The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER TWO

1227 A.F.
310 Y.O.


"People are going to think we're weird," Jeffrey said, panting.

"Hell, we are weird, Jeff," John replied.

They fell silent as they raced up the slopes of Signal Hill, past picnicking families and students—it was part of the University Park. The switchbacks were rough enough, but John cut between them whenever there weren't any flowerbeds on the slopes. At last they stood on the paved summit, amid planters and trees in big pots and sightseers paying twenty-five centimes apiece to look through pivot-mounted binoculars at the famous view over Santander City. Jeffrey threw his hand-weights to a bench and groaned, ducking his head into a fountain and blowing like a grampus before he drank.

John stood, concentrating on ignoring the ache in his right foot, drinking slowly from a water bottle he carried at his waist. Signal Hill was two hundred meters, the highest land in the city and right above a bend in the Santander River. From here he could see most of the capital of the Republic: Capitol Square to the northwest, and the cathedral beyond it; the executive mansion with its pillars and green copper roof off to the east, at the end of embassy row. The Basin District, the ancient beginnings of Santander City, was below the hill in an oxbow curve of the river, and the canal basin was on the south bank, amid the factories and working-class districts. Southward the urban sprawl vanished in haze; northward you could just make out the wooded hills that carried the elite suburbs.

The roar of traffic was muted here, the hissing-spark clatter of streetcars, the underground rumble of the subway, the sound of horses and the increasing number of steamcars, even the burbling roar of the odd gas-engine vehicle. He could smell nothing but hot stone and the cool green smells of the park, also a welcome change from most of the city. The sun was red on the western horizon, still bright up here, but as he watched the streetlights came on. They traced fairy-lantern patterns of light over the rolling cityscape, amidst the mellow golden glow of gaslights and the harsher electric glare along the main streets.

He grew conscious of someone watching him: a girl about his own age, but not a student—her calf-length dress was too stylish, and the little hat perched on one side of her head held a quetzal plume. She smiled as he met her eyes, then turned to talk to her matronly companion.

"Looking you over, stud," Jeff said.

John half-grinned. Objectively, he knew he was good-looking enough; tall like his father, with yellow-blond hair and a square-chinned face. And he kept himself in good enough shape . . . but they don't know. His foot twinged.

He punched his brother on the arm. "Like Doreen down in the canteen?" he said. They sat on the grass and passed a towel back and forth. "Thank me for it, bro. If I hadn't gotten you into this weird Chosen stuff you'd still be a weed and skinny. She's eating you with her eyes, my man."

Jeffrey Farr had filled out, although he'd always be slimmer than the son of his foster-mother. Only a trace of adolescent awkwardness remained, and his long bony face was firming towards adulthood.

"Doreen? All she'll do is look. Her folks are Reformed Baptist, you know; I've got about as much chance of seeing her skirt up as I do of getting the Archbishop flat. I tried pinching her butt and she mashed my toe so hard I dropped my tray."

John clucked his tongue. "The Archbishop's butt? Hell, I didn't know you had a taste for older women. . . . Pax, pax!"

Jeffrey lit a slightly sweat-dampened cigarette. "Those things will kill you," John said, refusing the offered pack.

"And the other Officers Training Corps cadets will think I'm a pansy if I don't smoke," Jeffrey said, leaning his elbow on his knee and looking out over the city. "I'll admit, the phys ed side of it is easier because of all this exercise shit you talked me into."

"How's Maurice taking you going into the army?"

Jeffrey shrugged. "Dad's just surprised, is all. Every Farr for five generations has been navy."

"Since the days of wooden ships and iron men," John agreed.

The Republic hadn't had a major land war in nearly seventy years, and the army was tiny and ill-funded. The navy was another matter, since it had always been policy not to let the Empire gain too big an edge.

"More like iron cannon and wooden heads. When do you hear from the diplomatic service?"

"Next week," John said. "But I'm pretty confident."

"You've got the marks for it."

Thanks to Center, he said silently.

Jeffrey's green eyes narrowed and he shook his head. Even Center can't make a silk purse out of a sow's udder, he replied, through the relay that the ancient computer provided.

correct, Center said. i have merely shortened the period of instruction and made possible a broader-based course of study.

Think we'll have enough time before the Chosen take on the Empire? Jeff thought.

chosen-imperial war within the next two years is a 17% ±3 probability. within the next four, 53% ±5. within the next six, 92% ±7.

"I should have my commission in a year," Jeff said. "You'll be a member in good standing of the striped-pants-and-spooks brigade."

"Much good it'll do the Empire," John said gloomily, splitting a grass stem between his thumbs.

North lay the rest of the Republic, and the Gut—the narrow waterway that divided the mainland along most of its width. North of the Gut was the Universal Empire, largest of Visager's nations, potentially the richest, and for centuries the most powerful. Those centuries were generations gone.

"And we're doing fuck-all!" Jeff said. "I know politicians are supposed to be dimwits, but the staff over at the Pyramid are even worse, and the admiralty isn't much better, apart from Dad."

"We're doing all we can," John said calmly. "The Republic isn't doing much yet, but some people see what's coming—Maurice, for example. And he's a rear admiral, now. We ought to have some time after they attack the Empire."

"I suppose so," Jeff sighed. "Hey, you keep me on an even keel, did I ever tell you that? Yeah, even the Chosen aren't crazy enough to take on us and the Empire at once. When that starts, people will sit up and take notice—even them." He nodded towards the capitol building's dome.

"Maurice sometimes doubts they'd notice if the Fleet of the Chosen steamed up the river and began shelling them," John said lightly.

"Dad's a pessimist. C'mon, let's get back to the dorm, shower, and grab a hamburger. Maybe Doreen will take pity on me."

* * *

"Teamwork, teamwork, you morons!" Gerta Hosten gasped, hearing the others stumble. "Johan, your turn on point."

The jungle trail was narrow and slick with mud. The improvised stretcher of poles and vines was awkward, would have been awkward even without the mumbling, tossing form of the boy strapped to it. His leg was splinted with branches; the lianas that bound it to the wood were half-buried in swollen-purple flesh.

Gerta dug her heels in and waited until the stretcher came level, then sheathed her knife and took the left front pole. The man she was relieving worked his fingers for a moment, drew his bowie and plunged forward to slash a way for his comrades. She took the left front pole, Heinrich carried both rear poles, and Elke Tirnwitz was on the right front. Johan Kloster moved farther ahead, chopping his way through the vines. Etkar Summeldorf was getting the free ride; he'd broken a leg spearing a crocodile that tried to snack on them while they forded a river yesterday.

They'd eaten a fair bit of the croc. You got nothing supplied in the team-endurance event that concluded the Test of Life. Well, almost nothing: a pair of shorts, a pair of sandals, a cloth halter if you were a girl, and a bowie knife. Then they dropped you and four teammates down a sliderope from a dirigible into the Kopenrung Mountains along the north side of the Land, and you made the best time you could to the pickup station. Nobody told you exactly where that was, either. The Chosen of the Land didn't need to have their hands held. If you couldn't make it, the Chosen didn't need you—and you had better all make it. The Chosen didn't need selfish grandstanders, either.

"Leave me," Etkar mumbled. "Leave me. Go."

"We can't leave you, you stupid git," Elke said in a voice hoarse with worry and fatigue—they were an item, and besides, Etkar had probably saved their lives at the river. "This is a team event. We'd all drop a hundred points if we left you behind."

They'd all saved each other's lives.

It was hot: thirty-eight degrees, at least, and steambath humid. Bad even by the Land's standards. The Kopenrungs were in the far north, nearest to the equator. That was one reason they'd never been intensively developed, that and the constant steep slopes and the lateritic soils. And the leeches, the mosquitoes, the wild boar and wild buffalo and leopards and constant thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Sweat trickled down her skin, adding to the greasy film already there and stinging in the insect bites and budding jungle sores. The rough wood pulled at her arm and abraded the calluses on her palm. Muscles in her lower back complained as she leaned back against the weight of the stretcher and the slope. Branches and leaves swatted at her face.

