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Chapter Two

"Ya gotta love it," Gerson Tao said, collapsing theatrically on Van Krief's bunk. The ensign was larger than most of his class, if not of the massive stature of their instructor, and while he kept up with the studies, he was never going to make honor graduate. "Come up with three alternates to a campaign I'd never heard of before today?"

"Two campaigns," the ensign said. "And get up, you're ruining my dressing."

"Well, excuse me," Tao said, getting up and expertly tightening the blue woolen blanket on the bunk. When he was done a bronze chit would bounce off it.

"Hmmm," the female ensign said, picking up a book and leafing through the pages until she got to a map. "I read the alternate plans in here somewhere . . ."

"What?" Tao replied, sitting up as the door opened. "What is that?"

"Mo," Ensign Asghar Destrang said, walking into the room without knocking. The ensign was a tall, elegant young man with sandy hair and an abstracted manner. But the three had sparred enough to know that while he did not have Tao's mass he was lightning quick. And all the thoughtfulness he gave to his studies came out when he had a sword in his hand. "I'm reading about the Myanmar campaign . . ."

"Is that Defeat Into Victory?" Van Krief asked, not bothering to look up. "Read it."

"Why am I not surprised?" Destrang said with a grin. He was a thin young man, just starting to get his full adult form. But his forearms were corded with wiry muscles and like the rest he moved with a confidence that was sometimes belied by his abstracted frown. "What have you got?"

"American Caesar," Van Krief replied. "It's the biography, more of a hagiography, of MacArthur and covers Korea in great detail. There's things in it that only make sense if you know some of the details the writer left out, though."

"My brain hurts," Tao said, grabbing his head. "Who is MacArthur? Where in the hell is Myanmar? Why does any of this matter? How do you know what to study? In advance? Been getting some sideline tutoring?"

"Tao . . ." Destrang warned, angrily.

"Jesus," Tao said, immediately, looking at Van Krief. "I didn't mean it like that, you know that Mo." He looked at the female ensign pleadingly.

"As far as I know, Captain Herrick has never even noticed me as a female," Van Krief said, tightly. "I'll assume that you've just managed to put your foot in your mouth, again. God knows it's big enough."

"I said I was sorry," Tao said. "But, really, how do you know?"

Van Krief thought about that and then she shrugged.

"Captain Herrick is not much older than we are," she said. "And while he's far more experienced in war, he, from what I've gleaned, was not a scholar before he was assigned to the Academy. He hits particular areas and stays there for a while. He caught me out when he started talking about the communist war in Chin and the American defeat in Vietnam, but after that I realized he was concentrating on the twentieth century in Asia. From there I researched all the books related to that area and period and started reading them as fast as I could. There are only so many that survived the Fall. Captain Herrick has access to Duke Edmund's library, as well, but he seems to be drawing on historical actions that are in books in the Academy library. Personally, I think he's doing that so we can do the research he assigns and tries to limit himself to what he knows is available. So if you work at it, you can stay ahead of the assignments."

"That's . . . twisted," Destrang said.

"It's using intelligence and planning to stay ahead of your enemy's thoughts," the female ensign said with a grin. "Call it . . . subtle. Now, Asghar," she continued, looking at Destrang. "I'll help you find the relevant sections in there if you'll help me with that damned engineering assignment."

"What's so hard?" the ensign replied, picking up a sheet of paper with a vague sketch on it. "It's just bridge design."

"It's the schedule he required," Van Krief answered. "I can design the bridge, it's a straightforward pile bridge like we made in Blood Lords school, just bigger. But first you have to come up with the materials list, then a plan to gather the materials, then implementation. With a single legion."

"Legion and supports," Destrang said, sitting down. "Don't forget the camp followers. You're allowed six hundred camp followers as well; which is low according to the texts. Of those, some two hundred are going to be male. Some of them are semicritical servants, make it a hundred and fifty available. You don't assemble the materials and then get started, you start to assemble the materials and then as soon as you have a certain amount you devote most of the legion to building while the camp followers continue cutting trees. You're the one that keeps reading ahead, you might want to think back instead to Gallic Wars."

"Ah," Van Krief replied, with a smile. "But there's no mention of using the camp followers in there."

"The Romans didn't organize theirs the way that we do," Tao noted. "All the sutlers and other . . . ahem . . . 'support personnel' . . . have to be bonded."

"'Ahem?'" Van Krief asked with a frown.

"Whores." Destrang chuckled. "And the latter have to be examined by bonded medical personnel as well. But the latter don't enter into the equation, much, because pregnancy rates run as high as thirty percent."

"Dear God," Van Krief replied, thinking about trying to keep up with a legion while pregnant. From her own time with the legions she was aware of the "ahem . . . support personnel" but she'd never accessed any of them or done much more than nod at the occasional one that she met outside the female latrines.

