The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER FIVE


"Telegraph center under control, Captain," the runner said.

Gerta nodded. The troops assigned to that task included several who could duplicate the "fist" of the Imperial Navy signalmen.

She dabbed at the wound on her cheek with the back of her hand. Not serious, just a slice from a grenade fragment—you had to follow on quickly, to catch the opposition while they were still stunned from the blast. She'd been a little too quick, that was all. It just stung a little, no real damage, not worth taking time to bandage.

A deep breath. The Imperial commandant's office—he was an admiral, technically—was a segment of a wedge, one level down from the top of the tower. A window was dogged shut; the shutter was a half-meter of armorplate, but it was still a silly thing to do, weakening the structural integrity of the building that way. There was a fine Union rug, an ornate desk with several telephones—Imperial technology didn't run to efficient exchanges yet—and a smaller desk for the admiral's aide. He sprawled backward over it, most of his face missing and his brains leaking over the edge in a gelatinous puddle. The thin harsh smell of the new nitro powder was heavy in the room, under the stink of death.

Two signalers were working at the locking wheel of the window. They got it open, sliding it back like a pie-wedge of steel, and set up a heliograph.

"Send phases one and two completed on schedule," Gerta said.

A telephone rang, three sharp clatters. She picked it up.

"Yes, Vice-Admiral del'Gaspari," she said, holding a neckerchief over the pickup and pitching her voice low. With luck, her soprano would come across as a bad connection. "Admiral del'Fanfani will be here shortly. Speak louder, please, I cannot—" She pushed the receiver down. It began to ring again immediately.

Her Imperial was good enough, at least, complete with Ciano upper-class accent. But she hoped—ah.

The admiral came through the door, hands bound behind him; he was a tall thin man, balding, with white walrus mustaches. His eyes were fixed and blank, the stare of a man who is rejecting all the input his senses deliver. Behind him was a short fat woman, and a dark slim girl in her mid-teens. His wife and daughter; she recognized them from the files. Half a dozen troopers followed them.

"Sir. Commandant's quarters are secure."

Gerta nodded. The whole complex was in Chosen hands now. She looked at her watch. Twenty-seven minutes from start to finish. Amazing; it had actually gone better than planned. She'd expected it to take an hour at least.

"Good work, Sergeant." Then, more sharply: "Admiral del'Fanfani."

The old man straightened and blinked. "What is the meaning of this?" he said. "I demand—"

Gerta gestured. A trooper slammed the butt of his rifle home over the Imperial officer's kidneys; not too hard, but the man collapsed forward, his mouth working. The Chosen commandos hauled him upward. She stepped closer.

"It is necessary that you cooperate with us," she said. Or at least be useful. Nothing vital depended on it, but it would be handy. "You will speak as I direct."

The admiral drew himself up. "Never!" he said hoarsely.

Gerta shrugged. One of the ones holding the Imperial drew her knife and raise her eyebrows.

"No, I don't think a shank will make him sufficiently cooperative," she said. "We'll stick with the plan."

Intelligence had very complete dossiers on the Imperial command staff, and a fair grasp of their psychology. Imperials were odd about certain bodily functions.

One of her troopers swept a table clear of documents and oddments; they crashed to the floor with a tinkle of glass. Two more picked the daughter up and slammed her down on it, on her back.

"Papa!" she screamed, flailing and kicking her legs.

Then just screamed, as the troopers each grabbed a leg and bent them back until the knees nearly touched her shoulders. Another stepped up and grabbed the collar of her dress, running his dagger under it and slitting the heavy fabric down until it peeled off her. A few more strokes and the undergarments were cut. The soldier grinned, sliding the knife back into its sheath and unbuttoning his fly. He spat into one hand. Gerta spared them a glance—the girl was quite pretty, but female bodies did nothing for her erotically, and besides, this was business—and then turned back to the Imperial officer.

The girl's mother hit the ground with a heavy thud, her eyes rolling up in her head in a dead faint. The admiral was quivering like a racehorse in the starting gate, opening and closing his mouth.

"I will—" he began.

The girl gave a shrill cry. "Stop," Gerta said. The soldier did, which said a good deal for Chosen discipline.

"I will speak! Leave her alone!"

Gerta made a gesture, and the commandos released his daughter. The girl jackknifed into a fetal shrimp-curl on her side, face to knees, whimpering quietly. Gerta put a hand on the telephone.

"As long as you cooperate," she said. "You will speak as follows . . ."

* * *

"Damn!" Jeffrey said.