"Heinrich, min brueder," Gerta said, pacing the words to the muscular effort. "Tell me again how wonderful it is to be Chosen."

Elke made a sharp hissing sound with her teeth. The Fourth Bureau was unlikely to be listening, but you never knew. Heinrich grunted a chuckle.

"Shays," Johan swore. "Shit." There was wonder in his tone.

"What is it?" Gerta asked. She couldn't see more than a few paces through the undergrowth; this section of hillside had burned off a while ago, and the second growth was rank.

"We made it."

"What?" in three strong young voices.

"We made it! That was the clearing we saw back on the crest!"

None of them spoke; they didn't slow down, either. Gerta managed a sweat-blurred glimpse at the mist-shrouded, jungle-covered mountains ahead. They looked precisely like the mist-shrouded, jungle-clad mountains she'd been staring at for the entire past week.

When they broke out of the cover onto the little bench-plateau they broke into a trot by sheer reflex. There were pavilions ahead, and a crowd of people—officers, officials, Protégé servants. A doctor ran forward at the sight of the stretcher.

"How is he?" Elke said.

The doctor looked up and frowned. "The leg doesn't look too bad. Now. He'd have lost it in another twenty hours."

Protégés held out trays. Gerta grabbed at a ceramic tumbler and drank, long and carefully. It was orange juice, slightly salted. She shut her eyes for an instant of pure bliss.

A man cleared his throat. She opened her eyes and snapped to attention with the other members of her team; all but Ektar, who was out with a syringe of morphine in his arm.

The man was elderly, bald, stringy-muscular. He had colonel's pips on the shoulders of his summer-weight uniform, and a smile like Death in a good mood on his wrinkled, bony face. She was acutely conscious of the ring on the third finger of his left hand, an intertwined circlet of iron and gold. The Chosen ring.

"Gerta Hosten, Heinrich Hosten, Johan Kloster, Elke Tirnwitz, Etkar Summeldorf. The ceremony will come later, of course, but it is my honor to inform you that each of you has achieved at least the minimum necessary score in the Test of Life. Accordingly, at the age of eighteen years and six months, you will be enrolled among the Chosen of the Land. Congratulations."

One of the others whooped. Gerta couldn't tell which; she was too busy keeping herself erect. Six months of examinations, tests, psychological tests, tests of nerve, tests of intelligence, tests of ability to endure stress; all topped off with seven hellish days in the Kopenrung jungles—and it was over.

I'm not going to be a Washout. She'd decided long ago to kill herself rather than endure that; a large proportion of Washouts did. Born in a Protégé cottage, and I'm Chosen of the Land.

She snapped off a salute, arm outstretched and fist clenched. A blood-boil burst and left red running down her mouth as she grinned; the pain was a sharp stab, but she didn't give a damn.

* * *

"You are a very wealthy young man," the River Electric Company executive said, looking down at the statement in surprise.

"I had some seed money from my stepfather," John explained. "The rest of it comes from commodities deals, mainly." Courtesy of Center's analysis; that made things childishly easy. "And investment in Western Petroleum."

His formal neckcloth felt a little tight; he suppressed an impulse to fiddle with it. The room was on the seventh story of one of the new office buildings between the Eastern Highway and the river, with an overhead fan and shuttered windows that made it cool even on the hot summer's day. The River Electric exec had very little on the broad ebony expanse of his desk, just a blotter and a telephone with a sea-ivory handset. And the plans John had sent in.

"This . . ."

"Mercury-arc rectifier," John supplied helpfully.

"Rectifier, yes, seems to be very ingenious," the executive said.

He was a plump little man with bifocals, wearing a rather dandified cream-colored jacket and blue neckcloth. There was a parrots feather in the band of his trilby where it hung on the rack by the door.

"However," he went on, "at present the River Electric Company is engaged in an extensive, a very extensive, investment program in primary generating capacity. Why should we undertake a risky new venture which will require tying up capital in new manufacturing plant?"

John leaned forward. "That's just it, Mr. Henforth. The rectifier will save capital by reducing transmission losses. The expense of installing them will be considerably less than the savings in raw generating capacity. And the construction can be subcontracted. There are a lot of firms here in the capital, or anywhere in the Eastern Provinces—Tonsville, say, or Ensburg—who could handle this. River Electric's primary focus on hydraulic turbines and turbogenerators wouldn't be affected."

Henforth steepled his fingers and waited.

"And," John went on after the silence stretched, "I'd be willing to buy say, five hundred thousand shares of River Electric at par. Also licensing fees from the patent would be assigned."

"It's definitely an interesting proposition," Henforth said, smiling. "Come, we'll go up to the executive lounge on the roof and discuss this further with some of our technical people." He shook his head. "A young man of your capacities is wasted in the diplomatic service, Mr. Hosten. Wasted."

* * *

"Skirmish order!"

The infantry platoon fanned out, three meters between each man, in two long lines. The first line jogged forward across the rocky pasture, their fixed bayonets glittering in the chilly upland air. Fifty meters forward they went to ground, taking cover behind ridges and boulders. The second line moved up and leapfrogged forward in turn.

Ensign Jeffrey Farr watched carefully through his field-glasses. The movement was carried out with precision. Good men, he thought. The Republic's army wasn't large, only seventy thousand men. It wasn't particularly well-paid or equipped, either; the men mostly enlisted because it was the employer of last resort. Bottle troubles, wife troubles, farm kids bored beyond endurance with watching the south end of a northbound plowhorse, sheer inability to cope with the chaotic demands of civilian life in the Republic's fast-growing cities. They could still make good soldiers if you gave them the right training, and trained men would be invaluable when the balloon went up. The provincial militias were supposed to be federalized in time of war, but as they stood he had little confidence in them.

He raised his hand in a signal. The platoon sergeant blew a sharp blast on his whistle and the men rose from the field, slapping at the dust on their brown tunic jackets. Their stubbled faces looked impassive and tired after the month of field exercises through the mountains.

"Good work, Ensign," his company commander nodded. Captain Daniels was a thickset man of forty—promotion was slow in the peacetime army—with a scar across one cheek where a Union bullet had just missed taking off his face in a skirmish twenty years ago.

"Very good work," the staff observer said. "I notice you're spreading the skirmish line thinner."

"Yes, sir," Jeff said. He nodded at an infantryman jogging by with his weapon at the trail. It was a bolt-action model with six cartridges in a tube magazine below the barrel. "Everyone's getting magazine rifles these days, except the Imperials, and new designs are coming fast and furious. We've got to disperse formations more."

Although to hear some of the fogies talk, they expected to fight in shoulder-to-shoulder ranks like Civil War troops equipped with rifle-muskets.

"Yes, I read that article of yours in the Armed Forces Quarterly," the staff type said. "You think nitro powders will be adopted for small arms?"

major belmody, Center said. A list of biographical data followed.

The major looked pretty sharp, if a little elegant for the field in his greatcoat and red throat-tabs and polished Sam Browne. And being a younger son of the Belmody Mills Belmodys probably hadn't hurt his rise through the officer corps either; thirty-two was damned young to get that high.

"I'm certain of it, sir," Jeff said. The Belmodys were big in chemicals and mining explosives. "No smoke, less fouling, and much higher muzzle velocities, flatter trajectories, smaller calibers so the troops can carry more ammo."

Captain Daniels spoke unexpectedly. "I don't trust jacketed bullets," he said. "They have a tendency to strip and then tumble when the barrel's hot."

"Sir, that's just a development problem. Gilding metal can't take the temperatures of high-velocity rounds. Cupronickel, or straight copper, that's what needed."

The older officer smiled. "Ensign, I wish I was half as confident about anything as you are about everything."

"God knows we could use some young firebrands in this man's army," Major Belmody said. "In any case, you and Ensign Farr must dine with me tonight."

"After I see the men settled in, sir," Jeff said. The major raised an eyebrow and nodded, returning his juniors' salutes.

"You'll do, Farr," Captain Daniels said, grinning, when the staff officer's car had bounced away over the pasture with an occasional chuff of waste steam. "You'll go far, too, if you can learn to be a little more diplomatic about who you deliver lectures to."

