The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX




"Aren't you getting a little senior for commanding from the front?" Admiral Maurice Farr asked quietly.

Jeffrey grinned at his father. "I notice you're here, sir, and not back in Dubuk."

Farr shrugged. "An admiral has to command from a ship."

"And a general has to be where there's some chance of getting useful information in timely fashion," Jeffrey replied reasonably. He drew himself up and saluted. "Admiral."

"General," the elder Farr replied. "Good hunting, and we'll give all the support we can."

Jeffrey turned, swung over the rail, and scrambled down the rope ladder. A young aide tried to assist him as he jumped down into the waiting steam launch.

"I'm not quite decrepit yet, Seimore," Jeffrey said dryly, and took a swig from his canteen. "We're better off than the rest of the force, here."

The men were climbing down netting hung on the sides of the transports and into the waiting flat-bottomed motor barges, or waiting crammed shoulder to shoulder and probably seasick in similar vessels that had sailed with the fleet from Dubuk. The Gut was calm tonight, but the flat-bottomed barges would pitch and sway in a bathtub.

"Let's go," Jeffrey said quietly.

The launch swung in towards the shore; it was low and sandy here, in contrast to the cliffs that marked most of this section of the Gut's northern shore. Low and sandy on either side of the fort that was their objective. The first wave of troops would be going ashore right now, and from the lack of noise, meeting little or no resistance. Well, they'd expected that.

Jeffrey looked at his watch. 0500 hours, nearly dawn. Right about now they should—

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM—

The big guns of the fleet cut loose, firing from west to east in a long, slightly curved line. The great bottle-shaped muzzle flashes lit the scene with a continuous strobing illumination that was brighter than the false dawn. It was still dark enough for the red-glowing dots of the shells to be visible with their own heat, arching up into the sky to fall towards the Chosen.

* * *

Dust filtered down onto Kurt Wallers' head. The gun position shook as twelve- and eight-inch shells landed on the surface above, or hammered deep into the soft limestone of the cliffs.

I built well, he thought. Aloud: "Well, the enemy has provided us with an aiming point. Return fire."

"But sir!" someone protested. "The mountings—"

"Are not hard-set yet," he replied. "Nevertheless, you have your orders."

With hydraulic smoothness, the muzzle of the great gun began to move downward in its cradle.

* * *

Ten miles outside Salini, John Hosten grinned into the low red light of dawn. He washed down a mouthful of half-chewed hardtack with a swig from his canteen and slapped the cork back into it. It was like eating pieces of a clay flowerpot, but it kept you going, and if you were careful it didn't break your teeth. The air smelled of dew-wet rock and aromatic shrub and old sweat from the clothes of the guerillas around him. "Quick of them," he said. "They're in a hurry." The road through the low rocky hills was quite good, not exactly a paved highway, but thirty feet wide and cut out of the hillside with generous shoulders and ditches. Right now it was crowded with a convoy. Two light tanks in the front, the Land copy of the Santander Whippet, trucks crammed with infantry, more trucks pulling field-guns and pompoms and supplies, more infantry, some more tanks . . .

. . . and a forty-degree slope on either side of the road.

"That is their mobile reaction force," Arturo said.

John nodded. Not even Santander could afford to give all its infantry and guns motor transport; the Land had roughly the same output of vehicles, but a much bigger army and fewer wheels per head.

The lead tank was near the ferroconcrete bridge. "Now?" John said.

Arturo nodded. "They are in a great hurry," he said, smiling like something with tentacles, and pressed the plunger beside him.

The explosions at the bottom of the bridge pylons weren't very spectacular, although the sound echoed off the stony slopes. A puff of dust and smoke—pulverized concrete and plain dirt—and the uprights heaved, twisted, and sank slowly at an increasing tilt. The flat slab roadway crumbled in chunks as its support was removed, falling down towards the bottom of the gorge and the dry-season trickle that ran there. The first tank went with it, sparks flying as its treads worked backwards.

