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1227 A.F. 
310 Y.O. 

"People are going to think we're weird," Jeffrey said, panting.

"Hell, we are weird, Jeff," John replied.

They fell silent as they raced up the slopes of Signal Hill, past picnicking families and students—it was part of the University Park. The switchbacks were rough enough, but John cut between them whenever there weren't any flowerbeds on the slopes. At last they stood on the paved summit, amid planters and trees in big pots and sightseers paying twenty-five centimes apiece to look through pivot-mounted binoculars at the famous view over Santander City. Jeffrey threw his hand-weights to a bench and groaned, ducking his head into a fountain and blowing like a grampus before he drank.

John stood, concentrating on ignoring the ache in his right foot, drinking slowly from a water bottle he carried at his waist. Signal Hill was two hundred meters, the highest land in the city and right above a bend in the Santander River. From here he could see most of the capital of the Republic: Capitol Square to the northwest, and the cathedral beyond it; the executive mansion with its pillars and green copper roof off to the east, at the end of embassy row. The Basin District, the ancient beginnings of Santander City, was below the hill in an oxbow curve of the river, and the canal basin was on the south bank, amid the factories and working-class districts. Southward the urban sprawl vanished in haze; northward you could just make out the wooded hills that carried the elite suburbs.

The roar of traffic was muted here, the hissing-spark clatter of streetcars, the underground rumble of the subway, the sound of horses and the increasing number of steamcars, even the burbling roar of the odd gas-engine vehicle. He could smell nothing but hot stone and the cool green smells of the park, also a welcome change from most of the city. The sun was red on the western horizon, still bright up here, but as he watched the streetlights came on. They traced fairy-lantern patterns of light over the rolling cityscape, amidst the mellow golden glow of gaslights and the harsher electric glare along the main streets.

He grew conscious of someone watching him: a girl about his own age, but not a student—her calf-length dress was too stylish, and the little hat perched on one side of her head held a quetzal plume. She smiled as he met her eyes, then turned to talk to her matronly companion.

"Looking you over, stud," Jeff said.

John half-grinned. Objectively, he knew he was good-looking enough; tall like his father, with yellow-blond hair and a square-chinned face. And he kept himself in good enough shape . . . but they don't know. His foot twinged.

He punched his brother on the arm. "Like Doreen down in the canteen?" he said. They sat on the grass and passed a towel back and forth. "Thank me for it, bro. If I hadn't gotten you into this weird Chosen stuff you'd still be a weed and skinny. She's eating you with her eyes, my man."

Jeffrey Farr had filled out, although he'd always be slimmer than the son of his foster-mother. Only a trace of adolescent awkwardness remained, and his long bony face was firming towards adulthood.

"Doreen? All she'll do is look. Her folks are Reformed Baptist, you know; I've got about as much chance of seeing her skirt up as I do of getting the Archbishop flat. I tried pinching her butt and she mashed my toe so hard I dropped my tray."

John clucked his tongue. "The Archbishop's butt? Hell, I didn't know you had a taste for older women. . . . Pax, pax!"

Jeffrey lit a slightly sweat-dampened cigarette. "Those things will kill you," John said, refusing the offered pack.

"And the other Officers Training Corps cadets will think I'm a pansy if I don't smoke," Jeffrey said, leaning his elbow on his knee and looking out over the city. "I'll admit, the phys ed side of it is easier because of all this exercise shit you talked me into."

"How's Maurice taking you going into the army?"

Jeffrey shrugged. "Dad's just surprised, is all. Every Farr for five generations has been navy."

"Since the days of wooden ships and iron men," John agreed.

The Republic hadn't had a major land war in nearly seventy years, and the army was tiny and ill-funded. The navy was another matter, since it had always been policy not to let the Empire gain too big an edge.

"More like iron cannon and wooden heads. When do you hear from the diplomatic service?"

"Next week," John said. "But I'm pretty confident."

