The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake



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CHAPTER SIX


"In the sight of Almighty God, God the Parent, God the Child, God the Spirit, I pronounce these two as one. What God has joined, let none dare put asunder."

John Hosten gripped Pia's hand, conscious that his own was slightly damp and sweaty. The long embroidered cord was bound around their joined hands and wrists in the ritual knot. Incense rose towards the tall vaulted ceding of the cathedral. The wedding party was small and sparse, old Count del'Cuomo in his dress outfit, a few other men in Imperial field uniform, some friends from the embassy. They rattled like a handful of peas in the huge, dim, scented stone bulk of the place, lost in the patterns of light from the stained-glass windows that occupied most of its walls.

He raised her veil and kissed her, soft contact and a scent of verbena.

The priest raised his staff for the blessing, then halted, listening.

They all did, and looked upward. A dull crump . . . crump . . . came in the distance; everyone in Ciano knew that sound now. Hundred-kilo bombs from a Chosen dirigible bomber, working its way across the sky at two thousand meters.

"Down by the docks," John whispered to himself, "trying for the gasworks."

probability 93%, ±2, Center said.

"John!"

He looked down at Pia. Her lips were fixed in determination. "This is my wedding day. I will not let those tedeschi pigs interfere with it."

Pia's tone was conversational, but it carried in the stillness of the cathedral. A murmur of approval went through the watchers. John could feel Raj smiling at the back of his mind.

You're a lucky man.

"I am a lucky man," John murmured aloud.

count no man lucky until he is dead, Center observed.

* * *

The open-topped car hummed down the roadway, gravel crunching under the hard rubber of its wire-spoked wheels, throwing a rooster-tail of dust behind it. Shade flicked welcome across John's face from the plane trees planted beside it, each one whitewashed to the height of a man's chest. Through the gaps he could see the fields, mostly wheat in this district, with the harvest just finishing. Stocks of shocked grain drew a lacy pattern across the level fields; here and there peasants were finishing off a corner of a poplar-lined field with flashing sickles. Ox-drawn carts were in the field, piled high with yellow grain, hauling the harvest to the barns and threshing floors; the laborers would spend the rainy winter beating out the grain with flails.

Damn, but that's backward, John thought, holding the map across his knees with his hands to keep the wind from fluttering it. At home in Santander, all the bigger farms had horse-drawn reapers these days, and portable steam threshing machines had been around for a generation.

Downright homelike for me, Raj said. Except that there weren't many places on Bellevue as fertile as this. Fattest peasants I've ever seen.

The road climbed slightly, through fields planted to alfalfa, and then into hilly vineyards around a white-painted village. He scrubbed at his driving goggles with the tail-end of his silk scarf and squinted. The guidebooks said the village had a "notable square bell tower" and a minor palazzo.

"Castello Formaso," John called ahead to the driver. "This ought to be it."

It was; most of an Imperial cavalry brigade were camped in and around the town. Cavalry wore tight scarlet pants and bottle-green jackets, with a high-combed brass helmet topped with plumes, and they were armed with sabers, revolvers, and short single-shot carbines. You could follow those polished brass helmets a long way; there were patrols out all across the plain to the west of town, riding down laneways and across fields and pastures, disappearing into the shade of orchards and coming out again on the other side. The troopers closer to hand were watering their horses or working on tack or doing the other thousand and one chores a mounted unit needed.

The road was thick with mounted men, parting reluctantly to the insistent squeeee-beep! of the car's horn. Animals shied or kicked at the unfamiliar sound; one connected with the bodywork in an expensive and tooth-grating crunch of varnished ashwood.

Then the car swerved under a brutal wrench at the wheel. John looked up from his map in the back seat as it flung him against the sidewall; his broad-brimmed hat went over into the roadside dust. A dirigible was passing overhead, nosing out of a patch of cloud at about six thousand feet. A six-hundred-footer, Eagle-class, reconnaissance model. Some of the Imperial cavalry were popping away at the airship with their carbines, and in the village square ahead they had an improvised antiaircraft mounting for a gatling gun—a U-shaped iron framework on a set of gears and cams. The carbines were merely a nuisance, but letting off six hundred rounds a minute straight up was a menace.

"You there!" John barked, tapping the shoulder of his driver. The car came to a halt with a tail-wagging emphasis as the man stood on the brakes. John vaulted out over the rear door and strode towards the gatling.

"You there!" John continued, rapping at the frame with his cane for emphasis. The Imperial NCO in charge looked up. "That thing is out of range, and you'd be dropping spent rounds all over town. Do not open fire."

The soldier braced to attention at a gentleman's voice. John nodded curtly and turned to where the cavalry brigade's command group were sitting under a vine-grown pergola in the courtyard of the village taverna.

Nothing wrong with their nerves, John thought. The portly brigadier had his uniform jacket unbuttoned, his half-cloak across the back of his chair, and a huge plate of pasta and breaded veal in front of him. Several straw-wrapped bottles of the local vintage kept the food company. He looked up as John rapped out his orders at the gatling crew, his face purpling with rage as the stranger strode over to his table.

"And who the hell are you? Teniente, get this civilian out of here!"

John bowed with a quick jerk of his head, suppressing an impulse to click heels. Showing Chosen habits was not the way to make yourself popular around here right now.

"I am John Hosten, accredited chargé d'affaires with the Embassy of the Republic of Santander," he said crisply. He pulled out a sheaf of documents. "Here are my credentials."

"I don't care shit for—" The Imperial officer stopped, paling slightly under his five o'clock shadow. "The signore John Hosten who married Pia del'Cuomo?"

Who is the favorite daughter of the Minister of War, yes, John thought. "The same, sir," he continued aloud. "Here to observe the course of the war."

"Excellent!" the brigadier said, a little too heartily, mopping his mouth on a checkered linen napkin. "We drove these pig-grunting beasts into the sea once before centuries ago, and you can watch it done again!"

A murmur of agreement came from the other officers around the table, in a wave of wineglasses and elegant cigarette holders. Polished boots struck the flagstones in emphasis. John inclined his head.

