Authors: Walter Jon Williams
For Kathy Hedges
With thanks to Dr. Michael Wester, for his tour along the hull of a dynamical system, and to Critical Mass for their massive critiques.
Warrant Officer Severin avoided the glances of his crew. He…
The defeated squadron was locked in its deceleration burn, the…
Maurice Chen stepped onto the terrace outside the Hall of…
Perfect porcelain glazes floated through Sula’s mind, the blue-green celadon…
After Corona had finished a pair of high-gee turns around…
Martinez welcomed Corona’s new captain with all the grace he…
Sula walked to Martinez amid the throng in the Shelley…
Martinez was amused that Sula kept getting up during the…
Sula watched as the juggler spun and danced in the…
Martinez wandered through the Yoshitoshi Palace in a kind of…
That the Convocation was to take Wormhole 2 to Zarafan…
Steadied by the arm of the rigger who helped him…
Lady Michi’s dining room was large enough for the formal…
As Goddess of the Records Office, Sula worked to cover…
The day after the ring was destroyed Sula took the…
Warrant Officer Shushanik Severin thought of the cooking oil in…
Ten days after the fall of the ring, the first…
Cousin Marcia gave birth to a boy two days after…
By the time they arrived in their own home area…
arrant Officer Severin avoided the glances of his crew. He had led them into this misery, and now he was unable to lead them out.
The cockpit window of the lifeboat was covered in frost, delicate white clusters of frozen spears that reflected the red light of the Maw, the supernova ejecta that formed a giant scarlet ring which dominated the Protipanu system. The lifeboat was grappled to the nickel-iron asteroid 302948745AF, which was receding from the Protipanu 2 wormhole gate, and from the enemy fleet that guarded it.
The problem was that 302948745AF wasn’t receding nearly fast enough. If Severin ordered the lifeboat away from the asteroid, he’d be detected by the ten enemy warships in the system and either captured or destroyed. But if he did nothing, he and his crew would run out of food, or possibly even die of cold.
At the time, his plan had seemed the height of cleverness and high strategic thought. He had been in command of the Protipanu 2 wormhole relay station when Captain Martinez of the
fleeing a Naxid squadron, reported that the rebels would enter the system within a matter of hours. Severin had first of all used a trick of physics to physically move Wormhole 2, which caused the pursuing Naxids to miss their target and to spend months of frenzied deceleration trying to claw their way back into the system. Perhaps Severin had been rendered overconfident by this success, because he’d then talked his crew of six into remaining in the system as observers, grappling their lifeboat to the asteroid in order to keep watch on the enemy forces and report their location to any loyalist fleet that might jump through the wormhole to do battle.
Only no loyalist fleet had arrived. That there
loyalist fleets was proven by the fact that the Naxid enemy remained in the barren system, barring the most direct route from the capital, Zanshaa, to Third Fleet headquarters at Felarus. If the rebels had won the war, they surely would have left by now, gone to somewhere more useful…instead they made a lazy orbit around the Protipanu brown dwarf, and had filled the system with a bewildering array of decoys designed to mislead any force coming to engage them.
And so Severin remained grappled to his rock, and his crew with him. The lifeboat’s systems were powered down to avoid enemy sensors spotting a heat signature, and the crew wore several layers of clothing and draped around themselves silvery thermal blankets that made them look like walking tents. Their breath blossomed out before their faces in a white mist, and frost coated the walls and cockpit windows. Frozen white rimed the beards of the men and the eyelashes of the women.
Thus far Severin’s crew hadn’t complained, and they had offered him no reproaches. Sometimes they were even cheerful, which was remarkable under the circumstances. They had exercise equipment to keep them fit and a full library of entertainments. But Severin reproached
—reproached himself for coming up with the scheme in the first place, and then for failing to provision the lifeboat for as many months as he could. Six months’ rations had seemed plenty at the time, but now he was beginning to wonder if he should reduce the number of calories the crew were consuming. And if he did that, the reproaches, both from himself and from his crew, would begin in earnest.
And so Severin avoided the glances of his crew, and counted the days.
No loyalist fleet came.
A pity, because if they ever arrived, Severin could teach them a great deal.
he 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
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
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
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 deceleration alarm 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.
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
stand a watch now that Command was destroyed, along with
’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
“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
That one hit: she saw a twitch in Foote’s eyelid. Again the acting captain suppressed a smile. “Well, I hope you’re saying good things about us,” he said.
Sula fixed Foote with her green eyes and replied in tone-perfect imitation of his drawl. “
of you,” she said. She took a drink of water. “By the way,” she said, “I wonder how Lord Lieutenant Foote comes to know of my correspondence?”
“I’m the censor,” Foote said. His smiling white teeth were perfectly even. “I view every torrid moment of your outgoing videos.”
“There’s still censorship?” Sula was surprised by the inanity of it. “Doesn’t Foote have better things to do?” They crewed a wrecked cruiser, with most of its officers dead, few of its weapons functioning, and the forward third of the ship a half-melted ruin, torn open to the vacuum of space. Surely one of the few remaining officers could find better use for his time than poking into her correspondence.
Morgen’s round face took on a solemn caste. “Censorship is more important now than ever, my lady. We’ve got to keep word of what happened at Magaria from spreading.”
Sula hastily washed down a piece of flat bread in order to unleash her reply. “Spreading to
?” she said. “The
? The enemy know
they massacred forty-eight of our ships! They know we only have six ships left in the Home Fleet, and they’ve got to know the
’s a wreck.”
Morgen lowered his voice, as if encouraging Sula not to spread this news to the enlisted personnel, who knew it perfectly well. “We have to prevent panic from spreading in the civilian population,” he said.
