Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 40

“I see.” Zavala had an excellent poker face, but it was obvious from the glitter in his eyes that he’d echoed the governor’s own words with malice aforethought. “May I ask the nature of this medical emergency? And how many other vessels which might have been exposed to it have also been detained?”

“I’m scarcely well-versed in medical matters, Captain. I had no choice but to rely on my own medical personnel to evaluate the risk, and then acted accordingly.” Dueñas smiled with immense affability. “As for other vessels having been detained, I’m afraid there’s no indication anyone else has been exposed to the apparent contagion’s source.”

“Then I’m certain you won’t object to my own medical personnel interviewing and examining the crews of the two ships in question.”

“I’m afraid that’s quite impossible, Captain. Quarantine regulations are very strict, you know.”

“I see,” Zavala said for a second time, and cocked his head slightly. “And just precisely how long do you expect this quarantine period to continue, Governor Dueñas?”

“That’s going to depend on the recommendations of my medical personnel.” Dueñas’ smile turned thinner and considerably less affable. “I’m afraid it could be…quite lengthy, however.”

“Particularly given the fact that there’s no medical justification for it at all, you mean, Governor?” Zavala’s tone was even colder — and more cutting — then Dueñas’ smile had been.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Captain,” the system governor replied, his smile disappearing. It was the response he’d wanted, but he was more than a little taken aback by how soon he’d gotten it. This Zavala was obviously even more arrogant than he’d expected!

“I’m almost tempted to believe that, Governor,” the Manty said levelly. “That you can’t give me a time estimate I mean. I don’t suppose anyone ought to be surprised that someone stupid enough to pull something like this in the first place is also too stupid to count weeks on his fingers and toes. Frankly, I’m astonished he can even manage to wipe drool off his own chin.”

Dueñas stiffened. For a handful of heartbeats, sheer incredulity that anyone would dare to speak that way to a Solarian-appointed governor held him motionless. His eyes widened in shock, and then he felt his face darken with a scalding flush of fury.

“I beg your pardon?!” he bit out.

“You should,” Zavala said. “And you should come up with better lies next time, too, Governor. I doubt this one would fly even back in Old Chicago. And somehow I don’t think Permanent Senior Undersecretary MacArtney’s going to be very happy with you when this blows up as spectacularly as it’s about to.”

“What do you mean by that?” Dueñas demanded, his face still dark with rage, and Zavala shrugged.

“I mean there’s no medical emergency and your ‘quarantine’ is as bogus as it is stupid, Governor. You’ve chosen to unlawfully seize not one but two Manticoran merchantmen in flagrant disregard of several solemn treaties and at least two cardinal principles of interstellar law, and you’ve done it on a pretext you know would never stand up in any admiralty court. Your attempt to cloak your actions under the cover of a medical quarantine might fool a particularly credulous two-year-old, but no one else is going to believe it for a moment. I certainly don’t, and my orders from Lady Gold Peak are very clear on this point.”

“And what might those orders be, Captain?” Dueñas’ lips curled contemptuously, and Zavala shrugged.

“My instructions are to recover any unlawfully detained Manticoran vessels in this star system and to repatriate them to Manticoran space as expeditiously as possible, Governor.”

“And just how do you intend to do that, Captain? Despite your own reckless language and contempt for a legally declared medical emergency, I have no intention of releasing quarantined vessels until I’m thoroughly convinced no health risk will result.” Dueñas locked eyes with the Manticoran. “There may be a difference of opinion about the validity of that medical emergency, Captain Zavala, but its legal standing is beyond dispute.”

“Its legal standing is exactly zero, Governor, so let’s not waste each other’s time pretending otherwise, shall we? Under the Treaty of Beowulf, you’re required to grant my medical personnel access in order to determine the legitimacy of your personnel’s diagnosis. You’ve refused to do so, which means your declaration of quarantine has no legal standing whatsoever.”

“I’m afraid I disagree with your legal interpretation on that point, Captain,” Dueñas said inflexibly. “And absent instructions from higher authority, I’m also afraid I’ll have to act on my own understanding of the circumstances and the treaty’s provisions. I’ll be happy to request those instructions, of course, but” — he smiled again, coldly — “it will probably take some months to get clarification from Old Earth.”

“That’s unacceptable, Governor,” Zavala said calmly.

“I’m afraid it’s the best I can do, Captain. Under the circumstances, you understand.”

“Oh, I understand the circumstances better than you may believe I do, Governor. With all due respect, however, I’m not certain you do.”

“Meaning what, precisely, Captain?”

“Meaning I’m under orders to repatriate those vessels as quickly as possible by any means necessary. And if you need me to be more specific, Sir, ‘any means necessary’ does include the use of force.”

“Are you seriously proposing to commit an act of war against the Solarian League on its own territory?” Dueñas demanded.

