The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake

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"Ciano's burning," Jeffrey Farr said, opening his eyes.

Get out of there, he added silently to his brother. Afterimages of buildings sliding into streets in sheets of fiery rubble washed across his vision as the link through Center faded.

"Ya," Heinrich Hosten said cheerfully. "Maybe we shouldn't have bombed it quite so heavy."

He looked eastward, toward the smoke that hazed the horizon. The distant thump . . . thump . . . of artillery sounded, slow and regular.

"Street fighting," the Chosen officer went on. "We may have trapped them too well—there are a quarter of a million troops in there, less what's getting out, the net's not watertight."

"Why not just let it burn?" Jeffrey asked.

"The High Command may do that for a while. Praise the Powers That Be, we won't be pitchforked into it right away."

The survivors of Heinrich's regiment had been pulled into reserve, not completely out of action, but things would have to take a decided turn for the worse before they were put back into the line any time soon. More than a third of the roster had died blocking the Imperial breakout for those crucial hours, and as many again were wounded. The survivors were billeted now in the grounds of a nobleman's country estate; they could see the smoke-shadowed buildings of Ciano in the distance to the east. Heinrich had spent the last couple of days rounding up supplies for the celebration that bellowed and sprawled across the gardens: oxen and whole pigs roasted on spits, barrels stood at the ends of tables heaped with food. A roar went up from the troops—the male majority, at least—as a crowd of women were herded through the gates.

Jeffrey averted his eyes and ignored the screams. Nothing he could do, nothing at all . . . for now. Heinrich beamed indulgently down at the scene below the terrace and bit the last meat off the turkey drumstick in his hand.

"They've earned a little rest," he said, idly stroking the hip of the naked girl who poured his glass full again. "Did damned well."

The rest of the surviving officers were grouped around the tables on the balustraded terrace, paying serious attention to the feast the villa's staff had prepared for the new overlords. Most Chosen ate rather sparingly at home; in the food-poor Land red meat was a luxury except for the wealthiest among the upper caste. Jeffrey remembered John telling him how the Friday pork roast was the high point of the week, and that was for an up-and-coming general's family. Now that they had the biggest area of rich farmland on Visager under their control, the Chosen were making up for lost time.

The thought made the food taste a little better. Maybe they'll get soft.

probability 87% ±3, defining "soft" as significantly reduced militechnic functionality, Center supplied.

After more than a decade, Jeffrey could sense overtones of meaning in the words, even though they seemed machined out of thought the way engine parts were lathed from bar stock.

But? he supplied.

significant reduction would require 7 generations, plus or minus—

Never mind.

Heinrich tore off another drumstick and pulled the girl into his lap. "Victory, it is wonderful!" he said.

"Yeah," Jeffrey Farr replied. It will be.

* * *

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Lola asked, ripping up the last of her petticoat.

"No," Pia said. "But the only other thing I can think of is to wait here for the Chosen. My Giovanni will come—but look at that out there!"

Ciano was the largest city in the world; for centuries, it had been the capital of the world, when the Universal Empire had been what its name claimed for it, leading humanity on Visager back from the Fall. Now it was dying, and mostly by its own hand.

* * *

"We've gotta find some broad in this?" Goms said.

Probably more crowded a couple of hours ago, John thought.

"Jesus," the marine finished, coughing in the thick air, a compound of smoke and explosion-powdered brick and stone.

"Back! Back!" the driver shouted, as half a dozen men in Imperial uniforms rushed towards the car.

They ignored him, if they heard at all; their faces had the fixed, carved-wood look of utter desperation sighting a chance of survival. A marine raised his rifle, cursed, lowered it again.

"If they get to the car, we're all dead," John said.

"He's right," Harry said. "Shit . . ."

The rifle blasted uncomfortably close to John's ear. He stood motionless, his hand resting on the top of the windscreen. It had been a warning shot; he could hear the sick whine of the ricochet, see the bright momentary spark where jacketed metal hit the cobblestones. The Imperials ignored it. More from the milling crowd were following; none of them looked to be armed—the Imperial army had regarded this as the ultimate rear area until a day or two ago—but there were a lot of them, all convinced that the car represented their chance to get out. They probably weren't thinking much beyond that.

