A Rising Thunder – Snippet 06


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!”