Arturo laughed at the sight. Even then, John had time to be slightly chilled at the sound. Nearly five hundred feet to fall, knowing that when you hit—

The tank cracked open like an eggshell on the boulders, and the dust of its impact was followed seconds later by a fireball as the fuel caught. Shells shot out of the fireball, trailing smoke, as the ammunition cooked off.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap, Raj said relentlessly. Remember what the Imperials were like before the Chosen came. As they are now, the Chosen made them.

Rifles and machine guns opened up on the stalled convoy, and mortars as well. A huge secondary explosion threw trucks tumbling as a shell landed in a truckload of ammunition, or perhaps on the limber of a field-gun. Birds rose in clouds as the racket of battle replaced the early morning calm. Order spread among the chaos below, soldiers taking cover and officers spreading them out. The first were already beginning to work their way upslope. Men died and rolled downward; others took their place. The four-pounder guns of the light tanks coughed and coughed again, and their machine guns beat the slope with an iron hail.

Below John was a guerilla sniper, invisible even at ten yards in his camouflage blanket, a net sewn with strips of cloth in shades of ochre, gray, and brown. The muzzle twitched slightly, and the rifle snapped.

Scratch one Chosen officer, probably, John thought.

Arturo was examining the scene below with his binoculars. "We cannot hold them long," he warned. "If we try, the rear elements of the convoy will work around behind us—there are trails, and their maps are good."

"No, we can't," John said. "But they were in a great hurry . . . and this is not the only ambush."

Arturo smiled again. This time John joined him.

* * *

"Who the fuck does he think he's shooting at?" Johan Hosten said, pulling himself erect in the open-topped armored car and glaring after the two-engine ground attack aircraft that was hedgehopping away.

Gerta grinned at her son's indignation, although that had been a bit of a nerve-wracking surprise. There were fresh lead smears on the flanks of her war-car.

"At Santies, of course," she said.

Granted, there was a bloody great Land sunburst painted on the rear deck of the war-car, but she knew from personal experience how hard it was to see anything accurately when you were doing a strafing run in combat conditions.

"Only thing more dangerous than your own artillery is your own air force, boy," she said, slapping him on the shoulder. "Especially in a ratfuck like this where nobody knows where anyone is, including themselves."

It's a relief in a way, having nothing but a fight on my hands.

They turned a bend in the road. "And speaking of Santies—"

The eastbound road wound through rolling ground covered in olive groves. Men in brown uniforms were ahead of them, and two light-wheeled vehicles were on the gravel surface of the road. They had whip antennae bobbing above them. Some sort of command group, then.

"Driver! Floor it!" Gerta barked, pulling a grenade from a box clipped to the inside of the sloping armored side of the war-car.

He did. The five-ton vehicle was too heavy to actually leap ahead, but it accelerated, more slowly than a newer model with an IC engine; on the other hand, the steam was almost silent. The Santies noticed only just before Johan opened up with the forward machine gun, walking bursts across the men grouped around the hood of one of the light cars.

Gerta shouted wordlessly as the prow of the war-car rammed one vehicle aside, crumpling the frame and knocking it into the ditch. She tossed the grenade at the wreckage and followed it with a spray of pistol-caliber bullets from her machine carbine. Jumping with combat-adrenaline, her eyes picked out one face/body/movement gestalt as the man leaped for cover behind a rock. She fired, twisted, cursed as her son at the machine gun blocked her line of sight, grabbed at another grenade and threw it.

Return fire pinged off the riveted armor plates of the car, making the crew duck, and then they were past.

"Keep going!" she said, raising her head for a look.

* * *

"Jesus!"

Jeffrey raised his head, coughing in the plume of dust left behind by the turtle-shaped Chosen vehicle; some sort of six-wheeled armored car. As it turned the corner and zipped out of sight ahead, an arm appeared over the side of the hull with one finger extended from a clenched fist, and pumped in an unmistakable gesture.

Wounded men screamed. For an instant everyone else stayed frozen and flat to the earth, waiting for the follow-up.

"Keep moving!" Jeffrey said aloud. "That was a straggler."

"Merde," Henri muttered beside him, levering himself up with the butt of his rifle.

