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Dread Empire's Fall
The defeated squadron was locked in its deceleration burn, the blazing fury of its torches directed toward the capital at Zanshaa. Bombardment of Delhi groaned and shuddered under the strain of over three gravities. At times the shaking and shivering was so violent that the woman called Caroline Sula wondered if the damaged cruiser would hold together.
After so many brutal days of deceleration, she didn'tmuch care if it did or not.
Sula was no stranger to the hardships of pulling hard gee.She had been aboard the Dauntless under Captain LordRichard Li when, a little over two months ago, it had joinedthe Home Fleet on a furious series of accelerations thateventually flung it through a course of wormhole gates towardthe enemy lying in wait at Magaria.
The enemy had been ready for them, and Sula was nowthe sole survivor of the crew of the Dauntless. Delhi, theheavy cruiser that had pulled Sula's pinnace out of thewreckage of defeat, had been so badly damaged that it was aminor miracle it survived the battle at all.
All six survivors of the squadron were low on ammunition,and would be useless in the event of a fight. They had todecelerate, dock with the ring station at Zanshaa, take onfresh supplies of missiles and antimatter fuel, then commenceyet another series of accelerations to give them the velocitynecessary to avoid destruction should an enemy arrive.
That meant even more months of standing up under three or four or more gravities, months in which Sula would experiencethe equivalent of a large, full-grown man sitting onher chest.
The deceleration alarm rang, the ship gave a series oflong, prolonged groans, and Sula gasped with relief as theinvisible man who squatted on her rose and walked away.Dinnertime, a whole hour at a wonderfully liberating 0.6gravities, time to stretch her ligaments and fight the painfulknots in her muscles. After that, she'd have to stand a watchin Auxiliary Command, which was the only place she couldstand a watch now that Command was destroyed, along withDelhi's captain and a pair of lieutenants.
Weariness dragged at her eyelids, at her heart. Sula released the webs that held her to the acceleration couch andcame to her feet, suddenly light-headed as her heart tried tomake yet another adjustment to her blood pressure. Shewrenched off her helmet—she was required to spend timesof acceleration in a pressure suit—and took a breath of airthat wasn't completely saturated by her own stink. Sherolled her head on her neck and felt her vertebrae crackle,and then peeled off the medicinal patch behind her ear, theone that fed her drugs that better enabled her to stand highgravities.
She wondered if she had time for a shower, and decidedshe did.
The others were finishing dinner when, in a clean pair ofborrowed coveralls, Sula approached the officers' tablewhile sticking another med patch behind her ear. The officersnow ate in the enlisted galley, their own wardroom havingbeen destroyed; and because their private stocks of foodand liquor had also been blown to bits they shared the enlistedfare. As the steward brought her dinner, Sula observedthat it consisted entirely of flat food, which is what happenedto anything thrown in an oven and then subjected tofive hours' constant deceleration at three gravities.
Sula inhaled the stale aroma of a flattened, highly compressed vegetable casserole, then washed the first bite downwith a flat beverage—the steward knew to serve her waterinstead of the wine or beer that were the usual dinner drinkof the officer class.
Lieutenant Lord Jeremy Foote was in the chair oppositeher, his immaculate viridian-green uniform a testament tothe industry of his servants.
"You're late," he said.
"I bathed, my lord," Sula said. "You might try it sometime."
This was a libel, since probably Foote didn't enjoy livingin his own stench any more than she did, but her wordscaused the acting captain to suppress a grin.
Foote's handsome face showed no reaction to Sula's jab.Instead he gave a close-lipped, catlike smile, and said, "Ithought perhaps you'd been viewing your latest letter fromCaptain Martinez."
Sula's heart gave a little sideways lurch at the mention ofMartinez's name, and she hoped her reaction hadn't showed.She was in the process of composing a reply when the actingcaptain, Morgen, interrupted.
"Martinez?" he said. "Martinez of the Corona?"
"Indeed yes," Foote said. His drawl, which spoke of generationsof good breeding and privilege, took on a maliciousedge, and it was carefully pitched to carry to the next tableof recruits. "He sends messages to our young Sula nearlyevery day. And she replies as often, passionate messagesfrom the depth of her delicate heart. It's touching, great romancein the tradition of a derivoo singer."
Morgen looked at her. "You and Martinez are, ah ..."
Sula didn't know why this revelation was supposed to beembarrassing: Lord Gareth Martinez was one of the few heroes the war had produced, at least on the loyalist side, and unlike most of the others was still in the realm of the living.
Sula ate a piece of flattened hash before replying, andwhen she did she pitched her voice to carry, as Foote haddone. "Oh, Martinez and I are old friends," she said, "but my Lord Lieutenant Foote is always inventing romances for me.It's his way of explaining why I won't sleep with him."
That one hit: she saw a twitch in Foote's eyelid ...The Sundering
Dread Empire's Fall. Copyright © by Walter Williams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from The Sundering: Dread Empire's Fall by Walter J. Williams
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