The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake

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There were no Land dirigibles in the air over the city of Skinrit. Commander Horst Raske felt a little uneasy without the quiver of stamped-aluminum deckplates beneath his feet. Several of the other Air Service captains around him looked as if they felt the same, and everyone in the Chosen party looked unnatural out of uniform—still more as they were in something resembling Unionaise civil dress. Raske kept his horse to a quick walk and spent the time looking around.

"Bad air currents here," he muttered.

Several of his companions nodded. Skinrit itself was nothing remarkable, a little port about three steps up from a fishing village, smelling of stale water inside the breakwater, and strong stinks from the packing and canning plants that were its main industries—the cold currents down here below the main continent were heavy with sea life. Hundreds of trawlers crowded the quays, and battered-looking tramp steamers to take their cargoes of salted and frozen and canned fish to the north. The area around the town was hilly farmland and pasture; most of the buildings were in the whitewashed Unionaise style and quite new—built since their predecessors were burnt in the Errifean Revolt ten years ago. Around them reared real mountains, ten thousand feet and more, their peaks gleaming salt-white with year-round snow, their sides dark with forests of oak, maple, birch, and pine.

Vicious, he thought. Convection currents, crosswinds, unpredictable gusts. Oathtaking is bad, but this will be worse.

None of the crowds in the street seemed to be taking much notice of them, which was all to the good. Most were Unionaise themselves, sailors or settlers here; the remainder Errife in long robes, striped or checked or splotched in the patterns of their clans. Occasionally soldiers would come through, usually walking in pairs with their rifles slung, and always surrounded by an empty bubble of fear-inspired space. They wore the khaki battledress of the Union Legion, and its fore-and-aft peaked cap with a tassel. Raske thought that last a little silly, but there was nothing laughable about the troops themselves; quite respectable, about as tough-looking as Protégé infantry, looking straight ahead as they swung through the crowd.

They moved out of the street into the main plaza of Skinrit, past the legion HQ with its motto in black stone above the door: Vive le Mart—Long Live Death. A couple of Errife skulls were nailed to the lintel, with scraps of weathered flesh and their long braided hair still clinging to them. It was a reassuring sight, rather homelike, in fact. . . .

The governor's palace was large and lumpy, in a Unionaise style long obsolete. Errif had been a Unionaise possession in theory for some time, although they'd held little of the ten thousand square miles of rock, mountain, and forest until a few decades ago. Just enough to stop the pirate raids that had once been the terror of the whole southern coast of the continent; a few Errife corsairs had gotten as far north as the Land, although they'd seldom returned to the islands alive.

Servants showed them into a square room with benches, probably some sort of guard chamber.

"Masquerade's over," Raske said.

"Good!" one of his officers said.

She stripped off the Unionaise clothing with venom; back in the Land, only Protégé women wore skirts. They switched into the plain gray uniforms in their packs and holstered their weapons. The lack of those had made them feel considerably more unnatural than the foreign clothing. Gerta Hosten gave him a bland smile.

"You do the talking, Horst," she said.

He nodded stiffly. It wasn't his specialty, airships were. On the other hand, a Unionaise general would probably be more comfortable talking to a man, and they needed this Libert . . . for the moment.

"Why on earth didn't they send an infantry officer?" he asked plaintively.

"Behfel ist Behfel, Horst. This is the transport phase. They are going to send an infantry officer, once Libert's on the ground and we start sending in our own people. "'Volunteers,' you know . . ."

"Who's the lucky man?"

"Heinrich Hosten."

* * *

Horst Raske smiled blandly at the Unionaise officer. General Libert was a short, swarthy, tubby little man with a big nose. He looked slightly ridiculous in the khaki battledress of the Union Legion, down to the scarlet sash around his ample waist under the leather belt and the little tassel on his peaked cap.

The Chosen airman reminded himself that the same tubby little man had restored Union rule here when the Errife war-bands were burning and killing in the outskirts of Skingest itself, and then taken the war into their own mountains and pacified the whole island for the first time. The way he'd put down the miners' revolt on the mainland had been almost Chosen-like.

