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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 07:44 EST



April 1922 Post Diaspora

    “Like the old story about the mule, first you need to hit it between the eyes with a big enough club to get its attention.”

– Hamish Alexander-Harrington,
Earl of White Haven

    “You can’t be serious!”

    Sharon Selkirk, Shadwell Corporation’s senior shipping executive for the Mendelschon System, stared at her com display, and the man on it shook his head regretfully.

    “I’m afraid I am,” Captain Lev Wallenstein of the improbably named Manticoran freighter Yellow Rose the Third said. “I just got the dispatch.”

    “But…but –” Selkirk stopped sputtering and shook herself. “We’ve got a contract, Lev!”

    “I understand that,” Wallenstein said, running one hand through his unruly thatch of red hair. “And I’m sorry as hell. It wasn’t my idea, Sharon! And don’t think for one minute that the front office’s going to be happy when I get home, either! Running empty all the way back to the Star Kingdom?” He shook his head. “I don’t know whose brainstorm this was, but it’s going to play merry hell, and that’s the truth!”

    “Lev, I’ve got one-point-six million tons of cargo that’ve been sitting in orbital warehouses for over two T-months waiting for your arrival. One-point-six million tons — you understand that number? That’s the next best thing to a billion and a half credits of inventory, and it’s supposed to be in Josephine in less than four weeks. If you leave it sitting here, there’s no way I can possibly get it there.”

    “I understand.” Wallenstein shook his head helplessly. “And if I had any choice at all, I’d be loading your cargo right now. But I don’t. These orders are nondiscretionary, and they don’t come from the front office, either. They come direct from the Admiralty, Sharon.”

    “But why?” Selkirk stared at him. “Why just…yank the carpet out from under me like this? Damn it, Lev, you’ve been on this run for over twelve T-years! There’s never been a problem, not from either side!”

    “Sharon, it doesn’t have anything to do with you. Or with me.” Wallenstein sat back in his chair aboard the Yellow Rose, gazing at the image of a woman who’d become a friend, not just another business contact. “You’re right, there’s never been a problem…not here in Mendelschon.”

    Selkirk had opened her mouth again, but she closed it once more and her eyes narrowed at his last four words. Or at the tone in which he’d spoken, to be more accurate.

    “You mean this has to do with that business in, where was it, New Tuscany? And Spindle? That’s what this is about?”

    “No one’s specifically said so,” Wallenstein replied, “but if I had to guess, yeah, that’s what it’s about.”

    “But that’s stupid!” She sat back in her own chair, throwing both hands up in frustration. “That’s seven hundred light-years from Mendelschon! What possible bearing could it have on us?

    Despite his very real affection for her, Wallenstein found it difficult not to roll his eyes. Unlike the majority of people who found their way to her seniority in a Solarian multi-stellar, Sharon Selkirk had always been friendly and courteous in her dealings with the merchant service officers who transported the Shadwell Corporation’s goods between the stars. She’d never held the fact that Wallenstein wasn’t a Solarian against him, either. In fact, that was the one thing about her which had always irritated him. She didn’t even realize she was being condescending by not holding the fact that he wasn’t a Solarian against him. Why, she was treating him just like a real person!

    He was confident she’d never actually analyzed her own attitude, never realized how it could grate on anyone’s nerves, because she was, frankly, too nice a person to treat someone that way if she’d ever realized she was doing it. But that was part of the problem. Solarian arrogance, that bone-deep assumption of superiority, was so deeply engraved into the Solarian League’s DNA that Sollies never even thought about it.

    “Look, Sharon,” he said after a moment, “I agree that what happened in New Tuscany and what happened in Spindle don’t have anything to do with you, or me, or Mendelschon. But they had one hell of a lot to do with the people who got killed in both those places, and you may not realize just how completely relations between the League and the Star Empire are going into the crapper. But they are, believe me. And looking at these orders, I think it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse before it gets any better.”

    “But that’s crazy.” Selkirk shook her head. “I mean, I agree it’s horrible all those people got killed. And I don’t know what happened any more than you do. But surely nobody wants to get more people killed! They’ve got to settle this thing before that happens!”

    “I agree with you, and I wish they would. But the truth is, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. And I’m guessing the government back home’s decided it’s time to get the Star Empire’s merchant shipping out from under before it all comes apart.”

    “I can’t believe this is happening.” She shook her head again. “I’m sure that if your people would just sit down with our people we could work this out. There’s always a way to work things out if people are just willing to be reasonable!”

    “Unfortunately, that requires both sides to be reasonable,” Wallenstein pointed out, and Selkirk’s eyes widened in surprise. She started to say something back, quickly, but stopped herself in time, and Wallenstein smiled a bit grimly.

