The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT




"Fourteen," Maurice Farr said, from the bridge of the Great Republic.

The flaming dirigible exploded suddenly, turning the early morning darkness into artificial dawn for a moment. Spread across the wine-purple sea were ships beyond counting, the long line of battleships, twenty-one of them, butting their way through the sea, their massive armored bulks plunging like mastiffs loosed in a dogfight. Thirty modern armored cruisers flanked them, spread out in double line abreast forward of the battlewagons; destroyers coursed along either side, sometimes cutting through the formations with reckless speed, and they were only a fraction of the number that were hull-down over the northern horizon. At the center of the whole formation were the big but thin-skinned shapes of the flattops, the ships whose aircraft had swept the Land's scout dirigibles from the sky.

Colliers, hospital ships, underway replenishment vessels made a looser clot behind the battle fleet; off to the southeast were the transports and the elderly protected cruisers that were their immediate escorts. The smell of coal smoke and burning petroleum filled the air, the rumble and whine of engines; signal searchlights snapped and flickered in the web that kept the scores of ships and scores of thousands of men moving like a single organism, obedient to a single will.

Admiral Maurice Farr lowered his binoculars. "Well, I told you you'd see some action before this war was over, Artie," he said to the blond, balding man beside him.

Admiral Arthur Cunningham, commander of BatDivOne, the heavy gun ships, smiled grimly. "All on one throw, eh, Maurice? I nearly choked on a fishbone when you told me. A lot more like something I'd come up with."

Maurice Farr shook his head. "No, it's actually subtle," he replied seriously. "Not just putting our heads down and charging at them."

"Well, they don't call me 'Bull' for nothing," he said, scratching at the painful skin rash that splotched his hands. "There's usually something to be said for the meat-ax approach, in wartime. I've got to admit, those carriers are earning their corn."

The flaming remains of the dirigible were sinking towards the surface, and the darkness returned save for the running lights of the fleet and the landing lights that ran along the flight decks of the carriers.

"We're going to have more problems with their lighter-than-air once the sun's up and they can refuel from tanker airships out of our range," Admiral Farr said. "We can shoot down their airships, but we can't hide the fact that we're shooting them down—they can always get off a message before they burn. The enemy will know we're up to something."

"But not exactly what," Cunningham said cheerfully. "The planes can take off easier in daylight, too. I say two days."

"Three," Farr said.

An aide saluted. "General Farr to see you, sir."

Jeffrey Farr climbed up the companionway to the bridge of the flagship. It was big; the Great Republic had been built with the space and communications facilities to run the whole of the Northern Fleet at sea. Even so, he had to thread his way past until he could stand before his father, the brown of his field dress and helmet cover contrasting with the sea-blue of the naval officers.

"Sir. It's time I rejoined my command."

Maurice Farr nodded. "Good luck, General," he said. "The Navy will be where you need it."

He stepped closer and took his son's hand. "And good luck, son."

Jeffrey Farr nodded. "Dad."

* * *

"Pile the ties together," the guerilla leader said.

More than half the band were unarmed peasants, men and women who'd slipped away from plantations or the few sharecropped tenancies the Chosen hadn't yet gotten around to consolidating. They'd brought their working tools with them, though; spades and pickaxes and mattocks thudded at the gravel of the railway roadbed. There was a peculiar pleasure to demolishing the trunk line from Salini westward along the Gut. Thirty thousand Imperial forced laborers had worked for ten years to build it, and it carried half the supplies for the Land armies in the Sierra and the Union.

"Pile them up," he said. A growing heap of creosote-soaked timbers rose higher than his head. "The rails go across the timber; then we light them. It will be a long time before those rails carry trains again."

A very long time. There were only two rolling mills in the whole of the Empire, in Ciano and Corona. Most of the work would have to be done in the Land itself, and to carry the wrecked lengths of steel to the plants there, reheat and reroll them, and bring them back . . .

He smiled unpleasantly.