Libert abruptly sat behind the broad polished table, signaling to the staff officers and aides behind him. Raske saluted and took the seat opposite; Errife servants in white kaftans laid out coffee. He recognized the taste: Kotenberg blend, relatives of his owned land there.

"We agree," Libert said after a moments silence.

Raske raised an eyebrow. "That simple?"

"You charge a high price, but after the fiasco at Bassin du Sud, time is pressing." He frowned. "You would have done better to be more generous; the Land's interests are not served by an unfriendly government in Unionvil."

"Nor by a premature war with Santander, which is a distinct risk if we back you fully," Raske pointed out. "That requires compensation, besides your gratitude."

Libert allowed himself a small frosty smile, an echo of Raske's own. They both knew what gratitude was worth in the affairs of nations.

"Very well," Libert said. He held a hand up, and one of the aides put a pen in it. "Here." He signed the documents before him.

Raske did likewise when they'd been pushed across the mahogany to him.

"When can we begin loading?" Libert said. "And how quickly?"

"I have twenty-seven Tiger-class transports waiting." Raske said. "One fully equipped infantry battalion each; say, seven hundred infantry with their personal weapons and the organic crew-served machine guns and mortars. Ten hours to Bassin du Sud or vicinity, an hour at each end for turnaround, and an hour for fueling. Say, just under two flights a day; minus the freightage for artillery, ammunition, immediate rations, and ten percent for downtime—which there will be. Call it four days to land the thirty thousand troops."

Libert nodded in satisfaction. "Good. This is crucial; my Legionnaires and Errife regulars are the only reliable force we have in the southern Union. We should be able to get the first flight underway by sundown, don't you think?"

Raske blinked slightly. Beside him, Gerta Hosten was smiling. It looked as if they'd picked the right mule for this particular journey.

* * *

Jeffrey Farr closed his eyes. Everyone else in the room might think it was fatigue—he'd been working for ten hours straight—and he was tired. What he wanted, though, was reconnaissance.

As always, the view through his brother's eyes was a little disconcerting, even after nearly twenty years of practice. The colors were all a little off, from the difference in perceptions. And the way the view moved under someone else's control was difficult, too. Your own kept trying to linger, or to focus on something different.

At least most of the time. Right now they both had their eyes glued to the view of the dirigible through the binoculars John was holding. A few sprays of pine bough hid a little of it, but the rest was all too plain. Hundreds of soldiers in Union Legion khaki were clinging to ropes that ran to loops along its lower sides, holding it a few yards from the stretch of country road ten miles west of Bassin du Sud. It bobbled and jerked against their hold; he could see the valves on the top centerline opening and closing as it vented hydrogen. The men leaping out of the cargo doors were not in khaki. They wore the long striped and hooded kaftans of Errife warriors. Over each robe was Unionaise standard field harness and pack with canteen, entrenching tool, bayonet and cartridge pouches, but the barbarian mercenaries also tucked the sheaths of their long curved knives through the waistbelts. John swung the glasses to catch a grinning brown hawk-face as one stumbled on landing and picked himself up.

The Errife were happy; their officers had given them orders to do something they'd longed to do for generations: invade the mainland, slaughter the faranj, kill, rape, and loot.

How many? Jeffrey asked.

I think they've landed at least three thousand since dawn, maybe five. Hard to tell, they were deploying a perimeter by the time I got here.

Jeffrey thought for a moment. What chance of getting the Unionaise in Bassin du Sud to mount a counterattack on the landing zone?

Somewhere between zip and fucking none, John thought; the overtones of bitterness came through well in the mental link. They all took two days off to party when the forts in the city surrendered. Plus having a celebratory massacre of anyone they could even imagine having supported the coup.

Don't worry, Jeffrey said. If Libert's men take the town, there'll be a slaughter to make that look like a Staff College bun fight. What chance do you have of getting the locals to hold them outside the port?