"You've got the marks for it."

Thanks to Center, he said silently.

Jeffrey's green eyes narrowed and he shook his head. Even Center can't make a silk purse out of a sow's udder, he replied, through the relay that the ancient computer provided.

correct, Center said. i have merely shortened the period of instruction and made possible a broader-based course of study. 

Think we'll have enough time before the Chosen take on the Empire? Jeff thought.

chosen-imperial war within the next two years is a 17% ±3 probability. within the next four, 53% ±5. within the next six, 92% ±7. 

"I should have my commission in a year," Jeff said. "You'll be a member in good standing of the striped-pants-and-spooks brigade."

"Much good it'll do the Empire," John said gloomily, splitting a grass stem between his thumbs.

North lay the rest of the Republic, and the Gut—the narrow waterway that divided the mainland along most of its width. North of the Gut was the Universal Empire, largest of Visager's nations, potentially the richest, and for centuries the most powerful. Those centuries were generations gone.

"And we're doing fuck-all!" Jeff said. "I know politicians are supposed to be dimwits, but the staff over at the Pyramid are even worse, and the admiralty isn't much better, apart from Dad."

"We're doing all we can," John said calmly. "The Republic isn't doing much yet, but some people see what's coming—Maurice, for example. And he's a rear admiral, now. We ought to have some time after they attack the Empire."

"I suppose so," Jeff sighed. "Hey, you keep me on an even keel, did I ever tell you that? Yeah, even the Chosen aren't crazy enough to take on us and the Empire at once. When that starts, people will sit up and take notice—even them." He nodded towards the capitol building's dome.

"Maurice sometimes doubts they'd notice if the Fleet of the Chosen steamed up the river and began shelling them," John said lightly.

"Dad's a pessimist. C'mon, let's get back to the dorm, shower, and grab a hamburger. Maybe Doreen will take pity on me."

* * *

"Teamwork, teamwork, you morons!" Gerta Hosten gasped, hearing the others stumble. "Johan, your turn on point."

The jungle trail was narrow and slick with mud. The improvised stretcher of poles and vines was awkward, would have been awkward even without the mumbling, tossing form of the boy strapped to it. His leg was splinted with branches; the lianas that bound it to the wood were half-buried in swollen-purple flesh.

Gerta dug her heels in and waited until the stretcher came level, then sheathed her knife and took the left front pole. The man she was relieving worked his fingers for a moment, drew his bowie and plunged forward to slash a way for his comrades. She took the left front pole, Heinrich carried both rear poles, and Elke Tirnwitz was on the right front. Johan Kloster moved farther ahead, chopping his way through the vines. Etkar Summeldorf was getting the free ride; he'd broken a leg spearing a crocodile that tried to snack on them while they forded a river yesterday.

They'd eaten a fair bit of the croc. You got nothing supplied in the team-endurance event that concluded the Test of Life. Well, almost nothing: a pair of shorts, a pair of sandals, a cloth halter if you were a girl, and a bowie knife. Then they dropped you and four teammates down a sliderope from a dirigible into the Kopenrung Mountains along the north side of the Land, and you made the best time you could to the pickup station. Nobody told you exactly where that was, either. The Chosen of the Land didn't need to have their hands held. If you couldn't make it, the Chosen didn't need you—and you had better all make it. The Chosen didn't need selfish grandstanders, either.

"Leave me," Etkar mumbled. "Leave me. Go."

"We can't leave you, you stupid git," Elke said in a voice hoarse with worry and fatigue—they were an item, and besides, Etkar had probably saved their lives at the river. "This is a team event. We'd all drop a hundred points if we left you behind."

They'd all saved each other's lives.

