/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Lost Regiment

Men of War

William Forstchen


"A CIVIL WAR SERIES WITH A TWIST."

—Washington Post

The Lost Regiment #1: RALLY CRY The Lost Regiment #2: UNION FOREVER The Lost Regiment #3: TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD The Lost Regiment #4: FATEFUL LIGHTNING The Lost Regiment #5: BATTLE HYMN The Lost Regiment #6: NEVER SOUND RETREAT The Lost Regiment #7: A BAND OF BROTHERS

Praise for William R. Forstchen and The Lost Regiment series “One of the most intriguing writers today in the field of historical military science fiction.”

—Harry Turtledove, bestselling author of Guns of the South “A terrific adventure that’s as good as anything I’ve read in more years than I can remember. First-rate storytelling.”

—Raymond E. Feist, New York Times bestselling author of Krondor, the Betrayal “The label ‘science fiction’ hardly describes this series as a whole, merely the premise. The Lost Regiment series is better described as a Civil War series with a twist.”

—Washington Post ‘Science fiction lovers will cheer.’

-Boy’s Life

THE LOST REGIMENT

MEN OF WAR

William R. Forstchen  

ROC Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

MEN OF WAR

New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England    , First published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

First Printing, December 1999 10 98765 432 1

Copyright © William R. Forstchen, 1999 All rights reserved Cover art by San Julian RoC REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA Printed in the United States of America Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

 

For the men of all the Lost Regiments of the American Civil War, North and South, who gave the last full "measure of devotion and, in so doing, set an undying example of dedication and valor.

 

This series has spun its web around me for more than a decade and it is now difficult to part from it. The desire to write a story in this genre with a Civil War theme formed over fifteen years ago, and I am eternally grateful to John Silbersack, my first editor with Penguin, for embracing an idea that other editors thought a bit mad. My sincere thanks must go as well to my agent, Eleanor Wood. When I became her client twelve years ago the Lost Regiment was the first thing I dropped on her desk, and it was she who saved it and moved it forward.

This series started just as I entered graduate school and is now finished after obtaining tenure at Montreat College, so it has been a constant companion through a lot of changes in my life. My most humble thanks must go to Professor Gunther Rothenberg. Gunther was, and still is, my mentor, and it was an honor to study under him. Dennis Showalter, President of the Society of Military Historians, was a hero of mine years ago, and thus my shock when he called me one day, me a lowly graduate student, to express his delight in Rally Cry. Dennis’s input ever since has been invaluable and his studies of technology, logistics, and wdt are an inspiration. Mention must be made of Professor David Flory as well, a professor second to none. Another inspiration was the role model of L. Sprague de Camp when it came to combining history with science fiction and fantasy.

Numerous friends were advisors and of tremendous help on this project and others, and are deserving of thanks, especially John Mina, Kevin Malady, Maury Hurt, Bill Fawcett, Elizabeth Kitsteiner, Monica Walker, Donn Wright, Tom Sesy, Tim Kindred, Dr. David Delle-croce for discussions on the finer points of the “Moon Fest,” Newt Gingrich, and Jeff Ethell. Any relation to those who served in the 35th is purely coincidence. The community of Montreat College, students, faculty, and administration has been remarkably tolerant of my idiosyncrasies and story writing. It is a rare college today that indulges its professors thus, and I am thankful for their understanding and support.

Of course there is my family, who had to live through all of this, Sharon, Meghan (who learned to sing the “Battle Cry of Freedom” before she was three), and lay parents, who encouraged my interest in history from the start.

There are numerous other names to mention, but publishers are not into acknowledgments that run for pages, nor as a reader do I often take the time to check them out, so we shall close it here. So if you are reading this, my thanks, but it is time to move on with the tale!

—William R. Forstchen Montreat, NC June 1999

Chapter One

Colonel Andrew Lawrence Keane reached up and reverently touched the silken folds of the flag of the 35th Maine. Aged and bloodstained, the fabric was as fragile as the wings of a dying butterfly.

A hundred nameless fields of strife, he thought wistfully. My own blood on that standard, my brother’s, all my comrades. How many of us left? Less than a hundred now. He slowly let his hand drop.

It was early morning, the air heady with the scent of late spring. The grass was up, thick, a lush green, sprinkled with a riot of flowers—blue, yellow, and strange purple orchids unique to this alien world that was now home.

Nature was already hard at work covering over the scars of the bitter winter battle. The deep trenches cut by the besieging Bantag were beginning to erode away, collapsing in on themselves under the incessant drumbeat of the heavy spring rains. Scattered wreckage of battle, discarded cartridge boxes, broken caissons, shell casings, tattered bits of uniform, and even the bones of the fallen were returning to the soil.

His gaze swept across the field, fingering for a moment at the great city of the Roum, looking like a vision of an empire lost to his own world far more than a millennium ago. Pillared temples adorned the hills, the new triumphal arch commemorating the great victory already half-raised in the center of the old forum. Even in the city the scars of the bitter winter battle were beginning to disappear, new buildings rising up out of the wreckage, the distant sound of sawing, hammering; a city being reborn echoed across the fields.

He turned his mount, nudging Mercury with his knees, shifting his gaze to the long lines deployed out behind him, a full corps drawn up for review before heading to the front. It was the glorious old 9th Corps, so badly mauled in the siege. The corps was deployed in battle formation, three divisions, with brigades in column, colors to the fore, occupying a front of more than half a mile. The formation was obsolete for battle use; in an open field it would be torn to shreds by modern firepower. But old traditions died hard, and such a formation could still inspire the ranks, giving them a sense of their strength and numbers.

“They’re starting to look better,” Hans Schuder announced. Andrew looked over to his old friend and nodded, urging Mercury to a slow canter, the flag bearer of the 35th following, as he paraded down the length of the line, saluting the shot-torn standards of the regiments, carefully eyeing the men.

Most of the wear and tear of the winter fight, at least on the exterior, had been repaired … new uniforms to replace the rags that had covered the men by the end of the winter, rifles repaired and well polished, cartridge boxes and haversacks bulging with eighty rounds per man, and five days’ rations.

Here and there the ranks had been replenished with new recruits, but most of the men were veterans: rawboned, tough, lean, eyes dark and hollow. Far too many of the regiments were pitifully small, sometimes down to fewer than a hundred men. Andrew had considered combining units and cutting the corps down to two divisions, but there had been a howl of protest. Regimental pride was as strong on this world as with any army back on the old world, so he had let the formation stand.

Reining in occasionally, he paused to chat, making it a point to single out men who wore the coveted Medals of Honor. Eighteen had been awarded for the siege of Roum, and another five for the units that had flanked the Bantags with Hans Schuder. Self-consciously he looked down at his own medal, given to him personally by President Abraham Lincoln. It still made him feel somewhat guilty that he had thus been singled out. Taking command of the old 35th at Gettysburg after the death of Colonel Estes, he had simply held the line, refusing to budge, the same way the other regiments deployed along Seminary Ridge had fought on that terrible first day of the battle. He had bled the 35th white, lost his only brother, and awakened in the hospital minus an arm. And for that they gave me a medal. He looked over at Hans riding beside him. It wasn’t fair, he thought again. If anyone deserved the medal for that day, it was Hans.

His gaze shifted to a color sergeant from the 14th Roum who had won his medal the hard way, killing over a dozen Bantags in hand-to-hand fighting. Andrew nodded to the sergeant and, as tradition demanded, saluted first in recognition of the medal. The sergeant, really not much more than a boy, grinned with delight and snapped off a salute in return.

“Sergeant, ready to go back up to the front?” Andrew asked, still stumbling over the Latin.

“I think we’re ready, sir.”

Andrew smiled and continued on.

“I think we’re ready,” Andrew said in English, looking over at Hans. “They’ll fight, but they’re worn out.”

“Who isn’t, Andrew?” Hans replied laconically. “The years pass, the fighting continues, the faces keep changing in the ranks. They just keep seem to be getting younger; that boy with the Medal of Honor couldn’t be nineteen.”

“Actually just turned eighteen,” Andrew replied. He looked back again at the boy with the old eyes, and saw the looks of admiration from the others in his company, for Keane had singled him out.

The old game, Andrew thought, “with such baubles armies are led,” Napoleon had once said. Two new awards had been created at the end of the Battle of Roum, and many of the men now wore them, a dark purple stripe on the left sleeve denoting a battle wound, and a silver stripe, also on the same sleeve, for having killed a Bantag in hand-to-hand combat or for a conspicuous display of gallantry. A good third of the corps wore the purple stripe, and several hundred the silver. It just might motivate a frightened boy to stand while others ran.

Coming to the head of the formation Andrew reined in and returned the salute of Stan Bamberg, commander of the 9th Corps and an old gunner of the 44th New York Light Artillery, who today was relinquishing command to head south and take over the 3rd Corps in front at Tyre. Jeff Frady, a redheaded gunner from the 44th had been promoted to take command, and in part this ceremony was the pomp and circumstance for a change of leaders.

“Nice day to be heading up to the front,” Stan announced, looking at the pale blue morning sky. “This is a good corps, Andrew.”

Andrew caught the undercurrent of concern in Stan’s voice. The 9th had been shredded at Roum, and some said the unit had simply broken. The survivors, including Stan, felt that something had to be proven.

“How’s the arm?” Andrew inquired. Stan smiled, flexing it with barely a grimace, a souvenir of the last minutes of the battle for Roum, when the corps commander had gotten a little too enthusiastic, ridden to the front lines, and received a Bantag bullet as a result.

“Ready to head south?”

Stan smiled. “I’ll miss these boys.” He was staring at Jeff, who had been his second for well over a year. “Take good care of them.”

Jeff nodded, not replying.

A steam whistle echoed in the distance, interrupting their thoughts. Looking past Stan, Andrew saw a train coming down the broad open slope, its flatcars empty after delivering half a dozen land ironclads to the front. The corps would need thirty trains to take the ten thousand men and their equipment up to the front lines. Once they were in position everything would be in place for what he prayed would be the blow that cracked the Bantag position wide-open.

He had taken the trip up there only a week before, to see the situation in front of Capua and arrange the final plans for the next offensive. The Bantag withdrawal back to the destroyed town, ninety miles east of Roum, had been thorough and brutal, not a single building, barn, hovel, bridge, or foot of track had been left intact by the retreating Horde. Over the last four months his railroaders had worked themselves to exhaustion, repairing, as well, the damage done by the two umens that had raided between Hispania and Kev.

Even with the reconnected line, Pat O’Donald, up at the front, could barely keep five corps supplied, and though he was screaming for the 9th to move up as quickly as possible, Andrew half wondered if their arrival would be more of a burden than a help.

They were at a stalemate, and he feared that this was a stalemate the Human forces would eventually lose. Though the Battle of Roum, in a tactical sense, had been a victory, in an overall strategic sense he feared it might very well have proven to be a dark turning point of the war.

He remembered his old war back home, the summer and autumn of 1864, when Sherman and Sheridan had laid waste to Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley, crippling the breadbasket of the Confederacy. That, perhaps far more than the bitter siege in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond, had truly broken the back of the Rebel cause.

Here, in the present, the Bantag ravagings were a blow so severe that he had been forced temporarily to demobilize nearly twenty thousand Roum infantry who had been farmers. If they didn’t get some kind of crops in, the Republic would starve the following winter.

Beyond the physical devastation of the Bantag winter offensive there was the human toll as well. Another forty thousand casualties for the army, more than a hundred thousand civilians lost and a million more homeless. The war was wearing them down, even as they continued to win on the battlefield.

He sensed this new Bantag leader understood that far better than any foe he had ever faced across all the wars with the three hordes. The others had always perceived victory as a prize to be won on the battlefield. Yet in the reality of war that was only one component.

What was needed now was not just a victory but a shattering and overwhelming triumph, an annihilating blow on the battlefield that broke the back of the Bantag Horde. He hoped that the forthcoming offensive would be that blow.

“Sir, are you all right?” Jeff asked.

Andrew stirred, realizing he had been gazing off in silence.

He smiled, saying nothing for a moment. He was still weak, a hollow fluttery feeling inside, as if his heart, his body had gone as brittle as glass. The pain, thank God, was gone, though the dark craving for that terrible elixir, morphine, still lingered, the memory of its soothing touch drifting like a fantasy for a forbidden lover.

“Just fine, Jeff, let’s not keep the boys standing hefe. Reviews might be grand fun for generals, but they can be a hell of a bore for privates.”

“Yes sir. I’ll see you up at the front, sir.”

Jeff snapped off another salute and turned his mount, barking out a command. The fifers and drummers deployed behind him started in, commands echoing across the field as the densely packed columns wheeled about to pass in review and from there deploy out to the depot where the trains waited.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” echoed across the open fields as the long sinuous columns marched past, the bayonet-tipped rifles gleaming in the morning sun.

Stan, obviously moved by sentiment for his old command, cantered back and forth along the ranks, reaching down to shake hands and wish the boys well.

“This has got to be the last campaign,” Hans announced. Andrew shifted in his saddle, looking over at his old friend.

“Another battle like the last and it’s over with; either they will break us, or Roum will crack, or maybe even our own government. Andrew, you’ve got to find a way to end -it now.”

Andrew looked away, watching as the ranks passed. There had been a time when this army, his army, so reminded him of the old Army of the Potomac. No longer. It had the look, the feel of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The men were lean, too lean. His army was beginning to unravel from having fought one too many battles and knowing it would be forced to continue to fight, the only escape being dismemberment or death.

It was evident all across the Republic, not just here, or at the front, but back in Suzdal, and to the smallest village hamlet. The vast infrastructure he had attempted to build to support this war was stretched like a bowstring and beginning to fray.

“You see it, too?” Andrew asked.

The columns swayed past, dust swirling up so that they looked like shadows passing even though it was noon. He could sense the lack of enthusiasm, the almost boyish excitement that went through an army when it finally broke camp and headed back up. No, these were grim veterans who would fight like hell, but the enthusiasm was dampened by the knowledge of reality.

“I see it in you as well, Andrew Keane. You’re still not over your wound.”

Andrew chuckled dismissively. “Breath comes a bit short, but other than that I’m fine.”

“Right.”

He looked over at his old friend and smiled.

“You should talk. How many wounds is it, five now? And that heart of yours. Emil keeps telling you to slow down a bit and to cut out chewing tobacco.”

As if in response Hans fished into his haversack, pulled out a plug, bit off a chew, and, playing out their old ceremony, offered the plug to Andrew. He took it and bit a chew as well, and Hans smiled.

“We’re two worn-out old warhorses Andrew. But hell, what’s the alternative, go to the old soldiers’ home and sit in a rocking chair on the porch? Not I. Down deep, I kind of hope I get shot by the last bullet of the last war.”

“Don’t^even joke about that.”

“Superstitious?” Hans chuckled.

“No, it’s just something you don’t joke about. But you’re right, we’re both wearing down. Everyone is.”

In the dust-choked column a passing regiment raised their caps in salute. Andrew let go of Mercury’s reins and took off his hat to return the gesture.

“You know, there is part of me that would actually miss this,” Hans drawled as he leaded over and spat. “Nothing in peacetime can equal this, full corps of infantry drawn up to march off to war.”

Andrew nodded. It wasn’t just the sight of them, it was the sounds, the smells … the rhythmic clatter of tin cups banging on canteens, the tramping of feet on the dusty road, the snatches of conversations wafting past, the scent of leather, sweat, horses, oil, even the staticlike feel of the powdery dust. It was something eternal, and it was one of the few things the gods of war gave back in exchange for all the blood offered up on their altars.

After so many years he could close his eyes, and it could be anywhere, here on this mad world, or back in Virginia. And he could sense as well the differences, the grimness of purpose, the quiet resignation, the feeling that this was some sort of final effort. He wondered, if, at this very moment, his rival less than a hundred miles away was engaging in the same exercise, towering eight-foot Bantag warriors marching past. Was he judging his troops as well, knowing that a final cataclysmic battle was coming?

“And what about them? What does he have? What is he feeling at this moment?” Andrew whispered.

“Who, this Jurak?”

Andrew nodded again.

“I rarely saw him, can’t recall if I ever even talked to him. He’s changed the war though, that’s certain. Almost makes me wish we still had Ha’ark.”

Escaped Chin slaves confirmed the rumors that Ha’ark had died in front of Roum, most likely murdered by his own followers. For a brief moment Andrew had hoped beyond hope that with the death of the so-called Redeemer, the war would be over, and the Bantags would simply retreat. They had indeed retreated, but it had been to dig in and go on the defensive throughout the waning days of winter and into the spring.

For the first month he was glad of the breathing space, giving them a chance to do repairs, especially to the railroads, evacuate Roum civilians westward to Suzdal, bring up supplies, and get ready.

By the second month he was actually hoping they’d come out of their defensive positions at Capua … and by the third month he knew this new leader, Jurak, had changed the nature of the war.

He could sense a difference, a more methodical mind, calculating, not given to rash moves.

“I hate the fact we have to dig him out,” Andrew said, Hans nodding in agreement. “It’s as if the bastard is sitting there, just begging us to come in.”

“Could always count on them attacking up till now,” Hans replied, “but you’re right, he’s waiting for us to kick off the ball.”

Andrew grunted. Though Hans had taught him how to chew, he had never really mastered it and was embarrassed as he tried to spit and half choked instead.

Damn, the hordes could always be counted on to attack. The trick then was to find a narrow front, dig in, and tear them up. Jurak had reversed the tables. Capua was a damn fine defensive position, flanked by marshes and heavy forests to the north, more marshes and sharp jagged hills to the south. It was a front fifteen miles wide and fortified to the teeth.

Yet it seemed there was no other way. All indicators were that during the spring Jurak had invested a massive effort on building up his infrastructure, and his factories were churning out guns, ammunition, and supplies most likely at a faster pace than that of the Republic. If Andrew let this pace go on for another six months to a year, Jurak could swarm them under. He had to strike, like it or not.

The last of the swaying columns of infantry drifted past, blue uniforms already turning dirty gray-brown from the dust, men covering their faces with bandannas soaked in water. Jeff emerged out of the dust, cantering back down the line, followed by his guidon bearer. They reined in and saluted.

“I’ll see you up at the front, Jeff. Tell Pat not to get overanxious and start the show without me.”

“Yes sir. And sir, please do all of us a favor.”

“What’s that, Jeff?”

“Don’t push yourself too hard.”

Andrew smiled. How strange the role reversal of late. Prior to the wound he had been the father; now he was feeling like the aging parent whose children were increasingly solicitous about his well-being.

Offering a casual salute, Jeff spurred his mount, shouting for the column to increase its pace. Fifers squealed, picking up the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the song rippling down the ranks, a strange mix as some sang the words in Latin, others in Rus. The column wound past, rank after endless rank, the strange rhythm of rattling canteens and tin cups, the squeaking of leather, the scrape of hobnailed shoes on the hard-packed ground all blending together. More dust swirled up as a battery of three-inch rifles clattered past, the air thick with the smell of horse sweat, leather, tar, and grease, the men riding the caissons waving cheerily.

The dust thickened, obscuring the view. Andrew reached up to wipe his eyes. But it wasn’t just the dust; to his surprise he was in tears. It was as if he was watching an ageless ritual for one last time, a sense that here was a final moment, the army going forth one last time, hopefully to victory. But the pageantry, the flags snapping in the rising breeze, the dark columns of infantry, rifles glinting, all of it was the passing of the armies into a dark and unknown land. It was an army of ghostly apparitions, and again he thought of the dream that had consumed him while he had lain in the twilight world that bordered on death, the tens of thousands who had gone ahead, sent there by his orders. How many of these boys were now marching to that destiny? When, dear God, would it ever end?

* * *

Jurak Qar Qarth of the Bantag Horde walked along the battlements lining the east bank of the river just above Capua. The midsummer twilight cast long shadows across the river, silhouetting the human fortifications on the opposite side of the river. He peered intently, raising his field glasses to scan the lines, oblivious to the warnings about snipers. An occasional shot fluttered overhead, a round smacking into the embankment above the firing slit, sending down a shower of powdery dirt.

An enemy flyer lazily circled above the lines, waiting in challenge for any of his own airships to come over, an offer he would not take since airships were far too precious to waste in foolish dueling that served no strategic purpose.

He slid back down from the firing slit and looked back at the gathering of umen Qarths, the commanders of his twenty-five divisions committed to this front.

In the hours after his killing of Ha’ark he had assumed that he, too, would die. But led by Zartak, the oldest of the clan Qarths, the council had declared him as the rightful successor, the one of legend sent to redeem the world, while Ha’ark had been a false usurper.

It was a position he had never desired, but the simple fact of the matter was that he either take it or die. He knew that if there had actually been a blood challenge, he would have been lost, but there was still enough of the superstitious fear of him and the others who had come through the Portal of Light, to ensure his acceptance as a demigod sent to save the hordes.

Being stuck on this world, fighting this war, none of it was what he desired, but saddled with the responsibility, he would see it through to its conclusion. Ha’ark had been far more the adventurer, the seeker of glory and power, while he had stayed in the background.

Even on the old world he had not sought the shock of battle. Drafted to serve in the War of the False Pretender, he had spent eight years in the ranks, never rising because such power was not what he wanted. Solitude, a good book, a conversation with some depth to it were far more to his liking, and the others of his unit, though they knew he was dependable in a fight, found little else in common with him.

Regarding the humans of this world he felt no real hatred; the visceral loathing and dread shared by all of the hordes for this hairless race since the start of the rebellion of the cattle was beyond him in any true emotional sense. On an intellectual level he fully understood the fundamental core of this war; it was a fight for racial survival. After all that had happened only one race could expect to survive, while the other would have to be destroyed. That is what he now fought for, survival. He was of the race of the hordes, they had made him their leader, and he had to ensure that this world would be safe for them.

He smiled, remembering, a refrain from a poem from his old world:

“Those I fight I do not hate, those I defend I do not love.”

His gaze scanned the umen chieftains. Barbarians, all of them barbarians, clad in black leather, human finger bones strung as necklaces, one of them casually drinking fermented horse milk from a gold-encrusted human skull. Yet they were now his, perhaps the most capable warriors he had ever seen, razor-sharp scimitars that could cut a human in two dangling from waist belts, more than one of them carrying revolving pistols, a few with carbine rifles casually slung over their shoulders.

All of them were scarred, most sporting old saber slashes across cheeks, brow, and forearms, reminders of a simpler and happier age when the enemy were the other hordes and war was the sport of warriors and not a question of survival or total annihilation. Many bore the ritual cuts on forearms or across foreheads, slashes that were self-inflicted at the start of a battle in order to lend a more fearsome appearance. Several were missing limbs, hands, arms blown off or amputated.

Zartak, the eldest, was legendary throughout the Horde, a rider of four circlings of the planet, eighty years or more of age. At Rocky Hill, it was said that his left leg had been blown off just below the knee and he had not even flinched. After,wrapping a tourniquet around his thigh he continued “to lead his umen on the last desperate charge to take the hill, and then, in spite of the injury that normally would have killed someone half his age, he actually survived.

The ancient warrior looked straight at him then, and nodded. Strange, Jurak thought, he had often heard of the ability some claimed to be able to sense and probe the thoughts of others. Ha’ark had claimed the skill, but lied. Zartak had it, though, and in the months since becoming Qar Qarth Jurak had felt an increasing bond with this ancient one who had seen the world from one end to the other four times over.

That must indeed have been a dreamworld, the endless ride eastward toward the rising sun. The daily cycle of rising, mounting, following the slow pace of the wheeled yurts, herding the millions of horses that were the wealth of the clans, the arrival at yet another city of the cattle, there to exact tribute of gold, silver, cunningly wrought weapons, and the flesh of four-legged cattle and the delicacy of the two-legged variety as well. Then moving on the next day, riding forever, breaking the tedium by raiding northward into the realm of the Merki Horde, or to the far north and the domains of the dead Tugars.

But Keane had changed all that. Keane and his Yankees from another world.

Those changes were spreading like a plague around the world faster than a Horde could ride, and if he, his race were to survive, there was but one answer now: total annihilation. This was a war of no quarter. Either the rebellion and this human dream died, or within a generation not a single rider of the hordes would still be alive. They would be hunted by the victors, with machines ever more cunning and complex. The memory of the thousands of years of the Endless Ride, of the joy of the Riders, of the misery of the cattle, could be forgotten by neither side, and the time of reckoning had come.

Jurak had promised them that when victory was complete, when the last of the Rus and Roum were dead, and for good measure the Cartha, Chin, and Nippon were systematically slaughtered as well, so that there was no living memory of what happened, then the Golden Age would return. The machines would be destroyed. Bow, lance, and scimitar would again rule, and again they would ride eastward, resuming the endless journey of their ancestors.

He knew the promise was a lie. Such knowledge once released could not be returned. As he gazed silently at those gathered around him, he could sense that change already. Many of the Qarths, the clan and umen commanders, had already started to adapt themselves, speaking of enfilading fire, advancing by fire and cover, the use of artillery for suppressive fire. They understood how one locomotive could move in a single day what once required ten thousand horses, and the advantages of that. No, the machines would triumph in the end, and in a way the thought pleased him, for he knew it was a vital necessity.

For if Keane and his Yankees had come to this world via the Portals of Light bearing the knowledge that they did, it meant that somewhere in this universe there was a world of cattle who had mastered steam. The natural progression of such things would lead them forward to more, and greater, discoveries. Eventually, as well, they would discover that their world was studded with the lost Portals of Light left behind by his own fallen race, and how such gates could be used to span the universe.

No, there would come a day when more humans might very well arrive with yet more advanced weapons, and on that day his own race must be ready or, better still, rediscover the portals for themselves and use them.

That was but part of the reason why he had moved so aggressively throughout the last of winter and the spring to stop offensive action, to build up reserves, to spend more on the making of more factories and newer weapons. With the millions of slaves at his disposal, as distasteful as that was, he would outproduce the Yankees and then destroy them.

But such musings were not for now. There was still this war to be won. It was fitting that the Qar Qarth, the new Redeemer, have moments of silence, as if praying to the ancestors, but they waited for his pronouncements.

“You are right, Zartak,” he said, finally breaking the silence, “they are building up for .an attack. New gun emplacements, more sniper fire, the report of troop trains carrying ironclads.”

Zartak, who would be known as a chief of staff on his old,world, grunted an acknowledgment. Jurak looked at the old one, mane nearly gone to white, balanced precariously on his peg leg, and felt a bond of affection. Here was one who during the long months after the defeat before Roum had educated the new Qar Qarth as to the ways of the world, the history of the Bantag clan and of all the hordes that rode the world in the north, or who sailed the great seas of the southern hemisphere.

“I know the inactivity of the past months has weighed heavily upon all of you,” Jurak continued, “as it has weighed upon me. Victory was within our grasp before Roum and lost in the blinking of an eye for but one foolish mistake, the failure to protect our transport for supplies.

“That is why we have waited for so long. We have built those supplies back, but we have done more, occupying half of the lands that were once of the cattle of Roum. This is causing them to starve, and sooner or later they will be forced to attack, and it will be here.”

. “Directly across the river?” Tukkanger, commander of the elite umen of the white horse, asked. “Even we have learned the folly of that.”

“Yet they will come. The river is low, fordable now for much of its length.” And he pointed back west. The river, the only barrier separating the two lines dug in on opposite banks six hundred yards apart, was reduced to a muddy trickle.

“Keane must attack; it is the only front available. Their southern pocket leads but to open steppe, and, without a rail line advancing behind them, they cannot support an operation. We, in turn, are building a rail line across the narrows between the two seas to support our efforts against Tyre. That city has become a trap for them, one which they now cannot abandon for fear that we will use it as a base once our rail line is completed. Yet for them to attack us there would be a useless thrust into empty land.

“The path up through the mountains where they flanked us last time is now secured and heavily fortified by us. No, they must cross the river here. He will seek a battle of annihilation, a final desperate lunge to break our strength and our morale.”

There was no sense in explaining the political pressure to these warriors, though he and Zartak had spoken of it often enough. Part of his strategy, in fact the major part, was to try and drive a wedge between the alliances of Roum and the Rus, to emphasize their military helplessness.

“They must take back this land which belonged to the Roum or lose face. So we will let him attack; he will fail. Then, when the time is right, we shall attack in turn. And this time, I promise you, we will not stop until Roum, and beyond that Suzdal and all of Rus, are in flames.”

He said the words not as some grandiose vision or prophecy, but rather as a simple statement of the campaign to come, and those around him nodded one by one in agreement.

This would be a new kind of war for them, he realized. They had been bloodied in the long campaign all the way from the Great Sea to the gates of Roum, learning how all things had changed. Now they would see it in action. All he needed was for Keane to step into the trap, and in his heart he knew that Keane was about to take that step.

* * *

Varinna Ferguson, widow of the famed inventor who had done so much to ensure the survival of the Republic, walked through the vast hangar, gazing up in wonder at the air machine that filled the cavernous hall. This machine was special, with the name Ferguson painted on the port side, just behind the pilot’s cabin. Work crews were busy putting the final coat of lacquer on the double-weaved canvas of the wings. Tomorrow the machine would be ready for its first rollout.

“You checking this one off, too?”

She looked over at Vincent Hawthorne, chief of staff of the Army of the Republic, and smiled. He was directly responsible for all ordnance development, and thus her boss. But the relationship of Ferguson’s widow to the Republic was a strange one. She held no official rank or title. As she was heir to the memory of the great inventor, all showed her deference, for in the final months of his life she was the one who increasingly served as his eyes, his ears, and finally even his voice. It was as if some part of him still survived through her.

What few had grasped was just how unique their pairing had been. The attraction wasn’t just that of a shy eccentric inventor for a beautiful slave in the house of Marcus, former Proconsul of Roum and now the vice president of the Republic. The beauty was long gone, and she was no longer even conscious of the frozen scar tissue that made her face a mask, or the twisted hands that still cracked open and bled after hours of writing. It had always been something more than the simple attraction, as if Chuck had sensed the brilliant light of the mind within. When he had first started to share his drawings, his plans, his daydreams with her, she found she could strangely visualize them in their entirety, the parts on the sheets of paper springing into three-dimensional form, fitting together, interlocking, working or not working.

Though she might not have the leaps of imagination he did, there was within her the concrete ability to carry out what he had visualized, to sense when to reject the impractical and when to mold the practical into life. Only a few, the inner circle of Chuck’s young apprentices and assistants, fully realized just how much it was Varinna running things toward the end. She had the natural mind of an administrator who should be paired with a dreamer. Her dreamer was dead, but his notes, his sketchbooks, his frantic last months of scribblings were still alive, lovingly stored away, and she would make their contents real.

He had recognized that in her, and in so doing had not just been her lover but her liberator as well. In any other world she would have lived her life out as a servant in a house of nobility, a mistress most likely in her youth, as she had in fact been to Marcus, and then married off to another slave or underling when the prime of beauty began to fade. That, indeed, had been her fate, but instead she married a free man, a Yankee who had loved her for what she was, and she knew there would never be another like him in her life.

She looked over at Vincent and smiled, suddenly aware that she had allowed her thoughts to drift again. Even after all these years, he was still slightly embarrassed around her, unable to forget the day they had first met, when a very young Colonel Vincent Hawthorne had come to Roum as a military attache and Marcus had casually suggested that she make sure that the guest was comfortable in every way that a guest of a Proconsul should be.

The young Quaker had been in a panic over her advances and now, with the memory of Chuck, she was glad it had turned out as it did, for though Chuck was able to deal with her relationship to Marcus, there was something about the way the Yankees thought about sex that might have made difficulties between her husband and Vincent if anything had indeed finally happened.

“What did you say?” she asked.

“This machine. Is it getting checked off for the-front?”

She shook her head.

Vincent looked around for a moment at the vast hangar. Over a hundred feet long and forty feet high it was like a cathedral for the new age of air, high timber-vaulted ceiling, skylights open to admit as much light as possible for dozens of workers lining the scaffolding, carefully inspecting every double-stitched seam, searching for the slightest leak of hydrogen from the four gasbags inside the hull. It had been Varinna’s idea to mix in a small amount of pungent coal gas with the hydrogen for this test so that the smell would be a tip off of a leak. She watched as one of the inspectors called over a crew master who leaned over, sniffed a seam, and then gave the go-ahead to lacquer on a patch.

“Let’s step outside where we can talk,” Vincent suggested, and she nodded an agreement.

The evening was fair, the first hint of a cooling breeze coming up from the Inland Sea to the south, rippling the tops of the trees, and with the sleeve of her white-linen dress, she wiped the sweat from her brow.

The crew down at number seven hangar was carefully guiding its machine, E class, ship number forty-two, out of its hangar, a crew chief swearing profusely as a dozen boys worked the guidelines attached to the starboard side, keeping the ship steady against the faint southerly breeze. As the tail cleared the hangar they cast off, letting the 110-foot-long airship pivot around, pointing its nose into the breeze. Carefully they guided the ship over to a mooring post, in the open field where ships number thirty-five , through forty-one were anchored as well. The production run of the last four weeks, all of them going through the final fitting out, engine checks, test flights, and crew training before being sent up to the front.

She had nearly ten thousand people working for her. An entire mill had been set up just for the weaving of silk and canvas, then stitching the panels together on the new trea-cile sewing machines. Hundreds more worked in the bamboo groves, selecting, harvesting, and splitting the wood that would serve as the wicker frames for the airships.

Canvas, silk, and framing came together in the cavernous sheds to make the 110-foot-long ships, while in other workshops the bi-level wings were fashioned. From the engine works the lightweight caloric steam engines were produced, brought to the airfield, mounted to the wings, hooked into the fiiel lines for kerosene, and mounted with propellers.

Only within the last six months had one of her young apprentices, after examining the remains of a captured Ban-tag ship, announced that the propellers should not be made like ship’s propellers, but would work far better if shaped like the airfoils Chuck had designed for the wings. The new designs, though difficult to make, had resulted in a significant increase in performance.

Finally, with framework completed, wings mounted and folded up against the side of the ship, forward cab, bomber’s position underneath, and topside gunner positions mounted, tail and elevators added on, and all the controls and cables correctly mounted, it was time to gas up the ship.

The center bag was hot air, hooked into the exhaust from the four caloric engines mounted on the wings. Forward and aft were the hydrogen gasbags, filled from the dangerous mix of sulfuric acid and zinc shavings, cooked in a lead-lined vat, mixed with a bit of coal gas for scent.

Ten thousand laborers produced eight Eagles and four of the smaller Hornets per month. And the average life expectancy was but ten missions. She wondered, given the current state of affairs, how much longer she’d be allowed such resources, yet in her heart she sensed that it was there, not with the vast arrays of army corps and artillery, that the fate of the Republic would be decided.

All of this from my husband’s mind, she thought with a wistful smile. Ten years ago I would have thought it mad wizardry, or the product of gods to fly thus.

Of all of Chuck’s projects it was flight that had captivated him the most, inspiring his greatest leaps of creative talent and research. The Eagle class airships were the culmination of that effort. With a crew of four and three Gatling guns, it could range over nearly five hundred miles and go nearly forty miles in an hour.

A low humming caught her attention, and she looked up to see a Hornet single-engine ship diving in at a sharp angle, leveling out at less than fifty feet and winging across the field, the evening ship returning from patrol of the western steppes on the far side of the Neiper, keeping a watch over the wandering bands from the old Merki Horde. They weren’t enough to pose a truly serious threat, but they were sufficient in number to tie down a corps of infantry and a brigade of cavalry to make sure they didn’t raid across the river.

The Hornet banked up sharply, the pilot showing off for the audience on the ground, and Varinna winced slightly at the boyish display. The fault with the rear-mounted engine had killed half a dozen pilots before it was figured out, and though the problem had been solved, she wished the pilots were a little less reckless.

Out in the field where the seven new Eagles were moored, ground crews were double-checking the tie-downs for the evening and getting ready to settle in for the night in their camp, each crew of twenty-five sleeping in tents arranged around the mooring poles. They had to be ready to react instantly, day or night, to any shift in the wind or weather. Far more ships had been lost to thunderstorms than had ever been shot down by the Bantags.

Another airship, a somewhat battered Eagle—number twelve, a veteran of the winter campaign and sent back for refitting—came in, banking erratically, a cadet pilot most likely at the controls. She watched anxiously as it turned to line up on the vast open landing field of several dozen acres.

“The boy’s crabbing, not watching the wind vane,” Vincent announced.

