The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER THIRTY




"General," the officer in the staff car said.

Jeffrey leaned down from the side of his armored car. Something went CRACK through the space he'd just vacated, far too loud for a bullet. He grabbed frantically for the railing at the side as the car lurched backwards.

That put them hull-down. "That was a tank gun, or I'm a snail-eater," the driver muttered.

Several Santander armored vehicles were advancing to either side of the road Jeffrey had been using. Four tanks, Whippet mediums with a 2.5-inch gun in their turrets; three troop carriers, Whippets with the turrets removed; a pom-pom Whippet, freed from its original tasking of antiaircraft work by the virtual absence of Land aircraft and doing fire support, instead. The Republic's armor clattered forward, halting with only the tank turrets showing over the hill and their guns at maximum depression. One fired, and a few seconds later there was a gout of smoke and fire in the middle distance, visible even over the ridge.

All across the rolling cropland to the west the Expeditionary Corps was advancing, infantry spread out in preparation for the engagement that seemed inevitable. A brace of ground-attack fighters flew by, their wheels less than fifty feet overhead, heading east for targets of opportunity.

"General," the breathless staff officer in the car said.

Jeffrey leaned down again. He grinned as he read the dispatches.

"Sir?" Henri said, his hands on the grips of the vehicle's machine gun. He didn't believe in taking unnecessary chances, and there still might be a few Chosen aircraft around. A couple of obvious command vehicles bunched right behind the front made a very tempting target.

"Message from Dad. Admiral Farr. We have met the enemy and they are ours."

The Unionaise gave a soft whistle. "We hold the Passage, then?"

Jeffrey nodded. As long as the Expeditionary Force didn't get thrown back into the sea . . . which was looking increasingly unlikely.

He flipped to the other message and prevented his mouth falling open with an effort.

"Son of a bitch."

Henri looked at him; that hadn't really been a curse.

"Libert. Libert has offered all the Chosen and Protégés remaining on Union or Sierran territory asylum. Union citizenship, land grants . . . the bastard's trying to get himself enough of an army so we won't feel like getting rid of him when this is all over."

Henri's face went white with rage around the nostrils and mouth. The Santander public hated Libert and his collaborationist regime almost as much as the Loyalist refugees did. The question of whether they hated him enough to fight another war was an entirely different one.

"Cheer up," Jeffrey said. "I haven't seen many of the Chosen surrendering yet."

He looked down at the map table. "All we have to do is hold them. They're out of supplies, out of fuel, out of hope."

The remnants of the force that had marched north out of the Sierra to meet him was strung out along the upper Pada River east of Ciano, fighting its way through swarms of guerillas. The few Chosen left alive in the Empire were laagered in the forts and towns that hadn't been overrun at the beginning of the uprising. There was nothing behind the last army of the Land but death.

"General message," he said to the signals technician. "All we have to do is hold their first attack. Hold them. The Protégés have already started to turn on their masters. If we can hold this attack, they'll disintegrate."

* * *

Heinrich Hosten looked around the position. There were six of them left, all of his remaining staff. Probably thousands left alive elsewhere, scattered pockets isolated where the fury of their attack had left them deep in the Santander positions. He checked the magazine of his automatic.

The Santies were ahead, in among the trees that lined the road. Probably a platoon of them, and certainly an armored car.

Heinrich estimated distances. At least I don't have to make any more decisions, he thought. He laughed, feeling the weight on his shoulders lighten. Nothing good had come of that. Just one more. He laughed again, feeling young. Young as he had been at the beginning of the war, young and confident and happy.

"Sturm!" he shouted. "Charge!"

Knife in one hand, pistol in the other, he went forward at a pounding run with the others at his heels. Muzzle flashes winked through the twilight at him, rifles from among the trees. Then a continuous blinking flicker from the half-seen shape of the armored car.

Something hit him, spinning him around. He staggered and came on, squeezing off the last three rounds in the pistol. Had he hit someone? No way of telling. On. Another impact, somewhere in a body that felt far away. He fell, crawled forward, digging his free hand into the dirt and holding the knife tighter as his fingers went numb. Boots ahead of him, and the tip of a bayonet. Heinrich scrabbled half-erect, lunging forward, swinging the long curved knife where he knew a body must be. Something struck him between the shoulderblades, and he was floating.

Gerta. Wetness spilled out of his mouth. Nothing.

* * *

"Jesus," the Santander soldier said, looking down at the knife that had missed his crotch by inches. "Jesus. This bastid must've ten holes in him and he wouldn't fuckin' stop. I put a whole clip into him. Jesus."