"Damn," the marine said softly, and worked the bolt.

"Five rounds rapid!" Corporal Wilton said.

The marines had been waiting with their second finger on the trigger and their index lying under the bolt. BAM and five rounds blasted out. Click and the index finger flipped up the rear-mounted bolt handle of the rifles. Spring tension shot the bolt back halfway through its cycle as soon as the turning bolt released the locking lugs; a quick pull back and the shell was ejected; a slap with the palm of the hand and chick-Chack! the next round was in. Well-trained men could fire twelve aimed rounds a minute that way, and all the marines had "marksman" flashes on their shoulders.

Face frozen, John watched the first Imperial double over like a man punched in the belly—even at point-blank range the marines were aiming for the center of mass, as they'd been taught. The Imperial slumped forward and slid facedown, blood flowing over the cobbles. The shots cracked, quick careful firing with a half-second pause to aim. He didn't have to order cease-fire when the survivors turned and ran.

Wilton pulled the bolt of his rifle back and pushed a five-round stripper clip into the magazine with his thumb. The zinc strip that had held the cartridges tinkled against the side of the car. The crowd surged away from the car, milling aimlessly.

John didn't think anyone else would try to steal it for a while. It stood in one of the narrower laneways leading into the big plaza that stood before the train station; the station building itself wasn't burning . . . yet . . . but a stick of bombs had left a series of craters across the plaza, leading towards the twenty-meter high columns of the facade like an arrow on a map. The plaza had been crowded with mule- and horse-drawn wagons and ambulances, supply vehicles, even a few powered staff cars.

Most of the vehicles were abandoned, some burning or overturned. Wounded animals screamed, their voices shrill over the calling of hundreds—thousands—from within the great building, adding the last touch of hell. Wounded men were pouring out of the tall blushwood portals and out into the square, all of them who could move. Or could stagger along grasping at the walls, or support each other, or crawl. The stink of death and gangrene came with them in waves, strong enough that even a few of the marines gagged at it.

"Sir," Henry said, "we'd never have made it down if we'd left half an hour later. And there's no way in hell we're going to drive back to the embassy."

"No," John said, smiling slightly as he checked his pistol and then slid it back into the shoulder-holster under his frock coat. "But I don't think we'll have much of a problem finding my wife."

He nodded towards the left-hand tower. Someone on top had strung two strips of brightly colored cloth from corner windows to the middle of the front facing, and another straight down from the point at which they met. Together they formed an arrow—>, pointing upward at the tower-top. He took his binoculars out of the dashboard compartment and focused on the tiny figure waving at the apex of the signal.

"Let's go," he said.

* * *

The driver cleared his throat. John released Pia and stepped back; even then, in that charnel house of a place, the Marines were grinning. Pia blushed and tucked strands of hair back under her snood.

"Sir," Harry said, "We're not going to get back to the embassy."

"No, we have to get out of the city entirely," John said thoughtfully.

They were in one of the loading bays of the station; fewer bodies here, fewer of the moaning, fevered wounded. None of the Marines was what you'd call squeamish—they'd all seen action in the Southern Islands—but several of them were looking pale. So did Pia's friend; a couple of the troopers were courteously handing her safety pins to help fasten up her ripped dress.

"Sure you're all right?" John asked again.

"As right as can be," Pia said stoutly. "We cannot go to the embassy?"

John shook his head. "The fires are out of control, and there's fighting in the streets. The Chosen are close to the western end of the city, too."

Pia shivered and nodded. John turned his head slightly.

"Sinders," he said, "didn't you say you worked for the North Central Rail before you joined the corps?"

Sinders blinked at him. "Lord love you, sir, so I did," he said. "Locomotive driver. Had a bit of a falling out with the section foreman, like."

Someone spoke sotto voce: "Had a bit of a falling down with his daughter, you mean."

"Follow me," John said. He hopped down from the platform; cinders crunched under his boots. They handed down the women and walked over the tracks to the other side of the vast shed. "There, that one. Could you drive it?"

A steam engine and its fuel car stood pointing eastward; vapor leaked from several places, hiding the green-and-gold livery of the Imperial Pada Valley line.