Considering that we're four hundred kilometers west of Corona and he doesn't know fuck-all about where the enemy's main force is, I'd say that was just a little over-optimistic, Raj commented dryly.

"Brigadier Count Damiano del'Ostro," the portly cavalryman said, extending a hand. "At your service, signore."

John shook the plump, beautifully manicured hand extended to him in a waft of cologne and garlic, and looked up. The Land dirigible was gliding away on a curving pathway that would take it miles to the east, down the road to the capital and then back towards the Pada River near Veron. According to the newspapers, a strong Imperial garrison was holding out in that river port, preventing the Land's forces from using it to supply their forward elements.

You could believe as much of that as you wanted to. John did know that at least ten Imperial infantry divisions and two of cavalry were concentrating—slowly—at a rail junction about fifty miles east; he'd driven through them that morning. The dirigible was doing about seventy-five miles an hour. It would be there in three-quarters of an hour, and reporting back in two. John looked back at the cavalry commander, who was supposed to be locating the Land's armies and screening the Imperial forces from observation.

"You've located the enemy force, Brigadier del'Ostro?" he said.

The brigadier twirled at one of his waxed mustachios. "Soon, soon—our cavalry screen is bound to make contact soon. The cowards refuse to engage our cavalry under any circumstances. Why, their cavalry are mounted on mules, if you can believe it."

"The Land doesn't have any cavalry, strictly speaking," John pointed out gently. "They have some mounted infantry units on mules, yes. One mule to two men; they take turns riding. They march very quickly."

Del'Ostro laughed heartily and slapped a hand to his saber. "Without cavalry, they will be blind and helpless. Desperate they must already be; do you know, they let women into their army?"

John smiled politely with the chorus of laughter. I hope you never meet my foster-sister, he thought. Then again, considering that you're partly responsible for this, I hope you do meet Gerta.

"Come, I'll show you how my men scout!" del'Ostro said.

He threw the napkin to the table and strode out, buckling his tunic and calling orders. He and his staff headed towards four Santander-made touring cars, evidently the mechanized element of this outfit. Guards crashed to attention, a drum rolled, a bugle sounded, and Brigadier Count del'Ostro mounted to the backseat, standing and holding the pole of a standard mounted in a bracket at the side of the car.

"Hate to think what those spurs are doing to the upholstery," John murmured to himself—in Santander English, which the driver did not speak. "Follow," he added in Imperial. "But not too close."

"Si, signore," the driver said.

John opened a wicker container bolted to the rear of the front seat and brought out his field glasses; big bulky things, Sierra-made, the best on the market.

"Halt," he said after a moment.

Steam chuffed, and the engine hissed to a stop. The car coasted and then braked to one side of the road, under the shade of a plane tree. John pushed up his driving goggles again and leaned his elbows on the padded leather of the chauffeur's seat.

Brigadier del'Ostro had forgotten his foreign audience in his enthusiasm. His party swept down the long straight road in a plume of dust and a chorus of loyal cries; the mounted units using the road scattered into the ditches, not a few troopers losing their seats. One light field gun went over on its side, taking half its team with it, and lay with the upper wheel spinning in the cars' wake. John ignored them, scanning to the west over the rolling patchwork of grainfields and pasture. There weren't any peasants in that direction; he supposed they were too sensible to linger when the Imperial cavalry screen arrived.

There were spots of smoke on the skyline: burning grain-ricks, perhaps, or buildings. He didn't think that the Land's forces would be burning as they came, too wasteful and conspicuous, but fires followed combat as surely as vultures did.

Ah. A dull thudding noise, like a very large door being slammed some distance away. It repeated again and again, at slow intervals. Artillery.

Over a rise a mile away came a bright spray of Imperial cavalry; some of them were turning to fire behind them with their carbines. Little white puffs of smoke rose from their position. Then came a long rattling crackle. A shape lurched over the rise, and two more behind it. John focused his glasses; it was a big touring car, with a carapace of bolted steel plate on its chassis, and a hatbox-shaped turret on top. Two fat barrels sprouted from the turret's face: water-cooled machine guns. They fired again, a long ripping sound, faint with distance. Men and horses fell in a tangled, kicking mass, and the screaming of the wounded animals carried clearly. The Sierra binoculars were excellent; he could see carbine slugs ricochetting off the gray-painted metal in sparking impacts, leaving smears of soft lead and bright patches where bare metal was exposed.

"Driver, reverse," John said calmly. Because this is no longer near the front. I think it's just become a salient about to be pinched off.

Nothing happened. He looked down; the driver was staring westward, too, hands white-knuckled on the wheel of the car.

"Driver!"

He rapped a shoulder, and the chauffeur came out of his funk like a man broaching deep water, shaking his head.

"Get us out of here, man. Now."

"Si, signore!"

He wrenched at the wheel and reversing lever, got the long touring car around without putting it into either of the roadside ditches although one wheel hung on the edge for a heart-stopping moment. John reversed himself, kneeling and looking back along the road.

More and more of the Imperial cavalry were pouring back towards the village of Castello Formaso; the ones there were streaming out of town heading east, or dismounting and deploying around the town. The party with Brigadier del'Ostro were trying to backtrack as well, but two of the cars had collided and blocked the road. As he watched, machine-gun fire raked the tangle, punching through the wood and thin sheet metal of the vehicles as easily as it did the brightly uniformed bodies that flopped and tumbled around them. Brigadier del'Ostro was still standing on the seat, waving his sword when his car exploded in a shower of parts and burning gasoline. The wreckage settled back, rocking on the bare rims of the wheels, and men ran flaming from the mass.

And over the hill where the armored cars had appeared came a column. John focused on it: Land troops, half mounted on mules, the other half trotting alongside, each soldier holding on to a stirrup leather. As he watched they halted, the mounted half dismounted, handlers took the mules by the reins, and the whole column shook itself out into a line advancing in extended order. Behind them, teams were unloading machine guns with their tripods and boxes of ammunition belts from pack mules.

He could imagine the clink-clank-snap sounds as the heavy weapons with their fat water-filled jackets were dropped onto the fastenings and clamped home; the operators raising the slides, feeding the tab at the end of the belt through, snapping the slide back down, jerking back the cocking lever and settling in with their hands on the spade grips and thumbs on the butterfly trigger while the officer looked through his split-view range finder . . .