* * *

Lieutenant Gerta Hosten leaned back against the upholstery of the seat and watched out the half-open window as the train clacked its way across the central plateau. The air coming in was clean; this close to Copernik the line had been electrified, and the lack of coal smoke and the pounding, chuffing sound of a steam locomotive was a little eerie. There was plenty of traffic on the broad concrete-surfaced road that flanked the railway, too, steam or animal-drawn. This was the most pleasant part of the Land, a rolling volcanic upland at a thousand meters above sea level, cooler and a little drier. The capital had been moved here from Oathtaking only a generation after the first wave of Alliance refugees arrived. Copernik's beginnings went back before the coming of the Chosen, right back to the initial settlement of Visager, but nothing remained of the pre-conquest city. Over the past generation as geothermal steam and then hydropower supplemented coal, it had also become a major manufacturing center.

Gerta watched with interest as rolling contour-plowed fields of sugar cane, rice, soya, and maize gave way to huge factory compounds. One of them held an airship assembly shed, a hundred-meter skeletal structure like a Brobdingnagian barn. The cigar-shaped hull was still a framework of girders, with only patches of hull-cladding where aluminum sheet was being riveted to the structure.

She buttoned the collar of her field-gray walking-out uniform, buckled on her gunbelt with the shoulder-strap, and took up her attaché case. Normally she'd have let her batman carry that, but there were eyes-only documents in it. Nothing ultra-secret, or she wouldn't be carrying them on a train, but procedure was procedure.

Behfel ist Behfel, she recited to herself: orders are orders. She also had a letter from John Hosten in there. Evidently he was doing well down in the Republic; he'd gotten some sort of posting in their diplomatic service.

It was a pity about John.

"Wake up, feldwebel," she said.

Her batman blinked open his eyes and stood, taking down the two bags from the overhead rack. Pedro was a thickset muscular man in his thirties, strong and quick and apparently loyal as a Doberman guard dog. Also about as bright; in fact, she'd owned dogs with more mother-wit and larger vocabularies. It was policy to exclude the upper two-thirds of the intelligence gradient when recruiting soldiers and gendarmes from the Protégé caste. She had her doubts about that, and she'd always preferred bright ones as personal servants. More risk, but greater potential gain.

Behfel ist behfel.

Hie train lurched slightly as it slowed. The pantograph on the locomotive clicked amid a shower of sparks as they pulled into the Northwest Station. There were many tall blond young men in uniform there, but not the one she instinctively sought. Heinrich wouldn't be waiting for her; that wouldn't be seemly, and anyway she had to report to Intelligence HQ for debriefing.

My lovely Heinrich, she thought. I'd fuck you even if you were my birth-brother. An exaggeration, but he was a dear, and of course incest taboos didn't apply to adoptee-kin. And this time when you ask me to marry you, I'm going to say yes.

The implications of the documents in her attaché case were clear, if you could read between the paragraphs. It was time to do her eugenic duty to the Chosen; even with servants, infants took up a lot of time and effort. Best do it while there was time.

In a couple of years, they were all going to be very, very busy.

CHAPTER THREE

1233 A.F.
317 Y.O.


Looks different from a Protégé's point of view, John Hosten thought, carefully slumping his shoulders.

He was walking the streets of Oathtaking in the drab cotton coat and breeches of some middling Protégé worker. He could have been a warehouse clerk, or a store-checker; his hair had been dyed brown, but the best protection was sheer swarming numbers and the fact that nobody looked at an average Proti.

He'd forgotten how hot the damned place was, too. Hot, the air thick and wet and saturated with coal smoke and smells. Bigger than he remembered from his childhood; the villas went further up the slopes of the volcanoes, the factories were larger and the smokestacks higher, there were more overhead power lines, workers hanging out the sides of the overburdened trolley cars. And many, many more powered vehicles on the streets. Most of them were in army gray, steam-powered trucks and haulers built to half a dozen standard models. A fair number of luxury cars, too, some of them imported models from the Republic. Half a dozen Protégés went by on a gang-bicycle, which was a very clever invention, when you thought about it.

Too heavy for one to pedal—it takes six. Factory workers can use them to commute, but they don't get personal mobility.

Cleverness wasn't a wholly positive quality. . . .

He ducked into the brothel's front door; it wasn't hard to find, having BROTHEL #22A7-B, PROTÉGÉ, CLASS 6-B printed on the front door, with a graphic symbol for illiterates. Inside was a depressingly bare waiting room with a brick floor and girls sitting around the walls on wood-slat benches, naked save for cotton briefs, folded towels beside them, and a number on the wall above each head below a lightbulb. They didn't look as run-down as you'd expect, but then few of them were professionals. Temporary service in a place like this was a standard penalty for minor infractions of workplace regulations. A staircase led to cubicles above, and a clerk sat behind an iron grille just inside the door; the place smelled of sweat, harsh disinfectant, and spilled beer.

A hulk stood nearby, an iron-bound club thonged to his massive wrist, picking at his teeth with the thumbnail of his other hand. Probably a retired policeman; he looked John over once, and tapped the head of the club warningly against the stucco. John cringed realistically, turning and ducking his head.

"Prices are posted," the clerk said in a monotone; she was in her fifties, flabby with a starchy diet and lack of exercise. "You want I should read 'em? Booze is extra."

John pushed iron counters across the table and through the scoop trough beneath the iron grille. Fingers arranged them in a pattern; they were from Zeizin Shipbuilding AG, one of the bigger firms.

recognition, Center said. Pointers dropped across the clerk's pasty face indicating pupil dilation and temperature differentials. 97%, ±2.

That was about as definite as it got; now the question was whether this was his real contact, or whether the Fourth Bureau had penetrated the ring and was waiting for him. His palms were damp, and he swallowed sour bile, eyes flickering to the doors. He wasn't carrying a weapon; it would have been insanely risky, here—a Protégé caught armed would be lucky to be executed on the spot. And when they found his geburtsnumero . . .

subject is contact, Center reassured him. anxiety levels are compatible. 73%, ±5.

A whole hell of a lot less certain than the first projection, but still reassuring. A little.

The clerk nodded and pressed a button on her side of the counter. A light went on with a tick over the girl closest to the stair; she stood with a mechanical smile and picked up her towel.

The upper corridor was fairly quiet, in midafternoon; a row of cubicles stood on either side, with curtains hung before them on rings and a shower at one end. John's guide pulled aside a numbered curtain and ducked through.

He followed. Within was a single cot, a washstand and tap, and a jar of antiseptic soap . . . and crouched in a corner, the burly form of Angelo Pesalozi. He stood, bear-burly, more gray than John remembered.

"Young Master Johan," he rumbled.

John extended his hand. "No man's master now, Angelo," he said, smiling.

The hand of Karl Hosten's driver and personal factotum closed on his with controlled strength. John matched it, and Angelo grinned.

"You have not grown soft," he said. "Come, we should do our business quickly."

The girl put her foot on the cot and began to push on it, irregularly at first and then rhythmically; with vocal accompaniment, it was a remarkably convincing chorus of squeaks and groans.

"A minute," John said. "My life is at risk here, too, and will be again, and I must understand. Karl Hosten is a good master, and your own daughter is one of the Chosen. Why are you ready to work against them?"

Brown eyes met his somberly. "He is a good master, but I would have no master at all, and be my own man. I have four children; because one is a lord, should the others be slaves, and my grandchildren? There are more bad masters than good."

He jerked his head towards the girl. "She dropped a tray of insulator parts, and so she must whore here for a month—is this justice? If a man speaks against the masters when they send his wife to another plantation, or take his children for soldiers, his brother for the mines, he is hung in an iron cage at the crossroads to die—is this justice? No, the rule of the Chosen is an offense against God. It must cease, even if I die for it."

John met his eyes for a long moment. subject is sincere; probability—He silenced the computer with a thought. I know.

And Angelo had always been kind to a boy with a crippled foot . . .