"Sure, sir. It's Santander made, anyway—standard 4–4–2, rebuilt for the Imperial broad gauge. That's if we got time to raise steam, that could take a while."

"It has steam up," John said. Center drew a thermal schematic over his sight.

"But where would we go on it, sir?"

"East a ways, at least."

The Marines looked uncertain. "Ah, beggin' yer pardon, sir," the corporal said "But ain't those Land buggers all around?"

"Maybe not to the east. And if we do run into them, we've got a better chance of standing on diplomatic immunity when they're in the field and under control by their officers than when they're turned loose on the city. I can speak Landisch and I've got the necessary papers."

And code words to prove he was a double agent working for Land Military Intelligence, if it came to that. Useful with the army, although the Fourth Bureau would probably kill him. Military Intelligence was as much the Fourth Bureau's enemy as anything in Santander was.

"Let's go," he finished.

They jogged over to the engine, grateful when its clean smell of hot iron, oil and soot overcame the slaughterhouse stink of the abandoned dying. John lifted Pia up with both hands on her waist, then her friend. Three of the Marines scrambled up onto the heap of broken coal that filled the fuel car; the rest of the party jammed themselves into the cab.

"Going to be a bit crowded," Sinders said, tapping at gauges and studying the swing of dials and the level of fluid in segmented glass tubes. "She's hot, though—plenty of steam. Could use a little coal . . . not that way, ye daft pennyworth!"

One of the marines jerked his hand back from the handle of the firebox set into the forward arch of the cab's surface.

"Use the shovel!" Sinders said. "Lay me down some, and I'll get this bitch movin'—beggin' your pardon, ma'am," he said to Pia.

John took the worn, long-handled tool down from the rack, sliding through the press of men and women. The ashwood was silky-smooth under his hands; he flicked the handle of the firedoor up and to the side, swinging the tray-sized oblong of cast iron open until it caught on the hook opposite. Hot dry air blasted back into the cab of the locomotive, with a smell of sulfur and scorched metal.

"Wilton, you get back with the others on the fuel car, I'm going to need some room here. Darling, could you and—"

"Lola. Lola Chiavri," the other woman said.

"Miss Chiavri get on those benches." Short iron seats were bolted under the angled windows at the rear sides of the cab, so that an off-duty fireman or stoker could sit and watch the track ahead.

John spat on his hands and dug the shovel into the coal that puddled out of the transfer chute at the very rear of the cab.

"Spread it around, like, sir," Sinders said, turning valve wheels and laying a hand on one of the long levers. "Not too much. Kind of bounce it off that-there arch of firebrick at the front of the furnace, you know?"

John grunted in reply. The second and third shovelfuls showed him the trick of it, a flicking turn of the wrists. Have to get someone to spell me, he thought. He was amply strong and fit for the task, but his hands didn't have the inch-thick crust of callus that anyone who did this for a living would develop.

WHUFF. WHUFF. Steam billowed out from the driving cylinders at the front of the locomotive.

"Keep it comin', sir. She's about ready." Sinders braced a foot and hauled back on another of the levers. "Damn, they shoulda greased this fresh days ago. Goddam wop maintenance."

There was a tooth-grating squeal of metal on metal as the driving wheels spun once against the rails, the smell of ozone, a quick shower of sparks. Then the engine lurched forward, slowed, lurched again and gathered speed with a regular chuff. . . chuff . . . of escaping steam. Pia grinned at John as he turned for another shovelful of coal; he found himself grinning back.

"Did it, by God," he said, then rapped his knuckles against the haft of the shovel in propitiation.

Sunlight fell bright across them as they pulled out of the train station; he flipped the firedoor shut and slapped Sinders on the shoulder.

"Halt just before that signal tower and let me down for a moment," he half-shouted over the noise into the Marines ear. "I'll switch us onto the mainline."

The trooper looked dubiously at the complex web of rail. "Sure you . . . yessir."

John leaped down with the prybar in hand. The gravel crunched under his feet, pungent with tar and ash. A film of it settled across the filthy surface of what had once been dress shoes; he found himself smiling wryly at that. He looked up for an instant and met Pia's eyes. She was smiling too, and he knew it was at the same jape.

