The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER FOUR


"Coming up on Ciano. Airspeed one hundred and four kilometers per hour, altitude one thousand four hundred. Windspeed ten KPH, north-northwest. Fifteen kilometers to target."

The bridge of the war dirigible Sieg was a semicircle under the bows, with slanting windows that gave a 180-degree view forward and down. Gerta Hosten was the only one present not in the blue-trimmed gray of the Landisch Air Service; she was in army combat kit, stone-gray tunic and pants, webbing gear and steel helmet. Her boots felt a little insecure on the stamped aluminum panels of the airship's decking, unlike the rubber-soled shoes the crew wore. The commanding officer, Horst Raske, stood by the crewman who held the tall wheel that controlled the vertical rudders. Another wheel at right-angles turned the horizontal control surfaces. Ballast, gas, and engines all had their own stations, although each engine pod also held two crewmen for repairs or emergencies.

"Off superheat," Raske said.

A muted whump went through the huge but lightly built hull of the airship. Vents on the upper surface of the ship were opening, releasing hot air from the ballonets that hung in the center of the hydrogen cells. The dirigible felt slower and heavier under her feet, and the surface of the water began to grow closer. Land was a thick line of surf ahead, studded with tiny doll-like buildings. The broad estuary of the Pada River lay southward, to the right; just inside it were the deep dredged-out harbors of Corona, swarming with shipping.

"All engines three-quarter, come about to one-two-five." Ranke's voice was as calm and crisp as it had been on the practice runs on the mockup. Nobody had ever flown a dirigible into a real combat situation like this before; airships had only existed for about forty years. "Commencing final run."

He turned to Gerta. "Thirty minutes to target," he said. "The observer"—in a bubble on top of the airship—"reports the rest of the air-landing force is following on schedule. Good luck."

Gerta returned his salute. "And to you, Major."

You'll need it, she thought. She was getting off this floating bomb; into a firefight, granted, but at least she wouldn't have a million cubic meters of hydrogen wrapped around her while she did it.

The catwalk behind the bridge led down through crew quarters, past the radio shack, and into the hold. That was a huge darkened box across the belly of the Sieg, spanned with girders higher up; the only vertical members were several dozen ropes fastened to the roof supports and ending in coils on segments of floor planking. Crouched on the framework floor were her troops, three hundred of the Intelligence Service Commando, special forces, reporting directly to the general staff and tasked with the very first assault. Most of the dirigibles and surface ships following were crowded with line troops, Protégé slave-soldiers under Chosen officers. The Protégé infantrymen were getting four ounces of raw cane spirit each about now. The IS Commando were all-Chosen, only one candidate in ten making the grade.

The sergeant of the headquarters section handed her a Koegelmann machine-carbine. Half the commando was armed with them or pump-action shotguns rather than rifles, for close-in firepower. She slapped a flat disk drum on top of the weapon and ran the sling through the epaulet strap on her right shoulder so that it would hang with the pistol grip ready to hand.

"Right," she said in a voice just loud enough to carry. "This is what we've all been training for. We're the first in, because we're the best. It looks like the Imperials are sitting with their thumbs up their butts . . . but once we land, even they'll realize what's going on. Remember the training: hit hard, hold hard, and by this time tomorrow Corona will belong to the Chosen. Corona, and then the Empire. Then the world. And for a thousand years, they'll remember that we struck the first blow."

A short growl rippled over the watching faces, not quite a cheer; the sort of sound a pack of dires would make, closing in on a eland herd. The company and platoon leaders grouped around her as she knelt.

"No clouds, not much wind, unlimited visibility," she told them. "And no last-minute screwups from Intelligence, either."

"Meaning either everything's as per, or the reports were totally fucked in the first place and nobody's found out better," Fedrika Blummer said.

"Exactly. Fedrika, remember, don't get tied up in the scrimmage. Get those Haagens set up on the perimeter, or the Imperials will swamp us before the main force arrives. Kurt, Mikel, Wilhelm, all of you remember this—we're going to be heavily outnumbered. The only way we can pull this off is if we hit so hard and so fast they never suspect what's coming down. Go through them like grass through a goose and don't leave anyone standing."