"Yes," John said. "That is so, Angelo."

The Protégé nodded and produced folded papers from inside his jacket; they were damp with sweat, but legible.

"These I took from the wastebasket, before the daily burning," he said. "Here is an order, concerning five airships—"

* * *

"I worry about that boy," Sally Farr said.

"I don't," Maurice Farr replied.

They were sitting on the terrace of the naval commandants quarters, overlooking Charsson and its port. This was the northernmost part of the Republic of Santander, hence the hottest; the shores of the Gut were warmer still, protected from continental breezes by mountains on both sides. The hot, dry summer had just begun; flowers gleamed about the big whitewashed house, and the tessellated brick pavement of the terrace was dappled by the shade of the royal palms and evergreen oak planted around it. The road ran down the mountainside in dramatic switchbacks; there were villas on either side, officers' quarters and middle-class suburbs up out of the heat of the old city around the J-shaped harbor.

The roofs down there were mostly low-pitched and of reddish clay tile; it looked more like an Imperial city from the lands just north of the Gut than like the rest of Santander. Much of the population was Imperial, too—there had been a steady drift of migrant laborers in the past couple of generations, looking for better-paid work in the growing mines and factories and irrigation farms.

Farr's eyes went to the dockyards. One of his armored cruisers was in the graving dock, with a cracked shaft on her central screw. The other four ships of the squadron were refitting as well; when everything was ready he'd take them up the Gut on a show-the-flag cruise.

"John," he continued, "is on his way to becoming a very wealthy young man. And he's doing well in the diplomatic service.

"Thank you," he went on to the steward bringing him his afternoon gin and tonic. Sally rattled the ice in hers.

"He has no social life," she said. "I keep introducing him to nice girls, and nothing happens. All he does is study and work. The doctors say he should be . . . umm, functional . . . but I worry."

Maurice turned his head to hide a quick smile. From what Jeffrey told him, John had been seen occasionally with girls who weren't particularly nice. Enough to prove that the infant vasectomy the Chosen doctors had done hadn't caused any irreparable harm in that respect, at least.

"Do you know something I don't?" Sally said sharply.

"Let's put it this way, my dear: there are certain things that a young man does not generally discuss with his mother."

"Oh."

Smart, Maurice thought fondly. Pretty, too.

Sally was looking remarkably cool and elegant in her white and cream linen outfit and broad straw hat, the pleated skirt daringly an inch above the ankle. Only a little gray in the long brown hair, no more than in his. You'd never know she'd had four children.

"Besides," he went on, "he's been assigned to the embassy in Ciano. From what I know of the tailcoat squadron there, social life is about all he'll have time for—it's a diplomat's main function. Count on it, he'll meet plenty of nice girls there."

"Oh." Sallys tone wavered a little at the thought. "Nice Imperial girls. Well, I suppose . . ." She shrugged.

She looked downslope in her turn. There were fortifications there, everything from the bastion-and-ravelin systems set up centuries ago to defend against roundshot to modern concrete-and-steel bunkers with heavy naval guns.

"John seems to think that there's going to be war," she said. "Jeffrey, too."

Maurice nodded somberly. "I wouldn't be surprised. War between the Chosen and the Empire, at least."

"But surely we wouldn't be involved!" Sally protested.

"Not at first," Maurice said slowly. "Not for a while."

"Thank goodness Jeffrey's in the army, then," she said. The Republic of Santander had no land border with either of the two contending powers. "And John's safe in the diplomatic corps."

* * *

"You dance divinely, Giovanni," Pia del'Cuomo said. "It is not fair. You are tall, you are handsome, you are clever, you are rich, and you dance so well. Beware, lest God send you a misfortune."

"I've already had a few from Him," John Hosten said, keeping his tone light and whirling the girl through the waltz. The ballroom was full of graceful swirling movement, gowns and uniforms and black formal suits, jewels and flowers and fans. "But He brought me to Ciano to meet you, so he can't be really angry with me."

Pia was just twenty, old for an Imperial woman of noble birth to be unmarried, and four years younger than him. Also unlike most Imperials of her sex and station, she didn't think giggles and inanities were the only way to talk to a man. She was very pretty indeed, besides, something he was acutely conscious of with their hands linked and one arm around her narrow waist.

No, not pretty—beautiful, he thought.

Big russet-colored eyes, heart-shaped face, creamy skin showing to advantage in the glittering low-cut, long-skirted white ballgown, and glossy brown hair piled up under a diamond tiara. Best of all, she seemed to like him.

The music came to a stop, and they stood for a moment smiling at each other while the crowd applauded the orchestra.

"If jealous eyes were daggers, I would be stabbed to death," Pia said with a trace of satisfaction. "It is entertaining, after being an old maid for years. My father has been muttering that if I wished to do nothing but read books and live single, I should have found a vocation before I left the convent school."

John snorted. "Not likely."

"I would have made a very poor nun, it is true," Pia said demurely. "And then I could not have gone on to so many picnics and balls and to the opera with a handsome young officer of the Santander embassy. . . ."

"A glass of punch?" he said.

Pia put her hand on his arm as he led her to the punch table. The white-coated steward handed them glasses; it was a fruit punch with white wine, cool and tart.

"You are worried, John," she said in English. Hers was nearly as good as his Imperial, and her voice had turned serious.

"Yes," he sighed.

"Your conversations with my father, they have not gone well?"

Even for an Imperial commander, Count Benito del'Cuomo was a blinkered, hidebound. . . . With an effort, John pushed the image of the white muttonchop whiskers out of his mind.

"No," he said. "He doesn't take the Chosen seriously."

Pia sipped at her punch and nodded to her chaperone where she sat with the other matrons against one wall. The older woman—some sort of poor-relation hanger-on of the del'Cuomos—frowned when she saw that Pia was still talking with the Republic's young chargé d'affaires. They began walking slowly towards the balcony.

"Father does not think the Land will dare to attack us," she said thoughtfully. "We have so many more soldiers, so many more ships of war. Their island is tiny next to the Empire."

"Pia—" He didn't really want to talk politics, but she had reason to be concerned. "Pia, their note demanded extraterritorial rights in Corona and half a dozen other ports, control of grain exports, and exclusive investment rights in Imperial railroads."

Pia checked half a step. She was the daughter of the Minister of War. "That . . . that is an ultimatum!" she said. "And an impossible one."

John nodded grimly. "An excuse for war. Even if your emperor and senatorial council were to agree to it, and you're right, they couldn't, then the Chosen would find some new demand."

"Why do they warn us, then? Surely they are not so scrupulous that they hesitate at a surprise attack."

"Scarcely. I have a horrible suspicion that they want the Empire to be prepared, so you'll have more forces in big concentrations where they can get at them," John said.

They walked out into the cooler air and half-darkness of the great veranda. Little Adele and huge Mira were both up and full, flooding the black-and-white checkerwork marble with pale blue light, turning the giant vases filled with oleander and jessamine and bougainvillea into a pastel wonderland. The terrace ended in a fretted granite balustrade and broad steps leading down to gardens whose graveled paths glowed white amid the flowerbanks and trees. Beyond the estate wall, widely spaced lights showed where the townhouses of the nobility stood amid their walled acres, with an occasional pair of yellow kerosene-lamp headlights marking a carriage or steamcar. Westward reached a denser web of lights, mostly irregular—Ciano had a street plan originally laid out by cows, except for a few avenues driven through in recent generations. Those centered on the Imperial palace complex, a tumble of floodlit white and gilded domes.

From here they could just make out the glittering surface of the broad Pada River; the dockyards and warehouses and slums about it were jagged black shapes, no gaslights there. Above them two lights moved through the sky, with a low throbbing of propellers. An airship, making for the west and the great ocean port of Corona at the mouth of the Pada.

"Chosen-made," John said, nodding towards it. "Pia, your soldiers are brave, but they have no conception of what they face."

Pia leaned one hip against the balustrade, turning her fan in her fingers. "My father . . . my father is an intelligent man. But he . . . he thinks often that because things were as they were when he was young, so they must remain."

