K2I AJ=. (After the Fall)
3OS YJO. (Year of the Oath)
Commodore Maurice Fair lifted the uniform cap from his head and wiped at the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. He was standing on the liner docks on the north shore of Oathtaking's superb C-shaped harbor. Behind him were the broad quiet streets of Old Town, running out from Monument Square behind his back. There the bronze figures of the Founders stood, raised weapons in their hands—the cutlasses and flintlocks
common three centuries ago. The Empire-Alliance war had ended an overwhehning Imperial victory. The first thing the Alliance refugees had done was swear a solemn oath of vengeance against those who'd broken their ambitions and slaughtered everyone of their fellows who hadn't fled the mainland.
After three years in the Land of die Chosen as a naval attach^, Farr was certain of two things: their descendants still meant it, and they'd extended the future field of attack from the Empire to everyone else on the planet Visager. Perhaps to the entire universe.
West and south around the bay ran the modern city of Oathtaking, built of black basalt and gray tufa from the quarries nearby. Rail sidings, shipyards, steel mills, factories, warehouses, the endless tenement blocks that housed the Protggg laborers. A cluster of huge buildings marked the commercial center; six and even eight
2 S.M. Stirling 6- David Drake
stories tafl, their girder frames sheathed in granite carved in the severe columnar style of Chosen architecture. A pall of coal smoke lay over most of the town below the leafy suburbs on the hill slopes, giving the hot tropical air a sulfurous taste. A racket of shod hooves sounded on stone-block pavement, die squeal of iron on iron and a hiss of steam, the hoot of factory sirens. Ships thronged die docks and harbor, everything from old-fashioned windjammers in with cargoes of grain from the Empire to modern steel-hulled steamers of Land or Republic build.
Out in die middle of the harbor a circle of islands finked by causeways marked the site of an ancient caldera and the modem navy basin. Near
it moved the low hulk-log gray shape of a battlewagon, spewing black smoke from its stacks. His mind categorized it automatically: Ezerherzoe Grufan, name-ship of her class, launched last year. Twelve thousand tons displacement, four 250-mm rifles in twin turrets fore and aft, eight 175mm in four twin-tube wing turrets, eight 155mm in barbette mounts on either side, 200mm main belt, face-hardened alloy steel Four-stacker with triple expansion engines, eighteen thousand horsepower, eighteen knots.
Tile biggest, baddest thing on the water, or at least it would be until the Republic launched its first of the Ifemocmt-class in eighteen months.
Fair shook his head. Enough. You're going home. He raised his eyes.
Snow-capped volcanoes ringed the port city of Oathtak-ing on three sides. They reared into the ha^ tropical air like perfect cones, their bases overlapping in a tangle of valleys and folds coated with rain forest like dark-green velvet. Below the forest were terraced fields; Fair remembered riding among them. Dusty gravel-surfaced lanes between rows of eucalyptus and flamboyants. A little cooler than down here on the docks; a little less humid. Certainly better smelling than the oily waters of die harbor. Pretty, in a way, the glossy green of the coffee
THE CHOSEN 3
bushes and the orange orchards. He'd gone up there a couple of times, invited up to the manors of family estates by Chosen navy types eager to get to know the Republic's naval attache1. Not bad oscos, some of diem; good sailors, terrible spies, and given to asking questions that revealed much more than they intended.
Also, tiiat meant he got a travel pass for die Oaditak-ing District. There were some spots where a good pair of binoculars could get you a glimpse at die base if you were quick and discreet. Nothing earthshaking, just what was in port and what was in drydock and what was building on the slipways. Confirming what Intelligence got out of its contacts among die Protege" workers in die shipyard. That was how you built up a picture of capabilities, bit by bit. He'd been here diree years now, he'd done a pretty good job—gotten die specs on die
steam-turbine experiments—and it was time to go home.
For more reasons than one. He dropped his eyes to die man and woman talking not far away.
"Would you have been happier if you knew? Would he?"
"How happy would he be when he found out he couldn't be Chosen?"
Karl swallowed and looked very slightly away. He is my son too, he didn't say. Aloud: "There are many fine careers open to Probationers-Emeritus. Johan is an intelligent boy. The University—"
"As a Washout" Sally said, using the cruel slang term for those jvho failed the exacting Trial of Life at eighteen after being born to or selected for the training system. It was far better than Prote'ge' status, anything was, but in die Land of the Chosen . . .
"We've had this conversation too many times," she said.
Karl sighed. "Correct. Let us get this over with."
She looked around. "John!"
John Hosten felt prickly, as if his own skin were too tij^ht and belonged to somebody else. Everyone had been
THE CHOSEN 5
too quiet in the steamcar, after they picked him up at the school. He'd already said good-bye to his friends— he didn't have many—and packed.
Vulf, his dog, was already on board the ship.
/ don't ttxtnt to listen to them fight, he thought, and began drifting away from his mother and father.