"Ya," Wilhelm Termot said. The others nodded.

"Let's do it, then."

* * *

Jeffrey Farr dumped the papers in the cast-iron bathtub and sprinkled them with lamp oil. He flicked a match on his thumb and dropped it onto the surface. The mass of documents flared up in a gout of orange flame and black smoke and a coarse acrid smell. He retreated from the bathroom into the bedroom.

Jeffrey began throwing things into a satchel—his camera, spare ammunition for his revolver—and checked the bathroom. It was full of smoke, but the papers were burning nicely. They held the details of the network he'd been setting up here in Corona—but Center was the perfect recording device, and one that couldn't be tapped. For that matter, he'd carefully refrained from memorizing them himself. What he didn't know he couldn't tell, and Center could always furnish him with the details. It put need-to-know in a whole different category. He waited until the tub held nothing but flaky ash, then quenched it with a jug of water from the basin before he jogged up to the flat roof of the apartment building. It was four stories tall, and the roof was set with chairs and planters; nothing but the best in this neighborhood.

He got out the heavier pair of binoculars and focused on the dirigible. It was close now, slowing. Heading for Fort Calucci at the outer arm of the military harbor, from the looks of it.

What in the hell are they going to try there? he thought. That was HQ for the whole Corona Military District.

an assault with air-transported troops, Center said. probability 78%, ±3. observe:

and troops in gray Land uniforms slid down ropes on to the roof of the HQ complex—



Looks like it, Raj said. The bastardos have nerve, I'll grant them that.

"Oh, shit," he whispered a moment later.

What's the matter? John's voice.

"Lucretzia," he said.

Well—

"I know, I know, she's not the girl you bring home to mother—but she's down by the portside."

the legation would be the lowest-risk area for temporary relocation, Center hinted.

"Yeah, but I've got to do something about her," Jeffrey said. "It's personal, and besides, she's a good contact."

Good luck, John said.

And watch your back, lad, Raj added.

* * *

The fabric of the Sieg groaned and shivered with a low-toned roar.

Valving gas, Gerta thought. Negative buoyancy.

As if to confirm it, the falling-elevator sensation grew stronger. The nose of the dirigible tilted upwards and the engines roared as the captain controlled the rate of fall with the dynamic lift of air rushing under the great hull. She tasted salt from the sweat running down her face. Any second now.

"Ready for it!"

The commandos were bracing themselves with loops set into the aluminum deck planking. Gerta snugged the carrying strap of the carbine tight and ran both arms and a foot through the braces. The engine roar died suddenly, down to idle. Into the moment of silence that followed came a grinding, tearing clangor. The ship wrenched brutally, struck, bounced, struck, flinging her body back and forth. Then it came to a queasy, rocking halt with the floor at an angle. The bellow of valving gas continued.

"Now! Go, go, go!"

Booted feet slammed against quick-release catches. Two dozen segments of floor plating fell out of the belly carrying the coils of rope with them; light broke into the gloom of the hold, blinding. Men and women moved despite it, in motions trained so long that they were reflex. Twenty-four jumped, wrapped arms and legs around the sisal cables, and dropped out of sight. Others followed them with the regular precision of a metronome. Gerta and the headquarters section went in the third wave, precisely thirty-five seconds after the first.

Noise hit her as she slid out of the hold, into the giant shadow of the huge structure overhead. The Sieg was shifting, beginning to bob up a little as the weight left it. The pavement of the tower's flat roof was only eight meters down, less than a third the distance the teams sliding down into the fortress courtyard had to cover. There were half a dozen Imperials below her, gaping and pointing at the dirigible overhead. They didn't start to move until shots and screams broke out below. There was a moment of controlled fall and she struck the ground, rolling off the segment of decking and reaching under the horizontal drum magazine of the Koegelmann to jack the slide back. The blowback weapon was new; it had a grip safety that was supposed to keep the bolt from racking forward.

She'd found that the safety wasn't completely reliable. A really sharp jar could send it forward, chambering and firing a round. Not a good idea to arm it just before you jumped down a rope.