"Faster," he said to the driver, licking salt off his upper lip.

His hand went to check the revolver under his left armpit; there was a pump-action shotgun in a scabbard on the back of the driver's seat. Nothing much, but it might come in handy if worst came to worst.

"Uh-oh," he mumbled involuntarily, looking ahead. Castello Formoso was a solid jammed mass of riders, horses, carriages and carts and field guns and ambulances.

Shoomp. His head came up and looked eastward, beyond the village. Whonk! An explosion on the road; nothing dramatic, not nearly as large as a field-gun shell, but definitely something exploding. John tracked left and right with the binoculars. More armored cars.

Those things couldn't mount a cannon! he thought.

examine them again, please. Center thought.

The war machines were insectile dots, even with the powerful glasses. A square appeared before John's eyes, and the image of the car leaped into it, magnified until it seemed only a few yards away. The picture was grainy, fuzzy, but grew clearer as if waves of precision were washing across it several times a second.

maximum enhancement, Center said. The round cheesebox turrets of these held only one machine gun; beside it was a tube, canted up at a forty-five degree angle.

mortar, Center said. probable design—

A schematic replaced the picture of the armored car. A simple smoothbore tube, breaking open at the breech like a shotgun, with a brass cup to seal it, firing a finned bomb with rings of propellant clipped on around the base. Shoomp. Whonk! They were dropping mortar shells on the main road, stopping the outflow of men and carts from the village. The mounted troopers were spilling out into the vineyards on either side in a great disorderly bulge, but the trellised vines were a substantial obstacle even to horses. A few officers were trying to organize, and a field gun was being wheeled out to return fire at the war-cars.

And as sure as death, there's a flanking force ready to put in an attack to follow up those armored cars, Raj thought.

It all happened so quickly! John thought.

It always does, when somebody fucks the dog big-time, Raj thought grimly. I knew officers like del'Ostro well. Mostly because I broke so many of them out of the service; and whoever's running the show on the enemy side is a professional. Those aren't bad troops, but they're dogmeat now. Get out while you can, son.

Good advice, but it looked easier said than done. John took two deep breaths, then stood in the base of the car and held onto one of the hoops that held the canvas top when it was up.

"Driver," he said. "Take that laneway." It was narrow and rutted, but it led east—and at at an angle, southeast, away from where the Land war-cars had appeared.

"Signore—"

"Do it."

It would not be a good thing to be captured, particularly given what was strapped up in the luggage in the rear boot of the car. He doubted, somehow, that diplomatic immunity would extend to not searching him, and Land Military Intelligence would be very interested to find out what he had planned.

"Jeffrey, I hope you're doing better than I am," he muttered.

CHAPTER SEVEN


"Watch this," Heinrich said. "This is going to be funny, the first bit."

Jeffrey Farr took a swig from his canteen—four-fifths water and one-fifth wine, just enough to kill most of the bacteria. The machine gunner ahead of them made a final adjustment to her weapon by thumping it with the heel of her hand, then stroked the bright brass belt of ammunition running down to the tin box on the right of the weapon.

The command staff of the Fifteenth Light Infantry (Protégé) was set up not far behind the firing line, on a small knoll covered in long grass and scrub evergreen oak. The infantry companies of the regiment were fanning out on either side, taking open-order-prone positions; many were unlimbering the folding entrenching tool from their harnesses, mounding earth in front of themselves, as protection and to give good firing rests.

He looked behind. An aid station was setting up, a heavy weapons company was putting their 82mm mortars in place, a reserve company was waiting spread out and prone, ammunition was coming down off the packmules and being carried forward. . . .

"Very professional," he said.

Heinrich nodded, beaming, as pleased as a child with an intricate toy. "Ja. Although this hasn't been much of a challenge so far. I do wish we still had those armored cars assigned to us, though."

Jeffrey took another swig at the canteen. He was parched, and his feet hurt like blazes, even worse than the muscles in his calves and thighs. The weather was hot and dry, and the spearhead of the Land forces had been moving fast. Everyone was supposed to be able to do thirty miles a day, day in and day out, with full load, and the Chosen officers were supposed to do better than their Protégé enlisted soldiers. After four weeks with them, he was starting to believe some of the things the Chosen said about themselves. Company-grade officers and up were entitled to a riding animal—mules, in this outfit—but he'd rarely seen one using a saddle except to get around more quickly during an engagement. Heinrich's light-infantry regiment moved even faster than the rest, and they treated the dry, dusty heat of a mainland summer as a holiday from the steambath mugginess of the Land.

Through his field glasses, the approaching Imperial force looked professional too, in its way. The cavalry were maintaining their alignment neatly, despite the losses they'd had in the last few engagements, in blocks a hundred wide and three ranks deep, with a pennant at the center of each, advancing at a trot. Light field guns and gatlings bounced and rattled forward between each regiment of horse; the whole Imperial line covered better than two kilometers, and infantry were deployed behind it, coming forward at the double in a loose swarm.

"How many would you say?" Jeffrey asked.

"Oh, four thousand mounted," Heinrich said. "The foot—"

He turned to another officer, one stooping to look through a tripod-mounted optical instrument.

"Better part of two brigades, from the standards, sir," she said. "Say seven to nine thousand, depending on whether they were part of the bunch that tried to force the line of the Volturno."

Jeffrey looked left and right; three battalions, less losses; say fifteen hundred rifles, with one machine gun to a company and a dozen mortars.

"Rather long odds, wouldn't you say?" he said.

"Oh, it'll do," Heinrich replied. He began stuffing tobacco into a long curved pipe with a flared lip and a hinged pewter cover. "Mind you"—he struck a match with his thumbnail and puffed the pipe alight, speaking around the stem—"I wouldn't mind if the rest of the brigade came up, or at least that ferdammt artillery we're supposed to have, but it'll do."