Varinna nodded, saying nothing, as one wing dipped, almost scraped, then straightened back up, the boy touching down hard, bouncing twice, then finally holding the ground. She could well imagine the chewing out he’d get from Feyodor, her assistant now in command of the pilot-training school, made worse by the withering sarcasm of the crew chief for the machine, who would make it a point of stalking along with the pilot for the postflight checkoff, blaming the novice for every crack and dent the machine had ever suffered since the day it had first emerged from a hangar.

“How many more machines can you have up within the next five days?” Vincent asked.

“For what?”

“Varinna, you know it really isn’t your place to ask. I’m ordered to send up every available machine, and that’s what I’m out here to check on.”

“I know the plan as well as you do,” she replied sharply. Vincent started to sputter and, quickly smiling, she held up an appeasing hand.

“Colonel Keane shared it with me when he was here in the city last week. But even before then I knew about it.”

“I don’t even want to ask.” Vincent sighed, gesturing back to the west, where the distant spires of the cathedral in Suzdal stood out sharply against the late-aftemoon sky. “That damn city is a sieve when it comes to keeping a secret.”

“And that’s just one of the reasons I don’t think the attack should be launched in front of Capua.”

She could see her statement had caught his attention, and he had learned long ago not to dismissively wave off her opinions. That was another thing Chuck had taught her. When you prove yourself right on the big issues, you can get away with one hell of a lot. It was Chuck’s insistence on continuing the rocket-launcher program that had saved everyone’s hide at Hispania, and that little feat had been performed in direct contradiction to orders.

“So go on, madam general, explain,” Vincent pressed. She bristled for a second, then realized that he wasn’t being sarcastic and was in fact listening respectfully.

“Capua is so damn obvious that this new chief of theirs must know it as well. For that reason alone I think we should avoid it.”

“Don’t you think Andrew and I have argued out that point a dozen times in the last three months?” Vincent replied, a slight flash of temper in his voice.

“Ah, so you don’t agree either then?”

He flushed, his eyes turning away for a moment, and she nodded slowly. Vincent always had been too transparent. But now she knew she was in.

“I’ve talked with every pilot who’s come back here throughout the spring. One of them, Stasha Igorovich, told me that he flew a reconnaissance flight just two weeks ago and reported signs of numerous land ironclads having been moved into the forests north of town.”

“I read that report, and you know then as well as I do that when Andrew sent up two Hornets the following mnming to check on these tracks this eagle-eyed pilot claimed he saw, there was no sign of them.”

“The Bantag are learning concealment, Vincent. The same as we have.” She pointed back up toward the all-important offices and machine shops for the Ordnance Department. The once attractive whitewashed buildings had been covered with a coating of dirty brown paint. Netting with woven strips of green-and-brown cloth had been draped over the buildings so that from the air they were all but invisible.

“Need I remind you that we got the idea for that netting from the Bantag? Yet another thing this Ha’ark and his companions most likely brought over from their own world. In fact, I suspect that from the air we are far more visible than they are. And if so, the Bantag must be blind not to have noticed the buildup along the Capua front, the number of guns moved up, the dozen pontoon bridges and hundreds of canvas boats, rocket launchers, all of the equipment needed for a direct assault across a river. They’re waiting for us.”

“Maybe they are, but the war has to be decided, and decided now If we can only come to grips with them, beat them on their own field, we’ll turn the tide. Damn it all, woman, they’re still parked less than one hundred miles from Roum. We have to get them out of there now.”

“Or if we don’t Roum leaves the Republic? Is that the sole motivation now for this attack?”

“Or the Republic, or what we want to call the Republic, will leave Roum.” Vincent sighed, wearily shaking his head. “Varinna, you know as well as I do this country’s finished. One more winter of war, and we fall apart. Even if we win now, it’ll be a near-run thing at best.”

Vincent looked away again, watching for a moment as the pilot who had so clumsily landed endured a good chewing out from Feyodor while the crew chief pointed at what was most likely a broken wheel strut and exploded into a torrent of swearing.

“Tell me where we have shortages right now,” Vincent snapped, looking back at her.

She said nothing.

“Where do I start then? Fulminate of mercury for percussion caps? Our source of quicksilver is playing out, six more months and we might have to start rationing cartridges, or go all the way back to flintlock guns. How about silk for these airships? We’re out. Oil for kerosene, the Bantags overran the last oil well eleven days ago. Sure we can substitute coal oil, but that’s just one more example. And men … . ”

His voice trailed off for a moment.

“How many hundred thousands dead? If we had five corps more, even three corps, I’d break the back of this war in a month. But even if I did have the extra men, where the hell would I get fifty thousand more uniforms, cartridge boxes, tents, smallpox inoculations, and rations for a summer’s campaign, let alone the rifles and eighty cartridges per man for one afternoon’s good fight?”

| Again he sighed, extending his hands in a gesture of infinite weariness.

“One of the things I’m supposed to order is the reduction of the workforce for the airships.”

“What?”.

“You heard me right. You and I played a good litde game of doctoring the books, but some of our congressmen finally figured it out and hit the ceiling. They want the resources put into artillery or land ironclads.”

She waved her hand dismissively.

“Taking one for the other is illogical. Those people are trained for this job. We’ll lose production on both ends if we switch them off.”

“Well, they want five thousand of them transferred before the month is out. Sent to the fields if need be to try and harvest more food. Lord knows we’re falling short of that as well.”

She wearily shook her head.

“Varinna, we can’t keep what we have in the field much longer. That’s why Andrew’s making this lunge.”

“They must be in the same boat as we are,” she replied.

“Maybe so, but then again maybe not. Remember, they have slaves, millions, tens of millions if need be, spread all across this world. I think the newcomers, Ha’ark and the others, brought with them the understanding of how to harness that labor to their own ends. So they outproduce us, and in the end they overwhelm us. Our only hope was to kill so damn many of the Bantag warriors that they’d finally turn aside. We destroyed a good third of their army during the campaign of last autumn and winter, but it wasn’t enough.”

“So destroy their supplies.”

Vincent smiled, and for an instant he caused her temper to flare, the dismissive look reminiscent of ones far too many men would show when she first stepped forward to make a suggestion. The smile finally disappeared.

“Sorry, Varinna, it’s just that every damn senator and member of the cabinet, and even the president comes at me with their war-winning suggestion.”

“I’m not one of them. I was Ferguson’s wife first, then I was his assistant, then his partner, and finally in the end I did it myself, including holding him while he died.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

She lowered her head. She didn’t let it show much anymore, the memory of the pain. With an effort, she forced it aside.

“To go all the way back to your original question, I could force ten more ships into the air and have them up at the front for the offensive.”

“But you don’t want to.”

“They’ll most likely all get shot down the first day. You saw the way that boy just landed. I agree with Jack Petracci that these ships need to be used en masse. We saw that last month when forty of the Bantag machines bombed Roum and sank three supply transports in the harbor.”

And they lost half their machines in the process,” Vincent replied. “Not much of a trade-off in my book.”

“Still, it showed what could be done. But there’s no sense in having the mass if the poor dumb fools fly straight into enemy fire. After all the work it takes to build one of these, sending it up with a boy who’s got twenty, maybe twenty-five hours of flying time is suicide. Hold these machines back from this fight. Give us time to train more pilots. Twenty more Eagles and Hornets won’t make a difference.”

“I have my orders.”

“For flightworthy machines. Listen to me in this, and while you’re at it keep those bastards from Congress and their investigating committees out of my way. I’m tiling you, my friend, after the attack on Capua, these ships might be the deciding factor for this war.”

“After Capua?”

“You’ll see, Vincent. You’ll see.”

Chapter Two

Pulling aside the blanket that served as a door, Andrew stepped down into the dank confines of the bombproof that doubled as headquarters for the Capua Front.

A smoky coal oil lamp suspended over the map table by a piece of telegraph wire tied to an overhead beam provided the only illumination. He looked over at the pendulum clock tacked to the broken lid of a caisson and leaned against the opposite wall … 3:10 in the morning.

The long twilight of dawn was just beginning, and through one of the view slits he could see a tinge of scarlet to the northeast, silhouetting the Bantag earthworks on the opposite bank of the river. The fact that he had managed to get any sleep at all surprised him, but ever since the wounding near this very same spot six months ago, he found that he tired easily and needed far more rest. The ability to get through a sleepless night and then fight a daylong pitched battle was gone for him.

Going over to a smoking kettle resting atop a leaky woodstove, he poured a cup of tea and sipped the scalding drink. He looked over at Pat, Hans, and Marcus, who were huddled over the map debating some minor detail.

The fact that the three were thus engaged was a clear indicator that they were nervous. The plan had been laid over two months ago. Everyone was in place; there was no changing it now. All that was left was the one word of command that would set the complex assault into motion. He had learned ages ago that there came a point in an operation where it was best to step back and let those farther down the chain take over. A nervous commander, at such a moment, was much more a burden than a help.

Andrew put down his cup and moved to join his friends. “Anything new?”

“There was a skirmish down by the river a half hour ago, a Bantag patrol trying to slip across,” Pat announced.

“And I think they’re on to it,” Hans replied. “Not just this patrol, the whole thing; they’re on to it, they want us to try this crossing.”

“And you want me to call it all off?”

Hans said nothing.

“Damn it, Hans,” Pat replied, “we’ve been stuck on this line all spring. My God, man, if we don’t break this stalemate, we’ll be here till Judgment Day. We break his back here, today, and we end this standoff and end this damn war.”

Hans wearily shook his head and looked up at Andrew with bloodshot eyes.

“Son, you’re making this decision out of political concerns rather than for military objectives.”

“The president ordered it,” Andrew replied, his gaze fixed on Marcus.

Marcus stared straight at him and was silent. Andrew knew the Roum vice president was fully committed to this assault. The Bantag were still in possession of some of the most fertile lands of Roum, a million of his people were displaced, and he wanted the land back.

Marcus’s gaze shifted toward Hans.

“I remember Andrew once saying that war was an extension of politics.”

“My God, I’ve got a Roum proconsul quoting Clausewitz to me,” Hans groaned.

“Who the hell is Clausewitz?” Pat asked. “Does he live here?”

Andrew could not help but chuckle, then, more soberly, “This war transcends politics.”

“Maybe externally,” Marcus replied, “as far as the Bantags go. But internally, for the Republic, it has become an ever-present concern: Which one of the two states will abandon the other first?”

“Not while I’m alive,” Andrew replied, jaw firmly set, his voice gone quiet.

“Nor I, my friend, you know better than that. But the people of Roum want their land back, and this morning we’re going to get it, and drive those bastards from the field. You, I, all of us here have planned this battle for months, down to the finest detail. I fear the only thing we might be lacking here is the nerve to see it through.”

Hans stiffened and leaned forward over the table.

“I can’t believe you would think that of me,” Hans snapped.

Marcus extended his hand in a conciliatory gesture.

“I’m not doubting your courage, old friend. We’ve planned our best, now let us trust in the gods and in the courage of our men.”

Andrew swept the group with his gaze.

“It goes as planned,” he announced, and without waiting for comment he left the underground room, finding it far too claustophobic.

Ascending the steps of the bunker, he stepped onto the grassy knoll under which the headquarters was concealed. A faint breeze was stirring from the north, cool air coming down out of the hills and distant forests. Sighing, he sat down, kicking up the scent of sage with his boots. Strange smell; never knew it up in Maine, he thought. Hans had mentioned it, though, saying it reminded him of his days out on the prairie before the Civil War.

He plucked up a handful of the thick coarse grass, crushing it in his hand, letting the pungent smell fill his lungs. Leaning back, he looked up at the stars, the Great Wheel, wondering as he always did if one of the specks of light might be that of home.

So strange, home. Maine, the Republic, the memory of peace. Even in the midst of a civil war, everyone knew that there would be a day when it would come to an end, when both sides, North and South, would go home to their farms, villages, towns, and pick up the threads of their lives. Perhaps that was some of the uniqueness of America, the sense that war was an anomaly, an interruption of what was normal, a tragic third act of a play that had to be waded through so there could be the final resolution and running down of the curtain. Then the audience could get up, go home, and resume their lives.

He knew so much of the old world was not that way. Strange, though he had never been there, this place made him think of Russia. It wasn’t just the Rus, descendants of early medieval Russians, that he had found here and forged a nation out of. No, it was the land itself, the impenetrable northern forests, and out here the vast open steppes, the endless dome of the sky, the scent of sage and dried grass, or the cold driving wind of winter. This is what Russia must be like, he thought. The history, the same as well. A land of ceaseless bloodletting, of vast armies sweeping across the dusty ocean of land. War, when fought, was with implacable fury, no quarter asked or expected! Here it was the norm, the ever-present reality.

He wondered yet again if his dream of the Republic could ever take root in this land. The necessity of war and survival had united Yankee, Rus, and Roum together, at least for the moment, but would that hold if they ever won and drove the barbarians back? Could the Republic survive peace?

He heard someone approaching, but didn’t bother to turn. The limping stride and smell of tobacco indicator enough of who it was. Hans settled down by his side with a groaning sigh, reached over, and, like Andrew, plucked up a handful of sage, rubbing it between his hands, inhaling the scent.

“Long way from Kansas to here,” Hans announced.

Andrew said nothing, knees drawn up under his chin as he looked off to the east. The light was slowly rising, only a matter of minutes now. He heard the clatter of a rifle dropping, a muffled curse, and looked to his left; down in the ravine below a column of troops waited, more felt than seen, the hissed warning of a sergeant barely audible as he tore into the fumble-fingered soldier. At the head of the ravine engineering troops had positioned bridging pontoons and dozens of the flimsy canvas assault rafts. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there; the men of the 9th Corps had rehearsed this assault a score of times along the Tiber over the last two months.

To the right he heard the hissing of a steam engine, one of the land ironclads, Timokin’s regiment, deployed in the next ravine. He wondered if the sound carried across the river, so still was the air. We should have gone yesterday, he thought. The fog cloaking the river was thicker then. There’s still time to call it off, wait for fog, rain … maybe we should go an hour earlier, in the complete dark.

“Nervous, son?”

“Huh?” Andrew looked over at his old friend.

“I am.”

Startled, Andrew said nothing. Hans was always the rock, the pillar; not once had he ever expressed fear when battle was nigh. Andrew remembered Antietam, his first fight, waiting in the predawn darkness of the East Woods. He had been so frightened that after trying to choke down a breakfast of hardtack and coffee, he had crept off to vomit. But until five minutes before the assault went in, Hans had made a great display of sitting with his back to an elm tree, fast asleep. The old sergeant latter confided that it had all been an act, he had been wide-awake, heart racing like a trip-hammer, but figured that such studied indifference was a better tonic to the boys than going around whispering nervous encouragements.

“You don’t think it will work?” Andrew asked.

Hans looked over at him. “We did plan it together, but a frontal assault across a river, Andrew? Risky business. I fear at best it’s an even chance. From what little we’ve figured of Jurak we know he’s damn smart. He must have figured this one out as well, knew we’d finally have to come in frontally.”

“And you have another suggestion,” Andrew asked, trying to mask the note of testiness in his voice.

Hans put his hand out, letting it rest on Andrew’s shoulder.

“Responsibility of command, Andrew. At Gettysburg you held when I would have pulled out. It shattered the regiment but saved the old First Corps. You led the assault at Cold Harbor when I would have told Grant to go to hell and ordered the boys to lie down. Maybe you’ve got more nerve than me.”

Startled, Andrew said nothing.

“I’m getting far too old for this.” Hans sighed, taking off his hat to run his fingers through his sweat-soaked wisps of gray. “There always seems to be one more campaign, though, always another campaign.”

“But there are times we do love it,” Andrew whispered. “Not the killing, not the moments like this one with the doubt and fear. But there are moments, the quiet nights, the army encamped around you, the moment of relief when you know you’ve won, the pride in the eyes of those around you.”

Surprised Hans looked over at him and nodded. “If this is the last campaign, what becomes of us then?”

Andrew chuckled softly. “I wish.”

“Your instinct is telling you don’t attack this morning, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Then listen to it.”

Andrew sighed, “We’ve been over it before, Hans. We can’t flank, we can’t break out from the southern pocket, they won’t attack. We have to end the stalemate. The president ordered this assault. And remember, we planned this one, and all the time we planned it we figured we could pull it off.”

“So why the cold feet at this last minute?” Hans asked. Andrew looked at his friend.

“You first. Why you?”

Hans sighed. “Gut feeling that they’re on to us over there. That this is what they want us to do and fully expect us to do.”

Andrew plucked up another twist of grass, taking pleasure in the scent of sage.

“There are no alternatives now,” Andrew said.

“What Vincent suggested, it is a thought.”

Andrew shook his head.

“Maybe six months from now, with four times the amount of equipment to even hope that it’d work. Right now it would be nothing more than a mad suicidal gesture. Vincent’s dreaming if he thinks we could deliver the killing blow that way. There simply isn’t enough to do it.”

“It’s because you know I would do it—that I’d have to go. That’s what’s stopping you from considering it.” Andrew looked over at his friend in the shadows. “Hans,” and he hesitated for a moment, “if I thought that sacrificing you would end this war, would save your child, my children, I’d have to order it.”

Hans laughed softly.

“I’m not sure if you’re just a damn good liar or you really mean that. Strange though, I do hope you’re not lying. We’re soldiers, Andrew, we all know what the job means, and I hope that from the beginning I taught you the sacrifice required of command, even when it comes to your closest friend.”

“I sacrificed my brother, didn’t I?”

Hans said nothing in reply.

Andrew dropped the fistful of grass, reached out, and let his hand rest on Hans’s shoulder for a moment, then shyly let it fall away.

“So why the butterflies in your stomach now?” Hans asked, shifting the subject.

“I’m not sure, and that’s what troubles me. At Cold Harbor I knew it was suicide but I went in because it was an order. I knew if I refused they’d take the Thirty-Fifth from me and the boys would have to go anyhow. I saw Chamberlain do the same damn thing two weeks later at Petersburg. He knew it was senseless, but he led his brigade in anyhow.”

“And he damn near got killed doing it if I remember correct.”

Andrew nodded. “It’s just that this battle is different. Most all of them were either meeting engagements like Rocky Hill, or we were on the defensive and well dug in, like Hispania or Suzdal. Now they’re the ones dug in, and you’re right, I have to assume that Jurak has this one figured.

“It’s more than that though. We both know we’re all but finished. Its becoming evident that Jurak is outproducing us. You saw those reports Bill Webster sent us from the Treasury and Vincent from the Ordnance Department.”

Hans spat a stream of tobacco juice and grunted.

“They’d change their song if the Bantag were at the gate.”

Andrew shook his head.

“We’re running out, Hans. The pace of production, it’s exhausted the nation. The same thing we saw with the rebs by the autumn of ’64. There are too many supply bottlenecks, too many men in the army, too many people making weapons, not enough making the basics for living, and a millton people from Roum driven off the land. In short, we’re collapsing. ”

“And that’s your reason for attacking here and now?”

Andrew leaned forward, resting his chin on his drawn-up knees.

“No, Hans. I think I’d have enough sense to stop it if I understood that was the only reason for attacking. But Marcus is right, we have to do something. The people of Roum have to know that the Rus will fight to help them take back their land. So there is the politics. We have to find a way, as well, to end this war before we either collapse or Kal succumbs to the pressure that’s growing in the Senate to accept Jurak’s offer for a negotiated settlement.”

“If Kal accepts that, he deserves to be shot,” Hans snapped.

“He’s the president,” Andrew replied, a sharp edge to his voice.

“And you wrote the bloody Constitution. So change it. I tell you I smell something in this.”

“Are you accusing Kal?”

“No, damn it, of course not. If anything he’s a rotten president because he’s too damned honest and simple.”

“We used to say that about Lincoln, but under that prairie-lawyer exterior there was a damn shrewd politician.”

Hans nodded, spitting a stream of tobacco juice and wiping the bottom of his chin with the back of his hand.

“We have to end this war now,” Andrew announced, shifting the topic away from matters that he felt bordered on treason. Hans was right; he had indeed written the Constitution for the Republic. But once that Constitution had been accepted by the people of Rus and Roum, it had gone out of his grasp, and it now must bind him as it bound any other citizen who swore his allegiance to it, and thereby accepted its protection.

He stood up. Raising the field glasses that hung from his neck, he turned his attention to the opposite shore. The eastern bank was lower than the western, the terrain flat, not cut by the ravines of the western bank. Jurak should have drawn his line farther back, not here. It was almost as if he chose a weaker position to tempt them in. Andrew could see the outlines of the fortifications lining the opposite bank.

Wisps of smoke, morning cook fires, rose straight up in the still air. Again the shiver of a thought. The monthly moon feast had been two days ago, the cries of the victims echoing across the river throughout the night. He wondered if what was left was now roasting on those fires.

Originally he had planned the attack to go in then, but it was too obvious a night for them to strike, and, besides, the bastards usually stayed awake throughout the feast night and might sense something.

There’s still time to stop, the inner voice whispered. The battlements along the eastern bank were clearly silhouetted. This was the precious moment, the west bank draped in darkness, the east bank highlighted. He heard footsteps behind him … it was Pat, followed by Marcus.

“Andrew, it’s three-thirty.”

Andrew looked at Hans, almost wishing he could defer the decision. Hans was staring at him.

Andrew lowered his head, whispering a silent prayer. Finally he raised his gaze again.

“Do it.”

* * *

Jack Petracci, circling five miles back from the front, took a deep breath, not sure if he was glad that the moment had finally come, or dreaded the fact that the show was really on.

“There’s the signal flare,” he announced to Theodor, his copilot. “Make sure the others follow.”

Banking his aerosteamer over to a due easterly heading, he scanned to port and starboard. The formation appeared to be following. Leaning over, he blew into the speaker tubes.

“Romulus, Boris, report.”

“One airship, turning back,” Romulus announced, “think it’s number twenty-two. Rest are forming up.”

Better than expected, Jack thought; forty heavy aero-steamers and thirty of the new Hornet single-engine escorts, it would be the largest air strike ever launched, the dream of more than five months of planning. Not exactly the way he wanted it done, but it would prove once and for all that the tremendous investment in airpower was worth it.

More flares were soaring up along the front line, marking the beginning of the assault, slowly rising heavenward in the still morning, catching the scarlet light of dawn. Seconds later sheets of fire erupted, climbing rapidly and filling the sky with curtains of flame and smoke as more than three thousand rockets thundered across the river, smothering the Bantag in an inferno of explosions. Long seconds later the dull concussion washed over him, clearly audible above the howl of his ship’s engines and the wind racing through the rigging.

Another volley rose up, several errant rockets twisting, corkscrewing back toward his formation, which was now less than two miles from the front. The shells detonated in the air, leaving white puffs of smoke drifting.

He was now over the rear lines of the fight.

Long snakelike columns of troops were below, black against the landscape, waiting to head down into the ravines lacing the riverbank, which were the assault paths to the front. Pontoon crews were already out into the river, floating their barges into place, dropping anchor lines, while hundreds of assault craft, water foaming about them as the men paddled furiously, were already approaching the far shore.

It looked like the first wave was making it, men swarming out of the boats, struggling up the muddy embankments. Mortar shells were impacting on the river, foaming geysers erupting.

“Colonel, sir?” It was Romulus, his top gunner.

“Go ahead.”

“Formation is spreading out as planned, sir.”

“Fine, now keep a sharp eye for their ships up there, son.”

He caught a glimpse of half a dozen of his airships breaking formation, turning to the northeast, and was startled as four Hornets passed directly overhead, moving fast, forging straight ahead to penetrate deep into the rear, ready to interdict any Bantag airships that dared to venture up.

They were over the river, thickening clouds of dirty yellow-gray smoke obscuring the view.

“There’s our target!” Theodor shouted, pointing off to starboard. Jack picked it out, an earthen fort on a low rise that jutted out into the river. It looked just like the sand table model of the front that he and his force had spent days studying and planning over. Smoke was rising up from the position; the rocket barrage had hit it hard, but he could see where dark-clad Bantags were pouring into the position from a trench connecting the battery position to the rear. Two fieldpieces were already at work, spraying the river with bursts of canister.

“Hang on, boys. Here we go!” Jack shouted, as he pushed the stick forward, the heavy four-engine craft rapidly picking up speed. Slipping out of his seat, Theodor dropped down below Jack’s legs, fumbling to open the steam cock to the forward Gatling gun.

A dark shadow slipped overhead, and, cursing, Jack jammed the throttles to his four engines back as he stared up at the underbelly of an aerosteamer slipping across the top of his ship, the bottom gunner and bomb dropper gazing down at him in wide-eyed fear. Jack pushed the nose down, praying his tail wouldn’t slam into the ship above. Romulus, in the top gunner position, cursed wildly in Latin.

For an instant he forgot the fight below until a rifle ball slammed up between his legs in a shower of splinters. Looking down, he saw the ground racing up and pulled back hard on the stick. The aerosteamer nosed up, swinging in almost directly astern the ship that had almost collided with him. The Bantag trenches raced by, several hundred feet below, and Theodor opened up, .58 caliber Gatling bullets stitching the earthworks.

He felt his ship surge up and at almost the same instant Boris, his bomb dropper in the cabin slung below, cried that their load had been dropped. Ten canisters, each weighing a hundred pounds, tumbled into the fort. Jack violently swung his craft over into a sharp banking turn. He caught a glimpse of his bomb load slamming in; the first two tins burst open but the percussion fuses which studded them failed to ignite. The third one, however, blew, sparking the load of benzene to life. The fort disappeared in an incandescent fireball as nearly two hundred gallons of benzene exploded, the concussion rocking his ship.

Bright orange-red flares of fire ignited along the entire front as one after another the aerosteamers unleashed their new weapon. He caught a brief glimpse of one ship, folding in on itself. Too low, damn it, you bloody fools! he silently cried as the ship’s hydrogen air bags, ignited by the burst of flame from below, flared with a pale blue flame, the wings folding in, flaring as well, the wreck spiraling down and disappearing into the inferno.

The heavy airships turned, racing back to the west, heading for the airfields twenty miles behind the front to reload and rearm. Jack swept low over the river, passing over the second wave of assault boats and pulled back hard, going into a spiraling climb, turning to head back over the front for a closer look at the action.

He watched as the squadrons of Hornets swept in, dodging around the fires, raking the enemy positions with their Gatling guns. On the river he could see several land ironclads, loaded onto rafts pushing off into the river, dozens of men slowly poling the ungainly cargos across, geysers of water erupting around them. Blue-clad bodies bobbed in the swirling confusion.

On the eastern shore, the lead regiments of the 9th Corps were up into the wire entanglements, cutting their way through. He caught a glimpse of a regimental standard going up the embankment of the fort he had just bombed. Other flags were going forward, men spreading out around the fires ignited by his aerosteamers. Damn it, it looked as if they were actually making it!

A Hornet passing below him suddenly went into a tight spiraling climb, seemed to hang motionless, then started a slow sickening backwards slide, crashing tail first into the ground next to an ironclad, rupturing into a fireball as its gasbag ignited.

Another rifle ball cracked through the cabin, showering Theodor in splinters.

“Damn it, Jack, if you’re going to float about up here, at least go higher.”

Embarrassed, he realized his copilot was right. He had allowed the spectacle below to capture his attention. Pulling over into a tight corkscrew turn, he started upward, looking down at the ironclad as it churned past the flaming Hornet. The top of the machine’s turret had a white cross painted on, signifying that it was a regimental commander’s machine, most likely Timokin’s. At least the kid was safe for the moment, he thought grimly, turning back to survey the layers of defense still to be penetrated. They had breached the first line, but there were still three more lines to go before they would be across the rail line to the rear.

* * *

“Put that next shot through the embrasure damn it!” Brigadier General Gregory Timokin, commander of the First Brigade of Land Ironclads roared, looking down from his perch in the top turret to his gunnery crew below.

Without waiting for a response he turned his attention back forward, then slowly rotated his turret aft, sweeping the shoreline with his gaze. The first wave of assault boats was ashore, at least what was left of them, men hunkered down low on the riverbank, most of them still half in the water, hugging the protection of the low rise. He could see columns of fire rising up from Jack’s firebomb strike, but directly in front the enemy were still holding. Half a dozen ironclads to his right were up over the bank, crushing down the wire entanglements, the lead ironclad already into the first line of bunkers and entrenchments, its Gatling gun shredding the Bantags who panicked and climbed into the open to run. Back across the river everything seemed an insane confusion. Dozens of broken canvas boats littered the muddy waters that were still churning up from mortar rounds and shells detonating. Men floundered about in the chest-deep water, some struggling forward, others flaying about in panic, trying to head back to the west shore, while others bobbed facedown, no longer moving.

It looked like a disaster but experience told him that at least the first stage of the assault, the gaining of a foothold on the eastern shore, was apparently succeeding. When first approached by Pat O’Donald with the proposal that he and his ironclads would attempt to ford the river in a frontal assault he had thought the scheme insane.

“Damn it all, even if we don’t sink, we’ll get hammered by their artillery before we’re halfway across,” he had argued. “Make the shore, and their rocket crews will slaughter us on the muddy banks as we wallow about.”

Well, he had made it across. As for incoming fire, precious little had hit yet, the human’s barrage of weaponry all but incapacitating or panicking the Bantag forward defense.

Another wave of boats came out of the swirling smoke, men paddling hard. He turned his turret forward again as the crew below shouted with triumph, their next round having torn straight into the Bantag bunker.

“Take us forward,” Gregory shouted. “Everyone look sharp, gunner load with canister.”

He slowly pivoted his turret back and forth, scanning the ground ahead as they inched up over the river embankment. Crushing down the wire, he caught glimpses of blue-clad infantry surging forward to either side of his machine, leaping into the trenches. Cresting up over the top of a bunker, he saw a mob of Bantag running along a communications trench, heading back toward the second line. A well-placed burst from his Gatling dropped half of them before the survivors disappeared around a cutback in the trench.

The ground ahead was open and flat, the second enemy line now clearly visible as a rough slash in the ground a quarter mile ahead. The plan called for the ironclads to lead a direct assault and overrun the position, supported by Hornets and ground troops armed with rocket launchers. By the time they approached the strongest defenses, the third line a. mile farther back, Jack’s airships were to have landed, rearmed, and returned to plaster a mile-long stretch of trenches with over four thousand gallons of flaming benzene. But at this moment the key to the plan was to keep moving, to keep the Bantag off-balance and running until their supply depots to the rear were overrun and destroyed.

Flashes of light were igniting from the second trench line, and bullets and mortar fragments started to ping against the armor. Cracking open the top hatch, he stuck his flare pistol out and fired, sending up the green signal indicating he was across the Bantag riverfront position. A second, then a third ironclad crept into view on his right, the turret of one turning, the machine’s commander sticking a hand out of the firing slit to wave.

Timokin grinned. Mad fool, I’ll put you on report for that once we get this over with, he thought, trying to remember the name of the young lieutenant aboard the St. Galvino. The lead company started to form around him, deploying out to either side. A rocket slashed past his turret, startling him. He caught a glimpse of a Bantag launcher team falling back into a trench, torn apart by the fire of the ironclad to his left.

Cautiously he reopened the hatch and stuck his head out for a quick look around. Nearly a dozen machines were up, hundreds of infantry deployed into the trenches behind him. There was no telling what the hell was going on to either flank, but straight ahead the way looked clear. He saw a regimental standard, a brigadier’s guidon beside it. Catching the general’s eye, he motioned forward; the brigadier waved in agreement. Back on the shoreline he saw more waves of the flimsy canvas boats coming in, some of them bearing mortar and rocket-launching crews. A Hornet flashed overhead, Gatling gun roaring, tracers tearing into the position forward. The sun broke the horizon straight ahead, silhouetting the enemy line.

July Fourth, he thought. The Yankees put great store in that day; Independence Day they called it. It was also the anniversary of the Battle of Hispania. He had been too young to fight in that one. Will this day be as glorious? he wondered. He felt a moment’s hesitation. Somehow the shoreline felt secure, a haven to pull back to, where you couldn’t be flanked, but he knew the thought was senseless. The whole plan, a plan which he had helped to design, was predicated on speed. Cut through the lines of defense, get into the open country, and slash down to their major rail depot and destroy it. Victory was five miles ahead, and the longer he waited, the more remote the chance of grasping it.

Reloading his flare pistol, he fired it again, rapidly reloading and firing off yet another shell, the signal that he was moving on the second line.

He slipped back down into his turret, slamming the hatch shut.

“Engineer, full power; driver, straight ahead!”

* * *

“I’m going over,” Pat announced.

Andrew stood silent for a moment, leaning over, eye glued to the tripod-mounted telescope staring intently toward the ruins to Capua on the east bank and several miles downstream.

“The message dropped from Petracci was on the mark,” Andrew announced. “There’re definitely plumes of smoke over there.”

“Well, we did expect some sort of countermove,” Pat replied. “It’s less than two dozen ironclads. Timokin can handle that.”

Andrew stood back up, stretching, trying to ignore the occasional shell that hummed overhead. In the two hours since the beginning of the attack they had forced a lodgment nearly two miles across and in some sectors were already through the third line. Considering the nature of the assault, casualties had been light, so far twenty-five hundred. Marcus had already gone forward, insisting over Andrew’s objections that he should be up forward with his boys from 9th Corps.

The first of the pontoon bridges was nearly completed, and he watched for a moment as his engineer troops, laboring like a swarm of ants, anchored the last boat in place, while half a regiment of men armed with picks and shovels worked to cut down the low embankment on the east side and fill in the labyrinth of trenches just beyond. A column of infantry, rifles and cartridge boxes held high overhead, slowly wended their way across the river at a ford, a long serpentine column of blue standing out boldly against the muddy brown river.

The surviving canvas boats were now being used to ferry boxes of ammunition, mortar and rocket-launching crews, medical supplies, and even barrels of fresh water since the day promised to be hot and with all the dead and refuse littering the river Emil had issued the strictest of orders against using it. Andrew looked over his shoulder to where a casualty-clearing station was already at work. Those who could survive the trip were loaded into ambulances for the hospital train that would have them back to Roum before noon.

Casualties had been heavy in the first two waves, nearly fifty percent of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps had gone down. He kept trying to console himself that the losses had just about been what was expected, but it was small solace for the nearly twenty-five hundred dead and wounded. He thought of the review held just a week ago, remembering faces, wondering which of them had been part of the sacrificial offering.

Andrew looked over at Pat. “I’m going with you. Hans, you stay here at headquarters.”

“Now, Andrew, we agreed on this,” Pat protested.

Andrew nodded, forcing a smile. It was more than just being at the front, getting close to get a feel for what was going on, and to inspire the troops. Ever since his wounding, only a few miles from this place, he had not been under heavy fire. Inwardly he was terrified; it was hard not to jump every time a mortar shell slipped overhead or a bullet snapped past, and this was the rear line. He had to see for himself if he could take it.

He looked over at Hans. His friend was staring at him appraisingly. Pat had turned as well, arguing his point to Hans, trying to get the old sergeant major to agree that Andrew had to stay back from the fighting. Andrew knew that Hans understood the real reason he had to cross over that river. Hans wordlessly nodded an agreement.

“Well damn all,” Pat growled. “Don’t blame me if you get your fool head blown off.”

“What about you then?” Andrew asked. “What about your fool head?”

“Bullet hasn’t been cast yet,” Pat replied with a twinkle in his eyes, backing down front the argument.

Leaving the top of the bunker, Andrew motioned to his orderly, who was holding the bridle of his favorite old mount, Mercury. He rubbed the horse’s nose, then shook his head. No, it would be hot up there, and Mercury was getting on in years. Besides, after all the campaigns together he wanted him to survive this one.

“Bring up another mount,” Andrew said.

“Can’t risk your old horse but it’s all right to risk you, is that it?” Pat asked peevishly.

“Something like that.”

Andrew swung up awkwardly into the saddle of a massive mare, a mount bred from the horses captured in the Tugar Wars. It was nearly the size of a Clydesdale, typical of nearly all the mounts in this army—and damned uncomfortable, he thought as he picked up the reins and nudged the horse down toward the nearest ravine.

Reaching the edge of the shallow gorge, he hesitated for a second. Even though the engineering troops had cut a road into the side of it, it was still a steep descent. Then he urged the horse forward, falling in with a column of infantry, noticing by the red Maltese Cross on their slouch caps that they were men of the 1st Division, 5th Corps.

“Hot up there, sir?” one of the sergeants asked, looking up nervously at Andrew.

“We got a firm foothold, Sergeant. Ninth Corps is driving them.”

“Well that’s a switch,” came a comment from the ranks.