Gerta came down in a perfect four-point prone position and stroked the carbine's trigger. It roared and hammered backward into her shoulder, spent brass tinkling on the painted metal surface of the towers top. The bullets were pistol-caliber but heavy, 11mm, and they were H-section wadcutters. They punched into the Imperials with the impact of so many soggy medicine balls, blasting out exit wounds the size of teaplates. The rest of the section was firing as well. Seconds later, the area was clear of living enemies.

Something whirled by overhead, towards the heavy disk-shaped metal hatch that led from the rooftop down into the main section of the tower. A man was standing on the ladder below. His face was gray with shock, but he was struggling with the massive covering. The stick grenade struck his hands where they rested on the locking wheel of the hatch. He screamed and sprang backwards off the ladder, falling out of sight. The grenade hit the lip of the entryway, spun twice and then toppled out of sight down the shaft after the Imperial soldier.

The hatch fell, too, pulled past its balance point before the Imperial noticed the grenade. Gerta came off the ground like a spring-launched missile, diving forward to try and jam the butt of her carbine into the gap. Halfway through the movement the grenade went off below, but though dust and grit billowed out, the pressure wasn't enough to slow the several hundred kilos of mass. It whumped down into the locking collar and the butt-plate of her carbine rang against it with a dull clank. She flipped up to her knees and reached for the small close-set wheel in the top of the mushroom-cap hatch. Three others joined her, but the wheel turned irresistibly under her fingers, and she could hear the holding bars sinking into their sheaths. The locking wheel on the inside was much larger than the topside equivalent, with greater leverage.

Damn, she thought, coming erect and looking around. Somebody down there must be able to find his dick without a directory.

Water pattered down, thick as a Land thunderstorm in the rainy season. The great bulk of the Sieg was rising and turning, dumping ballast as she went for extra lift. The dirigible seemed to bounce upward, the shadow falling away from the fortress, turning southward for the river estuary with a roar of engines. Ropes fell away from it like writhing snakes to lie draped across walls and pavement.

The tower roof held only live Chosen and dead Imperials; mostly dead, one with a chunk of skull missing was still sprattling like a pithed frog. She duckwalked quickly to the edge of the roof, avoiding the spreading pools of blood—the last thing she needed was slippery boots—and looked down. There were a few bodies in the courtyard. Gunfire came from the buildings that ringed it: shotgun blasts, rifle fire, the distinctive burping chatter of machine carbines. Then a long ripping burst; that could only be one of the tripod-mounted, water-cooled machine guns the heavy-weapons platoon had brought in.

Good. Fedrika must have gotten out to the perimeter.

"Right, Elke, Johan, pop it."

They'd come prepared. Two years after Gerta was born, construction started on a complete duplicate of this fortress in the jungles of the Kopenrungs. The Chosen believed in planning ahead. Fort Calucci had been built back when bronze smoothbore cannon were the most formidable weapons available, but it had been updated continuously since. The last building program had been fifteen years ago, after some sea skirmishes between the Empire and the Republic of Santander. The whole complex had been girdled with five- to fifteen-meter thick ferroconcrete, and the tower clad with the armor of several scrapped battleships. Even modern high-velocity naval rifles would have problems with it.

Fortunately, every fortress had its weaknesses.

The two Chosen trotted over to the hatchway with the charge between them. It was a cone, broadside down, supported on stubby iron legs to give an exact distance from the target. She didn't know precisely how it worked—the principle was suicide-before-reading secret—but she'd seen models tested. The bomb clanged as it dropped to the center of the hatch.

"Fire in the hole!" the two commandos shouted as they triggered the fuse and dove away.

All the force of the explosion went straight down, like a welding-torch jet. Or almost all. The sheathing was thin metal and would disintegrate with an almost complete lack of shrapnel. Almost was not a very comforting word, when you were on a flat steel pie plate with no cover at all. She pressed her back against the bulwark around the rim, curled her knees up against her chest, tucked her chin down to her throat and held the Koegelmann over her body.

BWAAMP. Shock picked her up and slammed her down on the decking. A spatter of hot steel dropped across her; she cursed and scrabbled with a gloved hand to get the gobbets off her clothing. The smell of scorched hair, uniforms, and wood added its bit to the stink; someone yelled as a droplet struck a spot too tender for self-control.