My sentiments exactly, Jeffrey thought as he took stock. Two regimental commanders out of it, and one of the priceless radios.

"Runner," he said, "tell their seconds what's happened, and that I have full confidence in them. Somebody get that fire out." The wrecked car was sending licking flames and black smoke upward, just the sort of marker a cruising Land Air Service pilot would need. "And let's get back to work," he went on calmly.

His mouth was full of gummy saliva. That had been far too sudden, and far too close. A few of the faces that bent over the map with him were pale beneath their coating of summer dust, but nobody was visibly panicky.

The map showed the bulge of coastline that held the fort they were attacking. "We've just about closed the circle around the landward side," he said. "Now, Colonel McWhirter, you're going to dig in along this line and hold them off us. The partisans are doing a good job of slowing them down, but when they hit, it'll be hard. The rest of us will press on the perimeter."

"Going to cost," someone commented. "They're expecting us, by now."

Jeffrey shrugged. "We'll keep their attention. They don't have much of a garrison there yet, mostly construction battalions. With a little luck, the Resort Brigade will do its job."

* * *

Major Steven Durrison, Fifth Mountain Regiment—known familiarly in the Army of the Republic as the Resort Brigade, since so many mountain-climbing hobbyists filled its ranks—looked up the rest of the gully.

Not much of a climb, he thought. About a sixty-degree slope, the natural rock overlain with rubble. The enemy had evidently been dumping construction fill down it, since it led up to the lip of the plateau. From the way they'd cut footings into the sides, they'd probably planned to build something here. They hadn't had time.

And they were otherwise occupied right now. More shells trundled across the sky to burst on the plateau tops above. The ships out in the Gut looked like toys at this distance, a fleet a child might sail in his bathtub. The earthquake rumble and shudder of the earth under his body showed how out of scale distance made the scene. Rock and concrete fountained over the cliffs, past the firing slits of the heavy guns, to land on the beach below. More shaking through the rock beneath him; he tried to imagine what it was like to be caught in the open up there, and failed. If that doesn't keep their heads down, nothing will.

The mountaineer looked back over his shoulder; men were strung out down nearly to the beach, along the line of rope secured by iron stakes driven into the rock by the advance element. Most were armed with the new submachine guns, for close in work, or with pump-action shotguns, and festooned with bandoliers, satchel charges, coils of rope, and pitons.

"Lieutenant," he called, "we'll start to work our way across from there."

He pointed; no climber could mistake what he meant, a long shadow slanting upward across the cliff-face to their right. "Signaller."

The heliograph squad had set up a little way down the ravine. The sergeant in charge of the squad looked up.

"You've got contact with the flagship?"

"Yessir."

Durrison nodded, hiding his relief. The alternative was colored rockets. That would work, but even with dozens of heavy shells landing up above, someone was likely to notice. Heliograph signals—light reflected off mirrors—were effectively line of sight. None of the enemy would see his going out.

"Send: 'Am proceeding with Phase Two.'"

* * *

About bloody time, Maurice Farr thought, lowering his binoculars. The signals station were scribbling on their pads, but he could still read code himself.

The Great Republic twisted and heeled in the water as her broadside fired. Light flashed in return from the upper third of the cliffs, and three seconds later the whole eighteen-thousand-ton bulk of the battleship shuddered and rang like a giant gong struck with a sledgehammer. Farr blinked at the fountain of sparks as the shell struck her main belt armor.

"Sir!" It was Damage Control, speaking to the flagships captain. "Flooding in compartment C3. That one hit us below the waterline."

Gridley nodded. "Get them to work on it," he said, "Containment measures."

That meant sealing off the affected area behind the watertight doors, hopefully not before they got the personnel out of it. C3 was unpleasantly close to the A turret magazines as well.

Those guns certainly have punch, he thought. Eight-inch, but fired with a twelve-incher's powder charge, and an extra-long barrel. The velocity was unbelievable. Much faster and you could fire shells into orbit.

"Sir." This time to the fleet commander. "Sir, Templedon City reports that they've got the fires out and stabilized by counterflooding."