It was hot: thirty-eight degrees, at least, and steambath humid. Bad even by the Land's standards. The Kopenrungs were in the far north, nearest to the equator. That was one reason they'd never been intensively developed, that and the constant steep slopes and the lateritic soils. And the leeches, the mosquitoes, the wild boar and wild buffalo and leopards and constant thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Sweat trickled down her skin, adding to the greasy film already there and stinging in the insect bites and budding jungle sores. The rough wood pulled at her arm and abraded the calluses on her palm. Muscles in her lower back complained as she leaned back against the weight of the stretcher and the slope. Branches and leaves swatted at her face.

"Heinrich, min brueder," Gerta said, pacing the words to the muscular effort. "Tell me again how wonderful it is to be Chosen."

Elke made a sharp hissing sound with her teeth. The Fourth Bureau was unlikely to be listening, but you never knew. Heinrich grunted a chuckle.

"Shays," Johan swore. "Shit." There was wonder in his tone.

"What is it?" Gerta asked. She couldn't see more than a few paces through the undergrowth; this section of hillside had burned off a while ago, and the second growth was rank.

"We made it."

"What?" in three strong young voices.

"We made it! That was the clearing we saw back on the crest!"

None of them spoke; they didn't slow down, either. Gerta managed a sweat-blurred glimpse at the mist-shrouded, jungle-covered mountains ahead. They looked precisely like the mist-shrouded, jungle-clad mountains she'd been staring at for the entire past week.

When they broke out of the cover onto the little bench-plateau they broke into a trot by sheer reflex. There were pavilions ahead, and a crowd of people—officers, officials, Protégé servants. A doctor ran forward at the sight of the stretcher.

"How is he?" Elke said.

The doctor looked up and frowned. "The leg doesn't look too bad. Now. He'd have lost it in another twenty hours."

Protégés held out trays. Gerta grabbed at a ceramic tumbler and drank, long and carefully. It was orange juice, slightly salted. She shut her eyes for an instant of pure bliss.

A man cleared his throat. She opened her eyes and snapped to attention with the other members of her team; all but Ektar, who was out with a syringe of morphine in his arm.

The man was elderly, bald, stringy-muscular. He had colonel's pips on the shoulders of his summer-weight uniform, and a smile like Death in a good mood on his wrinkled, bony face. She was acutely conscious of the ring on the third finger of his left hand, an intertwined circlet of iron and gold. The Chosen ring.

"Gerta Hosten, Heinrich Hosten, Johan Kloster, Elke Tirnwitz, Etkar Summeldorf. The ceremony will come later, of course, but it is my honor to inform you that each of you has achieved at least the minimum necessary score in the Test of Life. Accordingly, at the age of eighteen years and six months, you will be enrolled among the Chosen of the Land. Congratulations."

One of the others whooped. Gerta couldn't tell which; she was too busy keeping herself erect. Six months of examinations, tests, psychological tests, tests of nerve, tests of intelligence, tests of ability to endure stress; all topped off with seven hellish days in the Kopenrung jungles—and it was over. 

I'm not going to be a Washout. She'd decided long ago to kill herself rather than endure that; a large proportion of Washouts did. Born in a Protégé cottage, and I'm Chosen of the Land. 

She snapped off a salute, arm outstretched and fist clenched. A blood-boil burst and left red running down her mouth as she grinned; the pain was a sharp stab, but she didn't give a damn.

* * *

"You are a very wealthy young man," the River Electric Company executive said, looking down at the statement in surprise.

"I had some seed money from my stepfather," John explained. "The rest of it comes from commodities deals, mainly." Courtesy of Center's analysis; that made things childishly easy. "And investment in Western Petroleum."

His formal neckcloth felt a little tight; he suppressed an impulse to fiddle with it. The room was on the seventh story of one of the new office buildings between the Eastern Highway and the river, with an overhead fan and shuttered windows that made it cool even on the hot summer's day. The River Electric exec had very little on the broad ebony expanse of his desk, just a blotter and a telephone with a sea-ivory handset. And the plans John had sent in.

"This . . ."

"Mercury-arc rectifier," John supplied helpfully.