Jeffrey Farr looked down at Heinrich's face. The lips were still twisted in a snarl, or perhaps a smile; it was difficult to tell, with the blood. He reached down and closed the staring blue eyes.

* * *

"Sir, this is fuckin' stupid."

John Hosten nodded. "Yes, it is, Barrjen," he said. "Smith, all of you, you've been with me a long time, but this is personal. He's my father, not yours."

Oathtaking was burning. The Santander gunboat had come in unopposed, unless the wild random fire of looters counted. The harbor was empty, but the great naval dockyards in the center of the drowned caldera were the scene of a battle—who against who was hard to tell, but the volume of fire was considerable. What was going on in the streets wasn't a battle; it was halfway between orgy and massacre, as the slave laborers and Protégé rebels hunted down stray Chosen and anyone associated with them.

"I'm going," John said, hefting his machine pistol. "I can't stop you from coming too, but I wish you wouldn't."

They looked at him in silence; he smiled wryly and headed down the street. Stray bands of looters parted before their guns and obvious discipline; the smoke was thick enough to keep visibility down to twenty yards or less, and thick enough to make each breath painful. Fires were burning on both sides, licking tongues of flame out of the windows of the buildings.

"That's a barricade, sir. Careful," Smith said.

John shook his head. "I don't think anyone's alive behind it," he said.

There were plenty of dead before it, in the striped uniforms of the labor camps or drab Protégé issue clothing. First a thick scattering, then piles two and three deep. Gray Land uniforms and weapons showed here and there among them, soldiers or police turned against their masters. Before the line of furniture and upturned handcarts the dead lay in layers waist-high, the granite pavement running with viscous red; the Santander party had to climb over them, breathing through their mouths. Where the barrels of the machine guns had been covered by the curtain of falling dead, the smell was of cooked meat. Broiled by the red-hot metal, boiled by the steam escaping from the ruptured water jackets. Most of the dead behind the barricade were Chosen; mostly children, in the plain gray school uniforms of Probationers. The adults among them were white-haired, probably teachers. Most of the dead children looked to have died quickly, the mutilations done afterwards. Most.

"You bastard," Barrjen breathed at the bald man whose age-spotted hands were still locked around a dead Protégé's throat. The knife in the Protégé's hand was buried in the schoolmaster's gut. "You bastard."

"Keep moving," John said sharply.

The fires got worse as they moved through Old Town. A housemaid fled screaming past them, her naked body streaked with blood. Half a dozen Protégé soldiers chased her at an easy lope, the insignia torn from their uniforms, bottles in their hands. One or two of them halted to stare at the Santander party; were was no mind in the shaven heads, but enough animal caution to send them reeling on again.

"Where'll he be, sir?" Barrjen asked.

John replied without turning or halting his steady trot. "I think I know."

They were elbowing their way through crowds now, turning south to Monument Point. The crackle of small-arms fire sounded. The downslope of an avenue let them see the square around the Founders' Monument, the bronze figures still raising their weapons in the Oath. A barricade of vehicles surrounded it, some of them tanks or armored cars.

"He'll be there, if he's alive at all," John said tonelessly. "There are bunkers under the monument, old ones, but they're always kept up, the magazines kept full, it's a ritual—"

A wave moved forward from the streets and buildings around the square, a wave that screamed and fired as it ran, ran over a carpet of bodies that covered the pavement too thickly for the stone to show. Bullets lashed out into the wave and it absorbed them, piling up as if on a breakwater. In a minute or less the edge of the wave was piled against the muzzles of the guns, stabbing and shooting and tearing flesh with its bare hands.

"Vater . . ." John whispered, in the tongue of his youth.

Something prompted Barrjen to dive for John's legs. They went down in a tangle of limbs; the others went prone with old-soldier reflex before they were consciously aware of what had happened. Even over a thousand yards and the screaming of the attacking horde the explosion was loud. Bronze and stone and human flesh erupted upwards. No un-Chosen hand would ever touch the Monument of the Oath.

"Vater!" John screamed, knowing exactly who had touched off that last fuse.

"Oh, Jesus fuckin' Christ, sir, stay down!" Barrjen shouted.

Barrjen and Smith wrestled with him. Then he grunted and collapsed into their arms.

"Damn, damn!" Smith said, hands scrabbling for the wound. "Damn, give me a bandage here, put some pressure on!"

Barrjen left them to their work, looking out over the square with a silent whistle. The crater was a hundred yards across, and he ran a quick calculation.