Somewhere between . . . no, that's not fair. We've finally gotten the ship unloaded, and there's bad terrain between here and there. Maybe we can make them break their teeth.

Slow them down, Jeffrey said. I need time, brother. Buy me time.

He opened his eyes. The space around the map table was crowded and stinging blue with the smoke of the vile tobacco Unionaise preferred. Some of the people there were Unionaise military, both the red armbands on their sleeves and the rank tabs on their collars new. Their predecessors were being tumbled into mass graves outside Unionvil's suburbs even now. The rest were politicians of various types; there were even a few women. About the only thing everyone had in common was the suspicion with which they looked at each other, and a tendency to shout and wave their fists.

"Gentlemen," he said. A bit more sharply: "Gentlemen!"

Relative silence fell, and the eyes swung to him. Christ, he thought. I'm a goddamned foreigner, for God's sake.

That's the point, lad. You're outside their factions, or most of them. Use it.

"Gentlemen, the situation is grave. We have defeated the uprising here in Unionvil, Borreaux, and Nanes."

His finger traced from the northwestern coast to the high plateau of the central Union and the provinces to the east along the Santander border.

"But the rebels hold Islvert, Sanmere, Marsai on the southeast coast, and are landing troops from Errife near Bassin du Sud."

"Are you sure?" His little friend Vincen Deshambres had ended up as a senior member of the Emergency Committee of Public Safety, which wasn't surprising at all.

"Citizen Comrade Deshambres, I'm dead certain. Troops of the Legion and Errife regulars are being shuttled across from Errif by Land dirigibles. Over ten thousand are ashore now, and they'll have the equivalent of two divisions by the end of the week."

The shouting started again; this time it was Vincen who quieted it. "Go on, General Farr."

Colonel, Jeffrey thought; but then, Vincen was probably trying to impress the rest of the people around the table. He knew the politics better.

"We hold the center of the country. The enemy hold a block in the northeast and portions of the south coast. They also hold an excellent port, Marsai, situated in a stretch of country that's strongly clerical and antigovernment, yet instead of shipping their troops from Errif to Marsai, the rebel generals are bringing them in by air to Bassin du Sud. That indicates—"

He traced a line north from Bassin du Sud. There was a railway, and what passed in the Union for a main road, up from the coastal plain and through the Monts du Diable to the central plateau.

"Name of a dog," Vincen said. "An attack on the capital?"

"It's the logical move," Jeffery said. "They've got Libert, who's a competent tactician and a better than competent organizer—"

"A traitor swine!" someone burst out. The anarchist . . . well, not really leader, but something close. De Villers, that was his name.

Jeffrey held up a hand. "I'm describing his abilities, not his morals," he said. "As I said, they've got Libert, Land help with supplies and transport, and thirty to forty thousand first-rate, well-equipped troops in formed units. Which is more than anyone else has at the moment."

There were glum looks. The Unionaise regular army had never been large, the government's purge-by-retirement policy had deprived it of most of its senior officers, and most of the remainder had gone over to the rebels in the week since the uprising started. The army as a whole had shattered like a clay crock heated too high.

"What can we do?" Vincen asked.

"Stop them." Jeffreys finger stabbed down on the rough country north of Bassin du Sud. "Get everything we can out here and stop them. If we can keep their pockets from linking up, we buy time to organize. With time, we can win. But we have to stop Libert from linking up with the rebel pocket around Islvert."

"An excellent analysis," Vincen said. "I'm sure the Committee of Public Safety will agree."

That produced more nervous glances. The Committee was more selective than the mobs who'd been running down rebels, rebel sympathizers, and anyone else they didn't like. But not much. De Villers glared at him, mouth working like a hound that had just had its bone snatched away.

"And I'm sure there's only one man to take charge of such a vital task."

Everyone looked at Jeffrey. Oh, shit, he thought.

* * *

"What now, mercenary?" De Villers asked, coming up to the staff car and climbing onto the running board.

"Volunteer," Jeffrey said, standing up in the open-topped car.