“First, the Saltash System is not Solarian territory,” Zavala replied. “It’s legally an independent star system, and the Solarian presence in it is — legally — solely to serve as a peacekeeping authority to prevent hostilities between the Republic of MacPhee and the Republic of Lochore. Although the Office of Frontier Security does enjoy certain administrative rights as a result of its agreements with MacPhee and Lochore, that doesn’t make Saltash Solarian territory, no matter how much cash you squeeze out of it every T-year. Second, I’m not the one who’s committed an act of war; you are. In the absence of a genuine and legitimate medical emergency to justify your so-called quarantine, your actions amount to piracy. And I might point out to you, Sir, that piracy is a capital offense. And, third, I’m not proposing to use force if you refuse to release my star nation’s vessels and personnel peacefully; I’m promising to use force.”

Dueñas stared incredulously at the officer in his display. Zavala looked extraordinarily — indeed, one might almost have said insanely — calm for a mere captain who’d just threatened a Solarian League governor in language like that. Dueñas had anticipated intransigence. In fact, he’d counted on it. But he’d never contemplated the possibility that Zavala would step into his trap so quickly…and with such obvious contempt for the League in general and Damián Dueñas in particular. It cut deep, that contempt, coming from such a lowly officer in the neobarb navy of a pipsqueak little star nation with delusions of grandeur, and the governor felt his face flushing angrily once more.

“Should you attempt to carry out that outrageous and totally unacceptable threat, Captain, it will be the end of your career! I promise you that! And the consequences for your star nation’s relations with the Solarian League will be severe!”

“I doubt my career will suffer in the least, Governor, and even if I didn’t, it would take a worse threat than that to prevent me from carrying out my instructions. And as for the Star Empire’s relations with the League, I’ll take my chances on that, too. To date, the League’s been the instigator in every incident between the Star Empire and the League, including this one. And as my Empress and her government have attempted to make clear to Old Chicago, the Star Empire of Manticore is not prepared to allow the Solarian League to kill its personnel, insult its sovereignty, or seize its merchant vessels” — his eyes bored into Dueñas’ — “without reaction. If you refuse to respond to an effort to resolve the crisis you’ve provoked by peaceful means, then I’m prepared to assume you prefer a more…bellicose resolution. In which case, Governor, my squadron and I are at your disposal.”

“I’ve heard quite enough of this!” Dueñas snapped. “Be advised, Captain, that in light of the threatening language you’ve seen fit to use in this conversation, I have no alternative but to consider that your vessels represent a hostile force. If you continue deeper into the star system, I will so regard your presence and I will use all means at my disposal to resist your intrusion into Solarian-protected space.”

“And would ‘all means at my disposal’ include the four Indefatigable-class battlecruisers currently approximately five thousand three hundred kilometers this side of Shona Station, Governor?”

Dueñas’ jaw tried hard to drop at the Manticoran’s level — and undeniably contemptuous — tone. Vice Admiral Dubroskaya had assured him that her vessels would be undetectable until the Manties got far closer than they were. The fact that Zavala already knew they were there was bad enough. The fact that he was prepared to issue such threats knowing they were present, though…

“You might want to inform the local senior officer that I have complete tactical readouts on his vessels,” Zavala continued. “Including the fact that one of them is down a beta node in her forward impeller ring. I’m perfectly aware of their locations, and also of the three destroyers hiding on the far side of Cinnamon’s moon. I’m not sure why you bothered to hide those, but I’m certain you had a reason that made sense to you, at any rate. To use your own turn of phrase, ‘be advised’ that I’m as well aware of the Solarian forces currently deployed in the Saltash System as I am of the SLN’s demonstrated proclivity for firing on unprepared vessels of sovereign star nations with no warning. In light of that demonstrated proclivity, please inform your local commander that I entertain no doubt of my ability to engage and destroy all of his units if I should be forced to do so. And since you’ve seen fit to threaten my command with attack by ‘all means’ at your disposal, I have no option but to consider your warships to be hostile units. As such, I require that they stand down immediately. They will power down their impeller nodes and shut down all tracking and targeting systems, and their personnel will immediately evacuate to the surface of Cinnamon. And I should point out, Governor, that my sensor resolution of your vessels is more than adequate to determine their status and whether or not the life pods used to evacuate their crews are actually occupied. Assuming my requirements are met, your vessels will be left unmolested and you may…reclaim them following our withdrawal from the star system.”

“And precisely what do you intend to do if this pipe dream of yours fails to come to fruition?” Dueñas demanded furiously.

“If your crews haven’t abandoned ship within the next twenty-seven minutes,” Zavala said with a flat, implacable calm worse than any shouted threats, “I will construe that as an indication of hostile intent, and I will open fire. The decision is yours, Governor. In either case, my ships will be in orbit around Cinnamon in approximately one and a half hours. Whether or not any of your warships are still intact at that time is up to you. Good day.”

Dueñas was still staring at the display in disbelief when it went suddenly blank.