Andrew continued forward, ignoring the insult, even though Pat turned, ready to offer a good chewing out. There was still some bad blood between the Rus and the Roum Corps, especially toward the 9th and 11th, which had broken during the siege. It was part of his reasoning for giving the assault job to the 9th, a chance to clear their reputation and break the jinx.

Strange, he thought; back with the old Army of the Potomac the 9th had been jinxed there as well, damn good fighting men but something always seemed to go wrong for them.

Reaching the bottom of the ravine he followed the contours of the twisting washout. Wreckage littered the rocky sides, broken equipment, empty ammunition boxes, a scattering of dead who had been caught by the Bantag counterbarrage. The last turn in the ravine revealed the river straight ahead.

It was said that whether you were winning or losing, the rear area of a battle always looked like a disaster, and he hesitated for a moment, steeling himself while taking it all in.

Shattered canvas boats littered the shoreline, dozens of bodies, and parts of bodies lay along the beach or floated in the muddy water, washed back up to shore by the slow-moving current. Fragments of bodies, blackened by fire, were plastered against the side of a ravine, most likely what was left from a caisson igniting. The air was thick with the stench of muddy water, powder smoke, and that unforgettable clinging smell of death, a mixture of excrement, vomit, and raw open flesh. In another few hours the cloying stench of decay would be added until finally one would feel as if he could actually see the hazy green smell of death.

He straightened in the saddle, moving his mount out of the way as the infantry column, without hesitating, splashed into the river by columns of fours, holding rifles and ammunition pouches, haversacks filled with rations over their heads. A line of cavalry were deployed downstream, ready to fish out any man who might lose his footing and go under.

Andrew rode along the edge of the water, heading up to the next ravine, where the pontoon bridge was going in. A mortar shell whistled overhead, impacting against the top of the cliffs that rose up on his left, sending down a shower of rock fragments and dirt. He tried not to flinch, and then looked over sheepishly at Pat.

“You’ll get the nerve back,” Pat said softly, “I was the same way after I took that ball in the stomach.”

Andrew nodded, saying nothing. Straight ahead, the bridge was rapidly taking shape. The last boat had already been anchored, and stringers between the boats were nearly halfway across the river, the crews working feverishly to anchor the heavy timbers to the reinforced gunwales of the pontoon boats. Dozens of men, most of them stripped to the waist, were hauling up the four-by-ten planks, which were laid across the stringers and serve as the roadbed. Once completed, the heavy artillery, a second regiment of ironclads, and hundreds of tons of supplies could be rushed forward.

Turning his mount, Andrew splashed into the river, the water surprisingly cool as it spilled into his boots. The mare surged forward, stepping nervously for footing as they reached the middle of the river, Pat at his side.

Fifty yards downstream an artillery shell slapped into the water, raising a geyser. He studiously ignored it, keeping his eyes on the far shore. His mount shied nervously, nearly throwing him as it quickly sidestepped. A body, which the horse had trod on, tumbled up out of the murky water, then sank, dragged back down by the weight of the pack harness that had three close-support rockets strapped to it.

He said nothing, wondering about the human packhorse who had drowned thus. He tried to make a mental note, to balm his soul, that if there was another river assault, the first waves were to go in with rifles and personal ammunition only. But then how many die because of no close-in rocket support … again the equations of death.

They finally gained the shore. The litter there was far worse than the west bank. Dozens of waterlogged assault craft, which had barely made it across, lay abandoned, many of them bloodstained, bodies still inside. Scores of dead littered the embankment, dead twisted into every impossible angle the living could never assume, bodies torn by rifle shot, shells, fire, tangled in with the Bantag who had defended this position. Casualty-clearing stations, marked with green banners, were packed, the seriously injured men being sorted out for the trip back across the river by boat, the less seriously injured and those who were doomed being detailed off to wait until the pontoon bridge was finished.

As he rode up over the embankment the roar of battle seemed to double. Straight ahead was obscured in yellow-gray clouds of powder smoke and dust, the front line dully illuminated by flashes of gunfire and the sudden flare of another load of benzene dropped by an Eagle.

Ghastly weapon, he thought as he rode up over the forward line of Bantag trenches and saw where such a strike had incinerated dozens, their giant bodies curled into fetal balls, a few outstretched, blackened clawed hands raised to the heavens in a final gesture of agony. The stench was horrific, and he struggled not to gag.

“Bloody bastards, good to see ’em like this,” Pat snapped. Andrew looked over at his old friend and said nothing. No, the hatred was far too deep to express pity, to wonder if there was any sense of humanity in these creatures. Interesting that he had chosen that word in his thoughts … humanity. Does it mean I consider them to be human? Strange, old Muzta of the Tugars, I had shown him pity, spared his son, and he in turn spared Hawthorne and Kathleen, even went over to our side in the Battle of Hispania and turned the tide of battle. He’s most likely a thousand miles east of here by now, but if I saw him, I would offer him a drink from my canteen. Yet still I hate his kind in general.

Don’t think about this now, he thought. There’s a war to be fought.

He turned away from the trench, dropped the reins of his mount, and awkwardly scanned the action with his field glasses. The ground was too bloody flat, hard to get above the fight and get a feel for it. It seemed to be spread out in a vast arc sweeping a mile or more to the north, then several miles in from the river, and then arcing back around into the ruins of Capua.

Spent rounds slapped past him, kicking up plumes of dirt like the first heavy drops of rain from a summer storm. From out of the smoke ahead two aerosteamers appeared, both of them Eagles, one with two engines shut down, broken fabric and spars trailing from its starboard wing. The second Eagle was above and behind it, protecting it; as they reached the river the second steamer turned, started back to the front, then turned yet again and began to circle above Andrew, a blue-and-gold streamer fluttering from its tail marking it as Petracci’s command ship.

A message fluttered down, marked by a long red strip of cloth. An errant breeze had picked up, and the streamer fluttered down into the edge of the river behind them. One of Andrew’s staff who had been trailing behind him urged his mount back to retrieve it from a soldier who had already picked it up.

The orderly who had retrieved the message reined in, holding the leather cylinder, the muddy ribbon dragging on the ground. Andrew motioned for him to unstrap it and open it up, a task impossible for him to do with but one hand.

The orderly popped the lid, unfolded the sheet of paper, and handed it over. Andrew’s glasses were splattered with water and mud, and it was difficult to focus as he carefully read the note, written in English in Jack’s clumsy printed hand.

Count twenty plus ironclads coming up from Capua. Three to four divisions, half mounted, deploying out from reserve depot on rail line. Watch your left, numerous plumes of smoke at point F=7. Going back for closer look… . J.P.

Andrew handed the message over to Pat while calling for another orderly to unroll a map. The young Rus lieutenant pulled the map out and held it open for Andrew.

He cross-referenced the coordinates. F-7, a ruined plantation, a square-shaped forest at the north end, a woodlot of maybe forty to fifty acres. The heavy belt of forest marking the edge of the open steppes several miles beyond. Could they? His aerosteamers had carefully swept the front line for weeks, looking for buildups, concealed positions, wheel marks.

Well there were bound to be surprises, but Jack had a good nose for spotting trouble. Is the plan too obvious, he wondered. Too obvious that we break through here, then pivot in a right hook, sweeping down behind Capua and their rail line. Might the counterpunch be concealed to the north of us?

Even as he wondered, the sound of battle started to pick up from the north, and, reining his mount around, Andrew rode toward the roar of the guns.

* * *

Bent over the map table Jurak watched as one of the Chin scribes leaned forward, having taken the message from a telegrapher who was also a Chin and traced a blue line onto the map, marking where the Yankees had broken through his third line and were now driving straight toward this position.

Stepping out of the camouflaged bunker, which was concealed in a grove of peach trees and covered with netting, he turned and looked to the northwest. Mounted riders were coming back, many of them wounded. Straight ahead he could hear the staccato bursts of Gatling-gun fire and the whistle of a steam engine. The enemy column of steam ironclads was approaching.

How damn primitive, he thought. Most likely can’t make three leagues in an hour. Hell, on the old world there’d be hundreds of them, thousands, breaking through at ten, twenty leagues to the hour, jets by the hundreds blasting the way clear.

Yet this is my war now. Ha’ark never understood the nuances of tactics, how to adapt to what was here, how to lay the trap, and then have the patience to let it spring shut. It was always the attack, the offensive. He was right in that these primitives have no concept of defensive warfare but let them see victory today and it will all change.

He raised his field glasses, scanning the line, catching glimpses of dark black masses, the Yankee ironclads, advancing slowly, methodically, brief glimpses of blue, the infantry deployed behind them.

A stream of tracers snapped overhead, one of the ironclads firing at long range. He ignored it, looking across the grove and back toward the rail line behind him. A single train was on the track, one of the heavily armored units. On the siding were dozens of cars, some of them burning from the air attacks, but most still intact, their deadly cargo concealed within. The trenches weaving through the grove, and around the rail track were a masterpiece of concealment, the raw earth carted off at night, the deep bunkers cunningly placed, everything covered with camouflage netting, something that his warriors had first thought was some sort of bizarre joke.

He could clearly see them now, range less than a league away, the thin line of troops he had deployed were just enough to let the enemy think that there was resistance and that it was now breaking up. “The best time to strike is when your opponent is flush with victory for then the collapse of his morale shall be complete. ” Master Gavagar made that pronouncement three thousand years ago, Jurak thought. Ha’ark had never had the subtlety to think of that, to think of the best way to break their will … now we shall see.

* * *

“Jack, to the north, where we were looking earlier.”

Petracci turned his attention to port, to where Theodor was pointing. The same spot as before, F-7, the plantation near the northern rim of forest. Vertical plumes of smoke, a few before, but now dozens of them. The smudges of smoke were puffing … damn, machines.

“Take the controls,” Jack shouted. Letting go of the stick he raised his field glasses, braced them, finding it hard to focus in as the machine surged up on an early-morning thermal, then leveled back out. He caught it for a second, lost it, then caught it again… .

“Damnation, ironclads, fifty … a hundred of them!”

Chapter Three

General Gregory Timokin never even saw the shot that took him out of the fight. One second he had been watching the retreat of the Bantag infantry and mounted units, eager finally to get in range of the rail line, the next instant an explosion of steam blew up into his turret. He could hear the screams of his crew down below, men being scalded alive from the burst boiler.

Clawing at the turret hatch, he pulled himself up and out, gasping for breath. Just as he rolled clear of the turret and hit the ground his ironclad blowtorched as nearly a hundred gallons of kerosene poured from the ruptured fuel tanks into the boiler and ignited. Horrified, he could hear the dying screams of his men inside, one of them fumbling at the latch on the starboard entry port.

He stood up, staggering to the machine. Grabbed the handle to try to turn it, screaming with pain—it was already scalding hot. He felt someone jiggling the handle spasmodically, but the door wouldn’t give. Damn, they were turning the latch but hadn’t unbolted the locks inside.

“Open the locks, God damn it, open the locks!” he screamed.

He felt as if he was trapped in a cursed nightmare, the door wouldn’t open, the screaming inside wouldn’t stop … and he was terrified of what he would see if the door did open.

He heard the screams inside and then he was down, someone pushing him to the ground.

“Stay down, you damn fool!”

Bullets snapped past, machine-gun fire, slower than a Gatling but a machine gun nevertheless, the bullets tattooing against the side of his ironclad where he had been standing only seconds before.

A rocket snapped overhead. Turning, he saw it slam into another ironclad, the St. Yuri, which had been on his right flank. The round struck a glancing blow and detonated, scoring the armor.

“My men!” Gregory screamed. “I’ve got to get ’em out!”

“They’re dead already.” Then he was being dragged back, another soldier coming up out of a shallow ditch behind the burning machine to help pull him in.

As the three rolled into the ditch the ammunition in the St. Malady burned off, ten-pound shells bursting, the top turret tearing loose, tumbling skyward and then crashing down, a pile of twisted wreckage. Tracer rounds soared upward, oily black smoke blowing out from the turret mount as if the ironclad had been turned into a blast furnace.

Numbed, he stared at his beloved machine, still not believing that his comrades inside were dead.

“What hit us?” he asked vacantly.

Even as he asked the question he saw a flash of light straight ahead, the muzzle blast of a gun, and a split second later the St. Yuri went up, the turret blowing clear off from the shot.

Stunned, ignoring the danger, he stood up. Only seconds before he had been leading nearly forty ironclads, advancing in line abreast, supporting a full division of infantry. Half of them were now burning. Impossible; the ground ahead, all the way to the railroad track, was open, the enemy on the run. He saw more flashes, as if the guns were firing from out of the ground … a concealed line, camouflaged, invisible from the ground and from the air. God damn, how did they do this? How did they learn it?

“Sir, if you want to get killed, damn it, do it someplace else. I’m not going to risk my ass again to save you.”

He turned and saw a colonel by his side, crouching low. At nearly the same instant something plucked at his shoulder, his epaulette snapping off, tearing his uniform. He squatted back down and stared at the officer, saying nothing.

The colonel uncorked his canteen and offered it over. Gregory took a drink, grimacing. It was vodka laced with just a hint of muddy water.

“Your hands; you better get back to the aid station; I’ll send a man with you.”

He saw that his hands were already puffy, bright pink. The flesh of his right hand was blistering, and the sight of it made him realize just how damn much it hurt. Looking down he noticed that his trousers were scorched black, the leather cf his boots burned. Not as much pain there at least. “In a minute,” he gasped, handing the canteen back. “Out of nowhere,” the colonel announced, obviously shaken. “Thought we had a clear run, then the ground ahead just exploded.”

He paused, looking back over the edge of the ditch. Timokin followed his gaze and saw dozens of men down on the ground, in a line so neat it was as if they had been ordered to drop together. Some of them were still alive, trying to crawl back, puffs of dirt kicking up around them, and above the roar of battle he could hear the barking laughter of the Bantags who were picking them off. A desire to do something, anything, urged him to climb out and try to help, but instinct told him it was now a deadly killing ground, and he was amazed that someone would be so insane as to pull him away from the St. Malady, which was a dozen yards forward and still burning.

“It just exploded with fire,” the colonel continued. “It looked like your ironclad rolled over some sort of infernal machine, the back end just lifted right up from the blast. Then you got hit from the front a second later.”

The dirt on the lip of the ditch sprayed up as machine-gun fire swept them. Seconds later the mortar rounds started, whistling in, bracketing the depression that was rapidly filling with men who were crawling back from the inferno ahead. He caught a glimpse of a lone ironclad driving back in reverse, a rocket flaring up from ahead, streaking past the machine’s turret.

Puffs of smoke were igniting along the Bantag train track which was so tantalizingly close, less than a quarter mile ahead. Motioning for the colonel’s field glasses, Gregory took them, grimacing with pain as he cupped them in his hands and clumsily focused them on the rail line. Rhythmic lights were snapping from the armored cars, the rate of fire was slow, maybe a hundred rounds a minute, but it was a machine gun, and he cursed silently.

What was far more startling, though, was the sight of ironclads emerging, as if rising up from out of the ground on the far side of the track and from a peach-orchard-covered knoll. The bastards had dug them in, the saints only knew how long ago, and covered them over and waited. Now they were stirring to life, rising up out of concealment. They looked heavier, a newer model, with turrets just like his own machine. Along the rail track, farther back, he could see several dozen small specks, apparently hovering in the air, but gradually taking form. Bantag airships, coming in to support. Several Hornets harried the edge of the formation; a Bantag machine went down in flames, but a Hornet plunged to earth as well.

“My God,” he whispered. “We’re losing.”

“Andrew, I think we better get the hell out of here!” Pat roared, leaning over to grab the reins of Andrew’s horse.

Andrew shook his head, motioning for Pat to let go, but his friend refused.

Sitting upright in the saddle, Andrew raised his field glasses, fixing his attention to the north. Less than a quarter mile away he could see them coming, a wall of Bantag ironclads, forty or more advancing nearly side to side.

Jack, who only minutes before had dropped a message warning of the breakthrough was circling above them, oblivious of the ground fire, all three of his gunners firing their Gatlings.

Surviving ironclads that had been supporting the left flank of 9th Corps were backing up, engaging the enemy machines, but it was apparent the armor on the Bantag machines had been reinforced, bolts that had once so easily sliced through at two hundred yards were now careening off the enemy machines in a shower of sparks.

Four ironclads stopped after backing into a shallow depression, and Andrew watched intently as they waited for the Bantag to close in. Knots of infantry fell in around the ironclad behemoths, and Andrew nudged his mount, wanting to ride up to join them.

“Are you crazy!” Pat roared. “A mounted man won’t last three seconds up there.”

“Well, damn it. I’ve got to do something!” Andrew shouted.

Pat looked over at the half dozen staff and couriers who still trailed them. Most of them were wide-eyed with fright, ' but they knew what to do, moving up to surround Andrew and shield him.

“Back away, damn you!” Andrew shouted, but they ignored his protests.

The battle erupted straight ahead as the four ironclads opened up at less than a hundred yards. Two of the enemy machines exploded. A hail of fire slashed back. Deployed as they were directly behind the action, solid shot bolts, machine-gun fire, and shell fragments screamed past Andrew and his companions. Pat visibly flinched as a solid bolt sucked the air between them, the round screaming past like a demented banshee.

The turret was torn off one of the ironclads, steam and flame blew out the back of another. The two survivors fired back, destroying two more of the enemy machines. The Bantag continued to press in, yet another machine exploding as a rocket crew fired into its flank at point-blank range. And then they were through the line, followed by hundreds of Bantag infantry swarming forward. Several of the enemy machines were towing wagons, which were now unhitched. Mortars were already set up inside the wagons and within seconds their crews were sending dozens of shells aloft.

“We’ve got to get back!” Pat shouted, and he pointed to the left.

Down by the riverbank a solid wall of Bantag infantry were racing forward at the double, oblivious of losses; the thin line of blue trying to contain them cracking apart.

“They must have had five umens or more concealed on our flank,” Pat shouted. “They’re going to cut the pontoons and our crossing point. Andrew, you’re getting out of here now.”

Andrew wanted to knock Pat’s hand away, as his friend again grasped the reins of his horse, turned, and broke into a canter, dragging Andrew along.

“Give me the reins, damn it,” Andrew shouted.

Pat looked back at him.

“I’m not doing anything stupid.”

Pat nodded and finally let go.

Andrew gathered up the reins and followed as Pat weaved his way down a farm lane, that in a different age had connected a villa to the road running parallel to the river. As they reached the river road Andrew was stunned by the chaos.

Some officers still had control of their units, ordering men to dig in. A battery of ten-pounders was pushing its way up through the ever-increasing mob of refugees heading to the rear. Pat broke away, rode over, and ordered them to unlimber alongside the ruins of a small temple, the toppled-over columns of limestone offering some protection.

Andrew turned to watch, surveying the ground, wondering if this could be a breakwater to stop the unrelenting assault. A regiment, still in semblance of order and falling back down the road, slowed as Pat galloped up to them, ordering the men to fall in on the flanks of the guns.

The enemy ironclad assault was clearly visible, less than a quarter mile away, coming across the open plain, hundreds of men running in front of it, trying to escape.

Terrified soldiers crashed through the line Pat was trying to form up. With drawn sword Pat rode back and forth, screaming for the men to rally. Some slowed, falling in; others dodged around and kept on going, crying that it was impossible.

The advancing line of Bantag ironclads slowed and ground to a halt two hundred yards away.

“God damn them,” Pat cried. “They know the range we can kill them at and are sitting just beyond it!”

Andrew nodded, saying nothing.

A ragged volley erupted from the line of enemy machines, and a gale of canister swept the position. Gunners dropped at their pieces, two of Andrew’s staff collapsed, one of them shrieking in agony, clutching a shattered arm.

The gunners opened up, six pieces recoiling back with sharp cracks, but the bolts simply ricocheted off the front armor of the enemy machines.

The one-sided duel lasted for several minutes, the slow-firing machine guns of the enemy ironclads stitching back and forth along the line.

Conceding that a suicidal gesture was meaningless, Andrew urged his mount behind the wall of the temple, Pat and the surviving staff joining him.

Mortar rounds began to rain down, bracketing the position, and Andrew struggled to control his own fear as the deadly messengers whispered overhead and detonated with loud cracks.

“Why don’t they charge, damn it?” one of the staff cried. “They don’t have to,” Pat snarled. “Not until they’re damn good and ready.”

A ragged cheer erupted from the battery, and, looking up over the wall, Andrew saw a lone enemy machine exploding, most likely a lucky shot through an open gun port. Three of the six guns of his battery were out of action, and more than half the crew was down.

Andrew was startled as a flyer, skimming overhead, engines roaring, blocked out the sun for an instant.

A message streamer dropped less than a dozen feet away. He looked up, saw smoke pouring from one of the Eagle’s engines—another engine had been shut down.

An orderly handed the message up.

Sir, get the hell out! Entire front collapsing. Ten umens and hundred ironclads attacking you. South flank gone, Bantag about to take pontoon bridge. Must pull out. My ship is finished… . Jack.

“Here they come!”

Andrew nudged his mount around and came out from behind the temple. The enemy ironclads were advancing - again. Their tactics were changing; they smelled victory. Bantag infantry, thousands of them, were swarming forward, all of them heavily armed with rifles, rocket launchers, mortars. Ignoring the losses, they broke into a swarming charge. The regiment Pat had deployed fired a single ragged volley, then simply melted away, officers shouting for the men to fall back. There was no semblance of order to the pullout; men simply turned and started to run.

Andrew rode up to the battery commander, who had miraculously survived the enemy barrage.

“Major, abandon your guns, get your men the hell out of here!”

“Sir?”

“You heard me, son. Get your wounded on the limber wagons and save yourself. Now move!”

The gunners, hearing Andrew’s command, needed no persuasion. Turning, they started to run, though discipline held long enough for them to help the wounded onto the limber wagons. Drivers lashed their teams, swinging the wagons out onto the road.

A blast of canister dropped the entire lead team of six horses into a tangled heap, blocking the road. Chaos erupted as the other limber teams tried to maneuver around the pileup.

Pat, hat gone, saber dropped, was waving a pistol, standing in his stirrups, bawling orders. Andrew looked back, saw Bantag infantry less than a dozen yards away, piling up over the guns, catching those who had not moved quickly enough, bayoneting the wounded on the ground.

Andrew rode up to Pat.

“Come on!”

“The guns. God damn them, I’ve never lost a gun!”

“Come on!”

Pat suddenly turned, lowering his pistol, apparently aiming it right at Andrew. He fired, dropping a Bantag who was between them, clubbed rifle poised to knock Andrew from the saddle.

Pat spurred his mount forward, Andrew following, his mount staggering, nearly falling, as it was shot in the haunch. It regained its footing and in a panic broke into a lopsided gallop.

Andrew looked back, horrified. The Bantag were into the traffic jam of limber wagons, tearing the wounded down off of the caissons, bayoneting drivers. He saw a man being flung into the air, shrieking, falling back down on upturned bayonets. The Bantags seemed to have reverted, caught up in the blood frenzy, some of them literally tearing men apart with their bare hands.

Behind the insane swarm the ironclads pressed in, not hesitating, one of them rising up and over a twisted tangle of men and horses, crushing them under.

Ahead the road was packed with thousands heading to the rear. And there was nothing for Andrew to now do but ride with them into defeat.

Gregory could sense the rising panic in the troops packed in around him. Minutes before the men had advanced jauntily, feeling the worst of the assault was over, the trench lines cleared, and they were into the open ground beyond. ' He was beginning to feel the panic in his own heart as well, the easterly breeze blowing back into his face the stench of his machine burning, a mixture of kerosene, hot iron, and human flesh.

He started to shake. He had seen it often in others, after getting hit, no pain at first, then the shaking, the feeling that all the blood had drained out of you. Suddenly, with no warning, he leaned over and vomited, “Sergeant, get the general the hell out of here.”

He didn’t want to accept the offer of help but was grateful when he felt strong hands grabbing him by the shoulder.

“This way, sir.”

He looked into the eyes of the infantryman. About his own age, early twenties, but harder, muscles like whipcords, a scar creasing his jaw, an ugly red slash that seemed to double the size of his mouth lopsidedly to one side.

The sergeant led him down along the ditch, head bobbing up occasionally, scanning the land.

“Defile there, sir, about a hundred yards farther back. We’ll have to move quick to get to it … Ready?”

He found he couldn’t speak, his entire body was trembling. Fear, exhaustion, the pain, he wasn’t sure which. Another convulsion hit him, and he vomited again. The sergeant held him by the shoulders until the spasm passed.

“Ready to make a run for it?”

Gregory nodded weakly.

“Now sir!”

Together they went up out of the ditch, Gregory still gagging, the sergeant half-dragging him along. Bullets whip-cracked overhead, they reached the next ditch, rolling in amongst the packed tangle of men who were cowering there for cover, several of them cursing the pair, ignoring the star that was still on one epaulette.

A mortar round thudded into the packed crowd less than twenty feet away, and Gregory winced as a fine mist of blood sprayed into his face. He started to cry, not exactly sure why, sick with himself that he was breaking down in front of the men, but the sight of a lieutenant who the shell had landed on caused him to think of his crew. By now, they were blackened charred bits of greasy dirt, not blown apart like the body in front of him.

“It’s all right, sir, let’s keep going.”

The sergeant fell in with a carrying party using the shallow ravine to move the wounded back. It was a procession of tears, some of the men moved along easily on their own, clutching a blood-soaked arm, obviously glad to be out of it with, at worst, the loss of an arm. Others moved along silently, features a ghastly green-tinged pale. No stretcher party would carry them—they were the dying and time could not be wasted—but by some herculean effort they dragged themselves back, believing that by doing so, by staying with this river of half-torn bodies that they could somehow remain in the ranks of the living.

Medical orderlies with green armbands to identify them to the provost guards, struggled to carry the rest, some on stretchers, others bundled into a ground cloth or blanket.

He was a veteran of half a dozen hard-fought engagements, but until this moment, locked up in his iron machine, he had never really looked closely at what could be done to men, or to himself. Some were burned, faces, hands blackened, others parboiled by steam like him, features puffing up, eyes swelling shut. Others clutched at holes torn in the chest, mangled faces, or shattered limbs.

The procession was strangely silent, and he staggered along with it, feeling as if he was a fraud, not really wounded, a coward who was allowing himself to be led away, hiding under the protection of a sergeant ordered to take him to the rear.

He would rise from his inner woe occasionally to realize that there was a mad battle swirling about him. Hundreds of shells were arcing overhead, the worst mortar barrage he had seen, far worse than the Battle of Rocky Hill. Nothing was moving forward. Men were bunched up in ditches, sprawled flat behind the ruins of abandoned villas, barns, sheds, or behind burning ironclads, some digging frantically with bayonets, scratching holes to hide in. The rifle and machine-gun fire was continuous, but increasingly he noticed the men were not firing back, but instead were hunkering down, unable to go forward and too frightened to get up and sprint for the rear.

He looked back toward the front and gasped. A dozen enemy ironclads were moving up, the lead one within spitting distance of his own destroyed machine. Machine-gun fire erupted, stitching the shallow ravine he had been dragged into. Men were bursting out of the cover, running, collapsing. A rocket crew to one flank stood up, fired off a round. It slammed into the side of the enemy machine and skidded off. Seconds later the men were dead.

He spotted one of his machines pivoting, a lone David fighting a dozen Goliaths. It slammed a shot into the rear of a Bantag machine, blowing it apart, and then was torn to shreds in turn, half a dozen bolts slicing it apart. The entire front was breaking apart, falling back. Dark forms were emerging out of the ground, Bantag infantry, bent double, moving quickly, sprinting forward, dropping, then rising and racing forward again. Their movements were different, not the upright charges of the past. He sensed that these warriors were different, trained in a different type of combat, and the sight of them was terrifying.

His sergeant pulled him away and pushed on down the ravine, heading back to the rear. Several times officers started to close in on the sergeant, but when they saw he was helping a general to the rear they backed off, yet again redoubling Gregory’s shame. Without the star on his shoulder he would have had to make it back on his own, and at the moment the terror was so great that he knew he couldn’t walk, let alone crawl, without the strong arms of the sergeant around him.

The ravine finally played out, but they were now a good six hundred yards from the front and the sergeant ventured up the side and out onto the open ground. Gregory looked around and saw a green flag fluttering behind the ruins of a plantation house with a white rectangle in the middle, the insignia of the field hospital for 2nd Division, 11th Corps. The low stone walls provided some protection from the incoming fire, and several times the sergeant pulled him down as mortar rounds crumped in the open field they were traversing, their progress hindered by the torn-up tangle of untended grapevines and arbors.

Well over a hundred men were lying behind the building, most of them from 11th Corps but a sprinkling of 9th Corps and even a few wearing the distinctive black jackets of the ironclad Corps, the men looking up at him expectantly as he came in.

The sergeant eased him down, announcing that he was going to fetch the doctor. The soldier to his right was unconscious, a bandage covering most of his face, blood seeping out; to his left was one of his ironclad men, hands and face blackened, the flesh cracked and peeling. He could see the boy was blinded and didn’t have the heart, or the courage, to speak to him.

A hospital orderly came up, led by the sergeant, and squatted down.

“How you doing, sir?”

Gregory looked at him, unable to form the words, to tell him to go away and tend someone else who needed him more.

The orderly held up his hand moving it slowly back and forth in front of Gregory’s face, watching intently.

“Can you see my hand, sir?”

Next he took Gregory’s hands, turning them over, pressing gently, watching Gregory’s reaction.

“You’ll do all right, sir. You got scalded. From the sound of your voice you might have taken some steam in. I’ll get some ointment, then the sergeant here can take you back to the river.”

Even as he spoke a courier came galloping up, crouched low in the saddle, reining in hard, a bloodstained doctor turning to face him. Words were exchanged. The courier saluted, reined about, then started forward, heading up to the front.

The doctor stepped back, shouting for his staff to form up. Gregory watched silently, sensing something as orders were given with hushed voices. The orderly never came back with the ointment as the men raced off. The doctor seemed to shrink visibly as he looked at his charges.

“Everyone listen up,” he shouted in Latin, trying to be heard above the incessant roar of battle. Gregory listened intently, unsure if he was hearing the words correctly. The doctor paused, crouching low as a flyer passed low overhead, smoke trailing from an engine, then stood back up.

“We have to evacuate this position now! Anyone who can move on his own, start heading for the rear immediately. If you have the strength to help a comrade do so. Let’s get going.”

He turned away. Gregory struggled to his feet, looking around. Men staggered up, others tried, then slipped back down. Far too many didn’t move at all and he could see there were nowhere near enough orderlies to move them all. He looked over at his sergeant.

“Give a hand with someone else; I can make it from here.”

“You certain, sir?” and he could sense a genuine concern that touched him deeply.

“Certain, Sergeant. Kesus be with you.”

“And the gods with you too, sir,” the sergeant hesitated, then looked back. “Sir, I’m sorry about your crew. My younger brother’s on one of them machines. Do you think he’s all right?”

“I pray so.”

The sergeant nodded, looked down at an unconscious man with a bandaged face, and, reaching down, he hoisted him, cradling him in his arms like a child, and started for the rear. Gregory went up to the doctor. At his approach the doctor’s eyes shifted to the star on his shoulder.

“Why are you pulling out?” Gregory asked.

“Didn’t you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“We’re being flanked, cut off.”

“What?”

The doctor pointed to the north, and for the first time Gregory was aware of the roiling columns of smoke, punctuated by fires, and dull flashes of light. It was like a curtain stretching from horizon to horizon. He caught a momentary glimpse of a dark machine slowly moving up over a distant hill, dozens of dark towering forms behind it … Bantag; above them an aerosteamer was spiraling down in flames. The image reminded Gregory of a painting that terrified him as a child, in the great cathedral of Suzdal, The Day of Judgment, the world was in flames, the damned consigned into the hands of demons, who, of course, were of the Horde. It looked the same now. Turning to look back from where he had come, he could see the survivors of the assault pulling back, some of the men running headlong for the rear, others turning, trying to fight, going down under the hail of fire.

“Better get the hell out of here now,” the doctor said, turning to the operating table to scoop his instruments into a carrying bag. A lone ambulance was being loaded up with wounded.

“These men?” Gregory asked.

“Those who can’t walk are left,” the doctor announced grimly, and to his horror he saw an orderly drawing out a revolver. It was never spoken of, but all knew that orders were never to leave wounded behind for the Bantag if they couldn’t be evacuated.

Horrified Gregory stepped around the doctor and struggled to pull a man up.

“Leave him, he’s dying anyhow,” the doctor announced calmly.

“Like hell.”

Tears of pain and frustration streaming down his face Gregory grabbed a corporal who had lost a leg and was still unconscious, hoisted him, and started for the rear.

Chapter Four

Brakes squealing, the train glided to a halt. Wearily, Andrew stood up, looking down at his dress uniform, nervously brushing at a stain just below his breast.

“Long ride,” Hans groaned, sitting up from the narrow bunk where he had slept for the last hundred miles of the grueling seven-hundred-mile transit.

Andrew nodded, vainly trying to stretch the kinks out of his back.

“Ready for this?” Hans asked, standing up and, with an almost fatherly gesture, brushing some soot off Andrew’s shoulder.

“Not sure. Almost feels like going into a battle.”

“It is, and maybe just as dangerous.”

There was a final lurch of the cars, then a blast of the whistle. Looking out the window, he saw an expectant crowd waiting in the hot early-morning sunlight. A military band, sounding tinny, struck up “Battle Cry of Freedom.” He stepped out onto the back platform, looking around. A small delegation was waiting, but his eyes were focused on but one group, Kathleen and the four children. Madison, his oldest, broke free and rushed forward with delighted cries, the twins following. Kathleen, dressed for once in a civilian dress, the traditional Rus smock and blouse, with her red hair tucked under a kerchief, looked absolutely delightful, their youngest son in her arms, looking at him wide-eyed. It had been over half a year since he had last seen him, and the boy had obviously forgotten though he did smile tentatively as Andrew stepped off the back of the car, Madison tugging at his pants leg, Jefferson and Abraham grabbing the other. She came forward, leaning up to kiss him.

“You look exhausted.”

“I am.”

Looking down the length of the platform, he saw anxious families swarming around the three hospital cars that made up the rest of his express train, the first casualties back from the front since the disaster in front of Capua.

“There’s no one here,” she whispered. “He didn’t come down.”

Though he was not one for pomp and ritual, the fact that the president had not come to meet him, or at least have an honor guard, was a clear enough indication of the mood. It was also a very public and visible statement by his old friend that there was serious trouble ahead.

“Colonel. How was it?”

He turned to see Gates, editor of Gates’s Illustrated Weekly, standing expectantly, pad of paper in hand, pencil poised.

“No comment for now, Tom.”

“Come on, Colonel. I’m running an extra on the battle, and there’s precious little information out other than a partial casualty list and rumor that it was bad.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“Is it true you’ve been summoned back by Congress to report before the Committee on the Conduct of the War?”

“Tom, why don’t you just back the hell off,” Hans snarled.

“I need something, anything,” Tom pressed, ignoring Hans.

“Gates,” Hans snapped, “I remember how you peed your pants at Gettysburg, you were so damn scared, and hid behind the Seminary building till I dragged you back out. Why don’t you print that.”

Andrew shook his head at Hans, feeling sorry for Gates, who stood abashed, face turning red.

“Your first fight, Tom. We all peed ourselves at one time or another,” Andrew said reassuringly, patting him on the shoulder. “It’s all right.”

He guided the editor off to one side.

“Look, Tom, it was bad, very bad. In short, they tore us apart, but for the moment you can’t publish that.”

Tom looked at him, obviously torn between his old loyalty to his colonel and the demands of his new profession.

“Let me report to the president first. Come over to my place later in the day, and I’ll tell you everything I can. Is that fair?”

Tom nodded. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s just that this place is going wild with rumors. There’s talk that if it’s true we lost at Capua, that Congress will vote that the Chin ambassadors sent by Jurak are to be formally received and given the offer of cease-fire.”

Andrew sighed and lowered his head.

“Andrew, be careful going in there. That’s not the only rumor floating around town this morning.”

“What then?”

“Senator Bugarin is calling for Rus formally to secede from the Republic, establish its own state again, and make peace with the Bantags.”

“Damn all,” Andrew hissed.

It was, of course, illegal according to the Constitution. Given the experience back on his home world, he had written a clause into the document strictly forbidding secession unless three-quarters of Congress, and all the voting citizens, agreed to a new Constitutional convention.