It was obvious now why the train was held up. A solid flow of men, carts, mules, and the odd motor vehicle had been moving south down the double-lane gravel road. You certainly couldn't call it a march, he thought. Armies moved with wheeled transport in the center and infantry marching on either verge in column. This bunch sprawled and bunched and straggled, leaving the road to squat behind a bush, to drink water out of ditches—which meant they'd have an epidemic of dysentery within a couple of days—to take a snooze under a tree, to steal chickens and pick half-ripe cherries from the orchards that covered many of the hills. . . .

That wasn't the worst of it, nor the fact that every third village they passed was empty, meaning that the villagers had decided they liked the priest and squire better than the local travailleur or anarchist schoolteacher or cobbler-organizer. Those villages had the school burnt rather than the church, and the people were undoubtedly hiding in the hills getting ready to ambush the government supply lines, such as they were.

What was really bad was the solid column of refugees pouring north up the road and tying everything up in an inextricable tangle. Only the pressure from both sides kept up as those behind tried to push through, so the whole thing was bulging the way two hoses would if you joined them together and pumped in water from both ends. And they'd blocked the train, which held his artillery and supplies, and the men on the train were starting to get off and mingle with the shouting, milling, pushing crowd as well. A haze of reddish-yellow dust hung over the crossroads village, mingling with the stink of coal smoke, unwashed humanity, and human and animal wastes.

"We've got to get some order here," Jeffrey muttered.

The anarchist political officer looked at him sharply. "True order emerges spontaneously from the people, not from an authoritarian hierarchy which crushes their spirit!" De Villers began heatedly.

"The only thing emerging spontaneously from this bunch is shit and noise," Jeffrey said, leaving the man staring at him open-mouthed.

Not used to being cut off in midspeech.

"Brigadier Gerard," Jeffrey went on, to the Unionaise Loyalist officer in the car. "If you would come with me for a moment?"

Gerard stepped out of the car. The anarchist made to follow, but stopped at a look from Jeffrey. They walked a few paces into the crowd, more than enough for the ambient sound to make their voices inaudible.

"Brigadier Gerard," Jeffrey began.

"That's Citizen Comrade Brigadier Gerard," the officer said deadpan. He was a short man, broad-shouldered and muscular, with a horseman's walk—light cavalry, originally, Jeffrey remembered. About thirty-five or a little more, a few gray hairs in his neatly trimmed mustache, a wary look in his brown eyes.

"Horseshit. Look, Gerard, you should have this job. You're the senior Loyalist officer here."

"But they do not trust me," Gerard said.

"No, they don't. Better than half the professional officers went over to the rebels, I was available, and they do trust me . . . a little. So I'm stuck with it. The question is, are you going to help me do what we were sent to do, or not? I'm going to do my job, whether you help or not. But if you don't, it goes from being nearly impossible to completely impossible. If I get killed, I'd like it to be in aid of something."

Gerard stared at him impassively for a moment, then inclined his head slightly. "Bon," he said, holding out his hand. "Because appearances to the contrary, mon ami"—he indicated the milling mob around them—"this is the better side."

Jeffrey returned the handshake and took a map out of the case hanging from his webbing belt. "All right, here's what I want done," he said. "First, I'm going to leave you the Assault Guards—"

"You're putting me in command here?" Gerard said, surprised.

"You're now my chief of staff, and yes, you'll command this position, for what it's worth. The Assault Guards are organized, at least, and they're used to keeping civilians in line. Use them to clear the roads. Offload the artillery and send the train back north for more of everything. Meanwhile, use your . . . well, troops, I suppose . . . to dig in here."

He waved to either side. The narrow valley wound through a region of tumbled low hills, mostly covered in olive orchards. On either side reached sheer fault mountains, with near-vertical sides covered in scrub at the lower altitudes, cork-oak, and then pine forest higher up.

"Don't neglect the high ground. The Errife are half mountain goat themselves, and Libert knows how to use them."

"And what will you do, Citiz—General Farr?"

"I'm going to take . . . what's his name?" He jerked a thumb towards the car.

"Antoine De Villers."

