD.

MTB 110 blew up in a globe of yellow flame, its breath like the foretaste of hell.

"Hold her steady!" Kneally yelled, helping the CPO wrestle with the wheel as blast knocked the shallow dish-like hull sideways.

They plunged through the flame in a single searing instant, the spray-plumes of their passage helping to keep it from searing them too badly. MTB 109 was travelling as fast as anything on the oceans of Visager now, bounding forward like a porpoise driven by the power of four hundred horses. A thousand yards, maximum range. Nine hundred. The nose of the 109 was trained precisely on the cruiser's stern, lined up on the winking light of the pom-pom tub there. The shells drifted out towards him and then snapped by overhead.

"Fire one! Turn her, Chief!"

With a flat bang the launching charge slammed the first torpedo out of its tube. The frail fabric of the torpedo boat shuddered as the silver cylinder arched into the water, its contrarotating propellers already spinning. The boat was heeling to the right, its bow tracing an arc that carried it along the whole length of the enemy warship.

"Fire two! Fire three! Fire four! Get us the fuck out of here!"

The night was a chaos of flickering shapes and blinding lights, tracers and searchlights and explosions. Kneally twisted in the coaming to look over his shoulder. White water cataracted up from the side of the cruiser that had been their target—from others, too. He howled a catamount screech, until his teeth clicked painfully shut. This time they had hit the boom much harder, and there was an ominous crackle from the framework of the MTB 109.

But it only had to hold together a little longer. Another light was blinking to port, the guerilla pickup who would smuggle them out through the mountains, if they could reach shore and then avoid the Land patrols. Kneally's head swiveled, trying to see everything at once. It was still too dark, too tangled with lines and bars of light that bounced across his eyes. If one of the cruiser's magazines had not exploded behind them he would never have seen the destroyer coming. The actinic light showed it all too clearly: the turtleback forward deck and four billowing smokestacks, and the waves curling back from the cruel knife bows looming over his boat.

Kneally threw himself backward with a yell. A huge impact threw him pinwheeling into the air, and the water hit him like concrete. Somehow he pushed the whirling darkness away and fought his way to the surface, aided by the buoyancy of the cork vest he wore. Prop-wash sucked at him, and he bobbed in the destroyer's wake. Oily water slopped into his mouth.

"Jesus," he grunted, almost giggling with incredulous relief at rinding himself alive. "And Dad wanted me to be a hero."

His viewpoint was too low to see much, but several of the cruisers that had been his squadron's targets were burning, and he could see a stern rising into the sky with its huge twin bronze screws glinting in the light of fires and searchlights.

That sobered him, and he turned towards the beach and began to swim doggedly. If they didn't kill him, he'd live . . . and there would be other battles.

He almost missed a stroke. The adrenaline was wearing off, and he was remembering the look on the chief's face as the destroyer's bows loomed over them. He might be the only survivor of the dozen crew who'd manned MTB 109.

Kneally shuddered. Another battle.

* * *

"About bloody time," Gerta said with satisfaction.

Only the last gunpit was still uncovered, and work was going on through the night under the harsh light of the arcs.

It was sunk deep into the cliff face, taking advantage of a natural ravine through the chalky limestone. Labor gangs and explosives had hollowed out an oblong chamber, wider at its rear than at the face of the steep rock. It still smelled of green concrete, but the complex metal mountings of the giant guns were in place, and the two tubes themselves were being fastened in their cradles below. The same great cranes—modified shipbuilding models—that had lowered the guns were now transferring beams and planks of steel that were small only by comparison. Down below pneumatic riveters hammered and arc welders stuttered as hundreds of Protégé laborers and Chosen engineers assembled the intricate jigsaw puzzle into multiple layers of steel. Tomorrow other teams would begin burying it under layer upon layer of concrete laced with rebar and filled with massive rubble from the original excavation, topped with twenty feet of granite quarried from the old Imperial fort.

Gerta inhaled the scent of ozone and scorched metal, fists on hips, pivoting to take in the bustling scene. The other three gunpits were already in place, spread out in a semicircle along the outer edge of the near-island. Each pit was open only along the narrow slit through which the guns would fire—and they would show their muzzles only slightly, and that only when run out for a shoot. Tunnels ran between the pits, and between the pits and their ammunition bunkers, underground barracks and mess halls, fuel stores, generator rooms; but they were all carefully kinked and equipped with blast doors taken from junked battleships to contain internal damage.

