The chosen s. M. Stirling and David Drake

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The throng filling the Salini waterfront had the voice of surf on a gravel beach: harsh, sometimes louder or softer, but never silent. A mindless, inhuman snarl.

The bridge of the protected cruiser McCormick City was crowded as well. Many of those present were civilians whose only business was to speak with Commodore Maurice Farr, Officer Commanding the First Scouting Squadron. The situation didn't please Farr. Captain Dundonald, the flagship's captain, was coldly livid, though openly he'd merely pointed out that the admiral's bridge and cabin in the aft superstructure would provide the commodore with more space.

Farr sympathized with his subordinate, but "subordinate" was the key word here. He had no intention of removing himself to relative isolation while trying to untangle a mare's nest like the evacuation of Santander citizens and their dependents from Salini. Farr was sleeping in the captain's sea cabin off the bridge, forcing Dundonald to set up a cot in the officers' library on the deck below.

"Commodore Farr," said Cooley, spokesman for the captains of the five Santander freighters anchored in the jaws of the shallow bay that served Salini for a harbor, "I want you to know that if you don't help us citizens like your orders say to, you'll answer to some damned important people! Senator Beemody is a partner in Morgan Trading, and there's other folk involved who talk just as loud, though they may do it in private."

Three of the other civilian captains nodded meaningfully, though grizzled old Fitzwilliams had the decency to look embarrassed. Fitz had left the navy after twelve years as a lieutenant who knew he'd never rise higher in peacetime. That was a long time ago, but listening to a civilian threaten a naval officer with political consequences still affected Fitzwilliams in much the way it did Farr himself.

"Thank you, Captain Cooley," Farr said. "I'll give your warning all the consideration it deserves. As for the specifics of your request . . ."

He turned to face the shore, drawing the civilians' attention to the obvious. The Salini waterfront crawled with ragged, desperate people for as far as the eye could see. The McCormick City and two civilian ferries hired by the Santander government were tied up at the West Pier. A hundred Santander Marines and armed sailors guarded the pierhead with fixed bayonets.

Behind them, the six staff members of the Santander consulate in Salini sat at tables made from boards laid on trestles. The vice-consuls poured over huge ledgers, trying to match the names of applicants to the register of Santander citizens within the Empire.

The job was next to hopeless. No more than half the citizens visiting the Union had bothered to register. The consulate staff was reduced to making decisions on the basis of gut instinct and how swarthy the applicant looked.

Every human being in Salini—and there must have been thirty thousand of them as refugees poured south as the Shockwave ahead of unstoppable Chosen columns—wanted to board those two ferries. Farr's guard detachment had used its bayonets already to keep back the crowd. Very soon they would have to fire over the heads of a mob, and even that wouldn't restrain desperation for long.

"Gentlemen," Farr said, "the warehouses on Pier Street might as well be on Old Earth for all the chance you'd have of retrieving their contents for your employers. If I landed every man in my squadron, I still couldn't clear the waterfront for you. And even then what would you do? Wish the merchandise into your holds? There aren't any stevedores in Salini now. There's nothing but panic."

Farr's guard detachment daubed the forelocks of applicants with paint as they were admitted to the pier. It was the only way in the confusion to prevent refugees from coming through the line again and again, clogging still further an already cumbersome process.

A middle-aged woman with a forehead of superstructure gray leaped atop a table with unexpected agility, then jumped down on the other side despite the attempt of a weary vice-consul to grab her. She sprinted along the pier. Two sailors at the gangway of the nearer ferry stepped out to block her.

With an inarticulate cry, the woman flung herself into the harbor. Oily water spurted. One of the Santander cutters patrolling to intercept swimmers stroked to the spot, but Farr didn't see her come up again.

"There's a cool two hundred thousand in tobacco aging in the Pax and Morgan Warehouse," Cooley said. "Christ knows what all else. Senator Beemody ain't going to be pleased to hear he waited too long to fetch it over."

This time he was making an observation, not offering a threat.

Salini's Long Pier was empty. The two vessels along the East Pier, itself staggeringly rotten, had sunk at their moorings a decade ago.