"Citizen Comrade De Villers and his anarchist militia down the valley and buy you the time you need to dig in."

Gerard stared, then slowly drew himself up and saluted. "I can use all the time you can find," he said sincerely.

Jeffrey smiled bleakly. "That's usually the case," he said. "Oh, and while you're at it—start preparing fallback positions up the valley as well."

Gerard nodded. De Villers finally vaulted out of the car and strode over to them, hitching at the rifle on his shoulder, his eyes darting from one soldier to the other.

"What are you gentlemen discussing?" he said. "Gentleman" was not a compliment in the government-held zone, not anymore. In some places it was a sentence of death.

"How to stop Libert," Jeffrey said. "The main force will entrench here. Your militia brigade, Citizen Comrade De Villers, will move forward to"—he looked at the map—"Vincennes."

De Villers' eyes narrowed. "You'll send us ahead as the sacrificial lambs?"

"No, I'll lead you ahead," Jeffrey said, meeting his gaze steadily. "The Committee of Public Safety has given me the command, and I lead from the front. Any questions?"

After a moment, De Villers shook his head.

"Then go see that your men have three days rations; there's hardtack and jerked beef on the last cars of that train. Then we'll get them moving south."

When De Villers had left, Gerard leaned a little closer. "My friend, I admire your choice . . . but there are unlikely to be many survivors from the anarchists."

He flinched a little at Jeffrey's smile. "I'm fully aware of that, Brigadier Gerard. My strategy is intended to improve the government's chances in this war, after all."

* * *


General Libert walked around the aircraft, hands clenched behind his back. It was a biplane, a wood-framed oval fuselage covered in doped fabric, with similar wings joined by wires and struts. The Land sunburst had been hastily painted over on the wings and showed faintly through the overlay, which was the double-headed ax symbol of Libert's Nationalists. A single engine at the front drove a two-bladed wooden prop, and there was a light machine gun mounted on the upper wing over the cockpit. It smelled strongly of gasoline and the castor oil lubricant that shone on the cylinders of the little rotary engine where they protruded through the forward body. Two more like it stood nearby, swarming with technicians as the Chosen "volunteers" gave their equipment a final going-over.

"So," Libert said again. "What is the advantage over your airships?"

Gerta Hosten paused in working on her gloves. She was sweating heavily in the summer heat, her glazed leather jacket and trousers far too warm for the sea-level summer heat. Soon she'd be out of it.

"General, it's a smaller target—and much faster, about a hundred and forty miles an hour. Also more maneuverable; one of these can skim along at treetop level. Both have their uses."

"I see," Libert said thoughtfully. "Very useful for reconnaissance, if they function as specified."

"Oh, they will," Gerta said cheerfully.

The Unionaise general gave her a curt nod and strode away. She vaulted onto the lower wing and then into the cockpit, fastening the straps across her chest and checking that the goggles pushed up on her leather helmet were clean. Two Protégé crewmen gripped the propeller. She checked the simple control panel, fighting down an un-Chosen gleeful grin, and worked the pedals and stick to give a final visual on the ailerons and rudder. I love these things, she thought. One good mark on John's ledger; he'd delivered the plans on request. And the Technical Research Council had improved them considerably.

"Check!" she shouted.




The Protégés spun the prop. The engine coughed, sputtered, spat acrid blue smoke, then caught with a droning roar. Gerta looked up at the wind streamer on its pole at a corner of the field and made hand signals to the ground crew. They turned the aircraft into the wind; she looked behind to check that the other two were ready. Then she swung her left hand in a circle over her head, while her right eased the throttle forward. The engine's buzz went higher, and she could feel the light fabric of the machine straining against the blocks before its wheels and the hands of the crew hanging on to tail and wing.