The Chosen colonel turned his head slightly. "Fahnrich Klinghoffer; mortars to concentrate on enemy crew-served weapons, commencing at two thousand meters. Automatic weapons at fifteen hundred, infantry at eight hundred; flank companies to be ready to swing back. Runner to General Summelworden, and we're engaged to our front; attempted enemy break-out. Dispositions as follows—"

Messengers trotted off on foot; one stamped a motorcycle into braying life and went rearward in a spray of dust and gravel. That would be the message to rear HQ—there were only three of the little machines attached to the regiment and they were saved for the most important communications.

"Wouldn't a wireless set be useful?" Jeffrey asked.

Heinrich gestured with his pipe. "Not really. Too heavy and temperamental to be worth the trouble; telegraphs are bad enough—the last thing any competent field commander wants is to have an electric wire from Supreme HQ stuck up his arse. Let them do their jobs, and we'll do ours."

I wouldn't have minded having this fellow working for me, Raj thought.

chosen staff training ensures uniformity of method, Center noted. this reduces the need for communications.

"Twenty-two hundred," the officer at the optical said. "Picking up the pace."

"Still, twelve thousand to two . . ." Jeffrey said.

Heinrich grinned disarmingly. "We're holding the neck of the bag. All we have to do is delay them long enough for the rest of the corps to come up, and they've lost better than two hundred thousand men. Worth a risk."

Jeffrey nodded. Down below the riflemen finished digging and were snuggling the stocks of their weapons into their shoulders; a few pessimists were setting out grenades close to hand. The machine gunners sat behind their weapons, elbows on knees, bending to look through the sights: all Chosen, he noticed—one Chosen NCO as gunner, five Protégé privates to fetch and carry and keep the weapon supplied with ammunition and water.

The Imperial field gunners halted their teams, wheeling the guns and running them off the limbers. The clang of the breechblocks was lost under the growing, drumming thunder of thousands of hooves. Elevating wheels spun. The Imperial guns were simple black-powder models with no recoil gear; they'd have to be pushed back into battery after every shot, but there were a lot of them.

Behind Jeffrey, hands poised mortar bombs over the muzzles. The Chosen officer at the optical raised her hand, then chopped it downward.

Schoonk. Schoonk. Schoonk. Twelve times repeated.

The mortar shells began dropping. Each threw up a minor shower of dirt, like a gigantic raindrop hitting silt. The first rounds dropped all across the axis of the Imperial advance, some ahead of it, some behind; four or five plowed into the mass of cantering horsemen, sending animals and men to the ground. The ranks expanded around the casualties, then closed up again with a long ripple.

The observers called corrections. Schoonk. Schoonk . . . This bracket landed much closer to the Imperial field guns. One landed on a limber, which went up in a giant globe of orange fire, shells whistling across the sky like fireworks. The noise was loud even at this distance. Another went up a second later.

"Tsk, tsk," Heinrich said. "Sympathetic detonation—too close together. Careless."

In Landisch, saying someone was sloppy was a serious moral criticism, worse than theft, although not quite as bad as eating your children. The Chosen assumed courage; what they really respected was an infinite capacity for taking pains.

An Imperial gun cut loose in an enormous puff of off-white smoke. Something went overhead in a tearing rising-pitch whistle and exploded behind them, sending a poplar tree shape of dirt into the air. The next shell hammered short, just beyond the Land infantry line. One over, one under, which meant . . .

Heinrich made a small gesture with one hand; everyone whose job permitted it went to ground, including Jeffrey Farr. He wished he had one of the Land helmets; even a thin layer of stamped manganese-nickel steel was a comforting thing to have between you and an airburst.

Crack. The next shell was an airburst, a little off-center and a bit high up. Imperial fuses weren't very modern, either, so that was good shooting with what they had available. Somebody screamed nearby, and a call went up for stretcher-bearers. Guns were firing all along the Imperial line now, but the hooves were louder.

Much louder. The cavalry were swinging into a gallop, and as he watched the sabers came out, a thousandfold twinkling in the hot sunlight, like slivers of mirrored glass. The troopers swung the swords down, holding them forward along the horses' necks with the blades parallel to the ground. On his belly, Jeffrey could feel the thunder of thousands of tons of horseflesh thudding into the ground on metal-shod hooves.

"Steady now, steady," Heinrich murmured to himself, glancing left and right at his regiment.

Jeffrey stared at the approaching Imperials with a complex mixture of emotions. If they overran this position, he'd probably die . . . and he'd like nothing better than to see the Chosen stamped into the earth by the hooves, cut apart by those sabers, pistoled, annihilated. But he didn't want to share the experience, if possible.

Beneath that his mind was calculating, measuring distances by the old trick of how much you could see—so many yards when a man was a dot, so many when you could make out his arms, his legs, the belts of his equipment. The Land soldiers were doing the same. Behind them the mortars kept up a steady schoonk . . . schoonk . . . stopping now and then to adjust their aim.

The machine gun cut loose with a stuttering rattle, faster and more rhythmic than the gatlings he was familiar with. Every fourth round was tracer, and they arched out pale in the bright sunlight. More of the automatics opened up along the regiment's line. The closest gunner traversed smoothly, tapping off four-second bursts, smiling broadly to herself.

Jam, Jeffrey prayed. Jam, damn you, jam tight!

But they didn't jam. The cavalry charge disintegrated instead, hundreds of horses and men falling in a few seconds. At the gallop there was no time to halt, no chance to pull aside. The first rank went down as if a giant scythe had cut their legs from beneath them, and the succeeding ones piled into them in a kicking, rolling, tumbling wave of thousand-pound bodies that reached three layers high in places. He could see men thrown twenty feet and more as their mounts ran into that long hillock of living flesh, saw them crushed under tons of thrashing horse. The sound was indescribable, the shrill womanish shrieking of the horses and the desperate wailing of men.

Tacktacktacktacktacktacktack—

A shell landed near one of the machine guns, probably by sheer chance, leaving a tangle of flesh and twisted metal. The others continued, concentrating on the main mass of stalled horsemen; individual riders came forward, and dismounted men—horses were bigger targets than humans. Some of them were firing their carbines as they came. Far beyond their range, but not that of the Landisch magazine-rifles, with high-velocity jacketed slugs and smokeless powder. Land riflemen opened up, the slower crack . . . crack . . . of their weapons contrasting with the rapid chatter of the machine guns.