    Almost said it, didn’t you, Sharon? he thought. Of course we’re supposed to be reasonable. And I’m sure you meant what you just said about reasonable people working things out. Unfortunately, the Solarian view of “reasonable” is people “reasonably” agreeing to do things the League’s way. The notion that the League might have to be reasonable doesn’t even come into it, does it?

    “Well, of course it does,” she said instead of what she’d been about to say, and she had the grace to look a little uncomfortable as she said it. But then she scowled.

    “So you’re just going to turn around and head back to Manticore? Just like that?”

    “Actually, I’m going to turn around and head back to Beowulf, and from there to Manticore,” he said. “But, yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

    “And our contract?”

    “I’m afraid you’re going to have to discuss that with the front office.” He shrugged unhappily. “For that matter, you may end up discussing it with the Foreign Secretary’s people before this is all over. Since the orders came from the government, I’m guessing the government’s going to be responsible for any penalties the shippers collect.”

    “If they collect them, you mean, don’t you?” she asked bitterly. She’d had more than one unhappy experience dealing with the Solarian government’s bureaucracies.

    “I don’t know how it’s going to work out. As far as I know, nobody knows how it’s going to work out in the end. And I know you’re unhappy, but you’re not the only one. Don’t forget, Sharon, I hold a reserve commission. When I get back to Manticore, I’m likely to find myself called to active duty. If this thing goes as badly as it could, I’m I may just end up hauling something besides freight back into the Solarian League.”

    She looked at him blankly for a long moment, as if she simply couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. Then she shook her head quickly.

    “Oh, no, Lev! It’s not going to come to that! I know your people are angry, and I would be too, if what they think happened had happened to my navy. And I’m not saying it didn’t happen!” she added even more quickly as Wallenstein’s expression hardened. “But surely your Star Empire isn’t crazy enough to actually go to war with the League! Why, that would be like…like…”



    “Like David and Goliath?” Wallenstein provided a bit more sharply than he usually spoke to her, and her eyes widened. “I think that’s probably the comparison you’re looking for,” he continued. “And I’ll even grant that it’s appropriate. But you might want to think about how that particular confrontation worked out in the end.”

    They looked at one another in silence for several endless seconds, and as he gazed into Selkirk’s eyes, Lev Wallenstein saw understanding dawning at last. The understanding that Manticorans really weren’t Solarians. That they truly could conceive of a galaxy in which the Solarian League wasn’t the ultimate arbiter and dictator of terms. That they might actually be so lost to all reason that they truly were prepared to fight the Solarian juggernaut.

    For the first time, Sharon Selkirk saw him as someone who truly believed he was her equal, whatever she thought, and he wondered if in the process she’d finally realized how unconsciously condescending she’d always been before. He was surprised and more than a little dismayed by the satisfaction that dawning awareness gave him, and he drew a deep breath and made himself smile at her.

    “Of course I hope that’s not going to happen,” he told her as lightly as he could. Whatever else, she’d always been courteous, and he owed her a little gentleness in return. “In fact, I hope it all blows over and I’m back on my regular run ASAP. And if it happens, the front office may find itself cutting some special deals in order to earn back all the goodwill this is going to cost us. But whatever happens down the road, I don’t have any choice but to follow the instructions I’ve been given. That’s why I commed you in person. Like you say, we’ve known each other a long time and we’ve always done right by each other, so I figured I owed you a personal explanation. Or as close to an explanation as I can give you with what I know. But either way, I’m supposed to be underway for Beowulf within six hours.”

    “There’s going to be hell to pay for this, Lev. You know that, don’t you?” Selkirk asked. “I’m not talking about between you and me. I mean, I understand it’s not your idea and you don’t have any choice, but my bosses aren’t going to be happy about this. And their bosses aren’t going to be happy about it. And eventually it’s going to go all the way to the top and members of the Assembly aren’t going to be happy about it. For that matter, if Manticore’s really recalling all of its merchantships, this is going to hammer the interstellar economy. It’s not just the transstellars that’re going to be pissed off once that happens — it’s going to be everyone!” She shook her head. “I don’t know what your government hopes this is going to accomplish, but I can tell you what it’s really going to do, and that’s to squirt hydrogen right into the fire!”

    “Maybe it is,” Wallenstein conceded, “but that’s a decision that’s way above my pay grade, Sharon.” He smiled again, a bit crookedly. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

    “You, too, Lev,” she said quietly.

    “I’ll try,” he told her. “Clear.”



    “I don’t care what your damned orders say,” Captain Freida Malachai said flatly. “I’ve got three and a half million tons of cargo onboard, and I’m supposed to deliver it in Klondike one T-month from today. Do you have any frigging idea what the nondelivery penalty on that’s going to be?! Not to mention the question of piracy if I just sail off with it into the sunset with it!”