There can't be that many dead people in that small a space, he thought. Then he looked around at the burning chaos that stretched on either side around the harbor, farther than the eye could penetrate, up the sides of the mountains where the flames marked every plantation manor and village.

I guess there can be.

"Okay, let's get the boss back to the ship," he said aloud.

* * *

"Nein," Gerta Hosten said tonelessly.

"But sir, we have to strike quickly, before the enemy lands troops in the Land itself. We have half the area under control, and hundreds of thousands of armed—"

"Shut. Up." Gerta told her son, looking down over the harbor of Westhavn. The fires were out, and the ships that crowded the roadstead were moving towards the docks. Occasionally a shot crackled, but nothing like yesterday when the local issue was still in doubt. She went on in the same flat mechanical voice:

"We have pockets of control in the north and east of the island. We have hundreds of thousands of children, Probationers; if it weren't for the fact that they'd been called up and concentrated, we'd all be dead by now. I doubt there are more than two divisions worth of Chosen adults left in areas we control. Perhaps a division's worth of Protégés who didn't mutiny. Now let me give you some arithmetic; there were more than two million slave laborers in the camps around Oathtaking and Copernik alone. And enough arms in the warehouses waiting shipment to the mainland to equip ten divisions. So there are at least a million armed rebels in the southern and eastern lowlands, not counting several divisions of Protégés who've killed their officers. Suppose that our children—and some of them are shorter than the weapons they're carrying—could retake that part of the Land, which they can't possibly do, what do you think the Santie army would make of them? And they'll be ready to put troops ashore here in fairly short order."

"Their . . . their navy was heavily damaged in the battle of the Passage."

Gerta nodded, her face still to the window. "They have six intact battleships. None of ours survived. The aircraft carriers are without aircraft. Perhaps two dozen other warships, all damaged, and several hundred merchantmen. We have no repair facilities, and no hope of restarting the industries—we had to kill nine tenths of the labor force over the past six days, or didn't you notice?"

"Then—"

Gerta turned. Johan Hosten was standing rigidly, but tears were trickling down his cheeks.

Smack. The flat of her palm took him across the side of the face. "Attention!"

"Yes, sir!"

She could see him gather himself. "Now, you will hear what we are going to do, and then you will assist me in preparing the necessary orders. Those who wish to do so will entrench here in Westhavn and in Konugsburg, and surrender to the Santander forces. They will live, at least. Those who do not wish do do so will board ship."

"Ship?" Johann asked. "For where, sir?"

"The Western Isles, of course," Gerta said. "It's our only remaining possession. The wireless reports that conditions are stable"—as much as they could be in a clutch of small jungle islands halfway around the world—"and it's rather far for the enemy to get around to anytime soon. We'll load all possible industrial equipment."

"But sir . . . how will . . . even if only half our remaining population . . . the Western Isles don't have any agriculture to speak of."

"Then we'll eat a lot of fish, won't we?" Gerta said.

"But there aren't enough Protégés there to support us!"

Gerta sighed, closed her eyes and put two ringers to her brow. We just don't learn very fast, she thought bitterly.

"Then we'll have to learn how to fish, ourselves, won't we? You have your orders, Hauptman."

"Zum behfel, Herr General." Johann remained standing. "May I speak further, General?" he said.

Gerta felt cold. "You may," she said.

"General," said the boy. There were tears on his cheeks. "I will be among those who remain in Westhavn. With your permission, sir."

"Permission granted," Gerta said tonelessly. "Now, bring me the file on the merchant vessels available."

"Mi Mutti? I will never surrender!"

Gerta looked at her son: perfectly trained to be what she wanted him to be. Her ultimate failure. "No," she said, "I don't suppose you will. Now, bring me the file."

EPILOGUE




John Hosten smiled at his wife from the hospital bed. "Yes, Pia, I agree. A holiday . . . when things are settled a bit."

She put her hands on her hips. "They will never be settled. Already they are talking of drafting you as a candidate for premier in the next election."

John sat upright and winced at the pain in his leg. The doctors had saved it—and him—but it had been touch and go for a while. "Not a chance, by God!"

Pia sighed and smiled. "They will tell you it is for the public good—"

correct, Center said.

Shut up, John hissed mentally.

"—and you will rise to it like a trout to a fly."

She gathered her cloak. "Now they tell me you must rest. But you will see our son married—"

Maurice Hosten put his free arm around his fiancée; Alexandra Farr was still in Auxiliary uniform, and he in Air Corps sky-blue. The left arm was in a sling, but the cast was due to come off any day now. With luck, he might be able to fly an aircraft again, although not a fighter.

"—and you will rest for one year. If I have to hit you over the head with a hammer to make you do it."

