A Rising Thunder – Snippet 07

 

Chapter Three

 

“Oh, crap.”

 

The words were spoken quietly, almost prayerfully. For a moment or two, Lieutenant Aaron Tilborch, commanding officer of the Zunker Space Navy’s light attack craft Kipling, didn’t even realize he’d spoken them out loud, and they were hardly the considered, detached observation one might have expected from a trained professional. On the whole, however, they summed up the situation quite nicely.

 

“What do we do now, Sir?” Lieutenant Jannetje van Calcar, Kipling‘s executive officer, sounded as nervous as Tilborch felt, and Tilborch thought it was an excellent question. Not that there was much Kipling‘s small ship’s company could do about the events preparing to unfold before them.

 

The ZSN wasn’t much as navies went. There were several reasons for that, and one was that the Zunker System’s nominal sovereignty had depended for the last T-decade and a half or so upon a delicate balancing act between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Solarian League. The Office of Frontier Security’s local commissioners had cast greedy eyes upon the Zunker System ever since the wormhole terminus associated with it had been discovered, but the terminus was the next best thing to six and a half light-hours from the system primary. That put it well outside Zunker’s territorial space, which meant simply grabbing off the star system wouldn’t necessarily have given OFS control of the terminus…especially since its other end lay in the Idaho System.

 

In point of fact, the “Zunker Terminus” had been discovered by a survey crew operating out of Idaho seventeen T-years earlier. And Idaho, unlike Zunker, lay only seventy-two light-years from the Manticore Binary System — three weeks’ hyper flight for a merchant ship from the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Actually, the survey ship had been Manticoran, not Idahoian, although it had been under charter to the Idaho government at the time. Prior to the discovery of the Idaho Hyper Bridge, Idaho had been a relative backwater, completely overshadowed by the bustling trade and massive economy of its Manticoran neighbor and fellow member of the Manticoran alliance.

 

For Zunker, whose existence had always been even more hand-to-mouth than that of many other Verge star systems, the consequences had been profound. The hyper bridge between it and Idaho was over four hundred light-years long, and the system lay roughly a hundred and ninety light-years from the Sol System and just over a hundred and fifty light-years from Beowulf. In fact, it lay almost directly between Beowulf and Asgerd, closing the gap between the Beowulf Terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction and the Andermani Empire’s Asgerd-Durandel Hyper Bridge. That had turned both Zunker and Idaho into important feeder systems for the ever more heavily traveled Manticoran Wormhole Junction.

 

The sudden influx of so much traffic, and the kind of cash flow that went with it, dwarfed anything Zunker had ever imagined…and it had turned out to be a mixed blessing. The cascade of credits and the frenzied construction of shipping and support structures for the traffic that produced it had fueled an economic boom such as no Zunkeran had ever dreamed was possible. Over the last fifteen T-years, something like decent medical care, a proper educational system, and the beginning of true prosperity had sprouted in Lieutenant Tilborch’s home star system. Yet that same abundance of cash had inevitably attracted the avarice of the Office of Frontier Security and its transstellar “friends.”

 

Unfortunately for OFS, Idaho had no desire to do business with yet another tentacle of the OFS/corporate monstrosity. So when Frontier Security started sniffing around Zunker, Idaho mentioned the sudden upsurge in Solarian compassion and philanthropic urges to its neighbors (and allies) in Manticore. And those neighbors (and allies) in Manticore had intimated to Permanent Senior Undersecretary of the Treasury Brian Sullivan, Agatá Wodoslawski’s immediate predecessor, that Solarian transit fees through any of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction’s many termini might well experience an inexplicable upsurge if anything unfortunate were to happen to the Zunker System.

 

The result was an official Solarian consulate in Effingham, Zunker’s capital city, an equally official OFS observation post right next door to it, and a clear understanding that although the League would be permitted influence in Zunker, it would not be allowed the sort of puppetmaster control it exercised in so many other “independent” star systems. As a sort of quid-pro-quo for the League’s…restraint, it was understood that Zunker fell ultimately under Solarian “protection,” rather than Manticoran. The terminus itself, on the other hand, was granted Idahoian extraterritoriality, recognized by both Manticore and the League, although Prime Minister Cromarty of Manticore had insisted that the Zunker System government receive one third of all transit fee revenues it generated.