A heavy cruiser. "What speed can they make?"

"Sir, they report no more than six knots."

"They're to withdraw. Detach two destroyers to escort." And to pick up survivors if they didn't make it back to Dubuk.

Farr raised his glasses again. "I'd say it was about time we did something about this fort they were building, wouldn't you, Gridley?" he said calmly.

"Christ yes, Admiral. If they'd got it fully operational . . ." The flagship captain's voice faded off.

A biplane plunged past the bridge, trailing smoke. It smashed into the water and exploded not far from the bow of a destroyer; the whole thing happened too fast for him to see the national insignia. Dozens more were swarming through the air above the cloud of smoke and shellbursts that marked the surface of the fort, like flies around a piece of meat left in the sun.

Good thing we're in range of ground-based air support here, Farr thought.

His sons were inland there, where the fighting was—steadily increasing fighting, as the Land forces battered their way through guerilla harassment and started to bring their weight to bear on the Santander blocking elements. His eldest grandson was in one of those wood-and-canvas powered kites . . . if he hadn't been the one who plunged out of the sky and died just now. Pride came in many flavors; right now it tasted like fear. An old man might not fear for himself, but anyone living still had something hostage to fortune. His family, his country . . .

I think we'd be in a very bad way indeed if it weren't for John and Jeffrey, he thought. If John hadn't been born with a clubfoot, or if I hadn't gotten that posting as naval attaché in Oathtaking . . .

"Carry on," he said aloud. "Let's keep them busy. And stand by to fire support missions for the ground forces."

* * *

"I don't give a living shit how many partisans there are out there, Colonel," Heinrich Hosten said with quiet venom. His fingers were white on the field telephone. "Ignore them. Ignore your fucking flanks. Hit the Santies, and hit them hard, or by the Oath, you'll be in the Western Islands dodging blowgun darts from the savages next month, if you're unlucky enough to be still alive."

He retuned the handset to its cradle with enormous care, fighting through the rage that clouded his vision. He looked at the pin-studded map and tried to force himself to be objective. I'm not justified in going to the front. More information is getting through now. I'm in a better position to coordinate from here.

He could hear the Santy naval bombardment from here, though, a continuous rumble to the south. Guns were firing closer than that, medium field pieces; Land batteries, shooting obstacles out of the way in the narrow passages of the hills.

One of his staff handed him the field telephone again, "Sir, you'll want to hear this yourself."

He picked it up. "Ja?"

Gerta's voice. He closed his eyes; nothing should surprise him today.

"You'll never guess which old friend of yours I ran into today," she said. "Ran into literally, but I didn't quite manage to kill him."

There were times when he was tempted to believe in malignant spirits.

* * *

Kurt Wallers jammed his palms over his ears and opened his mouth. The gun fired again, and the pressure wave battered at him. No point in going back to the command bunker deeper in the rock; the observation stations weren't operational yet. With those and the calculating machine it would have been possible to direct accurate fire nearly to the southern shore of the Gut. As it was, each tube was firing under independent control—over open sights.

And not doing a bad job. He hated to think what had happened to the construction people up above; he'd spent a long time training them. All we have to do is hold out until the reinforcements drive off the landing parties. Then—

"Sir! Movement on the beach below us!"

He blinked. "Get some extra propellant charges." They came in fabric containers the size of small garbage cans. "Strap grenades to them. Pull the tabs and roll them over the edge of the casement. Move."

Suddenly the background rumble of naval shellfire exploding on the plateau overhead ceased. Wallers looked up; that took his eyes away from the slit of light where the embrasure mouth pierced the cliff. Something flew in. His head whipped around, and trained reflex threw him down, not quite in time.

* * *

Durrison plastered himself to the lip of concrete above the gun embrasures. Every time the long cannon within fired, the concussion threatened to flip him off the ledge, despite the rope sling fastened to pitons driven firmly into the rock above. A couple of his men had been flipped, to dangle scrabbling on their ropes until the hands of their squadmates could haul them back. The enemy hadn't noticed, thank God; the embrasures might be narrow firing slits in comparison to the size of the guns within or the scale of the three-hundred-foot height of the cliffs, but they were still fifteen feet from top to bottom.