One of his subordinates spoke, unease in his voice: "Will we have time? Their quick reaction force—"

The smile grew into a grin. The guerilla commander pointed eastward, where the railway wound through the low hills of the Gut's coastal plain. Pillars of smoke were rising, dozens of them.

"They will have much to do today."

* * *

The Chosen commandant of the town of Monte Sassino cursed and climbed out of bed, blinking against the morning sunlight. She'd had a little too much in the way of banana gin last night, and mixed it with local brandy. Rubbing her bristle-cut head, she reached for the telephone that was ringing so shrilly.

Crack.

She fell forward against the instrument, her body kicking in galvanic reflex and voiding bladder and bowels.

The girl who held the little Santander-made assassination pistol motioned to her brother. "Quickly!"

They were twins, fourteen years old except for their eyes. Neither bothered to dress as they barricaded the door to the former commandant's suite and rifled her personal locker for ammunition and weapons; there was a combination lock on it, but the brother had long ago filched that number. Within was a shotgun and a machine carbine, and more magazines for me automatic that rested on the dresser with its gunbelt. He spat on the dead woman's body as he tumbled it into the growing pile of furniture before the door.

The twins hadn't had much formal training in weapons, either, but they managed to kill three Protégé troopers and wound another of the Chosen before the battering ram punched the door and its barricade aside.

By that time most of the town was in flames.

* * *

"What?"

"Sir," the Protégé said, "none of the other stations answer."

The Chosen officer restrained himself; cuffing the technician across the face wouldn't alter the cowlike stupidity in her eyes. You didn't need much in the way of brains to be a telephone exchange operator. Besides that, policy had always been to recruit the bottom third of the IQ pool for military service. Smart Protégés were dangerous Protégés.

"What about the return signal?"

The technician's face cleared from its anxious, willing frown. "Oh, yes, sir. I tried that, sir. The circuits are dead."

This time the Chosen officer snarled audibly. That meant that at least three major trunk lines were dead.

"Get back to your post," he said. I'll use the wireless. That would put him back in touch with HQ, at least. It was a pity few Land mobile units used them.

* * *

"You recommend what?"

Gerta Hosten closed her eyes for a second in desperation. "Sir, I recommend that no further personnel be transferred from the Land proper to the New Territories, that personnel seconded from naval and garrison units in the New Territories to the Sierra and Union be immediately returned to their units, and that we move General Hosten's field force"—the mobile army they'd been scraping together from LOC units and divisions pulled out of the Confrontation zone after the retreat to the Gothic Lane fortifications—"back into the Ciano area at the very least."

Karl Hosten looked slightly stunned, as if an aged and very fierce hawk had been unexpectedly struck between the eyes. Most of the other faces around the table looked uncomprehendingly hostile.

"That would mean the effective abandonment of everything south of the old Imperial border!" the chief of the General Staff said.

"Not if the Santies can't break the Gothic Line, sir," Gerta said. "And we know that Agent A"—John Hosten—"either was disinformed himself or is attempting to disinform us. The Santie strategic reserve is not headed for the Rio Arena estuary and neither is their Northern Fleet. It's heading north up the coast of the New Territories, and it could strike anywhere from Napoli to Artheusa. Our reports indicate some sort of general uprising in the occupied territories, and among what's left of the Sierrans. Our only large uncommitted force is nearly a thousand miles away in the middle of the Sierra, and the railroad net is well and truly fucked. Consider, please, how long it'll take to get those troops back near where we need them. The New Territories have been stripped bare of troops."

Something of her own bleak, controlled panic was spreading to a few of the other Council members.

"Perhaps part—"

"Sir, half measures?"

Karl Hosten drew himself together. "What else does Military Intelligence recommend?"

"A Category III mobilization, sir."

This time there were a few gasps, despite Chosen discipline. That meant shutting everything down, confining all unreliable elements behind wire, and calling out the Probationers and Probationer-Emeritus reserves. The teenage children of the ruling race, and the failed candidates who made up what the Land had of a middle class.

"But production—" a minister began.

