The blast furnace shrieked like a woman in childbirth, magnified ten thousand times. A long tongue of flame reached upward into the night, throwing reddish-orange light across the new steelworks. John nodded thoughtfully as the bell-cap was lowered down onto the great cylinder, like a cork into a bottle taller than a six-story building. The flames died down as the cap intercepted the uprush of superheated gases from the throat of the furnace, channeling them through pipes where they were cleaned and distributed to heat ovens and boilers. A stink of cinders and sulfur filled the air, and the acrid nose-crackling smell of heated metal. Gravel crunched under his feet as he turned away, the small party of engineers and managers trailing at his heels.
A train of railcarts rumbled by, full of reddish iron ore, limestone, and black-brown coke in careful proportions. The carts slowed, then jerked and picked up a little speed as the hooks beneath them caught the endless chain belt that would haul them up the steep slope to the lip of the furnace.
"Nice counterweight system you've installed, sir," the chief engineer said. "Saves time on feeding the furnace."
John nodded. Courtesy of Center, he thought.
"Saves labor, too," the engineer said. "God knows we're short."
"How are those refugees shaping up?" John said.
"Better'n I'd have thought, sir, for Wop hayseeds. They're not afraid of shedding some sweat, that's for sure."
"Pay's better than stoop work in the fields," John said.
A lot of the Imperial refugees who'd left the camps outside the cities on the south shore of the Gut ended up as migrant workers following the crops across Santander. They'd jumped at the chance of mill work. A couple of them snatched off their hats and bowed as he passed, teeth gleaming white against their soot-darkened olive skins. John touched the gold head of his cane to his own silk topper; luckily white spats were out of fashion, or Pia would be even more upset than she was likely to be with him anyway.
"No damned strikes, either," the plant's manager said.
"Shouldn't be, with the wages we pay," John said.
Off to the left a huge cradle of molten iron was moving, slung under a trackway that ran down the center of the shed. It dropped fat white sparks, bright even against the arc lights, then halted and tipped a stream of white-hot incandescence into the waiting maw of the open-hearth furnace. Further back, beyond the soaking pits for the ingots, the machinery of the rolling mill slammed and hummed, long shafts of hot steel stretching and forming.
The engineer nodded towards them. "We're fully up to speed on the rail mill," he said. "If you can keep the orders coming in, we can keep the steel going out."
John nodded. "Don't worry about the orders," he said. "Plenty of new lines going in, what with the double-tracking program. And the Chosen are buying for their new lines in the Empire."
That brought the conversation behind him to a halt. He looked back at the expressions of clenched disapproval and grinned; it was not a pleasant thing to see.
"You're selling to the Chosen?" the engineer said.
"I prefer to think of it as getting the Chosen to finance our expansion program," John replied.
What's more, it's good cover. Several times over. It gave him a good excuse for traveling to the Land, which helped with his ostensible work as a double agent in the employ of the Chosen. The shipments were also splendid cover for agents and arms to the underground resistance.
"And besides the sheet-steel rolls, you'll be getting heavy boring and turning lathes soon. From the Armory Mills in Santander City."
That rocked the man back on his heels. "Ordnance?" he said. "That'll cost, sir. We'll have to learn by doing, and it's specialist work."
John nodded. "Don't worry about the orders," he said again. "Let's say a voice whispered in my ear that demand is going to increase."
He touched the cane to his hat brim again and shook hands all around. His senior employees had learned to respect John Hosten's "hunches," even if they didn't understand them. Then walked across the vacant yard to where his car was waiting by the plant gate under a floodlight.
"Back home, sir?" Harry Smith said, looking up from polishing the headlamps with a chamois cloth.
"Home," he said. "For a few days."
"Ah," the ex-Marine in the chauffeur's uniform said. "We're going somewhere, then, sir?"
John nodded and stepped into the passenger compartment of the car as Smith opened it for him, tossing hat and cane to one of the seats. There were six, facing each other at front and rear. One held Maurice Hosten, sleeping with his head in Maurice Farr's lap; the older man looked down at his five-year-old namesake fondly, stroking the silky black hair that spilled across the dark blue of his uniform coat. Pia glanced up, with a welcoming smile that held a bit of a frown.
