A Rising Thunder – Snippet 14

 

Chapter Five

 

Innokentiy Kolokoltsov rose as Astrid Wang formally ushered his visitor into his office. His secretary was more subdued than usual, and it was obvious to Kolokoltsov that she was on her best behavior.

 

Astrid always did have a good set of instincts, he thought. Not that our manners are going to make very much difference this time around. Whatever else is going to happen, the Manties aren’t the kind of neobarbs we can impress into acknowledging the Solarian League’s supremacy. The pain-in-the-ass bastards’ve made that clear enough!

 

“Mister Ambassador,” he said, with a small, formal bow instead of extending a hand across his desk.

 

“Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary,” Sir Lyman Carmichael responded in a pronounced Manticoran accent, with an even shallower bow.

 

“May we offer you refreshment, Mister Ambassador?”

 

“No, thank you.”

 

There was a distinct edge of frost in that reply, Kolokoltsov noted. Well, that wasn’t unexpected. Lyman Carmichael was a career diplomat, but he didn’t really have the disposition for it, in Kolokoltsov’s opinion. He felt things too deeply, without the professional detachment which ought to be brought to the task. No doubt there was a place for passion, for belief, even for anger, but it wasn’t at the table where interstellar diplomats played for the highest stakes imaginable. That was a place for clear-headedness and dispassion, and a man who could be goaded into intemperance was a dangerous loose warhead for his own side.

 

“As you will.”

 

Kolokoltsov inclined his head again, this time indicating the chair on the far side of his desk, and Carmichael’s lips tightened ever so slightly. There was a much more comfortably and intimately arranged conversational nook in the angle of the palatial office’s picture windows, looking out over the towers and canyons of Old Chicago. That was where Kolokoltsov met with visitors when he was prepared to pretend other star nations were truly the Solarian League’s peers. It was particularly important to make the point that the Star Kingdom of Manticore was not the League’s peer, however, and so he seated himself again behind his desk and folded his hands on the antique blotter.

 

“How may I be of service, Mister Ambassador?” he asked with a pleasantness which fooled neither of them.

 

“I’ve been instructed by my government to deliver a formal note to Foreign Minister Roelas y Valiente.”

 

Carmichael smiled thinly, and Kolokoltsov smiled back. Whatever the official flowchart of the Solarian League Foreign Ministry might indicate, Carmichael knew as well as Kolokoltsov that Roelas y Valiente was no more than a figurehead. Whoever the note might be addressed to, the Manticoran Ambassador was looking at its actual recipient.

 

“May I inquire as to the note’s contents?” Kolokoltsov asked with a straight face.

 

“You may,” Carmichael replied.

 

He didn’t say anything else, however, and Kolokoltsov felt his jaw muscles tighten ever so slightly as the Manticoran simply sat there, smiling at him. Waiting.

 

“And those contents are?” he asked after a lengthy moment, keeping his voice even.

 

“As you’re aware, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary, my government is deeply concerned over the escalating series of…incidents between the Solarian League military and the Star Empire. We realize there’s a difference of opinion between Landing and Old Chicago about precisely how those incidents occurred and who was responsible for them.” His eyes met Kolokoltsov’s coldly. “Regardless of who bears responsibility for those which have occurred in the past, however, my government is desirous of avoiding any additional incidents in the future.”

 

“I’m sure that will come as very welcome news to Foreign Minister Roelas y Valiente,” Kolokoltsov said when the Manticoran paused again.

 

“I hope it will,” Carmichael continued. “However, in pursuit of that object, the Star Empire, as you may or may not be aware, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary, has issued a general recall of its merchant shipping in the League.”

 

Kolokoltsov stiffened. He’d only just begun receiving reports about disappearing Manticoran merchant vessels. Not enough of them had come in yet for any sort of pattern to reveal itself, but according to at least some of them the merchant vessels in question had canceled charters and contractual commitments without explanation. He’d been inclined to discount those particular reports, given the hefty penalties the captains and shipowners in question would face, but if the Star Empire’s government had issued a nondiscretionary recall…

 

“In part,” Carmichael said, “that recall represents an effort on our part to be sure none of the…unfortunate incidents which have so far involved only our military vessels spill over onto our civilian traffic. Obviously, we don’t think a Solarian warship captain would lightly open fire on an unarmed merchant vessel in a fit of piqué, but, then, we didn’t think a fleet of battlecruisers would open fire on a handful of destroyers riding peacefully in orbit, either.” He smiled again, a smile as cold as his eyes. “Accidents, it appears, do happen, don’t they? So my government has decided to ensure that no more of them transpire. There is, however, another reason for the recall, as well.”

 

“And that reason would be exactly what, Mister Ambassador?” Kolokoltsov tone was level, its neutrality a deliberate emphasis of his decision to ignore the Manticoran’s latest barb.

 

“You might think of it as an attempt to get the League’s attention, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. We appear to have been singularly unsuccessful in our efforts to accomplish that so far, so my government has decided to resort to rather more direct measures.”

 

“Are you implying that the recall of your merchant shipping should be viewed as an unfriendly act directed against the Solarian League?” Kolokoltsov asked in a voice he’d suddenly allowed to become frigid.

 

“I fail to see how simply withdrawing our shipping from Solarian shipping lanes could be construed as ‘an unfriendly act,’ Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary.” Carmichael shrugged slightly. “On the other hand, I suppose it will have an unfortunate impact on the movement of the League’s interstellar commerce.”

 

Kolokoltsov sat rigidly in his chair, gazing across his folded hands at the Manticoran. He was no economist, no expert on international shipping, but the entire Solarian League was only too well aware of the extent to which the life’s blood of its interstellar economy moved in Manticoran bottoms. It was one of the reasons so many Solarians so intensely resented and detested the Star Empire of Manticore. And it was also the reason — coupled with the Manties’ control of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction and its commanding position among the warp bridges in general — that such a pissant little star nation had been able to…constrain Solarian foreign policy repeatedly over the last couple of T-centuries. But in all those years, Manticore had never threatened to actually withdraw its shipping from the League!

 

“I’m not an expert in interstellar commerce, Mister Ambassador,” he said after a few seconds. “It would appear to me, however, that the Star Empire’s actions will result in the violation of numerous commercial agreements and contracts.”

 

“That, unfortunately, is correct, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. It’s regrettable, of course, but fortunately the majority of the shipping lines in question are bonded. In those instances where they aren’t, the injured parties will of course be able to seek redress through the courts. With what degree of success” — Carmichael smiled thinly — “no one can say at this point. I suppose a great deal will depend upon whose court adjudicates the matter, don’t you?”

 

“You’re playing with the lives and livelihoods of millions of Solarian citizens, Mister Ambassador,” Kolokoltsov pointed out rather more sharply than he’d intended to.

 

“I suppose it could be interpreted that way. Considering the current — and apparently still deteriorating — relationship between the Star Empire and the Solarian League, however, my government believes it will be safest all around for our merchant vessels to remain safely in Manticoran space — or, at least, outside of Solarian space — until the matters under dispute between the Star Empire and the League have been satisfactorily resolved. At that time, of course, we would look forward to restoring our freighters and passenger liners to their normal runs.”