She swept out, her son in her wake. Jeffrey sat on the edge of John's bed, and offered him a cigarillo. John leaned forward carefully.

"I feel like someone who's been climbing up a staircase all my life," he said, blowing smoke towards the open window. A spray of blossoming crab apple waved across it in the mild spring breeze; the warm season came early to Dubuk. "Suddenly I'm at the top, and there's a whole new staircase."

eliminating the chosen menace was the first step towards restoring visager to the second federation, Center said. every journey begins with a first step, yet that is only the beginning.

Images spun through his mind: universities, trade treaties . . .

And Jeff will have a fair bit of fighting to do still, Raj said, with cheerful resignation. I fought all my major wars on Bellevue before I was thirty, and damned if the mopping up didn't take the rest of my days.

Jeffrey sighed and trickled smoke from his nostrils. "Some of what we're doing is harder to stomach than the war," he said. "Santander troops have had to fire on Imperials to keep them from slaughtering Chosen trying to surrender to us. They're finally doing that in some numbers, and your friend Arturo doesn't like it at all. He thinks their national destiny is fertilizer."

John shrugged, remembering the cellars in Ciano. "He's got his reasons. Still, he won't push it. We'll probably have to stop calling it the Empire, by the way. A republic? We'll see."

"The Premier is talking about a protectorate," Jeffrey said.

John laughed, and winced at the jar to his leg. "When iron floats. I know the Santander electorate, and they want complete demobilization, yesterday if possible."

"Damned right. We had a mutiny in Salini, just last week—troops demanding we disband them."

John scowled. "Which means we won't be able to do anything about Libert. Damn, but I hate to see that slimy bastard getting away with it. He's not as bad as the Chosen, but that's not saying much."

But he's popular in the Union now, Raj said to both of them. He kept them out of war, and grabbed off a big chunk of territory from their traditional enemies. Are you ready to fight a major war and lose another hundred thousand dead to topple him?

"If Gerard were alive, yes," Jeffrey said. "As it is—" He sighed. "But are we storing up trouble for the future? An awful lot of Chosen took Libert's amnesty, as many as surrendered to us. It didn't make it easier to get the Settlement Act through the Congress."

Which allowed the Chosen refugees resident status and citizenship for their children. Not quite as generous as Libert's offer, although the Republic was a more advanced country. Most of the Chosen were highly educated, highly intelligent people. They'd be an asset . . . provided they assimilated.

they will, Center said. the overwhelming majority. the events of the past generation were sufficient to destroy even the most intensive cultural conditioning.

And the real irreconcilables died rather than surrender, Raj said.

correct. the chosen elements in the union will also be assimilated to their surroundings, albeit more slowly. they will, however, serve as a nucleus of resistance to santander hegemony . . . which is a positive factor, in this context. remember, we must think in terms of planetary welfare, not national. this world has been severely damaged; more than one-tenth of the planetary population has died, and there will be further extensive losses from famine and disease in the immediate aftermath of the wars. the former imperial territories are in chaos and will, with a high degree of probability, splinter politically. there will be wars of succession there and in the unoccupied areas of the sierra. the former land is likely to decivilize entirely, as protégés and slave laborers fight over the spoils—and the land was dependent on imported food supplies and a highly advanced agriculture, neither of which still exist. some degree of long-term cultural damage and demoralization will also result from the brutalizing effects of the conflict. we must ensure a long period of relative stability to ensure a regenerative process.

"Yeah, it was a damned hard war," Jeffrey agreed, flicking the butt of his cigarillo out the window. "You're right; the complete hardasses among the Chosen are pushing up the daisies. We can deal with the others."

John nodded. "Except, perhaps, Gerta's?"

the western isles lack the area and resource base to support a major military power, Center said, then slowly added: from a eugenic point of view, the settlement there will supply material for valuable study. existence without a slave base will lead to rapid cultural change, however. the maximum probability is a reorientation of effort from military to commercial-scientific endeavor.

John shrugged. "Good luck to Gerta, then," he said. "Probably better for her than winning would have been, when you think about it."

Jeffrey snorted laughter. "I doubt she'd agree."

"True. But it's our opinion that matters, isn't it? That's what winning means. Not killing your opponents, but converting their children's children. The Chosen made tools of human beings, and that had to be stopped. But we're all the tools of humankind."

The brothers sat in silence for a long moment, looking down the years ahead.

"Well, I've got a wedding to plan," Jeffrey said at last. "Which is the future incarnate. That's what it was all about, wasn't it?"

"Amen," John said softly. "Amen, brother."


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