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A Rising Thunder: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 21:38 EST



March 1922 Post Diaspora

    “I’d rather not go there, but if we have to, we might as well go all the way.”

– Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore

    “Get your goddamned ships the hell out of my space!”

    The burly, dark-haired man on Commander Pang Yau-pau’s com was red-faced and snarling, and Pang took a firm a grip on his own temper.

    “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Commodore Chalker,” he replied as courteously as the circumstances permitted. “My orders are to protect Manticoran vessels passing through this terminus on their way home to Manticoran space.”

    “I don’t give a damn about your ‘orders,’ Commander!” Commodore Jeremy Chalker spat back. His six destroyers were 2.4 million kilometers — eight light-seconds — from Pang’s cruiser, and one might have thought it would be difficult to maintain a properly infuriated conversation over such a distance, especially with the delays light-speed transmissions built into its exchanges. Chalker seemed able to manage it quite handily, however. “You’re in violation of my star system’s sovereignty, you’ve evicted Solarian Astro Control personnel from their duty stations, and I want your ass gone!

    “Sir, it’s not my intention to violate anyone’s sovereignty,” Pang replied, choosing to let the rather thornier question of the Solly traffic controllers lie. “My sole interest at this time is the protection of the Star Empire’s merchant vessels.”

    Sixteen more seconds ticked past, and then –

    “Shut your mouth, return control of this terminus to the personnel whose control stations you’ve illegally seized, and turn your ass around now, or I will by God open fire on the next fucking Manty freighter I see!”

    Pang Yau-pau’s normally mild brown eyes hardened, and he inhaled deeply.

    “Skipper,” a quiet voice said.

    The single word couldn’t have been more respectful, yet it was edged with warning, and Pang hit the mute button and glanced at the smaller screen deployed from the base of his command chair. Lieutenant Commander Myra Sadowski, his executive officer looked back at him from it.

    “I know he’s a pain in the ass,” she continued in that same quiet voice, “but we’re supposed to do this without making any more waves than we have to. If you hand this guy his head the way you want to — the way he deserves, for that matter — I think it would probably come under the heading of at least a ripple or two.”

    Myra, Pang reflected, had a point. There was, however, a time and a place for everything. For that matter, the Admiralty hadn’t sent Pang and HMS Onyx to the Nolan Terminus to let someone like Jeremy Chalker make that sort of threat.

    No, they didn’t, another corner of the commander’s brain told him. At the same time, I don’t suppose it’s too hard to understand why he’s so pissed off. Not that it makes me like him any better.

    At the moment, Onyx, her sister ship Smilodon, the Roland-class destroyer Tornado and the much older destroyer Othello were over six hundred and fifty light-years from the Manticore Binary System and barely two hundred light-years from the Sol System. It was not a particularly huge force to have wandering around so deep in increasingly hostile territory, as Pang was only too well aware. In fact, Nolan was a protectorate system of the Solarian League, and Chalker was an SLN officer, the senior Frontier Fleet officer present. He looked old for his rank, which suggested a certain lack of familial connections within the SLN, although he must have at least some influence to have ended up with the Nolan command. The system’s proximity to the Nolan Terminus of the Nolan-Katharina Hyper Bridge was what had brought it to the Office of Frontier Security’s attention a hundred-odd T-years ago, and the local OFS and Frontier Fleet officers had been raking off a comfortable percentage of the terminus user fees ever since. Judging from the reaction of the SLN captain who’d commanded the OFS-installed terminus traffic control staff when Pang ordered him to turn his control stations over to Manticoran personnel, another chunk of those fees had probably been finding its way into his pockets, as well. Precious little of that revenue had ended up in Nolan itself, at any rate.

    Well, at least this time we can be pretty confident we’re not hurting some innocent third-party star system’s revenue stream, he thought. And it’s not like we’re planning to keep the terminus…just now, anyway. We’ll give it back to them when I’m sure we’ve gotten all our ships safely through it. And if someone like Chalker takes one in the bank account in the meantime, I’m sure I’ll be able to live with my regret somehow.

    Of course, Pang never doubted that the rest of the Solarian League Navy was going to be just as infuriated as Chalker by Manticore’s “arrogance” in seizing control of Solarian-claimed termini even temporarily. What was going to happen when Lacoön Two kicked in hardly bore thinking upon, although anyone who really thought not executing Lacoön Two was going to make one bit of difference to the Sollies was probably smoking things he shouldn’t.

    “I’m not the one making the waves,” he told Sadowski out loud, then glanced across Onyx‘s command deck at Lieutenant Commander Jack Frazier, his tactical officer.

    “I hope we’re not going to have any business for you, Guns,” he said. “If we do, I want to hold the damage to a minimum.”

    “You’re thinking in terms of something more like what Admiral Gold Peak did at New Tuscany than what she did at Spindle, Sir?”