"Sirs, with respect, we have to survive the next couple of weeks. If we can do that at all, it has to be done with what we have on hand."

Gerta stood, willing despair to stand at bay, as the debate began.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE




A landing craft lay canted over and sinking on the sloping rocky beach. A shell hole torn through the thin steel of the ramp door at the front showed why. Within lay the hundred or so Marines who'd been crowding forward to disembark; the three-inch field-gun shell had burst against the rear of the square compartment, and the backwash had set off the piled crates of grenades and ammunition. Bodies bobbed in the shallow water around it, floating facedown. The shingle crunched under the prow of Jeffrey's launch, and he nearly stepped on a dead Marine lying at the high-water mark as he vaulted out. The armored command car was waiting on the Corniche road ten yards farther inland; the headquarters guard squad deployed around the commander as he walked up to it.

"Report," he said, swinging into the open body of the car. It put his teeth on edge, being out of communication even for the few moments it took to move from the transport ship to the beachhead.

"Sir, the Pride of Bosson sank successfully."

He looked over to the harbor mouth. That sounded a little odd, until you realized that much of the inner harbor defense was fixed land-based torpedo batteries. Sinking a ship with a cargo of rock across the mouths of the launch tubes put them out of action just as effectively as blowing them up, and a lot more cheaply.

Except to the crews of the blockships, he thought grimly, putting up his binoculars; skeleton crews, but there still had to be someone to man helm and engines. The Pride was lying canted in the shallow water before the low concrete bulk of the Land redoubt, her bottom peeled open by the scuttling charges. Pompoms and machine guns from the shore were raking her upper works into smoking scrap.

"Get some naval supporting fire for them," he snapped.

Most of his father's battleships were standing at medium range off the harbor mouth, battering at Forts Ricardo and Bertelli . . . or whatever the Chosen had renamed them in the years since the conquest. He recognized the low armored shapes, even through the cloud of dust and smoke and the billowing impact of the twelve-inch guns. Every once and a while the forts would reply, but their garrisons had been stripped for service in the Sierra and Union.

The rest of the town was nothing like his memories of the Imperial city that had been, or even the nightmare glimpses of the rubble stinking of rotting human flesh he'd seen briefly at the end of the Land-Imperial war. The city that burned afresh now was rebuilt in a remorselessly uniform grid of wide straight streets, lined with near-identical clocks of buildings in foursquare granite and ferroconcrete. Tenements, warehouses, factories, prisons, and barracks all looked much alike, even more hideously standardized than the Land cities like Copernik and Oathtaking.

He looked up. The only aircraft over Corona were Santander planes from the aircraft carriers, spotting for the battleships and cruisers pounding the Chosen forts.

Then the armored car lurched. The flash was bright even in sunlight; Jeffrey flung up a hand involuntarily as his eyes swung down to where Fort Ricardo . . . had been. There was nothing there but a rising pillar of smoke, now. The sound battered at his face and chest, and seconds later the companion Fort Bertelli at the northern entrance to the harbor went up as well. He shook his head against the ringing in his ears.

We hit the magazines? he wondered.

I doubt it, Jeff, Raj said. From John's reports, the garrisons were mostly Imperials—not even Land Protégés. At a guess, they mutinied and tried to surrender. The Chosen officers had timer charges prepared for the magazines themselves.

correct, Center said, probability 78%, ±8.

Jeffrey shuddered slightly. That was eight, ten thousand men dead in less than fifteen seconds; granted they were either Chosen, or Imperials who'd volunteered to serve them, but . . .

He looked back at the landing craft. But on the other hand, I'm not going to grieve much.

The dust parted a little under the stiff sea breeze. Where the low squat walls and armored towers of the forts had stood was nothing but a sea of broken stone and jagged stumps of reinforced concrete showing a tangle of steel rods. Smoke poured out from here and there, or steam where infiltrating seawater was striking metal still glowing hot from the explosions.

Jeffrey blinked. "All right, what does Brigadier Townshend report?"

