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The Divided

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The Divided

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Author: Katie Waitman
Publisher: Del Rey / Ballantine, 1999
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Sekmé is a rarity--a female Maurheti soldier risen to the rank of Commander at the tender age of twenty-four. Daughter of a pilot killed in a gel-bombing raid on godless Tel-mari civilians, Sekmé is determined to crush resistance once and for all. But the merciless efficiency that has made her a hero to her soldiers and a demon to the enemy has also earned Sekmé the enmity of dangerous men closer to home. Men with interests other than victory.

Merkus is a freedom fighter leading the resistance against the despoilers of Tel-mari wealth and honor. Sickened by the endless slaughter, he longs for a peace he has never known--a peace he has only read about in an ancient poem that sings of a mythical place called Sa'har. But to the Maurheti, Markus is a hated terrorist to be hunted down.

Wepanu has spent his life wandering the inhospitable deserts of Maurhet, his only companions the mysterious entities known as jo. Visible to a chosen few, the jo remember what humans have forgotten--a prophecy passed on to Wepanu that will bring Sekmé and Merkus into a violent collision fated to shake the beliefs of Maurheti and Tel-mari to the core. A prophecy that will point the way to the peace of Sa'har--or ignite an all-consuming holocaust...


Excerpt

In Maurhet, the firstborn inherited war and its symbol: the family weapon. Sekmé's weapon, a classic oil-cartridge flare rifle, had seen so much service over the centuries and undergone so many repairs, upgrades, and modifications that nothing of the original piece remained except the decorative electrum inlay on its thornwood stock. The weapon represented history, although at the moment, it was less meaningful than a cheap hand sling picked up for three paners at a Tel-mari "slip-slap" dealer's: the damned thing couldn't fire.

Sekmé tried to unjam it. Every few minutes or so she'd halt her desperate, scrambling flight through the rain-drenched night streets of the Hives, Eshna's massive tangle of downtown slums, yank back the bolt, and peer into the ignitory capsule only to be interrupted by a spray of sniper fire that stripped away the ragged edges of the paving stones beneath her boots or ripped a line out of the masonry just a hand's breadth above her head. A sharp hiss followed these close calls, and corrosives wept down the stone, wounding it with uneven grooves. The Tel-mari insurgents meant business: they had gotten hold of some acid shells. There'd be no prisoners to ransom this time.

The rifle, slung over Sekmé's shoulder, beat against her back while her dun-colored fatigues, baggy at the best of times, now sopping with rain and mud, slapped her knees and thighs, impeding her escape. She'd been running for hours and, battered and burdened this way, couldn't keep it up much longer. She had to find shelter.

But where? She had the terrible feeling she'd been running in circles. Not only did all the streets and alleys look alike--higgledy-piggledy jumbles of rock, plaster, tar, and tin hastily piled one on top of the other like deformed barnacles--they also smelled alike, like grmysh, the rank Tel-mari stew of fried goat organs and fermented cabbage.

She kept running and the rifle kept banging, broadening her bruises, until she turned a corner she didn't quite remember and entered a blind alley. No way out.

"You're cornered or covered, Sekmé," she gasped to herself. "Make the choice."

The first three doors wouldn't budge and had probably been bolted for years. The fourth had a warped jamb and stuck, but with a good shove squeaked open and revealed a damp, chilly slice of airless, windowless darkness as thick as oil gum. In no mood to be fussy, Sekmé slipped inside and pushed the door to.

Out of the noise and wet, she heaved a sigh and passed her hands over the short dark hair plastered against her skull then flicked the water from her nose and sharp, squarish jaw. She'd always been lean but had gotten even thinner lately, the leanness of battle. Her stomach made a small, halfhearted growl. It had learned not to expect much relief.

A small rustle in the corner seemed to answer and the rifle dropped off her shoulder into her hands and was cocked before she remembered it couldn't fire. However, whatever had made the rustle held still, fortuitously unaware of that fact.

Sekmé cradled the weapon in her right arm, fished in a deep hip pocket for her oilstone, and struck it against the rough wall of the room. The petroleum-impregnated black stone sparked and a benign yellow flame wavered on its tip, illuminating the room, apparently at one time a dry goods storeroom, and its other inhabitant.

"Odds or evens!" he cried, shaking something that clinked metallically in his cupped hands.

"What?"

The man's accent startled her more than the inappropriateness of his words. She'd never met a Tel-mari who spoke such excellent Maurheti.

"Odds or evens!" he repeated with a manic grin, and shook his hands again. He seemed a fairly typical Tel-mari, perhaps in his mid-thirties, short and dark with a full black beard, slightly tilted black eyes, strongly aquiline nose, a long, heavy goat's-wool robe, matching long vest, and miserably broken leather boots. He was filthy, of course, and smelled like cabbage, but his teeth were sound, his body broad and powerful, and his accent ... incongruous.