Imperials fell; the Land infantry could fire ten or twelve aimed rounds a minute, and they were all good shots. More green-uniformed soldiers crowded forward, some crawling, others running in short dashes. There were infantry in peaked caps among them now, as well as the dismounted cavalry. One of the big soft-lead slugs whipcracked by Jeffrey, uncomfortably close; he hugged the dirt tighter. Not far away a Land soldier sprawled backwards kicking and blowing a froth of air and blood through his smashed jaw. Others crawled forward to drag the wounded back to where the stretcher-bearers could get at them, then crawled back to their firing positions.

"Hot work," Heinrich said, propping himself up on his elbows. "Ah, I expected that."

More and more Imperials were filtering up, taking cover behind the piles of dead horses and men, working around the edges of the Land regiment. Steam hissed from the safety cap on the top of the jacket of the machine gun in front of the knoll; a Protégé soldier rose to fetch more water and pitched back with a grunt like a man belly-punched, curling around the wound in his stomach. He sprawled open-eyed after a second's heel-drumming spasm, and another rose to take his place. The Chosen gunner wrapped her hand in a cloth and unscrewed the cap. Boiling water heaved upward and pattered down on the thirsty soil, disappearing instantly and leaving only a stain that looked exactly like that left by the soldiers blood. Soldiers poured their canteens into the weapon's thirsty maw, and the gunner took the opportunity to switch barrels.

"Sir! Hauptman Fedrof reports enemy moving to our left in force—several thousand of them. Infantry, with guns in support."

Jeffrey saw Heinrich frown, then unconsciously look behind to where the supports would be coming from . . . if they came.

"Move one company of the reserve to the left. Refuse the flank, pull back a little to that irrigation ditch and laneway. Tell the mortars to fire in support on request. And Fahnrich Klinghoffer, get me a report on our ammunition reserves."

"Hot work," Jeffrey said.

* * *

"Watch it!" John barked involuntarily as the left wheels of his car nearly went into the ditch.

The refugees were swarming on both sides of the road, trampling through the maize fields on both sides and gardens. Every once and a while they surged uncontrollably back onto the roadway, blocking the westbound troops in an inextricable snarl of handcarts, two- and four-wheeled oxcarts, mule-drawn military supply wagons, guns, limbers . . .

"Take the turnoff up ahead," he said, as the vehicle inched by a stalled sixteen-pounder field gun.

The gun had a six-horse hitch, with a trooper riding on the off horse of every pair. They looked at him with incurious eyes, glazed with fatigue, bloodshot in stubbled, dirt-caked faces. The horses' heads drooped likewise, lips blowing out in weary resignation. From the looks of them, the men had already been in action, and somebody had gotten this column organized and heading back towards the fight. For that matter, there were plenty of Imperial soldiers in the vast shapeless mob of refugees heading eastward away from the fighting—some in uniform and carrying their weapons, others shambling along in bits and pieces of battledress, a few bandaged, most not.

The car crept along the column, the driver squeezing the bulb of the horn every few feet, heading west and towards the blood-red clouds of sunset. It was risky—the chances of meeting an officer who wasn't particularly impressed with the son-in-law of the war minister increased with every day, and a car was valuable, even one with hoof-marks in the bodywork.

Better than going the other way. When he was heading away from the fighting, the refugees kept trying to get aboard. It was really bad when the mothers held up their children; a few had even tried to toss the infants into the car.

They turned up a farm lane, over a low hill that hid them from the road, past the encampments of the refugees; some were lighting fires, others simply collapsing where they stood. The sun was dropping below the horizon, light turning purple, throwing long shadows from the grain-ricks across the stubblefields. The lane turned down by a shallow streambed, into a hollow fringed with trees. An old farmhouse stood there, the sort of thing a very well-to-do peasant farmer would have, built of ashlar limestone blocks, with four rooms and a kitchen. Outbuildings stood around a walled courtyard at the back; a big dog came up barking and snarling as the car pulled into the stretch of graveled dirt in front of the house.

Two men followed it, both carrying shotguns. One shone a bull's-eye lantern in John's face.

"You are?" the man behind the lantern said.

"John Hosten," he said.

"Arturo Bianci," the man with the lantern said. His hand was firm and callused, a workingman's grip. "Come."

They went into the farmhouse, through a hallway and into the kitchen; there was a big fireplace in one end, with a tile stove built into the side, and a kerosene lantern hanging from a rafter. Strings of garlic and onions and chilies hung also; hams in sacks, slabs of dried fish scenting the air; there were copper pans on the walls. Four men and a woman greeted him.

"No more names," John said, sitting at the plank table. "This group is big enough as it is, by the way."

Silence fell as the woman put a plate before him: sliced tomatoes, cured ham, bread, cheese, a mug of watered wine. John picked up a slab of the bread and folded it around some ham; it was an important rite of hospitality, and besides that, meals had been irregular this last week or so.

"We wondered if you could get through, with the refugees," Arturo said slowly, obviously thinking over the implications of John's remark.

"Fools." Unexpectedly, that was the woman; she had Arturo's looks in a feminine version, earthy and strong, but much younger. "Do they think they can run faster than the tedeschi? All they do is block the roads and hamper the army."

John nodded; it was a good point. "They're afraid," he said. "Rightly afraid, although they're doing the wrong thing."

"Not only them," Arturo said. "Our lords and masters have—" he used a local dialect phrase; John thought he identified "sodomy" and "pig," but he wasn't sure. "You think we will lose this war, signore?"

"Yes," John confirmed. "The chances are about—"

92%, ±3, Center said helpfully.

"—nine to one against you, barring a miracle."

The other men looked at each other, some of them a little pale.

"I don't understand it—we are so many, compared to them. It must be treason!" one said.

"Never attribute to treason or conspiracy what can be accounted for by incompetence and stupidity," John said.

Arturo rubbed a hand over his five o'clock shadow, blue-black and bristly. The sound was like sandpaper.