“I told you before we should have hung every last boyar after the revolution before the Merki War,” Hans announced, having come up to join the conversation. “Bugarin was in with that crowd then.”

“He was formally absolved,” Andrew replied sharply, “and remember, he is a senator of the Republic.”

“Yeah, sure,” Hans snarled, letting fly with a stream of tobacco juice.

“Flavius, the Speaker of the House, is hopping mad, too,” Gates continued. “With word that Marcus is missing and presumed dead, a hell of a lot of pressure is on him now to stop trying to be even-handed and think more like the senior representative from Roum.”

“He’s also now the next in line to the presidency,” Hans announced.

Andrew found himself wishing he could block this all out. He had left the battlefield less than a day ago; too much was flooding in too quickly.

“I’ve got a carriage waiting for us,” Kathleen announced, breaking in. “Tom, let Andrew meet with the president, then they’ll most likely make a joint statement. Why don’t you come over after dinner.”

Andrew could not help but smile at the way she could switch on the charm when needed, and the publisher finally relented, backing away and darting off to catch a lieutenant who was being carried off the hospital car on a stretcher.

Kathleen led the way, Madison grabbing her father’s hand and chattering away, Andrew replying absently to her conversation. Reaching the carriage, she pried the children loose from their father and handed the baby over to a nurse, who led them away, Andrew waving good-bye as the carriage lurched forward, feeling guilty about his role as a father who was never home and was now too preoccupied to offer them any attention.

They drove past the long row of ambulances drawn up by the station. There was a time when he would have insisted upon stopping, getting out to talk to the men and their families, but he could so clearly sense the mood. In spite of the brilliant sunshine it felt as if there was a dark shadow over the city. Official censorship or not, news was clearly out that the offensive had turned into a bloody disaster.

Reaching the inner gate, they passed into the old city of Suzdal, and for a brief instant he relaxed, enjoying yet again the exotic medieval flavor of the city. Though this section had been twice destroyed in the wars, each time the residents had built it back as it was, though somehow the woodwork now seemed more crudely done and hurried, as if the pace of the new world he had created would not allow time for the ancient Rus art of woodcarving as it was once done. The old gaily painted window frames and decorative designs were gone as well since the lime for whitewash and the lead for paint were both designated as precious war materials.

The carriage finally reached the great square of the city, going past the cathedral, Kathleen making the sign of the cross as they did so. He was tempted to stop, to go in and see if Casmir, the Holy Metropolitan and head of the Rus Orthodox Church, was there, for he knew that the priest would be his staunchest supporter to the bitter end, and at this moment he needed to hear some form of encouragement. But the white banner was not flying over the central onion dome, meaning that the holy father was elsewhere, most likely at the military hospital to help as the first wounded came in.

The carriage turned across the square, the scene of so many triumphal parades, and the place where twice he led the old 35th into battle, first against the Boyar Ivor, and then in the final charge against the Tugars. Memories rushed back of so many who had marched or fought across this square and were now but dust, and Kathleen, as if sensing his mood, reached over and squeezed his hand again.

“Remember the first time we went for a walk here?” she said, as if trying to divert his thoughts from more melancholy contemplations.

He smiled, looking into her eyes, remembering that first wondrous day together, when they had visited the court of Ivor then roamed the city till dusk, having no idea, as yet, of the terror of the hordes.

Straight ahead was the White House. A strange blending of the old and the new, the former palace of a boyar, with all its ornate and intricate stone carvings, high narrow windows, and fairy-tale domes, whitewashed by order of the president in imitation of the legendary place where Lincoln had once resided. He could see a crowd gathered near the steps, a twin line of infantry drawn up to clear the way. A color guard was waiting, bearing the flag of the Republic, and as the carriage stopped at the base of the steps they came to attention. Andrew and Hans stood up, each of them saluting the colors as they stepped down to the cobblestone pavement. A small band of half a dozen drummers and fifers now sounded ruffles and flourishes and then went into “Hail to the Chief.” At the top of the steps the president, Andrew’s old friend Kal, appeared, wearing his traditional black frock coat and stovepipe hat, beard cut like Lincoln’s, always a slightly absurd sight since he stood barely five and a half feet tall, yet touching nevertheless in its respectful imitation of a legend from another world.

Kal slowly came down the steps, the small crowd of bystanders respectfully silent, the few soldiers in the group coming to attention and saluting, civilian men and boys removing their hats and one old woman making the sign of the cross.

Andrew, curious, watched, knowing that protocol demanded that he ascend the steps, not forcing the president to come down to greet him. But Kal had never stood on such foolish protocol, and normally would have been at the station, eager to embrace his friend in a traditional Rus bear hug and kiss. The fact that he had not done so indicated so much to Andrew, and it was such a strange paradox for Andrew had so often lectured the old peasant on the dignity of office and the precedents that needed to be set. Now they were caught in that very game.

Kal stopped midway down the twenty steps, hat still on, and there was a long pregnant pause.

“Don’t push it,” Kathleen whispered.

Finally, Andrew climbed the steps, trying not to let his fatigue and stiffness show. He came to attention and saluted, Kal nodding a reply but no embrace or even a slap on the shoulder. The effect was immediate, whispers running through the crowd of onlookers. Behind the president Andrew caught a glimpse of several senators, all from Rus, one of them Vasily Bugarin.

“Let’s go inside to talk,” Kal finally announced.

Andrew nodded in agreement, saying nothing. There was a moment’s hesitation as Kal looked over at Hans.

“I want my second-in-command with me,” Andrew said, and Kal turned without comment, leading the way up the stairs.

Andrew looked back at Kathleen, who flashed a smile and turned without comment, getting back into the carriage. He felt guilty, not having said more, not feeling more, and that realization was troubling. His feelings were almost an abstraction, a memory, as if he had become so brittle inside that there was no room at the moment for the love and devotion he knew he should feel for his family.

Though it was still early morning, he was glad to step through the ornately carved doors and into the cool dark interior of the executive mansion. Once out of sight of the crowd he hoped that Kal would drop the role and show some warmth, but there was no relenting as the president led the way down the corridor, past the old audience chamber of the boyar and into a side room which served the president as his office.

The room was simply appointed, as was typical of the old Kal. Icons of Perm and Kesus, the half-pagan manifestation of Orthodoxy which had been transplanted to this world dominated the far wall, with smaller icons of a variety of saints, some of them men of the old 35th and 44th New York, surrounding the centerpiece. The other walls were covered with maps studded with red and blue pins marking the situation on the western front, where remnants of the Merki were raiding, the coasts of the Inland Sea and the shadowy war which had resumed against Cartha, and the Eastern Front from which he had just come. In the center of the room was a battered oak table around which a dozen straight-backed chairs were set. Andrew was delighted to see the Holy Prelate Casmir sitting at the far corner, the priest coming to his feet as Andrew came in.

“Good day to you, Andrew,” he said in fairly good English, and Andrew smiled, taking off his old kepi hat with a show of genuine respect. Across from him was Vincent Hawthorne, a mere shadow of a ghost, his uniform hanging loosely on his narrow frame, still sporting the Phil Sheridan look of pointed goatee and mustache.

Without comment Bugarin took a chair next to Casmir, and Kal beckoned for Andrew to sit next to Vincent, Hans taking the chair to Andrew’s right while Kal sat down next to Bugarin.

Andrew was tempted to voice a protest, to ask to be allowed at least to freshen up and get a bite to eat before going into this meeting and then somehow get a few minutes alone with Kal to probe out what was going on, but a cold look from Kal stilled his protest, and as he sat down he made do with a cup of tea that Casmir made a point of pouring for the two new arrivals. The prelate then insisted upon a prayer which ran on for five minutes and which placed a heavy emphasis on his thankfulness for the safe return of Andrew and Hans, the need for divine guidance and strength in the trials to come.

As the three Rus made the sign of the cross Andrew raised his head and stared straight at Kal.

“Andrew, we need an honest report of what happened out there and why,” Kal said, opening the meeting without comment or one of his usual witticisms designed to break the tension.

“I’ve never been anything but honest with you, Mr. President,” Andrew replied coolly, deciding to be formal and avoid the use of the informal nickname of Kal.

Strange, he thought, you were once a peasant, a storyteller and jester for the Boyar Ivor, hiding your cunning behind the mask of a fool in order to protect your family and yourself when the Tugars came, hoping against hope to thus spare your daughter from being sent to the slaughter pits. Hawthorne, who is now your son-in-law, taught you about the ideals of a Republic, it was you who triggered the rebellion, and for years afterward I taught you all I know about how to rule and wrote the very Constitution which put you in power.

Andrew could not help but feel a flicker of resentment now, the mentor who found himself outranked by a student, but was this not as it should be, he told himself. Across all these years I kept demanding that the military must answer to the civilian, and here now are the results.

“Andrew, please tell us what happened,” Casmir interjected. “The entire city is in turmoil with fear, some are even claiming the front has collapsed and the Bantags will be at the gates.”

“No, they haven’t broken through, the front is the same is it was before the attack.”

“In other words you did not gain a single inch of ground,” Bugarin interjected.

Andrew shifted his gaze to study the senator. It was rumored that he had tuberculosis; his skin was almost china white, laid flat against the bones of his face. Dark eyes seemed to burn like coals as he returned Andrew’s look. In spite of the senator’s current stance Andrew found he did have a certain amount of respect for the man. He had avoided the infamous “Boyars’ Plot” to overthrow the government before the Merki War and had briefly commanded a regiment and then a brigade before Rus was evacuated. Stricken with illness he left the army and was immediately elected senator.

Yet, in the last year protest against the war had increasingly centered around him, first as a general concern about the progress of the fight, and then increasingly as a voice of separatism and mistrust of the Roum and their ability to fight. That was the one thing Andrew could not comprehend, this damnable wedge being driven between Rus and Roum. If it succeeded in splitting them apart, the Republic would fracture, and they would all die. How men with the intelligence of Bugarin could not see that was a mystery.

“If you are asking if we held the opposite bank of the river,” Andrew replied. “No.”

“What are the total losses?” Casmir asked. “I want to know the human cost first.”

Andrew sighed, looking up for a moment at the ceiling.

“At least twenty-seven thousand five hundred men killed, wounded or captured out of the forty thousand who crossed the river. Just over nine thousand wounded made it back; all the rest of the casualties were lost.”

“Merciful Perm bless them,” Casmir intoned, making the sign of the cross.

“And equipment?” Kal asked.

“Every ironclad engaged was lost, that’s fifty-three machines. Nineteen light aerosteamers and eleven heavy machines lost as well. Eight field batteries lost, and almost all the equipment for three corps along with two regiments of engineering and pontoon equipment, three corps field hospitals, and somewhere around fifty regimental stands of colors.”

Kal blew out noisily and leaned back in his chair.

“How, damn it?” Bugarin cried. “What did you do wrong?”

“Just tell us,” Kal said, cutting Bugarin off.

“It was a trap,” Andrew said. “Plain and simple. This new leader, Jurak, is different. I fear that the world he came from is far more advanced than mine. He has a better grasp of how to use the new weapons being created, his army is transforming itself into something far different that what we faced with the Tugars and Merki.”

Andrew drew in a breath; the room was silent except for the ticking of a small wooden clock on the wall near Kal’s desk. He remembered that the clock was the same one Vincent had carved for him long ago before even the Tugars had come.

“They had a new model of land ironclad. Heavier armor and with that the knowledge to keep back out of range of our own ironclads and rocket launchers. There was a new airship, twin engine, faster than our Eagles and almost as fast as the Hornets. Also, they have a new type of gun, like our Gatling, slower firing but still deadly.”

“Didn’t you anticipate any of this?” Bugarin asked.

“Not directly,” Andrew had to admit.

“What do you mean ‘not directly’?”

“As commander I had to assume that things would change with their new leader. Also, that they undoubtedly would have new weapons. Jurak, however, was shrewd enough to keep all his cards hidden until we were fully committed, then he unleashed them all in one killing blow.

“Tactically, as well, he presented a new front. I would estimate that at least five of his umens were armed with better rifles, but beyond that they had obviously trained as much as we had. These were not Horde warriors charging blindly—they came on with a skill and purpose we haven’t seen before.”

“What actually happened,” Kal interrupted. “Tell me that.”

“We launched the assault following the plans I reviewed with you the week before the attack. Losses in the first stage were less than anticipated, just over two thousand killed and wounded. Six hours into the assault our advanced column was within striking distance of their main depot, five miles east of Capua, when the counterattack struck.”

“And you did not anticipate that they would counterattack?” Bugarin asked sharply.

“Of course we expected a counterattack,” Andrew replied, trying to keep the weariness and frustration out of his voice. “All of the hordes were masters of mobile warfare and knew enough to keep a mobile reserve positioned behind their lines, either as a force to seal a break or as reserve to deliver the final blow.”

“So why were you not prepared?” Kal asked.

Andrew hesitated for a moment, surprised by the coldness in Kal’s voice.

“We were prepared. Ninth Corps led the breakthrough supported by the First Ironclad Regiment. Eleventh Corps followed next, anchoring the left flank, while elements of two other corps crossed to anchor the right flank and provide reserves. The Second Ironclad Regiment was held in reserve for the follow-up advance once the pontoon bridges were laid and we felt we had achieved a breakthrough.

“What surprised us was the sheer number of ironclads in their reserves, reports estimate there were upward of two hundred compared to fewer than a hundred of ours, of which we committed only fifty in the first wave, the number of new aerosteamers, their introduction of a machine gun, and finally the tactics of concealment and concentration of ironclads in large striking columns.”

“In other words, you were caught unprepared,” Bu-garin pressed.

Andrew said nothing, and Hans finally interrupted.

“No plan ever fully survives first contact with the enemy, and in war no one can ever prepare for all eventualities.”

“You were against this offensive, weren’t you, Hans?” Kal asked.

Now it was Hans’s turn to hesitate.

“Yes, he was,” Andrew said. “The responsibility is mine.”

There was a long silence again, and Andrew half wondered if Kal, for a variety of reasons, would ask for his resignation and turn command over to Hans. That was indeed part of the reason he had insisted that Hans leave the front and return to Suzdal with him. There was even a bit of a wish that indeed such a decision would be made, relieving him of all that was pressing in.

“The retreat, I heard it was a rout,” Bugarin said, breaking the silent tension.

“Yes, there is no denying that. The river was at our backs, the men quickly realized that the enemy was breaking through on both flanks and rolling the line up with the intent of creating a pocket. Yes, they ran, ran for their lives as even the best troops will.”

“So they ran,” Bugarin continued. “Ninth and Eleventh Corps ran, troops primarily made up of men from Roum.” So that was it, Andrew now realized, and he felt a flicker of anger. No senator from Roum was present.

“I don’t see Tiberius Flavius, Speaker of the House, present here,” Andrew replied coolly. “As Speaker, isn’t he entitled to be here as well, Mr. President?”

“This is an informal discussion,” Kal replied.

“It seems more like an inquiry by the Committee on the Conduct of the War,” Hans snapped.

“I wasn’t asking you for comment, Sergeant,” Bugarin growled.

Hans started to stand up, but a look from Andrew stilled him.

“I will accept no aspersions on the gallant soldiers who crossed that river, whether they were Rus or Roum,” Andrew said, his voice cutting through the tension.

It was impossible for him to try and explain now all that had happened. Though he would not admit it here, the army had indeed broken, the worst rout he had seen since the disaster along the Potomac.

It was almost like Hispania in reverse, his army disintegrating, falling back to the river a disorganized rabble. But in this room, under the cool gaze of Bugarin and Kal, that was impossible to explain. How to explain the exhaustion, the fighting out of the army as an offensive weapon? He knew that to try and explain that now would be an admission of defeat.

Yet was this not defeat? He could admit to the loss of the battle at Capua and take responsibility for it. Yet was this the beginning of the end he wondered? Would the army continue to disintegrate and fall back, or was there some desperate way to wring one last victory out of the situation and save what was left?

“Why did you let the vice president go into the attack against my orders?” Kal asked.

Andrew was silent. The memory of the broken body of his old friend, carried back across the river by men from the 11th, was still too fresh.

“I could not stop him,” Andrew replied sadly. “He insisted that he go forward with ‘his boys,’ as he called them. I understand that was part of the reason for the rout. When the counterattack was launched he was caught by the opening barrage of rockets and killed instantly. Word quickly spread through the ranks …”

His voice trailed off. Still hard to believe that Marcus was dead. Yet another part of the political equation he had not anticipated.

“And your own actions?” Bugarin asked. “Did you personally try to rally the men?”

Hans bristled yet again; there was a certain tone to the statement, an implication. Andrew did not respond for a moment, never dreaming that someone might actually question his own behavior under fire.

Kal was the first to react. With an angry gesture he cut Bugarin off.

“This is an inquiry,” Kal snapped, “not an inquisition.” There was a flicker of eye contact, and Andrew felt at least a small sense of relief. Some of the old Kal was still there and was not comfortable with the way things were going.

“I’m willing to answer,” Andrew said, breaking the silence. He looked past Kal, staring at the ceiling.

“I’ll admit here that going under fire again left me nervous, though it did not affect my judgment. I crossed to the east shore and stayed there until it was evident that the north flank had completely caved in.”

“Why didn’t you call up reinforcements?” Bugarin asked. “Always reinforce victory, never reinforce defeat,” Andrew shot back.

“Wasn’t the defeat perhaps in your own mind?”

“I think that after more than a decade of campaigning I know the difference,” Andrew replied sharply. “Any unit, even First Corps, would have broken under the pounding inflicted on the left and center. As to a counterstrike, I have to ask with what?

“Three corps went into that assault. I have a total of three left to cover all the rest of that front from the tangles of the Northern Forest down into the mountains of the south. That was our total offensive striking power. If that was blunted, there was nothing left.”

“In other words, as an offensive force in this war, the Army of the Republic is finished,” Bugarin replied sharply, staring straight at Kal.

Andrew inwardly cursed. It was exactly what he did not want to admit to but had now been maneuvered into saying.

“And if the Bantag now launch a counterattack?” Bugarin pressed. “Can you stop it?”

“We have to stop it.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“There is no alternative,” Andrew snapped.

“Perhaps there is.”

“There is no alternative,” Andrew repeated, his voice sharp with anger. “We cannot make a deal with the Bantag; that will divide us and in the end kill all of us. We must fight if need be to the bitter end.”

Bugarin stood up and leaned over the table, staring directly at Andrew.

“You have been nothing but a disaster to us, Keane. We have fought three wars, hundreds of thousands have died, and now we are trapped in a war that we are losing. Beyond that we are trapped in an alliance with an alien people who can’t even defend their own land. As chairman of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, I hereby summon you to give a full accounting of this disaster.”

With barely a nod of acknowledgment to Kal, the senator stalked out of the room. Casmir, rising from his chair, motioned for Kal to stay and hurried out after Bugarin.

Andrew sat back down, realizing that Kal was staring at him coldly.

“Now you see what I am dealing with here,” Kal announced. “You’d better prepare yourself for what you’ll have to face over the next couple of days.”

Andrew nodded. “Kal, you at least know the boys out there tried their damnedest to win.”

“I know that, Andrew, but it doesn’t change the fact that nearly twenty thousand more families lost a son, or father, or husband. How much longer do you think we as a people can take this?”

“Until we win,” Hans replied coolly.

“Define victory to me when we are all dead,” Kal whispered. “Andrew, we have to find a way out of this war.”

“Kal, there’s only one way,” Hans inteijected.

“You, old friend, are a soldier, and that is the path you must see to victory,” Kal replied, his voice filled with infinite weariness. “I, as president, am forced to consider alternate means. I might not like them, I might not even trust them, but I do have to consider them, especially when Bugarin has rallied a majority of senators.”

Andrew looked over at Vincent, who nodded. That bit of news was a shock. If Bugarin held the majority, the Senate could force the issue to a vote at any time.

“Kal, we can’t surrender. Nor can we allow the Republic to split. Jurak is obviously outproducing us. Any agreement, even a temporary cease-fire, will play to his hand.”

“I hear that from you, Andrew. From Bugarin I hear threats of breaking the Republic apart if need be to end the war. From the Roum representatives I hear complaints about our supposed suspicions regarding them. From Webster I hear that the economy is tottering into collapse. Tonight, as the casualty lists come in, I will sit and write letters until dawn, sending my regrets to old friends who’ve lost a loved one.”

His voice seemed near to breaking.

He lowered his head, put on his stovepipe hat, and slowly walked out the room, moving as if the entire weight of the world was upon him.

Andrew, Hans, and Vincent stood respectfully as he left. Andrew sighed, settling back in his chair and looking over at Vincent, who smiled weakly.

“Hawthorne, just what the hell is going on back here?” Hans asked, going around to the side table and taking the pot of tea from which Casmir had poured earlier and refilling his own cup. Taking a fruit vaguely resembling an apple but closer in size to a grapefruit, he settled into the chair Kal had occupied, pulled a paring knife from his haversack, and began to peel off the thick skin from the fruit.

“It’s madness here,” Vincent began. “Kal is losing control of Congress, which is fracturing between representatives of Rus and Roum. The Roum bloc is claiming the war is not being pressed hard enough to expel the invader from their soil. Beyond that there are some who are claiming it is deliberate in order to cut down the population and thus establish an equal balance in the House.”

“That’s insane.” Andrew sighed. “Damn all, who the hell could even think that?”

“And the—Rus side?” Hans asked.

“Well, you heard it straight from Bugarin. The Roum can’t fight and the burden is resting on the old army of Rus. We lost tens of thousands pulling their chestnuts out of the fire last winter and now, in this last battle, they panic again.”

“Never should have named them the Ninth and Eleventh Corps,” Hans said. “It was unlucky with the Army of the Potomac, and the same here.”

“Funny, even that legend is spreading around,” Vincent said, “some of the Roum claiming it’s a jinx we deliberately set on them.”

Andrew could only shake his head in disbelief.

“So the bottom line?” Andrew asked.

“Word is the Senate will vote a resolution today asking for your removal from command.”

There was a quick exchange of looks between Andrew and Hans as the sergeant cut off a piece of peeled fruit and passed it over to Andrew.

“It won’t happen of course. You’ll stay, and there’ll be a staged show of support for you, but the mere fact that it happens will weaken your position.”

“Figured that, but what’s the real game?”

“Far worse. With Crassus dead, and no vice president, the Roum representatives are increasingly nervous. Speaker Flavius is next in line but remember he isn’t of the old aristocracy of Roum. He was once a servant in the house of Marcus who rose through the ranks, was disabled after Hispania, and found himself in Congress.”

Andrew nodded. He had tremendous admiration for Flavius. A true natural soldier. If he had not been so severely wounded, he undoubtedly would have risen to command a division, or even a corps. His selection as Speaker had been something of a surprise, but then the House was dominated by old veterans, both Roum and Rus from the lower classes. But he didn’t have the blind support and instant obedience Marcus could command. Marcus could merely snap his fingers, and all would listen. Flavius lacked that, and though he was now but a heartbeat away from the presidency, Andrew knew he could not stem the growing friction between the two states of the Republic.

“Bugarin will hold hearings about the battle at Capua. He’ll declare the war lost and push for a cease-fire.”

“An agreement with the Bantag?” Hans asked. “Damn all to hell I keep telling you, Andrew, we should be shooting those Chin envoys they keep sending through.”

“I can’t. Congress specifically ordered that we receive them and pass them along.”

“And they’re nothing but damned spies.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Andrew snapped hotly.

Hans settled back in his chair, saying nothing at the tone of rebuke and frustration.

“Are there the votes for a cease-fire?” Andrew asked.

“No, not yet, but the real maneuver is to break the Republic. Reestablish an independent state of Rus, cut Roum off, and pull the army out.”

“And after the Bantag crush Roum they’ll be at our gates.”

“You know that, I know that,” Hawthorne replied, “but for a lot of folks here, any offer of peace, even if but for six months or a year, with the boys back home, and the crushing work in the factories eased off … well that seems all right with them.

“Bugarin’s already floating around a plan to build a fortified line at Kev, claiming that even if the Bantag did betray the agreement, without having to worry about Roum or holding Tyre, we’d have more than enough to stop them.”

“They’re fools,” Hans cried, his anger ready to explode as he glared at Vincent.

“Yes, but remember I’ve been stuck back here since last year being your liaison, so don’t blame me for the bad news.”

Andrew could see that being cut out of the action was still wearing on Vincent but on the other side his exposure to all the administrative work as chief of staff was seasoning Hawthorne, training him for a day when, if they survived, he would take the mantle of control.

“You should go into the factories,” Vincent said. “I’m in there damn near every day now, trying to keep production up. They’re hellholes, old men, women, children as young as eight working twelve-hour shifts six days a week. Emil is pitching a fit, about conditions. Tuberculosis is up, and a lot of the women working in the factory making percussion caps are getting this strange sickness; Emil says it has something to do with mercury, the same as with hatters.

“There’s shortages of everything, especially since we’re feeding nearly a million Roum refugees who lost their land. A lot of folks are getting by on gruel and watery soup with a hint of meat dipped into it. The prosperity we saw building two years ago is completely out of balance now. A few folks, mostly old boyars and merchants are getting filthy rich on the war industries, but the ordinary workers are slipping behind.”

“So get Webster in, have them figure out some new kind of tax. Hell, he’s the financial wizard who figured it all out in the first place,” Andrew said, always at a loss when it came to the finances of running a war.

“He’s trying, Andrew, but these same people have the ears of Congress and block any changes in the taxes. We cobbled together an industrial war society. The Union could take it back home; we had two generations of change to get used to it. The Confederacy didn’t, and remember how they were falling apart. Well, it’s the same here. We’re producing the goods but barely hanging on, in fact it’s slipping apart. Rebuilding the railroads after last winter’s campaign, and the buildup for this last offensive meant too many other things were not done. Webster said it’s like pouring all the oil we have on only half the machine. Well, the other half, the installations, morale, political support, they’re all seizing up and falling apart.”

Andrew did not know how to reply. During the early spring, after his recovery from the wound, he had tried to understand just how complex it had all become, attending meetings with Webster that would go half the night. He’d demand more ironclads, locomotives, better breechloaders and flyers, and ammunition, always more ammunition, and Webster would repeat endlessly that it meant scrimping on something else equally important if they were to keep the machine of war running.

“You want to understand disenchantment with this war, go into the factories at two in the morning and you’ll see. There have even been rumors about strikes to protest the war and conditions.”

“It’s that or the slaughter pit,” Hans growled, cutting another piece of fruit and this time tossing it to Vincent.

“It’s been what, more than six years since this city was the front line,” Andrew said wearily. “We’ve taken well over a hundred thousand more casualties in this war. I can understand people back here grasping at any straw that’s offered.”

“In fact even the good news from the western front seems to be hurting us,” Vincent said.

“What’s that?”

“Sorry, I guess you didn’t hear. We got reliable intelligence that Tamuka was kicked out by what was left of the Merki Horde following him.”

“That bastard,” Hans growled. “I hope they made him a eunuch or better yet killed the scum.”

It was rare that Andrew heard a truly murderous tone in Hans’s voice, but it flared out now. It was Tamuka who first held Hans prisoner. He could see his friend actually trembling with pent-up rage at the mere mention of the name.

“What happened?” Andrew asked.

“You know that the skirmishing has died off on the western frontier. So much so that I’m recommending relieving a division posted out there and shifting it over to the eastern front. A couple of weeks back a small band of people came into our lines, refugees from what apparently are folks descended from Byzantine Greeks living to the southwest. They said that a umen of the Merki came to their town, killed most of them, but the survivors witnessed a big blowup, the bastards were killing each other and a one-handed Merki who was the leader was driven out of the band.”

“That’s got to be him,” Hans snarled. “Even his own kind hated him. And he wouldn’t have the guts to die with some honor rather than run.”

“The rest of them took off, riding west; the one hand, with maybe a score of followers, rode east.”

“I wonder where to?” Andrew mused.

“Straight to hell I hope,” Hans inteijected.

“Word got back here, and Bugarin said it shows that we will now have more than enough troops to defend ourselves.”

There was a long moment of silence, and yet again he was troubled by all the changes he and his men had created here. Industrialization was the only hope for survival in their war against the hordes, to stay ahead of them in technology and use that to offset their skill and numbers. But ever since the arrival of Ha’ark and Jurak, their hope for that edge was disappearing, and in many ways had clearly been lost in front of Capua. Though on his old world, America had embraced technology and what industrialization could provide, he knew there was a dark side to it, the teeming noisome hellholes around the factories, children laboring in smoky gloom, the mind-numbing dullness of a life of labor. He could balm his conscience with what the alternative was, but for most peasants what had happened in their lives?

Ten years ago they waited in dread for the arrival of the Tugars but resigned themselves to that fate, knowing that but one in ten went to the slaughter and then the Horde rode on and the cycle of life continued the dread of the return twenty years—a lifetime, away. Though he could not truly comprehend it, he could indeed see where some might say the old ways were preferable to what they had now.

Through the high window he could hear a stirring outside, distant shouting, and he froze for an instant, wondering if indeed there was already rioting in the streets over the defeat at Capua. He stared off, unsure of what to do next.

“Andrew, we have to end this war,” Vincent announced.

“You talking surrender, too, boy?” Hans asked, his voice icy.

“No, hell no,” Vincent replied. “But it’s my job to tell Andrew and you what is going on at the capital. Hell, I’d rather be at the front than here. I know what you two saw at Capua. The difference here is that since this campaign started no one in Rus, except for the soldiers, has seen a Bantag, except for those raiders around Kev. All they know is the hardship and shortages without seeing the enemy face-to-face. Those damn Chin ambassadors are talking sweet words, and some are listening, and then the rumors get spread out.”

“My people, are they working on the ambassadors?”

Andrew found it interesting how Hans referred to the three hundred Chin whom he had led out of captivity from Xi’an as “my people.” In a way they had become his own personal guard. There was even a Chin brigade now, made up of those who had escaped during the winter breakthrough into Ha’ark’s rear lines, and shortly they would go to the front. In a way they were Hans’s personal bodyguard, his status with them as liberator raising him to a godlike position in their eyes. It was his idea to make sure they were put in contact with the human ambassadors representing the Horde.

“I have their reports waiting for you,” Vincent said. “Sure, they admit that if they fail to return with a peace agreement their entire families will be sent to the slaughter pits. Some have even whispered it’s all a crock what they’re saying but none will do so publicly out of fear that word will get back to Jurak. But this Jurak is shrewd, damn shrewd. His last messenger said they would offer to stop the slaughter pits, the same as the Tugars did.”

“Damnable lie,” Hans cried. “I was there; I saw what they did.”

“The Tugars stopped,” Andrew said.

“We haven’t heard from them in years; they might very well be back at it,” Hans replied.

“I’m not sure. They learned our humanity—that changed it.”

“And you believe this Jurak?” Hans asked heatedly. “Of course not. He and I both know one clear point. This is a war of annihilation. After all that has happened, it is impossible for this world to contain both of us. Anything he offers is the convenience of the moment to buy breathing time, to split us apart.”

“I wish we did have a year’s breathing time,” Vincent interjected.

“It’d be a year’s breathing time for him, too, and never at the price of losing the Roum.”

“Andrew!”

Surprised he looked up to see Kathleen standing in the doorway, face red, breathing hard, as if she had been running.

“What’s wrong?” and for an instant he thought it was something with the children.

“You’re all right, thank God.”

“What?”

“Someone just tried to assassinate Kal!”

Andrew was out of his chair, followed by Hans and Vincent. He suddenly realized that the clamor outside the building had risen in volume, and with the door open, the shouting in the corridors was audible as well.

“Where is he? Is he all right?”

“In his quarters; Emil was sent for and I followed.” Furious that he hadn’t been told immediately Andrew pushed through the growing turmoil in the hallways, shoving his way past the crowd in the old audience chamber and back around to the rear of the building and the private apartments. Andrew caught a glimpse of Tanya, Kal’s daughter and Vincent’s wife. Crying she ran up to Vincent, who swept her up under his arm, shouting questions.

Andrew forced his way through the troops assigned as the presidential guard and into the bedroom. Emil looked up angrily from the side of the bed and for a moment Andrew froze at the sight of the black frock coat, covered with blood, lying crumpled on the floor, the battered stovepipe hat beside it, just above the brim an ugly blood-soaked gash cut along the side. Kal, eyes closed, features pale, was lying on the bed, the pillow beneath him stained with blood, his wife kneeling on the other side, crying hysterically, Casmir behind her, hands resting on her shoulders.

For a flash instant he remembered a nightmare dream of years ago in which he had seen his hero, Abraham Lincoln, in the same pose, dead from an assassin’s bullet.

“Out, all of you out!” Emil shouted.

Andrew did not move.

Emil rose from the side of the bed and came up to him.

“Please, Andrew, I need his wife out of here; if you go, she’ll follow with the others.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” Emil said wearily. “Casmir said they were walking across the plaza when a shot was fired from atop the church. Thank God at the same instant someone called his name and he started to turn. The ball creased his head. He might have a fractured skull, I’m not sure, but I’ve seen worse who lived.”

“But he’s unconscious,” Vincent said nervously.

“Hell, you’d be, too, if someone cracked the side of your head like that. Like I said, I’m not sure if it’s fractured. I just want quiet in here, so please leave.”

Andrew nodded, withdrawing, motioning for Casmir to follow. The priest gently guided Tanya out with him, her cries echoing in the hallway, creating a dark tension that was ready to boil over as everyone was asking who and why.

Andrew caught the eye of the captain of the guard and motioned him over.

“Secure this building, Captain. Six guards on this door, then sweep the building, everyone outside, send them home or, if they live here, they’re to go to their rooms and stay. Send a messenger over to the barracks of the Thirty-Fifth, mobilize them out, secure a perimeter around this building and Congress.”

“There’s no need to surround Congress.”

It was Bugarin, features flushed with excitement. “Senator, as commander of the military I am responsible for security, and I ask you not to interfere.”

“And it sounds like it could be the start of a coup to me, Colonel.”

“Follow your orders, Captain,” Andrew snapped. “Report back to me within a half hour.”

“I said there is no need for this now.”

Andrew finally turned back to face Bugarin.

“I’ll be the judge of that, sir.”

“The culprit has already been caught.”

“What?”

“And hung by the crowd outside; it was a Roum soldier.”

“Merciful God,” Andrew whispered in English.

Though all urged him to launch the attack, still he refused, counseling calm, the gathering of strength before the final unleashing of the storm.

* * *

“As your own ancestor Vigarka once declared, ‘When the portal of victory appears open, gaze twice before entering.’ ”

Jurak saw several of the clan leaders nodding in agreement, chant singers who stood at the back of the golden yurt exchanging glances of pleasure that their new Qar Qarth could so easily quote from the great history of the ancestors.

“We know we have destroyed three of their umens,” and as he spoke, he pointed to the Corps commanders’ guidons hanging from the ceiling of the great yurt, shot-torn and stained regimental flags by the dozens clustered around them.

“That leaves but three on this front; surely our twenty-five umens can overwhelm that,” Cavgayya of the 3rd umen of the black horse replied.

“Yes, we can overwhelm that, but why spend so needlessly of our sacred blood. More than fifty thousand yurts mourn their sons and fathers from the war before the great city of the cattle. Though we won this battle, still another fifteen thousand mourn. Our seed is not limitless like that of the cattle; each of your lives is precious to me.”

Again he could see the nods of agreement. Ha’ark had been a profligate with the lives of the Bantag. It wasn t just the fifty thousand before Roum, it was another seventy thousand casualties to bring the army to Roum, nearly a third of their total strength of warriors lost. Yes, he suspected he could break through even this evening, but let it simmer just a bit longer, he reasoned. Keep the pressure on with raids, shows of strength. And most of all let the dozens of new ironclads, that even now were being sent to Xi’an and from there shipped across the Great Sea, come up to the front. Then he would launch the final push.

But perhaps that might not even be necessary, he thought with a smile. Their will is cracking.

“There shall be time to finish this war forever and with but a few more drops of blood compared to the buckets spent already.”

Chapter Five

Suzdal was seething with rumors of plots and counterplots as Andrew stepped out of his simple clapboard house on the village square, the guards standing to either side of his porch snapping to attention.

After the battle against the Tugars, and the destruction of the lower quarter of the city, the men of the 35th had been given this section of the city as a place to live, and there they had built a fair replica of a New England town square, complete with Presbyterian and Methodist churches, a monument in the center of the square to the men who had come to this world, and a bandstand, where in the brief periods of peace, evening concerts had been held.