"Airship haven and airfields secured, sir. Some Chosen personnel still holed up in buildings. Airships still burning, also hydrogen stores, ammunition and fuel. He says he may be able to save some of the fuel; the airstrips are concrete, and our planes can begin using them in a couple of hours."

"Garfield?"

"Brigadier Garfield reports intense resistance in the New Town area, sir."

Jeffrey nodded. That was where the Chosen residents of Corona lived. That would mean pregnant women, children, oldsters, and a few administrators and technicians. But they'd be armed, and they would fight.

"That seems to be the only fighting left," he mused. "Driver, we'll visit Brigadier Garfield's HQ."

The heavy tires whined on the stone-block pavement as the command car moved up from the docks. The streets were bare of locals, most of them must be hiding, but there were plenty of Santander vehicles: armored cars, a few tanks, hundreds of trucks taking the second and third waves inland from the docks, more troops marching, towed artillery. And a steady stream of ambulances bringing the butcher's bill back to the hospital ships that could dock now that the port's defenses were suppressed.

Casualties? Jeffrey thought.

to date, 18% of the first marine division, Center said. much higher in the rifle companies, of course.

Of course, Jeffrey thought with tired distaste.

But it didn't matter. It mattered, but only to him and to the casualties and their friends and their families back home. He'd taken Corona, not only taken it but taken it by a coup de main that left the docks intact. Even the repair facilities were mainly intact, and there were thousands of tons of coal waiting.

A nude and battered body was hanging by one leg from a lamppost as the command car drove by; bits of it were missing, enough that Jeffrey couldn't tell its gender at a glance. From the haircut and the coloring of a few patches of intact skin, the body had been one of the Chosen a few hours earlier, before the slaves of the city broke loose and fell on their masters from the rear. One of the ones caught isolated and unable to make it back to New Town.

Chosen, all right, Jeffrey thought with a feeling of grim . . . not quite satisfaction. More a sense of the fundamental connections between decision and outcomes. They chose this for themselves, some time ago.

"A message to the flagship, for relay to HQ," he said. "Message to read: Corona secured, docks intact. Dispatch."

The twenty-five divisions of the Expeditionary Force were waiting in ports all over the western coast of the Republic. Waiting for that word. Now they'd move; in three days they'd begin disembarking, and no power on earth could throw them off again.

Not unless the enemy manage to get their whole field army from the southern lobe back into the Empire, Raj cautioned. Well begun, half done, but we haven't won yet.

* * *

John Hosten wheezed as he duckwalked through the sewer. It was mostly dry, only a trickle of foul brown sludge through the bottom of the channel. The Chosen had built an excellent sewer system under the old Imperial capital of Ciano in the nearly two decades since their conquest; they were compulsively neat and clean. This section didn't appear on any of their records or maps. The forced labor gangs which built it had had a secondary function in mind, which didn't prevent it from being a perfectly good sewer most of the time.

It certainly stinks right, he thought. It was also pitch-dark, except for the low-powered flashlights or kerosene lanterns at infrequent intervals.

Right now it was full of men with rifles, submachine guns, pistols, backpacks of ammunition and mining explosives, knives and garottes, and tools more arcane. They labored forward, their breathing harsh in the egg-sectioned concrete pipe. Arturo Bianci waited at the junction of two tunnels.

"Still alive, I see," John said, panting.

"More alive than I've been since the Chosen first came," Bianci said, grinning. "Do you wish to do the honors?"

He held up a switch at the end of a cord. John took it and poised his thumb over the button. Silently he counted, and on three pushed the connection.

The tunnel shook; men cried out in involuntary terror as dust and bits of concrete fell from above. That subsided into choking, coughing order as the rumble died away. Men rose into a half-crouch in the taller connecting tunnel, rushing forward to the iron ladders leading upwards. John took the first, jerking himself up by the main force of his thick arms and shoulders, freeing the shotgun slung over one shoulder as he went.