"What odds?" Sekmé set the oilstone on a large overturned basket that had a long rent in its side, but she kept her weapon trained on the Tel-mari.

"Odds you kill me, evens you don't."

"What makes you think I'd honor the outcome?"

"Nothing at all!" The Tel-mari's grin widened. "It's a risk, I admit, but you haven't killed me yet so the chance is worth it, don't you think?" He tossed the silver coins he'd been shaking--there were four of them--into the air and let them land with a small puff of dust on the dirt floor.

"Two birds, two feathers!" he cried triumphantly. "Evens!" He quickly scooped up the coins and hid them in his robe. "Too bad, my dear. You've played the round and I certainly do hope you will honor its outcome, although your lot obviously knows little about it."

"Is that so?"

"It stands to reason," the man said with a worldly shrug. "Honor? From people who allow a girl to fight as a soldier?"

Sekmé thrust her weapon forward until the triple tip of her bayonet poked into the man's beard. He watched closely as she slowly combed the bayonet through the coarse hair, catching it once or twice on a snarl, but he didn't flinch.

"This 'girl' is a very good soldier," she said softly, "and she has a rifle."

"Then why are you running?"

"Why are you hiding?"

"Apparently, we share a common impetus."

Sekmé twisted a smile and shook her head. Wherever, however this Tel-mari had learned her language, listening to it was as entertaining as listening to a trained kelamang play the thetl--a circus act.

"Do you think you've outrun them?" he asked.

"Perhaps." Without taking her eyes from him, she put her ear to the door and listened. There was gunfire, but it was distant and seemed to be moving away.

The man sat on the floor, crossed his legs, and leaned back against the wall, hands clasped casually in his lap.

"You desert locusts certainly have made a mess of things," he said. "A market day attack! Women and children everywhere. What fiend from the nether bowels of the world came up with that idea? Kill the babies to lure out the men ... then bomb them again." Briefly overcome, he gazed off into the shadow-blackened corner farthest from the oilstone as if the ghosts of the massacred were watching him from its darkness. "The Evil One is brilliant, yes. Brilliant without heat. Or light."

Sekmé kept her ear pressed to the door. She didn't want to talk about this.

"I guess you don't have children," the man continued. "No mother, I don't care from where, could have witnessed such a thing--as I suspect you did--and remained sane, let alone unmoved. No children and no husband, I'll wager. Maybe what they say is true: the Maurheti cut off more than the hair of their girl soldiers."

"You talk too much," Sekmé said flatly. "I can't hear what's happening outside."

"It's raining, my dear."

"Shut up."

The man rolled his eyes, sighed, and removed from his sleeve--Sekmé raised her rifle again--an egg. Sekmé hadn't eaten in five days and her body tensed with desperate, animal need.

"Give that to me," she said.

"It's my dinner," the man replied.

Sekmé skewered his beard again. He hesitated just long enough to show her he wasn't in any particular hurry even with a rifle in his face, then reluctantly handed over the egg. Sekmé quickly cracked it open on the wall ... and its contents plopped to the ground in one slimy splat.

"It's raw!" she cried in disgust.

"Oh, now isn't that just like a Maurheti?" the man sneered. "He takes away what others have by force, then doesn't know how to appreciate what he's stolen. Pitiful. You must not be as hungry as you think."

Before Sekmé could react, he pulled another egg from his sleeve, cracked it gently, expertly on his knee, tilted his head back, and broke the egg over his mouth. The raw protein slid into his throat and he swallowed it.

"It's not polite to stare," he said.

"Do--do you have another?"

The man slapped his thigh and laughed bitterly.

"You must think I'm made of eggs! No, I don't have another. God above!" He quickly kissed his fingertips then held up his palm to salute the divine. "The market is gone, remember? Real evil hurts everyone, including those who call it forth." He straightened his hood and smoothed his mustache. "What a fool you are to be here."

"It's my business to be here! We're putting down the insurgents in the Hives--"

The man snorted.

"--but you. Why are you still here when everyone else has run off? You're obviously no sniper, you're too cowardly to be an insurgent yourself--"

"I beg your pardon!"

"--and if you had any money, you'd buy better boots. Explain yourself."

The Tel-mari blinked slowly and cocked his head at her as though idly studying a spider too far away to see clearly.

"Why should I explain myself?" he murmured. "I live here."

"It's not safe!"

The man leered at her.

"Now ... whose fault is that?"

"I'm beginning to regret not killing you," Sekmé growled.

"Then do it!" The man threw open his arms and Sekmé caught a glimpse of a new light in his eyes: not irony or grief or anger, but ecstasy. The ecstasy of despair. "At least I'll die in my own land and enter a heaven full of women and babies."

Copyright © 1999 by Katie Waitman


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