There was a barricade ahead, wagons and furniture and ripped-up paving blocks. Behind it were fifty or so Imperial soldiers and some sailors in their striped jerseys and berets. They all had rifles, and there was a six-barrel gatling on a field-gun mount. He looked up at the buildings on either side. More men there. Somebody around here had some faint conception of what he was supposed to be doing, but it was probably a junior officer. He braked and began to turn the car around.

"Alto!"

Men ran out from either side, pointing rifles. Single-shot rifles, but it only took one, and there were half a dozen pointing at him-

"Here's one of the Chosen dog-suckers now!"

The Imperial seaman who shouted that and poked his bayonet close had probably never seen a Land military uniform. On the other hand, he'd probably never seen one from the Republic of Santander, either.

"Take me to your officer!" Jeffrey said, loudly and clearly. "Immediately."

Reflex warred with hysteria in the young man's face. Jeffrey stepped down from the car, keeping his movements brisk but not threatening, and handed Lucretzia down to the pavement. She was a little pale, but she adjusted her hat and laid her hand on his arm in fine style. That probably pulled the soldiers out of their combination of funk and bloodlust; their mental picture of an invader didn't include a young Imperial woman dressed like a lady—not quite like a lady, but they wouldn't have the social skills to pick that up. They walked behind the pair up to the barricade, not quite hustling them.

The Imperial in charge was a naval lieutenant, about nineteen, with INS Emperor Umberto on his cuff. He also had acne, a pathetic attempt at a mustache, and the fixed look of a man doing his damndest in a situation he knew was utterly beyond him.

Lucky fellow, Jeffrey thought. For now.

"Lieutenant," he said. "Captain Jeffrey Farr, Republic of Santander Army."

"Captain," the young man said, saluting. "You will excuse me, but—"

"I understand," Jeffrey said smoothly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm responsible for this young lady's safety and the consulate has been destroyed."

"The consulate? The Chosen have declared war on the Republic?"

The young Imperial lieutenant looked hopeful for a moment. Jeffrey felt slightly guilty.

"No, I'm afraid not—accident of war, but the rest of the consular staff are dead enough for all that. My government will doubtless lodge a complaint, but in the meantime, I'm a neutral."

"Then I will not detain you, sir," the lieutenant said.

Jeffrey hesitated for an instant. "Lieutenant . . . as one fighting man to another, are you in contact with your superiors?"

The lieutenant swallowed. "No, sir, I am not. The city telegraph and telephone lines appear to be inoperable or under enemy control."

"The Chosen are landing in force at the docks." That was less than half a kilometer away. "Lieutenant, without support, you haven't a prayer. I'd strongly advise you withdraw until you do get in contact with your chain of command."

It would be an even better idea to ditch the uniforms and weapons and hide in a cellar, then pretend to be harmless laborers, but he didn't think the young Imperial would take that sort of advice.

"If I have no orders, I have my duty; but thank you, Captain Farr. There are better than thirty thousand Imperial military personnel in Corona. If we all do something, the situation may yet be salvaged. You'd better go, this isn't your fight."

The hell it isn't. It wasn't his battle, though. If every Imperial officer had this one's aggression and instincts, Corona could have been saved. That was very unlikely.

He looked over his shoulder. Two of the Imperial soldiers were driving the car up to the barricade, and others were pushing aside a cart to give it room to pass.

"You understand, of course," the lieutenant went on, "I must commandeer your vehicle."

Jeffrey hadn't understood anything of the sort—although it would be invaluable, particularly with the communications network down. Cars weren't common in Corona. And it didn't make much sense to object, not when the Imperial had fifty or sixty armed men at his back. Lucretzia seemed more inclined to argue; Jeffrey took her by the arm and hurried her past.

"Where can we go without the car?" she hissed.

"Where could we go with it? The main roads are blocked. I'm trying to get to a safe house. Now move."

They walked quickly up the street. The crowds were thicker here, but milling around as if they weren't sure where to go. That included numbers in Imperial military uniforms. Columns of smoke were rising to the air from dozens of points in the city now. He looked at his watch. 11:00 hours.

BAAAAMM. A volley from the barricade a hundred meters behind them. The gatling there cut loose with a slow braaaap . . . braaaap as the operators turned its crank. Jeffrey half-turned, then recognized the next sound.

"Down!" he shouted, and pancaked, carrying the woman with him.

The whistling screech ended in a sharp crack about twenty meters back. Someone fell thrashing across Jeffrey's legs. He pushed at them with his feet, but the body resisted with the boneless slackness of a sack of rice; he had to roll onto his back and push with one boot to get the twitching weight free. That gave him an excellent view of what was coming up the roadway. Even at several hundred meters it looked huge, a rhomboid shape of riveted steel armor leaking steam along its flanks, with the Land's sunburst on its bow. Endless belts of linked metal plates supported it on either side. Between the top and bottom track each flank held a sponson-mounted cannon; 50mm by the look, light naval quick-firers. On the top of the boxy hull was a round turret mounting two thick shapes that must be the new water-cooled automatic machine-guns Intelligence had been reporting.