"Rectifier, yes, seems to be very ingenious," the executive said.

He was a plump little man with bifocals, wearing a rather dandified cream-colored jacket and blue neckcloth. There was a parrots feather in the band of his trilby where it hung on the rack by the door.

"However," he went on, "at present the River Electric Company is engaged in an extensive, a very extensive, investment program in primary generating capacity. Why should we undertake a risky new venture which will require tying up capital in new manufacturing plant?"

John leaned forward. "That's just it, Mr. Henforth. The rectifier will save capital by reducing transmission losses. The expense of installing them will be considerably less than the savings in raw generating capacity. And the construction can be subcontracted. There are a lot of firms here in the capital, or anywhere in the Eastern Provinces—Tonsville, say, or Ensburg—who could handle this. River Electric's primary focus on hydraulic turbines and turbogenerators wouldn't be affected."

Henforth steepled his fingers and waited.

"And," John went on after the silence stretched, "I'd be willing to buy say, five hundred thousand shares of River Electric at par. Also licensing fees from the patent would be assigned."

"It's definitely an interesting proposition," Henforth said, smiling. "Come, we'll go up to the executive lounge on the roof and discuss this further with some of our technical people." He shook his head. "A young man of your capacities is wasted in the diplomatic service, Mr. Hosten. Wasted."

* * *

"Skirmish order!"

The infantry platoon fanned out, three meters between each man, in two long lines. The first line jogged forward across the rocky pasture, their fixed bayonets glittering in the chilly upland air. Fifty meters forward they went to ground, taking cover behind ridges and boulders. The second line moved up and leapfrogged forward in turn.

Ensign Jeffrey Farr watched carefully through his field-glasses. The movement was carried out with precision. Good men, he thought. The Republic's army wasn't large, only seventy thousand men. It wasn't particularly well-paid or equipped, either; the men mostly enlisted because it was the employer of last resort. Bottle troubles, wife troubles, farm kids bored beyond endurance with watching the south end of a northbound plowhorse, sheer inability to cope with the chaotic demands of civilian life in the Republic's fast-growing cities. They could still make good soldiers if you gave them the right training, and trained men would be invaluable when the balloon went up. The provincial militias were supposed to be federalized in time of war, but as they stood he had little confidence in them.

He raised his hand in a signal. The platoon sergeant blew a sharp blast on his whistle and the men rose from the field, slapping at the dust on their brown tunic jackets. Their stubbled faces looked impassive and tired after the month of field exercises through the mountains.

"Good work, Ensign," his company commander nodded. Captain Daniels was a thickset man of forty—promotion was slow in the peacetime army—with a scar across one cheek where a Union bullet had just missed taking off his face in a skirmish twenty years ago.

"Very good work," the staff observer said. "I notice you're spreading the skirmish line thinner."

"Yes, sir," Jeff said. He nodded at an infantryman jogging by with his weapon at the trail. It was a bolt-action model with six cartridges in a tube magazine below the barrel. "Everyone's getting magazine rifles these days, except the Imperials, and new designs are coming fast and furious. We've got to disperse formations more."

Although to hear some of the fogies talk, they expected to fight in shoulder-to-shoulder ranks like Civil War troops equipped with rifle-muskets.

"Yes, I read that article of yours in the Armed Forces Quarterly," the staff type said. "You think nitro powders will be adopted for small arms?"

major belmody, Center said. A list of biographical data followed.

The major looked pretty sharp, if a little elegant for the field in his greatcoat and red throat-tabs and polished Sam Browne. And being a younger son of the Belmody Mills Belmodys probably hadn't hurt his rise through the officer corps either; thirty-two was damned young to get that high.

"I'm certain of it, sir," Jeff said. The Belmodys were big in chemicals and mining explosives. "No smoke, less fouling, and much higher muzzle velocities, flatter trajectories, smaller calibers so the troops can carry more ammo."