Andrew allowed himself the indulgence of a cigar while Hans, hands in his pocket, leaned against a pillar of the porch, anxiously looking around for a place to spit before settling on a bare spot of ground next to a bush covered with exotic yellow flowers. Emil came out a moment later, slapping his stomach.

“First halfway decent meal I’ve had in days,” Emil announced.

Andrew smiled. How Kathleen had managed to scrounge up a piece of corned beef and what passed for cabbages on this world was beyond him. Upstairs he could hear the children settling into bed, and again he felt guilt for not going upstairs to spend a little time, to play with them and forget, but too much had happened today, and there was still more to be done.

“You can almost sense it in the air,” Emil said. “This place is ready to explode.”

It had come close to a riot in the hours after the assassination attempt. Emil declared that Kal stood a chance of making it even though his skull had indeed been fractured by the glancing blow of the bullet. Most of the citizens of the city, though, were convinced that Kal was already dead no matter what Emil or anyone else said. It had almost come to a fight when Andrew personally led a detachment to cut down the broken body of the Roum soldier who had been dragged out of the cathedral and strung up from a tavern sign. It took the intervention of Casmir to still the mob, and the body was taken by a detachment of soldiers to the Roum temple for burial in the catacombs. A guard was now on that temple, and orders passed that any Roum citizens in the city were to remain inside for the time being.

The only good thing to come out of it all was the cancellation of the meeting with the Committee, but that ordeal would come later in the week.

“Here comes Hawthorne,” Hans announced, and Andrew saw Vincent come around the corner of the square, limping slowly, still using a cane, accompanied by the rest of the men Andrew had summoned, Bill Webster, who was secretary of the treasury, Tom Gates from the newspaper, Varinna Ferguson, and Ketswana, who was Hans’s closest friend from their days of captivity and now served on his staff.

As the group came up the steps Andrew motioned for them to stand at ease and led the way into the small dining room, which had already been cleared of the evening meal. The group settled around the table, Andrew playing the role of host and passing around tea and, for those who wanted something stiffer, a bottle of vodka.

“All right, we’ve got to have it out,” Andrew said. “Perhaps I’ve been out of touch,” and he hesitated, “what with getting wounded and staying up at the front. I need to know just what the hell is going on back here.”

No one wanted to open, and finally his gaze fixed on Webster. Years behind the desk had added a bit to his waistline, and his face was rounder, but the flag bearer who had won a Medal of Honor leading a charge still had the old courage in his eyes and the ability to talk straight when needed.

“The economy is in a shambles, sir.”

“You were responsible to make sure it kept running,” Hans interjected.

“Yes sir, I was. Now I could go into some long-winded lecture on this, but the plain and simple fact is we’ve tried ever since we’ve arrived here to pull these people across a hundred years of development in less than a generation. We’ve created a top-heavy system here, and the strain is now showing.”

“Top-heavy? What do you mean?” Andrew asked.

“Well sir. Back when this all started all we needed to build was a factory, actually several factories, that could turn out lightweight rails, steam engines, and a few small locomotives, and works to make powder, smoothbore muskets, light four-pound cannons, and shot. That didn’t take much doing once we got the idea rolling. Primitive as we thought them to be, the Rus can be master craftsmen, and they quickly adapted.”

“And the Tugars were breathing down our necks to spur us along,” Hawthorne interjected.

Webster nodded in agreement and pushed on.

“We had a couple of years of peace after that to consolidate. In fact that was our boom period thanks to the building of railroad installations and the mechanization of farming with McCormick reapers, horse-drawn plows and planters. We produced surpluses that weren’t going into a war, but rather were going to generate yet more production. We even had enough surplus that it started to improve people’s lives as well, things like additional food, clothing, and tools. We started schools, literacy went up, and with it even more productivity.”

“Don’t forget medicine and sanitation,” Emil interjected, and Webster nodded.

“Right there for example, sir. We had close to a thousand people working in Suzdal alone to install sewers and pipes for water. The same in Roum and every other city. We had thousands more building hospitals, training as nurses, midwives, and doctors. They were taken out of the traditional labor force, but the economy could afford that and in fact benefited directly by it. People had immediate benefits with lower mortality, particularly with children. Such things had a major impact on people’s morale and willingness to work.

“Then the Merki War comes along. Sir, as we all know, Rus was devastated from one end to the other in that fight.

We scorched earth like the Russians did against Napoleon; the only thing we evacuated were the machines to make weapons and tools. After the end of that war the rebuilding normally would have taken a generation. Barely a home, other than in Suzdal, was left standing, and in addition we had to help Roum with the building of their railroads.

“Beyond all that we had to change our industry completely to outfit a new kind of army. Now it was rifles, breech-loading guns, more powerful locomotives, aero-steamers, ironclads, new ships for the navy, heavier rail for the track. Tolerances on all machinery had to be improved a full magnitude or more.

“For example our old muzzle-loading flintlocks were nothing more than pipes mounted on wooden stocks; if they were off a hundredth of an inch in the barrel no big deal. The caliber of the ball was three-hundredths of an inch smaller than the barrel anyhow.

“When it comes to our new Sharps model breechloaders, however, we’re talking thousandths of an inch tolerances on each part. It took tremendous effort, precision, and training to reach that. We had to take thousands of men and women and train them from scratch, and that took time, surplus, and money. Remember, they still have to eat, have housing, and the basics of life, even though while they are learning new skills they aren’t directly contributing anything to the economy.”

Andrew nodded, trying to stay focused on what was being said but already feeling frustrated. His point of attention had always been the battlefield, and the politics of shaping a republic, having to deal with this aspect, was troubling to him.

“All our production energy went into improving our military,” Webster continued without pause, “rather than things directly needed to build a broader base of wealth for everybody. Even though we were at peace, we were still running a wartime economy. Living standards, both here and in Roum, actually started to drop as a result even though people were working harder.

“If we had had five years, better yet ten, we could have adjusted, eased off, produced things like housing, schools, churches, hospitals other than for the military, improved roads, made better farm tools, laid track for the transport of goods rather than for items of military priority, trained doctors for the villages-rather than the army, and for that matter had hundreds of thousands of young men building these things rather than carrying rifles. So when this new war started the strain redoubled.

“Add into that the fact that more than half of Roum is occupied territory. Some of our richest land is in the hands of the Horde, with more than a million refugees having to be provided for.”

“Wait a minute,” Hans interjected. “I keep hearing about how nearly half the Rus have died as a result of the wars.”

“That’s right,” Webster replied quietly.

“Then give that land to the Roum refugees.”

“They still have to have places to live, seeds for crops. Some of the fields have been fallow for five years or more and are overgrown. We’re trying that, but still, what they’re producing is maybe one-tenth of what they grew a year ago.”

Hans grunted, looked around, and finally spat out the open window. Andrew could not help but grin and made certain not to make eye contact with Kathleen.

“The point is,” Webster pressed, “the economy is brittle. The best analogy I can give is that we’re like the Confederacy in late 1864. Sherman is cutting the heart out of Georgia, Sheridan has burned the valley, the rail lines have been pounded to pieces by overuse and undermaintenance. I remember Sherman saying that war was not just the armies that fought, it was the entire nation, and he was taking the war into the heart of the enemy nation.

“That’s what the Bantag have done, though I don’t know if they’re actually aware of it or not.”

“From what I suspect of Jurak he’s aware of it,” Andrew replied.

“I hate to say this, sir,” Webster replied, “but no matter how gallant our army the folks back home are just plumb worn-out. People no longer trust the paper money we introduced. The women that make fuses for shells, we were paying them five dollars a week a year ago, now it’s fifty. I’m printing money twenty-four hours a day, and no one wants it anymore. Andrew, the tens of thousands who work in the factories have to eat since they’re no longer growing their own food. We have no gold or silver reserves, so what do we pay them with?”

He fell silent looking around guiltily as if he had created the bad tidings. Everyone knew he had wrought a miracle just managing to build the system up, and for Andrew it was frightful to hear that it was on the point of collapsing.

“And the Bantag, isn’t that reason enough to work?” Hans replied. “Damn it all, their sons and husbands are dying up at the front. Isn’t that reason to go and work?”

“A growling stomach, your children crying because they’re hungry can blunt the argument,” Gates replied. “I’m out there every day talking to people, getting news."

“And what are they saying?” Andrew asked.

“Maybe if the Bantag were pouring over the White Mountains by Kev, maybe that would rouse them up again. But then again, Andrew, how many times have they already endured that since we got here? It’s these damn Chin ambassadors talking peace and the word going straight from the floor of Congress to the streets that’s helping to undermine it.”

“And can’t they see it’s a damned lie?” Hans cried. “I was there, damn it. The Bantag are no different than the Merki, or even the Tugars for that matter.”

“We have to talk not about what we wish or desire, but rather what is,” Hawthorne replied.

Andrew looked over at his young chief of staff.

“Go on, Vincent.”

“I think Webster and Gates are right. War weariness is eroding our ability to fight. All these people went into this war with little if any concept of what freedom was, other than a vague ideal. Next they expected that it would be one short hard fight and decided. No one, not even us, anticipated a series of wars that would drag on for close to a decade.”

Andrew found that idea alone to be troubling. The question had been raised more than once during his old war back home as to whether a republic had the ability to maintain a long-term conflict. It was through the personal strength of George Washington alone that the Revolution had not finally degenerated into a military dictatorship.

In the war with the Confederacy if victory had not been so evidently close in 1864, the Democrats most likely would have won the elections and accepted a divided country, thus squandering the blood of more than a quarter million Union men who had died to hold the United States together. Given that knowledge he wondered if a republic could endure this continual battering?

“Politics in Congress,” Vincent continued, “is dividing the Republic not just between Roum and Rus, but also between those who are accepting the bait of terms and those who are not. Finally, there is the simple military question we must all face.”

“And that is?”

“Can we still win in the field?”

Andrew looked around the room. Kathleen stood in the doorway, hands tucked into her apron pockets. Upstairs he could hear one of the children engaged in some mischief, their nanny trying to shush him to silence. All eyes were upon him, forcing the question that had burdened his soul long before the start of the doomed offensive.

“It’s not a question of can we win,” Andrew offered, “rather it’s a statement that there is no alternative to victory. Even if we had lost the war back home, we would have gone on living. Sure, we all remember the stories about Andersonville and Libby Prison, but even then we knew that if cornered, surrender was still an option, and most Rebs would share their canteen with you and bandage your wounds. We were fighting a war where surrender for either side was an option. If we had lost that war, we would not have liked the results, but we would have gone home and continued to live.

“We’ll most likely never know if indeed we did win the war back on Earth. I think it was evident that we would. As for the Confederates, defeat did not mean annihilation or even enslavement, so we were all seeing that many of them were willing finally to have peace and to accept the consequences. Here there is no such luxury.”

“You haven’t answered the question, sir,” Vincent pressed.

Andrew bristled slightly at the cold, almost accusing tone in Vincent’s voice but knew that the boy was doing his job, and besides, he would be forced to answer the same question before Congress.

“If it continues as it is,” he hesitated, looking down at his clenched fist, “no, we will lose the war.”

There was a stirring in the room, looks of fear, shock. All except Hans who didn’t stir, his jaw continuing to move mechanically as he worked his chew of tobacco.

“Why?” Gates asked.

“It was always the edge of superior technology that offset their numbers. We had barely a corps of men armed with smoothbores when the Tugars came. We were outnumbered ten to one. but it was enough to stop them. Against the Merki we fielded six corps, about the same size army that fought at Gettysburg. We were outnumbered six to one there, and that was a damn close run for they had smoothbores and artillery the same as we did, but we had moved on to rifles, rockets, and better airships.

“Even last fall we had an edge. They had the land ironclads, but we quickly made one that was better and armed with Gatling guns. But in one short year they’ve caught up with some sort of rapid-fire gun, their airships are as good as ours, and their new ironclads heavier than ours and able to outgun us.

“As to the numbers. One corps is wasted guarding the frontier to the west. Two more corps are ringing the territory to the southeast of Roum. We have three corps in the pocket down on the eastern coast of the Inland Sea, and—until three days ago—we had eight corps on the main front. Now we have little more than five corps on that front.”

He hesitated for a moment.

“So we’ve lost the edge. They’re outproducing us. They outnumber us six to one on the Capua Front. We can assume that within a fortnight they will force a crossing the same as we tried, the difference being that they will succeed. At that moment, in a tactical sense, we will be exactly where we were back at midwinter. Strategically, however, the difference will be that their weapons are better, their commander more prudent, and we will be down well over fifty thousand men compared to what we had the last time.”

“And so that’s it?” Gates asked.

“I think the political ramifications are clear enough,” Andrew continued. “Marcus, God rest him, is dead. Though he was bloody difficult at times, he was a friend I could trust. That strong leadership from Roum is now a vacuum.

Flavius is good as Speaker of the House but doesn’t have the following Marcus did. I fear that once the line is broken, Jurak will shrewdly offer terms yet again, the fears between the two states of the Republic will explode, the Republic will fracture, and then we shall be destroyed.” Andrew stopped talking. As he reached over to his glass of tea he realized his hand was trembling.

“Are you suggesting that we stage a coup d’etat?” Gates asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Andrew replied sharply.

“It has to be considered,” Hawthorne replied forcefully. Startled, Andrew looked over at him.

“Sir, the army knows what it is fighting for. They see what the enemy can do. For that matter damn near every veteran who is no longer in the service because of disabilities understands it as well. Yes, they’re war weary, we all are, but they’ll be damned if they’ll ever bare their throats to the Bantags’ butchering knives.

“And as for Congress. If those bastards are willing to sell us down the river, if they’re maneuvering to splinter the Republic, then they deserve to be hung as traitors, every one of them.”

“What you’re saying is treasonous,” Andrew snapped. “If this be treason, make the most of it,” Hawthorne cried.

Vincent looked over at Hans. “Ask Ketswana to tell us what he learned.”

Hans nodded and quickly spoke to Ketswana in the dialect of Chin which the captives had used while in slavery. Ketswana replied in broken Rus.

“Roum soldier, one who hung. Was in tavern five minutes before shot fired.”

Surprised, Andrew looked at Hans.

“I have my own intelligence net here; they answer to Vincent when I’m not around.”

“This was never authorized by me.”

“It was by me. The Chin and Zulus were neutral; they could talk to both sides, Rus and Roum. With the stress developing between the two sides I thought it best to act, so I got this going last autumn.”

“Something about that shooting didn’t sit right from the start,” Vincent replied. “I checked that poor boy’s record.

Promoted to corporal for heroism at Rocky Hill. Invalid due to dysentery and the last nine months in hospital. But everyone said he was a good soldier, eager to get back. Not the assassin type.”

“But he was found in the church?” Kathleen asked.

“Yes, he went running in to try and catch who did it. Then a mob grabbed him, claimed he had a gun, and he was dragged out and hung.”

“According to who?”

Hans looked over at Ketswana.

“One of my men drink with him, follow, see all, get away before he hung, too.”

“So who was leading this mob?”

“It might have been a crowd carried away with frenzy. It might have been more, though,” Hans said.

“Go on.”

“Kill the president. There’s no vice president; therefore, the Speaker of the House, Tiberius Flavius, becomes president. Either he was plotting to do it or someone else.”

“Flavius is an honorable man,” Andrew replied sharply. “I knew him as a damn good officer who came up through the ranks, and he’s a wounded veteran of Hispania. He’s not the type.”

“Or then a countercoup,” Hawthorne replied. “Blame Flavius for the death of Kal, claim it’s a plot by Roum to seize the government, and break the Republic in the process.”

“Bugarin?”

“My likely candidate,” Hawthorne snapped bitterly.

“Damn all.” Andrew sighed. So that’s why Hawthorne is thinking coup, strike first in order to prevent one.

There was too much to assimilate. He had been far too preoccupied with the preparations for the offensive and the dealing with the results to give serious consideration as to what was going on seven hundred miles away in the capital. He knew there were tensions but prayed that a successful attack, even one that was just a partial success, would quiet the differences and create the resolve to push the war through to its conclusion. He wondered self-critically if that concern had clouded his decision-making to go ahead with the offensive.

He suddenly felt exhausted, unable to decide what to do next. He knew that a mere nod of his head would mean that Vincent would get up, walk out of the room, and within the hour Congress would be arrested. Besides the training school of cadets who were now the 35th Maine and 44th New York, there was a sprinkling of forty or fifty men from the original units in the city, holding various key positions. There was a brigade of troops garrisoned there and thousands of discharged vets in the factories who could be called out in an emergency. He’d have the government by morning, straighten out the mess, then go from there.

And, damn it, destroy forever what I wanted to create here. Of that he was certain. Once the precedent had been set, it would be forever embedded in the heart of the Republic. Washington had resisted the temptation knowing the history of Rome and Greece when it came to coups. He would rather have seen the Revolution go down to bloody defeat than betray it. Napoleon, rather than Lincoln and Washington, would then be the model for this Republic, this entire world. The concept of a republic which he had so carefully nurtured since first setting foot upon this world would be lost forever.

Yet even if I did seize control, then what? The war is still being lost. We might hold on for a while, maybe even create a stalemate on the Capua Front, but still Jurak will wear us down, for he has the labor of millions of slaves to support him, and if need be feed him with their own flesh. Either way we lose.

He looked at his friends. How to admit it, that after ten years of valiant effort, they were losing. Have we been losing all along, he wondered, and were just not willing to admit it? If that’s true, then is the dream of a republic one that is ultimately doomed to failure? Though he wanted to believe in Kal, he sensed that his old friend was weakening under the stress, and for the time being he was out of the picture. The other side promised peace. And the greater complexities of the issues—well, tragically, the average person just didn’t seem to grasp them.

He had been in the army too long, he realized. In the military issues were far clearer—there was survival or death, that was drilled in from day one. You did the right thing, you survived, make a mistake … you died, or worse yet, good men died because of you.

A hell of a lot of good men had just died because of his mistake, his not realizing that the very nature of the war was changing yet again.

It’s changed again, so we have to find a way to change it back in our favor. He looked over at Emil.

“I want the truth from you, my friend.”

“Go on.”

“Since I got wounded, I mean since I came back to command,” he hesitated.

Emil leaned forward in his chair. He sensed Kathleen’s watchful gaze on him.

“I’m not the same. Something’s changed in me.”

“We’re all changed,” Emil started soothingly, but an angry wave from Andrew silenced him.

“No, I don’t mean that. It’s deeper than that. I feel like I’ve lost something. Not just my edge, far deeper, the very mettle of my soul. All along I sensed a problem with our assault at Capua, I sensed it but failed to clearly get ahead of the problem and reason it out before it happened.”

“No one could have anticipated the response from their new leader,” Emil replied.

“But I should have. There’s no damn room for a mistake in my position.”

He looked around the room at his old friends, wondering for a moment if he was about to dissolve into tears. Do that, though, and we’ve all lost. In the end, he realized, all of it, from the moment they had come through the Portal of Light, back so many years, so many ages ago, all rested upon him.

Damn, I never wanted this, and then he hesitated with his inner remorse as the truth surged up from within. The self-humility was a lie, a damnable lie. He had indeed wanted it.

He had wanted command of the regiment, Hans knew that as far back as Fredericksburg. He loved his old commander, Colonel Estes as a father, but like any son of ability, inwardly he longed to transcend what his father was and could be. And when Estes fell at Gettysburg he had mourned him, yet he had sprung to take his place.

He had wanted a brigade, knowing he could do better than far too many of the damned fools Meade and Grant allowed to command. Here was a harsh realization. One is taught to have humility, to admire one’s elders and emulate them, and a display of raw ambition is somehow immoral.

Yet he knew in the core of his soul that he was blessed with something, and that something was the ability to lead … and to dream of all the greatness that a republic could be. Yet so unfortunately a republic, and a volunteer army of a republic, far too often drew into its folds the weak, the venal, those who were ambitious for their own sakes.

He looked around at his friends.

“I fomented a rebellion against the natural order of this world,” he said slowly. “When we realized what the hordes were, the men actually voted to take ship, to find some safe haven and sit it out, but I talked them into fighting and convinced the Rus they could fight.

“And now it is all crashing down around me.

“Emil, I think I’ve been sick. Sick within my soul. Ever since this winter the stress of it has paralyzed me. I feel like a puppet. The strings are moved, I woodenly follow into the next step, and thus I’ve numbly wandered to this point. The government is collapsing, I allowed an offensive to be launched that my inner heart told me not to allow, and now I sit here numbly as the end closes in around us.”

Emil said nothing, staring straight into his eyes. The moment seemed to stretch out.

“I believe there are two paths to this world, to any world,” Andrew said slowly, his voice thick with emotion. “The one is to believe what the masses believe. To make yourself part of them, and to follow, to follow even as you claim to lead.”

“And the other path?” Emil asked.

“If God gave you the ability, even if everyone else thinks you are mad, then use it.”

Emil chuckled softly.

“We shall either meanly lose or nobly save the last best hope of mankind,” Emil finally offered.

“I’m taking control of this situation,” Andrew said. “We’re all frightened right now, me most of all. Either we become mad and fight back, or we die. But if we are doomed to die, let’s die as free men.”

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”

Surprised, he looked up at Kathleen, who had just spoken. She smiled knowingly, as if having sensed every thought that had crossed his mind.

“And as our case is new,” Gates continued, “we must act anew and think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

Andrew smiled at the recitation of Lincoln’s famous words. The room was hot, silent except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the comer of the room, the only other sound the laughter of one of the children upstairs.

We must disenthrall ourselves … but how damn it, how?

“We have to end the war now,” Kathleen said. Her voice was hard, cold. It wasn’t a statement of speculation or hope, it was merely hard honest fact.

He looked up at her.

“You mean negotiate?”

“No, damn it. No! We all know where that will lead. It will merely postpone our deaths. If you do that, I’ll go upstairs and poison our children rather than have them live with the death we all know will come. Jurak cannot rest until all in this room, and all touched by you, are dead. He understands us too well, and thus understands the threat that we are.”

“So what is the alternative then?” Andrew sighed. “Another offensive? The government will block it. For that matter I wonder if we’ll even have a government or a united effort in another few days.”

“Exodus, go north,” Webster ventured quietly.

“You mean just leave?” Andrew asked.

“Exactly. We did it before, we evacuated all of Rus against the Merki. Well, maybe the mistake was we tried to hold on to the steppe region. Lord knows how far north the forest belt extends. Pack it up, and go into the forest until we find a place where they won’t follow.”

“We’ve talked about that before,” Vincent replied. “It’s impossible. First off, the government will break apart on that one. Second, they’ll follow us, and we’ll be burdened down with hundreds of thousands of civilians, children, old people. It will turn into a slaughter.”

“Well if the government does surrender, that’s where I think we should all head,” Webster replied. “I’ll be damned if I stay here and wait to have my throat slit. At least there’s some hope in that.”

“If I were Jurak,” Andrew replied, “I wouldn’t care if it took twenty years. I’d hunt down the survivors. There is no way they can ever dream of continuing their ride until they know we are all dead, for once they turn their backs upon us we’ll rebuild. The fundamental issue, besides the moon feast, the enslavement, is that they are nomadic. They cannot leave a cancer behind that will spread in their wake.”

“He’ll kill everyone once we’re dead or fled,” Hans said. “You people seem to have forgotten something in all this. Andrew, I remember the dream was there for you at the start, but it seems to have blurred. This is not just about us. We started a revolution on this world. The only way it will survive is if we spread the revolution around the entire planet. We must free everyone or no one. I left millions of comrades in slavery when I escaped, and I vowed upon my soul to help set them free and if need be to die doing it.”

Andrew was surprised by the passion of Hans’s words. He was normally so reticent, and so rarely was an idealism allowed to creep out from behind the gruff Germanic exterior of the old sergeant major. He could not help but smile at the revolutionary passion that moved his oldest friend.

“Then free them,” Varinna Ferguson said in flawless English.

For the first time since the meeting had started Andrew took serious notice of the woman sitting on the chair by the doorway. Kathleen’s hands slipped down to rest on the woman’s slender shoulders. As she spoke it seemed that the voice almost came from somewhere else, so horribly scarred were her features, the skin that had grown over the burns a taut expressionless mask. And yet he could still sense the graceful beauty that was locked within, that had caused Chuck Ferguson to see beyond the torn exterior to the beauty and strength of the soul.

“I didn’t know you could speak English,” Gates exclaimed, looking over at her in surprise.

“You never asked,” she replied, her words causing a round of chuckles from the others. “You were always too busy talking to my husband to notice me.”

“My apologies, madam,” Gates quickly said, his features turning red, “my most humble apologies.”

“You said ‘free them,’ ” Hans said, the slightest tone of eagerness in his voice. “How, may I ask?”

“How did we first know that you were alive?” she replied.

“Jack Petracci flew over us.”

She looked inquiringly at Andrew, who nodded. She slowly stood up. In her hands was a battered notebook.

“These are some of my husband’s writings. How do you say … ideas, dreams. That is why he taught me English, so I could read them after he was gone.”

She put the book upon the table and all looked at it with a bit of reverence, for without the mind of Chuck Ferguson they knew they would have died long ago.

“Right after you were rescued, before the war started on the eastern front, he made some notes here.” And she opened the book, skimming through the pages until she finally came to the place she wanted. “Just a few pages, but on the night before he died he pointed them out to me, told me to work upon them.”

She passed the book over to Andrew. He carefully took the bound volume, scanning the page, wondering how she had managed to master Chuck’s infamous scrawled crablike writings.

She reached into her apron pocket, pulled out a sheaf of papers, carefully unfolded them, and laid them out on the table. It wasn’t a bundle of papers but rather a large single sheet of drafting paper, half a dozen feet across and several feet wide, taking up most of the table. Andrew noticed just how badly her hands had been burned as well—two of the fingers on her left hand were little more than stumps. As he scanned the paper he saw that half of it was a detailed map, the other half covered with a different kind of handwriting than Chuck’s, simple block lettering, some of it calculations, the rest commentary with lines drawn to the map while the far right side of the sheet had sketches of airships.

“I did,” she hesitated, “calculations. I think it is possible to do, but the chances? It is win all or lose all.”

Andrew stood up and went over to her side, the others gathering around him. He stood silent, scanning the map, then the plan written out, and finally the calculations. It was the details of the plan Vincent had forwarded to him just prior to the assault. He looked over at Vincent; there was the slightest flicker of a smile tracing the corners of his mouth.

“Impossible,” Webster announced sharply, breaking the silence.

Andrew looked over at Hans and saw the eyes of his comrade shining brightly, and he felt a stab of fear, knowing what it undoubtedly meant.

“I rejected this idea out of hand less than a week ago,” he finally announced.

“That was a week ago,” Varinna replied. “Today is today, the day after a defeat. Just minutes ago I heard you admit that we shall lose the war. If we are to lose the war, then this plan should go forward.”

“Why?” Emil asked, leaning over the table to study the lines on the map. “I think anyone who goes on this, particularly the airship operation is doomed to die.”

“Because it won’t matter then,” she announced smoothly. “The men who go would die anyhow if they stay home. If they go and die, and lose, then it is the same. If they go, and die, but change the path of the war to victory, then it is a sacrifice that is worth it.”

Andrew marveled at her cold precise logic, which cut straight to the heart of the matter.

As if from a great distance he could hear the grandfather clock chiming the hour—it was midnight.

All waited for him to speak. He was torn. He so desperately wanted to grab this, to cling to it, to see it bring them to a change in fate. Yet he feared it as well and all that it suggested and held, especially for Hans.

“This is what I’ve dreamed of all along. I say go,” Hans finally said, breaking the silence. Andrew turned, looking into his eyes again.

Andrew finally nodded.

“We do it. Start preparations at once.”

* * *

Who was it? Kal stirred uncomfortably, the pain was numbing but he had known worse, losing an arm, the beatings old Boyar Ivor, might his soul burn in hell, had administered.

Yet who did it?

He opened his eyes. His wife, sitting at the foot of the bed, roused from her sleep and started to get out of the chair. Her features were pale, heavy cheeks looking.pasty in the candlelight.

He motioned for her to sit back down, but she was already at the side of the bed.

“Water, my husband?” she whispered.

He started to shake his head, but the pain was too much.

“No, nothing.”

“I made some broth, beef, your favorite.”

“No, please.”

He looked around the room.

“Emil?”

“He left. Said I was to fetch him if you wanted.”

“Where?”

“He’s at the colonel’s home.”

“Ah, I see.”

He knew she would not relent with her attentions until she could do something, so he finally let her pull the blankets up, even though the night was so hot. He remained quiet, staring at the candle as she finally settled back into her chair and picked up her knitting which had fallen to the floor when she had dozed off.

Why would Emil be at Andrew’s? Were they planning something?

Not Andrew. Never Andrew. In the beginning he could have so easily become boyar himself. No one would have objected, least of all me, he reasoned. I was just peasant, he was already officer, like a noble and he was the liberator. Instead he propped me up, trained me, made me the president.

But was that so I could always follow what he desired. Bugarin said as much, that a Yankee could never rule for long, so he had chosen a dumb peasant to be his shield. He wondered on that thought for a moment. There was a certain wisdom to it, for in the end never did I go against what Andrew desired; therefore, in a way he did rule without all the bother of it.

“Not Andrew,” he whispered.

She stirred, ready to get up again and he allowed his eyes to flutter shut. She settled back down in her chair.

Bugarin? Logical. Blame it on Flavius. I’m dead, Flavius is killed by the mob, Bugarin becomes president and then boyar again. So guard against Bugarin. But it just might have been Flavius after all. Yet if I had died, we would not have lived an hour in the city of Suzdal.

Who then?

I have lost Congress. Bugarin has the votes of those who want an end to it. The Roum congressmen are in terror, lost with the news of Marcus’s death. If I continue the war as Andrew wants, then they will block it, splitting the Republic. If I try to stop it, what will Andrew do?

An inch to the right Emil said. But one inch, and I would not have to worry about this. I would be standing before Perm and his glorious son Kesus, all cares forgotten. Yet Tanya would still be here, the grandchildren, their half-mad father Vincent.

Ah, now there is a thought. Vincent is the warhawk. Could he be the mask behind the mask? Andrew would never do it, but Vincent was capable. If Bugarin tried a coup, Andrew would block it but might fall as well. Then it would be Vincent.

No. What was it Emil called it? A word for too much fear. But it was troubling, and he could not go to sleep.

* * *

The fact that he had asked for the meeting had caught him by surprise. Walking into the main hall of the Capitol Building he stopped, looking to his right toward his own chambers. The building was empty except for the lone military guard posted under the open rotunda. It had been started in the year before the start of the Bantag War. Though Keane insisted that construction must go forward in spite of the war, the less than half-completed dome was now covered with canvas.

He turned to his left and walked into the meeting chamber of the House of Representatives. Often he had heard the shouted debates coming from this room, and he found it distasteful, a rowdy mix of foreigners and lowborn peasants. At least the fifteen members of the Senate were, except for one or two, of the proper blood, even those from Roum, in spite of their being cursed pagans.

“Senator Bugarin. Thank you for coming.”

The chair behind the desk turned and the diminutive Flavius was staring at him. He was lean and wiry, a mere servant in the house of Marcus and now the Speaker.

Though he loathed the type, Bugarin could sense that Flavius was a soldier’s soldier, one whom the veterans who predominated in Congress could trust whether they were of Rus or Roum. And since the pagans were the majority, of course their man would control this half of Congress.

Bugarin said nothing. He simply approached the chair, waiting for this one to rise in front of a better. Flavius, as if sensing the game, waited, and then slowly stood, favoring his right leg, giving a bare nod of the head in acknowledgment of the man who controlled the other half of the legislators.

“I’ll come straight to the issue,” Flavius said in Rus, his accent atrocious to Bugarin’s ears. “We both know that poor soldier who was murdered today had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.”

“How do you know?” Bugarin asked politely.

Flavius extended his hands in a gesture of exasperation. “We might disagree on a great many things, but to assassinate the president. Never.”

“Are you saying he acted alone then?”

“You know precisely what I am saying. The boy was innocent. He should have been standing in these chambers receiving a medal rather than being hung by a Rus mob.”

“So you are saying we murdered him?”

“Damn you,” Flavius muttered in Latin, but Bugarin could sense what was said and bristled.

“The Republic is dying; we can still save it,” Flavius continued, gaining control of his temper.

“Republic? It is already dead,” Bugarin snapped. “It died when your soldiers ran at Capua, unable even to retake their own territory.”

“I had a brother with Eleventh Corps,” Flavius announced coldly. “If he is dead, he died fighting, not running. I’ve been a soldier most of my life, and I know my people. They are as good in battle as those from Rus. I wish I could strangle with my own hands whoever started these rumors, these lies about my people.”

“Understandable you would react that way.”

Flavius stopped for a moment, not sure of what to say next.

“If that is all you wish to discuss?” Bugarin asked haughtily.

“No, of course not.”

“Then out with it. It’s late, and I have other concerns.”

“Will you pull Rus out of the war?”

“My position is well-known.”

“And that is?”

“The war is unwinnable now. We must seek a way out.”

“And that means selling Roum to the Bantag?”

“Are you not contemplating the same deal with Jurak?” Flavius said nothing for a moment.

“You have spies as do I. I know that Marcus, before his death, was secretly meeting with the ambassadors before they were forwarded to the Senate. And remember, Flavius, the issues of war and peace rest with the Senate. The great colonel designed it that way, did he not?”

“There is nothing more to be said,” Flavius replied coldly.

Bugarin smiled.

“It was a feeble attempt,” Bugarin ventured just as he was starting to turn to leave.

“What?” And there was a cold note of challenge in Flavius’s voice.

“Just that. Too bad you missed.”

As Bugarin turned the sound of a dagger being drawn hissed in the assembly hall. Bugarin turned, dagger drawn as well.

“Come on you lowborn bastard,” Bugarin snarled. “Spill blood here and show what a lie this place is.”

Flavius was as still as statue, dagger poised low. Finally, he relaxed, letting the blade slip back into its sheath.

“Yes, it’s true I know not who my father is. My bastardy is of birth, not of behavior.”

Bugarin tensed, ready to spring, but knew that before he even crossed the few feet that separated them the old veteran would have his blade back out and buried to the hilt. Forcing a smile, Bugarin stepped back several feet.

“It will be settled soon enough. I think the question is now, who will betray whom first.”

“As I assumed, Senator,” Flavius said with a smile.

Chapter Six

Andrew slowed as they rode past the station, reining in his horse for a moment to let the long string of ambulances pass. The hospital trains had been coming in throughout the night, more than three thousand men over the last week, and with each casualty unloaded a new story was blurted out about the disaster at Capua.

In the predawn darkness he knew no one would recognize him. In the past he would have stopped to talk with the wounded as they were off-loaded, offer encouragement, but not this morning. On this of all mornings there were other things to be done before the sun rose.

Hans, riding beside him, bit off a chew and passed the plug over to Andrew, who nodded his thanks and took a bite of the bitter tobacco.

They rode in silence. Hans, slumped comfortably in the saddle, carbine cradled in one arm. Andrew looked over at him, wondering, wanting to say so much but not sure how to say it.

“Hans?”

“Yes?”

He sounded so relaxed.

“Are you afraid?” Andrew whispered.

Hans smiled.

“A slave doesn’t have the luxury to be afraid. Remember, I was a slave, and then I was freed, at least in body. I wonder if this is how Lazarus felt, having seen what was beyond and then returning.”

He shook his head, as if the dark thoughts of the years of imprisonment weighed him down.

“Every day I’ve had since has been a gift. Now it’s time to pay for the gift.”

“I wish it was different.”

“I know, son. It’s all right, though,” Hans said soothingly. “You were the one that had to make the decision to do this and now bear the responsibility for our lives. This might very well be the hardest command decision you’ve ever made.”

Andrew nodded.

“Once we take off, the commotion will certainly be noticed. and you’ll have to tell Congress. If we lose”—and he chuckled—“well, there goes the last hope I guess.” Andrew didn’t want to think of that alternative yet. It would mean every single airship and ironclad was gone. Without them, Jurak would slice through the Capua line like a hot knife through butter. As it stood now, if he second-guessed what was truly up, he might do it anyhow.

“Damn tough decision,” Hans said, “and here you were worried if you’d lost your nerve.”

“Just before we went in at Capua, I lied to you, Hans.”

Hans chuckled and spat. “You mean about willingly sacrificing me if it meant victory.”

“Yes, I’ve sacrificed too many. I still think I should go on this one, not you.”

