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The Dread Empire of the Shaa is no more, following the death of the last oppressor. But freedom remains elusive for the myriad sentient races enslaved for 10 centuries, as an even greater terror arises. The Naxids–a powerful insectoid species themselves subjugated until the recent Shaa demise–plan to fill the vacuum with their own bloody domination, and have already won a shattering victory with superior force and unimaginable cruelty. But two heroes survived the carnage at Magaria: Lord Gareth Martinez and the fiery, mysterious gun pilot Lady Caroline Sula, whose courageous exploits are becoming legend in the new history of galactic civil war. Yet their cunning, skill, and bravery may be no match for the overwhelming enemy descending upon the loyalist stronghold of Zanshaa, as the horrific battle looms that will determine the structure of the universe–and who shall live to inhabit it–for millennia to come.
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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't much 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 Lord Richard Li when, a little over two months ago, it had joined the Home Fleet on a furious series of accelerations that eventually flung it through a course of wormhole gates toward the enemy lying in wait at Magaria.
The enemy had been ready for them, and Sula was now the sole survivor of the crew of the Dauntless. Delhi, the heavy cruiser that had pulled Sula's pinnace out of the wreckage of defeat, had been so badly damaged that it was a minor 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 to decelerate, dock with the ring station at Zanshaa, take on fresh supplies of missiles and antimatter fuel, then commence yet another series of accelerations to give them the velocity necessary 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 experience the equivalent of a large, full-grown man sitting on her chest.
The decelerationalarm rang, the ship gave a series of long, prolonged groans, and Sula gasped with relief as the invisible man who squatted on her rose and walked away. Dinnertime, a whole hour at a wonderfully liberating 0.6 gravities, time to stretch her ligaments and fight the painful knots in her muscles. After that, she'd have to stand a watch in Auxiliary Command, which was the only place she could stand a watch now that Command was destroyed, along with Delhi'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 and came to her feet, suddenly light-headed as her heart tried to make yet another adjustment to her blood pressure. She wrenched off her helmet—she was required to spend times of acceleration in a pressure suit—and took a breath of air that wasn't completely saturated by her own stink. She rolled her head on her neck and felt her vertebrae crackle, and then peeled off the medicinal patch behind her ear, the one that fed her drugs that better enabled her to stand high gravities.
She wondered if she had time for a shower, and decided she did.
The others were finishing dinner when, in a clean pair of borrowed coveralls, Sula approached the officers' table while sticking another med patch behind her ear. The officers now ate in the enlisted galley, their own wardroom having been destroyed; and because their private stocks of food and liquor had also been blown to bits they shared the enlisted fare. As the steward brought her dinner, Sula observed that it consisted entirely of flat food, which is what happened to anything thrown in an oven and then subjected to five hours' constant deceleration at three gravities.
Sula inhaled the stale aroma of a flattened, highly compressed vegetable casserole, then washed the first bite down with a flat beverage—the steward knew to serve her water instead of the wine or beer that were the usual dinner drink of the officer class.
Lieutenant Lord Jeremy Foote was in the chair opposite her, his immaculate viridian-green uniform a testament to the 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 living in his own stench any more than she did, but her words caused 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, "I thought perhaps you'd been viewing your latest letter from Captain Martinez."
Sula's heart gave a little sideways lurch at the mention of Martinez's name, and she hoped her reaction hadn't showed. She was in the process of composing a reply when the acting captain, Morgen, interrupted.
"Martinez?" he said. "Martinez of the Corona?"
"Indeed yes," Foote said. His drawl, which spoke of generations of good breeding and privilege, took on a malicious edge, and it was carefully pitched to carry to the next table of recruits. "He sends messages to our young Sula nearly every day. And she replies as often, passionate messages from the depth of her delicate heart. It's touching, great romance in 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 be embarrassing: 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, and when she did she pitched her voice to carry, as Foote had done. "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. Copyright © by Walter Williams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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