The gun fired again. Durrison kept his mouth open to equalize the pressure, but his head still rang as if there were midgets inside with sledgehammers, trying to get out. The rock flexed against his belly; no telling how long the pitons would hold, with that sort of vibration. The wind was building out of the south, with dark clouds along the horizon south of him—perhaps one of the rare summer thunderstorms of the Gut.

Joy. Absolute fucking joy. At last a man came around the curve of the rock to his right, clinging like a spider as he made his cautious way.

"Everyone's in place, sir!" he screamed into Durrison's deafened ear.

The mountaineer officer nodded and pulled the flare gun out of his belt, pointed it up and out.

Fumpf. The trail of smoke reached upward. Pop.

Abruptly, the rolling bombardment from the fleet stopped. One last eight-inch shell ripped its way through the air overhead, and relative silence fell as the continuous thunder of explosions overhead ceased.

That was the signal. A half-dozen men swung their satchel charges out on cords for momentum and then inward, to fly through the openings of the gun embrasures. Durrison freed the submachine gun and clamped his right hand on the pistol grip. His left took the rope that held him by the slipknot and he let his weight fall on it, crouching and bending his knees to his chest with the composition soles of his high-laced mountain boots planted firmly against the rock.

Four. Five.

Smoke and debris vomited out of the opening below his feet, bits trailing off down the cliff and whipping away in the rising wind. Durrison leaped outward and down with two dozen others—with over a hundred, counting the men at the other gunpits—and swung like a pendulum, straight through the embrasure and into the cave within. It felt exactly like a swing when you were a kid, momentum fighting gravity as you swung upward. His left hand released the rope and hit the quick-release snap of his harness, and now there was nothing holding him back.

He hit the ground rolling, amid chaos and screams. Wounded men were staggering or thrashing on the ground, caught by the blast or the thousands of double-ought buckshot packed into the satchel charges. Those luckier or farther away were turning towards the Santander assault troops.

Durrison shoulder-rolled to one knee. A blond Chosen officer with blood on his face and one arm hanging limp snarled as he brought an automatic around. Durrison's burst walked across his body from right hip to left shoulder, punching him backward.

"Go! Go!" the Santander officer yelled, diving forward towards the armored doors at the rear of the cavern. Behind him his men advanced through the stunned gun crews. A shotgun loaded with rifled slugs went thumpthumpthumpthump; more muzzle flashes lit the gloomy cavern.

"Go! Go!"

* * *

Twelve-inch shells went by overhead. Jeffrey Farr huddled behind the stone wall and adjusted the focus screw of the field glasses with his thumb. Crump. Crump.

This time the huge blossoms of dirt and smoke hid the Land field-gun battery. The ground shook, thudding into his chest and stomach. He grinned and spat saliva the color of the reddish gray dirt as secondary explosions showed in glints of orange fire through the dust cloud raised by the huge naval shells.

"That one was spot-on," he said. To the men with the portable wireless set behind him: "Tell them to pour it on!"

The man on the bicycle generator pumped harder—batteries big enough to be useful were too heavy for a field set. The operator clicked the keys, and Jeffrey turned to the officer beside him.

"It's going to be a while before they can advance through that."

The first salvo whirred by overhead, four shells together, a battleship broadside. The shallow rocky valley ahead of them began to come apart under the hammer of the guns.

"Damned right, General," the regimental commander said.

"So you'll have time. Fall back to that ridge a half-mile south of us and do a hasty dig-in; when they advance, call in fire on this position. Next leap backward after that, you'll be under observation from the water and the cruisers and destroyers can give you immediate support."

"Will do, General."

A fighting retreat was one of the most difficult maneuvers to execute, and the weather looked bad. On the other hand, if you had to retreat, it did help to have this much mobile artillery sitting behind you ready to offer aid and comfort.