"Even on your son's birthday, you cannot keep from business?" she said.
"Only a little bit of business, darling," he said, settling back against the padded leather of the seat; it sighed for him. "Quietly, or you'll wake him."
Maurice Farr chuckled. "After the amount of cake this young man put away, not to mention the lemonade, the spun candy, the pony rides, the carousel, and the Ferris wheel, a guncotton charge couldn't wake him—you should know that by now."
"He does; he's just using that as an excuse." Pia's hand took John's and squeezed away the sting of the words. "This one, you wave the word 'duty' in front of him, and he reacts like a fish leaping for a worm."
"And the hook's barbed," John said ruefully, nodding to Smith through the window that joined the passenger compartment and the driver's position up ahead. The car moved forward with a hiss of vented steam.
"Your lady's been running an interesting notion past me," Admiral Farr said.
"Women's," Pia corrected.
"Women's Auxiliary?" John finished.
"Yes. If we get into an all-out war with the Land, we could use it. Though I'm not sure how the public would react; there was a lot of bad feeling during the agitation over the franchise, a decade or so ago. People claiming it was the first step to Chosen corruption and so forth."
"I don't think that'll be much of a problem," John said thoughtfully. Center provided the probable breakdown of public sentiment in various combinations of circumstance. "After all, Pia's idea is to have women take jobs that release men to fight. There are already plenty of women in the nursing corps—have been since the last war with the Union, you know, whatshername with the lantern and all that."
"And if the big war happens, we'll need every fighting man we can get," the admiral said thoughtfully. "We'll not win that one without a damned big army, and the fleet'll have to expand, too. We won't be able to spare men for typing and filing and whatnot."
"And factory work," Pia said. "First, we must have a committee—women of consequence, to be respectable, but also of . . . energy."
"If it's energy you want, what about your sisters-in-law?" Maurice said. "If it's one thing my daughters have, it's energy . . . oh."
Pia nodded. "Them I talk to first," she said. "They are young, but there is time."
"It'll be a while," John said. Pia nodded; his foster-father looked at him a little strangely, struck by the certainty of the tone. "But it's not too early to get started laying the groundwork."
"Son, for a man of thirty, sometimes you sound pretty damned old," Maurice said. He touched his graying temples. "Maybe I'd better retire, and leave the field to you younger bucks."
"I don't think you can be spared, Father," John said. "And . . . it isn't all that long until the balloon goes up."
"Is it indeed?" Maurice Farr said.
"The situation in the Union's getting pretty tense," John said. "The People's Front may win the next election there."
"The Chosen certainly won't like that," Maurice said. "I'm not too certain I do either. The Union's not going to solve its problems by an attack on property . . . although the way the wealthy act there is a standing invitation to that sort of thing."
John nodded. "The Chosen have a lot of influence in certain circles there," he said. "And I don't think those circles are going to lie down and die just because they lose an election. It'll take a couple of years for things to boil over, but the Land is certainly heating up the pot."
Maurice Farr blinked slowly, his face slowly losing the shape of a grandfather's and becoming an admiral's. "They can't get supplies into the Union except by sea," he said thoughtfully.
John shook his head. "We can't fight them over aiding one faction in the Union," he said. "Western provinces wouldn't go for it."
"All that good soil softens the brain, I think," Farr said.
"Amazing what being a couple of hundred miles from the action will do. And they've always resisted the easterners' attempts to get the Republic as a whole involved in Union affairs; it'll take a while for them to realize this is different."
Pia looked up at him. "This is why you must travel to the Union, my love?" she said.
John sighed unhappily. "Jeffrey and I will be in and out of there for years now," he said. "Until the crisis comes. But don't worry, it shouldn't be particularly risky. We're only advising and playing politics, after all."
* * *
Jeffrey Farr had never liked the Union del Est very much. For one thing, the waiters, innkeepers, clerks, and such made it a point of pride to be surly, and he'd never liked seeing a job done badly. For another, the women didn't wash or change their underclothes often enough to suit him; he supposed that that was an academic point now that he was a married man with a nine-year-old daughter and another child on the way, but the memory rankled . . . and she looked so good, before and after she took off her drawers. But phew!