    “Exactly.” Pang smiled thinly. “Do you have Chalker’s flagship IDed?”

    “Yes, Sir.” Frazier nodded with an answering smile. “I do. By the strangest coincidence, I’ve just this minute discovered that I’ve got her IDed, dialed in, and locked up, as a matter of fact.”


    Pang paused a moment longer, taking an additional few seconds to make sure he had his own temper under control, then un-muted his audio pickup.

    “Commodore Chalker,” he said in a hard, flat voice quite different from the courteous one he’d employed so far, “allow me to point out two things to you. First, this terminus is, in fact, not in Nolan’s territorial space. Unless my astrogation is badly off, it’s five light-hours from Nolan, which puts it just a bit outside the twelve-minute limit. The Solarian League’s claim to its possession rests solely on the SLN’s supposed power to control the space about it. And, second, in regard to that supposed power, I respectfully suggest you consider the actual balance of force which obtains at this moment. Based on that balance, I submit that it would be unwise to issue such threats against Manticoran shipping…and even less wise to carry them out.”

    “Well piss on you, Commander! You and the rest of your ‘Star Empire’ may think you can throw your weight around any way you like, but there’s a cold dawn coming, and it’s going to get here sooner than you think!”

    “I have my orders, Commodore,” Pang responded in that same flat voice, “and I don’t intend to debate the question of who’s responsible for the current state of tension between the Star Empire and the Solarian League. I fully intend to return control of this terminus to the League — and, obviously, to restore your personnel to their stations — as soon as I’ve satisfied myself, as my orders require, that all Manticoran merchant vessels in this vicinity have been given the opportunity to return to Manticoran space through it. I regret” –neither his tone nor his expression was, in fact, particularly regretful — “any inconvenience this may cause for you or any other Solarian personnel or citizens. I do, however, intend to carry out all of my orders, and one of those orders is to use whatever level of force is necessary to protect Manticoran merchant shipping anywhere. And ‘anywhere,’ Commodore Chalker, includes Solarian space. So if you intend to fire on Manticoran freighters, why don’t you just start with the ones right here under my protection? Go ahead — be my guest. But before you do, Admiral, I suggest you recall the Royal Navy’s position where the protection of merchant shipping is concerned.”



    He sat waiting, watching his com for the sixteen seconds his words took to reach Chalker and for the signal to come back. Precisely on schedule, Chalker’s face turned even darker.

    “And what the fuck does that mean?” the Solarian snarled.

    “It means my tactical officer has your flagship identified,” Pang said, and his smile was a razor.

    For another sixteen seconds, Chalker glared out of Pang’s display. Then, abruptly, his facial muscles went absolutely rigid, as if some magic wand had turned his face to stone. He stayed that way for several seconds, then shook himself.

    “Are you threatening me?” he demanded incredulously.

    “Yes,” Pang said simply. “I am.”

    Chalker stared at him, and Pang wondered what else the other man could have expected to happen.

    “You think you can come waltzing into Solarian space and threaten Solarian citizens? Tell a Solarian warship you’ll open fire on it?” Chalker said sixteen seconds later.

    “It’s not my wish to threaten anyone, Admiral. It is my intention to carry out my orders and to deal with any threat to the merchant shipping for which I’m responsible, and you’ve just announced your intention to fire on unarmed merchant vessels. Should you do so, I will fire on you, and I suggest you recall what happened to Admiral Byng at New Tuscany. If you actually intend to attack after doing that, go ahead and let’s get it over with. Otherwise, Sir, I have rather more important matters which require my attention. Good day.”

    He punched the stud that cut the connection and sat back in his command chair, wondering if Chalker was furious enough — or stupid enough — to accept his challenge. If the Solly officer did anything of the sort, it would be the last mistake he ever made. There was no question about that in Pang’s mind, although he was a bit less certain about the potential consequences for the future career of one Pang Yau-pau.

    Better to be hung for a hexapuma than a housecat, he thought. And it’s not like I could’ve found some kind of magic formula to keep the jerk happy, no matter what I did! At least this way if he’s stupid enough to pull the trigger, it won’t be because he didn’t know exactly how I’d respond.

    He watched his tactical repeater, waiting to see what Chalker would do. Onyx and Smilodon were both Saganami-Cs, armed with Mark 16 multidrive missiles and mounting eight grasers in each broadside. At the moment, SLNS Lancelot, Chalker’s antiquated Rampart-class destroyer flagship and her consorts were far outside the effective range of their own pathetic energy armament, and the situation was almost worse when it came to missiles. The Sollies were within their missiles’ powered engagement range of Pang’s command, but Lancelot was barely twenty percent Onyx‘s size, with proportionately weaker sidewalls and a broadside of only five lasers and a matching number of missile tubes. If Chalker was foolish enough to carry out his threat, he could undoubtedly kill any merchant ship he fired upon. Lancelot‘s chance of getting a laser head through Onyx‘s antimissile defenses, on the other hand, much less burning through the cruiser’s sidewalls, ranged from precious little to nonexistent.