"I knew we had fallen behind other countries," he said. "I have relatives who moved to Santander, to Chasson City, to work in the factories there. I might have myself, if I had not inherited this land from my father. That was why I joined the Reform party"—somewhat illegal, but not persecuted very stringently—"so that we might have what others do, and not spend every year as our grandfathers did. I did not know we had become so primitive. These devil-machines the Chosen have . . ."

"Their organization is more important, their training, their attitude," John said. "They've been planning for this for a long time. Your leadership has what it desires, and just wants to keep things the way they are. The Chosen . . . the Chosen are hungry, and eating the whole world wouldn't satisfy them."

Arturo nodded. "All that remains is to decide whether we submit, or fight from the shadows," he said. "We fight. Are we agreed?"

"We are agreed," one of the men said; he was older, and his breeches and floppy jacket were patched. "But I don't know how many others we can convince. They will say, what does it matter who the master is, if you must pay your rent and taxes anyway?"

The woman spoke again. "The Chosen will convince them, better than we."

The men looked at her; she scowled and banged a coffee pot down on one of the metal plates set into the top of the stove.

"It is true," Arturo said. "If half of what I have heard is so, that is true."

"It's probably worse than what you've heard," John said grimly. "The Chosen don't look on you as social inferiors; they look on you as animals, to be milked and sheared as convenient, then slaughtered."

Arturo slapped his hand on the plank. "It is agreed. And now, come and see how we have cared for what you sent us!"

He took up the bulls-eye and clicked the shutter open. They went out the back door, into a farmyard with a strong smell of chickens and ducks, past a muddy pond and into a barn. Several milch-cows mooed from their stalls, and a pair of big white-coated oxen with brass balls on the tips of their horns. Their huge mild eyes blinked at the light, and then went back to meditatively chewing their cuds. The cart they hauled was pushed just inside the door, its pole pointing at the rafters; tendrils of loose hay stuck down through the wide-spaced boards of the loft. Towards the rear of the barn were stacked pyramids of crates, one type long and thin, the other square and rectangular.

Arturo opened one whose nails had been pulled. "Enough of us know how to use these," he said, throwing John a rifle.

It was the standard Imperial issue, but factory-new, still a little greasy from the preservative oil. A single-shot breechloader, with a tilting block action and a spring-driven ejector that automatically tipped the block down and shot the spent cartridge out to the rear when the trigger was pulled all the way back. Not a bad weapon at all, in its day, and it could still kill a man just as dead as the latest magazine rifle. The smaller crates were marked AMMUNITION 10MM STANDARD 1000 ROUNDS.

"Two hundred rifles, and revolvers, blasting powder, a small printing press," Arturo said.

"Where were you planning on hiding them?" John said, looking around at the set peasant faces, underlit by the lamp Arturo had set down on the packed earth floor of the barn.

"The sheep pen. Under hard dung, six inches thick."

"Good idea, for some of them," John said, easing back the hammer of the rifle. The action went click. "But you shouldn't put more than a dozen in one place. Nor should any one of you know where the rest are. You understand me?"

Arturo seemed to, and his daughter, possibly a few of the others. John went on.

"You know what the Chosen penalty is for unauthorized possession of weapons—so much as one cartridge, or a knife with a blade longer than the regulations allow?"

"A bullet?" one of the peasants asked.

"Not unless they're in a real hurry. Generally, they hang you up by the thumbs and then flog you to death with jointed steel whips made out of chain links with hooks on them. Small hooks, about the size of a fishhook, and barbed. I've seen it done; it can take hours, with an expert." Silence fell again.

"You want to frighten us?" one of the men asked.

"Damned right," John replied. "You'll stay alive longer, that way; and hurt the Chosen more."

Watch out, lad—you want to get them thinking, not terrorize them, Raj said. Time enough for realism when they're committed.

Arturo nodded thoughtfully. "We will have to organize . . . differently. Nothing in writing. Small groups, with only one knowing anyone else, and that as little as possible."

Good. We don't have to explain the cell system to him, at least, John thought.

Although the idea of the Fourth Bureau getting its hands on these amateurs . . . needs must. If nobody fought the Chosen, they'd win. That meant you had to accept the consequences.

"And then," Arturo said, "when we are ready—when enough are ready to follow us—we can start to hurt them. Blowing up bridges, picking off patrols, perhaps their clerks and tallymen, sabotage. We will have some advantages: we know the ground, the people will hide us."

"You'll have to strike fairly far from your homes, though," John said.

"Why?"

"Because the Chosen reprisals will fall hardest on the location where guerilla activity flares up. You strike away from where you live, and it kills two birds with one stone; you get the people who suffer the reprisals hating the Chosen, and you protect your base."

Arturo tilted the lantern to shine the light on John's face. That emphasized the structure of it, the slabs and angles.

"You are a hard man, signore," he said. "As hard as the Chosen themselves, perhaps."

John nodded. "As we all will need to be, before this is over," he said. Those of us still alive.

* * *

The Chosen officer's blue eyes stared unblinking up at the moonlit night sky. It was bright, full moon, the disk nearly as large as the sun to the naked eye and almost too bright to look at, so Jeffrey could see them clearly. Her helmet had rolled away when the bullet went in through the angle of her jaw and out the top of her head; fortunately the shadow hid most of what the soft lead slug had done when it lifted off the top of her skull. Jeffrey was glad of that, and the bit of extra cover the body provided. Bullets thudded into the loam of the little hillock, or keened off stones with a wicka-wicka sound like miniature lead Frisbees.

Every minute or so a shell would burst along the Chosen gunline, stretched back now into a U-shape with the blunt end towards the enemy. The shellbursts were malignant red snaps in the night, a flash of light and the crack on its heels. Every few minutes a Land hand-grenade would explode where the Imperials had gotten close, but the invaders were running short on them. Short on everything.

The night air was colder, damper, and it carried the smell of cordite, gunpowder and the feces-and-copper scent of violent death. Bodies lay scattered out from the line, sometimes two-thick where automatic weapons or concentrated riflefire had caught groups charging forward—the Imperials' training kept betraying them, making them clump together. The field of the dead seemed to move and heave as wounded men screamed or whimpered or wept, calling for water or their mothers or simply moaned in wordless pain. Through it darted the living, more and more of them filtering in. Their firepower was diffuse compared to the Land's rapid-fire weapons, but it was huge, and the sheer weight of it was beating down resistance.