The men didn't wash much, either, but that was less personal.
Still, the coastal city of Borreaux looked well enough; the terrain was less mountainous than most of the southern shore of the Gut, a long narrow plain flanking a river between low mountains. The plain was covered with vineyards, mostly; the foothills of the mountains were gray-green with olives, and the upper slopes still heavily forested with oak and silver fir despite centuries of cutting for buildings and ship timber and barrels. The town itself sprawled along the river in a tangle of docks and basins, backed by broad, straight streets lined with trees and handsome three-story blocks of buildings in a uniform cream limestone. The slums weren't quite as bad as in most Union cities and were kept decently out of sight. The rooftop terrace of this restaurant was quite pleasant—sun shining through the striped awnings, servers in white aprons bearing food and drink on trays. . . . . . and just to spoil it, three Chosen officers in gray were at a table nearby, two men and a woman, and two local ladies. The Land aristocrats were plowing their way through a five-course meal, and punishing a couple of bottles of the local wine fairly hard. Or rather, the two men were, and laughing occasionally with their local companions, who were either extremely high-priced talent or the minor gentlewomen they appeared to be. The Chosen woman was sipping at a single glass of the wine and looking around. Medium-height, dark hair and eyes . . .
Christ, it's Gerta! Jeffrey thought, with a jolt of alarm that turned the hunger in his stomach to sour churning. Why didn't you tell me?
Would have, lad, if it'd been an emergency. Don't want you to lose your alertness, though. We can't always notice things for you.
He tried to keep a poker face, but Gerta must have seen some change. She raised the wineglass slightly, and an eyebrow with it. The mannerism reminded him of John a little—but then, they'd been raised together. It startled him sometimes to remember that John had been born among the Chosen. If it wasn't for that clubfoot . . .
A man's looks were more than muscle and bone; the personality within shaped them, everything from the set of his mouth to the way he walked. It took a moment for Jeffrey to realize that the tall man in the uniform of a Land general was John. The face was the same, but full of a quiet, grim deadliness. The city behind him was familiar, too: Borreaux, but in ruins. A dirigible floated overhead, and columns of Land troops were marching up from the docks.
John hosten is in the upper 0.3% of the human ability curve, Center said. in the absence of his disability, and assuming no intervention on our part, the probability of his achieving general rank by this date in his timeline is 87%, ±4. probability of becoming chief of general staff, 73%, ±6. probability of becoming head of chosen council of state, 61%, ±8. probability of chosen conquest of visager increases by 17% ±5 in that eventuality.
Jeffrey gave a slight internal shudder. With no clubfoot—and no Center—he and John would probably have spent their lives fighting each other.
Shut up, Raj and Jeffrey thought simultaneously.
The waiter arrived at last, and laid a bowl of the famous Borreaux fish stew before him; trivalves in their shells, chunks of lizard tail, pieces of fish, all in a broth rich with garlic, tomatoes, and spices. It smelled wonderful; it would have been even more wonderful if the waiter hadn't had a rim of grime under his thumbnail, and the thumb hadn't been dipping into the stew. Jeffrey forced himself to ignore that, and what the kitchen was probably like; he poured himself a glass of white wine and tore a chunk of bread off the end of a long narrow loaf. Say what you liked about the Unionaise, they did know how to cook.
And it was a damned unlucky chance that Chosen officers, and Gerta of all people, happened to be right here when he was expecting—
A small, slight man came up to Jeffrey's table and sat, taking off his beret and stubbing out a villainous-smelling cigarette in an ashtray. His eyes flicked sideways toward the Chosen three tables away.
So that they couldn't lip-read. Offhand, he thought that the two male Chosen were straight-legs; Gerta certainly wasn't, though, and might well have been trained in that particular skill. As to what they were doing here . . .
"And we have business," Jeffrey went on, spooning up some of the fish stew. "Damn, but that's good," he said mildly.