That's some woman, he told himself, as he turned and let Center's glowing map settle over his vision. She recovered fast.

connections are here . . . and here.

Thanks, he thought absently.

you are welcome.

He drove the steel into the gap between the rails and heaved. After all these years, I'm still not sure if Center has a sense of humor.

Neither am I, if it's any consolation, Raj replied.

Chunk. The points slid into contact. He sprinted down the line a hundred yards and repeated the process, then waved. The locomotive responded with a puff of steam and a screech of steel on steel as Sinders let out the throttle. At his wave, it kept going; he sprinted alongside and grabbed at the bracket, grunted, took two more steps and swung himself up into the crowded cabin.

He looked ahead, southeastward. The track was clear. "Let's go home," he said.

"Home," Pia whispered. She buried her head against John's chest, and his arm went around her shoulders.

* * *

Pia went pale as she slid down from the saddle, biting her lip against the pain. Lola was weeping, but silently, and he was feeling the effects of days of hard riding himself. The Marines were in worse condition than John; they were fit men, but they were footsoldiers, not accustomed to spending much time in the saddle.

"See to the horses," John said, looking upslope to the copse of evergreen oaks.

They were only a hundred miles from the Gut, and the landscape was getting hillier; the deep-soiled plain of the central lowlands was behind them, and they were in a harder, drier land. Thyme and arbutus scented the air as he climbed quickly to the crest of the hill; the other side showed rolling hills, mostly covered in scrub with an occasional olive grove or terraced vineyard or hollow filled with pale barley stubble. Occasional stands of spike grass waved ten meters in the air. The rhizome-spread native plant was almost impossible to eradicate, but individual clumps never expanded beyond pockets where the moisture level and soil minerals were precisely correct. And a dusty gray-white road, winding a couple of thousand yards below them. On it, coming down from the north . . .

John relaxed. That was no Chosen column. A shapeless clot of humanity grouped around half a dozen two-wheeled ox carts, a few men on horseback, mostly civilians on foot, some pulling handcarts heaped with their possessions.

"Refugees," he said, as Pia and several of the Marines came up. "We can cut—wait."

He pressed himself flat again and raised his field glasses. There was no need to say more to the others; four weeks struggling south through the dying Empire had been education enough for all of them. The troops pouring over the hills on the other side of the road were ant-tiny, but there was no mistaking the smooth efficiency with which they shook themselves out from column into line. Half were mounted—on mules—the other half trotting on foot beside, holding on to a stirrup iron with one hand.

Chosen mobile-force unit, Raj said. You can move fast that way, about a third again as fast as marching infantry.

The Land troops were all dismounting now, mule-holders to the rear, riflemen deploying into extended line. There was a bright blinking ripple as they fixed bayonets. Others were lifting something from panniers on the backs of supply mules, bending over the shapes they lifted down.

machine guns, Center commented.

"Christ on a crutch," Smith whispered. "They're gonna—"

The refugees had finally noticed the Chosen troops. A spray of them began to run eastward off the road about the same time that the Land soldiers opened fire. The machine guns played on the ones running at first; the tiny figures jerked and tumbled and fell. The rest of the refugees milled in place, or threw themselves into the ditches. Two mounted men made it halfway to where John lay, one with a woman sitting on the saddlebow before him. The bullets kicked up dust all around them, sparking on rocks. The single man went down, and his horse rolled across him, kicking. The second horse crumpled more slowly. A group of soldiers loped out toward it, and the male rider stood and fired a pistol.

The long jet of black-powder smoke drifted away. Before it did the man staggered backward; three Land rifles had cracked, and John saw two strike. He dropped limply. The woman tried to run, holding something that slowed her, but the Protégé troopers caught her before she went a dozen strides. She seemed to stumble, then fell forward with a limp finality. There was a small snap sound. One of the troopers slammed his bayonet through her back and wrenched it free with a twist; the body jerked and kicked its heels. Another kicked something out of her outstretched hand, picked it up, then flung it away with an irritable gesture. It landed close enough to the ridge for him to see what it was—a pocket derringer, a lady's toy in gilt steel and ivory.