They were. The turret swiveled and the muzzles of the automatics flashed, with a sound like endless ripping canvas. Bullets chewed into the Imperial's barricade in a continuous stream, ripping wood into splinters and silencing the ineffectual rifles. Men turned and ran; the lieutenant waved his sword in their faces, trying to rally them. Then the other side-mounted cannon in the Chosen tank cut loose. The shell landed nearly at the Imperial officer's feet, exploding in a puff of smoke with a malignant red snap at its core. One of the lieutenants boots was left, toppling over slowly. The rest of him was splashed across the paving blocks. In the silence that followed they could hear the tooth-grating squeal of steel on stone as the Chosen fighting vehicle ground up the slope towards them.

For a long moment, he was paralyzed. Instinct tugged at the small hairs along his spine. He'd seen war machines far worse in Center's scenarios, but this was here, lurching and grinding its way towards him. He didn't blame the Imperials for bugging out at all.

"Come on!" Lucretzia was tugging at his sleeve.

Good idea. Jeffrey took her hand and ran.

* * *

The basement room was hot and close, stuffy with their breath and sweat. Jeffrey put a cautious eye to the slat-covered cellar window, looking out. The firing had stopped, the slow banging of the Imperial rifles and the fast flat cracks of the Land repeaters. He could see one Imperial soldier trying to crawl away in the kitchen-garden outside, dragging his limp legs. Boots stepped up behind him, jackboots with gray uniform trousers tucked into them. A rifle with a knife-bayonet attached followed, pointed to the back of the wounded man's head. It barked, and the body slumped forward, hidden by the thigh-high corn.

Damn. It was pure bad luck, to get right to the edge of town—they were in a straggling suburb of market-gardens and villas—and then get caught up in a skirmish.

The Land soldier kneeled and went through his victim's pockets; then he paused to reload his rifle, pulling the bolt back and up, then thumbing in two stripper-clips of five rounds from the pouches on his webbing. He was a dark-tanned man of medium height, the helmet clipped to his belt revealing a shaven skull. The face below it was beetle-browed and hard; he looked to be exactly what he was, a highly-trained human pit bull. Savage, not too bright, but abundantly deadly. He smacked the bolt forward, chambering a round, and turned to shout a question over his shoulder. Someone answered in the same Protégé-accented Landisch, and three more joined him. Unseen others pounded away in lockstep, a platoon column by the sound of it.

Lucretzia had her hands locked over her mouth, eyes wide. Been a hard day for her. Hell, for both of us. He sincerely hoped she wouldn't scream.

They heard a door burst open above. Things smashed, crockery, glass. There was a sudden overpowering smell of wine. Bad. The Protégé soldiers must be so wrought up they weren't even stopping to loot more booze. He eased the revolver out of his holster and slowly, quietly thumbed back the hammer. It was a double-action, but saving a fraction of a second on the pull might be worthwhile. Jeffrey swallowed through a mouth gone cotton-dry. When they didn't find anything upstairs, they might just move along, probably they had a lot of territory to cover . . . they might not shoot at someone in the uniform of a neutral third country . . .

probability 8%, ±2.

Thanks. Just about his own calculation of the odds on Protégés understanding what "neutral" meant, or caring if they did.

Jackboots walked over the kitchen floor above them, making the planking creak and sending little trickles of dust down into the cellar. Slowly, the light in the basement took on a flat, silvery tone. Jeffrey set his teeth; he'd experienced what Center could do with his perceptions before, but he'd never liked it.

Neither did I, but you use what's to hand, Raj said. To the right of the door.

That stood at the top of a flight of stairs. It was thin pine boards; if there had been only one Land soldier, Jeffrey would have fired through them when the knob began to turn. But there were at least four.

The catch clicked, but the door didn't open immediately. Instead there was a slight shink sound . . . exactly what the point of a bayonet would sound like, touching on dry planking. Jeffrey's hand reached out to the knob, moving with an automatic precision that seemed detached and slow. He jerked it backward, and the Land soldier stumbled through. A grid dropped down over his sight, outlining the enemy. A green dot appeared right under the angle of the man's jaw. His finger stroked the trigger, squeezing.

Crack.