Metal pinged and scattered. Before the noise died, the explosives experts were on their feet and racing towards it. Smoke was pouring out of a round melted-looking hole in the middle of the metal hatch. The wheel was frozen, either still locked from below or warped by the blast. The sappers stuffed rods of blasting explosive into the gap; it would have been futile to try it against the unbroken surface, since the force of the explosion would dissipate along the line of least resistance, into the open air.

"Fire in the hole!"

A flare soared up into the air from the courtyard below and popped green. Gerta looked at her watch. Five minutes. The company tasked with taking the gates and powerplant had succeeded. Good fast work. . . .

The blasting sticks made the whole top of the tower flex like a giant tympanum. This time a lot of metal went flying. Trapped inside the pierced hatchway the fast-moving gasses of the explosion had plenty of leverage and no place else to go. Bits and pieces went ting against the armored rooftop, or the bulwark around her. Somebody screamed once and then fell silent. The force picked her up and slammed her down painfully, items of equipment ramming themselves into her with bruising force. She blinked watering eyes.

A few bent and twisted remnants of the hatch stood up, like the lid of a badly opened tin can.

Two grenades arched into the gap. Three seconds later they exploded, and the Chosen commandos began dropping through the way the blasting charges had opened.

* * *

"Shit," Jeffrey Farr whispered again.

He ducked into the little Sherrinford and stamped repeatedly on the foot-pump, building pressure for the fuel and water feeds. When the bell rang, he flicked the switch for the spark-starter. A muted whump sounded as the flash boiler lit, sounding a bit breathy without the force-pump draft that ran off the flywheel. Red fluid began rising in the glass columns set into the dashboard that showed steam temperature, boiler pressure, water, fuel, battery condition, and air reservoir. Plenty of fuel and the battery was new, thank God. Thirty seconds later another bell rang and the steam temperature and pressure gauges rose over the operating minimum level. He eased the engine into reverse with the engaging lever beside the wheel, backed out cautiously into traffic and headed south.

There were dozens of big dirigibles coming in from the southwest, huge elongated teardrop shapes moving like clouds to a grating roar of engines. No attempt at disguise with these; they had the Land sunburst on their flanks. The first wave passed overhead at two thousand meters, heading east. The second slowed and began turning in formation over the harbor and defenses. Slots opened in the bottoms of the hulls. Dark objects tumbled out. Oblong shapes rained down, like torpedoes with fins.

aerial bombs, Center said. not aerodynamically optimum, but functional.

"I'll say," Jeffrey muttered.

A large dirigible could carry tons of cargo; some of the latest models had forty or fifty tons useful lift.

Crump. Crumpcrumpcrumpcrump—

They probably sailed empty from the Land, then took on their loads from ships over the horizon, Raj observed.

probability 76%±4, Center said.

"Damn. I'd better get to the—"

A long whistling roar. Jeffrey jerked at the wheel, going up on the sidewalk with two wheels and scattering yelling pedestrians. Dust fountained over him through the open windows of the canvas-topped car, and the road seemed to drop out from under him for a second. Coughing, he saw the apartment block three buildings down fall into the street in a slow-motion avalanche. That was bad aiming, they were probably trying for the gasworks about a kilometer away, but he supposed it didn't matter if you had enough bombs. He spat dust-colored saliva and watched as the shark-shape of the dirigible slid away overhead, explosions following it like a trail of monstrous eggs. A dozen of them, and then a huge globe of fire rising over the rooftops; they had gotten the gas-storage tanks.

Time to go, lad.

"No argument."

He let the throttle out, up to fifty kilometers an hour—well over the speed limit, but that was purely theoretical in Corona at the best of times. There were a few people milling around, but not many. The crowds were standing and pointing, open-mouthed; a few were crowding towards the broken apartment building, but there was fire in the rubble—broken gas mains, and water spurting from severed pipes. A horse-drawn fire engine went by with clanking bells and sparks flying from its hooves. An Imperial officer with gold epaulets and a spiked wax mustache rode by in the other direction. He had his pistol in his hand and he was riding towards the harbor, although what he planned to do there was a mystery. The naval dockyards three kilometers away were a mass of fire and smoke, with columns of fire from the secondary explosions showing red through the black clouds.