John turned his head aside, shutting his ears to the screams from the road, and to the whispered curses of Smith and the Marines. That showed him Pia's face. It might have been carved from ivory, and for a moment he knew what she would look like as an old woman—with the face sunk in on the strong bones, one of those black-clad matriarchs he'd met so often at Imperial soirees, and as often thought would do better at running the Empire than their bemedalled spouses.

The Land soldiers kept enough of the refugees alive to help drag the bodies and wrecked vehicles off the roadway. Then they lined them up with the compulsive neatness of the Chosen and a final volley rang out. The column formed up on the gravel as the slow crack . . . crack . . . of an officer's automatic sounded, finishing the wounded. Then they moved off to the Santander party's left, heading north up the winding road through the dun-colored hills.

John waited, motioning the others down with an extended palm. Five minutes passed, then ten. The sun was hot; sweat dripped from his chin, stinging in a scrape, and dripped dark spots into the dust inches below his face with dull plop sounds. Then . . .

"Right," he muttered.

Two squads of Land soldiers rose from where they'd hidden among the tumbled dead and wagons, fell into line with their rifles over their shoulders and moved off after their comrades at the quickstep.

"Tricky," Smith said. "What'll we do now, sir?"

"We go down there," John said, standing and extending a hand to help Pia up. "Pick up supplies and head south along that road toward Salini just as fast as the horses can stand."

Pia looked down towards the road and quickly away. Smith hesitated. "Ah, sir . . . if it's all the same . . ."

"Do it," John said. Smith shrugged and turned to call out to the others.

No harm in explaining, as long as it isn't a question of discipline, Raj prompted him.

John nodded; to Raj, but Smith caught the gesture and paused.

"We can move faster on the road," John said. "Also if we don't have to stop for food, including oats for the horses. That detachment was clearing the way for a regimental combat team. With our remounts, we can outrun them."

Smith blinked in thought, then drew himself up. "Yessir," he said, with a small difficult smile. "Just didn't like the idea of, well—"

Pia's hand tightened in John's. "That was what happens to the weak," she said unexpectedly. "We're all going to have to become . . . very strong, Mr. Smith. Very strong, indeed."

The Santander party moved forward over the crest and down the slope towards the road, leading their horses over the rough uneven surface speckled with thorny bushes. The shod hoofs thumped on dirt, clattered against rocks with an occasional spark. None of the humans spoke. Then Johns head came up.

What's that noise? he thought.

A thin piping. Pia stopped. "Quiet!" she said.

John put up his hand and the party halted. That made the sound clearer, but it had that odd property some noises did, of seeming to come from all directions.

the sound is—Center began.

Pia released John's hand and walked over to the body of the woman who'd shot herself rather than be captured by the Land soldiers. John opened his mouth to call her back, then shut it; Pia had probably—certainly—seen worse than this in the emergency hospital back in Ciano.

The Imperial girl rolled the woman's body back John could see her pale; the soft-nosed slug from the derringer had gone up under the dead woman's chin and exited through the bridge of her nose, taking most of the center of her face with it. Not instantly fatal, although it would have been a toss-up whether she bled out from that first or from the bayonet wound through the kidneys.

an infant, Center concluded, as Pia picked up a cloth-wrapped bundle from where the woman's body had concealed it. She knelt and unbound the swaddlings. John came closer, close enough to see that it was a healthy, uninjured boychild of about three months—and reassured enough by the contact to let out an unmistakable wail. Also badly in need of a change; Pia ripped a square from the outer covering and improvised.

"There's a carrying cradle on the saddle of that horse, I think," she said, without looking up. "Why doesn't someone get it for me and save the time?"

Don't even try, kid, Raj said at the back of John's mind.

Nightmare images of himself trying to convince Pia that it was impossible to carry a suckling infant on a forced-march journey through the disintegrating Empire flitted through John's mind. He smiled wryly, even then.

Besides, he thought, looking down at the road, there's been enough death here.

"Sinders, do that," he said aloud. "Let's get moving. And if there's a live nanny goat down there, somebody truss it and put it over one of the spare horses."

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