“Can you speak Chin?” Hans asked. “How about the Bantag slave dialect, or even Bantag for that matter?” Andrew sighed and shook his head.

“Well that kind of settles it, doesn’t it?”

“I know.”

“Andrew. Sometimes it’s the staying behind and doing nothing that’s the hardest thing of all.”

They stopped as a diminutive switching engine, one of the old 4-4-0 models wheezed past them, pushing a flatcar loaded with two freshly made ten-pound breechloaders. “I’ve been thinking on that, too,” Andrew said.

“What?”

“The doing nothing.”

Hans chuckled. “Actually, my friend, given my choice, I’m glad I’m going rather than staying here and dealing with this snake pit of politics.”

Andrew could not help but smile as they urged their mounts forward after the train passed.

Once clear of the yard they rode up through the rows of roughly made brick homes that housed the thousands of workers who labored down in the valley of the Vina River.

Past one of the burial mounds of the Tugars they continued their climb up the hill, Hans stopping for a moment to watch the inferno of steam and smoke cascading up from the foundry as a new batch of molten iron was released from its cauldron.

“It’s almost beautiful,” Hans exclaimed, pointing to the towering clouds of smoke caught and illuminated by the first light of early dawn. Andrew found himself in agreement. It made him think of the school of artists back on the old world, who worshiped the beauty of nature and painted the scenery of the Hudson River valley.

The smoke and steam had the same quality as the billowing afternoon cumulus, cloaking a mountaintop, but this mountain was man-made, the clouds man-made as well. The lighting, however, was unworldly, the deep morning reds unique to this world.

He smiled at the thought of the word unworldly, unworldly for home, but then this was home now, after all these years the sunlight normal, the twin moons normal, the lighter feel when one walked normal as well.

“I take it yesterday’s session with the Senate was bad?” Hans asked.

Andrew nodded. “It’s deadlock. Kal is nowhere out of the woods yet. Flavius refuses to step in as acting president since it would mean that a pro-peace man would take his place, and Bugarin is badgering to sign the agreement presented by the Chin ambassadors.”

“Well, in an hour I’ll be beyond it all,” Hans announced.

“I know,” Andrew whispered.

“Maybe by doing nothing at all you might be doing the best thing possible,” Hans said.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll figure it out.”

Hans chuckled, and Andrew knew his friend had presented him with a little something to dwell on and was not about to say anything more on the subject.

Their path led them through what had once been the grove where he had first admitted to Kathleen that he loved her, long since gone and replaced with warehouses and yet more brick homes. Finally, they crested the road leading along the banks of the reservoir and were out of the new city of Suzdal. The waters of the lake were still, a mirror surface reflecting the morning sky, a soft welcome relief.

Directly ahead were several low clapboard buildings covered with camouflage netting and painted a dark green and brown. Lights still glowed in the windows and there was a bustle of activity inside. Out around the building dozens were racing back and forth.

Riding up, the two dismounted and hitched their horses. Varinna stood in the open doorway, and it was obvious she had been up all night, as she wearily came down to greet the two.

Since the decision to launch the mission all of her people had worked at a frenzied pace, made more difficult because of Andrew’s decision to clamp down a tight lid of security on the whole operation. It was a near-impossible thing to contain, with the city only a couple of miles away but by some miracle no one in Congress had found out, most likely because they were too preoccupied with their own squabbles to notice the round-the-clock insanity up at the aero-steamer field.

As for the dozens of messages sent to the front and to Roum, ordering the redeployment of aerosteamers and the remaining regiment of land ironclads, that had all been done using a book code. Admiral Bullfinch had personally overseen loading the ironclads during the night. The two ships carrying the machines and a transport hauling hydrogen vats, ammunition, and ground crews had all sailed under cover of night. If everything was going according to plan, they should have arrived during the night at Tyre and also alerted Stan Bamberg that things were suddenly going to get very hot.

Varinna smiled and extended her hand.

“Everything’s ready,” she announced. “Any word from Roum?”

“Nothing. The front’s quiet.”

“Good.”

Andrew took her hand and squeezed it, pleased by the light that seemed to sparkle in her eyes. This effort had triggered something within her, and he felt a surge of confidence that she was the mastermind who had conceived so many of the details. The death of Chuck had deeply shaken him, so much so that he had failed to realize the capabilities that were alive in her.

“Let’s go to the field.” And leading the way, she walked down the slope and out onto the flat open landing field. Crews were dragging out the last of the airships from the hangars, and engines were beginning to turn over.

He was awed by the panoramic sight laid out before him. Sixteen Eagle airships were lined up wingtip to wingtip. Twelve of them brand-new, four having come back from the front for repairs and engine replacements. In the shadowy light they looked ghostly, giants out of some forgotten age of the past, or a foretaste of the world to come.

The men chosen for the mission were already lining up beside their machines, ten to each airship in addition to the crews. Nearly all of them were Hans’s old companions, survivors of his liberation last year, or the winter flanking assault down into the valley of the Ebro.

Three hundred of their comrades from the Chin brigade had been loaded on trains the morning after the decision was made to launch the assault and sent by express to Roum, there to take transports to Tyre. With them went equipment to refit the twenty-eight Eagles and thirty Hornets that would fly from Capua to Roum, and from there down to Tyre as well. If all went according to plan there, those airships would lift off shortly before midday.

“You know, Varinna, you were holding out on me,” Andrew said, looking over at her and trying to appear cross.

“The airships? Some needed repairs, the rest, well there were problems, adjustments, and several were finished ahead of schedule.”

“They could have made a difference at Capua.”

“I don’t think so. If Chuck had been alive, he would have told you not to do it and then done the same thing I did.”

“So that justified holding back on these Eagles?”

“No sir, but you are glad now that I did.”

Andrew could not argue with her on that point. And he knew eight, twenty, fifty airships would not have made a difference that day.

The morning silence was shattered as more engines turned over, stuttering up to a humming throb.

He saw Jack Petracci slowly walking toward them, moving stiffly. Andrew motioned for him to stand at ease.

“Everything ready?”

Jack laughed softly.

“I guess so, sir.”

Andrew said nothing. With most men he would have torn into them over such a lackadaisical air, but there were some, especially those like Jack, who danced so closely with death for so long, that one had to understand their fey attitude, especially at a moment like this.

“Numbers forty-seven and fifty-two, we should check them both off the list. I think forty-seven is leaking too much gas; the inboard starboard engine on fifty-two is shot.”

Jack looked over at Varinna, who shook her head.

“Everyone goes,” Andrew said. “Order those two to hug the coast as long as possible but everyone goes.”

“What I figured, sir. I already told them that.”

“These new pilots, you think they have the ability?” Andrew asked.

Jack again chuckled softly. “Well, sir, as long as there’s no storms, the sky is clear, we don’t get jumped by any of the Bantag aerosteamers. I sort of figure half of them will be dead within the week anyhow, even if this doesn’t work, but that goes with the job.”

“All right, Jack,” Andrew said quietly, but his tone conveyed that Jack’s fatalism shouldn’t be pushed too far.

Andrew looked around at the assembled group, then put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and led him off so the two could talk alone.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about this plan.”

Jack said nothing, leaving no opening.

“You don’t like the plan.”

Again the laugh. “Don’t like it. Well, I always figured I’d die ever since I got myself drafted into this damn fool air corps. You see, sir, I was just thinking yesterday that if I had kept my mouth shut about having flown in a balloon back on the old world, none of this would have happened.” And he waved vaguely toward the assembled ships.

“And we would have lost the war long ago. The missions you flew made the difference.”

“Sir. We’re going to die. I mean all of us. I saw the fight at Capua from a mile up. The reserves they have, the numbers. They just keep coming and coming. And I thought about all that we were taught when we were young. Remember the poems, ‘Old Ironsides,’ even that Tennyson fellow and the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’ We believed it was good to die the heroes’ death. But I wonder now, maybe it’s all meaningless. You die, and that’s it. So you lose.”

Andrew said nothing. Anyone with a mind had dwelled on this idea, just that it was poison when it took hold on the eve of battle.

“You ever have the feeling they had just made the bullet with your name on it?”

Andrew nodded. “Sure, plenty of times. Remember Cold Harbor. We wrote our names and pinned them on our backs before we went in? At Hispania, the morning of the third day, I knew I was going to die.”

“And the winter, at Capua?”

Andrew felt a cold shiver. No, no real premonition then, and yet it had all but killed him. Yet far too often he had seen men like Jack, the darting eyes, the inner agony, made worse by the sense of futility that seized some.

As he looked at Jack the thought came yet again about the nature of courage. Some men, those like Vincent, for some strange reason truly lacked the imagination to contemplate just how agonizing a wound or death could be. They simply went about their duty, mind at ease. Vincent had suffered a horrifying wound, yet it seemed not to have scarred his soul. The scar in that boy was different, an inner woe triggered long ago because of the conflict over his Quaker upbringing and his innate talent for leading men in battle. Vincent’s answer was to let his soul sink into a cold indifference to all suffering, his or anyone else’s.

There were others though, like Jack, who were continually tormented by their imaginations, inwardly flinching as each bullet flickered past, who awoke in the middle of the night, sheets sweat-soaked, the nightmare of what could be twisting into their fluttering hearts. As he looked at Jack he felt a surge of admiration, knowing that Jack’s type of courage was far more difficult to grasp and maintain. Every day he had to mask that terror and go out to face death yet again.

Jack, his hand trembling, reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded slip of paper.

“I was never much of one for being a gentleman with the girls. Remember the Oneida Society back before the war? Actually tried to join it. I did, but they said I was too young then.”

He laughed softly, and Andrew smiled.

“She’s a girl in Roum, works in Ninth Corps main hospital. Took care of me right after I crashed back in the spring. Funny, she’s suddenly very important to me now, so see that she gets this.”

Andrew solemnly took the letter, knowing it was senseless to try and talk differently at a time like this.

“Jack, I wish I could let you stand down from this one. But you’re the only one who can lead it. That’s why I asked you to fly back here. These boys are so green I was afraid they couldn’t find Tyre unless you were there to shepherd them along.”

Jack smiled weakly. “I know, and believe me, I’d take the offer if I thought I could.”

“Jack, in all honesty, is there a chance for this one? I mean Vincent seems to believe in it. Hans, well of course he’d do it. We’ve done desperate things in the past, but this is a throw in the dark.”

Jack looked at him silently, and Andrew regretted his few seconds of weakness. He had pulled Jack aside to gently tell him to brace up in front of the others, and he was asking for reassurance instead.

“As long as we limit it to what we agreed on. I know Hans wants to push it all the way, but sir, the ships simply don’t have the range. I can’t ask the boys flying the ships to go on a one-way trip with no hope of survival. Stick to the original idea, and there just might be a chance. If we had three or four times as many airships, a real fleet of a couple of hundred of them, I’d guarantee we’d do it. That’d mean we’d have a full brigade of troops rather than barely a regiment. At the very least, though, it will throw one hell of a punch into their supplies and might take the pressure off at the front.”

Andrew nodded. That had been the big fight argued out all week. Varinna’s plan called for a two-step approach, the second phase not being launched unless the first half went flawlessly and a truly secure base was seized to operate out of. The morning after the decision was made to go Hans started the argument that it had to be done all at once. Andrew could understand the argument about surprising Jurak and not giving him time to react, but he knew as Hans most certainly knew that it was suicide to try.

And yet he could sense what Hans would indeed do once he was out there. The first phase was, at best, a spoiling raid, to swoop down on the Bantag port city of Xi’an, smash things up, sink ships, and destroy supplies. Vincent’s mission was to act as bait to draw troops and better yet ironclads out of Xi’an before the air attack hit. The goal, if it could be achieved, was for Vincent to cut all the way to the Great Sea and secure a base for airships and perhaps even for oceangoing ships captured at Xi’an.

But it was still only half a victory. If they could actually hold Xi’an, transferring troops by sea from Vincent’s force to reinforce the captured city, Jurak would be cut off from his supplies and forced to abandon all of the Roum territory all the way back to the Great Sea. He’d have to pull back all the way to Nippon. It would be a tremendous victory … but the Bantag army would still be intact, the war machine still working and ready to come back yet again. What Hans wanted was to take it all the way, but he felt he could never order that, for such an action would surely result in the death of all those who attempted it. It could mean, as well, that in attempting to reach for everything, Jurak could counterstrike and smash the plan apart.

Andrew took Jack’s hand and grasped it tightly.

“Fly carefully.”

“The soul of caution I’ve always been. It’s how I’ve made it to twenty-eight very old years.”

Coming stiffly to attention Jack saluted. “Sir, I think it’s about time we got the show moving, so if you’ll excuse me.

Andrew returned to his small group. While he had been talking with Jack, Vincent rode in. As usual he was dressed in his “Phil Sheridan” uniform, oversize riding boots, snowy white gauntlets, uniform with a bit too much gold braiding, rakish kepi, and still the ridiculous pointed goatee and mustache.

Andrew could see the boy was eager to be returning to MEN OF WAR 117

the front. He would have preferred that Vincent stay in Suzdal, but given the assassination attempt on his father-in-law Andrew now felt that it was best to get him out of town for a while. If not the target of an assassin’s bullet, Vincent could, on the other hand, do something rash. And besides, given what he was contemplating doing, Vincent’s presence in the city simply wouldn’t fit into the plan.

It was indeed getting to the time for departure. For days he had agonized about this moment.

The engines on most of the airships were now turning over, shattering the predawn quiet as pilots revved each one up in turn, let them run full out for several minutes, then throttled them back down to idle.

Vincent was eager to be off. He had already said his good-byes to his family; it was part of his nature never to let that side of his life show anymore. There was no sense in going over the plan one more time. Vincent had conceived part of it, especially the land ironclad assault out of Tyre. He knew it far better than Andrew.

The salute was casual, as if he was leaving for morning inspection of a company.

“It’ll work, sir,” Vincent said. “I promise you that.”

Andrew nodded, and the boy was off, heading to his airship, his chosen staff following. He had abandoned his cane and walked slowly, with a pronounced limp. Now it was just Hans and Varinna and she mumbled something about going to check one of the ships and left the two alone.

Hans sighed and slowly sat down on the grass, motioning for Andrew to join him.

Hans smiled and Andrew suddenly felt a terrible longing, somehow to turn the clock back, to make it all as it once was so many years before, and to hide from the knowledge of all that would be. Hans had aged, his hair going to white, his teeth crooked, stained dark yellow, several of them gone or turned to black, his skin no longer tanned and leathery but now waxy. He had never really admitted to himself just how much the years of prison had changed Hans. In so many ways they had softened him, made him more open to saying what was in his heart, but be had lost pis tireless vitality as well. Yet, at this moment he felt as if Hans was summoning back that strength for one more effort.

“The war’s lost, Andrew. We’ve fought the good fight for God knows how many years. We’ve held three empires at bay, but now they’re closing in. But in order for them to do that they had to change, too, and that is where they are vulnerable.

“Before, it was like striking at a nest of bees. We had to cut them down one at a time until there were none left. Andrew, we’ve forced them in a way to become like us, and in so doing we now have the opening. We can reach into the nest, crush the queen, and the eggs and the nest dies.”

Hans became animated as he spoke, his eyes locked on Andrew’s.

“Don’t you think he’s figured that,” Andrew replied, “and taken the necessary precautions?”

“Surprise will be on our side. We maintain that element, and we win. The part of the plan involving Vincent seems like folly, but it will be the focus for just long enough that it will keep them off-balance. Then the rest of it goes in. He’ll suspect the air support is for Vincent. By the time he realizes, we’ll be on him.

“We’ve got to do this, Andrew; otherwise, it isn't just us who lose, it’s the Chin, it’s the entire world. Now that’s something I’m willing to risk my life for. The question is, now do you have the guts to risk it as well.”

Andrew looked over angrily at Hans.

“It isn’t a question of my courage.”

“Yes it is. The courage to let go. If it wasn’t me going, maybe it’d be easier somehow.”

He wanted to deny it. Lord knows how many he had sent to certain death going all the way back to his own brother. But Hans was different.

Andrew lowered his head.

“Yes, damn it. I think when that aerosteamer takes off that is it, I never see you again. I can deny it, say it’s the committing of our remaining air fleet to a mad venture. But it’s really you.”

“And I am the only one that can lead it.”

Andrew finally nodded.

“Go.” He whispered.

Hans leaned out, his hand tentatively taking Andrew’s, and then he grasped it tight.

Andrew looked up to see tears in his friend’s eyes.

“You’ll do fine, son, just fine.”

Andrew started to break. What could he say, how could he say it? The words finally spilled out of him, contained for so long.

“I love you, Hans, as I loved my own father.”

Hans smiled.

“I know. We’ve always loved each other, you as the son I never had; it’s just that the way we both are, who we are, makes it impossible to say what we feel.”

The two sat in silence for a moment, eyes locked. There was such a flood of memories for Andrew, of Antietam, the lonely nights on picket, the cold winter mornings sharing a cup of coffee, the dusty marches, the moments of fear and of triumph, the pain of losing him and the indescribable joy of finding him again.

“And Hans.”

“Yeah?”

He had not breathed a word of it to anybody over the last week, but now was the true moment of letting go, of turning back the lie he had whispered at Capua. He knew what had to be done … and both of them were soldiers who understood that.

He unbuttoned the top of his uniform, reached into his breast pocket, and pulled out an envelope, handing it to Hans.

“I want you to go all the way,” Andrew whispered.

Hans, looking straight into his eyes, understanding what Andrew was asking, simply nodded.

“This is my written authorization in case Jack or anyone else disagrees. Hans, you’ve got to go all the way with this one, no half measures.”

Hans smiled. “You know I would have done it anyway.”

“I know that.” Andrew sighed.

“It’s just you wanted me to know you were behind my decision.”

Andrew nodded, unable to speak.

Hans patted Andrew on the shoulder.

/ “Like I’ve always said, I’m proud of you, son,” he said, hesitating, “and thank you. Ever since the day I escaped, leaving my comrades behind, it has haunted me. I have to do this.”

There was a moment of silence between the two, both lost in their memories.

“I think they’re waiting,” Hans said gruffly, trying to hide the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him.

Andrew finally looked over his shoulder and saw all who were waiting, standing respectfully, some with heads lowered. All was silent except for the aerosteamer engines powering up, propellers cutting the still morning air.

Andrew nodded and ever so slowly let go of Hans’s hand. Andrew tried to smile, fighting to hold on to what little control he had left.

He stood up shakily, Hans grunting as he stood as well.

“Well, they sure as hell haven’t gotten us yet. You lose an arm at Gettysburg, get your lung shot out at Roum. Hell, the Comanche couldn’t get me, a Reb sniper tries to take my leg off and a Merki arrow in the chest and then shot up again escaping. Shit, we’ll get through this one, son; there ain’t nothing left to shoot up.”

Andrew chuckled as Hans put his arm around Andrew’s side as if helping him along, two old battle-scarred warriors, hobbling along. The others waited, and Andrew felt as if all of them could sense what was exchanged between the two.

Andrew was surprised to see that Father Casmir had just ridden up and was dismounting. How the priest found out was beyond him, but then he always seemed to know everything.

He came up to Andrew and Hans, shaking their hands.

“Hawthorne told me about the plan.”

Andrew shifted silently, angry that Vincent could be so loose-tongued.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t breathed a word of it. Brilliant, it’s absolutely brilliant.”

He looked over at Varinna.

“Perhaps you should be a permanent part of our war councils.”

“Chuck would like that,” she said with a smile.

“No, you’re your own person now. Let the dead sleep, my daughter. You have a mind and a heart of your own.”

“Your Holiness, a good blessing sure would help,” Hans said, and Andrew looked over at his friend in surprise.

Hans reddened slightly. “Well, it’s never too late to get a bit of religion.”

Casmir chuckled and, reaching into his robes, pulled out a small vial filled with holy water. Uncorking it, he motioned for Hans to kneel and sprinkled a few drops over his head while softly chanting a prayer in the ancient language of the Rus, unchanged across a thousand years of exile.

The deep melodious chant rose in volume, all who were gathered around falling to their knees, even the Chin and Ketswana. Though of old Presbyterian stock, Andrew felt overwhelmed by the moment and fell to his knees as well, head lowered in prayer for his friend, for the mission, for all who were fighting or longing to be free.

Casmir turned away from Hans, holding the vial up, sprinkling the holy water over the assembly, the chant continuing, Andrew managing to understand a few words … “and for those of the old world and all those of the Diaspora in exile upon this world we beg your mercy and protection …”

The Diaspora, an ancient Greek word carried to this world. We of the Diaspora, he thought, but if we win this fight it shall no longer be thus. We will have finished our wanderings, our enslavement, our exile, and this shall forever be our home.

He looked over at Hans again, and it was as if a strange light was gathered about him, about all those who were leaving. He remembered now and understood, that if ever there was a cause worth dying for, this was it. It wasn’t a war to take something, or even to defend the property or country one had. Hans was right. It had been, it always would be, a war to set men free, the most noble of all causes that one could ever sacrifice oneself for. That was why Hans had to go, and that was why Andrew had to let him go.

The chant died away and there was a long drawn-out moment of silence. Andrew looked up and saw Casmir staring straight at him, smiling. The priest offered his hand, and Andrew took it, coming to his feet.

“Load ’em up!” Andrew shouted, surprised by the power of his own voice.

Hans went up to Ketswana, the two exchanged a few words, slapped each other on the back, and Ketswana started to detail off the Chin in groups of ten, pointing each group in turn to one of the machines.

With a grin Ketswana started for the machine directly behind Flying Cloud, then angled over to Andrew.

“Don’t worry, sir, I bring him back for you,” Ketswana announced. Andrew took the Zulu’s hand with a firm grasp.

“Godspeed and good luck, my friend.”

Ketswana, obviously delighted with the mission, slapped Hans on the shoulder, turned, and sprinted off.

“Other than you the closest friend I have,” Hans said.

The two went over to Jack, who was briefing the pilots gathered round, with Varinna and her assistants standing to one side.

“Remember, you have no bottom gunner now. If we do get jumped, you head right to the deck and hug it. The fake stinger might throw them off for a while, but if they ever figure it out, that’s the spot they’ll go for.”

Andrew looked over at one of the ships. The compartment which had once held the bottom gunner and bomb dropper had been removed, replaced with a wicker basket affair fifteen feet long and six feet wide. What was nothing more than half a dozen broom handles, bundled together and painted black now extended from the back of the basket. The squads of Chin soldiers were lining up by the doorway into the baskets, most of them obviously unnerved by the size of the airships, the noise of the engines, and the prospect of what they were about to do.

There had been no time, or surplus fuel to give any of them even the briefest of orientation flights; this would be their first time aloft. They chattered nervously amongst themselves, waiting their turn as the first man climbed the rope ladder into the wickerwork compartment. By the time the sixth to seventh man had climbed aboard, the airships had settled down onto their wheels and now it was not much more than a high step to board.

After the last man was aboard the ground crews passed in their carbines, which had been thoroughly checked to make sure they were empty, cartridge boxes, two blankets per man, tins filled with rations, and two five-gallon barrels of water. Slung along either side of the compartment were four boxes roped in place carrying the additional gear.

“All you have to do is stay behind me,” Jack announced, continuing his briefing. “If I should fall out, well you’ll have to navigate yourselves in. You’re divided into squadrons of four ships, so squadron leaders, it’ll be up to you. The navy’s given us good maps of the coast with all prominent landmarks, so once you hit the coast again fix your position and either head north or south into Tyre.”

He looked around at the group.

“I’ll see all of you this evening.”

, The pilots, nearly all of them not much more than twenty, grinned nervously. There was a scattering of laughter, some gallows humor, and the group stood up.

“Hold it!”

It was Gates. Andrew felt a flash of annoyance when he saw what the newspaperman wanted, but then the historian inside took hold and he nodded approval.

Gates already had the camera out of the wagon and up on its tripod. The sun was just breaking the horizon, casting long shadows.

“You'll all have to stand very still, there’s not much light.”

Gates moved the camera slightly so that he could get part of an airship in the background, then motioned for Andrew to join the group. He felt a presence to his side and saw that Hans had come back from his ship to join in the moment, followed by Ketswana and several of the Chin. Vincent strolled over and stood beside Varinna, who had a chart rolled up under her arm, with Casmir on her other side.

“Hold it now.” Gates took the cap off the lens and started to count down the seconds.

All stood silent, striking their most formal pose, Andrew realizing that as always he had turned slightly to hide the empty sleeve. From the corner of his eye he saw Hawthorne, always the young Sheridan with right hand slipped into his open jacket. Pilots stood casually in their baggy coverall pants, wool jackets open, several with their hands in their pockets. Then there was Hans, slouch cap pulled low, shading his eyes, jaw working a plug of tobacco so that his face would look blurred.

Again the moment of crystal clarity came, the realization of just how precious this all was, how this was a moment as fragile as a glass figurine.

“ ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,’ ” he whispered, his voice carrying.

“That’s it,” Gates announced, replacing the lens cap.

Jack broke the tableau, stepping in front of the group, turning, and facing Andrew.

“With your permission, sir. Air’s heavy and still. All machines are loaded. It’s time to go.”

Andrew returned the salute.

“Good luck, son.”

Jack smiled wanly and without another word started for his machine. The group broke up, the men setting off at the run, and suddenly he was alone.

He turned to say a final farewell to Hans, but his friend had already set off, falling in alongside Jack. Andrew felt a shudder of disappointment but knew instantly that Hans was right.

Hans climbed up the ladder into the forward crew compartment without looking back, followed by Jack, who pulled the rope ladder up behind him and closed the door. He could see Hans climb into the seat normally occupied by the copilot but Theodor was now the backup commander of the air corps and so was flying in the second airship.

Ground crews stepped back from their airships, crew chiefs each standing in front of his machine, right hand raised, red flag held aloft. The chief in front of Jack’s machine twirled the flag overhead in a tight circle. One after another each of the engines revved up, propellers turning to a blur, then idled back down. Stepping away to the port side of the aerosteamer, the chief waved the flag again and pointed it forward.

All engines revved, and the machine slowly lurched forward. The bi-level wings on the port side passed within a few feet of Andrew, and as it passed the twin engines kicked up a swirl of dust around him, the air heavy with the smell of burning kerosene. The second and third aero-steamers followed, engines roaring. The column, looking like ungainly birds, taxied down to the eastern end of the grass airstrip, a line of slender hydrogen-filled ships, wings seemingly added on as an afterthought.

The lead ship turned, facing into the gentle breeze stirring out of the west. The heads-on silhouette, illuminated from behind by the rising sun, caught Andrew as a stunningly beautiful sight, wings mere slivers of reflected light. The machine lurched forward, seconds later the sound of the engines coming to him.

He tensed, watching as the airship lumbered down the runway, not seeming to move at first, then ever so slowly picking up speed. Gently, gracefully, it lifted off while still a hundred yards away.

Jack expertly leveled off not a dozen feet off the ground, letting his machine build up speed before climbing. It came straight on, some of the crowd around Andrew ducking. He came to attention, saluting as the machine soared overhead, engines roaring, wind strumming the wires sounding like a harp floating in the heavens. He caught a brief glimpse of Hans, perched in the copilot’s seat, a childlike grin lighting his features. Their eyes held for a second, and in that instant it was as if all the years had stripped away and he was now the old man and Hans was the boy, embarking on some grand and glorious adventure, and then he was gone.

Nose rising up, Flying Cloud started to climb, followed by Heaven’s Fire, and Bantag’s Curse. One after another they passed, some wagging their wings in salute, others coming straight on, their pilots too nervous to try anything other than getting off the ground.

Jack led the way, spiraling heavenward, waiting for the last ship to form into a long, straggling column. Finally, he turned due east, rising up through a thousand feet, and sped off, catching the breeze aloft.

Andrew watched as their shape changed from that of slender crosses to a round indistinct blur and then a mere dot of light that finally winked from view. Around him the ground crews finally began to break up, talking softly among themselves, walking back to their hangars, some looking back longingly to the east as if wishing they could go.

“I think that was one of the hardest decisions you’ve ever made.”

Andrew turned to see Casmir by his side.

“Yes, Your Holiness, it was,” he whispered.

“I remember you once saying that in order to be a good commander you must love the army with all your soul. The paradox is that there will come a time when you must then order the very destruction of the thing that you love.”

“Yes, I said that a long time ago.”

“Do you think it will work?”

“Hans believes in it.”

“But do you?”

“I don’t know. There are too many variables. The weather turns bad. The Bantag have warning and send airships up to meet them. As it is there’s barely enough fuel, if they don’t capture additional stores, or the advance position for the second wave ..His voice trailed off. “Far too many things can go wrong.”

“Life is a process of things going wrong. That is how Perm made the universe. It is our challenge then to find the faith to remake them into what is right and pleasing to His eye.”

Casmir smiled and put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “I wish I had your faith.”

“You do, it’s just hidden at the moment. Best we head back to the city. Who knows, by the time we get back there might not even be a government.”

He said it so casually but Andrew felt all the worry of that other problem returning.

Varinna, who had launched this entire effort, stood wistfully, crippled hand cupped over her brow to shade the sunlight as she continued to gaze eastward, tears streaming down her face. She sensed him looking at her, and, turning, she faced Andrew, and he knew he had to resume his strength. He forced a smile.

“Chuck dreamed it, you made it possible. It will work.”

“You think so?”

“I wouldn’t have ordered it,” Andrew said. He looked around at those gathered around him, Casmir, Varinna, Gates, the technicians and ground crews, all of them wanting to believe, and he knew that he had lost his own faith ever since the moment he had been cut down by the mortar shell. It was needed now, needed for all of them.

He smiled.

“I have faith,” he whispered. “It will work.”

* * *

“My Qarth.”

Jurak stirred, looking up at the entry to his yurt. Zartak stood in the open doorway, silhouetted by the dawning light.

“The time?” Jurak asked, embarrassed that he had slept past sunrise.

“No matter, you were up half the night. I ordered the guards not to disturb you. but this cannot wait.”

“The Yankees, they’re moving,” Jurak said even as he stretched and came to his feet.

“How did you know?” Zartak asked cautiously.

Jurak shook his head. “Don’t go running off proclaiming I have the ability of far seeing. It’s just that I had a dream. I saw Yankee airships. My back was turned, and they fell upon me by surprise.”

Zartak stared at him intently until Jurak nodded toward what he was holding. The old warrior stirred and handed him two telegrams, and Jurak scanned the contents.

“Three Yankee ships carrying land ironclads spotted late yesterday by a flyer out of Tyre patrolling the Inland Sea between Tyre and Roum. First light this morning ships seen in harbor at Tyre. New airships at Tyre already behind our lines and attacking.”

“When did this come in?”

“The second report just minutes ago. The first report the middle of the night.”

“Why the delay?” he asked angrily.

“Apparently a problem with a relay station. Then when it arrived here the Chin who transcribed it simply put it in with the other reports on train movements and supply shipments.”

“Damn all.”

“Should I have an example made of him?” Zartak asked.

Jurak thought on it for a moment, then shook his head.

“If I killed every telegrapher who made a mistake, the line would be down in a day.”

“He might have done it deliberately,” Zartak pressed.

“Tell him another such mistake and it won’t be the moon feast, it will be slow impaling,” Jurak replied.

Zartak gave a noncommittal grunt in reply.

Jurak looked around the yurt. Though it was the yurt of a Qar Qarth, piled with gold and every luxury known to this world, he still would have traded it all for running hot water, privacy when relieving himself, and music, music that could be heard at the touch of a button rather than the wailings of the chant singers and the nerve-tearing screeches of the single-string basha.

Zartak offered to help him dress, but he waved the old warrior aside as he slipped into leather trousers that felt cold and clammy, riding boots, a leather jacket, and a lightweight shirt of chain mail, nothing that would be much good in a battle but here in the rear lines was worn as a matter of course to protect against an assassin’s blade in the back.

As he did so he continued to think about the two telegrams.

“Moving their ironclads down to Tyre,” he said. “I wonder if they stripped everything off this front.”

“We could send up our airships to look behind their lines here.”

He nodded in agreement.

Why Tyre though? He walked over to a map drawn on the tanned hide of one of the great woolly giants that wandered the steppes. The map was stretched out on a wooden frame, showing the entire world from Nippon to Suzdal.

The mapmaking of the Bantag had intrigued him as soon as he had come to this world. With the endless circlings they had drawn out every step of their march, every watering hole, river ford, cattle settlement, place of good grazing, and places where the land was barren. The great scroll, when stretched end to end, measured well over two hundred paces. What hung before him was but one small part of the great fabric of this strange world that was now his home.

He stared at the map.

“From Tyre, two days of hard marching could bring them up to the head of the rail line we are running from this small port here.” He pointed at the map. Zartak nodded.

“Camagan the cattle call it,” Zartak replied.

“Our warriors at Tyre, except for a few regiments, have yet to be armed with rifles. If he flings his ironclads into them, there will be no stopping such an advance. Take our rail line, push to the Great Sea, and establish there a base to harry our supply shipments.”

“Audacious. Typical of Keane.”

Keane. Did Keane dream of this he wondered. If so, it was a desperate bid. Most likely he had stripped all his ironclads and his surviving airships for this attack. He just couldn’t send the ironclads. It would have to have infantry support, at least a umen of their troops as well.

He traced the route out on the map. Send an order to Xi’an, have them divert the next shipment of ironclads, rush the machines to Camagan. Though the distance was long, move up some airships as well, and also some airships from Capua. There were eight umens surrounding Tyre. Even with just bows that should be enough once the ironclads and airships were moved into place.

“We let them get their heads well into the trap,” Jurak announced, “make sure we don’t attack too soon. Then snap it shut and annihilate what is left of his advanced weapons.”

“Suppose that isn’t the true goal?”

“What?”

“Suppose it is something else.”

Jurak turned back to the map. The ironclads were too far south even to think of attempting a march to the northeast. From there it was nearly 150 leagues to his main supply depot at what the Yankees once called Fort Hancock.

Xi’an? Two hundred leagues southward and then east to the narrows of the Great Sea, and even there it was a mile-wide channel to cross to the eastern shore and then another hundred leagues back up to the northeast.

No. Not Xi’an.

“You dreamed of airships, my Qarth,” Zartak said, his voice barely a whisper, “not ironclads.”

“I know.”

He continued to stare at the map.

“Well, it was only a dream, my friend.”

Chapter Seven

“There’s the coast,” Jack shouted, trying to be heard above the roar of the engines. “That looks like Tigranus Point, means we’re about twenty miles north of Tyre.”

Jack lowered his field glasses and passed them to Hans, but at the moment Hans really didn’t care. For the last hour he had been far to busy suffering from an acute bout of airsickness.

“I can still see the Hornets, though.” He pointed down and to the right. Hans vaguely looked in the direction Jack was pointing and nodded bleakly, though he saw nothing.

“We’ll have to wait out here another ten minutes or so, give them a little more time to cut up the Bantag telegraph lines just to make sure.” Even as he spoke he turned the wheel hard over to the right.

Hans grasped the edge of the forward panel, sparing a quick glance to his right as the aerosteamer went into a sharp banking turn. A mile or more below the ocean sparkled, catching the light of the late-afternoon sun. He tried not to contemplate just how far down it was, how long the fall would take.

Jack grabbed the speaking tube to his topside gunner and blew through it.

“You still with me up there? Tell me if everyone turns on me, and I want a count off.”

Hans uncorked his own speaking tube to listen in as the Roum gunner counted off the ships, still holding at eleven Eagles, and all were turning.

As Jack had predicted the one with the leaking hydrogen bag had turned back after only an hour. After leaving the coast of Rus behind and crossing out over the Inland Sea for the run to Tyre the topside gunner had excitedly reported that one of the ships had burst into flames and gone down. Two more just seemed to have wandered off.

The ship bumped through another bubble of air, and Hans was again leaning out the side window, gagging.

They spiraled through half a dozen banking turns. Hans looked around bleakly. He guessed it should be a beautiful sight. Puffy clouds seemed to dance and bob around them, the aerosteamers pirouetting in circles like butterflies in a field of white flowers. They slipped through the edge of a cloud, the world going white, the air colder, the ship bobbing up and down. Suddenly the world exploded back into blue, the turquoise blue of the ocean below, the crystal blue of the horizon, the darker sky above.

He could hear a moaning curse echoing through the speaking tube connected to the compartment holding their passengers. A small hole had been left in the floor for the men to relieve themselves but from the shouts and curses only minutes after they had taken off he could figure easily enough that it didn’t work thanks to the forty-mile-an-hour breeze whistling through the compartment. Someone apparently had missed the target yet again. Jack chuckled at their distress.