"Vincen Deshambre," the thin man said. Jeffrey took his hand for a moment. "Delegate of the Parti Uniste Travailleur." He slid a small flat envelope out of his jacket and across the table.
He spoke fair Fransay, and read it well; the Union del Est had been the Republic's main foreign enemy until a generation or so ago, with skirmishes even more recently. Santander military men were expected to learn the language, for interrogations and captured documents, if nothing else.
Vincen looked over again at the table with the Chosen. "Bitches," he said, his voice suddenly like something that spent most of its time curled up on warm rocks.
Jeffrey looked up, raising his eyebrow. Only one of the Chosen could possibly qualify.
"Not the foreigners," Vincen said. A light sheen broke out across his high forehead, up to the edge of the thinning hair. "They're just pirates. If we were united, we could laugh at them."
I don't think so, Jeffrey thought. Alone, the Union against the Land of the Chosen would be a match between the hammer and the egg. Not quite as easy a victim as the Empire had been, of course. For one thing the terrain was worse, for another it was farther away, and for a third the country wasn't quite so backward. Still, I see his point. And the Land wasn't about to simply invade the Union. That would mean war with Santander, and the Chosen weren't ready . . . yet.
Neither was Santander.
"Those whores are what's wrong, them and those like them."
Jeffrey did a quick scan across the other table, then turned and let Center freeze the picture in front of him, magnifying until they all seemed to be at arm's length.
"I don't think they're professionals," he said.
Vincen flushed more deeply; it was a little disconcerting to see a man actually sweating with hate.
"Elite," he said, using the Fransay term for the upper classes. "Merdechiennes are losing their power, so they call in foreigners to prop it up for them."
"Well, two can play at that game," Jeffrey said.
The Unionaise gave him a sharp look Santander had taken several substantial bites out of the western border of the Union, in the old wars. Jeffrey smiled warmly.
"We're not territorially expansive . . . not anymore, at least."
Of course, much of the western Union was an economic satellite of the Republic these days, and the Travailleur—Worker—party didn't like it one little bit. Despite the fact that without that investment, its members would still be scratching out a living farming rocks as metayers, paying half the crop to a landlord.
Vincen grunted. "As you say. We have the evidence now. General Libert is definitely in correspondence with Land agents. They offer transport for his Legion troops back to the mainland."
Center called up a map for Jeffrey. The Union del Est covered a big chunk of the southern lobe of Visager's main continent, between Santander and the sort-of-republic of Sierra. South of it wasn't much but ocean right down to the south polar ice cap, but there were a series of fairly substantial islands, some independent, some held by the Republic or the Union.
"Libert's on Errif, isn't he? That's quite a ways out, seven hundred kilometers or so. Can't your navy squadron in Bassin du Sud keep him bottled up?"
The Legion were the best troops the Union had, and mostly foreigners at that. They were the ones who'd finally beaten the natives on Errif, after a war where the Union regulars nearly got thrown back into the sea And there were large units of Errifan natives under Union officers on the islands too, now. They'd probably be about as tough fighting against the Union government as they had been in the initial war.
"The navy is loyal to the government, yes," Vincen said. "But the Land, they offer air transport if there is a matching military uprising on the mainland."
Jeffrey whistled silently, remembering the air assault on Corona in the opening stages of the Imperial war. Can't fault the Chosen on audacity, he thought. Errif was a lot further from their bases. Overfly the Union, he thought, calculating distances. They could at that; the Landisch Luftanza had a concession to run a route that way. Refuel at sea, from ships brought round the continent in international waters. Yes, it's possible. Just. You had to be ready to take chances in war; otherwise it turned into a series of slugging matches. Big risks could have big payoffs . . . or disaster, if things went into the pot.
"Why don't you recall him and jail him?" Jeffrey asked. "Before he has a chance to rebel."
Vincen clenched his fists. "Because this coalition so-called government has even less balls than it has brains!" His half-howl brought stares from the tables around them, and he lowered his voice. "Us, the damned syndicalists, the regional autonomists—everyone but the twice-damned anarchists and separatists, and name of a dog! We have to keep them sweet, too, because we need their votes in the Chambre du Delegats."