Captain Daniels spoke unexpectedly. "I don't trust jacketed bullets," he said. "They have a tendency to strip and then tumble when the barrel's hot."

"Sir, that's just a development problem. Gilding metal can't take the temperatures of high-velocity rounds. Cupronickel, or straight copper, that's what needed."

The older officer smiled. "Ensign, I wish I was half as confident about anything as you are about everything."

"God knows we could use some young firebrands in this man's army," Major Belmody said. "In any case, you and Ensign Farr must dine with me tonight."

"After I see the men settled in, sir," Jeff said. The major raised an eyebrow and nodded, returning his juniors' salutes.

"You'll do, Farr," Captain Daniels said, grinning, when the staff officer's car had bounced away over the pasture with an occasional chuff of waste steam. "You'll go far, too, if you can learn to be a little more diplomatic about who you deliver lectures to."

* * *

Lieutenant Gerta Hosten leaned back against the upholstery of the seat and watched out the half-open window as the train clacked its way across the central plateau. The air coming in was clean; this close to Copernik the line had been electrified, and the lack of coal smoke and the pounding, chuffing sound of a steam locomotive was a little eerie. There was plenty of traffic on the broad concrete-surfaced road that flanked the railway, too, steam or animal-drawn. This was the most pleasant part of the Land, a rolling volcanic upland at a thousand meters above sea level, cooler and a little drier. The capital had been moved here from Oathtaking only a generation after the first wave of Alliance refugees arrived. Copernik's beginnings went back before the coming of the Chosen, right back to the initial settlement of Visager, but nothing remained of the pre-conquest city. Over the past generation as geothermal steam and then hydropower supplemented coal, it had also become a major manufacturing center.

Gerta watched with interest as rolling contour-plowed fields of sugar cane, rice, soya, and maize gave way to huge factory compounds. One of them held an airship assembly shed, a hundred-meter skeletal structure like a Brobdingnagian barn. The cigar-shaped hull was still a framework of girders, with only patches of hull-cladding where aluminum sheet was being riveted to the structure.

She buttoned the collar of her field-gray walking-out uniform, buckled on her gunbelt with the shoulder-strap, and took up her attaché case. Normally she'd have let her batman carry that, but there were eyes-only documents in it. Nothing ultra-secret, or she wouldn't be carrying them on a train, but procedure was procedure.

Behfel ist Behfel, she recited to herself: orders are orders. She also had a letter from John Hosten in there. Evidently he was doing well down in the Republic; he'd gotten some sort of posting in their diplomatic service.

It was a pity about John.

"Wake up, feldwebel," she said.

Her batman blinked open his eyes and stood, taking down the two bags from the overhead rack. Pedro was a thickset muscular man in his thirties, strong and quick and apparently loyal as a Doberman guard dog. Also about as bright; in fact, she'd owned dogs with more mother-wit and larger vocabularies. It was policy to exclude the upper two-thirds of the intelligence gradient when recruiting soldiers and gendarmes from the Protégé caste. She had her doubts about that, and she'd always preferred bright ones as personal servants. More risk, but greater potential gain.

Behfel ist behfel.  

Hie train lurched slightly as it slowed. The pantograph on the locomotive clicked amid a shower of sparks as they pulled into the Northwest Station. There were many tall blond young men in uniform there, but not the one she instinctively sought. Heinrich wouldn't be waiting for her; that wouldn't be seemly, and anyway she had to report to Intelligence HQ for debriefing.

My lovely Heinrich, she thought. I'd fuck you even if you were my birth-brother. An exaggeration, but he was a dear, and of course incest taboos didn't apply to adoptee-kin. And this time when you ask me to marry you, I'm going to say yes. 

The implications of the documents in her attaché case were clear, if you could read between the paragraphs. It was time to do her eugenic duty to the Chosen; even with servants, infants took up a lot of time and effort. Best do it while there was time.

In a couple of years, they were all going to be very, very busy.



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