"I'm not surprised. My own government tends to think the same way." If not to quite the same degree, he added to himself.

They were silent for a few minutes. John felt the tension building, mostly in his stomach, it seemed. Pia was looking at him out of the corner of her eyes, the beginning of a frown of disappointment marking her brows.

"Ah . . . that is . . ." John said. "Ah, I was thinking of calling on your father again."

Pia turned to face him. "Concerning political matters?" she asked, her face calm.

An excuse trembled on his lips. Yes. Of course. That would be all he needed, to add cowardice to his list of failings. A crippled soul to join the foot.

"No," he said. "About something personal . . . if you would like me to."

The smile lit up her eyes before it reached her mouth. "I would like that very much," she said, and leaned forward slightly to brush her lips against his.

probability of sincerity is 92% ±3, with motivations breakdown as follows—Center began.

Shut the fuck up! John thought.

He could hear Raj's amusement at the back of his mind. Damned right, lad.

Jeff's voice: God, but that one's a looker, isn't she? He must be getting visual feed from Center, through John's eyes.

Will you all kindly get the hell out of my love life?

"Giovanni, there are times when I think you are talking to God, or the saints, or anyone but the person you are with!"

John mumbled an apology. Pia's eyes were still glowing. "The only question is, will he consent?"

"He'd better," John said. Pia blinked in surprise and slight alarm at the expression his face took for a moment. He forced relaxation and smiled.

"Why shouldn't he?" he said. "He knows I'm not a fortune hunter"—the del'Cuomos were fabulously wealthy, but he'd managed to discreetly let the Count know the size of his own portfolio—"and if he didn't like me personally, he'd have forbidden me to see you."

Pia nodded. "Well, I do have three younger sisters," she said with sudden hard-headed shrewdness. "It isn't seemly for them to marry before me—and also, my love, I think Father thinks he can beat you down on the dowry by pretending that the marriage is impossible because you are not of the Imperial Church."

John grinned. "He's right. He can beat me down."

Some cold part of his mind added that Imperial properties weren't likely to be worth much in a little while.

He took a deep breath. It was like diving off a high board: once you were committed, there was no point in thinking about the drop.

"Pia, there is something I must tell you." She met his eyes steadily. "I am . . . I was born with a deformity." He averted his eyes slightly. "A clubfoot."

She let out her breath sharply. His glance snapped back to her face. She was smiling.

"Is it nothing more than that? The surgeons must have done well, then—you dance, you ride, you play the . . . what is the name? Tennis?" She flicked a hand. "It is nothing."

Breath he hadn't been conscious of holding sighed out of him. "It's why my father never accepted me," he said quietly.

She put a hand up along his face. "And if he had, you would be in the Land, preparing to attack the Empire," she said. "Also, you would not be the man I love. I have met Chosen from their embassy here, and beneath their stiff manners they are pigs. They look at me like a piece of kebab. You are not such a man."

He took the hand and kissed it. "There is more." John closed his eyes. "I cannot have children."

Pia's fingers clenched over his. He looked up and found her eyes brimming, the unshed tears bright in the starlight—and realized, with a shock like cold water, that they were for him.

"But—"

He nodded jerkily. "Oh, I'm . . . functional. Sterile, though, and there's nothing that can be done about it." He turned his head aside. "It was done, ah, when I was very young."

"Then you too have reason to hate the Chosen," Pia said softly. "Look at me, Giovanni."

He did. "You are the man for whom I have waited. That is all I have to say."

* * *

Jeffrey Farr smiled.

"You find our ships amusing?" the Imperial officer asked sharply.

The steam launch chuffed rhythmically along the line of anchored battlewagons. He'd noticed the same attitude often in Imperial naval officers. Unlike the Army—or the squabbling committees in Ciano who set policy and budgets—they had to have some idea of what was going on abroad. Not that they'd admit the state their service was in, of course. It came out in a prickly defensiveness.

"Quite the contrary," Farr said smoothly. "I smiled because I recently received news that my brother, my foster-brother, is going to be married. To a lady by the name of Pia del'Cuomo."

And I don't think your ships are funny. I think they're pathetic, he added to himself.

The Imperial officer nodded, mollified and impressed. "The eldest daughter of the Minister of War? Your brother is a lucky man." He pointed. "And there they are, the pride of the Passage Fleet."

Ten of the battleships floated in the millpond-quiet bay of the military harbor, flanked by the great fortresses. Lighters were carrying out supplies, much of it coal that had to be laboriously shoveled into crane-borne buckets and hoisted again to the decks for transfer to the fuel bunkers. The ships were medium-sized, about eleven thousand tons burden, with long ram bows and a pronounced tumblehome that made them much narrower at the deck than the waterline. They each carried a heavy, stubby single 350mm gun in a round cheesebox-style turret fore and aft, and their secondary batteries in a string of smaller one-gun turrets that rose pulpit-style from the sides. Each had a string of four short smokestacks, and a wilderness upperworks of flying bridges, cranes, and signal masts.

They'd been perfectly good ships in their day. The problem was that the Empire was still building them about twenty years after their day had passed.

correct, Center observed. roughly equivalent to British battleships of the 1880s period.

Eighteen . . . ah. Center used the Christian calendar, which nobody on Visager did except for religious purposes. For one thing, it was based on Earth's twelve-month year, nearly thirty days shorter than this planet's rotation around its sun. For another, the numbers were inconveniently high.

Jeffrey shivered slightly. The period Center named was two thousand years past. Interstellar civilization had been born, spread, and fallen in the interim, and a new cycle was beginning.

"You're loading coal, I see," he said to the Imperial officer . . . Commodore Bragati, that was his name. "Steam up yet?"

"No, we expect to be ready in about a week," Bragati said. "Then we'll cruise down the Passage, and show those upstarts in the Land who rules those waters."

Two weeks to get ready for a show-the-flag cruise? Raj thought with disgust. I'd say these imbeciles deserve what's probably going to happen to them, if so many civilians weren't going to be caught in it.

"The main guns are larger than anything the Land has built," Bragati said.

low-velocity weapons with black-powder propellant, Center noted with its usual clinical detachment. the chosen weapons are long-barreled, high-velocity rifles using nitrocellulose powders.

He thought he detected a trace of interest, though, as well. Jeffrey smiled inwardly; the sentient computer wasn't all that much different from his grandfather and the cronies who hung around him—military history buffs and weapons fanciers to a man. Center was a hobbyist, in its way.

"And the main armor belt is twelve inches thick!"

laminated wrought iron and cast steel plate, Center went on. radically inferior to face-hardened alloy. Which both the Land and the Republic were using for their major warships.

None of the battleships looked ready for sea. Less excusably, neither did the scout cruisers tied up three-deep at the naval wharves, or the torpedo-boat destroyers. Or even the harbor's own torpedo boats, turtle-backed little craft.

On the other hand . . . "Well, the fleet certainly looks in good fettle," Jeffrey said diplomatically.

So they were, painted in black and dark blue with cream trim. Sailors were scrubbing coal dust off the latter even as he watched. He shuddered to think of the amount of labor it must take to repair the paintwork after a practice firing. If they did have practice firings; he had a strong suspicion that some Imperial captains might simply throw their quota of practice ammunition overboard to spare the trouble.

"Thank you for your courtesy," he said formally to the Imperial commodore.

At least he'd learned one thing. Bragati wasn't the sort of man he wanted to recruit into the stay-behind cells he and John were setting up. Too brittle to survive, given his high rank.

* * *

"Damn, I hate dying," John said as the scene blinked back to normalcy.

Or Center's idea of normalcy, which in this scenario was a street in a Chosen city—Copernik, to be specific—during the rainy season. There was no way to tell it from the real thing; every sensation was there, down to the smell of the wet rubberized rain cape over his shoulders and the slight roughness of the checked grip of the pistol he held underneath it. Watery rainy-season light probed through the dull clouds overhead, giving a pearly sheen to the granite paving blocks of the street. Buildings of brick and stone reached to the walkways on either side, shuttered and dark, frames of iron bars over their windows.