Goddamn ironic if I die here, Jeffrey thought. He'd devoted his whole life to the defeat of the Chosen. . . .

"I think the next push may make it this far," Heinrich said. "You can't claim our hospitality's been dull."

He was chewing the stem of his long-dead pipe as he unbuckled the flap of his sidearm. Most of the surviving command group had armed themselves with the rifles and bayonets of dead Protégé soldiers, those who hadn't gone out to take charge of units with no officers left alive.

"Damn," Heinrich went on. "We must have killed or crippled a good third of them. Didn't think they'd keep it up this long."

"Here they come again," someone said quietly.

The forward Imperial positions were no more than a hundred yards away. The firefly twinkling of muzzle flashes sparkled harder, concentrating on the surviving machine guns, and men rose to charge. A bugle sounded, thin and reedy. The machine guns were fewer now, firing in short tapping bursts to conserve ammunition. Jeffrey could feel something shift, a balance in his gut. This time they would make it to close quarters.

Listen, Raj said. Is that—

airship engines, Center said. probability approaching unity. approaching from the southwest, throttled down for concealment; the wind is from that direction. four kilometers and closing.

Heinrich turned his head. A light flashed in the darkness above the ground, a powerful signal-lamp clicking a sequence of four dots and dashes.

* * *

"Damn," Gerta Hosten said mildly.

The muzzle flashes down below and ahead outlined the Land position as clearly as a map in a war-college kriegspiel session; you could even tell the players, because the Imperials' black-powder discharges were duller and redder. It was fortunate that dirigibles had proven to be more resistant to fire than expected; punctures in the gas cells tended to leak up, rather than lingering and mixing with oxygen . . . usually.

A night drop—another first. Well, orders were orders, and it was Heinrich down there. She'd really regret losing Heinrich.

"We could do better with a bombing run," the commander of the dirigible muttered. "And parachuting in the ammunition they need."

"With a four-thousand-meter error radius, Horst?" Gerta asked absently, tightening a buckle on her harness.

"That's only an average," he said defensively. "The Sieg usually does better than that."

Airdrops of supplies to cut off forces had proven invaluable; unfortunately, an embarrassing percentage had dropped into enemy positions.

"Behfel ist behfel," she said, which was an unanswerable argument among the Chosen.

"Coming up on drop," the helm said. "Five minutes."

The Sieg was drifting with the wind and would come right in over the position, if the wind stayed cooperative.

This is going to be tricky, she thought as she ducked back down the corridor and into the hold. The lights cast a faint greenish glow over it; there was little spare space, even though her unit had taken heavy casualties—the problem with being a fire brigade was that you got sent to a lot of hot places. A good deal of the crowding was the cargo load: rifle ammunition, boxes of machine-gun belts, mortar shells, grenades. Just what you wanted to drop with you into the darkness and a firefight,

"Ready for it. On the dropmaster's signal," she said.

The waiting . . . she'd expected it to get better, after the first time. It didn't; you didn't ever get used to it.

"Now!"

A brief roar of propellers as the engines backed to kill the Sieg's drift. They all swayed, and the pallets of crates creaked dangerously. Then the hatchways in the floor of the gondola snapped open.

The ground was close below, even in the gloom. Crates strapped to cushioned pallets slid out the gaping holes in the decking, to crash down and set the airship surging upward. Gas valved with a hollow booming roar as she leaped for the dangling line and slid downward, the ridged sisal of the cable biting into gloved hands and the composition soles of her boots.

"Oh, shays," she muttered.

It was a good thing that Land military doctrine called for decentralized command, particularly in all-Chosen units, because unless her eyes deceived her she was sliding right down on top of an Imperial gatling-gun crew. An alert one, because they were turning the muzzle of their weapon towards her, the line of flashes strobing as it turned . . .

Thump. She hit the ground and rolled reflexively, then rolled again, trying for dead ground where the gatling could not bear. Chosen died behind her, seconds too slow. The gatling ceased fire for an instant as another group hit the ground and opened up with rifles and machine carbines. Gerta unslung her own weapon and jacked the slide.

* * *

"Hell!"

Jeffrey Farr rolled frantically as a one-ton pallet of cargo crashed out of the sky towards him. It landed, slithered downslope, and pitched on its side, resting against a gnarled dead grapevine. The outline of the dirigible was suddenly clear against the stars, the diesels bellowing and the exhausts red spikes in the night. For an instant the heavy oily stink of the exhaust overrode the other smells of the night battle, the fireworks scent of black powder and death.

He rolled again as a dark figure lunged out of the shadows at him behind the point of an eighteen-inch socket bayonet, an Imperial infantryman. Jeffrey's pistol came free in his hand as the bayonet went skunk into the rocky clay next to him, and his finger tightened on the trigger. In the red light of the muzzle blast he could see the contorted face of the Imperial soldier for a flickering second, before the man dropped away, folding around his belly. Jeffrey froze for an instant; he'd just killed a man, an ally . . .

Happens more often than you'd think, Raj thought/ said crisply. Get moving, lad. Time enough for nightmares later.

Something went pop overhead. Actinic blue-white light flooded the field.

* * *

The man behind the gatling pitched forward; his face jammed the mechanism as the cranker kept grinding for an instant. Several of the crew turned, snatching up their carbines. Gerta went down on one knee, snuggled the butt of the machine-carbine into her shoulder, and began shooting. The range was less than thirty meters, point-blank if you knew the weapon. Someone was shooting at the crew from the other side, a rifle by the sound of it. That distracted them the few seconds necessary to cut down half of them with four short bursts. Muzzle flare from the Koegelman was blinding in the darkness, enough to make her eyes water and leave afterimages of a bar of fire dancing before them.

The drum of the machine-carbine clicked empty just as the parachute flare went off overhead; whoever had been supporting her wasn't anymore, and the Imperials stopped trying to get their jammed gatling going again. Six of them charged her; no time to reload one of the cumbersome drums. She blinked her eyes frantically in the jerky shadows, waiting tensely.