 

All of which meant the Zunker Space Navy consisted of little more than a double handful of LACs, suitable for policing the traffic which flowed through the star system’s freight-handling and servicing facilities. The ZSN certainly didn’t possess anything remotely like a true warship, although it did assign a squadron of its LACs to Zunker Terminus Astro Control, where it worked in concert with a similar force of Idahoian vessels.

 

Which was how Lieutenant Tilborch and the crew of ZSNS Kipling came to have a ringside seat for what promised to be a most unhappy day in near-Zunker space.

 

“What do we do, Jannetje?” he asked now, never looking away from the display where a single Solarian merchant ship headed directly towards the terminus, escorted by six Solarian League Navy battlecruisers. “What we do is get the hell out of the way and com home to Effingham.”

 

“But what about –?” van Calcar began.

 

“The Manties are the ones who announced they were closing the terminus to Solarian traffic, and Idaho backed them,” Tilborch replied, cutting her off. “You know where my sympathies lie, but we’ve got no official business poking our noses in. Besides”– he smiled humorlessly –“it’s not like Kipling was going to make any difference, is it?”

 

*   *   *

 

Captain Hiram Ivanov watched his tactical display and frowned as he considered the odds and how they must look from the other side. His division of Saganami-C-class heavy cruisers was one ship understrength, leaving him only three to confront the oncoming Solarian battlecruisers. He also had four Roland-class destroyers, however, which actually gave him the numerical advantage, although destroyers and heavy cruisers were scarcely in the same league (nominally, at least) as battlecruisers. On the other hand, all of his ships had Mark 23-stuffed missile pods tractored to their hulls, which put rather a different complexion on traditional calculations combat power. Unfortunately, it appeared these particular Sollies still hadn’t worked through the implications of the Battle of Spindle.

 

“How do you want to handle it, Sir?” Commander Claudine Takoush asked softly from his command chair com display. Ivanov looked down at her image and raised his eyebrows, and she shrugged. “I know what we’re supposed to do, Sir. I’m only wondering how much talking you plan to do first? I mean, this” — she twitched her head in the direction of her own tactical plot — “is just a bit more blatant than we expected.”

 

“Blatant isn’t precisely the word I’d choose, Claudine,” Ivanov replied in a judicious tone. “In fact, on reflection, I believe ‘stupid‘ comes a lot closer to capturing the essence of my feelings at this moment. ‘Arrogant’ and ‘pigheaded’ probably belong somewhere in the mix, too, now that I think about it.”

 

“Do you think it’s the local Frontier Fleet CO’s idea? Or that it represents orders from their admiralty?”

 

“I’m inclined to think it’s the locals,” Ivanov said. “Especially given Commissioner Floyd’s attitude towards the Star Empire’s ‘interference’ in his personal arrangements,” he added, eyes drifting back to his own display.

 

The incoming icons had made their alpha translation the better part of fifty million kilometers from the terminus. That represented either pretty poor astrogation or else a deliberate decision to give any Manticoran warships plenty of time to see them coming. Ivanov suspected the latter. It was entirely likely that someone like Commissioner Floyd would figure the Manticorans’ nerve would fail if they had to watch the slow, inexorable approach of the Solarian League Navy. Whether or not the Solly flag officer assigned to the mission would share that belief was another question, of course. Either way, it was going to take them a while to reach Ivanov’s small force. The velocity they’d brought over the alpha wall into normal-space was barely a thousand kilometers per second, and their acceleration rate, held down by the 4,800,000-ton freighter at the core of their formation, was barely 2.037 KPS2. At that rate, it would take them over two and a half hours to reach the terminus with a zero/zero velocity.

 

“It’s only been a week since Idaho announced it was closing the terminus to Solly traffic,” Ivanoff continued. “That’s not enough time for the word to have reached Old Terra, much less for orders to deliberately create a provocation to’ve gotten all the way out here from Old Chicago. And this is a deliberate provocation if I’ve ever seen one.” He snorted. “It’s sure as hell not a case of a single merchie who simply hasn’t gotten the word, anyway!” He shrugged. “I know Astro Control’s transmission hasn’t had time to reach them yet — they’re still the better part of three light-minutes out — but I’ll bet a dollar I know what they’re going to say — or not say, more likely — when Captain Arredondo orders them off.”

 

“No takers here, Skipper,” Takoush said sourly.