    “I realize this is highly…inconvenient, Captain Malachai,” Commander Jared Wu replied as reasonably as he could. “And it wasn’t my idea in the first place. Nonetheless, I’m afraid the recall’s nondiscretionary.”

    “The hell it is!” Malachai shot back. “I’m a free subject of the Crown, not a damned slave!

    “No one’s trying to enslave anyone, Captain.” Wu’s voice was tighter and harder than it had been. “Under the Wartime Commerce Security Act, the Admiralty has the responib –”

    “Don’t you go quoting the WCSA to me!” Malachai’s blue eyes glittered with rage and her short-cut blond hair seemed to bristle. “That thing’s never been applied in the history of the Star Kingdom! And even if it had, we’re not at war!

    Commander Wu sat back in his command chair and ordered himself to count to ninety by threes. It wasn’t going to do any good — probably — to lose his own temper with her. He was tempted to try it anyway, but from what he’d seen of Captain Malachai of the good ship RMMS Vortrekker, a tantrum on his part would only make her dig in deeper. And the hell of it was that he sympathized with her.

    Vortrekker didn’t belong to one of the big shipping houses. The Candida Line owned only four ships, one of them Vortrekker, and Malachai was owner-aboard of her ship. She owned, in fact, a fifty percent share of the ship, which meant fifty percent of the profits belonged to her. But so did fifty percent of the expenses…and any penalties Vortrekker was forced to pay for breach of contract. The mere thought of how much the nondelivery penalty on close to four million tons of cargo could run was enough to make anyone wince. And that was assuming the admiralty courts didn’t decide to attack on additional fees or fines for damages.

    “Captain,” he made himself say calmly after he reached ninety, “I truly understand what it will mean financially for you personally, not just Candida, if you find yourself liable for nondelivery of your cargo. I understand the numbers, and I know you’re an owner-aboard. I sympathize with your concerns. But you know as well as I do that the WCSA gives the Admiralty the authority to issue a mandatory, nondiscretionary recall of all Manticoran registry merchant vessels if the Crown determines that a state of war is imminent. While I’m here to tell you a state of war with the Solarian League is damned well is imminent as it gets! We’ve already destroyed or captured seventy Solarian superdreadnoughts. You think Manticoran merchantships wandering around inside the Solarian League aren’t going to find themselves at risk if this continues?!”

    Malachai glared at him, but she also made herself sit back visibly and drew a deep breath.

    “You may understand the numbers, Commander,” she said then, her nostrils flaring, “but whatever you think, you probably don’t have a clue how bad the consequences would be. I’ve got a note coming due in six T-months. A big one. If I forfeit this charter, I’ll probably come up short on the due date. If I get hit with a nondelivery penalty on top of that, I’ll certainly come up short. And if I do, I lose my ship.”

    “You’re right, I didn’t know about that part of it,” Wu said after a long, silent moment. “And I’m sorrier than I can say that you’re facing that kind of a problem. But the order isn’t discretionary — not for you, and not for me. You’re required to obey it, and I’m required to enforce it…by whatever means are necessary.”

    “But Klondike isn’t even a Solly system,” Malachai pointed out, and there was a note of pleading in her voice — a note that obviously came hard for her. “We’d be in hyper the entire way there, and nobody could even find us there, much less touch us. I drop into Klondike, I offload my cargo, and that’s all there is. Then I’ll come straight home, I promise!”



    Wu stared into those angry, pleading, desperate blue eyes and hated himself and his orders. But they were orders, and he was responsible for enforcing them.

    The government’s got to come up with some kind of compensatory arrangement, he told himself. They have to know what kind of economic hardship this kind of order’s bound to inflict, and it’s not the Crown’s job to put honest merchants skippers out of work. Take away their life savings!

    Unfortunately, no requirement for compensation had been written into the Wartime Commerce Security Act when Parliament passed it over three hundred T-years earlier. Maybe nobody had thought of it at the time, but maybe someone had, too. Maybe somebody had realized just how stupendous the price tag might become, given the size the Manticoran merchant marine might attain in the next three T-centuries, and declined to obligate the government to pay it. And even if they had, where was the government going to find the cash to pay it after the Yawata Strike? And especially if it was calling home the enormous merchant fleet which provided so much of its total revenue flow?

    And then there was the minor question of just how the Star Empire of Manticore was going to manage to pay the bills for a war against something the size of the Solarian League. Even with a healthy tax base, that would’ve been a Herculean task. With what the Yawata Strike had left behind and the inevitable loss of Solly traffic through the Junction on top of everything else…

    If there is compensation, it’s likely going to come slow, he thought grimly. A hell of a lot too slow to pay off a note that’s due in only six T-months. And it’ll be cold comfort to Malachai if she finally gets a cash settlement — even assuming it’s not discounted — when she’s already lost everything she’s worked for her entire life.