That put him near another boy about his own age. Johns eyes slid back to him, curiosity driving his misery away a little. The stranger was skinny and tall, red-haired and freckled. His hair was oddly cut, short at the sides and floppy on top, combed—a foreigner's style, different
from both the Chosen crop and the bowl-cut of a Proti. He wore a thin fabric pullover printed in bizarre colorful patterns, baggy shorts, laced shoes with rubber soles, and a ridiculous looking billed cap.
"Hi," he said, holding out a hand. Then: "Ah, guddag."
"I speak English," John said, shaking with the brief hard clamp of tne Land. English and Imperial were compulsory subjects at school, and he'd practiced with his mother.
The other boy flexed his fingers. "Better'n I speak Landisch," he said, grinning. "I'm Jeffrey Fair. Tliat's my dad over there."
He nodded towards a tall slender man in a white uniform who was standing a careful twenty meters from the Hosten party. John recognized the uniform from familiarization lectures and slides: Republic of Santan-der Navy, officer's lightweight summer garrison version. It must be Captain Farr, the officer Mom had been seeing at the consulate about the citizenship stuff.
7 wish stie'd tell me the truth. I'm not a little kid or an idiot, he thought. That wasn't the only reason she was talking to Maurice Farr so much. "John Hosten, Probationer-hereditary," he replied aloud.
A Probationer-hereditary was born to the Chosen and automatically entitled to the training and the Test of Life; only a few children of Protege's were adopted into the course. Then he flushed. He wasn't going to be a
S.M. Stirling 6- David Drake
Probationer long, and he could never have passed the Test, not the genetic portions. Not with his foot. He couldn't be anything but a Washout, second-class citizen.
"You don't have to worry about all that crap any more," Jeffrey said cheerfully, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the liner Pride of Bosson. "We're all going back to civilization."
The Bag that fluttered from her signal mast had a blue triangle in the left field with fifteen white stars, and two broad stripes of red and white to the right. The Republic of Santander's banner.
John opened his mouth in automatic reflex to defend die Land, then closed it again. He was going to Santan-der himself. To live.
"Y#, we're going," he said. They both looked over towards their parents. "Your mother?"
"She died when I was a baby," Jeffrey said.
There was a crash behind them. The boys turned, both relieved at the distraction. One of the steam cranes on the Bosson's deck had slipped
a gear while unloading a final cargo net on the dock. The Protege" foreman of the docker gang went white under his tan—he'd be held responsible—and
turned to yell insults and complaints up at the liner's deck, shaking his fist. Then he turned and whipped his lead-weighted truncheon across the side of one docker's head. There was a sound like a melon dropping on pavement; the dockers face seemed to distort like a rubber mask. He fell to the cracked uneven pavement with a limp finality, as if someone had cut all his tendons.
"Shit," Jeffrey whispered.
The foreman made an angry gesture with his baton, and two of the dockers took their injured fellow by the arms and dragged him off towards a warehouse. His head was rolled back, eyes disappeared in the whites, bubbles of blood whistling out of his nose. The foreman turned back to the ship and called up to the seamen on the railing, calling for an officer. They looked back
THE CHOSEN 7
at him for a moment, then one silently turned away and walked towards the nearest hatch . . . slowly.
The gang instantly squatted on their heels when the foreman's attention went elsewhere. A few lit up stubs of cigarette; John could smell the musky scent of hemp mingled with the tobacco. A few smirked at the foreman's back, but most were expressionless in a different way from Chosen, their faces blank and doughy under sweat and stubble. They were wearing cotton overalls with broad arrows on them, labor-camp inmates' clothing.
"Hey, that crate's busted," Jeffrey said.
John looked. One wood-and-iron box about three meters on a side had sprung along its top. The stencils on the side read Museum of History and Nature/ Copernik. He felt a stir of curiosity. Copernik was capital of the Land, and die Museum was more than a storehouse; it was the primary research center of die most advanced nation on Visager. He'd had daydreams of working there himself, of finally figuring out some of the mysterious artifacts of the Ancestors, the star-spanning colonizers from Earth. The Federation had fallen over a thousand years ago—it was
1221 A.F. right now—and nobody could understand the enigmatic
constructs of ceramic and unknown metals. Not even now, despite the way technology had been advancing in the past hundred years. They were
as incomprehensible as a steam engine or a dirigible would be to one of the arctic savages.
"What's inside?" he said eagerly.
"C'mon, let's take a look."
The laborers ignored them; John was in a Probationer's school uniform, and Jeffrey was an obvious foreigner— an upper-class boy could go where
he pleased, and the Fourth Bureau would be lethally interested if they heard of Prot6g6s talking to an auzlander. Even in the camps, there was always someplace worse. The foreman was still trading cusswords with the liner's petty officer.
John grabbed at the heavy Abaca hemp of the net and climbed; it was easy, compared to the obstacle courses
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at school. Jeffrey followed in an awkward scramble, all elbows and knees.
"It's just a rock," he said in disappointment, peering through the sprung panels.
"No, it's a meteorite," John said.