The wooden-hulled cruiser Imperatora Giulia Moro still floated beside the Navy Pier across the harbor, but she was noticeably down by the stern. The Moro had put out a week before along with the rest of the Imperial Second Fleet under orders from the Ministry in Ciano. The Second Fleet was a motley assortment. Besides poor maintenance and inadequate crewing levels, all the vessels had in common was their relatively shallow draft. That made operation in the Gut less of a risk than it would have been for heavier ships, since the Imperial Navy's standard of navigation was no higher than that of its gunnery.

The Moro had limped back to her dock six hours later. She hadn't been out of sight of the harbor before her stern seams had worked so badly that she was in imminent danger of sinking. Now her decks were packed with refugees to whom the illusion of being on shipboard was preferable to waiting on land for Chosen bayonets.

The Mora's crew had vanished in the ship's boats, headed across the Gut to Dubuk in Santander. Farr couldn't really blame them. Those men were likely to be the fleet's only survivors—unless the other vessels had cut and run also.

A steam launch chuffed toward the McCormick City's port quarter, opposite the pier. A Sierra flag hung from the jackstaff. Diplomats? At any rate, another complication on a day that had its share already. For the moment, Captain Dundonald's crew could deal with the matter.

The remaining civilian present on the bridge was the one Farr had sent armed guards to summon: Henry Cargill, Santander's consul in Salmi and the official whose operations Farr was tasked to support. Turning from the bridge railing—brass at a high polish, warmly comforting in the midst of such chaos—Farr fixed his glare on the haggard-looking consul.

"Mr. Cargill," Farr said, "if we don't evacuate this port shortly there will be a riot followed by a massacre. I have no desire to shoot unfortunate Imperial citizens, and I have even less desire to watch those citizens trample naval personnel. When can we be out of here?"

"I don't know," the consul said. He shook his head, then repeated angrily, "I'm damned if I know, Commodore, but I know it'll be sooner if you let me get back to the tables. I'm supposed to be spelling Hoxley now—for an hour. Which is all the sleep he'll get till midnight tomorrow!"

Cargill waved at the waterfront. The refugees stood as dynamically motionless as water behind a dam—and as ready to roar through if a crack appeared in the line of Santander personnel.

"They're coming from the north faster than we can process the ones already here," he continued. "Formally, I have orders to aid the return of Santander citizens to the Republic. Off the record, I have an expression of the governments deep concern lest large numbers of penniless refugees flood Santander."

A party of armed men had pushed their way through the crowd to the pierhead. Farr tensed for a confrontation, then relaxed as the guard detachment passed the new arrivals without even painting their foreheads. There were women among them, and unless the distance was tricking Farr's eyes, some of the men wore portions of Santander Marine dress uniforms.

Cargill bitterly quoted, "The Ministry trusts you will use your judgment to prevent a situation that might tend to embarrass the government and draw the Republic into quarrels that are none of our proper affair.' The courier who brought that destroyed the note in front of me after I'd read it, but I'm sure the minister remembers what he wrote. And the president does, too, I shouldn't wonder!"

Farr looked at the consul with a flush of sympathy he hadn't expected to feel for the man who was delaying the squadron's departure. Consular officials weren't the only people who were expected to carry the can for their superiors in event an action had negative political repercussions. "I see," he said. "I appreciate your candor, sir. I'll leave you to get back to your—"

Ensign Tillingast, the McCormick City's deck officer, stepped onto the bridge with a look of agitation. Behind him were a pair of armed marines and a bareheaded civilian wearing an oilskin slicker.

Tillingast looked from Farr to Captain Dundonald, who curtly nodded him back to the commodore. Farr commanded the squadron, but he didn't directly control the crew of the flagship. He tried to be scrupulous in going through Dundonald when he gave orders, but the natural instinct of the men themselves was to deal directly with the highest authority present in a crisis.

"Sir, he came on the launch," Tillingast said, "I thought I should bring him right up."

The stranger took off his slicker and folded it neatly over his left forearm. Under it he wore the black-and-silver dress uniform of a lieutenant in the Land military service, with the navy's dark blue collar flashes and fourragére dangling from his right epaulet. To complete his transformation he donned the saucer hat he'd carried beneath the raingear.

"I am not of course a spy," the Land officer said with a crisp smile to his surprised audience. He was a small, fair man, and as hard as a marble statue. "The ruse was necessary as we could not be sure the animals out there—"

He gestured toward the crawling waterfront.

"—would recognize a flag of truce."