    “Captain,” he said finally, “first, I don’t see how you could possibly be accused of piracy. You’re covered by the fact that you were ordered to return immediately to the star kingdom. Any accusations of piracy or theft on your part would fall legally at the government’s door, not yours. Second, I think it’s highly probable that the ‘act of God or act of war’ clause of your contract would protect you against any nondelivery penalty. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that, because I frankly don’t know how the courts are going to look at this after the dust settles. But my legal officer and I have discussed this, and that’s her opinion.”

    “And if she’s wrong?” Malachai demanded harshly.

    “If she’s wrong, she’s wrong, and you’re screwed, Captain,” Wu admitted. “I’m sorry, but there it is.”

    “Even if I don’t get hit with the nondelivery penalty, I’m going to come up short on the note, especially if I have to sit in a parking orbit somewhere in the home system between now and then,” she pointed out. “A ship that’s not moving is only a hole in space that people pour money into. It sure as hell not a hole money comes out of!”

    Well, that’s true enough, Wu reflected. And what are you going to do if she refuses?

    HMS Cometary was a mere light cruiser. Admittedly, she was an older ship, which meant she carried a larger Marine detachment than most current battlecruisers did, but he couldn’t go peeling off details of his Navy personnel to take over the engine rooms and bridges of freighters and passenger liners. In theory, he could order his Marines to take control of Vortrekker and force Captain Malachai and her own crew to sail directly to Manticore, yet he shied away from the possibility. It wasn’t the Royal Manticoran Navy’s job to seize control of honest merchantships, damn it! But if he didn’t do something…

    “Klondike, you said,” he heard himself say, and swore at himself silently when Malachai’s eyes lit with sudden hope.

    “Right, Klondike.” She nodded vigorously. “I can be there in three and a half T-weeks. And from there to Beowulf’s only another three T-weeks. Just six T-weeks — that’s all I need.”

    “And it’s only two T-weeks from Hypatia to Beowulf,” he pointed out.

    Her lips tightened, but she didn’t say anything. She only looked back at him, blue eyes unaccustomed to asking for anything pleading with him to relent.

    He looked back at her, wrestling with those eyes and his own temptation. He had no doubt the Admiralty would have quite a few choice things to say to him if he granted an exemption from a nondiscretionary order. Worse, once he started down that slippery slope, where did he stop? How did he justify letting Vortrekker slide if he wasn’t going to grant exemptions to everyone else who asked, as well? Hypatia wasn’t a major traffic node, and it was unlikely he was going to see a lot more Manticoran ships before his own orders took him home again, but still…

    You’re a Queen’s officer, Jared, he told himself. You took an oath to obey all legal orders, and the shit’s busy hitting the fan on a scale you never even dreamed of. It’s not your job to go around second-guessing the Admiralty. Especially not at a time like this!

    All of that was true, but there was another side to the coin, as well. Cometary was only an old, obsolescent light cruiser, but she was still a Queen’s ship and Jared Wu was still her commanding officer. And that meant he was supposed to have the guts to do what his orders required him to do…and to be willing to put his own judgment on the line when it came to those selfsame orders.

    “Captain Malachai,” he said at last, “I have exactly zero authority to ignore the orders I’ve been given. You realize that?”

    Malachai gave a single, choppy nod, her face grim, her eyes bleak once more. He let silence linger between them for two or three breaths, then squared his shoulders.

    “I have no authority,” he repeated, “but…I’m going to, anyway.”

    The last four words came out in more of a sigh of resignation than anything else, and he felt himself shaking his own head in disbelief as he said them. Malachai’s eyes lit up like light-struck sapphires, though, and her face blossomed in an enormous smile.

    “Understand me, Captain!” he said much more sharply, waving an index finger at the com pickup. “Straight to Klondike, unload your cargo, then straight to Beowulf and back to Manticore. I don’t want to hear about any other charters you’ve got. I don’t want you picking up any other cargoes. You’re dropping off what you have aboard, and you’re heading straight home. Is that perfectly clear?”

    “Perfectly, Commander!” Malachai said, nodding hard.

    “I hope to hell it is,” he said, “because frankly, we’re both going to be in a world of hurt if you don’t do exactly that. I remind you that the WCSA’s penalties for noncompliance are ugly, Captain.”

    “Don’t worry, Commander,” Malachai said, her voice far gentler than anything Wu had yet heard from her. “I owe you big time for this.” She shook her head. “I’m not going to do anything to screw you over, I swear.”

    Wu looked at her hard for several seconds, then smiled faintly.

    “Glad to hear it. And I’m going to hold you to it, too, Captain!” Their eyes held for another heartbeat, and then he waved his right hand at the pickup. “Now, go on. Get out of here before I come to my senses and change my mind!”

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