The air stank of turned earth and the sharp acrid smell of TNT from the bursting charges of the shells. Jeffrey inhaled deeply. After Corona, the Union, the Sierra, it smelled quite pleasant.

"Sir. Message from the Fifth Mountain HQ. Enemy gun positions secured, and preparing to blow in pla—"

The noise that came from the south was loud even by the standards of a very noisy day, complete with battleship broadsides. The plateau above the Land fortress wasn't visible from here, but the mushroom-shaped cloud that climbed up over the horizon was. He felt the blast twice, once through the soles of his feet, and the second time through the air.

Jeffrey whistled. "Must have had quite a bit of ammunition stored," he said.

The rearguard commander nodded soberly. "Glad of that," he said. "Now we can bug out with a clear conscience. We surprised them, but they're starting to get their heads wired back to their arses. I wouldn't care to do this withdrawal under air attack and with them pushing hard, particularly if they bring up armor."

"They're doing their best. They'd have it here in force if the partisans hadn't cut the area off."

* * *

There weren't any bodies floating in the water on the beachhead anymore. They'd had time to police it, and put together the emergency floating jetties. Prisoners were going on board—all Protégés, of course, and not many of them; the fort had been pummeled all too well. You never took Chosen prisoners, not unless they were too badly wounded to suicide. The medics had a field hospital set up, and they were transferring wounded men lashed to stretchers and unconscious with morphine to a landing barge.

That was the frightening thing. The swell was heavy enough to make the barge rise a good three feet, steel squealing against steel as it rubbed on the pontoons. Further out there were whitecaps, and the southern horizon had disappeared behind thunderheads where lightning flickered like artillery. The barges beached on the shingle were pitching and groaning as the beginning of a rolling surf caught at them.

Oh, shit. That did not look good. Not good at all. He certainly didn't envy men trying to climb boarding nets up a ship's side in this, especially if it got worse. Particularly tired men, exhausted from a hard day's marching and fighting. Tired men made mistakes.

probability of increased storm activity now approaches unity, Center said.

How truly good. A pity you couldn't have predicted it at more than a fifteen percent probability yesterday. He paused in the silent conversation. Plus or minus three percent, of course.

A commander has to take the weather as it comes, Raj said. Make it work for you.

and an artificial intelligence, however advanced, cannot predict weather patterns without a network of sensors, Center said. There was an almost . . . tart overtone to the heavy, ponderous solidity of the mental communication. there have been neither satellite sensors nor data updates on this planet for 1200 standard years.

Jeffrey snorted, obscurely comforted. Command was lonely, but he had an advantage over most men: two entirely objective and vastly knowledgeable advisors and friends. Three, although John wasn't nearly as objective.

Thanks, his foster-brother spoke. Jeffrey had a brief glimpse of a forest of larch and plane trees, and a rocky mountain path. Meanwhile I'm running for my life. Be seeing you, bro.

"Make it work for you," Jeffrey murmured, looking at the water. "Easier said than done."

Among other things, the increasing choppiness was going to degrade the effectiveness of naval gunfire support. Particularly from the lighter vessels . . .

Decision crystallized. "Message to Admiral Farr," he said. "I'm speeding up the evacuation schedule."

The mission was certainly accomplished. He looked to his left at the remains of the plateau where the Land fortress had stood. The whole southern front of it had slumped forward into the sea, a sloping hill of rubble where the cliffs had been. Parts of it still smouldered.

"My compliments to the admiral, and could he please send some of the shallow-draft destroyers and torpedo boats alongside the emergency piers."

That way the men could load directly; it didn't matter if the warships were crowded to the gunwales on the way back, since they wouldn't be fighting. He looked left and right along the long curving beach. More than three hundred barges on the shore, and more waiting out there with the tugs. If loading went on until moonrise, he was going to lose some of them.

"Well, they can make more than one trip," he muttered.

"Message to regimental commanders," he said. "When they bring their men out of line and prepare for boarding, ditch everything but personal arms. Heavy weapons to be disabled or blown in place." That would cut the tonnage requirements down considerably. "We'll expedite loading; following units to—"

The tide was turning.
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