One mother was holding her child up to see the explosions, apparently under the impression they were some kind of fireworks.

Not many seemed to be panicking as yet—which showed ignorance, not steady nerves. He could catch glances in between dodging trolley cars and pedestrians. Half a dozen Land merchantmen had beached themselves by the harbor forts on either side of the entrance from the Pada estuary. It was too far away to see men, but the hulls were darkened in a spiderweb pattern, boarding nets dropped over the side so that embarked troops could climb down to the corniche road. Sections of their hull sides dropped open, revealing pedestal-mounted guns. The flat whump of the cannon joined the rising chorus of small-arms fire.

Something else was firing, a little like a gatling gun but not much. Trotting out all the novelties for the party, he thought. But they'll have to do better than this.

The streets grew narrower as he got down onto the flats where there were older buildings, sometimes leaning out over the cobbles. The rough street hammered at the car's suspension, and he had to squeeze the bulb of the horn—and keep his speed up—to get through the crowds. When he stopped, it was beneath a leaning tenement where laundry flapped from lines strung across the street. The balconies were crowded with chattering tenants pointing southward.

Jeffrey leaned out the window and flourished a coin. "Eh, bambino!" he called.

A barefoot urchin with pants held up by a single suspender elbowed through to him. "Tell Lucretzia Collossi that Jeffrey is here to see her," he said. "And tell her to bring her jewels. Another one of these if she's here in five minutes."

The boy—he was about nine—grinned, showing gaps in his teeth, and disappeared in a flash of bare heels. Jeffrey got out of the car and waited tensely, one hand on the butt of his revolver. He didn't expect trouble; there were few Imperials his size, people in this neighborhood avoided uniforms, even unfamiliar ones, and it wasn't really all that rough anyway. Still, no sense in taking chances.

The spectators were disappearing from the balconies. Finally showing some sense, he thought. A trickle of traffic appeared, heading north and uphill away from the harbor. Then a woman hurried out of the tenement's front doors. She was a year or two younger than him, dressed much better than the neighborhood standard, and extremely pretty in a dark full-figured way. She smiled at him, but there was a nervous wariness in her eyes; she carried her jewel box, and a small suitcase, moving like a dancer even now. Of course, she was a dancer, and quite a good one. Nice girl, even if she wasn't a nice girl, so to speak. And very useful. To recruit agents, he had to have respect; and to an Imperial, if Jeffrey didn't have a woman, he wasn't manly enough to take seriously. It generally paid to talk to people in their own language, he'd found.

Jeffrey flicked another coin to the boy and slid behind the wheel. Lucretzia kissed him as she took the passenger's seat.

"Is it the war?" she said.

"It is," Jeffrey replied. "With a vengeance."

"Where are we going?" Her voice rose.

Jeffrey did a sharp right and headed south down the alleyway. "The corniche. It's likely to be the quickest way to the consulate, and short of getting out of town, that's the safest place right now."

The growing crowd parted before the bow of the Sherrinford. The bumper rapped sharply against the wheel of a pushcart full of fruit; it spun away, showering oranges and melons into the crowd, and the owner screamed curses after the car. Jeffrey slid his revolver free and held it in his lap.

"Why . . ." Lucretzia licked her lips. "Why don't we do that, leave town?"

"Because a big flotilla of those dirigibles went right over when this all started," Jeffrey said grimly. "One gets you nine they dropped troops right on the main roads and the railway to Ciano."

probability 88%, ±2, Center said.

"But that would mean . . . that would mean a real war," she said.

Her voice rose a little again; Lucretzia was nobody's fool. She had her career path planned out, down to the dressmaking shop she intended to buy, and her previous "friend" had been a post-captain in the Imperial Navy. The Imperials had been expecting a few skirmishes in the Passage, perhaps a raid or two, followed by some diplomatic chair-polishing. That had happened before.

The scenario had changed.

A new series of thud sounds punctuated the thought.

They came out of the narrow alleyway and onto the broad paved esplanade, and Lucretzia crossed herself. Battleship Row was plainly visible from here. Or would have been, if the warships between here and the naval docks hadn't been spewing so much black coal smoke from their sharply raked funnels.