Drawing himself to attention, he continued, "Commodore Farr, I am Leutnant der See Helmut Weiss, flag lieutenant to Unterkapttan der See Elise Eberdorf, commander of the Third Cruiser Squadron."

He saluted. Farr returned the salute, feeling his soul return to the stony chill that had gripped it every day of his duty as military attaché in the Land.

"I am directed to convey Unterkapttan Eberdorf's compliments," Weiss said, "and to inform you that she is allowing one hour for neutral shipping to leave the port of Salmi before we attack."

"I see," Farr said without inflection.

The ships of Farr's squadron were almost as heterogeneous a group as the Imperial Second Fleet. The McCormick City was a lovely vessel—6,000 tons, twenty knots, and only five years old. She mounted eight-inch guns in twin turrets fore and aft, with a secondary battery of five-inch quick-firers in ten individual sponsons on the superstructure. The Randall was five years older, slower, and carried her four single eight-inch guns behind thin gunshields at bow and stern. Farr was of the school that believed armor which wasn't at least three inches thick only served to detonate shells that might otherwise have passed through doing only minor damage.

At least the Randall's secondary battery had been replaced with five-inch quick-firers during the past year. Guns that used bagged charges instead of metallic cartridges loaded too slowly to fend off torpedo attack.

The Lumberton was older yet, with short-barrelled eight-inch guns and a secondary battery of six-inch slow-firers that had been next to useless when they were designed—at about the time Farr was a midshipman. Last and least, the Waccachee Township wore iron armor over a wooden hull much like the poor Imperatora Giulia Moro across the harbor. She'd never in her career been able to make thirteen knots.

"Attack what?" Captain Dundonald said. "Good God, man! Does this look like a military installation to you?"

Lieutenant Weiss chuckled. "Yes, well," he said. "You must understand, gentlemen, that though it will doubtless take a year or two to reduce the animals to a condition of proper docility, we must first close the cage door. Besides, the squadron needs target practice. We were escorting the transports at Corona."

He eyed the Moro. The brightly clad refugees gave the impression that the ship was dressed in bunting for a gala naval review of the sort the Empire had so dearly loved. "From what those who were present at Corona say, the Imperial main fleet wasn't much more of a danger than that hulk will be."

Farr tried to blank his mind. The image of shells slamming home among the mass of humanity on the Moro was too clear; it would show on his face. And if he spoke, something unprofessional would come out of his mouth.

"Commodore—" said a breathless Ensign Tillingast, bursting onto the bridge again.

"Ensign!" Farr shouted. "What the hell do you think you're doing, breaking in on—"

"Your son, sir," Tillingast said.

"Jeffrey?" Farr blurted. He wished he could have the word back as it came out, even before John Hosten stepped through the companionway hatch.

John was limping slightly. He'd lost twenty pounds since Farr last saw him; and, Farr thought, the boy had lost his innocence as well.

"Sir, I'm sorry," John said. "I became separated from Jeffrey in Ciano. He was in Corona when—"

John appeared to be choosing his words with as much care as fatigue and sleeplessness allowed him. Farr had seen his son's eyes flick without lighting across Weiss' uniform.

"When we last spoke," John resumed, "Jeffrey intended to present himself to a Chosen command group. He felt association with Land forces was of more benefit to his professional development and that of the Republic's army than remaining with the Imperials would be."

Lieutenant Weiss allowed himself a tight smile. Captain Dundonald ostentatiously turned his back.

"I'm confident that so long as my sons live, they'll do their duty as citizens of the Republic of the Santander," Farr said, his voice as calm as a wave rising on deep water. "As will their father."

If at full strength—probable since Weiss said they hadn't seen action—the Land's Third Cruiser Squadron would be four nearly identical modern vessels. They were excellent sea boats and faster than even the McCormick City—unless their hulls were foul; don't assume the enemy is ten feet tall, though be prepared in case he is.

On the other hand, the cruisers were small ships, less than 3,000 tons standard displacement. The ten ten-centimeter quick-firers each carried in hull sponsons were no serious gunnery threat to Farr's squadron . . . but the three torpedo tubes were another matter. Corona had proved how effective Chosen torpedoes could be.

"Lieutenant Weiss," Farr said. "I have orders to give to my command before I reply to your message. I'd like you to remain present so that you can provide your superior with a full accounting."