John looked down for a second at his unmarked stomach. There hadn't been any way to tell the impact of the hollowpoint rifle bullet from the real thing, either—Center's neural input gave an exact duplicate of the sensation of having your spleen punched out and an exit wound the size of a woman's fist in your lower back. The machine had let the scenario play through to the final blackout. His mouth still felt sour and dry. . . .

"Do you have to make it quite that realistic?" he muttered, sidling down the street, eyes scanning.

"For your own good, lad." Raj's voice was "audible" here. "Priceless training, really. You can't get more rigorous than this; and outside, you won't be able to get up and start again."

"I still—"

A sound alerted him. He whirled, drawing the pistol from the holster on his right hip and firing under his own left arm, into the planks of the door. His weight crashed into it before the ringing of the shots had died, smashing it back into the room and knocking the collapsing corpse of the Fourth Bureau agent into his companions. That gave John just enough time to snapshoot, and the secret policeman's weapon flew out of a nerveless hand as the bullet smashed his collarbone. . . . . . blackness.

The street reformed. "I still really hate dying. One behind me?"

correct. Center did not bother with amenities like speaking aloud. scanning to your right as you entered the room was the optimum alternative.

"I hated it, too," Raj said unexpectedly.

The street scene faded to the study where they'd first . . . John supposed "met" was as good a word as any. Raj puffed alight a cheroot and poured them both brandies.

"Hunting accident—broke my neck putting my mount over a fence," he said. "Quick, at least. I was an old, old man by that time, and the bones get brittle. Still, I had enough time to know I'd screwed the pooch in a major way. The real surprise was waking up—" He indicated the construct. "I was expecting the afterlife, the real afterlife." He frowned. "Although this isn't precisely my soul, come to think of it. Maybe I'm in two heavens . . . or hells."

"At least you got to see your own funeral," John said.

His body-image still carried the revolver. He opened the cylinder and worked the ejector to remove the spent brass, then reloaded and clicked the weapon closed with his thumb. The action was wholly automatic, after thousands of hours of Center's instruction—and Raj's, too. The personality of the general gave the training an immediacy that the machine intelligence could never quite match, one that remembered the flesh and the unpleasant realities to which it was subject.

"My grandchildren were touchingly grief-stricken," Raj said, his grin white in the dark face. "And now, back to work."

"This is play?" John asked.

His own bedroom in the embassy complex snapped back into view; it was private, with the door locked, and big enough for his body to leap and move in puppet-obedience to what his mind perceived in Center's training program. Experience had to be ground into the nerves and muscles, as well as the mind and memory. The rest of the staff thought he had an eccentric taste for calisthenics performed in solitude.

The phone rang, the distinctive two long and three short that meant it was from the ambassador.

John sighed silently as he picked it up. There were times when it was easier to deal with the Chosen; they were more straightforward.

* * *

Gerta found the embassy of the Land of the Chosen in the Imperial capital of Ciano reassuringly familiar, down to the turtle helmets and gray uniforms and brand-new magazine rifles of the guards at the gate. They snapped to present as her car halted; an officer checked her papers and waved her through, past two outward-bound trucks. In the main courtyard, staff were setting up fuel drums and shoveling in a mixture of file folders and kerosene distillate. The smoke was rank and black, towering up into the sky over the pollarded trees and the slate-roofed buildings. The guards at the entrance gave her a more detailed going-over.

"Captain Gerta Hosten, Intelligence Section, General Staff Office, geburtsnumero 77-A-II-44221," she said.

"Sir," the embassy clerk said, after a moments check of the tallysheet before him. "Colonel von Kleuron will see you immediately."

I should hope so, Gerta thought with perfectly controlled anger as she walked through the basalt-paved lobby of the main embassy building. After dragging me out here for Fate-knows-what when the balloon's about to go up.

It was busy enough that several times she had to dodge wheeled carts full of documents being taken down to the incinerators. Not so busy that several passersby in civilian dress didn't do a slight check and double-take at her Intelligence flashes; probably the Fourth Bureau spooks were about as happy to see her here as they would be to invite Santander Intelligence Bureau operatives in. The air was scented with the smell of paper and cardboard burning, and with fear-sweat.

She repeated the identification procedure at the Intelligence chief's office. This time it was a Chosen NCO who checked her against a list.

"Welcome to Ciano, Captain," he said. "No problems at the airship port?"

"Walked straight through, barely looked at my passport," she said. "The colonel?"

The NCO hopped up from his desk—it was covered with files being sorted—opened the door and spoke through it, then opened it fully and stepped aside.

Gerta marched through, tucked her peaked cap precisely under her left arm. Her heels clicked, and her right arm shot out at shoulder-height with fist clenched.

"Sir!"

Colonel von Kleuron turned out to be a middle-aged woman with a long face and pouches under her eyes. Her office, with its metal filing cabinets, table with a keyboard-style coding machine, and plain wooden desk, seemed to still be in full operation. All in military gray, nothing personal except a photograph of several teenage children on the desk.

"At ease, Captain," She looked at Gerta with a slight raise of her eyebrow. "You seem to be throttling a considerable head of steam, Hosten."

"Sir, Operation Overfall is scheduled to commence shortly. My unit is tasked with an important objective, and we've been training for nearly a year. Nobody's indispensable, but I'll be missed."

"We should have you back shortly, Captain," von Kleuron said. "Not to waste time: give me your appraisal of Johan—John—Hosten, your foster-brother."

Gerta blinked in surprise. That she had not expected. Von Kleuron tapped the folder open before her; a picture of John was clipped to the front sheet. Gerta recognized it; it was a duplicate of one she'd gotten from him. She also recognized the correspondence tucked into the inner jacket of the file; of course, she'd submitted all her letters for approval before sending, and turned over copies of all his immediately. Plus, the Fourth Bureau would have their own from the censors in the postal system, but that was another department.

"As in my reports, Colonel. Intelligent and resourceful, and, as I remember him as a boy, with considerable nerve and determination. Certainly he overcame his handicap well. From what he's accomplished in the Republic over the last twelve years, he's become a formidable man."

"His attitude towards the Chosen?"

"I think he had reservations even as a boy. Now?" She shrugged. "Impossible to say. We don't discuss politics, only family matters."

"Weaknesses?"

"Sentimentality." The Landisch word she used could also mean "squeamishness."

"Are you aware that Johan Hosten has become an operative for the Republic's Foreign Intelligence Service? As well as a diplomat." The last was a little pedantic; in Landisch, diplomat and spy were related words.

Gerta's eyebrows went up slightly. "No, sir, I wasn't aware of that. I'm not surprised."

"It has been decided at a high level to attempt to enlist the subject as a double agent. We are authorized to waive Testing and offer Chosen status, and appropriate rank."

Gerta frowned. It smacked of an improvisation, not a good idea on the eve of a major war. On the other hand, John would be an asset if he could be turned . . . and it would be pleasant to have him on-side. If possible. It was obvious why she'd been brought in; she was the only Chosen intelligence operative with a personal link to John. Heinrich had known him as well, but he was a straight-leg, an infantry officer. And far more conspicuous in Ciano; her height and physical type was far more common in the Empire than his.

On the other hand, women who could bench-press twice their own weight were not common here, and she hoped very much she wouldn't have to try looking like an Imperial belle in a low-cut dress. She didn't even know how to walk in a skirt.

Behfel ist Behfel. "How am I tasked, sir?"

* * *

John tapped his walking stick against the front of the cab. "Driver, pull up."

The horses clattered to a halt, and the driver set the brake and jumped to the cobblestones to open the door.

"Signore?" he said, looking around.

They were in a district of upper-middle-class homes, about halfway between the theater district north of the main railway station and the apartment John kept near the Santander embassy.

"I've changed my mind, I'm going to walk home," he said.

Shameless self-indulgence, he thought. He should make up for taking an evening off at the opera with Pia by going straight home and reading files. On the other hand, he had his cover as a effete diplomat to maintain. The Santander diplomatic service was supposed to be a harmless dumping ground for well-connected upper-class playboys. Many of them were, and the rest found it useful camouflage.