They were trying for her with cold steel, probably out of ammunition or saving their last shots for point-blank range in this uncertain light. The first lunged, almost throwing himself forward behind the point, eyes wild. Gerta buttstroked aside the bayonet and slammed the steel plate into his throat. Cartilage crunched in and he fell backward, choking, knocked off his feet by the combined impetus of her blow and his own rush. She dropped the carbine and drew the long fighting knife slung at the small of her back with one hand and her automatic with the other.

One. Coming at her with his carbine clubbed, grasped by the barrel. Wait, wait. She went in under the blow, felt it fan the air inches from her forehead, and ripped the long blade upward. It slid in under the left ribs, sawing upward until the point was through lung and heart. Weight slumped onto her right hand.

Gerta pivoted with the body before her, and the man behind hesitated an instant. She shot over the shoulder of the twitching corpse. The bullet hit the bridge of the Imperial's nose and snapped his head backward as if it had been kicked by a mule. A bullet thumped into her meat-shield; she fired again, again, until the twelve rounds in her automatic were exhausted.

I'm alive, she thought, staggering and letting the dead weight slip off the end of her knife. She took a step and stumbled; something had gouged a groove across her left thigh and she hadn't even noticed. Gerta pushed away the pain while her hands automatically ejected the spent clip and reloaded the pistol. She moved forward, limping, up the slope to where the bulk of her unit should—should—be. Another parachute flare burst, and she threw herself down and crawled as machine-gun bullets whipcracked through the air where she had been. Spurts of sand and rock flicked into her face, and the wound was starting to hurt. The Land position ought to be just ahead . . . assuming there was anyone left alive besides that trigger-happy gunner who'd just come within a hair of sawing her in half.

"What a ratfuck."

* * *

Boots nearly landed on him as the dirigible turned away. Something whipped across his body, hard enough to hurt: a sisal cable. Dozens of others were dropping down out of the night, and human forms were sliding down them. Two more nearly trampled on him, ignoring Jeffrey and the corpse in their rush; they did use the body of the man he'd just killed as a springboard. A half-dozen grappled with the big pallet that had nearly crushed him. Seconds later they were stripping out a heavy water-cooled machine gun with its tripod and ammunition, slapping it down and opening up on the masses of Imperial infantry caught charging to finish off the Land blocking force. Tracers whipped out through the darkness, iridescent green, like bars of St. Elmo's fire. Infantry shook themselves out into their units and swept down the Land line, winkling out Imperials who'd made it that far.

Damn, I've never seen troops move that fast, he thought. They were in full marching kit, and they moved like leopards.

an all-chosen unit, Center observed. Jeffrey's vision took on a flat brightness. identifying markers—The brightness strobed over unit badges.

They've been culling out the weakest ten percent of their own breed every generation for four hundred years, Raj said. And skimming off the top one or two percent of their Protégés at the same time. You'd expect it to show.

Jeffrey shuddered, even with rounds still splitting the air above him. It's a good thing there aren't more of them, he thought. There'd be no stopping them.

if there were more, Center observed, it would be impossible to support so large and so specialized a nonproductive class.

Always a lot fewer carnosauroids than grazers, Raj amplified.

The image that came with the thought made him shudder a moment even then: something man-sized and whip-slender, leaping to slash a bloody gouge in an ox's side with a sickle-shaped claw on its hind foot, like a fighting cock grown big enough to scythe his belly open.

Heinrich was back on his feet, bellowing orders. Protégé troopers broke open boxes of ammunition, dashing back to their positions with cotton bandoliers around their necks and boxes of machine-gun belts in their hands.

Jeffrey did a three-point spin at a sound behind him, landing on hip and one hand. He froze as he found himself looking down the use-pitted muzzle of a Land automatic. A Chosen woman with captain's insignia on her field-gray rose; short for one of that race, and dark, he could tell that even in the moonlight. Blood was runneling black down one thigh, where the uniform had been ripped open by a grazing shot.

"What the hell is a Santy doing here?" she said, standing, favoring the wounded leg a little.

"You!" Heinrich said, turning, a broad grin on his square face. "I might have known."

"I was the closest—the marching reliefs ought to get here about dawn," the woman said. "What the hell is a Santy officer doing with you, Heinrich?"

Closer, he could see the General Staff Intelligence Commando flashes on cuff and collar. Must be

gerta hosten, captain, intelligence branch, Center supplied helpfully.

A dangerous one, son, Raj said. Be very careful.

Jeffrey could have told that. The eyes fastened on him were the coldest he'd ever seen, colder than the far side of the moon.

"Oh, we picked him up in Corona," Heinrich said.

"You should have turned him over to us, or the Fourth Bureau."

"Well, he's a neutral—and a relative of sorts, Johan's foster-brother. At loose ends, the Santy legation in Corona stopped a couple of thousand-kilo bombs with its roof."

"Jeffrey Farr," Gerta said; she seemed to be filing and sorting information behind her eyes. "He's a spook, Heinrich. You ought to shoot him."

"I haven't been showing him the plans for the new torpedo," Heinrich said, a slight exasperation in his voice.

Gerta shrugged, and holstered her automatic. Jeffrey felt a slight prickle of relief. Unlikely that she'd just shoot him down as he stood—

probability 27%, ±7, Center said.

but it was still a relief. She shrugged.



"It's your command. Let's get this ratfuck organized, shall we?"

"Ya." Heinrich turned his head slightly, towards Jeffrey: "My wife, Captain Gerta Hosten." Back to her: "What's the theater situation?"

"FUBAR, but we're winning—not exactly the way we expected to, but we are. Once this position's blocked, General Summelworden's got them in the kettle and we can turn up the heat; Ciano next. Where do you want my machine guns? And get me something to stop this leak, would you? I can't keel over just yet."

"Automatics over by—"

The conversation slid into technicalities. Heinrich waved at a passing medic who then knelt to put a pressure bandage on Gerta's thigh.

Ciano next, Jeffrey thought. That's going to be ugly.
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