The cellar was exactly as the plans had shown it, a big open space under stone arches with cell blocks leading off from all sides and an iron staircase in each corner. The plans hadn't included the steel cages hanging from the ceiling on metal cables that let them be raised or lowered. Each cage was of a different size and shape, some wired so that current could be run through them, some lined with saw-edges or spikes, most of exactly the dimensions that would let the inmate neither sit nor stand. All were occupied, although some of the victims were barely breathing, shapes of skin stretched over bone with the bone worn through the skin at contact points. Tongues swollen with thirst, or ripped out; hands broken by the boot to the fingers—that was the usual accompaniment to arrest. More hung on metal grids along the walls. Those had their eyelids cut off and lights rigged in front of them—steady arc lights, others blinking at precise intervals.

The building above was Fourth Bureau headquarters for the New Territories. The specialists had been at work right up until the partisans burst through the floors; the evidence lay bleeding and twitching on the jointed metal tables that were arranged in neat rows across the floor. Most of them were flat metal shapes with gutters for the blood; others looked like dental chairs. The secret policemen lay beside their clients now, equally bloody where the bullets and buckshot had left them.

John swallowed and suppressed an impulse to squeeze his eyes shut. He'd been fully aware of what went on in places like this, but that was not the same as seeing it all at once. He suspected that he'd be seeing it in his dreams for the rest of his life.

"Let's go," he said to the squad with him. "Remember, nothing is to be burned."

They were supposed to get to the central filing system before the operators had a chance to destroy it.

"And take prisoners if you can," he went on.

They'd talk. And then he'd turn them over to the people in the cells.

* * *

"They're attempting to mine the outer harbor," Elise Eberdorf said.

Half of her face was still covered with healing burn scars, and she was missing most of her left arm, but she was functional—which was more than she'd expected when the last series of explosions threw her off the bridge of the sinking Grossvolk in Barclon harbor. Functional enough to command the destroyer flotilla in Pillars, at least. The Chosen were a logical people, and the staff hadn't blamed her for losing to a force eight times her own. She'd managed to save the two battleships, and many of the transports.

"What ships?" she croaked. The burns distorted her voice, but it was . . . functional, she thought.

"Light craft. Trawlers, mostly."

She missed Helmut, but Angelika was competent enough. "I strongly suspect air attack next," she said, tracing a finger up the map of the Land's east coast. "The Home Fleet is in Oathtaking, of course; if we join them, that will be a major setback for them and bring the odds back to something approaching even."

She paused. "The latest from Fleet HQ, please."

The orders remained the same. Rendezvous as per Plan Beta, A hundred twenty miles south-southeast of Oathtaking."

"Tsk." Overcaution, at a time when only boldness could retrieve the situation. At a guess, Home Fleet command simply wanted every ship they could under their command for the final battle. She'd offered to take her four-stackers out for a night torpedo attack.

"Sir!" A communications tech looked up from her wireless. "Air scouts report large numbers of enemy aircraft approaching from the southeast."

Eberdorf's finger moved again. That meant the Santie carriers would be about . . . here. Useful information.

"Report to HQ," she said. "Notice to the captains. As soon as this air raid is over, we will depart and make speed on this heading."

Angelika Borowitz's eyebrows rose. "Sir. That will put us on an intercept course with the enemy fleet."

Eberdorf smiled, and even the Chosen present blanched slightly at the writhing of the scar tissue. "Exactly. If we meet the enemy on the way to the rendezvous, we can scarcely be faulted for engaging them. In my considered opinion, our squadron alone possesses the readiness necessary for a major night attack on the enemy fleet. The potential damage outweighs the importance of another twelve destroyers in a day action."

When they would be pounded into scrap by the cruiser screens of the Santie Northern Fleet, probably. But the Pillars flotilla hadn't had their crews robbed of Chosen personnel and experienced Protégés for operations on the mainland the way the Home Fleet had been. Night action had a big potential payoff—the enemy's scouting advantages would be neutralized, and all action would have to be within effective torpedo range—but it required exquisite skill and long practice.

