Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

Save the rum.

If nothing else, Subcommander Liam Blackwood thought to himself as he hung on to the arms of his chair, save the rum. He steadied the bottle on the wardroom table as the entire deck shook again. If artificial gravity failed, every untethered object on board would become a missile. And rum was just too precious to risk. Ignoring the concerned glances of the other officers, he pulled himself to his feet and placed the bottle back in its cupboard. All around the tiny space, dishes and other formal trappings of officer life rattled against their restraints.

The door slid open and he heard the thumps of someone entering the wardroom.

"XO, sir." There was a pleading in that voice, he could hear. "The captain intends to continue with full sail."

Yes, he did, Liam thought quietly to himself. And the stupid, arrogant bastard was unwilling to listen to his propulsion officer. Why did Liam always get saddled with the idiots?

"Sir," came another voice. "Do you think the ship will hold together?"

Having finally succeeded in neutralizing his expression, Liam turned to his officers. Lieutenant Mason Swift, who had spoken first, stared at him from the wardroom doorway. His complexion had gone ashen, from the tip of his chin to the top of his shaved head. Half a dozen more officers gripped their chairs around the dining table, all dressed in full blue coats and ruffled shirts as befitted a formal dinner. A pair of liveried stewards hung on to the fixed shelves on the forward bulkhead. The meal had started out as a pleasant affair, but what had begun as just an uncomfortable swell of solar winds had grown over the past hour into something far more dangerous.

Liam cast his eyes around the room, knowing that none of the officers or crew present were senior enough to truly understand how the nobility worked. Military professionalism was what they were used to, and that wasn't what they were dealing with here. The captain was from one of the great houses, and he wouldn't listen to anyone. He didn't know how to.

If the lord captain wanted to get them all killed, that was his prerogative.

But Liam was the executive officer, and it was his duty to advise the captain whether he liked it or not. Sighing inwardly, he adopted a stern expression and clambered around the shuddering table to grasp for the door. "Sails, with me."

Lieutenant Swift followed him out as requested, shutting the wardroom door behind them. He was Renaissance's propulsion officer, and a damned smart fellow. But he had no ability to filter his speech when speaking to senior officers.

"Did you brief the captain on the sailing situation?"

"Yes, but he wouldn't listen! He doesn't give a—"

Liam silenced him with a sharply raised hand. It lost some effectiveness when Liam had to suddenly use that hand to steady himself, the ship rolling heavily. Swift stumbled, but his expression of righteous anger didn't fade.

"If we don't back off the sails," Swift hissed, "we're going to lose a mast. In the next thirty minutes."

Liam knew that his propulsion officer didn't exaggerate.

"I'll talk to the captain. Get back down there and hold things together."

Swift's look of gratitude helped. But it didn't change any of the facts of the situation as Liam staggered aft along the main corridor of what had been his floating home for the past six months, the cruiser Renaissance. Fine, swift, and well armed, she was barely a year out of the builder's yard—a newness clearly portrayed in the polished surfaces and pristine control panels illuminated in the dim passageway that stretched fore and aft most of the length of the vessel. This passageway was the only place inside the hull that gave a true sense of the vessel's vast size. Impressive, but right now all Liam could see in his mind was that long hull twisting and finally snapping under the unrelenting pressures of the solar confluence.
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