Weiss clicked his heels to emphasize his nod.

"Commander Grisson," Farr said to his staff secretary, "Signal the squadron, 'Under way in ten minutes.'"

That was a bluff. His ships had one or at most two boilers lighted to conserve coal at anchor. Peacetime regulations. . . . Still, Eberdorf had kept her cruisers over the horizon, so by the time Weiss returned with Farr's reply more than the "hour's deadline" would have passed.

"Make it so, Ryan!" Dundonald snapped to his own signals officer, staring wide-eyed from the wheelhouse. The McCormick City's captain had no intention of standing on ceremony now.

"Gentlemen," Farr continued to the freighter captains watching from the starboard wing of the bridge, "as senior military officer present, I'm asserting federal control over your vessels. You will dock—"

"You can't do that!" Captain Cooley said.

"I have done it, Captain," Farr said without raising his voice. "And if you want to return to Santander in the brig of this vessel, just open your mouth once more."

Cooley started to speak, took a good look at the commodore's face, and nodded apology.

Bells rang through the McCormick City's compartments. A gun fired a blank charge as an attention signal; yeomen tugged at the flag halyards, relaying the commodore's orders to the rest of the squadron.

"You will take on board as many civilians as possible," Farr resumed. "By that I mean as many as you can cram on board with a shoehorn. I don't care if you've only got a foot of freeboard showing—it's just eighty miles to Dubuk and the forecast is for calm. Mr. Cargill—"

"Yes." There was a trace of a smile on the consul's worn visage.

"Your personnel will direct civilians onto the transports. Any processing can be done after we dock in Dubuk. I'll leave you forty men for traffic control, which I trust will be sufficient."

"Giving those poor wops their lives back should be sufficient in itself, sir," Cargill said. "Thank you."

"The remainder of the shore party will be broken down into five twelve-man detachments, Grisson," Farr said. "They will board the federalized transports in order to aid the civilian crews in recognizing naval signals."

"In view of the need for haste, sir," Grisson said, "I assume the signal detachments will proceed directly to their new assignments rather than returning to their home vessels to deposit their sidearms?"

"That's correct," Farr said. Grisson was a nephew of Farr's first wife; a very able boy.

"Commodore," Captain Fitzwilliams said, "I don't guess I've forgotten the signal book in the twenty years I been out. Don't short your gun crews for the sake of the Holyoke. We'll be where you put us."

Farr returned his attention to Lieutenant Weiss. The Land officer's face had somehow managed to become even harder and more pale than it had been when he arrived.

"Lieutenant," Farr said, "I regret that I will be unable to comply with Commander Eberdorf's request because it conflicts with my orders to aid the consular authorities to repatriate Santander citizens from Salini. As you've heard, I've taken measures to streamline the process. I'm afraid the loading will nonetheless continue until after nightfall."

Weiss' eyes were filled with cold hatred. Farr suppressed a wry smile. His own feeling toward the Chosen officer were loathing, not hatred.

"Until the process is complete, I must request that Land military forces treat Salini as an extension of the Republic of the Santander," Farr continued. With age had come the ability to sound calm when the world was very possibly coming apart. "I regret any inconvenience this causes Commander Eberdorf or her superiors. Do you have any questions?"

"I have no questions of a man who doesn't know his duty to his country, Kommodore," Weiss said.

"When I have questions about my duty, Lieutenant Weiss," Farr said in a voice that trembled only in his own mind, "it will not be a foreigner I ask for clarification."

Weiss began to put on his oilskins methodically. His eyes were focused a thousand miles beyond the bulkhead toward which he stared.

The freighter captains had been exchanging looks and whispers. Now Captain Cooley spat over the railing and said, "Commodore? The rest of us reckon we can figure out naval signals, too, until this business gets sorted out back home."

He nodded toward the waterfront and added, "Only don't count on that lot being on board by nightfall. If we're not still at the dock at daybreak, then my mother's a virgin."

The Land officer strode for the companionway without saluting or being dismissed.

"Lieutenant Weiss?" Farr called. Weiss stopped and nodded curtly, but he didn't turn around.

"Please inform your superior that if she's dead set on having a battle," Farr said, "we can offer her a better one than her colleagues appear to have found at Corona."

Weiss trembled, then stepped down the companionway.

