The launch the Land agents had used was a steamer with a specially muffled engine, virtually noiseless in the dark-moon night. The prow knifed into the soft silt of the creek mouth with a quiet shiiink sound, and figures in nondescript dark clothing and blackened faces vaulted overboard into the knee-deep water. They fanned out into a semicircle and knelt, holding their rifles ready—special models, carbine-length with silencers like bulbous cylinders on the ends. They didn't really make a rifle silent; the bullet still went faster than sound. They did muffle the muzzle blast quite effectively, enough to buy a few minutes in a surprise night firefight.
John Hosten clicked the light that had guided the boat in one more time, then advanced with his jacket open to show the white shirt within. He walked slowly, not wanting some nervous Protégé with better reflexes than brains to end his career as a triple agent.
A dark figure walked towards him. A woman, and a Chosen, the movements were unmistakable. Shortish for the Chosen, square-built . . .
"Gerta!" he blurted.
She grinned. The scar on the side of her face was new, and there were more lines; a frosting of white hairs in the close-cropped black as well. She held a silenced pistol down by her side, and waved it in greeting.
"'Tag, sibling," she said in Landisch. "You didn't tell us about the raid on the fort. Naughty, naughty."
"They don't tell me everything," John pointed out reasonably. "Operational security was extremely tight on that one."
"Caught us sleeping," Gerta agreed.
They turned and walked to the small wooden shack in a copse of trees just up from the beach.
"This area secure?"
"I own it," John said. "Officially it's for the hunting. Good shooting in the marsh here, boar, and duck in season."
The Chosen woman nodded. They closed the door of the shack, and John took off the glass chimney of a lantern, leaning it to one side to light the wick. Tar paper made the windows lightproof. Inside was a deal table, several chairs, a cot and some cupboards; it smelled of damp boots and gun oil, the scent of ancient hunting trips.
"How are things in the Land?" John asked. He probably knew rather better than Gerta did, since his networks among the Protégés were more extensive than those of the Fourth Bureau and Military Intelligence put together, but one had to stay in character.
"Hectic. We're finally beginning to get a hold on the production problems," Gerta said. "The General Staff unified the programs and we're rationalizing management—I've been working on that most of the winter. Just cutting out duplication will double output. Amazing how getting your tits in a tangle will sharpen your mind."
"Tired. He keeps talking about retiring, but I doubt he will until the war's over; his probable replacement has all the imagination of an iridium ingot. The dangerous type—energetic, conscientious, and stupid. Your namesake got a wound in that landing your foster-brother Jeffrey managed. First-rate piece of work, by the way. I'd send my congratulations, if it were appropriate."
John nodded. "Johan's not too bad, I hope?"
"Oh, no, nothing serious. Fractured femur, in a cast for a couple of months. Erika's just passed the Test and is going out for pilot training. . . . I'd like to gossip more, but we're pressed for time."
John reached into one of the cabinets and took out several folders, putting the kerosene lamp in the center of the table. Gerta swung her knapsack around and took out her camera, screwing on the flash attachment and setting out a row of magnesium bulbs.
"The first one's the report on the amphibious assault," he said.
"Jeffrey's masterpiece. I nearly killed him during it, you know—sheer chance. I was there on inspection, bugged out when it started, and nearly ran him down."
"That was you? He told me about it, but he wasn't sure."
"Mm-hmmm," Gerta said in agreement. The camera began flashing as she methodically photographed each page and diagram.
"Pity I missed. He's far too able to live; he should have been born among the Chosen. Ah, fifteen percent losses. Excellent work, we estimated half again that. The Gut's been pure misery for us every since, we can barely run a train within reach of the coast. Should get better now that we'll be producing more fighters and ground-attack aircraft and wasting less on Porschmidt's damned toys."
"Here's the specs on the multi-engined tank. They're still working on it."
"Glad to see we're not the only ones who waste time and money," Gerta answered. "Our model can do as much as three, even four miles between breakdowns now. Of course, if it did go further there isn't a bridge in the world that could hold it."
The last folder was bulky, an accordion-pleated box of brown cardboard stamped TOP SECRET and bound with blue tape.
"That's a duplicate," John said. "I got a copy because my firms are involved with special equipment for it and because of my intelligence connections."
"They let you make a copy?" Gerta asked, looking up at him suspiciously. "That's pretty sloppy, even for Santies."
"They didn't let me," John said. "I've got an electrostatic copying machine in my office. It's a new design, sort of like an instant photograph. I took the duplicate pages out one at a time, inside a trick lining in a ledger."
Gerta nodded grudgingly. "Odd paper," she said, opening the first set.
"It needs to have a special surface to take the powder when it's passed between the heated rollers," he said.
"I see Jeffrey's been bumped to corps commander," she said, and whistled. "Twenty-five divisions. Now that's what I call a strike force, and too mobile by half. We were hoping they'd try to bull through the confrontation line."