"About bloody time is right," Kurt Wallers said. He was carrying colonel's tabs, with dual artillery and engineering branch-of-service slashes. "We were complete idiots to wait this long. If we'd had this installation in place when we attacked the Sierrans, that ratfuck in Barclon would never have happened. The Santies couldn't have put so much as a harbor barge down the Gut without getting it pounded into scrap."

Gerta shrugged. "My sentiments exactly, Kurt—if that's any consolation."

The other Chosen officer hesitated. Gerta slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Spit it out—we did go through the Test of Life together, after all. You've done a good job here, too, you're three months ahead of schedule."

"Well, then . . . your father is the chief of the General Staff. What the fuck was he thinking of?"

Gerta sighed. "He's chief of the General Staff, not the Chosen Council. They've got a bad case of victory disease, and it's been getting worse since we overran the Empire. That was too easy, and they've been dispersing effort on pet projects and hobbyhorses ever since. Sitting back in Copernik, looking at large-scale maps, it looks like we're conquering the world. The Empire, the Union, now the Sierra."

"We are conquering the world. The problem is holding the world. We beat the Imperials because we could concentrate our force. Now—" He made a spreading gesture with his hands.

"Tell me, Kurt. I told the general often enough. He lobbied the Council often enough, but their pet projects got in the way. They had this scheduled for the beginning of the war with Santander . . . about five to eight years from now."

"Well, better late than never," Kurt said. "This'll be a significant nail holding down what we've conquered. It makes their naval bases at Dubuk and Charsson useless as far as the Gut's concerned. They've been harassing the shit out of us, I can tell you. And landing supplies to the animals in the hills virtually at will, since Barclon. That's getting as bad as it was right after the conquest, or worse; they're smarter now."

Gerta nodded. "When can you start test firing?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to do that for another couple of weeks, even on the first pair. The concrete has to set hard before we put that much stress on the mountings."

"How're the secondary works coming?"

"About a third done." She followed as he walked inland. "The usual close-in works, machine guns, bunkered field-guns, mortars, minefields, wire, steel spike obstacles. We've got half the Schlenke Emmas in their pits, too, so pretty soon we can drop high-angle fire on anything that gets too close for the big guns to deal with."

"You're getting a lot of work out of these animals," she said, eyeing the swarming construction site.

"You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," he said. "I've done a lot of engineering work in the New Territories, and—"

An aide trotted up. "Sir. Message over the wireless."

Kurt took it and read, tilting the yellow flimsy to catch the lights. "Attack on Bassin du Sud," he said. "Considerable damage sustained in beating it off."

Gerta grunted in surprise. That was communique language for they whipped our arse.

"Fuck it. Damn, damn, if they damage the Southern Squadron badly, there goes our route around the eastern lobe to Marsai."

Kurt nodded. "Still, it won't be too bad even so; they can ship straight south from Corona by rail and then through the Gut, now that we've got this."

"Ya." Gerta's eyes narrowed. "The question is, do the Santies realize that?"

Kurt looked at the flimsy again. "Not many details. I wonder how they got through the minefields? And those howitzers in the fort, they should take care of any ships."

"Should. But—"

Another messenger. "Sir. The Air Service scout airship Guthavok reports it is under attack from Santander heavier-than-air pursuit planes."

They both looked south by reflex. "At night?" Kurt Wallers said incredulously.

Fire blossomed in the night, five thousand feet up and miles to the south.

Wallers began to bark orders. Gerta turned on her heel and trotted back to her scout car, vaulting up the fixed ladder and then into the open compartment with one hand on the rim. Her son was already peering south through the heavy rail-mounted glasses. Gerta looked around; the wireless was fired up and ready, and the vehicle had pressure and was ready to move.

"Signals," she said. The operator looked up, earphones on and hand poised over the signal key. "To regional HQ in Salini. Fort under heavy attack from Santander seaborne forces, including battleships and amphibious element of unknown strength. Stop. As representative of the General Staff I order repeat order immediate mobilization all available forces and their concentration on this point. Stop. Brigadier Gerta Hosten. Stop. Send until acknowledged."

The signals technician was sending before Gerta had finished the first sentence. Johann turned to her; by now he'd learned enough to merely raise his brows.

"Ya. If that was wrong, I will be lucky to command a one-company garrison post guarding a bridge," she said. "But I'd rather risk being a damned fool."

To the driver: "Get us out of here. Out on the north road, then east towards Salini."

She pulled the machine-carbine out of its clamps over her seat, checked the flat drum magazine, and reached for the helmet that hung beside it. With a chuff of waste steam, the car pulled out through the growing chaos of the half-built fort.
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