A Rising Thunder – Snippet 05


“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!”