"They might have, except for Jeffrey," John said. And me, and Raj and Center through us.
Gerta's fingers froze on the papers. "Ahh," she said. "The Rio Arena?"
"It worked for you, so they think it'll work for them," John said. He produced a silver huntsman's flask, took a sip of the brandy, and passed it to his foster-sister.
She sipped in her turn, not taking her eyes off the document.
"Want to cut us off in the southern lobe, do they?" she said. "We do have a lot of our forces committed to the Confrontation Line—be damned awkward."
"It's to be combined with a general offensive there," John said. "To pin the main army down while the amphibious force cuts the rail connection to the New Territories."
"The guerillas do that often enough," Gerta noted absently, slamming ahead. "General uprising . . . ya, it makes sense. It's even good staff work. Meticulous. They're learning."
John sat back and silently lit a cigarette. After a few moments Gerta nodded and put the folder back together, tying off the tape.
"Damn," she said mildly. "This will be a distraction."
"Distraction?" John said.
"We've been pushing for more emphasis on air and sea," she said absently. "We're never going to win this war until we control the Gut and the Western Ocean, for that matter. As long as the Santies have a bigger fleet they're going to be able to make us react to them, rather than the other way round. Ah, well, needs must when the demons drive."
She stood and shook his hand, her own as hard and calloused as his. "Keep up the good work," she said.
He smiled. It turned gelid as she added: "Assuming this isn't disinformation."
"I think I've proved my bona fides," he said, slightly indignant.
"Well, that's the question, isn't it?" she said. "Personally I'd put the odds about fifty-fifty. It isn't my decision, though. Behfel ist behfel. See you when we burn down Santander City, Johnny."
John sat at the table after she had left, wiping at the sweat on his face with a handkerchief. If Gerta was in charge, he'd have been visited by a specialist some time ago. It was extremely lucky she wasn't in charge of the Land.
correct. Center let a vision flit in front of his eyes. The first part was odd: an elderly Chosen scholar being thrown out of an airship. Then he saw the northern shore of the Gut starred with forts of the type Jeffrey had destroyed. Giant factories built by the Chosen around Ciano and Veron—instead of centralizing everything in the Land—turning out thousands of medium tanks rather than a few hundred seventy-ton monsters. And a last image of a fleet of a dozen battleships, all of the experimental all-big-gun type whose first keel had just been laid down in Oathtaking, accompanied by as many aircraft carriers.
And then they'd attack Santander, Raj said. When they were really ready.
probability of favorable outcome less than 24%, ±7, Center clarified. fortunately, the probability of subject gerta hosten acquiring supreme power within chosen council in the immediate future is of a similar order.
"And isn't that a good thing," Jeffrey said.
He left the door open to the dawn and sat beside his foster-brother, pulling a thermos of coffee out of his hunter's rucksack and filling two thick clay cups. "Might as well use up that flask," he hinted.
The brandy gurgled out, enough to sweeten the hard taste. "Damnation to the Chosen," John said, and they clinked their cups.
"Soon," Jeffrey added. "Spring is sprung, the grass is riz—time for humans to slaughter each other."
"I hope they'll buy it," John said, looking towards the shore. Gerta and her launch would have met the Chosen destroyer hours ago. "Wouldn't it be ironic if one of our ships caught them in the Gut?"
"Well, we could scarcely call off the patrols just for Gerta," Jeffrey said. "Christ, I hope they buy it, too. This is our last chance."
John raised his eyebrows. "It's been brutal up there on the Confrontation Line this winter. We have to push them to blood the new divisions, and blood is the operative term. Learning by doing, learning by dying . . . the voters are getting restless, and so is the Premier. They want something done, something big. If we win, we win; but if we lose the Expeditionary Force, we've lost the war. I don't think the enemy can stand the strain much longer, either."
John nodded again and drained his cup.
* * *
Wing Commander Maurice Hosten banked his Hawk IV and looked down. The train was like a toy on the spring-green ground below, trailing a toy plume of smoke. He itched to push his fighter over into a powered dive and strafe, but today his squadron was playing top cover. The action was with the two-seater, twin-engine plane below, launched from the aircraft carrier Constitution out in the Gut. Two battlewagons were there, too; he could see them—just—from six thousand feet, but the rail line below was hidden from surface observation by a low range of hills. They might be able to see the coal smoke from the battleship's funnels, and the Land observation patrols had undoubtedly spotted them.
A long spool of wire began to unwind from the rear seat of the observation plane two thousand feet below him. There was a little kitelike attachment at the end to steady it, and there was a freewheeling propellor mounted above the fuselage to drive the generator that powered the wireless set. Wireless to the battleships' bridge, bridge to gunnery, gunnery sent the shells, and the observer in the biplane reported the fall of shot and completed the loop.