"Damn," he said mildly. "Must be two dozen of them."

twenty-six, Center said. including two which are damaged beyond minimal functionality.

They were all the same type, slim little craft throwing plumes of water back from their sharply raked bows. Built for speed, with smooth turtlebacks over their forward decks to shed water; a light gun-turret behind that, and a multibarreled weapon of some sort aft. Alongside the funnels were pivot-mounted torpedo launchers, each with four U-shaped guide tubes fastened together.

None of the battlewagons had managed to get their main or secondary batteries into action. The heavy guns wouldn't have done much good, anyway, since they took so much time to train and reload. Several of them had gotten their quick-firers working; four-barreled cannon firing little two-pound shells at one per second per barrel, worked by lever-actions and fed from hoppers. The light weapons were a continuous crackle of noise and red tongues of flame along the sides of the big warships, with a pall of dirty gray smoke rising to the sky. Two of the Land vessels were dead in the water, burning and listing, with quick-firer shells sending up spurts of water all around them. The others bored in like wolves slashing at aurochos. Their speed was amazing, almost impossible.

thirty-one knots, Center said.

They must be turbine-powered, Jeffrey thought. He was vaguely conscious of driving, and of Lucretzia's nails digging into his shoulder. The Chosen had been experimenting with steam turbines for more than a decade now. Santander was doing the same, as a possible way to generate electric power. It was obvious that the Land had had other applications in mind.

Another Chosen destroyer was hit. This one staggered in the water, then vanished in a globe of fire that sent water and steel scrap and probably—undoubtedly—body parts up in a plume hundreds of meters high. The quick-firers must have hit the torpedo warheads. When the spray and smoke cleared the bow and stern of the light craft were already disappearing under the water.

Now the first flotilla of destroyers was within a thousand meters of the battleships. They peeled off, turning, heeling far over with the momentum of their charge. As each came to a quarter off their original course the torpedoes lanced overside in a hiss of steam from the launching cylinders. The long shapes splashed home into the still waters of the harbor and streaked towards their targets. The muzzles of the quick-firers depressed, trying to detonate the torpedoes before they struck, but they were only a few hundred meters away, and the destroyers' own weapons were raking the open firing positions. Jeffrey saw four tin fish strike the Empress Imelda from stern to three-quarters of the way to her bow.

Each of the warheads held over a hundred kilos of guncotton. Confined by the water, the explosions would punch holes big enough for two or three men to walk in abreast . . . and Imperial warships had lousy internal compartmentalization. For that matter, safe at anchor the watertight doors would be dogged open for convenience sake while they made ready for sea. He let out the throttle lever and braked to a stop.

"What are you doing?" Lucretzia asked.

"Taking a better look. Shut up for a second."

He pulled back the fabric top of the car and stood with his binoculars, bracing his elbows against the metal rim of the frame holding the windscreen. The Empress rolled over as he watched, shedding ant-tiny men. A few managed to run up onto the bottom as the weed- and barnacle-encrusted plates came into view, but the ship was settling fast as well as capsizing. Most of the rest of the heavy warships were listing or sinking. As he watched the Emperor Umberto blew up with a violence that was stunning even at this distance. Jeffrey shook his head and ignored the ringing in his ears, letting the binoculars thump down on his chest and sliding behind the wheel.

There were Land merchantmen heading in towards the docks, with uniformed figures crowding out from the holds onto the decks. He didn't want to be here when they arrived. His watch read 10:00. Barely an hour after the first dirigibles arrived overhead.

The Republic's legation in Corona was not far from the liner docks; most of its business was linked to the maritime trade. The highway up from the corniche was mostly empty now, except for a couple of craters and gasfires. Unfortunately, one of the craters occupied the site of the legation. From the looks of it, at least two or three six-hundred-kilo bombs had landed around it in a tight group. Nothing was left but shattered pieces of the limestone blocks which had made up the walls.

Christ.

His mind felt numb. Everyone he'd worked with for the past year was probably in there—most of them at least. The consul lived there, with his family. Captain Suthers. Andy Milson . . .

The instructors were right. Masonry doesn't have much resistance to blast damage.

"Christ," he said aloud.

He looked over at Lucretzia. She was looking at him.
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