"It's not as well organized as it could be," Tao said, frowning. "Dame Daneh has been bitching about it for the last several months."

"And when Duke Edmund's wife is unhappy," Destrang said, grinning, "everybody's unhappy. I can see the mass distribution of latex condoms in the near future."

"We've gotten a little afield here," the female ensign said, unconsciously crossing her legs. "How much do you think we can work together on this?"

"The engineering project we probably can complete as a team project," Destrang replied. "Herrick's going to want individual answers. I've got mine for Myanmar in mind already. But you guys are going to have to come up with them on your own."

"Damn," Tao muttered. "Mind if I look at that book?"

"Not at all," Destrang said, tossing it through the air. "Catch."

"I'm wondering if it's going to matter," Van Krief said, biting her lip.

"Why?" Destrang asked.

"Why did Duke Edmund send for our instructor?" Van Krief replied.

* * *

"What is that . . . delightful smell?" Herzer asked as he walked into the duke's office unannounced.

"Coffee!" Edmund cried, standing up and going over to a samovar. He poured some black liquid out in a cup and handed it to the captain. "Taste!"

"Bleck," Herzer said. "Tastes like used oil."

The duke was looking a bit older every year, Herzer thought. He was still moving with fluid grace, but there was getting to be more salt than pepper in his beard and the motions weren't quite as fluid as when Herzer had first known him. That seemed like a long time but it had been barely four years since Herzer and Edmund's family had stumbled into Raven's Mill after the Fall.

"Try some sugar," Edmund suggested, ladling in a spoonful. "And cream," he added, dumping a dollop in the cup.

Herzer stirred and then sipped again, smiling appreciatively. "Now that's more like it."

"Not as good as a cup of tea, damnit," Edmund replied, walking back around the desk and sitting down. "But there have been ships coming up from the Southern Isles with it. Unfortunately, they've all been calling at Blackbeard Base where those Navy bastards have been diverting it. But Jason managed to get his hands on three hundred kilos for me in the last shipment. Just arrived. How's the class?"

"Good," Herzer admitted. "They think, which is a blessed relief compared to the first group of jugheads that got sent. They don't take what I say for granted so I set them to doing research projects until the reality sinks in. Of course, most of them haven't seen the edge of a blade wielded in anger, but I think they'll do."

"And all qualified Blood Lords?" Edmund said.

"They have to be to attend the Academy," Herzer pointed out. The advanced infantry training course for the growing UFS legions was a ball-buster on purpose. Its graduates were the hard core of the legions, an elite that had proven that they would stop at nothing to excel. The course had proven its worth in the first months after the Fall, defending Raven's Mill from a force ten times their size and stopping it butt cold.

But the course was not just about "fight until you die and drop" but about creating a force that could outmaneuver the enemy in almost any terrain. A force that could drop a hard legion of utter bastards on the enemy's rear and cut off their supplies until they died on the vine. Or run an enemy, even an enemy on horses, ragged. The final exam was four weeks of tortuous marching and camp-building on the route of one of the greatest generals of all time, a man who had personified using inferior force to destroy his enemies by maneuver. The Blood Lords' proud boast was that they could, while wearing full infantry armor and carrying their field gear, run any cavalry unit into the ground over the long haul.

The course was also the go/no-go course for potential officers of the United Free States Federal Army. Any person who wanted to become an officer in the UFS Army, at least in its infantry which was the core of the UFS force, first had to spend time in regular units, at least a year in most cases, then prove they could "hang" with the Blood Lords. Those that did not could run the supply depots or become engineers. They might even make it into the archery corps that gave the Blood Lords a run for the elite money. But they were never going to command legions.

The top graduates from the Blood Lord course were then sent for polishing to the burgeoning Academy. They had a variety of teachers. Civilians who had been history buffs before the Fall. Others who had studied the techniques of preindustrial engineering, people who knew not only how to use a slide rule, but how to make one. And a small group of instructors, like Herzer, who more than anything knew what it was to stand before the charge of a thousand screaming Changed enemies, and beat them into offal. Herzer hadn't gotten his prosthetic by getting his hand caught in a sawmill.

"It'll do," Herzer said, waving the coffee mug. "You didn't call me out of my class just to grill me about my students, or to tell me you've gotten your hands on coffee."

"No, but it's almost a good enough reason," Edmund said. "Four years since I've had a decent cup of caffeinated beverage. Almost makes the other news pale by comparison."

"Ah," Herzer said, leaning back and sipping at the coffee again. Yes, not bad at all. "And the other news is . . . ?"

"New Destiny punched their combat fleet," Edmund replied. "Their orcas and ixchitl have pushed back the mer and delphino scouts, but there's no indication that the main invasion fleet has sailed."