“We should have papered over the compartment at least. Those boys must be freezing back there.”

Jack pushed his ship through one more slow banking turn, gaze fixed on the eastern horizon.

“They must have cut the telegraph lines by now; we gotta head in if we want all these ships down by dark.”

Hans sighed with relief as they leveled out, again picking up a southeasterly heading.

After several minutes he could finally distinguish the eastern shore of the Inland Sea, recognizing the point north of Tyre and the gentle curving coast of shallows and mud flats that finally led down to the rise of ground and narrow harbor. Jack edged the elevator stick forward, easing back slightly on the four throttles. They thumped through another small cloud, which was beginning to glow with a pale yellow-pink light. The summits of the Green Mountains, fifty miles to the north and east, were cloaked in the clouds and what appeared to be a dark thunderhead.

Jack pointed out the storm.

“Get caught in one of those, and you’re dead,” he shouted.

Hans nodded, breathing deeply, struggling against the urge to get sick yet again.

Scanning eastward, he wondered if his eyes were playing tricks or could he actually see the distant shore of the Great Sea nearly a hundred miles farther east. The two oceans, back on the old world they’d more likely be called great lakes, were closest together at this point. Long before the wars there was even a trade route going overland from Tyre eastward to the small fishing village of Camagan.

Back in the old days of the Great Ride, the eternal circling of the world by the hordes, this region between the two seas was usually disputed by the Tugars to the north and the Merki, making their long ride farther south through Tyre and from there around the southern end of the Great Sea and then up into Nippon and the edge of the vast populous lands of the Chin.

He took the field glasses, which rested in a box between his seat and Jack’s, checked the map, then raised the glasses to scan the coast. After months in the siege lines of Tyre he knew it all by heart, the outer circle of the Bantag lines, half a dozen miles from the city, the inner line of his own works, the ancient whitewashed walls of the town clustered around the harbor. He caught a glint of sunlight reflecting off the wings of a Hornet out beyond the enemy line, held it for a second, then lost it, wondering how Jack could so easily spot such things from ten, even twenty miles away. He again looked eastward with the glasses, but they were lower now. It was hard to tell just how far he could see out across the open brown-green prairie.

He studied the harbor again, bracing his elbows on the forward panel containing the pressure and temperature gauges for the four engines. The machine was bobbing up and down too much, though, for him to keep a steady lock, and another wave of nausea started to take hold. Taking a deep breath, he settled back in his chair.

The air was getting warmer, humid.

“I see transports in the harbor. Hope they’re the right ones, or we’re finished.”

Hans nodded, closing his eyes for a moment, breathing deeply, wishing they were higher up again, where the air was cooler. The minutes slowly passed. He finally got his stomach back under control. He opened his eyes again. They were just a couple of miles out from the harbor, flying parallel to the coast.

He spotted the aerosteamer landing field, south of town, right on the coast. There was already one airship down.

“We got more ships to the north.” It was the top gunner.

Hans looked over anxiously at Jack. Several seconds passed.

’“Four engines, must be the ones from Roum.” Both breathed a sigh of relief. The Bantag had committed only a couple of ships to that front, and both had been aggressively hunted down over the last week and destroyed, but there was always the prospect that Jurak had moved reinforcements down there.

From due east he could see two Hornets coming in as well, one of them trailing a thin wisp of smoke. They passed directly west of the harbor, and Hans saw half a dozen ships tied off at the docks. Several land ironclads were on the dock, puffs of smoke rising as they slowly chugged along, joining a long column of machines weaving up through the narrow streets of the town. At least that phase of this mad plan seems to have gone off, he thought.

They passed the airfield on their left and a quarter mile in from the coast, Jack looking over at it, then at the ocean below.

“Bit tricky, crosswind coming off the sea, about ten knots or so. Keep both your hands on the throttles. Remember the two to the left are for port engines, the two on the right for the starboard. It takes several seconds for them actually to change anything, so be damn quick.”

Hans shifted uncomfortably, doing as ordered. Jack started into a shallow banking turn to port, altitude still dropping. As they got halfway through Hans looked up through the topside windows, which were now angled down toward the horizon, and saw the other aerosteamers bobbing along like moths, following in a ragged line stretching ba£kT half a dozen miles or more.

Jack gradually started to straighten out, having drifted past the airfield, turning slightly to port to compensate for the crosswind. Hundreds of antlike figures ran about along either side of the field—the ground crews. It was going to be a tricky balancing act.

They had started out heavy, but after close to fifteen hours of flying they had burned off hundreds of gallons of fuel. They could have dumped some of their hydrogen to compensate, but orders were not to do that since it would be impossible to cap off all the hydrogen needed if the ships were to be turned around quickly. The center air bag was filled with hot air, drawn off the exhaust of the four engines. On the way down Jack had dumped all of it. In the fine balancing act between hydrogen bags, hot air, and the lift provided by the bi-level wings, the ship should have a stall speed of only ten knots or so, about the same as the crosswind. That meant they would touch down almost standing still, then ground crews would have to snag lines and secure tie-downs. If not, the ship would start drifting backwards, drag a wing, and within seconds be destroyed.

Jack kept the ship nose low, coming in over the edge of the field, then continuing down most of its length to leave plenty of room behind for all the other airships to touch down. Hans, nervous, kept both hands tight on the throttles, never quite matching up to what Jack wanted as he shouted commands to throttle up on one side, then the other, ease back, then throttle up again.

The airship bounced down once, gently, soared back up, Jack cursing sharply, quickly slapping Hans’s death grip on the throttles, knocking all four of them back. The ship hung in the air for a moment, then settled back down, harder this time, as Jack spun the crank to his left, which opened and closed the vent to the top of the hot-air bag.

Hans saw someone darting up toward their cab, disappearing underneath to grab the forward hold-down line; a dozen others swarmed in to either side. Jack seemed to have three arms and four hands all at once, making sure the throttles were back, but not all the way, so that if the ground crew lost grip, he could slap them forward and try to claw back up into the sky. The hot-air vent was opened again. The machine lurched, ground crew under them becoming visible again as they spliced on a long pull line and a dozen men took hold, allowing the ship to weather-vane into the wind, and then pulled it off the field.

A pop that sounded more like a dull whoosh than an explosion startled Hans. Jack looking back out the port-side window, cursed softly, then settled back into his seat.

“Looks like number twenty-eight; I knew the boy was too green.”

“What?”

“Burning, what’s left of it. Most likely jammed a wing into the ground, snapped it, fuel line sprays, then the fire hits the hydrogen bags.”

He said it matter-of-factly, but there was a deep, infinite weariness in the tone.

The crew chief in front of their machine held up a red flag, spun it in a tight circle several times, then slapped it down to his side.

“Throttles off,” Jack announced even as he pushed them all the way back. “Fuel valves off, controls neutral . .

He continued down the list, announcing each step as he did it, leaning over to Hans’s side to perform several of the tasks.

“Fine, that’s it. Open the hatch.”

Hans opened the bottom hatch, dropped the ladder, and, feeling very stiff and old, slowly went down the dozen feet to the ground. The air felt different, the memory of the long months in Tyre triggered by the scent of the ocean mingling with the dry musky sage. As he stepped away from under the ship he looked back and saw the flaming wreck of one of the airships. A wagon was drawn up, a crew working the pumps, laying down a feeble spray of water. More airships came in, pilots wisely swinging to windward so no errant sparks caught them.

Some of the ships came in easily, touched down as gently as hummingbirds; others plodded in, slamming down hard, bouncing. A few came in without enough speed, hung motionless, and started to drift backwards, one of them digging its tail in. Jack cursed soundly as the machine just hung there, ground crews frantically jumping up and down, trying to grab the hold-down lines. The pilot threw on full throttles, the machine started back up, hung in the air, finally stalled, and this time the nose dropped, most likely from his having opened the forward hydrogen bag. The machine slammed down hard, undercarriage wheels snapping, driving up into the wings, while the cargo compartment seemed to disappear. Even though they were upwind, Hans could hear the screams of the men trapped within.

As the ground crew around him secured the tie-down ropes to bolts fastened into heavy concrete blocks, the crew chief finally gave permission for the top gunner and the men in the cargo compartment to dismount. One by one they came down the ladder and were a pitiful sight, obviously half-frozen, covered in vomit, disgusted with themselves and the world in general. The last two had to be helped down and laid out on the grass. Hans realized he most likely didn’t smell too good himself.

He was relieved to see Ketswana coming up with Vincent right behind him, and together, as the shadows lengthened, the last of the airships from Suzdal landed. Then several minutes later the first of twenty-eight more ships, Eagles all of them veterans from the Roum Front, came in, the more experienced pilots having no problems with the cross-wind landing. Several of them simply bypassed the landing strip and, ignoring the shouted protests of ground crews, picked out a tie-down location, slowed to a hover, then gently floated in to a touchdown.

Last of all were the twenty-five Hornets from Suzdal and Roum, buzzing in like tiny insects after the heavy cumbersome four-engine machines. Mingled in were half a dozen more Hornets that had been fighting throughout the day in front of Tyre. Powder-smoke stains from the forward Gatling gun blackened the undersides. One of the ships was badly shot up, streamers of fabric fluttering from a starboard wing.

The display made Hans’s pulse quicken. Here, obviously, was one of the most remarkable sights in history. Over seventy flying machines, all of them gathered together in this one place. And though it was a wild, mad scheme, it gave him hope for the moment. Nature seemed to be adding to the display, the long shadows of late afternoon lengthened, exaggerating the size of the machines so that they looked like giants skimming over the ground. The bloodred sun hung heavy in the western sky, while to the north the towering thunderstorm, which everyone had been eyeing nervously, marched on in stately pageantry to the east.

The last of the Hornets, stripped-down versions with no forward gun, replaced by a small compartment underneath which could hold one man, came in and landed. There was barely any room left on the open field as the last ship rolled to a stop.

A young major came up to the group, and in the shadows Hans recognized the sky-blue jacket and silver trim of an officer in the air corps.

“Welcome sirs. Sorry I couldn’t come over earlier but I was kind of busy,” the boy announced, obviously from Roum and struggling to speak in Rus.

Jack clapped him pn the shoulder.

“Varro. Good job, son, your people did a damn fine job.”

“Thank you, sir. It helped to have those extra ground crews brought down by transport from Roum but still all the hold-down crews were infantrymen yesterday. I’ll pass the word along.”

“The Hornets that flew down from Roum yesterday”— he nodded to the half dozen machines that had the unusual baskets underneath—“started out this morning as ordered. Two haven’t come back, but the first reports are that they’ve cut the telegraph lines at twenty or more places from here all the way up to the Green Mountains.”

“Damn good news,” Vincent announced.

Hans nodded in agreement. Yet another idea of Varinna’s. One of the first objections he had raised when the plan was presented was that the moment they touched down with so many airships in Tyre, Jurak might surmise the real target. She immediately countered with the sketch of how to convert the light fighting airships into a two-man unit. Strip out the Gatling gun, put in a small crew compartment. The ship touches down along some isolated stretch of the telegraph line, the crew member hops out, climbs the pole, cuts the line, and if there’s enough time rolls up jLCouple of hundred feet of wire and takes it with them while a second Hornet, this one fully armed, circles to keep back any riders posted to patrol the wire.

Hans was delighted with the simple ingenuity of the proposal. Telegraph lines had always been so damn vulnerable. Back in the old war on Earth a couple of dozen cavalry men could play hell with a line, and it took regiments of men, posted damn near at every pole to keep a crucial line up and running. The Bantag umens at Tyre were now completely out of touch with Jurak, and it’d take at least a couple of days for word to be carried by horse. The trick, of course, was in the timing. To let Jurak get word of the ironclads’ landing in order to draw his attention to Tyre, but not the entire air fleet.

“Are General Timokin and Stan Bamberg here?” Vincent asked.

“Follow me, sirs; they’re waiting over at headquarters.”

Hans fell in with the group as they strode across the field. The passengers from the airships were out, nearly all of them a sorry-looking lot.

“Major, are copies of Gates’s Weekly making it down here?”

“Ah, yes sir, we just got the issue about what happened up at Capua. They came in on the transport carrying the ironclads.”

“Well detail off some men. I want every copy you can find rounded up. Then find some glue, if need be take some flour and mix it into a paste. Then paper it on the outside of those wicker troop carriers.”

The major looked at him confused, then called to a sergeant who had been tailing along and detailed him off.

“In all the rush we never thought of it,” Jack said. “Damn foolish mistake, type of thing that can lose a war.”

As they passed the line of Hornets Hans slowed to inspect the machines. More than one was holed, a couple had hydrogen bags that were completely deflated, a patching crew was working by feel since no lighting of any kind was allowed near a ship that could be leaking hydrogen.

Several of the Hornet pilots came up to Jack, saluting.

“We really grabbed their tails out there,” one of them announced excitedly. “I came over a low rise, must have caught a hundred of them camped out in the open, about fifty miles back from the front. Damn did I tear them up.”

“The landings, did they work?” Vincent asked.

The pilot was startled to see the chief of staff of the army standing in the shadows and snapped to attention and saluted.

“Ah, yes sir. The Hornet I was escorting, he landed three times along a ten-mile stretch of the wire and tore out a good long piece at each.” The pilot nodded to a slight boy standing beside him.

“Tell him, Nicholas.”

“Like he said, sir. We took down wire between two poles at three different places.”

Hans could see that the boy was shaken, left hand clasping his right arm in the evening twilight, the black stain on the arm obviously blood.

“Your crewman?” Jack asked.

The boy shook his head.

“I lost him on the third landing. Some of them bastards were hiding in a gully, no horses. They shot Petra as he was up on a pole, then came rushing out. I got hit, too, but managed to get off.”

He lowered his head.

“I think Petra was still alive when I left him,” the boy whispered.

Jack patted him lightly on his left shoulder.

“You did the right thing. You had to save your Hornet.”

“No sir, I was scared. I might have been able to get him in.”

“No you couldn’t,” the other pilot interjected. “I had no more ammunition, so all I could do was try and scare them by flying low. That’s when they shot up my ship as well.”

“I was scared and ran.”

“We’re all scared,” Jack replied softly. “Now get some rest. I want both of you back up tomorrow at first light, wounded or not. Anyone who can fly has to be in the air tomorrow. You saved your ship, so don’t think about anything else now.”

They continued on, Hans catching a glimpse of a bottle being passed around as soon as they had passed.

The headquarters hut for the airfield was nothing more than a-hrown-walled adobe shack, typical of Tyre, where lumber was in such short supply. It was the only light on the field as the men labored under the glow of the twin moons that were breaking the eastern horizon.

As they stepped in Hans was startled to see Gregory Timokin. His face was still puffy, pink, blistered. Hands were wrapped in bandages, and it reinforced yet again just how desperate this venture was. Stan stood beside him, grinning, obviously eager for the operation to begin.

Though his stomach was still in rebellion over the flight he quickly took up the bottle of vodka sitting on a rough-hewn table, uncorked it, and took a long drink.

“All right. What’s the bad news first?”

Gregory snickered.

“You want the long or the short version?”

“Go on.”

“Fuel first of all. If we were burning coal, there’d be more than enough. Fifty-two ironclads. I’ll need twenty-five thousand gallons if you want them to get to Carnagan.”

“I have first priority,” Jack interjected.

“And that’s at least another forty thousand gallons for one way.”

“We supposedly had it stockpiled,” Hans said, rubbing his forehead as the vodka hit him.

“The oil field is lost. We had enough stockpiled through our coking of coal and getting the coal oil,” Vincent said. “What’s the problem? And what do you mean ‘fifty-two ironclads’?”

Gregory sighed, staring at the ceiling. “One of the ships carrying more coal oil and ten land ironclads hasn’t docked.”

“What the hell? There was supposed to be a monitor escort for you people.”

“Fog. Yesterday and the day before. We came out of it, near Tigranus Point, and the ship was missing. I asked a Hornet to go up the coast, and the pilot thinks he found the wreck. It went straight into a shoal and foundered.”

“Damn all,” Hans snapped. “So we’re short how much?”

“Fifteen thousand gallons.”

Hans looked over at Vincent, who shook his head.

“We could make that up in a week from the coking plants at Roum and Suzdal. It’s getting it here, though.” An argument broke out between Jack and Gregory over who got priority on the fuel; Hans just sat woodenly, staring at the bottle for a moment, while meditatively munching on a piece of hardtack to put something back into his stomach.

“Ground the Hornets that got shot up. Pull off the Eagle that cracked its undercarriage, then detail off four more Eagles to stay behind.”

“What?” Jack snapped. “That’s ten percent of my remaining force.”

“Our force, Jack, our force. We need fuel for the ironclads. The Eagles can be used locally for support. Once more fuel comes in they can be used to haul what, a couple of hundred gallons each out to the column to keep it supplied. Gregory, I’m taking five thousand gallons from you for our remaining airships.”

Now both Gregory and Jack were^on him, but he sat silent, his icy stare finally causing them to fall silent.

“I know that won’t give you enough fuel to reach your objective with any margin to spare. Figure this though. Half your machines will break down before you even get there. Do like we did on the Ebro. Drain off the remaining fuel, load it into the ironclads still running, then move on.”

The two started to object again, and Vincent slammed the table with his fist.

“Damn all. There’s no time to argue now. This operation is supposed to kick off tomorrow morning. The argument’s over. Gregory, your machines, are they ready?”

“If you mean off-loaded, yes sir. Like I said, we’re down to fifty-two.”

“And did the Bantag see them before the lines got cut?”

“Certain of it.”

Hans smiled. “Good. That’s what we wanted.”

“I don’t get it,” Gregory replied sharply. “Why didn’t you cut the telegraph wires first before we brought the ironclads down here. Now they’ll know and be on us.”

“That’s what I wanted,” Vincent replied. “We’re the bait.”

“The what?” Stan asked. “And what do you mean ‘we’?”

“Because I’m going with you, Stan.”

“Fine, but what the hell is this about bait?”

“We had to cut the lines before we flew all the airships in here to Tyre. The moment we did I assumed Jurak would figure what the real target is. I didn’t want him to guess the true intent, so I wanted him to get word that all our ironclads had been moved down here. He’ll assume that we are trying to break out of Tyre and take Camagan. After all, it is a logical move. We take Carnagan even briefly and we could threaten his supplies moving over the Great Sea. Beyond that we could tear up that rail line they’re building from there over to here. I want him to focus on here while Hans presses the main attack.”

Both Stan and Gregory nodded, but it was obvious that they were less pleased with this role, and the definition that they were to be a diversion rather than the main attack.

“So it’s Third Corps and nothing else?” Stan asked.

“Yes. We have to keep a minimum of two corps here in Tyre to hold this base. I think one corps is more than enough.”

“You ready?” Hans asked.

Stan smiled, shifting the plug of tobacco in his cheek, looking a bit like a younger version of Hans.

“We scraped up ten days of rations per man, one hundred rounds of ammunition with an additional hundred in the supply wagons. New shoes have been issued. We’re ready.”

“And your feelings on this one?” Timokin asked.

Stan smiled. “Oh, about the same as everyone else, I guess. But what the hell. Kinda figured we all should have drowned off the coast of Carolina ten years ago. Every day since has been a bonus. If we’re going to go down, let me do it out in the open fighting. Tell me where to go, Hans, we’ll get there.”

Hans smiled and looked over at Vincent. The three corps cut off in Tyre had developed a unique spirit. In the one sense they felt abandoned, cut off on a useless front while the big actions were fought up around Roum. But on the other side they had a blind faith in Hans and any sense of difference between Rus and Roum had been burned out of them during the harrowing retreat from the Green Mountains down to this coastal port and the long months in the trenches afterward. These men were battle-hardened but not battle-exhausted as were the survivors of Roum and the nightmare assault at Capua.

“Effectives?”

“Ten thousand two hundred men with the corps ready to march. Six batteries of breech-loading three-inchers, and one mounted regiment.”

“What about supply wagons?” Gregory asked. “That’s the crucial thing. We need healthy horses and good strong wagons that can keep up.”

“About a hundred,” came the reply, and again there was the look of exasperation from Gregory.

“Hell, four hundred wounded in a fight, and we’re in trouble.” He looked over at Hans.

After the horror of leaving over a thousand wounded behind during the retreat of last year, Hans had made a firm statement that never again would wounded by abandoned. He shifted uncomfortably.

“Ammunition and coal oil have to come first. With luck we’ll capture a lot of horses at the start. That’ll alleviate food and transport for lightly wounded. Wounded that can be saved get wagon space; those who can’t make it …” He lowered his head, leaving the rest unsaid, that the man would be left behind with a few rounds of ammunition.

“What I figured,” Stan replied. “Just I think of old Jack Whatley at times …” His voice trailed off.

“Anything else?” Hans asked.

The group was silent, looking one to the other.

“Fine, we start up in six hours. Try and get some sleep.” One by one the group headed out. He knew Jack and Gregory would be up all night, double-checking on each machine. Finally, only Vincent was left. He settled down in a chair across the table from Hans, eyed the bottle, and finally uncorked it and took a drink. Hans said nothing.

“War’s changed too much.” Hans sighed, stretching out his stiff leg. “I miss the old ways. God, there was something about a division, an entire corps on the volley line. It was hell, but I’ll never forget Fredericksburg, watching the Irish brigade going up the hill. Damn what a sight.”

“Even Hispania,” Vincent replied. “When we pivoted an entire division, closing off the flank, the men cheering, shoulder to shoulder, perfect alignment, over four thousand men. Wonder if we’ll ever see the likes of that again.”

“Not with these new machines. Changed everything. Guess it’s inevitable. Back on the old world, bet they have ’em as well by now.”

Vincent took another drink and passed the bottle to Hans, who nodded his thanks, shifted his chew, and enjoyed another gulp.

“Don’t go getting yourself killed out there,” Hans said.

“Goes with the job.”

“No, there’s more to it.”

He leaned forward, staring into Vincent’s eyes.

“Son, my generation, Andrew, Pat, Emil, we’ve played out our part. A chapter’s closing with this war. If we win.” He shook his head. “No, when we win, I pray that will be the end of it for us. But that doesn’t end it on this world. You and I, perhaps even more than Andrew and Pat, are the real revolutionaries. I was their prisoner. You, well you had your own torment from them.”

Vincent said nothing.

“We both know this war will have to sweep the entire world. The Bantag are of the great northern hordes, but there must be more out there. We only know of one small part of this world. We have no idea of what is southward beyond the realm of the Bantag, what’s on the other side, what threats there still are. The only hope is to free all of humanity on this world, then build from there. It will be your war then.”

“So stay alive, is that it?”

Hans smiled. “After this is over you’ll have Andrew as your mentor. He thinks he wants to let go of the reins, but knowing Andrew that will change. There’s supposed to be an election at the end of the year. Who knows, he might even run if we still have a country and are still alive. If he does, well you’d be the choice for who would run the army.”

“What about you, or Pat?”

Hans smiled and waved aside the question.

“You can’t have a better model than him to follow. And watch out for him, too. It will be tough at times.”

“As he followed you,” Vincent said, and Hans was surprised to see a softening, something so rare in this boy who had come of age too early in the crucible of war.

Hans cleared his throat nervously.

“You talk like you don’t expect to come back,” Vincent said.

“Well, when you planned this mad operation, what chance did you give to the air operation?”

Vincent said nothing for a moment.

“Well?”

“Varinna was a bit more optimistic than I.”

“I see. But you know, it’s what I wanted, what I said from the very beginning. That's why Andrew decided it was me who should lead it rather than you.”

“I know that now.”

“And Vincent.”

“Yes?”

“I’m going all the way with this one.”

He didn’t mention Andrew’s authorization; he’d only play that if he had to.

“Kind of figured you would,” Vincent replied calmly. Hans looked up at the simple wooden clock hanging over a tattered picture from Gates’s Illustrated, a full-page print of Jack Petracci with four smaller images, one in each corner of the illustration, showing airships fighting.

“Well past ten,” Hans announced. “We’re up at three, so let’s get some sleep.”

Vincent nodded. He was never one to be able to hold his liquor, and the three shots of vodka had made him noddy. Within minutes he was snoring peacefully. Hans stepped outside. By the light of the twin moons he could see the shadowy forms of the airships lined up, men laboring about them in the dark. A wagon clattered past him, trailing a heavy scent of kerosene. He heard muttered snatches of conversation in Rus, Latin, Chin, even a few choice expletives in English. Overhead the Great Wheel filled the sky. It was a comforting sight. A good world this. Maybe we can go beyond the mistakes of the old one, build something better. But first we have to survive, he thought.

He went back into the hut and quietly lay down on the other cot. Strange memories floated for a moment, not of the war, even of the prairie, but long before, Prussia, the scent of the forest wafting through the open window at night when he was a boy. The shadow of his mother coming in to check on him, then drifting away.

Why that? he wondered. His hand rested on his chest, feeling the quiet beat. Steady now, not the hollow drifting sense that came too often. Emil kept talking about the need to take it easy. Old Emil, God just how old was he? Must be well over seventy. Hard to keep track of the years, real years as counted back home.

The clock quietly ticked, his thoughts drifted, and he knew there would be no sleep tonight. Far too much to think of, not of what would come … but rather of what had once been.

* * *

Jurak sifted through the reports, carefully reading the roughly printed Rus letters taken down by the Chinese telegraphers. All lines south of the Green Mountains had been cut by airship attacks.

That was not the concern of the moment, though. It was the airships that were troubling him. Along the entire Capua Front there was only one airship.

It was supposed to represent ten ships, and it was the clumsy deception that gave it away. The humans had taken to the use of symbols which were known to be numbers in their English language. Observers along the front were given the strictest of orders to note down such symbols when they reported sightings. The same ten numbers kept appearing for the last seven days but it was only this afternoon that one of his warriors, a lowly commander of ten, had been allowed into his presence, claiming that he was convinced there were not ten ships but only one. When questioned he said he remembered the one particular ship since it had almost killed him during the river battle and that it had a slight stain along the underside of its left wing and a triangle-shaped patch not much more than a hand-span across on the right wing. All of the supposed ten ships now had the identical stain and patch.

With that Jurak had made it a point to observe the ship as it flew over twice during the day and the commander of ten (who was now commander of a hundred) was right. They were pasting different numbers on the ship. It was an old trick, and the fact that the humans resorted to it must mean that their airships were all somewhere else.

He had already sent faster riders southwest from the nearest garrison to the breaks in the line, demanding a full report. News, though, would be a day old.

In the morning he thought he had a clear grasp of the plan. Now he wasn’t sure. Such an operation would not require every airship of the Yankee fleet. There were several scenarios possible, a couple within the capability of what the humans knew of war. There were several beyond them, or had they realized that airships could be used for more than just reconnaissance and bombing?

He felt a cold shiver at that thought and called for a guard to summon Zartak.

Chapter Eight

“Hans, time we got moving.”

It was Ketswana, his towering bulk filling the doorframe. First light was tracing the horizon, dawn still more than an hour off. Engines were already warming up on the airstrip, distant voices echoing.

“Come on, Vincent, let’s roll.”

The boy was fast asleep, curled up on the coat, his oversize riding boots still on, making him look even more like a child who had insisted upon falling asleep in his play uniform. Vincent stirred, and then was bolt upright, a brief instant of panic until he realized where he was. Hans said nothing, understanding. Old instincts from the field. “Everything all right?” Vincent asked a bit too loudly.

“Just that it’s time.”

“Right.”

Ketswana came back into the room carrying a wooden plank. Two steaming tins of tea were on it, along with pieces of hardtack topped off with slabs of cold salt pork. Hans blew on the rim of the cup between gulps of the scalding brew, then quickly consumed the cold breakfast.

Vincent was up, eating a bit more slowly. Gregory Timokin came in.

“Everything’s ready, sir,” he announced to Vincent. “We better get up to the front.”

Vincent nodded and started for the door, taking his cup of tea with him. He stopped by Hans’s side.

“Not much at sentimental good-byes, Hans.”

“Nor I.”

Vincent chuckled. “Sure, Hans. See you in a week.”

“You too, son. Gregory, don’t let him bang his head.” Gregory smiled and offered Hans his hand. Hans took it gently, and even then Gregory grimaced from the pain.

“Wish you were coming along, too. It’d be like the Ebro all over again,” he said, forcing a smile.

“Once was enough,” Hans lied. “Besides, I like flying."

Vincent started out the door, then stopped.

“Save a little glory for me, will you?” he asked light-heartedly.

Hans laughed softly.

“And for God’s sake please come back.” And now there was a note of concern in his voice. Before Hans could reply, he was gone.

“Everyone seems to think we’re going to get killed, my friend,” Hans said to Ketswana.

“Not us, we’re immortal. As long as I’m with you, you’re safe.”

Finishing his tea, Hans left the cup in the hut, stepped outside to relieve himself, then started for the flight line. More and yet more engines were turning over, warming up. Crews were loading into the cargo compartments, and Ketswana mentioned that nine men, after the flight over from Suzdal, absolutely refused to get back in. Volunteers from the ground crews had replaced them.

All around them was a bustle of activity. They passed several Hornets revving up their engines, a crew chief shouting obscenities in Rus. A wagon clattered past, again the smell of kerosene. With a thousand men working as ground crews, most of them pressed into service and only given a couple of days training, it was a near miracle, Hans realized, that the entire place hadn’t exploded with some darn fool having smuggled in a box of matches for a smoke, or from the accidental discharge of a gun.

They passed an Eagle, the ten Chin gathered in front of it, squatting around a bucket of steaming grits and a smaller bucket of tea. They didn’t even notice their commander passing, and continued to chatter in their singsong voices. A ground crew trotted past, carrying coils of ropes, and then several boys darted around Hans, lugging skins filled with water to be loaded on board a ship.

“The training pays off here,” Hans said. “There was part of me thought Varinna mad to think it could be pulled off, but here it is. Men, equipment, fuel, food, ammunition, all of it coming together in this place.”

“They know it’s this or defeat,” Ketswana replied. “We know as well that this is something special, a new thing, something we will always remember.”

It was hard to sort out which flier was which in the darkness, and finally they had to grab one of the ground crews to guide them to Jack’s ship. As they approached the aero-steamer, Hans was glad to see that Gates’s Illustrated had finally been put to a good use, enough copies had indeed been found to paper over the front and sides of the cargo compartments to block out the wind.

Ketswana started for the crew compartment under Jack’s ship.

“I thought you were on number thirty-nine,” Jack observed.

“Didn’t like the pilot.”

“Suppose something happens to me,” Hans interjected. “You’re to take over, remember?”

Ketswana laughed.

“And suppose something happened to me on the other ship. Where would you be? No, I stay with you, my friend.”

Hans wanted to argue but he could see Jack standing by the ladder to the forward compartment, arms folded, grinning.

“Kinda logical actually,” Jack announced. “I’ll get you in. Besides, the boys know what to do; the company commanders are all briefed.”

“All right, go on, get in,” Hans said, and Ketswana gave a final wave before ducking under the airship and climbing aboard.

“How is everything?” Hans asked.

“One more machine down. Engine caught fire about an hour ago when they started it up, and part of the wing burned. This takeoff in the dark, a bit tricky.”

“I know. It’s a balance. Would have preferred to come in at dawn, but that meant night flying, and most of these boys would have gotten lost or wound up in Cartha or back in Suzdal. We’ve got to get down with enough daylight to get the job done.”

“Then we better get moving.”

Jack climbed the ladder first and a moment later one of the ground crew, who had been sitting in the forward cab watching while the engines ran on idle, scrambled down the ladder. Hans ascended into the cab and climbed into the copilot’s seat, suddenly aware again of the lingering stench from the previous day’s bout with airsickness. He wondered if there was something perverse about pilots, and they took a secret delight in the smell. For a moment he was worried that his stomach would rebel, leaving him without a breakfast. Opening the side window he stuck his head out and took a gulp of air.

“Let’s hope everyone’s on his toes,” Jack shouted. “I taxi out first, then each airship down the line follows. We circle out to sea and form up, then head out from there.” Opening up both speaking tubes, he blew into them. “Topside. Bottom side, hang on, we’re heading out.” Hans caught some moans and a burst of laughter from below. Ketswana actually was enjoying himself. Any chance to get into battle, in a land ironclad, aerosteamer, if need be crawling through a cesspool, it didn’t matter to him, as long as he could kill Bantag.

Jack took hold of the throttles, edging them up until all four engines were howling. Finally, the ship lurched forward.

“We’re heavy, damn heavy, and no wind to help us lift off.”

He spun the wheel, closing the hot-air-bag vent atop the center air bag. They reached the center of the landing strip, following a ground crewman holding a white flag aloft, which stood out like a pale shimmer in the early-morning light. Hans felt as if somehow the machine was beginning to feel lighter, and he mentioned it to Jack.

“The center bag, depending on outside temperature, provides several hundred pounds of lift. Hell, I’ll make an airman of you yet. You seem to have the feel for it. Starboard throttles idle, keep port side at full.”

Hans put his hands on the throttles, Jack quickly guiding him, then letting go as he turned the wheel for the rudder. With ground crew helping, the airship slowly pivoted and lined up on a faint glimmer of light, three lanterns at the end of the field marking the takeoff path. The crew chief held his flag aloft, twirled it overhead, and let it drop while running to the port side to get out of the way.

“Here goes, full throttles, not too fast now … that’s it.” Hans fed the fuel in, the caloric engines slowly speeding up. They held still for what seemed an eternity, then started forward again. The takeoff seemed longer than the day before, the ship slowly lurching and bouncing, bobbing up once, settling, then finally clawing into the air. The three lanterns whisked by underneath, Jack holding the ship low to gain speed, the hot exhaust going into the center air bag, heating it up even more, lift increasing. He banked gently to starboard, and in the darkness Hans sensed more than felt the ocean open out beneath them. Jack continued his slow climbing turn, the top gunner reporting a second, third, and fourth ship lining up behind them. As they spiraled upward Hans wondered how anyone could see where the other ships were, but as they completed one full circle and the eastern horizon came back around he saw several airships clearly silhouetted against the red-purple horizon.

The air was gloriously still, reminding Hans of the sensation of sliding with skates on the first black ice of winter when he was a boy. They went through another circle and another, the ships spiraling up like hawks, slowly climbing on a summer thermal, soaring into the dark heavens.

The vast world spread out below them, faint wisps of ground fog now showing dark gray, the second of the two moons slipping below the western horizon, to the east the sky getting brighter. Each turn took them farther out to sea, the coast receding, part of the plan in case watchful eyes on the ground had somehow reestablished communications during the night.

“Losing another one,” Jack announced, breaking the silence, and he pointed to where a ship, streaming smoke from one of its engines, was breaking away, heading straight back to the airfield.

Two Hornets came up, climbing far more steeply than the Eagles, soaring upward, their escort but also a signal that the last of the Eagles was off the ground.

“Any count?” Jack asked, calling up to the top gunner, whom Hans truly pitied, stuck atop a flammable bag of hydrogen in an exposed Gatling mount. It was also his job to crawl around atop the bag and plug any holes shot through it in a fight. No silk umbrellas had been issued to the crews for this flight—the weight considerations had ruled it out—but even with such a device for jumping the top gunner rarely made it, since as soon as a ship caught on fire the heavy weight of the gun plunged the man straight down into the burning bag.

“Hard to count. I figure at least thirty ships are up, sir.”

“Well try and get me the right number,” Jack snapped. “Damn. If we only got thirty up, we’ll be slaughtered.” Jack sighed, looking over at Hans.

“We go with what we got even if it’s only one at this point,” Hans replied absently, straining to catch a glimpse of the ground east of Tyre. Dawn was just breaking down there; Vincent would most likely be kicking off his move. Hans thought he could catch glimpses of smoke, a flash of light.

They continued through their final turn, the aerosteamer coming out of its gentle banking climb. Jack leveled them off, commenting that they were up over three thousand feet and climbing. The air was noticeably cooler, still calm and smooth. There was a glimpse of an airship several hundred feet lower, passing directly beneath them, the gunner looking up and waving. Jack lined up the compass on a southeasterly heading, pulled the elevator back slightly higher, pitching the nose upward. Tyre was now off the port side, a dozen miles away, impossible for Hans to see in his starboard seat.

“We level out at nine thousand, should be able to catch the current coming out of the west. That’ll help us along a bit. Now remember, Hans, this is all from memory. I’ve only been there twice, so the charts aren’t good.”

“I trust you.”

“You’ve got to; there’s no one else.”