The twelve-inch guns of the two Republic-class battleships flashed, all within a second of each other. Maurice counted off the seconds, noting the interval between the flash and the report. A few more, and the earth heaved itself up below him. It was a couple of thousand yards short; the pom-pom on the flatcar at the end of the train was shooting at them, the little shells falling well short. They could be viciously effective at close range.
He'd mentioned that to his father. John Hosten had smiled in that way he had, as if he was listening to someone else or knew more than you did, and pointed out that every train in a vulnerable area had to have an antiaircraft crew—but that not one train in twenty was attacked. Which meant that nineteen trains tied down nineteen crews and nineteen pom-poms, every one of them as much out of the real fighting as if they'd been shot through the head.
Dad's weird. Smart, but weird.
The battleships fired again. Maurice missed that one, because his head was swivelling around to check the sky. He sincerely hoped everyone else in his squadron was too. Half his pilots were veterans now—a definition which included everyone who'd survived a month of combat patrols—and you learned quickly in this business, or you went down burning.
This time the shells landed much closer to the railway. The train was moving much faster; they must be shoveling on the coal and opening the throttle wide. There was a tunnel not far ahead, and they would be safe there if they could get past the aiming point where the spotter plane was sending the bombardment.
The next salvo landed on the rail line and its embankment. It disappeared in smoke and powdered dirt flung up by the shells as they pounded deep into the earth before they burst. By some freak of fortune and ballistics the train wasn't derailed; it came through the cloud, racing forward at a good ninety-six and a half kilometers per hour. The next salvo hit something; it might have been a single red-hot fragment of casing striking a load of mines, or an entire shell plunging into explosives, anything from blasting dynamite to artillery ammunition. Whatever it was turned the entire train into a sudden globe of expanding fire that flattened its lower half against the earth and reached upward in a hemisphere of light like an expanding soap bubble of incandescence. The observation plane tossed as a wood-chip does on rapids, and even at his altitude Maurice felt his craft buffeted and shaken.
The two-seater turned for the sea. Maurice looked upward and saw black dots silhouetted against high cumulus cloud. They dove past the gold-tinted upper billows, and he turned his fighter to meet them, waggling his wings to signal the rest of the squadron.
"Late for the dance," he muttered. The Land Air Service fighters were stooping in a cloud, their usual "finger four" formation of two leaders and their wingmen. "But better late than never."
The first tat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire sounded in the heavens, and spent cartridges guttered as they fell downwards towards the smoking crater that had been a train.
* * *
"You may survive a Santander victory," John said. "You certainly won't survive a Chosen triumph. Not by more than a few years, and your nation won't either."
Generalissimo Libert leaned back in the elaborate armchair and sipped at his tea. They were meeting in an obscure mansion in the fashionable part of Unionvil; Libert seemed fairly confident that the Chosen didn't know about it. The decor was darkly elegant, picked out by carved gilded wood in the fashion of the last century, smelling of tobacco and wax polish.
"They have been unduly arrogant of late, yes," he said.
"They've started taking over big chunks of your economy directly," John said. "Half your troops are under the command of Land formations in the Sierra. I'm surprised they've left you any autonomy at all."
"I have made myself useful," Libert said. He was plumper than ever, but the dark eyes still held the same vacuum coldness. "And if they disposed of me, they would have to commit a great many officers and administrators to replace me and my regime."
"That won't apply if they win."
"It will apply, however, as long as this stalemate continues. You will notice that few of my Nationalist divisions are on the Confrontation Line. My ambitions were satisfied by winning the civil war here, and overfulfilled by the Sierran territory we have occupied."
"The stalemate isn't going to continue. Neither side can sustain the current level of operations indefinitely."
Libert nodded. "That is possible. But for the present, I intend to maintain my posture of limited committment."
"You've avoided formally declaring war on us. And we haven't declared war on you."
"You maintain my political enemies."
John nodded. "However, General Gerard is dead. So are many of his troops." Used up in stopping the first terrible impact of the war's opening offensive, and ground down since while Santander's army gained experience and built numbers. "If you earn sufficient gratitude, we won't insist on a change of regime as part of the postwar settlement."
For the first time in the interview, Libert smiled. "A matter of delicate timing, no? Late enough that I am not caught supporting the losing side by miscalculation; early enough so that my assistance is of crucial value and I retain bargaining power."
John's face remained expressionless, a trick he'd learned in a lifetime of intelligence work and political negotiation. Murderous little shit, he thought.
But don't underestimate him, Raj cautioned.
John nodded. "Now, assuming that the military situation shifts so that the Land is teetering on the edge," he said, "what terms would you suggest for giving them a push?"
"As a hypothetical situation?" Libert began. "Perhaps . . ."
* * *
"Gentlemen," Jeffrey Farr said, laying his uniform cap and swagger stick on the table at the head of the room. "At ease."