Farr had never felt so tired before in his life. "Commander Grisson," he said, "Signal the squadron, 'Clear for action.'"

* * *

"This is the first time I've seen Corona, Jeffrey," Heinrich said. "The regiment dropped north of town and we never had occasion to work back." He chuckled. "Not such a tourist attraction as I'd been told."

A tang of smoke still hung in the air ten weeks after Land forces overran the city. Work gangs had cleared the streets, using rubble from collapsed structures to fill bomb craters, but there'd been no attempt to rebuild.

There was no need for reconstruction. The port city's surviving civilian population had been removed from what was now a military reservation closed to former citizens of the Empire.

Corona was the node which connected the conquering armies to their logistics bases in the Land. Protégés from the Land performed all tasks. Labor here was too sensitive to be entrusted to slaves who hadn't been completely broken to the yoke. Convoys of vehicles were pouring up from the docks: steam trucks, Land military-issue mule wagons, and a medley of impressed Imperial civilian transport pulled by everything from oxen to commandeered race horses. There was little disorder; military police were out in force directing traffic, wands in their hands and polished metal brassards on chains around their necks. Troops marched by the side of the road, giving way to Heinrich and Jeffrey on their horses. The Chosen officer exchanged salutes with his counterparts as they passed, running a critical eye over the Protégé infantry.

It wasn't the smoke that made Jeffrey Farr's nose wrinkle as he dismounted and handed the reins to the Protégé groom who'd run at his stirrup from the remount corral at the edge of town. Nobody'd made an effort to find all the bodies in the wreckage either. Some of them must be liquescent by now. Well, he'd smelled plenty of other dead bodies in the past weeks. Humans weren't as bad as horses, and nothing was as bad as a ripe mule.

"So," the Chosen colonel said with a grin, "I hope our honored guest found his tour of our new territories to have been an interesting one?"

"Rather a change from the round of embassy parties I expected when I was posted to Ciano, that's true, Heinrich," Jeffrey said. Part of him wanted to bolt for the gangplank of the City of Dubuk, the three-stack liner chartered by the Santander government to repatriate its citizens through Corona. There was no need to do that. Heinrich liked him.

And, God help him, he liked Heinrich. The blond colonel epitomized the virtues the Land inculcated in its Chosen citizens: courage, steadfastness, self-reliance, and self-sacrifice.

You don't have to hate them, lad, said Raj Whitehall in Jeffrey's mind. Just crush them the way you would a scorpion.

Though Jeffrey'd seen plenty to hate as well.

Jeffrey lifted the rucksacks paired to either side of his saddlehorn and threw them over his left shoulder. He'd picked up his kit on the move. Clothing, mostly; all of it Land-issue. Life with Heinrich's fire brigade was dangerous enough without being mistaken for an Imperial infiltrator. He'd replace it on board if possible. Already late arrivals boarding the Dubuk were giving him hard looks.

"Very luxurious, no doubt," Heinrich said, eyeing the liner critically. "Well, I don't begrudge you that. I'm looking forward to a transient officers' hostel with clean sheets tonight myself. And a few someones to warm them with me, not so?"

The City of Dubuk's whistle blew a two-note warning: a minute till the gangplank rose. Crewmen were already taking aboard lines preparatory to undocking. If Jeffrey had missed this ship, he would have had to take a freighter to the Land and there transship to Santander. At least for the present the Chosen had embargoed all regular trade between their newly conquered territories and the rest of Visager.

a pity, that, said Center. but clandestine supply routes into the area will be sufficient to support our low-intensity guerilla operations.

Jeffrey was very glad he was here to board the Dubuk. After the campaign he'd just watched, he didn't want to be around the Chosen any longer than necessary.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Heinrich," he said. "And your help in getting me here in time to save a long swim home."

Heinrich laughed and leaned from his saddle to clasp Jeffrey Chosen-fashion, forearm-to-forearm with hands gripping beneath one another's elbow. "An excuse to take my troops out of the field," he said as he straightened. "I'm not the only one who appreciates a little rest and recreation."

The Dubuk's whistle blew its full three-note call. Heinrich kicked his horse forward so that its forehooves rested on the gangplank. The animal whickered nervously at the hollow sound. A sailor on the deck above shouted a curse.

"Go then, my friend," Heinrich said. He smiled. "And tell the person who just spoke that if his tongue wags again, I will ride aboard and add it to my other trophies."