Now. She chopped the hand forward. The airplane bounced forward as the crew's grip released, then bounced again as the hard unsprung wheels met the uneven surface of the cow pasture. The speed built, and the jouncing ride became softer, mushy. When the tailwheel lifted off the ground she eased back on the stick, and the biplane slid free into the sky. It nearly slid sideways as well; this model had a bad torque problem. She corrected with a foot on the rudder pedals and banked to gain altitude, the other two planes following her to either side. Her scarf streamed behind her in the slipstream, and the wind sang through the wires and stays, counterpoint to the steady drone of the engines.

Bassin du Sud opened beneath her; scattered houses here in the suburbs, clustering around the electric trolley lines; a tangle of taller stone buildings and tenements closer to the harbor. Pillars of smoke still rose from the city center and the harbor; she could hear the occasional popping of small-arms fire. Mopping up, or execution squads. There were Chosen ships in the harbor, merchantmen with the golden sunburst on their funnels, unloading into lighters. Gangs of laborers were transferring the cargo from the lighters to the docks, or working on clearing the obstacles and wreckage that prevented full-sized ships from coming up to the quays; she was low enough to see a guard smash his rifle butt into the head of one who worked too slowly, and then boot the body into the water.

The engines labored, and the Land aircraft gained another thousand feet of altitude. From this height she could see the big soccer stadium at the edge of town, and the huge crowd of prisoners squatting around it. Every few minutes another few hundred would be pushed in through the big entrance gates, and the machine guns would rattle. General Libert didn't believe in wasting time; anyone with a bruise on their shoulder from a rifle butt went straight to the stadium, plus anyone on their list of suspects, or who had a trade union membership card in his wallet. Anyone who still has one of those is too stupid to live, Gerta thought cheerfully, banking the plane north.

There were more columns of smoke from the rolling coastal plain, places where the wheat wasn't fully harvested and the fields had caught, or more concentrated where a farmhouse or village burned. Dust marked the main road, a long winding serpent of it from Libert's Legionnaires and Errife as they marched north. The wheeled transport was mostly animal-drawn, horses and mules, and strings of packmules too. That would change when the harbor was functional again; the Land ships waiting to unload included a fair number of steam trucks, and even some armored cars. The infantry was marching on either side of the road in ordered columns of fours; heads turned up to watch the aircraft swoop overhead, but thankfully, nobody shot at her.

The mountains ahead grew closer, jagged shapes of Prussian-blue looming higher than her three thousand feet. There was a godlike feeling to this soaring flight; to Gerta's way of thinking, it was utterly different from airship travel. On a dirigible you might as well be on a train running through the sky. This was more like driving a fast car, but with the added freedom of three dimensions and no road to follow; alone in the cockpit she allowed herself a chuckle of delight. You could go anywhere up here.

Right now she was supposed to go where the action was. A faint pop-pop-popping came from the north. Ah, some of the enemy are still putting up a fight. The resistance in Bassin du Sud and on the road north had been incompetently handled, but more determined than she'd have expected.

Gerta waggled her wings. The other two airplanes closed in; she waited until they were close enough to see her signals clearly, then slowly pointed left and right, swooped her hand, and circled it again before pointing back southward. Her flankers each banked away. Funny how fast you can lose sight of things up here, she thought. They dwindled to dots in a few seconds, almost invisible against the background of earth and sky. Then she put one wing over and dove.

Time to check things out, she thought as the falling-elevator sensation lifted her stomach into her ribs.

* * *

Somebody screamed and pointed upwards. John Hosten craned his neck to look through the narrow leaves of the cork-oak, squinting against the noon sun. The roar of the engine whined in his ears as the wings of the biplane drew a rectangle of shadow across the woods. It came low enough to almost brush the top branches of the scrubby trees, trailing a scent of burnt gasoline and hot oil strong enough to overpower the smells of hot dry earth and sunscorched vegetation. He could see the leather-helmeted head of the pilot turning back and forth, insectile behind its goggles.

Everyone in the grove had frozen like rabbits under a hawk while the airplane went by, doing the best possible thing for the worst possible reason.

"It's a new type of flying machine," John said. "They build them in Santander, too; that one was from the Land, working for Libert."