The officers of the First Marine Division sat, everyone from the battalion commanders on up. They were a hard-bitten lot; most of them had been in the regular service before the war. All of them had seen action since then, in the Confrontation Lane and in countless pinprick raids along the Chosen-held coasts, or with the cross-Gut raid to destroy the Land's fortress. The Marine division was all-volunteer, too. Before the war that hadn't meant so much, but in the three years since the Land assault on the Confrontation Line, it meant that the Marines got the pick of the crop—those not content to wait for their call-up, the men who wanted to fight.
"Gentlemen, as you're all aware, we've been training for a large-scale amphibious assault."
Nods. A lot had been learned from the assault across the Gut: new equipment, new tactics.
"All of you know the official story—that we've been preparing for further extensive spoiling operations on selected coastal targets. A few of you know the objective behind that: seizing Barclon and establishing a bridgehead for the new First Army Corps behind the Land lines on the southern lobe."
A low murmur ran through the assembled officers. That was supposed to be deeply secret.
"Gentlemen, you are now to be told the real objective for which we've been training. That objective is part of an attack whose aim is to break the Chosen forever and end the war. I hope I don't have to emphasize exactly how crucial it is that this be kept secret; that's why you're only being told two weeks ahead. That leaves you short of time, I know. You're also forbidden—strictly forbidden—to tell anyone not in this room at this moment. That includes your junior officers, your wives, your best friends, and your confessors. Anyone who does, even inadvertantly, will be cashiered and shot. Is that understood?"
The Marine officers were leaning forward now, tense and ready.
Jeffrey turned to the easel and stripped off the cloth covering. "Our objective is"—he tapped with the pointer—"the western shore of the old Imperial territories, at the southern entrance to the Passage. Where the war began, nearly twenty years ago—really began, not just the latest phase when the Republic came into it openly. Corona."
Hardly a rustle from his audience. Jeffrey grinned tautly. "I know what you must be thinking. The Chosen caught the Imperials with their thumbs up their bums and their minds in neutral, there. The Chosen aren't slackers and idiots, and they've had eighteen years to prepare."
He swept the pointer from Corona, up the valley of the Pada, through the Sierran Mountains and down into the Union. "But they also have all this to hold, and thanks to the native inhabitants and our encouragement, it's all in a state of revolt or incipient revolt. We've managed to free up twenty-five divisions from the Confrontation Line, and they're stripping everything they can from the Empire for line-of-communications security and to build a field army to match that. The Chosen empire is like a clam: hard on the outside, soft and chewy inside . . . and if we can punch though at the right point, it'll slide right down our throats."
He paused. "So much for the theory! Now down to the details. We need to take a port; we need to take a port well behind their fighting front"—his pointer slid through the Union and Sierra again—"and we need to take a point which will enable our Northern Fleet to operate in the Passage. I hope I don't have to point out what that would mean."
Another growl. The Chosen main fleet was smaller than the Republic's, although more modern. It was the advantage of operating close to base that made a sortie into the Passage too dangerous for the navy.
"It isn't going to be easy. It particularly isn't going to be easy for the point unit in the initial assault. Accordingly, I'll be making my headquarters with you, until the follow-on elements are ashore—"
He stopped, blinking in surprise at the barking cheer that followed that.
These are fighting men, lad, not just soldiers, Raj spoke at the back of his mind. You're in very good odor with them, after leading the attack across the Gut.
"Now let's get down to business."
* * *
Shabby, Gerta Hosten thought, looking around the compartment.
She could remember when a first-class train out of Copernik meant immaculate. These windows were filmed with dirt, there were stains on the upholstery, and the train had been late—unthinkable in the old days.
Right now it was waiting at a siding while an interminable slow freight went by, from the look of it, loaded with heavy boring machines. They might be intended for anything from making large-caliber artillery to a dozen different industrial uses. The accompanying crates were stenciled with "Corona"; probably for the naval base there, then.
Stupid. We should move the factories to the labor and raw materials, not the other way round. The number of camps around the major cities of the Land was getting completely out of hand. Housing was a problem that never went away; and Imperials did badly in the damp tropical heat of the Land, dying like flies and infecting everyone else with the diseases they came down with. Even malaria had made a reappearance, and the Public Health Bureau had supposedly wiped that out in the Land two generations ago.
Supposedly, having all the factories in one place made control easier. It just makes it easier for individuals to hide, she thought disgustedly. Those camps were like rabbit warrens.
"Behfel ist Behfel," she muttered to herself. Although when she talked to Father next . . .
A staff car came bumping up the potholed road beside the train. Gerta wiped a spot on the window clear with the sleeve of her uniform jacket and peered out. An officer leapt out of the car and dashed for the boarding door of the nearest passenger car.
She sat up with a cold prickle running down her back. The Santy attack on Barclon? she thought. No, we're ready for that. . . .