He paid the cabbie the full value of his intended trip, and the horses clattered off through the dark.

Ciano was a pleasant city to walk through, this part at least, on a warm spring night. The sidewalk was brick, with trees at four-meter intervals—oaks, he thought—and cast-iron lampstands rather less frequently. Most of the houses on either side had wrought-iron railings separating them from the street, often overgrown with climbing roses or honeysuckle. The gaslights gave a diffuse glow to the scene, soft yellow light on the undersides of the trees; the street had a melancholy feel, like most of the Imperial capital, a dreamy sense of past glories and a long sleep filled with reverie.

John twirled the walking stick and strolled, unclasping his opera cloak and throwing it over his left arm. It was very quiet, the air smelling of dew and roses. Quiet enough that he heard the footsteps not long after Center's warning.

four following, the computer said. there are two more at the junction ahead.

John was suddenly, acutely conscious of the feel of the brick beneath his feet, the slight touch of the wind on his face beneath the glossy black topper. Twelve years of Center's scenarios and Raj's drill had given him a training nobody on the planet could match, but he'd never had anyone try to kill him before. Odd, I'm not really frightened. More like being extremely alert and irritated at the same time.

There was a double-edged steel blade inside his walking stick, the gold head made a very effective bludgeon, and a small six-shot revolver nestled under one armpit. It didn't seem like much, right now, but it would probably be enough if these were street toughs out to roll a toff.

The wall by his side was brick. John turned casually and set his back against it, like a man pausing to admire the view toward the north and the Imperial Palace.

Four men came up the sidewalk behind him. They were dressed in double-breasted jackets and bag-hats, peg-leg trousers and ankle-boots; middle-class streetwear for Ciano. Their faces were unremarkably Imperial as well, rather swarthy and blue-stubbled for the most part. There was something about the way they moved, though, the expressions on the faces—or rather the lack of them. Big men, thick-shouldered. With flat bulges under their left armpits; one of them was holding his right hand down by his side, as if something was resting in the loosely curled fingertips. The hilt of a knife, perhaps, or a lead-weighted cosh.

Protégés, he thought. Tough ones, at that. Operatives. Fourth Bureau, or Military Intelligence.

correct, Center said. 97%, ±2.

Well, it was some comfort to know his judgment was good.

The men halted and spread out, waiting with a tense wariness. One spoke:

"Excuse, sir. You will please to come with us." A guttural accent in the Imperial, one natural to someone who'd grown up speaking Landisch.

Four of them, and two more waiting close by. Not good odds. And if they'd wanted him dead, he'd be dead. A steamcar and a couple of shotguns, no problem and no fuss. Or someone waiting in his apartment, the Chosen could certainly find a good shooter when they needed one. This was a snatch team, not hitters.

"All right," he said, turning and walking ahead of them.

Two closed in on either side. One quietly relieved him of the walking stick. Another leaned over, put a hand under his jacket and took his revolver, dropping it into his own coat pocket. A few seconds later, fingers plucked the little punch-dagger out of the collar of his dress coat. There was a sound at that, something like a very quiet chuckle smothered before it began. The men closed in on either side of him—nobody in front, of course. This lot had been fairly well-trained.

They all halted under the streetlight at the T-shaped intersection. The two men waiting there both threw their cigarettes into the center of the road. Seconds later a quiet hum of rubber tires sounded as a steamcar came down the road and halted—a big Santander-made four-door Wilkens in plain blue paint, with wire-spoke wheels and two sofa-style seats facing each other in the rear compartment. The head of the snatch team signaled John to enter.

There was a woman sitting in the front seat, with her back to the driver's compartment. The interior of the Wilkens was fairly dark, only the reflected light of the streetlamps. That was enough to show the oily blued sheen of a weapon in her hand; it gestured him back to the rear of the vehicle. He obeyed silently. Two of the Protégé gunmen sat on either side of him, wedging him into position. The front door chunked closed. Just for insurance, the Protégé beside John had a short double-edged blade in his hand, under the limp hat. That put the point not more than a couple of millimeters from his short ribs. John's lips quirked. They certainly weren't taking any chances with him; but then, the preferred Chosen method of dealing with ants was to drop an anvil on them.

The woman leaned out the window and spoke to the other members of the team. "Report to the safe house," she said. Gray uniform tunic, Captain's rank-tabs, red General Staff flashes, Military Intelligence insignia.

The motion left the light on her face for a second. She was in her late twenties, not much older than he; a dark brunette, black hair cropped to a plush sable cap, black eyes, high cheekbones, and a rather full mouth. An Imperial face or Sierran, except for the hardness to it, the body beneath close-coupled and muscular but full-bosomed. He blinked, surprise tugging at his mind.

"Gerta!" he blurted.

probability subject identity not gerta hosten is too low to be meaningfully calculated, Center noted, overlaying the woman's face with a series of regressions that took it back to the teenager who'd said good-bye to him on the docks of Oathtaking twelve years ago.

She sat back and let the pistol rest on her knee; it was a massive, chunky, squared-off thing, not a revolver.

recoil-operated automatic, magazine in the grip, Center said. 11mm caliber, six to eight rounds.

"Hi, Johnnie," she said in Landisch. "Nice to see you again."

John took a deep breath. "If you wanted to talk, you could have invited me more politely," he said in a neutral tone.

"Behfel ist behfel, Johnnie."

"I'm not under Chosen orders."

She smiled and waggled the automatic.

"All right, I grant that. I presume you're not going to kill me?"

"I'd really regret having to do that, John," she said.

veracity 95% ±3, Center observed. A brief flash showed pupil dilation and heat patterns on Gerta's face.

Of course, the way she phrased it implied that she might have to kill him anyway. Looking at her, he didn't have the least doubt she'd do it—regrets or no.

"How're the children?" he asked after a moment.

"Erika's just starting school, and Johan's at the stage where his favorite word is no," she said. "We've adopted two more, as well. Protégé kids, a boy and a girl. The boy's a byblow, probably one of Heinrich's."

"Two?" John said, raising his eyebrows.

"Policy."

Which was information, of a sort. The Chosen Council must be anticipating casualties . . . and not just in the upcoming war with the Empire, either.

He didn't try to look out the windows as the wheels hammered over the cobblestones, then hummed on smoother main street pavement of asphalt or stone blocks. Gerta uncorked a silver flask. John took it and sipped: banana brandy, something he hadn't tasted in a long time.

"Danke," he said. "Anything you can tell me?"

"The colonel will brief you, Johnnie. Just . . . be reasonable, eh?"

"Reasonable depends on where you're sitting," he said, returning the flask.

"No it doesn't. When someone else holds all the cards, reasonable is whatever they say it is."

He looked at the pistol. She shook her head.

"Not just this. The Chosen hold all the cards on Visager; it'd be smart to keep that in mind."

He was almost relieved when they pulled into a side entrance to the Chosen embassy compound. The Wilkens was as inconspicuous as a steamcar in Ciano could be—powered vehicles weren't all that common here, even now—and the rear windows were tinted. The embassy itself was fairly large, a severe block of dark granite from the outside, the only ornamentation a gilded-bronze sunburst above the ironwork gates. The area within was larger than the Santander legation, mainly because all the Land's diplomatic personnel lived on the delegation's own extraterritorial ground. It might have been something out of Copernik or Oathtaking inside, boxlike buildings with tall windows and smooth columns, low-relief caryatids beside the doors. Fires were burning in iron drums in the open spaces between, while clerks dumped in more documents and stirred the ashes with pokers and broomsticks.

Christ, he thought. The sight hit him in the belly like a fist, more than the danger to himself had. War was close if the embassy was torching their classified papers.

He was hustled through a doorway, down corridors, finally into a windowless room with a single overhead light. It shone into his eyes as he sat in the steel-frame chair beneath it, obscuring the two figures at a table in front of him. One of them spoke in Landisch:

"Let's dispose with the tricks, shall we, Colonel?" Gerta said. "This isn't an interrogation."