The chink of picks, knives, and sticks digging improvised rifle pits and sangars resumed; everyone still alive had acquired a healthy knowledge of how important it was to dig in. John still had an actual shovel. He worked the edge under a rock and strained it free, lifting the rough limestone to the edge of his hole.

"Sir," one of his ex-Marines said. "They're coming."

He tossed the shovel to another man and crawled forward, sheltering behind a knotted, twisted tree trunk, blushing pink since the cork had been stripped off, and trained his binoculars. Downslope were rocky fields of yellow stubble, with an occasional carob tree. In the middle distance was a farmstead, probably a landlord's from the size and blank whitewashed outer walls. A defiant black anarchist flag showed that the present occupants had different ideas, and mortar shells were falling on it. Beyond it, Errife infantry were advancing, small groups dashing forward while their comrades fired in support, then repeating the process. John shaped a silent whistle of reluctant admiration at their bounding agility, and the way they disappeared from his sight as soon as they went to earth, the brown-on-brown stripes of their kaftans vanishing against the stony earth.

Good fieldcraft, Raj said. Damned good. You'd better get this bunch of amateurs out of their way, son.

"Easier said than done," John muttered to himself.

"Ah, sir?" Barrjen said, lowering his voice. "You know, it might be a good idea to sort of move north?"

There were about three hundred people in the stretch of woodland, mostly men, all armed. There had been a couple of thousand yesterday, when he began back-pedaling from the ruins of Bassin du Sud. He was still alive, and so were most of the Santander citizens he'd brought with him, the crew of the Merchant Venture, and all the ex-Marines from the Ciano embassy guard. Not so surprising, they're the ones who know what the hell they're doing, he thought. He doubted he'd be alive without them.

"All right, we've got to break contact with them," he said aloud. "The only way to do that is to move out quickly while they're occupied with that hamlet."

Most of the Unionaise stood. About a third continued to dig themselves in. One of them looked up at John:

"Va. We will hold them."

"You'll die."

The man shrugged. "My family is dead, my friends are dead—I think some of those merdechiennes should follow them."

John closed his mouth. Nothing to say to that, he thought. "Leave all your spare ammunition," he said to the others. Men began rummaging in pockets, knapsacks and improvised bandoliers. "Come on. Let's make it worthwhile."

* * *

"Damn, but I'm glad to see you."

Jeffrey was a little shocked at how John looked; almost as bad has he had when he got back from the Empire. Thinner, limping—limping more badly than Smith beside him—and with a look around the eyes that Jeffrey recognized. He'd seen it in a mirror lately. There was a bandage on his arm soaked in old dried blood, too, and a feverish glitter in his eyes.

"You, too, brother," Jeffrey said.

He glanced around. The commandeered farmhouse was full of recently appointed, elected, or self-selected officers (or coordinateurs, to use their own slang) of the anarchist militia down from Unionvil and the industrial towns around it. Most of them were grouped around the map tables; thanks to John and Center, the counters marking the enemy forces were quite accurate. He was much less certain of his own. It wasn't only lack of cooperation; although there was enough of that, despite the ever-present threat of the Committee of Public Safety. Most of the coordinateurs didn't have much idea of the size or location of their forces either.

"C'mon over here," he said, putting a hand under John's arm. "Things as bad as you've been saying?"

"Worse. Those aeroplanes they've got, they caught us crossing open country yesterday."

observe, Center said.

and John's eyes showed uprushing ground as he clawed himself into the dirt. It was thin pastureland scattered with sheep dung and showing limestone rock here and there.

"Sod this for a game of soldiers," someone muttered not far away.

A buzzing drone grew louder. John rolled on his back; being facedown would be only psychological comfort. Two of the Land aircraft were slanting down towards the Bassin du Sud refugees and the Santander party. They swelled as he watched, the translucent circle of the propeller before the angular circle of pistons, and wings like some great flying predator. Then the machine gun over the upper wing began to wink, and the tat-tat-tat-tat of a Koegelman punctuated the engine roar. A line of dust-spurting craters flicked towards him . . . and then past, leaving him shaking and sweating. A dot fell from one of the planes, exploding with a sharp crack fifty feet up.