She laughed again and ran a hand over the place where her hair had been, once. "I seem to make a habit of leading forlorn hopes. Although I doubt anyone will swim ashore with me from this one."

* * *

"Sir." Maurice Hosten saluted and came to attention before his grandfather. "Sir, they beat us off. I doubt we sank so much as a fishing boat."

There was a faint edge of bitterness in the young pilot's voice, even now, even on the bridge of the Great Republic.

"The flak was like nothing I've ever seen," he went on. "And their land-based air were waiting for us, three times our numbers or better. They were working over the minelayers pretty badly, too."

The admiral nodded. "It had to be tried," he said quietly, more to himself than to his grandson. Aloud: "Very well, Wing Commander. You may go."

"Well, that was a fuckup," Admiral Cunningham said mildly.

"Had to be tried," Maurice Farr repeated. "That's a dozen tin cans and a good modern cruiser, well crewed and too mobile by half."

He looked out the windows into the darkness. "Too mobile by half and probably—"

"Sir! Destroyer Hyacinth reports enemy ships in unknown numbers."

Farr looked down at the map. "Coming straight at us," he said. "Well, you can't fault their aggressiveness," he said. "Transports, carriers, and carrier escorts to maintain course. The remainder of the fleet will come about as follows."

The orders rattled out. Cunningham raised his brows. "Putting everything about to face twelve destroyers and a cruiser?" he said.

"We can't afford too many losses," Farr answered. "Particularly not of capital ships."

Cunningham nodded. "You're the boss. I'd better see to my own."

Farr nodded, looking out through the bridge windows. The first shots were already being fired: starshells, to give as much light as possible. Bloody murthering great fleet, he thought. Be lucky if we don't sink a few of our own ships by friendly fire.

He considered sending out a "caution on target" notice, then shook his head silently. More likely to lose ships that way, as gunners hesitated to the last minute and let the Land destroyers too close. Searchlights flickered over the water. Wish there was some way of seeing in the dark, he thought. Some sort of detection device. But there wasn't . . .

"Cruiser Iway under attack," the signals yeoman said tonelessly, translating the code as it came through the earphones in dots and dashes.

More than starshells lit the sky to the northwest. Gun flashes, eight-inchers. The thudding of the muzzle blasts traveled more slowly, but not much. It wasn't far . . .

"Iway reports she is under gun attack by enemy heavy cruiser," the yeoman said. "Desmines and Nawlin are moving to support."

"Negative," Farr rapped. "Cruiser Squadron A to maintain stations."

That was probably what the Chosen commander was trying to do, punch a hole through the cruiser screen and send the destroyers in through it. Easy enough even if they maintained station; the destroyers wouldn't be visible long enough to get most of them.

"Sir, Iway reports—"

There was a flash of light on the northwestern horizon, followed almost immediately by a huge dull boom.

"God damn," Farr said slowly and distinctly. I never liked the magazine protection on those City-class cruisers, he thought. They'd skimped on internal bulkheads to strengthen the main belt. . . .

"Sir." This time the yeoman's voice quavered a bit, just for an instant. "Desmines reports the Iway . . . she's gone, sir. Just gone. The stern section was all that's left and it sank like a rock."

"There's something wrong with our bloody cruisers today," Farr said, and lit a cigarette, looking at the map again and calculating distances and times. The captain of the Great Republic was the center of a flurry of activity; searchlights went on all over the superstructure.

"Here they come," he said, speaking loudly over the squeal of turrets training. Only the quick-firers and secondary armament; nobody was going to fire twelve-inch guns into the dark with dozens of Santander Navy ships around.

Long lean shapes were coming in, weaving between the cruiser squadrons, heading for the capital ships. Red-gold balls of light began to zip through the night, shells arching out to meet the enemy. The Chosen destroyers were throwing plumes back from their bows as high as their forward turrets, thirty knots and better.

"Here they come," repeated the captain. The battleship heeled sharply as it came about, presenting its bow to the destroyers and the smallest possible target to their torpedo sprays. "For what we are about to receive—"

"—may the Lord make us truly thankful," the bridge muttered with blasphemous piety.

