A Rising Thunder – Snippet 04

 

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

 

Chapter Two

 

“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…”