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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 19:26 EST



    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.”



    Steel showed in Carmichael’s smile this time, and despite his many years of experience, Kolokoltsov felt his own face darkening with anger.

    “Some people,” he said carefully, “might interpret the Star Empire’s decision in this matter as an active economic war against the League.”

    “I suppose they might.” Carmichael nodded, then stabbed the Solarian with his eyes. “And some people might consider what happened in New Tuscany and Spindle acts of war against the Star Empire, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. I suppose it would behoove both the Star Empire and the Solarian League to demonstrate to the rest of the galaxy that they wish to find an amicable resolution of all of the tensions and…disputed matters currently lying between them. That, as I’m sure Foreign Minister Roelas y Valiente has shared with you from our earlier notes, has been the Star Empire’s view from the very beginning.”

    Kolokoltsov felt a very strong temptation to reach across the desk and strangle the man sitting on its other side.

    “I’m sure all of those disputed matters will be settled in due time, Mister Ambassador,” he said instead.

    “Oh, so am I, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. So am I.” Carmichael smiled thinly.

    “I’ll pass your note to the Minister this very afternoon, Mister Ambassador,” Kolokoltsov promised curtly. “Was there anything else we should discuss?”

    “Actually, there is one other small matter, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary.” The Manticoran’s smile turned positively sharklike, and Kolokoltsov felt a stir of uneasiness.

    “And what might that ‘small matter’ be?” he inquired.

    “Well, it’s occurred to the Star Empire that while removing its merchant shipping from Solarian space represents the best way to avoid the potential of incidents between them and Solarian warships, we would be derelict in our responsibilities if we didn’t take measures to protect Solarian merchant shipping, as well.”

    “Protect Solarian shipping?” Kolokoltsov repeated a bit blankly, and Carmichael nodded.

    “Yes. It’s unfortunately true that public opinion in the Star Empire at this particular moment is very…exercised where the Solarian League is concerned. I’m sure you’ve had reports from your own ambassadors and attaches in the Star Empire about demonstrations, even some minor vandalism, I’m afraid. It’s all very sad, but understandable, I suppose.”

    His tone could have turned the Amazon Basin into a Sahara. His own embassy had been besieged literally for weeks by “spontaneous demonstrations” of Solarian citizens outraged by “Manticoran high-handedness” and demanding justice for Admiral Josef Byng and Fleet Admiral Sandra Crandall. Some of those demonstrations had turned even uglier than their organizers in the Ministry of Education and Information had intended.

    “At any rate, as the authorities here in Old Chicago have pointed out to my staff, it’s not always possible to constrain private citizens from acting on their anger and their outrage, however inappropriately placed those emotions may be and however hard the authorities try. Unhappily, that situation obtains in the Star Empire, as well. More than that, my government has decided that it’s absolutely imperative there be no further incidents until the current ones have been thoroughly investigated and resolved. While we don’t believe that the Royal Manticoran Navy was the instigator of any of the…episodes which have so far occurred, we’re aware that many in the Solarian League, including the Solarian League government, don’t share our belief. In fact, many of them believe the RMN was the aggressor in all of these unfortunate cases. To date, our own investigation doesn’t support that conclusion, but we aren’t completely prepared to rule it out. So my government has decided it will be best to separate our warships from proximity with your own…and with your merchant vessels, as well.”

    “You’re withdrawing all of your warships to Manticoran space?” Kolokoltsov said slowly.

    “No, I’m afraid that would be quite impossible, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. The Royal Navy’s responsibilities are far too widespread and demanding for us to do such a thing. Unhappily, that means our only alternative is to close all Manticoran warp termini to Solarian traffic, beginning immediately. Courier vessels and news service dispatch vessels will be allowed passage regardless of registry, but all Solarian registered freight carriers and passenger ships will, unfortunately, be denied passage until the current disputes are resolved.”


    The one-word question erupted from Kolokoltsov before he could stop himself. For the first time in decades, his carefully cultivated professional composure deserted him and he stared at the Manticoran incredulously.

    “You can’t be serious,” he said in a marginally more controlled tone. “That would be illegal. It would constitute an act of war!”

    “On the contrary, it’s completely legal, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary,” Carmichael replied coolly.

    “The Shingaine Convention on free passage mandates that all warp termini be open to all traffic,” Kolokoltsov shot back.

    “Does it?” Carmichael arched his eyebrows, then shrugged. “Well, I’m prepared to take your word for that, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. Unfortunately, the Star Empire of Manticore isn’t a signatory of the Shingaine Convention.” He smiled pleasantly. “Besides, it’s my understanding that that particular provision of the Convention has been violated several times already.”

    Kolokoltsov’s molars ground together. The Shingaine Convention had been sponsored by the Solarian League seventy T-years ago expressly as a means to pressure the then-Star Kingdom of Manticore. The Star Kingdom had already been beginning its preparations for its decades-long war against the People’s Republic of Haven, and it had demonstrated that it was only too prepared to use its control of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction as a lever to pressure the League’s foreign policy in its own favor if it decided that was necessary. The League wasn’t used to dancing to anyone else’s piping — it was supposed to provide the dance music in its relations with other star nations — so it had convened a meeting of “independent star nations” in the Shingaine System which had obediently produced the Shingaine Convention. The Solarian League had immediately recognized it as the basis of its “open door” policy, with the clear implication that it would enforce its interpretation of interstellar law by force if necessary.

    But as Carmichael had pointed out, the Star Empire had never signed it and so, technically, wasn’t bound by its provisions. Nor had Manticore ever shown any particular desire to kowtow to Solarian pressure on the matter. For that matter, as Carmichael had implied, the League would be on shaky ground if it did insist on enforcing those provisions, since the Office of Frontier Security had excluded independent Verge star systems from warp termini it controlled on several occasions over the last half-T-century or so as a means to pressure them into accepting OFS “protection.”

    “Whether or not the Star Empire considers itself bound by the terms of the Shingaine Convention,” Kolokoltsov said coldly, “this high-handed, unilateral, hostile action is not going to pass unremarked in the League. However you may care to dress it up, it does constitute an act of economic warfare, as your government is perfectly well aware, Mister Ambassador!”

    “I suppose it could be described that way,” Carmichael conceded judiciously. “On the other hand, it’s far less destructive than a salvo of laser heads, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary. My government has attempted from the very beginning to resolve the tensions between the Star Empire and the League without further bloodshed. Your government has steadfastly refused to meet us halfway. Or even a third of the way. Allow me to point out to you that however much damage your economy may suffer from the Star Empire’s reasonable and prudent acts to defuse further incidents, it will suffer far less than it would in an all-out war against the Royal Manticoran Navy. You may not believe me, but my government is trying to prevent that all-out war. We’ve tried diplomacy. We’ve tried the exchange of notes. We’ve offered joint investigations. We’ve provided you with detailed sensor records of the incidents which have occurred. None of that appears to have moved the Solarian League in any way.”

    He looked levelly across the desk at Kolokoltsov, and his eyes could have frozen helium.

    “The Star Empire of Manticore cannot dictate the Solarian League’s foreign policy to it, Mister Permanent Senior Undersecretary, nor will it attempt to. But it will pursue its own foreign policy, and if we cannot get you to listen to reason one way, we will seek another.”

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