The soldier's head snapped sideways as if he'd been kicked by a horse. His helmet went flying off into the dimness of the cellar, dimness that made the muzzle flash strobe like a spear of reddish fire. It hid the flow of brain and bone that followed, but blood spattered back into Jeffrey's face. He was turning, turning, the pistol coming up. The second Land soldier was levelling her rifle, but the green dot settled on her throat.

Crack

The woman fell back and writhed for an instant, blood spraying over everything, him, the stairs, the ceiling . . . The soldier behind her was jumping back, face slack with alarm. Out of sight, almost, but the green dot settled on his leg.

Crack.

A scream as the Land soldier tumbled out of sight. The grid outlined a prone figure against the planks of the entranceway and an aiming-point strobed. Jeffrey squeezed the trigger four times.

Oh shit. There was another one—

The bark of the rifle was much deeper than his pistol. The nickel-jacketed bullet was also much heavier and faster; it punched through the thin planking and ricochetted, whining around the stones of the cellar like a giant lethal wasp. Jeffrey tumbled back down the stairs, snapping open the cylinder of his revolver and shaking out the spent brass. He snapped the three-round speedloaders into the cylinder and flipped it closed—bad practice normally, but he was in a hurry—and skipped back two steps before firing again through the overhead planks. The soldier fired back the same way, three rounds rapid, and Jeffrey threw himself down again as the ricochettes spun through the cramped confines of the basement before thumping home into the piled-up firewood and potatoes.

Lucretzia was scrambling at the belt of the fallen Land soldier. Damn, what's she doing? Then: Damnation, I should have taken his rifle!

He scrabbled over to the corpse, ignoring what he was crawling through. Just before he reached it, Lucretzia figured out how to pull the tab on one of the potato-masher grenades the dead soldier had been carrying in loops at his belt. Her toss was underhand and rather weak; the grenade landed spinning on the top step of the cellar stairs and hung for a moment before it tumbled over the lip of the doorsill into the kitchen.

. . . three, four, five—

The confined space of the room upstairs magnified the blast, not nearly as much as having it go off in the cellar would have, of course. Jeffrey pounded up the stairs on the heels of the sound, caromed off the doorway and into the kitchen. The Land soldier was just staggering to her feet, blood running from her nose and ears. The green spot settled on the bridge of her nose, and Jeffreys finger tightened.

Crack.

The flat brightness faded from his eyes. "Christ," he muttered, staggering. I just killed five human beings. He'd been in skirmishes before, minor stuff, but this . . .

this is what the world will be, for the rest of your life, Center said.

* * *

"You sure?" Jeffrey said.

Lucretzia nodded, looking down the street. "I am a danger to you. And you to me. Alone, I can fade into the city. Alone, you can move quickly—or find an enemy officer who will respect your neutrality."

The Imperial woman leaned forward and kissed him lightly. "I have the code. I will be in touch, Jeffrey. And thank you."

"You're welcome," he muttered, shaking his head.

a prudent decision, Center observed. chances of survival are optimized for both individuals.

"I still don't like it," Jeffrey said.

You'll like what comes next even less, lad, Raj said at the back of his mind. You'd better find an officer and turn yourself in.

chances of personal survival roughly equivalent to attempted flight in that scenario, Center said. mission parameters—

"I know, I know, mission first," he said. "Let's do it."

Reluctantly, he laid down the rifle he'd taken from the body of the Protégé trooper. Logically, he should already be inside the Chosen unit's skirmisher screen. Depending on how closely they were following Land doctrine, and how screwed up things had gotten . . .

He began ghosting down the street, staying close to the buildings and pausing to listen. It was late afternoon, the sun cruelly beautiful as it slanted through the hazy air. He could hear the heavy crumping of explosions from the south, down towards the river basin and the factory district. And closer, a rhythmic tramping.

He ducked into a doorway, the carved jamb and edge providing a little cover. A platoon of Land infantry were coming down the street, on alternate sides by eight-trooper squads; jog-trotting effortlessly with their bayonetted rifles across their chests at the port. And yes, an officer with them.

"Gestan!" he called out in Landisch. "Wait! Nie shessn! Don't shoot!"

A whistle blew, and the platoon went to earth in trained unison, weapons bristling outward. He stepped forward, hands in the air and uneasily conscious of how his testicles were trying to crawl up into his stomach.

"Attention!" he barked at the two Protégé riflemen who came running up at a crouch.

They stiffened instinctively at the bark in upper-class Landisch.

"Take me to your officer immediately," he went on, walking past them at a brisk stride and tucking his swagger stick under his left arm. He could hear the silence of hesitation behind him, and then the clack of hobnails on the brick pathway as they followed. Doubtless the points of the bayonets were hovering an inch or so from his kidneys. Got to maintain the momentum.