The lumpy rock was about a meter across, suspended in an elastic cradle in the center of the crate. It hadn't taken any damage when the net dropped—unlike a keg of brandy, which they could smell leaking—but then,
from die slagged and pitted appearance, it had survived an incandescent journey through the atmosphere. John was surprised that it was being sent to the museum; meteorites were common. You saw dozens in the sky, any night. There must be something unusual about this one, maybe its chemical composition. He reached through and touched it.
"Sort of cold," he said. Not quite icy, but not natural, either. "Feel it."
Jeffrey stretched a long thin arm through the crack. "Yeah, like—"
The universe vanished.
Sally looked over her shoulder. Where was John? Then she saw him, scrambling over the cargo net with another boy. With Maurices son. She
opened her mouth to call them back, then closed it. It's important that they get along. Maurice hadn't made a formal proposal yet, but . . . She turned back.
Karl had his witnesses to either side: his legal children, Heinrich and Gerta, adopted in the fashion of the Chosen. Heinrich was the son of a friend who'd died in an expedition to the Far West Islands; they were dangerous, and the seas between, with their abundant and vicious native life, even more so. The other had been born to Protege" laborers on the Hosten estates and christened Gitana. Karl had sponsored her; she was a bright active youngster and her parents were John's nurse and attendant valet/bodyguard, respectively.
Maria and Angelo stood at a respectful distance; their daughter ignored them. Ex-daughter; no Chosen were as strict as those Chosen from Prote'ge' ranks. She was Gerta Hosten now, not Gitana Pesalozi,
A Chosen attorney exchanged papers with the plump little Santander consul, then turned to Sarah.
"Sarah Hosten, ne'e Kingman, do you hereby irrevocably renounce connubial ties with Karl Hosten, Chosen of the Land?"
"Karl Hosten, do you acknowledge this renunciation?"
"Do you also acknowledge Sarah Hosten as bearing full parental rights to John Hosten, issue of this union?"
"Excepting that John Hosten may continue to claim my name if he wishes, I do." Karl swallowed, but his face might have been carved from the basalt of the volcanoes.
"Heinrich Hosten, Gerta Hosten, Probationers-adoptee of the line of Hosten, do you witness?"
"All parties will now sign, fingerprint and list their geburtsnumero on this document."
Sally complied, although unlike anyone born in the Land of the Chosen she didn't have a birth-number tattooed on her right shoulderblade and memorized like her name. The ink from the fingerprinting stained her handkerchief as she wiped her hands.
The consul stepped forward. "Sarah Jennings Kingman, as representative of the Republic of Santander, I hereby officially certify that your lapsed citizenship in the Republic is fully restored with all rights and duties appertaining thereunto; and that your son John Hosten as issue of your body is accordingly entitled to Santander citizenship also. . . . Where is the boy?"
The universe vanished. John found himself in a ... place. It seemed to be the inside of a perfectly reflective
S.M. Stirling 6- David Drake
sphere, like being inside a bubble made of mirror glass. He tried to scream.
Nothing happened. That was when he realized that he had no throat, and no mouth. No body.
No body no body nobodynobody—
The hysteria damped down suddenly, as if he'd been slipped a tranquilizer. Then he became conscious of weight, breath, himself. For a moment he wanted to weep with relief.
"Excuse me," a voice said behind him.
He turned, and the mirrored sphere had vanished. Instead he saw a room. The furnishings were familiar, and wrong. A fireplace, rugs, deep armchairs, books, table, decanters, but none of them quite as he remembered. A man was standing by a table, in uniform, but none he knew: baggy maroon pants, a blue swallowtail jacket, a belt with a saber; a pistol was thrown on the table beside the glasses. He was dark, darker than a tan could be, with short very black hair and gray eyes. A tall
man, standing like a soldier.
"Where . . . what. . ." John began.
"Attention!" die man said.
"Sir!" John barked, bracing. Six years of Probationer schooling had made that a reflex.
"At ease, son," the dark man said, and smiled. "Just helping you get a grip on yourself. First, don't worry. This is real"—he gestured around
at the room—"but it isn't physical. You're still touching the meteorite in the crate. Virtually no time is passing in die . . . the outside world. When we've finished talking, you'll be back on the dock and none the worse for wear."
"Am I crazy?" John blurted.
"No. You've just had something very strange happen." The smile grew wry. "Pretty much the same thing happened to me, lad. A long time ago, when I wasn't all that much older than you are now. Sit."
John sank gingerly into one of the chairs. It was comfortable, old leather that sighed under his weight. He
sat with his feet on the floor and his hands on the arms of the chair.
"My names Raj Whitehall, by the way. And this"— he waved a hand at the
room—"is Center. A computer."
Despite the terror that boiled somewhere at the back of his mind, John shaped a silent whistle. "A computer? Like the Ancestors had, the Federation? I've read a lot about them, sir."
Raj Whitehall chuckled. "Well, that's a good start. My people thought they were angels. Yes, Center's a holdover from the First Federation. Military computer, Command and Control type. Don't ask me any of the details. Where I was brought up, experts understood steam engines, a little. Look there."