    Good thing Chalker wasn’t on station when we arrived, though, I suppose, Pang thought. God knows what he’d've done if he’d been inside energy range when we transited the terminus! And when you come right down to it, it’s a good thing he’s such a loudmouthed idiot, too. It was only a matter of time until one of the incoming Solly merchies diverted to Nolan to let someone know what was going on out here. If the jackass had been willing to keep his mouth shut until he managed to get into energy range, this situation could’ve turned even stickier. In fact, it could have gone straight to hell in a handbasket if someone stupid enough to pull the trigger had managed to get that close before he did it.

    Without a clear demonstration of hostile intent, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for Pang to justify actually opening fire on units of the SLN. He would have had little choice — legally, at least — but to allow Chalker to approach all the way to the terminus threshold, and that could have turned really nasty. Fortunately, Chalker had been unable to keep his mouth shut, and his open threat to fire on Manticoran merchant ships constituted plenty of justification for Pang to give him the Josef Byng treatment if he kept on closing.

    Thank you, Commodore Chalker, he thought sardonically.

    As a matter of fact, although Pang Yau-pau wasn’t prepared to admit it to anyone, even Sadowski, he was only too aware of his own crushing responsibilities and the sheer vastness of the Solarian League. Nor was he going to admit how welcome he’d actually found Chalker’s bellicosity under the circumstances. Any officer who commanded a Queen’s starship knew sooner or later he was going to find himself out on a limb somewhere where he’d have to put his own judgment on the line, yet at this particular moment Commander Pang and his small command had crawled out to the end of a very, very long limb, indeed.

    They were a mere three wormhole transits away from the Manticore Binary System, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. The Dionigi System was only ninety-six light years from Manticore, but it was connected to the Katharina System, over seven hundred and thirty light-years away, by the Dionigi-Katharina Hyper Bridge. And the Nolan-Katharina Bridge, in turn, was one of the longest ever surveyed, at nine hundred and fifteen light-years. Even allowing for the normal hyper-space leg between Manticore and Dionigi, he could be home in less than two weeks, instead of the eighty days or so it would have taken his warships to get there on a direct voyage.

    It would have taken a ship with a commercial-grade hyper generator and particle screening better than seven months to make the same trip through hyper, however, as opposed to only thirty days via Dionigi, which rather graphically demonstrated the time savings the wormhole networks made possible for interstellar commerce. And that, in turn, explained the sheer economic value of that same network…and Manticore’s commanding position within it.

    Which explains why the Sollies back in Old Chicago are going to be at least as pissed off as Chalker, Pang reflected grimly. They’ve been mad enough for years about the size of our merchant marine, the way we dominate their carrying trade. Now they’re about to find out just how bad it really is. Once we get all of our shipping out of Solly space, they’re really going to be hurting, and we’ll have done it by simply calling our own freighters home, without using a single commerce-raider or privateer. But when Lacoön Two activates and we start closing down as much as we can of the entire network, it’s going to get even worse. They don’t begin to have the hulls to take up the slack even if all the termini stayed open; with the termini closed, with every ton of cargo having to spend four or five times as long in transit, to boot…



    On the face of it, it was ridiculous, and Pang would be surprised if as much as five percent of the total Solarian population had a clue — yet — about just how vulnerable the League really was or how bad it was actually going to get. Something the size of the Solarian League’s internal economy? With literally hundreds of star systems, system populations running into the tens of billions, and the mightiest industrial capacity in the history of mankind? That sort of Titan couldn’t possibly be brought to its knees by a “Star Empire” which consisted of no more than a couple of dozen inhabited planets!

    But it could, if its pigmy opponent happened to control the bulk of the shipping which carried that economy’s lifeblood. And especially if the pigmy in question was also in a position to shut down its arterial system, force its remaining shipping to rely solely on capillary action to keep itself fed. Even if Solarian shipyards got themselves fully mobilized and built enough ships to replace every single Manticoran hull pulled out of the League’s trade, it still wouldn’t be enough to maintain the shipping routes without the termini.

    Of course, it’s not going to do our economy any favors, either, Pang told himself. Not an insignificant point, especially after the Yawata Strike.

    He wondered if the Star Empire’s continued possession of the termini would be a big enough economic crowbar to pry a few Solarian star systems free of the League’s control. If the bait of access was trolled in front of system economies crippled or severely damaged by the termination of cargo service, would those systems switch allegiance — openly or unofficially — to Manticore instead of the League? He could think of quite a few in the Verge who’d do it in a second if they thought they could get away with it. For that matter, he could think of at least a handful of Shell systems that would probably jump at the chance.