The climb continued and gradually, through the glass view port between their feet, down in the position of the forward Gatling mount, Hans spotted the coast as they headed back to shore.

“Take the wheel, hold it steady for me on this heading,” Jack ordered. “Watch the compass, but also line up on some feature on the horizon. Also you can use the sun, but remember it keeps shifting, so don’t follow it around.” Hans tentatively put his hands on the wheel.

“That’s it, just hold it steady. Let me ease back a bit on the throttles—we need to conserve fuel.”

The steady thump of the engines, the vibrations running through the ship, changed pitch, and though still loud, the change was a blessed relief. Still, there was the sensation of gliding on ice. The beautiful light of the dawning sun suddenly exploded across the horizon, flooding the cabin with a deep golden glow.

With the plane’s nose pitched high, he felt as if he were climbing to the heavens and was filled with a deep abiding peace. The moment was worth holding on to and savoring. He looked sideways, Jack had settled back in his chair, eyes half-closed, and his hands were off the controls, arms folded across his chest. There was a momentary fear, and Jack smiled.

' “Hans, actually it’s not all that hard. Just keep the heading, as we clear through nine thousand feet, the mercury in that gauge in the middle will tell you when, ease the nose down slightly. That’s a while off, just relax and hold course.” And he closed his eyes.

He felt suddenly as if he was alone in the ship, a joyous sensation, piloting it through the upper reaches of the sky. What waited ahead was forgotten for the moment, all of it washed away … and he was content.

* * *

“Andrew.”

The dream had been of long before, of Mary. Long before her betrayal, long before all the pain when it had all been so innocent, so fresh and alive, walking hand in hand along the shore. Even in the dream he had been cognizant of the fact that he had one day found Mary with another man while he was still in Maine, that Kathleen was the center of his life now, but still there was such a pleasure in seeing his first true love again in spite of all the pain she had given him. Kathleen’s gentle touch stirred him from the memory, and he felt a pang of guilt as he looked up into her worried eyes, as if afraid she could somehow sense what he had been dreaming.

“What time is it?” he whispered.

“Just before dawn.”

He heard a distant rattle of musketry and was instantly awake.

“What is it?”

“I was at the hospital in the church when it started, and came back here. I don’t know.”

Even as she helped him to get his trousers and jacket on he heard the hard clatter of hooves on the cobblestone pavement below his window, a rider reining in, the horse blowing hard, the messenger shouting to the guards at his door. He looked out the window and saw one of his staff, a young Roum lieutenant, another one of old Marcus’s innumerable “nephews,” leaping from the saddle and running up the steps of the front porch, to pound on the door below.

From the next room one of the twins stirred, crying softly, and Kathleen looked to Andrew. He nodded, and she left as he stepped out into the dim hallway and went down the stairs. He could see the shadow of the messenger beyond the glass panes of the door and called for him to enter. The boy came in, stiffly snapped to attention, and saluted, speaking so rapidly in Latin that Andrew had to motion for him to slow down.

“Sir. There’s gunfire in the Congress halls. It’s reported that the Speaker is dead and Bugarin has declared himself to be acting president.”

Andrew sighed wearily, leaning against the wall. Poor Flavius. Most likely went to meet Bugarin alone and died for it, he thought.

“Andrew!”

Emil came through the door, breathing hard.

“Andrew, they’ve taken the White House!”

“What? I was just there.” He paused, trying to remember. He had sat up with Kal till after midnight. The president was still drifting in and out of consciousness but apparently on the mend. But that was four hours ago.

“Well it was just stormed by some of the old boyars,” Emil gasped. “Bugarin’s proclaiming that he is president.”

“If Flavius is dead, then he is,” Andrew said quietly, staring off, eyes no longer focused on the messenger or Emil.

“What the hell do you mean?”

“Just that. The Constitution places Bugarin fourth in line of succession. The president is still incapacitated. Flavius wanted to avoid the crisis but not be declared acting president. Bugarin wants it, and with Flavius dead he has it.”

“And you’ll let him take it?”

Andrew said nothing.

“Andrew, at this very moment, that bastard’s most likely proclaiming an armistice, passing the order for the armies to stand down.”

“I know.”

“And what are you going to do?”

“Do? My God, Emil, what the hell have I been doing here for the last ten years? We didn’t want to be here. We didn’t want to get dragged into this war. Damn near all the men of our lost regiment have died in this godforsaken hellhole.”

He turned away and backed up to the staircase. “Kathleen, get the children up.”

“Why, Andrew?”

“We’re getting them out of here for the moment.”

He looked back at the young Roum staff officer.

“Get down to the office of Gates’s Weekly. Find Gates, let them know what’s happening, round up some men if you can to hold that position, and don’t let anyone you don’t know into this part of the city.”

He looked up to the top of the stairs where Kathleen was standing, ushering the children out of the bedroom.

“Take the children over to the armory of the Thirty-fifth. They’ll be safer there.”

“Where are you going?”

He reached over to the stand by the door and, taking his sword, clumsily snapped it on, reluctantly allowing Emil to help.

“I’m going to the White House.”

“Why, for God’s sake? Bugarin will kill you.”

Andrew shook his head.

“No. There’s too many old veterans still with him to allow that. We’re going to have a talk.”

“What?”

He paused, looking into his office, where framed over his desk were his two most prized possessions, his commissioning papers as colonel of volunteers, signed by Lincoln, and his Medal of Honor won at Gettysburg, presented by Lincoln as well. Going over to the display case he tore it open, taking out the medal, holding it reverently in his hands for a moment before clumsily pinning it on and heading out the door.

Several more men had come on horse, others were gathering in the town square that looked so strangely like a small piece of New England transported to this alien world.

One of his orderlies, as if reading Andrew’s mind, was leading Mercury out from the stable behind the house. Andrew mounted, Mercury moving easily beneath him, two old companions who had been together for over a decade. Word was spreading rapidly, and from the clapboard houses lining the square he could see the last few of his old companions who were in Suzdal coming out, Webster fumbling to button a uniform that was far too tight among them. From the northeast corner of the square a small detachment came into view, moving at the double … they were boys, cadets serving in the 35th Maine, which was now a training regiment, the West Point of the Republic, the boys too young to be pressed into action at the front. One of them proudly carried the regimental standard. Emil came up by Andrew’s side, having taken a horse from one of the couriers.

“Going to the White House now is madness, Andrew. If Bugarin has indeed seized the government, he’ll kill you on sight.”

Andrew felt a building rage.

Webster came running up, breathing hard.

“Is Kal all right?”

“We’re not sure,” Emil replied.

“Damn all, Andrew, this has gone too far. Seize control of the government now. The men will follow you!”

He delivered the last words with a rhetorical flourish that echoed across the plaza, and a cheer went up in response.

Andrew reined Mercury around hard, his steely gaze silencing the group. Turning, he headed toward the southeast corner of the square, saying nothing as Emil urged his Clydesdale-sized mount up beside him.

As Andrew rounded the corner onto the main street to the great plaza and the White House beyond, he saw that the street was already filling. He rode past the boarded-up theater, a tattered post hanging from the side billboard announcing a performance of King Lear. It caught his attention for a moment, the strangeness of watching Shakespeare performed in Russian on this alien world. The Roum soldiers stationed in Suzdal had been fascinated by Julius Caesar, since the real Caesar was from a time on Earth long after their ancestors had been swept to this world. He remembered as well a final night just before the start of the Merki War and the performance of Henry V.

He rode past, following the broad open boulevard flanked on both sides by ornately carved log buildings three and four stories high, the few older ones that had survived the fires and wars still adorned with gargoylelike images of Tugars. The crowd moved uneasily as he passed; there were no cheers today. Nor was there anger … rather it seemed to be an exhaustion of spirit and soul. It was easy to spot veterans, for nearly everyone was very old, very young, or female, veterans standing out as men on crutches or with empty sleeves. Those that could came to attention and saluted as he passed, but he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead.

“Are you going to fight them?” Emil finally asked, and Andrew said nothing.

“The men are with you. You know that?” Emil nodded behind them. He didn’t need to turn; he could hear the steady tramping of the cadets, the voice of Webster shouting out orders, urging even the veterans by the side of the road to fall in and “support their colonel.”

They passed the office of Gates’s Illustrated Weekly. The publisher was in the street, mounted, waiting, apprentices, printers, the rest of his staff pouring out, some of them carrying rifles or pistols. Gates fell in on Andrew’s flank.

“I thought the press was supposed to be neutral,” Andrew quipped. “What ever happened to the pen being mightier than the sword?”

“Like hell we’re neutral,” the publisher snapped angrily. “He has some senators with him, all of them armed.”

“Any troops?”

“No organized units. But there are some men, a few old boyars and former men-at-arms mostly. I knew we should have killed all of them after that last rebellion.”

“What happened?” Andrew asked.

“Flavius is dead. I know that for a fact; one of my reporters was in the building when it happened. Bugarin didn’t do it, though, at least not by his own hand. Again, it was like the shot at Kal. We don’t know. But once it happened Bugarin rounded up some followers and made straight for the White House. Apparently a few shots were fired there.”

“Kal?”

“No idea. But word is Bugarin dragged in one of the justices and Casmir.”

“So he’s getting himself sworn in,” Emil replied. “If he’s president, we’ve got to fight them, Andrew.”

“I realize that,” Andrew said quietly.

Sometimes the hardest thing was to do nothing, Hans had told him, and he smiled at the thought.

The great central plaza of the city of Suzdal was directly ahead, already filling with the citizens of the city. As he rode to the edge of the square a buzzing hum rose up from the crowd. Behind him Andrew heard Webster shouting for the company of cadets to move forward at the double and clear a path.

Andrew reined in sharply, then turned Mercury sideways. He looked back down the street and saw that several hundred men were now with him. Behind them a crowd was pressing up the street to watch the drama.

Drama, so much history and drama in this square, he thought. The first time we marched in. The day the envoy of the Tugars arrived. The charge against the boyars’ army and then the stand against the Tugars in their final assault. Grand moments, too, the victory parades, the first reading of the Constitution I penned myself, its public ratification and the declaration of the Republic and the inauguration of President Kalenka.

Now this.

He held his hand up, motioning for Webster to stop.

“I want this formation to halt and ground arms,” Andrew said. He spoke softly but firmly.

Webster looked up at him, confused.

“Mr. Webster, you are secretary of the treasury and no longer a soldier of rank with the Thirty-fifth, but I expect you to obey my orders nevertheless. Halt and stand at ease.”

Webster still did not react.

“William. Do you understand me?”

“Yes sir.”

Reluctantly Webster turned and shouted the order. There was a tense moment, several of the men shouting their refusal, but the order was finally carried out. He caught a glimpse of Kathleen in the crowd and forced a smile to try and calm her fears.

“Mr. Gates, you might as well come along as a member of the fourth estate. Emil, well I just want you along as well. Once you get the chance, go inside to check on Kal.”

He saw the colors of the 35th Maine hanging limp in the still morning air. A gentle nudge with his heels, and Mercury edged forward to the head of the column, where the color-bearer stood. The boy came to rigid attention at Andrew’s approach. He looked down and smiled at him.

“Son. do you know the responsibility you have?”

“Yes sir, the souls of the men who died beneath these colors”—he nodded up at the blood-soaked folds—“they float about us now. Their spirits live in the flag.”

The answer caught Andrew off guard and he stiffened. Of course the boy would believe that, he was from Roum. Two thousand years ago their soldiers believed their dead gathered about the standard of the legion.

Was Johnnie now here, Ferguson, Mina, Malady, Whatley, and Kindred, so many others?

Slowly he raised his right hand, eyes focused on the flag, his mind filled with all that it represented. He saluted the colors.

Quickly, before the men could see the emotion that was about to flood out, he turned Mercury about with a nudge of his heels and a whispered command, picked the reins up, and quickly urged the horse to a slow canter. Emil fell in behind him, the doctor cursing under his breath since he hated to ride.

The crowd gathered in the great plaza parted at Andrew’s approach; he could hear his name echoing across the square. As he passed they closed in behind him, surging forward toward the White House.

It was really nothing more than an oversize log structure, typical of ancient Rus, window shutters painted with gay designs, wildly fantastic ornamentation adorning the corners and steeply pitched tile roof. At Kal’s insistence the entire thing had been whitewashed, since after all that was the house a president lived in, a house painted white.

He wondered if poor Kal was still alive in there. His old friend, his first real friend on this world, had changed so much in the last year. It was almost as if a dementia, an exhaustion, had broken him. He at times wondered if Kal had simply been too gentle, too filled with compassion to be a president. Every single death at the front told on him. Barely a day went by when he was not in the cathedral at noonday, attending yet another memorial service for the boy of a friend, an old drinking comrade, or simply because he felt that a president should be there when someone mourned a life given for the Republic.

Andrew remembered how shocked he had been the last time he saw Lincoln, face deeply etched, eyes dark and sunken. When Lincoln noticed the empty sleeve, just a quick sidelong glance, then looked back into his eyes, he felt as if the president was filled with a fatherly desire and prayer that Andrew would be spared from any more agony in service to his country. That was Kal, even more so, and all the man wanted now was for the killing to stop.

And there was the paradox of war, that there were times that in order to save lives the killing must go on.

He reined in by the steps of the executive mansion. A cordon of troops ringed the last few steps into the building, the crowd nervously edging up on the lower level. Emil suddenly blocked his view, swinging his mount in front of Andrew'.

“Doctor, just what the hell are you doing?” Andrew whispered.

“Damn all, Andrew, there could be a sniper in any of those windows up there.”

“I know that, Doctor; now kindly move. The last thing I want at this moment is to see you get hurt.”

Emil reluctantly drew his mount around beside Andrew, but he continued to look up at the building, squinting.

Andrew was motionless, and the seconds dragged out.

“Andrew?”

“Yes?”

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Waiting.”

“For what?”

“Just waiting,” Andrew snapped, his tone making it clear that he didn’t want to talk.

The crowd was pressing around him, an old woman tugged at his leg, he looked down, she spoke too rapidly in Rus for him to understand, her voice drowned out by the rising clamor of the anxious crowd.

Finally, a captain came out the front door, leaving it open, stepped through the cordon of guards, walked down the steps, smartly snapped to attention, and saluted. Andrew recognized him as the officer in charge of Kal’s personal guard.

“Colonel, sir?”

“Good morning. Captain.”

The soldier looked up at him, obviously a bit confused. “Captain, President Kalenka, how is he?”

“Sir, he is still alive. I have placed a double detachment of guards at his door, two officers in his room armed as well.”

“And they’re good men?”

“Sir, I picked them,” the captain announced, hurt by the implication.

Andrew stared at the young officer, gauging him, then nodded.

“And his condition?”

The captain drew closer, coming up to Andrew’s side, the crowd drawing back slightly.

“Not good I’m afraid, sir; the fever’s coming back, his wife says.”

“Damn all,” Emil mumbled.

Andrew nodded, lifted his gaze, staring again at the building.

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Sir, is there anything else?”

“Has Bugarin been sworn in as acting president?”

“Yes sir. Sir, I was ordered by one of his people to remove the guard from President Kalenka and place them around the room Bugarin is in.”

“And you refused?”

“Yes sir, I most certainly did.”

“As colonel in command of the army, I am giving you a personal order, Captain. You are to guard Kalenka with your life.”

“I would do it anyhow, sir.”

“No matter what orders you receive afterward my order to you right now comes first. President Kalenka is to be protected at all cost.”

“I will die before anyone harms him, sir,” the young captain replied fiercely.

“Good, son. Now please go inside and announce to Mr. Bugarin and Metropolitan Casmir that I request to see them, out here.”

This order he announced with raised voice, the command echoing out over the crowd. The square grew hushed.

The captain saluted, hurried inside, and long minutes passed. Finally he returned, alone.

“Colonel Keane, Mr.,” and he hesitated for a second, “Acting President Bugarin says that you are to report to him inside.”

Andrew stiffened.

“As commander of the army I request a public meeting, here in front of the citizens of Suzdal, and tell him I will wait here all damn day if necessary.”

The captain scurried back, and Andrew pitied him, caught between two fires.

“Andrew, are you going to do what I think you’re doing?”

Andrew looked over at Emil and smiled.

The bell in the church tower tolled, marking the passage of time, and finally someone appeared in the door. It was Metropolitan Casmir. He turned, looking back into the White House, obviously shouting something that was unintelligible, then turned and strode down the steps, black robes billowing. He stopped several steps above Andrew, raised his staff, and looked out at the crowd, then made the sign of blessing. Instantly there was silence, everyone going to their knees, blessing themselves. Remaining mounted, Andrew was at eye level with him.

“Has Bugarin been sworn in as acting president?” Andrew asked.

“Yes, Andrew.” His voice was low, barely a whisper. “It was your own Constitution that forced me to do it. Kal, I’m not sure if he will survive. Marcus is dead, Flavius is dead. Bugarin is next in line. The Constitution requires it; I had to bless the ceremony.”

Andrew knew instantly from his tone that Casmir loathed what he had to do.

“Since you are the chief justice, I request that you initiate an investigation into the attempted assassination of the president and the assassination of the Speaker. I doubt seriously if the executive branch will do so. I doubt as well if you could muster the votes in the Senate to remove Bugarin.”

“I will do everything I can, both as a justice and as a priest.”

There was a stir in the crowd. Casmir looked back over his shoulder. Half a dozen guards were in the doorway.

“I told Bugarin I would denounce him as a coward if he didn’t come out to meet you,” Casmir whispered.

Andrew could not help but chuckle.

“Are you going to overthrow him?” Casmir asked, and Andrew sensed the conflict in his friend’s voice.

He said nothing, watching intently as Bugarin appeared in the doorway, strangely wearing the stovepipe hat of Kal, which to this world had become the ceremonial symbol of the president. The guards, all of them older senators, came down the steps, Bugarin in the middle of the group.

They stopped behind Casmir.

Andrew stared at him intently. There was a defiance, but he could sense the fear as well. Was this the man who could engineer not just the assassination of the Speaker but the attempt on the president as well? Did he believe so passionately that the war must end that he would kill, or was he just a pawn as well?

Regardless of what Andrew suspected about how Bugarin had come to power, he was at least for this moment the president of the Republic.

With deliberate slowness Andrew raised his hand and saluted. A hushed whisper ran through the crowd. It was an acknowledgment, they all knew that. He could sense the tension easing out of Bugarin, but there was still a wariness. He heard a mumbled curse; it was Emil who remained defiant, unable to bring himself to salute.

“I wish to see President Kalenka now,” Emil announced, addressing his statement to Casmir and emphasizing the word president.

“I’ll see to it, Emil,” the prelate replied, “and you are under my personal protection.”

Emil looked over at Andrew.

“Just a second,” Andrew whispered.

“For what? To see you kiss his bloody boot?”

Andrew ignored his friend’s defiance.

“May I inquire of the acting president if there are any orders for the army in regards to operations both offensive and defensive.”

He said the words slowly, deliberately, so that all could hear.

“All offensive operations are to cease. I am asking for a cease-fire immediately. We will end this senseless war.”

Again the ripple of voices erupted in the square. This was the moment. The crowd was confused. There was a ripple of cheers, but it lacked depth and enthusiasm. He could hear the rustling of arms back across the square, a muffled order, most likely Webster telling the men there to get ready.

“Sir, if you are ordering me to have the army stand down, I cannot obey that order.”

There was an expectant hush.

Andrew slowly reached down to his side, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. One of the senators started to raise a pistol, cocking it. Casmir turned to face the senators, shouting for them to remain still.

Andrew carefully drew out his sword, a ceremonial blade given to him by Kal and the Congress in recognition of their victory over the Tugars. He made it a point of now saluting with the blade, hilt drawn up before his face, blade vertical, but as he did so he looked up toward the flag gently fluttering atop the White House.

He took a deep breath, steadying himself for what would come next.

Quickly he inverted the blade in his grasp, fumbling slightly with his one hand since he was nervous.

With hilt pointed toward Bugarin he tossed the sword onto the steps so that it clattered by Casmir’s feet.

“I hereby resign my commission with the Army of the Republic,” he cried, voice carrying to the farthest corners of the plaza. “I retire to private life and shall leave this city and the Republic.”

The crowd fell as silent as the grave. Bugarin looked at him startled, unable to react.

Andrew took a deep breath; to his surprise, he felt as if a horrible burden had been lifted.

He half turned his horse away from Bugarin. In his mind the man simply no longer existed.

Andrew looked at the crowd, the upturned faces.

“I gave ten years to this country,” he shouted, his voice echoing. “We came to this world, more than five hundred of us. Over four hundred of them are dead, dying to give you freedom. In those ten years of service and sacrifice, I have learned something.”

He waited a moment, the crowd in the square as silent as the tomb.

“You cannot give freedom to anyone. Each man, each woman must earn it themselves, and then guard it from others who would take it away. Guard it from the hordes, guard it from those who would bow again to the hordes.” As he said the last words, he nodded toward the White House.

He looked straight back at Bugarin.

“I am now a private citizen and as a private citizen I say this to you. I expect the health of our beloved President Kalenka to be guarded at all cost. If he should die, for whatever reason, you will have to answer to me personally.”

Bugarin blanched at the direct threat but said nothing. With a deliberate show of contempt, Andrew turned his back without waiting for a reply and again faced the crowd.

“To those who were my friends, who fought for freedom, I thank you. As for the rest.” He hesitated remembering Davy Crockett’s famous farewell statement. “Well, I pity you, for if you surrender, you will surely die. Farewell.”

With head held high he started to ride back toward his home and felt a lightness within he had not known in years. He had done his duty, he had wrestled with the desire to take it all, an act he knew he could have done. He had not stained himself, and he had not destroyed the Republic. If the Republic was doomed to die, it would be other hands that destroyed his dream and not his own. By doing nothing more at this moment he felt that he had performed one of the most important duties of his career.

As he passed the spell around him broke, voices erupting, some shouting for him to stay, others calling to fight, others shouting that the war was over. Gates, riding by his side, looked at him, gape-mouthed.

“What about the war?” Gates finally asked.

Andrew smiled.

“They have three days down in Tyre before word can ever get to them. It’s beyond my control now.”

“God protect Hans and Vincent.” Gates sighed.

“Yes,” Andrew replied, lowering his head. “God protect us all.”

“Where are you going?”

“North; I’ll leave the city tomorrow.”

Chapter Nine

Hans had told him he would enjoy it, and he was right. He had never liked horses all that much. An officer was expected to ride, and so he did, but trying to keep a comfortable seat aboard a monster the size of a Clydesdale was impossible, especially after the wound to his hip.

Riding an ironclad was different. It bounced the guts out of him as they rumbled up and down over the vast undulating plains, but at the moment he didn’t care … he was back in action, and that’s what counted.

Cresting a low bluff the driver down below halted their machine. To Vincent’s left, sprawled on the ground, were half a dozen Bantag, torn apart by Gatling fire, their mounts dead as well. The Hornet that had done the job came sweeping back from the east, wagging its wings as it passed overhead, most likely returning back to base, its ammunition spent.

Moving stiffly, Vincent turned, holding the side of the turret, letting his legs dangle over the side of the machine, and he dropped clumsily to the ground. It was good to be out of the machine. The open hatch atop the turret tended to act as a chimney, drawing heat up from the main deck below, where the boiler was. The dry sage crackled beneath his feet, the pungent smell clearing away the stench of hot oil and kerosene.

He raised his field glasses. Far ahead, several miles away, he could see them, six umens identified so far, sixty thousand mounted warriors of the Horde … and all of them confused as hell.

The breakout had started at dawn. A rocket barrage of five hundred rounds had preceded the attack, and then fifty-two ironclads led the way. They’d lost six in that opening assault, but within minutes their firepower, combined with the support of twenty Hornets, had torn a gaping hole in the Bantag lines a mile wide, the enemy fleeing in disorganized panic.

Following them had come the entire 3rd Corps, moving by regiments in a huge block formation, the same system Hans had used the year before during the withdrawal from the Green Mountains. But this time they had additional artillery with them, wagons for supplies, in addition to the Gatlings aboard the ironclads and in the air.

It was a different kind of warfare for a different age, Vincent realized. Varinna had grasped that, and it was beginning to crystallize in his own mind. This was more like ships maneuvering at sea than the old style of battles on land. Keep the ironclads together except for a dozen scattered around the square of 3rd Corps to provide fire support and to act as rally points.

An ironclad ground up the slope beside him and came to a stop, steam hissing from the safety valve, the top door open, a head sticking out.

“Bastards don’t know what to do!” Timokin grinned, sitting up in the turret of his machine and wiping his face with a sweat-stained rag. He climbed out and dropped to the ground next to Vincent. Other machines were climbing the slope behind them, moving in a giant V formation a half mile wide. It was a grand sight, smoke billowing, cleated wheels cutting into the dry turf, gun ports open, three-inch rifles and Gatlings protruding and ready for action.

Behind them all of 3rd Corps was marching in open block formation. Just inside the giant square six batteries moved at an easy pace, ready to swing out and deploy if needed, while in the center of the vast square were the wagons loaded down with extra fuel, ammunition, and medical supplies. The lone regiment of mounted troopers weaved back and forth outside the square along the flanks and rear, troopers occasionally reining in to trade a couple of shots with Bantag riders who ventured too close to the formation. Overhead four Hornets circled lazily, ready to swoop down if the Bantag should try to venture a charge.

He could sense the exhilaration in the ranks. Third Corps had stayed in Tyre throughout the winter, avoiding the gutting of the army at Roum and the disaster at Capua. If anything, the men had felt abandoned, forgotten on a secondary front, and after nine months in the siege lines were glorying in a chance to prove something.

Gregory offered Vincent his canteen, and he gladly took it. He had drained his own canteen hours ago and pride had kept him from asking for more water from his crew below, who were suffering in far worse heat. Too many months behind a desk he realized.

The water was hot, but he didn’t care, rinsing the oily taste out of his mouth and then taking a long gulp.

“This is a damn sight better than Capua,” Gregory said, wincing slightly when Vincent tossed the canteen back. “Type of country these machines were made for. not the tangle of trenches and traps up north.”

Vincent nodded in agreement.

He continued to scan the enemy. Plumes of dust were rising from the west several miles behind the column. They are most likely detaching more troops away from Tyre to follow, he thought. Maybe even abandoning the siege completely except for a small covering force, figure to pin us out here with everything they have and wipe us out.

In spite of Gregory’s enthusiasm and the fact that he had planned this operation himself, Vincent did feel a shiver of nervousness. It was one thing to calculate all this out on paper and maps; it was another thing to be out here now. Hans had been right, it was different down here. North, in Roum, the land was settled: There were roads, villas, towns, the typical orderliness of the Roum, everything squared off and proper. This was vast unsettled land, undulating prairie as far as the eye could see, like what he imagined Kansas or the Nebraska Territory to be. A place for the ironclads, but not for a column of infantry on foot.

It was a strange balance. The Bantag did not have a single ironclad on this front. The few rocket launchers they had were expended, and none of their artillery could stand in the open against the attack. Yet once mounted they could ride rings around the machines and the marching column of 3rd Corps. He looked back to the west, where 3rd Corps, nearly eleven thousand men, were moving through the dry knee-high grass, looking like an undulating blue wave traversing a green-brown sea.

Neither side could now come to grips with the other.

The Bantags did have one serious advantage, though—they could chose the place to stand and fight. He could not. They had mobility both tactically and strategically, his side had the firepower. If they could bring up firepower as well, it could turn deadly. And that was part of the plan as well.

He walked in front of his machine, surveying the ground, remembering the maps he had studied so intently that they were' etched clearly in his mind. They were just under twenty miles out from Tyre, a damn good march for the first day. A shallow stream was directly ahead, several hundred yards down the slope, its water dark and muddied by the passing of the Horde riders.

“We camp here,” Vincent announced.

“We’ve still got four hours or more of daylight, we could make another eight to ten miles.”

Vincent shook his head.

“No. This is far enough. Besides, I want the men dug in, stockade with sod walls, and we’ve got water down there for the night. The next stream is six miles farther on, and if the Bantags have any sense, they’ll fight us for it.”

“Grand, and we chew them apart.”

“There’s time for that, plenty of time,” Vincent said absently. “Let the pressure build some more first. Besides, we’re not the main show, that’s Hans’s job. Remember, we’re the diversion, the bait. We bed down early tonight, do a hard march tomorrow, and should nearly reach the head of the rail line they’re driving west from the Great Sea. Jurak has undoubtedly figured by now that we are attacking here. He might already have dispatched troops and ironclads from Xi’an and Fort Hancock to converge and meet us in defense of that rail line. Let’s give him time to get there and make the show easier for Hans.”

Hans. He pulled out his watch. He should be hitting just about now, he thought. God help him.

* * *

It wasn’t the time to vomit but the last two hours had been pure hell. Leaning over weakly, he retched, but there was nothing left to give. The ship bucked and surged, rising up on another thermal of hot air, then plunging back down.

“Is that Xi’an?” Jack shouted.

“What?”

“Damn it, Hans, pull yourself together.”

He nodded bleakly, looking forward. They’d been over land for the last hour, bisecting the arcing curve of the river up to Xi’an. The cloud cover had been building since early afternoon, forcing them to drop lower, Jack expressing increasing anxiety about the prospect of a thunderstorm. If a storm did come up, it could wipe out the entire mission.

Hans raised his field glasses, bracing his elbows on the forward panel, trying to compensate for the unceasing motion of the airship, which was bobbing like a cork on a windswept sea.

It had to be it. In spite of the surging motion of the ship he caught glimpses of a vast walled compound, ships anchored, and for a brief instant a place that looked all too chillingly familiar, the small fortress village half a dozen miles below Xi’an, where he had holed up after escaping from the slave camps. The aerosteamer steadied for a moment, and the world beneath him seemed to come into sharp focus. The city was spread out along the east bank of the river, ancient brick walls glowing red in the late-afternoon sun.

Dozens of ships lined the docks below the bluffs, most of them galleys, several steamers, the rest traditional Chin junks. A dark seething mass swarmed the docks, looking like a stirred-up nest of ants … Chin slaves. From the air the city had a fairy-tale quality to it, a towering pagoda in the center, buildings with steeply pitched red-tile roofs, dozens of small temples dotting the skyline. Yet as he steadied his field glasses he could sense, more than actually see, that a fair part of the city was abandoned, derelict homes, weed-choked streets, collapsed roofs. Even as they labored for their masters the pathetic residents of Xi’an were dying, chosen for the moon feast, transported to work on the railroads, factories, and supply lines, or simply worked to death.

Checking again on the village where he had fought off the Bantag till help arrived, he gauged the distance up the river. There was no doubt about it: They were approaching Xi’an, main supply base for the Bantag Horde, the transition point for supplies coming from the heart' of the Chin realm.

Two hundred miles eastward was that black heart of the Bantag Empire, the vast prison camps and factories where millions of Chin slaves labored to support the war. That heart was his ultimate goal, but first he had to seize this city. Everything the Bantag made to support their war effort had to come through here, off-loading from the trains to be loaded on ships that would transport it across the Great Sea, five hundred miles northward to be off-loaded yet again for the final run to Capua. This was the weak link in that vast chain.

This was the linchpin of Varinna’s plan. A raid deep into the realm of the Bantag to seize the docks, sink the ships, burn the supplies—to cut the precious lifeline. Vincent was the diversion, to present Jurak with two threats, the prospect of their seizing a base on the Great Sea and with luck draw off some forces before his own raid struck. If Vincent was successful, all the better.

“Where do we land?” Jack cried.

“Damned if I know,” Hans replied. “Can’t you remember?”

“I only flew over the damned place once, and that was a year ago. The second time I flew to where you were, then got the hell out. Damn it, Hans, we should have sent in at least one reconnaissance flight before doing this.”

Hans shook his head. One such flight might have tipped their hand. This one was going to be blind.

“Think they’re on to us?” Jack asked.

“Have to be by now; they must have coast watchers reporting us coming in.”

The city was just several miles out. Hans anxiously scanned the riverbanks, looking for a place to touch down that was close enough that they could directly storm the harbor area.

Nothing.

“We’re losing another ship.”

It was their top gunner calling in.

“She’s going down. Damn, it’s a Bantag flyer!”

His voice was drowned out by the staccato roar of a Gatling, the vibration of the topside gun firing shaking the cabin.

Jack held the ship steady, still aimed straight at the city, while anxiously scanning the sky above, looking for the enemy ship.

“There, north of the city wall, looks like an airfield!” Hans cried.

“That’s it then! We’re going in!” Jack shouted. He nosed the ship down, picking up speed.

“Got him! He’s breaking to starboard. He’s burning!”

Hans leaned forward, looking out the side window and caught a glimpse of a twin-engine airship, trailing fire, going down.

“Topside, how many still with us?”

“Somewhere around thirty-five I think.”

Hans said nothing. Better than he hoped but still only 350 men.

They dropped through two thousand feet, the wires on the wings singing.

Hans cleared the speaker tube to the cargo department.

“Ketswana, get ready!”

“About time.”

Engines howling, the airship leveled out a hundred feet above the marshy western shore, then turned as they reached the river just south of the city and started to race straight in. Straight ahead he could see startled faces looking up, Chin slaves on the docks and around the warehouses, hands raised, pointing at the incoming assault. A scattering of Bantag were running along the walls. A stream of tracers snapped past the open window, startling Hans, it was one of the gunners flying behind them sweeping the walls.

“Fly us over the ships, then bank around into the airfield,” Hans shouted.

“Why?”

“I want the Chin on the docks to see our insignia so they know what the hell is happening.”

Jack banked the ship, turning more easterly, heading straight in toward the city, then banked over sharply, port-side wing dropping down. They were directly above the docks lining the river below the city walls, white stars of the Republic exposed on the bottom side of the wings, an insignia clearly different than the human skulls of the Bantag. In spite of the howling of the engines and the shriek of the wind, he distinctly heard thousands of voices rising up, excited cries of hope.

The nausea was gone, he hung on, watching as land, river, city, and sky wheeled in front of him. A bullet snapped through the cabin, shattering a window, glass flying.

They leveled out, heading straight toward a row of galleys berthed side by side, each of them loaded down with two land ironclads. A steamer, looking vaguely like an old-style Mississippi riverboat, towing two barges was out in the middle of the river, barges loaded down with crates behind it, heading downstream. Again the staccato roar of the Gatling from above; tracers tore into the first barge. It ignited in a towering fireball, debris soaring hundreds of feet heavenward.

“God damn that idiot!” Jack screamed, banking away from the explosion. “Cease fire up there!”

The boy was shouting with joy, tracers sweeping into the second barge, igniting the ammunition aboard that one as well. It looked like a vast fireworks show gone berserk. Jack continued to turn away, flying up over the top of the city wall, gape-mouthed Bantag looking straight up. Swarms of Chin on the docks were running, panic-stricken.

Hans was filled with a mad exhilaration, holding on to the side railing as Jack banked sharply in the opposite direction, leveling out, sweeping along the city wall, Bantag so close below that Hans could not resist the urge to stick his hand out the side window and offer a universal rude gesture. He was tempted to man the forward gun but knew he had to stay focused on the battle. Down in the narrow twisting lanes of the tightly packed city he could see hundreds pouring out of buildings into the streets, pointing.

They reached the northwest corner of the wall. The airfield was less than a quarter mile ahead, but now they were coming in at a right angle to the long axis. A Bantag air machine was starting to lift off, crawling into the sky, turning toward them.

Jack slammed the throttles back, banked to the west out over the river again until they reached the opposite shore. He then slapped the wheel in the opposite direction. The airship seemed to stand on its starboard wing as it pivoted, turning to line up on an easterly heading, aiming straight at the airfield. Jack eased the throttles back even farther.

Hans lost sight of the Bantag airship, felt a shudder, and caught a glimpse of a tracer snapping past, return fire from above. As they turned, he saw one of their aerosteamers going down, port wing folding up, caught in the fireball explosion of the barges, the machine falling like a moth with a wing torn off. The ship crashed into the river, the blue glow of a hydrogen fire soaring up, consuming the canvas and wicker framework.

The sky was filled with airships, flying about like a swarm of confused and angry bees, heading in every possible direction. The Bantag airship flew right through the middle, tracers streaking in from all points of the compass as a score or more gunners fired on it. The Bantag machine exploded and crashed into the dock, striking down dozens of Chin. Another ball snapped through the cabin past Hans’s head, fired from one of their own ships in all the confusion.

“This is gonna be tight!” Jack shouted, as they lined up on the airfield.