Herzer thought about that as he took another sip. The UFS' New Destiny enemies in Ropasa had started building an invasion fleet almost immediately after the Fall, while the UFS was still being conceived. The fleet was mostly unwieldy caravels and merchant ships. But it included a fair smattering of surface combat units. And, since the UFS had demonstrated the ability of their dragon-carriers to destroy any other ship, dragon-carriers of their own.

"It's a counter carrier mission," Herzer said. Each of the converted clipper ships could carry thirty-six wyverns or ten great dragons. Each of the wyverns could carry three canisters of napalm for dropping on the wooden ships of the enemy fleet. The great dragons could carry nine.

There were never enough of the latter, though. Great dragons were not a permitted Change under the protocols that still held post-Fall. They were survivors of a race that had been created in the heyday of genetic manipulation. A race that, while long-lived, had slowly dwindled in the millennia before the Fall until there were but a handful left on earth. They were intelligent, unlike the wyverns that made up the bulk of both sides' air arm, and just as inventive about destruction as humans. They also were, by and large, mercenaries, unlike the riders of the wyverns who were all UFS officers or enlisted.

But with five carriers in the UFS fleet, they could gut any potential invasion by New Destiny. If they were around to gut it.

"That's my take as well," Edmund said. "The fleet has moved to engage them, though. Current reports are that they are 'highly confident' of success."

"Overconfident?" Herzer asked. "New Destiny has carriers of their own, and Marshal Chansa, while a bastard, is not a dummy. He wouldn't be courting action if he thought he was going to lose."

"Again, you're reading my mind," Edmund said, grimly. "But I'm Eastern Land Command. North Atlantis Command is Admiral Draskovich. I'm not a member of the Balmoran Yacht Club."

"Now, there you've lost me," Herzer replied, setting down the empty cup.

"More?" Edmund asked.

"No, save it for later," Herzer said. "What is the Balmoran Yacht Club and what does it have to do with anything?"

"I got it in a letter from Shar," the general replied, reaching into his desk and pulling out a sheet of paper covered in a crabbed, rectangular hand. "He's not happy where he is."

"Personally, I'd love to be at Blackbeard Base." Herzer grinned. The Fleet base at Bimi island was the home of the mer-people. Since their children were born on land, and were unable to breathe water for at least a year, they had, with some reluctance, given over the protection of their children and new mothers to the UFS forces. For the Blood Lords, who were the chosen guards, it was something of a sinecure; the base was in a pleasant tropical setting and all they had to do was keep in training and make sure no one messed with the mer-children. Off duty there were reefs to explore, fishing, easy access to the island's strong rum and occasional flings with mermaids and naval personnel. The Blood Lords' senior NCO, Sergeant Major Arthur "Gunny" Rutherford, had been semiretired to the posting.

The mer, in turn, skirmished on the front lines of the current conflict, working with the dolphin-form Changed humans called delphinos to watch over the harbors in which the invasion fleet was being prepared. Their enemies were New Destiny's allies among the Changed orcas and ixchitl, manta-raylike beings with shark-mouths and belly harpoons containing a paralyzing neurotoxin. But they continued to skirmish, and watch, in pledge of the protective shield that the UFS maintained over their children. There was a monetary transfer involved, as well. But at heart it was a bond of honor that neither side would break short of death. Certainly not while Herzer or Edmund, who had bled by the side of the mer and delphinos, were alive.

Colonel, now Brigadier General, Shar Chang had been the captain of the experimental dragon-carrier that had carried them on that blood-filled mission of diplomacy. Herzer called him to mind now, a tightly muscled man with eyes crinkled from looking over the bow of a ship. He had been a sailor before the Fall, taking groups out on "tall ships" to give them a taste of old sea life. It was that experience with multimasted ships that had led to his command of the first dragon-carrier. And Herzer had assumed that his experience in dealing with the mer had led to his assignment as the commander of Blackbeard Base.

"Well, I'd thought that Shar would feel the same way," Edmund replied, seriously. "But I was wrong. I'd picked up on some of the politics before, but he finally wrote me a letter that lays it all out, at least from his end. When Sheida became convinced she needed a navy, after I pointed out that control of the sea-lanes was going to be vital, she tapped the only person she knew, Bob Houser, to be the guy to set it up.

"Now, Admiral Houser is a fine guy, but his connection to the sea was racing yachts, specifically from . . ."

"The Balmoran Yacht Club?" Herzer asked.