The officer was waiting with a folded map in her hand and a bulky automatic pistol in the other. Blue eyes narrowed as they recognized his brown Santander uniform, and he could sense thoughts moving behind them. She's in the middle of a mission and doesn't need complications, Jeffrey thought. The hand holding the pistol gave a slight unconscious twitch. One bullet in the head, and there's no complication at all. If anyone found his body, it would be an unfortunate accident.

"Captain, Jeffrey Farr, Army of the Republic," he said, saluting casually with a touch of the swagger stick to the brim of his peaked cap. "Congratulations, fahnrich, on a soldierly job of work—taking a city this size by storm is quite an accomplishment!"

He extended his hand. The Chosen officer took it automatically; at close range he could see that she wasn't more than twenty, under the cropped hair and hard muscularity. There was a trace of baffled hesitation at this glib stranger who spoke the tongue of the Chosen like a native. He gave a firm squeeze and pumped the hand up and down once.

Good work, Raj said. Personal contact always makes it a little more difficult to shoot someone.

"Most impressive. Now, since you've got the situation well in hand, if I could trouble you for an escort to your colonel?"

* * *

"Jeffrey Farr?" the Chosen colonel said. His square, blond-stubbled face split in an unexpected smile. "Well, I'll be cursed. We're relatives, of a sort—Colonel Heinrich Hosten, at your service, Captain."

The command post was set up in a small park, a few officers grouped around tables carried out from nearby houses. Heinrich Hosten was a big man, easily an inch or two over Jeffrey's six feet, and broad-shouldered, slab-built. A pair of field glasses were hanging around his neck, and there was a square of surgical gauze lightly spotted with blood taped to the side of his bull neck.

He spoke fairly loudly; a battery of mule-drawn field guns was trotting by on the stone-block pavement beyond the park; Jeffreys mind catalogued them automatically, M-298's, the new standard piece—75mm calibre, split trail, shield, hydropneumatic recuperators that returned the tube to battery position after every round. Behind them came a brace of field ambulances, also mule-drawn—the animals looked as if they'd been commandeered locally—that pulled aside to let stretcher-bearers take their contents to a church being used as an aid station. More troops were marching up from the harbor, passing the banner and waiting motorcycle couriers of the regimental HQ.

Jeffrey smiled back at the Chosen colonel. Damned dangerous man, he thought, remembering John's description. Not at all the guileless bruiser he looked. Smart. Dedicated.

Bet he's glad of an audience, Raj said. These johnnies haven't fought a war in a long time. They're good, but they want to show off, too.

"Looks like you caught the dagoes asleep at the tiller," Jeffrey said, turning and shading his eyes with his hand. He touched the cased glasses at his side with his hand. "If you don't mind?"

"Klim-bim," Heinrich said; a useful Chosen expression which could mean anything from affirmative to all's right with the world.

Jeffrey focused the glasses. Nothing was left of the Imperial fleet that he could see; black stains on the surface, the protruding masts of a couple of battlewagons. Fire and billowing columns of dark smoke marked the naval basin; warships and merchantmen were burning, sinking, or listing all over the harbor. Black flags with golden sunbursts marked both the great fortresses at the entrance to the harbor, although Fort Ricardo on the south had the burnt-out skeleton of a dirigible draped over it. The Land's flag also flew over the governor's palace off to the west, and the city hall and railway station directly south. Fires were burning out of control in a dozen places, vivid against the dusk of evening, and there was a continuous staccato crackle of small-arms fire over the mass of tile rooftops.

"Looks like you've cut them up into pockets," Jeffrey said.

"Ja. Easier than we anticipated. Speed and planning and impact. There were a lot of them, but we had the jump from the beginning. Light casualties."

"And you had those . . . what are they called, those moving fortresses?"

"Tanks." Heinrich snorted, and a few of the other officers smiled sourly. "Terrifying when they work, which is less than half the time. We're supposed to have one here."

Jeffrey turned his glasses northward; the city suburbs thinned out from here, although it was harder to see since there wasn't a slope over the intervening ground.

"You're preparing for counterattack?" he said.

Heinrich laughed again and jerked a thumb at the dirigible passing overhead. "I love those things," he said. "We dropped battalion-sized task forces with lots of automatic weapons at the road-rail junctions halfway to Veron. The wops have something like six divisions concentrating there, but there's no way they can do a damned thing for a week—and by then we'll have linked up with the airborne forces, plus we'll have landed the better part of an army corps."

Jeffrey nodded, pasting a smile on his face. That seemed like a very good analysis. But there were times when you wanted so badly to be wrong.

"Impressive," he said.

Heinrich laughed heartily. "Stay with us for a while," he said. "And we'll show you impressive."



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