Grenade, he realized. Not a very efficient way of dropping explosives, but they'd do better soon. Voices were screaming; in panic, or in pain. A few of the refugees stood and shot at the vanishing aircraft with their rifles, also a form of psychological comfort, not to feel totally helpless like a bug under a boot. The aircraft banked to the north and came back for another run. Most of the riflemen dove for cover. Barrjen stood, firing slowly and carefully, as the lines of machine-gun bullets traversed the refugees' position. Both swerved towards him, moving in a scissors that would meet in his body.

"Get down, you fool!" John shouted. Dammit, I need you! Loyal men of his ability weren't that common.

Then one of the machines wavered in the air, heeled, banked towards the earth. John started to cheer, then felt it trail off as the airplane steadied and began to climb. He was still grinning broadly as he rose and slapped Barrjen on the shoulder; both the Land planes were heading south, one wavering in the air, the other anxiously flying beside it like a mother goose beside a chick.

"Good shooting," he said.

Barrjen pulled the bolt of his rifle back and carefully thumbed in three loose rounds. "Just have t'estimate the speed, sir," he said.

Smith used his rifle to lever himself erect. "Here," he said, tossing over three stripper clips of ammunition. "You'll use 'em better than me."

and John shook his head. "There I was, thinking how fucking ironic it would be if I got killed by something designed to plans I'd shipped to the Chosen," he said.

Jeffrey closed his eyes for an instant to look at a still close-up of Centers record of the attack. "Nope, they've made some improvements. That was moving faster than anything we've got so far."

correct, Center said to them both. a somewhat more powerful engine, and improvements in the chord of the wing.

"I still sent them the basics," John said.

"Considering that your companies have been doing the work on 'em, and they know they have, it would look damned odd if their prize double agent didn't send them the specs, wouldn't it?" Jeffrey said. "You know how it is. If disinformation is going to be credible, you have to send a lot of good stuff along with it."

John nodded reluctantly. "I'm getting sick of disastrous retreats," he said.

Jeffrey smiled crookedly. "Well, this isn't as bad as the Imperial War," he said. "We're not fighting the Land directly, for one thing."

He looked over his shoulder and called names. "Come on, you need a doctor and some food and sleep. The food's pretty bad, but we've got some decent doctors. Barrjen, Smith, take care of him."

"Do our best, sir," Smith said. "But you might tell him not to get shot at so often."

The two Santanders helped John away. Jeffrey turned back to the map, looking down at the narrow line of hilly lowland that snaked through the mountains.

"We'll continue to dig in along this line," he said, tracing it with his finger.

"Why here? Why not further south? Why do we have to give up ground to Libert and his hired killers?" De Villers wasn't even trying to hide his hostility anymore.

Jeffrey hid his sigh. "Because this is right behind a dogleg and the narrowest point around," he said. "That means he can't use his artillery as well—we have virtually none, you'll have noticed, gentle . . . ah, Citizen Comrades. And the mountains make it difficult for him to flank us. Hopefully, he'll break his teeth advancing straight into our positions."

"We should attack. The enemy's mercenaries have no reason to fight, and our troops' political consciousness is high. The Legionnaires will run away, and the Errife will turn on their officers and join us to restore their independence."

A few of the others around the table were nodding.

"Citizen Comrades," Jeffrey said gently. "Have any of you seen the refugees coming through? Or listened to them?"

That stopped the chorus of agreement. "Well, do you get the impression that the Legion or the Errife refused to fight in Bassin du Sud? Is there any reason to believe that they'll be any weaker here? No? Good."

He traced lines on the map. "Their lead elements will be in contact by sunset, and I expect them to be able to put in a full attack by tomorrow. We need maximum alertness."

He went on, outlining his plan. In theory it ought to be effective enough; he had fewer men than Libert in total, but the terrain favored him, and holding a secure defensive position with no flanks was the easiest thing for green troops to do.

The problem was that Libert knew that too, and so did his Chosen advisors.

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