Jeffrey started up before someone on shipboard said the wrong thing in trying to clear the gangplank. He knew Heinrich too well to take the threat as a joke.

Nor would I count on the fact he likes you making much difference in the way Heinrich carries out his duties, lad, Raj said. Nor should it, of course.

A middle-aged civilian and the Dubuk's purser waited for Jeffrey at the head of the ramp. Their grim expressions faded to guarded question when they viewed the diplomatic passport he offered them.

Jeffrey tugged the sleeve of his Land uniform tunic. "I was in the wrong place when the fighting broke out," he said in a low voice. "If you can help me find the sort of clothes human beings wear, I'd be more than grateful."

"Jeffrey, my friend?" Heinrich called as he let his nervous horse step back. A hydraulic winch immediately began to haul the gangplank aboard. "When you have rested, come visit me again. These animals will be providing sport for years, no matter what the Council says!"

Jeffrey waved cheerfully, then moved away from the railing. If Heinrich could no longer see him, he was less likely to shout something that would put Jeffrey even more on the wrong side of an us-and-them divide with everyone else aboard the City of Dubuk. "Needs must when the Devil drives," he murmured to the men beside him.

"You're related to John Hosten, I believe, sir?" the civilian asked in a neutral voice.

his name is beemer, Center said. he is deputy director of the ministry's research desk, though his cover is consular affairs.

"John's my brother," Jeffrey said thankfully. "Stepbrother, really, but we're very close."

Beemer nodded. "I'll see about replacing your clothes, sir," he said. To the purser he added, "Ferrington? I only need one of the rooms in my suite. I suggest we put Captain Farr in the other one. I know his brother."

The purser still looked puzzled, but he shrugged and said, "Certainly, Mr. Beemer. Captain Farr? That'll be Suite F on the Boat Deck. Would you like a steward to take your luggage there?"

The City of Dubuk blew a deep blast. The pair of tugboats on the vessel's harbor side shrilled an answer. Their propellers churned water, taking up the slack in the hawsers binding them to the liner.

Jeffrey hefted his saddlebags with a wan smile. "Thank you, I think I'll be able to manage on my own," he said. "If you gentlemen don't mind, I'll watch the undocking from the bow."

"Of course," said Beemer equably. "I hope you'll have time during the trip to chat with me about your recent experiences."

"Whatever you'd care to do, captain," the purser said. "So far as the crew of the City of Dubuk is concerned, this is an ordinary commercial voyage. We're here to assist you."

Jeffrey paused. "For a while there," he said, "I didn't think I'd ever see home alive."

And that was the truth if he'd ever told it. He bowed to the two men and walked forward. The deck shivered with the vibration of the tugs' engines.

Center? he asked. Did Dad think Eberdorf would attack the harbor while he was there?

There was no chance of that, lad, Raj said. Commander Eberdorf spent the past three years at a desk in the navy's central offices in Oathtaking. She's too politically savvy to start a second major war while the first one's going on.

The City of Dubuk swayed as she came away from the dock. The lead tug signaled with three quick chirps.

But did Dad know that? Jeffrey demanded.

your father does not have access to the database that informs your decisions—and those of raj, Center replied after a pause that could only be deliberate. nor does he have my capacity for analysis available to him. he viewed the chance of combat as not greater than one in ten, and the risk of all-out war resulting from such combat as in the same order of probability.

Jeffrey put his hand on the wooden railing. It had the sticky roughness of salt deposited since a deckhand had wiped it down this morning.

Dad thought the risk was better than living with the alternative.

At the time Jeffrey's link through Center had showed him the scene on the bridge of the McCormick City, his own eyes had been watching Heinrich and two aides torturing a twelve-year-old boy to learn where his father, the town's mayor, had concealed the arms from the police station.

The ship swayed again, this time from the torque of her central propeller as she started ahead dead slow.

I was so frightened . . . but I'd never have spoken to Dad again if he'd permitted a massacre like the ones I watched.

I had men like your father serving under me, Raj said. They could only guess at the things Center would have known, but they still managed to act the way I'd have done.

The City of Dubuk whistled again, long and raucously, as all three propellers began to churn water in the direction of home.

I've always thought those people were the greatest good fortune of my career, Raj added.

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