* * *

Heinrich Hosten blinked. "He has said what?"

"Sir. Libert has announced that the Union is, ah, affirmatively neutral, as of one hundred hours today. Unionaise forces will not attempt to engage either Santander or Land forces except in direct self-defense. Sir, a number of our posts report that the Unionaise here in the Sierra are laagering and refusing contact. Shall I order activation of Plan Coat, sir?"

Heinrich stood stock-still for a full forty seconds. Sweat broke out on his expressionless face. "Not at the moment," he said very quietly. Plan Coat was the standing emergency option for the takeover of the Union.

Well, it looks like you were wrong for once, Gerta, he thought. Leaving Libert alive had been a mistake . . . although justified at the time.

"No, I don't think we'll distract ourselves just yet. Libert has two hundred and fifty thousand men. The Santies first, I'm afraid, tempting as it is. Attention, please."

His chief of staff bent forward. Heinrich looked down at the map. "Pending clarification from central HQ, the forces on the Confrontation Line are to stand in place." Selling their lives as dearly as they could. "All other forces in the Union are to retreat northward, destroying communications links behind them as far as possible, and catch us if they can."

"Catch us, sir?"

Heinrich tapped one thick finger on the center of the Sierra. "We're the only concentrated force the Land has left on the mainland. It's obvious what the Santies are doing: they've taken Corona, they're shipping their First Corps there as fast as they can, and they're going for our Home Fleet in the Passage."

His hand moved to the western shores of the Republic, and then swept up towards the Chosen homeland.

"Bold. Daring. It all turns on us, and on the Navy. If we can break their fleet and destroy their First Corps, then even losing the Union and the Sierra will be meaningless. We can retake them at our leisure and crush Santander next year."

And if we lose, or the Navy loses, the Chosen are doomed, he knew. By their faces, so did everyone else in the room.

"Sir, the communications grid is in very poor shape," the logistics chief warned.

Heinrich nodded. "Which means trains moving north are likely to go just as fast as the handcarts traveling ahead of the locomotives," he said. "That's still faster than oxcarts," he said. "Priorities: all light- and medium-armored fighting vehicles, then fuel, then artillery and artillery ammunition, and other supplies directly in tandem."

"What about the heavy armor?"

"Blow it in place."

"Sir!"

Heinrich tapped the map again. "Those monsters would be priceless if we could get them there. We can't. They take up too much space and effort. Better to have what we can in the right spot rather than what we can't halfway there at the crucial moment. Blow them."

"Zum behfel, Herr General."

"Aircraft, sir?"

"Coenraad, you and your staff get me an appreciation of how many we can shuttle back into the New Territories and refuel on the way. Blow the rest in place and assign the personnel to infantry units short of their quota of Chosen." Of which there were quite a few.

"Now, get me New Territories HQ."

"Sir . . . they haven't responded to signals, for the past half hour. Last report was that insurgents had . . . emerged somehow . . . from Fourth Bureau headquarters and were attacking the administrative compound from within in conjunction with a general uprising of the animals."

Heinrich closed his eyes for a second, then shrugged. "All right, then let's do what we can with what we have. Next—"

The planning session went on. It was still going on when the vanguard of the last Chosen army moved north less than two hours later.

* * *

The last of her wingmates vanished in an orange globe of fire. Erika Hosten held the twin-engine biplane bomber straight and level until the last instant, then jerked on the stick. Wings screaming protest, the plane rose over the destroyer, clearing the stacks by less than six feet. Smoke and rising air buffeted at her for an instant, and then she was back on the surface, wheels almost touching the water.

A shape ahead of her. A long, flat, island superstructure to one side. Planes above it, a swarm of them—planes over the whole bowl of fire and smoke and ships that stretched to the horizon on either side, the others from the Land aircraft carriers, hundreds more on one-way trips from the Land itself. Pom-poms in gun tubs all the way along the edge of the carrier, and firing at her from behind, from the destroyer screen. Her gunner was slumped in the rear seat, and blood ran along the bottom of the cockpit and sloshed over the edges of her boots. Fabric was peeling off the wings.