Sula gave an acid laugh. “No, we can’t have the civilians panicking. Not the
civilians, anyway.” She gave Foote a cynical look. “I’m sure our honorable censor’s family is panicking
right at this very moment
. The only difference between them and the general population is that Clan Foote is going to panic their way into a
I’m sure their money’s moving all over the exchanges, and it’s being converted into…” Her invention failed her. “…into, ah, convertible things, to be carried to the safer corners of the empire to await a brighter dawn. Perhaps they’re even being carried in the current Lord Foote’s very own pillowcase.”
“My lord great-uncle,” Foote said quietly, “is too ill to leave his palace on Zanshaa.”
“His heir, then,” Sula said. “The point of the censorship is that we Peers are going to have a monopoly on the information necessary to survive whatever’s coming. Everyone who doesn’t belong to our order is expected to continue their normal lives, making money for the Peers, right up to the point where a Naxid fleet shows up and starts raining antimatter bombs out of the sky.
maybe they’ll be allowed to notice that the media reports were less than candid.”
The acting captain pitched his voice even lower. “Sublieutenant my Lady Sula, I think this is not a suitable topic for the dinner table.”
Sula felt her lips quirk in amusement. “As my lord wishes,” she said. Probably Morgen’s relations were going to do well out of this, too.
Sula’s relations would not, for the simple reason that she didn’t have any. She was in the nearly unprecedented position of being a Peer without any money or influence. Though the title of Lady Sula made her the theoretical head of the entire Sula Clan, there
no Sula Clan, no property, and no money save for a modest trust fund that had been set up by some friends of the late Lord Sula. She had only got into the Fleet because her position as a Peer gave her automatic place in one of the academies. She had no patron either in the service or outside it.
Deplorable though it was, her position nevertheless gave her a unique insight into how the Peers actually worked. The alien Shaa, who had bloodily conquered the Terrans, Naxids, and other species who made up the empire, had created the order of Peers as an intermediary between themselves and the great mass of their subjects. Now that the last of the Shaa was dead, the Peers were in charge—and had managed to land-crash into a civil war within bare months of their last overlord’s demise.
Sula was surprised it had taken them that long. So far as she could tell, the Peers acted exactly as one might expect from a class who had a near monopoly on power, their fingers in every profitable business, and who with their clients owned almost everything. The only check on their rapacity was the Legion of Diligence, who would massacre anyone whose avarice became too uninhibited—as, in fact, they had massacred the last Lord and Lady Sula.
The Peers, Sula observed, seemed to act out of naked self-interest. But for some reason it was impolite to actually say so.
Sula finished her flat food, then called a chronometer onto her sleeve display and wondered if she had enough time to look at her mail before suiting up to stand her watch.
She decided she had enough time.
Sula returned to her cabin, one that had originally belonged to a petty officer who had been killed at Magaria, and which still contained most of his belongings. She snapped on the video display with her right thumb, an action that caused a sudden sharp sting. She snatched her hand away, and as the display flashed on she inspected the thick scar tissue on the pad of her thumb. After the battle, in the course of conducting urgent repairs, her thumb had come into contact with a pipe of superheated coolant, and though the wound had healed, a wrong movement could still send pain shrieking along the length of her arm.
She tucked the thumb carefully into her palm and paged through menus with her index finger until she found her mail.
Only one message, from Lieutenant Captain Lord Gareth Martinez, three days in transit via powerful communications lasers. She opened the message.
managed to bungle another exercise,” he said wearily. His broad-shouldered figure was slumped in a chair—he, like Sula, had been suffering from many days of high gee, and his weariness showed it. His viridian uniform tunic was unbuttoned at the throat. He had a lantern jaw, thick brows, and olive skin; his provincial accent was heavy enough to send razor blades skating up Sula’s nerves.
When they had first met, before the war, they had come together briefly, then came explosively apart. It was all Sula’s fault, she felt: she’d been too panicked, too paranoid, too far out of her depth. She’d spent the next several months hiding from him. A conceited son of privilege like Foote was someone she could cope with; Martinez was something else again.
If they were lucky enough to come together once more, she wasn’t going to let them blow apart ever again.
“I said by
!” Martinez said. “What’s the
“Sorry, my lord!” Fingers punching the display. “That’s zero-one-seven, my lord.”
“Pilot, rotate ship.”
was already a little late.
“Ship rotated, my lord. New heading two-two-seven by zero-one-seven.”
“Engines, prepare to fire engines.”
“Missile flares!” called the two sensor operators in unison. “Enemy missiles fired!”
“Power up point-defense lasers.”
“Point-defense lasers powering, lord elcap.”
Martinez realized he’d been sufficiently distracted by the announcement of the enemy missiles that’s he’d forgotten to order the engines to fire. He leaned forward in his couch to give emphasis to the order, and his command cage creaked as it swung on its gimbals.
“Engines,” he said. “Fire engines.”
And then he remembered he’d forgotten something else.
“Weapons,” he added, “this is a drill.”
After the drill was over, after the virtual displays faded from Martinez’s mind and the leaden sense of failure rose yet again in his thoughts, he looked out over Command and saw the crew as silent and miserable as he was.
Too many of them were new. Two-thirds of
’s crew had been on board for less than a month, and though they were taking to their new jobs reasonably well, they were far from proficient. Sometimes he wished he’d had only his old crew—the skeleton crew with which he’d saved
from capture during the first hours of the Naxid revolt. When he now looked back on that escape—the tension, the uncertainty, the hard accelerations, the terror induced by pursuing enemy missiles—all that now seemed painted in the warm, familiar tones of nostalgia. In the emergency he and the crew had reacted with a brilliance, a certainty that neither he nor they had matched since.