    Well, I guess time will tell on that one. And there’s another good reason for us to make sure we’re the ones who control the hyper bridges, isn’t there? As long as we do, no one can launch naval strikes through them at us…and we can launch naval strikes through them at the League.

    Attacking well defended wormhole termini along the bridges between them was a losing proposition, but the tactical flexibility the network as a whole would confer upon light, fast Manticoran commerce-raiders would be devastating. For all intents and purposes, the Star Empire, for all its physical distance from the Sol System and the League’s other core systems, would actually be inside the Sollies’ communications loop. The League’s limited domestic merchant marine would find itself under attack almost everywhere, whereas the Manticoran merchant marine would continue to travel via the termini, completely immune to attack between the star systems they linked.

    No wonder Chalker was so livid. He might be so stupid he couldn’t visualize the next step, couldn’t see Lacoön Two coming, but he obviously did grasp the Manticoran mobility advantage which had brought Pang’s squadron to Nolan. He might not have reasoned it out yet. Solarian arrogance might have blinded him to the possibility that Manticore might actually conduct offensive operations against the omnipotent League instead of huddling defensively in a frightened corner somewhere. But the mere presence of Pang’s ships this deep into the Solarian space would have been enough to push his blood pressure dangerously high, and Pang suspected that deep down inside, whether Chalker consciously realized it or not, the Solarian officer probably was aware of the implications of Manticoran mobility.

    He glanced at the date-time display in the corner of the master plot. Over ten minutes since he’d bidden Chalker good day, he noticed. If the Solly had been infuriated — and stupid — enough to do anything hasty, he’d probably have already done it. The fact that he hadn’t (yet) didn’t mean stupidity and arrogance wouldn’t eventually overpower common sense and self-preservation, but it seemed unlikely.

    “Unlikely” wasn’t exactly the same as “no way in hell,” Pang reminded himself. All the same, it was time to let his people get a little rest…and it probably wouldn’t hurt for him to display his own imperturbability, either. Confidence started at the top, after all, and he looked back down at his link to AuxCon.

    “I think Commodore Chalker may have seen the error of his ways, Myra,” he told Lieutenant Commander Sadowski. “We’ll stand the squadron down to Readiness Two.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir,” she acknowledged.

    Readiness State Two, also known as “General Quarters,” was one step short of Battle Stations. Engineering and life-support systems would be fully manned, as would CIC, although Auxiliary Control would be reduced to a skeleton watch. The ship would maintain a full passive sensor watch, augmented by the remote FTL platforms they’d deployed as soon as they arrived, and the tactical department would be fully manned. Passive defenses would be active and enabled under computer control; electronic warfare systems and active sensors would be manned and available, although not emitting; and Onyx‘s offensive weapons would be partially manned by their on-mount crews. Readiness Two was intended to be maintained for lengthy periods of time, so it included provision for rotating personnel in order to maintain sufficient crew at their duty stations while allowing the members of the ship’s company to rest in turn. Which still wouldn’t prevent it from exhausting Pang’s people if they had to keep it up indefinitely.

    “Let Percy take AuxCon while you head back over to the Bridge to relieve me,” he continued to Sadowski. Lieutenant the Honorable Percival Quentin-Massengale, Onyx‘s assistant tactical officer, was the senior of Sadowski’s officers in Auxiliary Control. “We’ll pull Smilodon and the tin-cans back and let Onyx take point for the first twelve hours, or until our friend Chalker decides to take himself elsewhere. After that, Smilodon can have the duty for the next twelve hours. We’ll let the cruisers swap off while the destroyers watch our backs.”

    And while we keep Othello out of harm’s way, he added silently to himself. Unlike her more youthful consort, Tornado, the elderly destroyer wasn’t armed with Mark 16s, and Pang had already decided to keep her as far to the rear as he could.

    “Run a continually updated firing solution on him, Guns,” the commander said out loud to Lieutenant Commander Frazier. “And have CIC keep a close eye on his emissions. Any sign of active targeting systems, and I want to hear about it.”

    “Aye, aye, Skipper.”

    Jack Frazier was normally a cheerful sort, fond of practical jokes and pranks, but no trace of his usual humor colored his response.

    “Good.” Pang nodded curtly, then looked back down at Sadowski. “You heard, Myra?”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    “Well, I figure you already know this, but to make it official, if it should happen that Chalker is stupid enough to actually fire on us or one of the merchies, you’re authorized to return fire immediately. And if that happens, I want him taken completely out. Clear?”

    “I acknowledge your authorization to return fire if we’re fired upon, Sir,” Sadowski said a bit more formally, and Pang nodded again, then stood and looked back to Frazier.

    “You have the deck until the XO gets here, Guns, and the same authorization applies to you,” he said. “I’ll be in my day cabin catching up on my paperwork.”

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