"Just a little longer," she crooned to the aircraft. "Just a little."

Closer. Closer. Now.

She jerked the release toggle beside her seat. The biplane lurched as the torpedo released, and then again as something struck it. She yanked at the stick again, and—

Blackness.

* * *

"Welcome aboard, Admiral," the commander of the Empire of Liberty said. "We've notified the fleet you're transferring your flag."

Maurice Farr nodded as he moved to the front of the battleship's bridge. Forward, one of the eight-inch gun turrets was twisted wreckage. More twisted wreckage was being levered overside, the remains of a Land aircraft that had come aboard with its bombs still under the wings. That had caused surprisingly little damage, although the open-tub pom-poms on that side were silent, their barrels like surrealist sculpture.

"Status," he said crisply, despite the oil and water stains that soaked his uniform.

"Sir. Sixteen units of BatDivOne report full or nearly full operational status."

Two battleships lost last night to the torpedo attack and three cruisers. Three more this morning, running the gauntlet of Chosen air attacks from both sides of the Passage. That left him with an advantage of four, twice that in heavy cruisers, most of his destroyer screen still intact—less than a third of the enemy flotilla from Pillars had made it out—and with one crucial advantage. . . .

"Air?"

"Sir, we have the enemy main fleet under constant surveillance. The Saunderton is counterflooding to try and put out the fires, and the torpedo hit took out her rudder, but the Lammas and Miller's Crossing are still ready to retrieve aircraft."

They wouldn't be crowded. Most of the fighters were gone.

Maurice Farr looked at the horizon. All his life had been a preparation for this moment.

"Report movement."

"Sir, enemy destroyers are advancing at flank speed, followed by their battle line."

Which put them nose-on to his ships, which were advancing in exactly the same formation. There was one crucial difference: his heavy gun ships had aircraft to spot for them, and they'd honed the technique in years of practice. The Land fleet had excellent optical sights and good gunnery, but they couldn't use either until they came into sight. That was a long, long stretch of killing ground to run through, under the iron flail.

"The enemy carriers?"

"They've both broken off and are steaming northward at speed."

That puzzled him for an instant. Ah. No more planes. Without aircraft, they were as useless as merchantmen in a fleet engagement.

"Prepare to execute fleet turn; turn will be to port."

"Sir."

The Santander battleships were strung out like a line of sixteen beads, boiling forward at eighteen knots. The Land heavy ships were coming towards them at a knot or two better; some of his battlewagons had damage and weren't making their best speed.

"Turn."

The Empire of Liberty heeled, coming about to show her side to the enemy still beyond sight over the horizon. The turrets squealed as the long barrels of the twelve-inch guns came around. On either side her sisters did the same. Now the sixteen Santander battleships were moving west instead of north . . . and presenting the combined fire of their broadsides to their Land equivalents. If the enemy fleet tried to charge, close the range, they would be unable to reply with more than half their guns . . . and they would be firing blind for a long, long time anyway. If they duplicated his maneuver, they never would get within range. And if they withdrew, they'd never have an opportunity for a fleet engagement on anything like as favorable terms again. He could sail into Corona and refit, blockading the mainland under cover of land-based aircraft.

"Commence firing," he said.

One hundred and twenty heavy guns fired, and the Santander fleet disappeared for an instant in flame and smoke. Every man on the bridge opened his mouth and put his hands over his ears. The Empire of Liberty heeled over on her side, her structure screaming and flexing with the strain of the massive muzzle-horsepower of her four twelve-inch and four eight-inch broadside guns; for a brief instant he could see the shapes of the 800-pound shells at the top of their trajectory, and then they were falling towards the decks of the Land battlewagons. Towards the thinner deck armor, not the massive belts that protected their flanks.

"Splash," the signals yeoman said. "Forward air reports overshot. Range, correction—"



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