"You got it. They'd have races and regattas with other yacht clubs and it was very much a club; you only got in if you were the right kind of people. Invitation only. Now, naturally, Houser drew mostly on people that he knew. But there weren't enough 'right' people to fill all the slots, certainly not ones who survived the Fall and the Dying Time. So, for really obvious reasons that he knew and trusted some people and didn't know or trust others, all the plum assignments went to guys from the yacht clubs."

"General Chang wasn't from one of the yacht clubs," Herzer said, puzzled. "What was he doing in charge of the dragon-carrier?"

"Dragon-carriers had been, more or less, an order from Olympus," Edmund said with a grin. "Sheida said: I've got dragons and I've got ships. Let's put them together. The admirals from the yacht club, though, thought it was a terrible idea. They were working on various ballista and trebuchet boats, ships designed to do damage at short range and then board with marines. They'd even requested that they be given command of the Blood Lords and retrain them for boarding."

"Grand," Herzer said, dryly.

"But when the carrier took out six ships, five of them without ever coming in sight of the enemy, much less letting them get a chance to counterattack . . ."

"All of a sudden," Herzer frowned, "carriers got important."

"And all the new carrier commands go to the yacht guys, and Shar, who is their most successful carrier commander, is shuffled off to a minor base to guard babies."

"The mer are bloody important," Herzer said. "No mer, no delphinos; those two are bound like glue. No delphinos, no whalos, because the whales don't talk to us, can't most of the time. No whales and their intelligence system is gone, their communcations . . . The key to that is Blackbeard Base. I'd thought they were sending him there because he was their best man. Not, in their eyes, the one they could afford to lose the most. Are they idiots?"

"No, they're just very shortsighted." Edmund sighed. "I think it's coming to a head with this plan to forward engage Paul's fleet. I wasn't even copied on the information; Sheida asked me about it because it struck her as wrong. If Paul wants to destroy the carriers, why put them in harm's way? Why not find out what's going on at the very least?"

"They've got surface units," Herzer said. "Frigates and cruisers. I'd send them in and try to find out what they've got. It's brutal, but even if you lost a few, you'd get intel on their capabilities. Launch wyverns for long-range penetration; just probe them. Stick and move until you know what's what. They've got time and sea-room."

"The current plan is a straight head-to-head clash, probably off the Onay Islands" Edmund smiled, dryly. "I'm not getting their intel so I can't make an informed judgment. But it doesn't make sense to me, either. Sheida, therefore, has ordered me to move my flag to Newfell Fortress."

"So I take it I'm off the roster of instructors at the Academy," Herzer said.

"Call it temporary duty," Edmund replied. "You look displeased."

"I was enjoying it, tell truth," Herzer replied, then grinned. "Some of those ensigns are real lookers."

"Herzer," Edmund growled, warningly.

"I'm not even looking, much less touching." The very young captain shrugged. "At least, I don't think I'm looking. But we're pretty divorced here from the town and Bast hasn't shown up in a year or so. On the other hand, there's always Estrelle."

"Yes, there is," Edmund said, pursing his lips. "I'll admit that in your case, that doesn't even bother me for some reason."

"It does me, to tell the truth," Herzer said with a shrug. "But that's old history. And the one thing that you know is that if, for some odd reason, she's got something more important to do, you're not going to force her."

Estrelle was the barmaid for Tarmac's tavern, the oldest drinking establishment in Raven's Mill. She was a homunculus, a nonsentient human replica. She was relatively short with long golden hair, high, firm breasts, a heart-shaped face and cornflower blue eyes. Her programming was to serve drinks, clean up, make very small talk and jump into bed with anyone that so much as suggested they might be interested, all other duties being covered of course. And because she was a homunculus, she was as strong as any three human males. Once when Herzer had gotten into a fight in the tavern she had picked the one-hundred-twenty-kilo soldier up off the ground and then wrapped him in a virtually unbreakable wrestling hold.

Edmund did not care for homunculi. He didn't mind them as people, but he disliked the morality of their existence. He knew they were nonsentient. He knew they weren't really human. But he still felt that it was a form of bondage slavery which did not sit well with him. Instead, before the Fall, he used nannite servants. Since the Fall he had had hired help who he tried, often despite their best efforts, to treat as his equals. He might have had this dukeship thrust down his throat, but it didn't mean he had to like being an aristocrat.

Edmund sighed and shook his head.

"Well, that brings up the next little item. I'm going to need some staff to come along. Not much; I'm going to leave the army staff in place with General Ferraz. Which means drawing on the Academy or the Blood Lord facility. What I really need is a group of messengers, the original of aides. You're going to be my primary aide but I want you there with me. Pick a few of your best and brightest. If they don't make me grimace, they're coming with us."

"Okay," Herzer said, frowning slightly. "I know a few that I'd choose but don't get me wrong about one of them just cause she's female."

"I won't; I trust your judgment," Edmund said, "even when it comes to women."


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