The overhead light dimmed. He blinked and looked at the two Chosen officers. Both women—nothing unusual with that, in the Land's forces—in gray Army uniforms. Intelligence Section badges. A middle-aged colonel with gray in her blond brushcut and a face like a starved hound.

"Johan Hosten," the senior officer said. "We have arranged to speak with you on a matter of some importance."

John nodded. He could guess what was coming.

"The Land of the Chosen has need of your services, Johan Hosten."

"The Land of the Chosen rejected me rather thoroughly when I was twelve," he pointed out. "I'm a citizen of the Republic of Santander."

"The Republic is a democracy with universal suffrage," the colonel said. "Hence, weak and corrupt, with no real claim on your allegiance." She spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, as if commenting on the law of gravity. "Your father is second assistant of the general staff of the Land and a member of the Council. The implications are, I think, plain."

They certainly were. "I'm not Chosen and not qualified to be so," he said. Think, think. If he rolled over too quickly, they'd be suspicious.

"The regulations governing admittance have been waived or modified before," the intelligence officer said. "I am authorized to inform you that they will be again, in your case. Full Chosen status, and appropriate rank."

"You want me to defect?" he said slowly.

"Of course not. You will remain as an agent in place within the Santander intelligence apparat—of course, we know that your diplomatic status is a cover—and provide us with information, and your nominal superiors with disinformation which will be furnished. We can feed you genuine data of sufficient importance so that you will rise rapidly in rank. At the appropriate moment, we will bring you in from the cold."

She nodded towards Gerta. Ah. They sent Gerta along as an earnest of good faith. The offer probably was genuine. And to the Chosen's way of looking at it, perfectly natural. Perhaps if he'd never been contacted by Center, it might even have been tempting.

There were times he woke up at night sweating, from dreams of the man he might have become in the Land.

"Let me think," he said.

"Agreed. But not for long."

He dropped his head into his hands. Jeff, you following this?

You bet, brother. You going to ask them for something in writing?

Out of character, he answered. A Chosen officer's word is supposed to be good. I don't have much time.

Although surely they knew that he knew he'd never leave the room alive if he refused. The embassy could be relied upon to have a way of disposing of bodies.

He raised his head again. No problem in showing a little worry, and he could smell his own sweat, heavy with the peculiar rankness of stress.

"I'm engaged to be married to an Imperial," he said.

The colonel shrugged. "Marriage is out of the question, of course, but after the conquest, you can have your pick for pleasure. Take the bitch as you please, or a dozen others."

Gerta winced and touched her superior on the sleeve, whispering in her ear.

John shook his head. "Anything that applies to me, applies to Pia. Or no deal."

The colonel's eyes narrowed. "You have already been offered more than is customary," she warned.

"No. Pia, or nothing."

Gerta touched the colonel's sleeve again. "We should discuss this, sir," she said.

"Agreed. Hosten, retire to the end of the room, please."

He obeyed, facing away from the table. The two Chosen leaned together, speaking in whispers. Far too softly for anyone to overhear . . . anyone without Center's processing power, that was. The computer was limited to the input of John's senses, but it could do far more with them than his unaided brain.

"What do you make of it, captain?" the colonel asked.

"I'm not sure, sir. If he'd agreed without insisting on the woman, I'd have said we should kill him immediately—that would be an obvious fake. The woman . . . that makes it possible he's sincere . . . but he'd also know that I know him well."

Thanks a lot, Gerta.

"As it is, I still suspect he's lying. Immediate termination would be the low-risk option here."

"I was under the impression that you thought highly of this Johan Hosten."

"I do. Heinrich and I named a son after him. I respect his courage and intelligence; which is why he's too dangerous to live unless he's on our side."

"He seems inclined to agree to the proposition."

"He'd have to anyway, wouldn't he?"

"What evidence do you have to suppose he lies?"

"Gestalt. I lived with him until he was twelve and we've corresponded since. He's committed to the Republic, absurd though that may sound. He believes. And John Hosten would never betray a cause in which he believed."

A long silence. "As you say, the Republic's ideology is absurd—and he is, from the records, not a stupid or irrational man. Termination is always an option, but it is irrevocable once exercised. We will test him; his position is potentially a priceless asset. And we are offering him the ultimate reward, after all."

"Colonel, please record my objection and recommendation."

"Captain, this is noted." Aloud: "Johan Hosten, attend."

When he was standing beside the chair, she continued: "We will concede this woman Probationer-Emeritus status."

Second-class citizenship, but if married to one of the Chosen her children would be automatically entitled to take the Test of Life. Although they'd know he could sire no children. He blinked, keeping his face carefully neutral. Pia had wept when he told her that, and he'd been afraid, really afraid.

"This is . . ." He stopped and began again. "You understand, I've been growing more and more frustrated with Santander. You must know that, if your sources inside the Foreign Office are as good as I suspect. I keep telling them the risks, and they ignore them." He shrugged. "As you said, it makes no sense to fight for those who won't fight for themselves." He stood, and gave the Chosen salute. "I agree. Command me, colonel!"

The colonel returned the gesture. Gerta stared at him with cold appraisal, biting at her lip thoughtfully. Then she shook her head and made a small gesture to the senior officer, a thumb-pull, much the same as one would make to cock a pistol before shooting someone in the back of the head.

Colonel von Kleuron looked at them both and then shook her head.

John fought back an impulse to let out a long sigh of relief. They aren't going to kill me now. Thanks, Gerta, thanks a lot.

Although he should have expected it. He'd always known his foster-sister was smart, and she did know him well.

"Johan Hosten."

The basset-hound face of the colonel allowed itself a slight smile.

"You have made a wise decision. You will be dropped at some distance, and contacted when appropriate. May your service to the Chosen be long and successful."

"Welcome back, Johnnie," Gerta said. "I'm sure you'll make a first-class operative. You've got natural talent."

* * *

Lucky bastard, Jeffrey said silently.

No, it's Chosen arrogance, John replied from half a continent away. A faint overlay of the controls of a road steamer came through the link, beyond it a long dusty country road.

Jeffrey smiled, imagining serious expression and the slight frown on his stepbrother's face.

Have they contacted you since? he said/thought.

No. It's only been three days, and they're very busy. The whole Land embassy staff left on the last dirigible.

Jeffrey lifted his coffee cup. It was morning, but some of the other patrons in the streetside cafe had already made a start on something stronger. Many of them were settling in with piles of newspapers or books, or just enjoying the perennial Imperial sport of people-watching. The coffee was excellent, and the platter of pastries extremely tempting; you had to admit, there were some things the Imperials did very well. His contact should be showing up any minute.

Give me a look at the activity in the harbor, John requested. Jeffrey turned slightly in his seat and looked downhill; Center would be supplying the visual input to John.

Awful lot of Chosen shipping still there, his stepbrother commented.

They're still delivering cod, Jeffrey replied. To the naval stockpiles, no less.

My esteemed prospective father-in-law, John thought dryly, assures me that the Imperial armed forces are ready down to the last gaiter button. Quote unquote.

Is the man a natural-born damned fool?

No, he just can't afford to face the truth. I think he wishes he'd died before this . . . and he's glad Pia will be safe in Santander.

Speaking of which, we should—Jeffrey began. Then: Wait.

A dirigible was showing over the horizon, just barely. Jeffrey was in officer's garrison dress, which included a case for a small pair of binoculars as well as a service revolver. He drew the glasses and stood, looking down the long street leading to the harbor. The airship wasn't in Land Air Service colors, just a neutral silvery shade with a Landisch Luftanza company logo on the big sharkfin control surfaces at the rear. A large model, two hundred meters in length and a quarter that in maximum diameter. One of the latest types, with the gondola built into the hull and six engines in streamlined pods held out from the sides by struts covered in wing-like farings.

"That isn't a scheduled carrier," he said to himself.

correct. vessel is land air service heavy military transport design. A brief flash of a report he'd read several months ago. sharkwhale class.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he said. "John, I'm going to be busy for a while."

I suspect we all are, his brother answered. Better try and make it to the legation.
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