He made a disgusted sound through his teeth, hands waving. Unionaise were like Imperials that way: tie their hands and they were struck dumb as a fish.
"Last year, we could have arrested him. Arrested all the traitors in uniform. What did our so-called government do? Pensioned half of them off! Gave them pensions wrung out of the workers' sweat, so that they could plot at their leisure."
"'Never do an enemy a small injury,'" Jeffrey quoted. "Old Imperial saying." Very old, from what Center said.
Vincen's small eyes were hot with agreement. "We should have executed the lot of them," he said. "Now it's too late. The government is holding off on General"—he virtually spat the word—"Libert in the hopes that if they don't provoke him, he'll do nothing."
"Stupid," Jeffrey said in agreement. "They're also probably afraid that if they send troops to arrest him, they'll go over to him instead."
Vincen nodded jerkily. "There are loyal troops—the Assault Guards, for instance—but yes, the ministry is concerned with that."
"Which brings us down to practicalities," Jeffrey said. "If there is a military uprising with Land support, what exactly do you plan to do about it?"
"We will fight!"
"Yes, but what will you fight with?"
The little Unionaise linked his fingers on the table. "We have confidence that part of the army at least will remain loyal. Beyond that, there are the regional militias."
Jeffrey nodded. He had no confidence in them; for one thing, they had even less in the way of real training than the provincial militias back home. Some of the states of the Union were run by the conservative opposition parties, and thereby pro-Chosen. Even in the ones that weren't, too many of the militias were under the influence of local magnates, almost all of whom supported the conservative opposition parties, as did the Church here. The Church here was a great landed magnate, come to that.
"And we'll hand out arms to the party militias of the coalition, and to the workers in the streets—let's see how the Regulars like being drowned in a sea of armed workers."
"It's good to see you're in earnest," Jeffrey said. It all sounded like a prescription for a bloodbath, but that was preferable to another swift Chosen triumph, he supposed. "For my part, I can assure you that my government will declare any outright intervention in internal Union affairs an unfriendly act."
That meant less than it should; semi-clandestine intervention wouldn't provoke Santander retaliation. The Republic simply wasn't ready for war, either physically or psychologically.
"And I think we can guarantee that you'll be allowed to purchase weapons. Speaking in my private capacity, you'll also find some of our banks sympathetic in the matter of loans. Provided your government is equally reasonable."
"I suppose you'll want concessions. . . ."
They settled down to dicker; when Vincen left, the expression on his face was marginally less sour. Fortunately, the Chosen officers left a little later. The men went with their local companions; one of them stopped to say a final word with Gerta Hosten. She laughed and shook her head. The man shrugged, and the girl with him pouted. When they had left, Gerta picked up her wineglass and came over to Jeffreys table.
"You're welcome," he said as she seated herself without asking permission.
The hard dark face showed a slight smile. "We meet again. A pleasure. It would have been an even bigger one if Heinrich had had the sense to shoot you four years ago. I told him you were a spook."
"I'm here on vacation," Jeffrey said, smiling back despite himself. "Besides, Heinrich doesn't have your suspicious mind."
"Which is why he's a straight-leg. Too damned good-natured for his own good." Gerta raised her wineglass. "These Unionaise make some pretty things," she said as the cut crystal sparkled in the evening sun. "And they make good wine. But they couldn't organize sailors into a whorehouse."
"Well, that's your problem," Jeffrey said. "You're the ones with the training mission here."
"Purely as private contractors, on leave from our regular duties," Gerta said piously.
"And I'm a tourist," Jeffrey said.
Unwillingly, he joined in Gerta's chuckle.
"You know the best thing about competing with you Santies?" Gerta asked. When he shook his head, she continued: "It's not that you're short of guts, because you aren't, or because you're stupid, because you aren't that, either. It's that you're never, ever ready." She finished her wine and rose.
"And we're going to win this round," she said.
"Why's that, the invincible destiny of the Chosen race?"
"Invincible muleshit," she said cheerfully, with a grin that might have come out of deep water, rolling over for the killing bite. "The reason that we're going to win this one is that we're trying to help fuck this place up—and the Unionaise are positive geniuses at that, anyway."