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A Rising Thunder: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Friday, January 27, 2012 06:59 EST



April 1922 Post Diaspora

    “Everything we’ve ever seen out of the Manties suggests their first reaction to any threat, especially to their home system, is going to be to kill it.”

– Assistant Director of Defense Justyná Miternowski-Zhyang, Beowulf Planetary Board of Directors

    “Permanent Senior Undersecretary Kolokoltsov is here for his fifteen hundred, Mr. President.”

    “Ah! Excellent — excellent!” President Yeou Kun Chol, ostensibly the most powerful man in the entire Solarian League, beamed as Innokentiy Arsenovich Kolokoltsov (who arguably was the most powerful man in the entire League) followed Shania Lewis into his huge office. The president’s desk was bigger than most people’s beds, and he had to physically walk around it to get close enough to Kolokoltsov to offer his hand.

    “Thank you, Shania,” the president said to his personal secretary. “I think that will be all — unless there’s anything you need, of course, Innokentiy?”

    “No. No, thank you, Mr. President. I’m fine.”

    “Good. Good!” The president beamed some more and nodded to Lewis, who smiled politely, bestowed a slight bow on Kolokoltsov, and disappeared. “Sit, Innokentiy. Please,” Yeou continued as the expensive, inlaid door closed silently behind her.

    “Thank you, Mr. President.”

    Kolokoltsov obeyed the invitation, taking the comfortable biofeedback armchair facing the desk, and watched Yeou walk back around to his own throne-like chair. The president settled himself behind his desk once again, and the permanent senior undersecretary crooked a mental eyebrow.

    Yeou Kun Chol, in Innokentiy Kolokoltsov’s considered opinion, was pretty much an idiot. He’d attained his immensely prestigious (and utterly powerless) position because he knew when to smile for the cameras and because the true powerbrokers of the Solarian League knew he was a nonentity, the sort of person who would have been ineffectual even if his august office had retained a shadow of true power. There were other factors, of course. Including the fact that however ineffectual he might be, his family was immensely wealthy and wielded quite a lot of power behind the League’s façade of representative government. Letting him play with the pretty bauble of the presidency kept them happy and him from interfering with anything truly important (like the family business), which had paid off quite a few quiet debts. And to give the man his due, Yeou was sufficiently aware of reality to realize his office’s powers were far more ceremonial and symbolic than genuine.

    That was one reason it was unheard of for the president to actually invite a permanent senior undersecretary to an audience. He didn’t send “invitations” to them; they told him when they needed to see him for the sake of official appearances. And at any other meeting Kolokoltsov could think of, the president would have joined him, taking another of the palatial armchairs arranged in front of his desk to allow comfortably intimate conversations. He most definitely would not have re-seated himself behind the desk, and Kolokoltsov wondered exactly where the unusual attempt to assert some sort of formality — possibly even authority, if the thought hadn’t been too absurd for even Yeou to entertain — was headed.

    “Thank you for coming so promptly, Innokentiy,” Yeou said after a moment.

    “You’re welcome, of course, Mr. President.” Kolokoltsov smiled. There was no point being impolite now that he was here. As long as Yeou didn’t start meddling in things that were none of his affair, at least. “My time is yours, and your secretary indicated there was some urgency to your summons.”

    “Well, actually, there is some urgency to it, Innokentiy.” The president tipped back in his chair, elbows on its armrests, and frowned ever so minutely at the permanent senior undersecretary for foreign affairs. “I just wanted to discuss with you — get your feeling about, as it were — this business with the Manties.”

    “I beg your pardon, Mr. President?” Kolokoltsov couldn’t quite keep a trace of surprise out of his tone. “Ah, exactly which aspect of it, Sir?”

    Kolokoltsov was aware that in most star nations a head of state would already have been thoroughly briefed about his nation’s relationship with another star nation against whom it was very nearly in a state of war. Even for Kolokoltsov it was more an intellectual awareness than anything else, though. Yeou had received memos and reports from the permanent senior undersecretaries who were the League’s true policymakers, but no one had ever so much as considered presenting him with any sort of genuine briefing. For that matter, even under the dead letter of the Constitution, the office of the president had been almost entirely symbolic. Had anyone been paying any attention to the Constitution, Prime Minister Shona Gyulay would have been the actual head of government, and any briefings would have gone to her, not to Yeou.

    “I’ve read the reports, of course,” Yeou told him now. “And I appreciate your efforts — both yours and your civilian colleagues’, and Admiral Rajampet’s — to clarify the…unfortunate events which have led to our current situation.” The president’s expression sobered. “Naturally, I can’t pretend I’m happy thinking about all the people who have already lost their lives and where this all may be headed ultimately. But I must say I find myself particularly concerned at this moment about the Manticorans’ decision to recall all of their merchant vessels.” He shook his head, his expression even more sober. “It’s a bad business all around, Innokentiy, but I’m worried about the immediate consequences for our economy. So I was hoping you could sort of bring me up to date on exactly what’s been happening on that front.”



    “Yeou asked you about that?”

    Agatá Wodoslawski’s gray eyes widened, then narrowed speculatively as Kolokoltsov nodded. The attractive, red-haired permanent senior undersecretary of the treasury’s holo image sat directly across the virtual conference table from him. Actually, of course, she was seated behind her own desk in her own office, and now she sat back in her chair, shaking her head with the air of a woman who wondered what preposterous absurdity was going to happen next.

    “So he’s finally waked up to the fact that something’s going on with the Manties, has he?” Malachai Abruzzi’s holo image said sarcastically. The dark-haired, dark-eyed permanent senior undersecretary of information was a short, stocky man with powerful hands, one of which he now waved dismissively. “I’m dazzled by the force of his intellect.”

    “‘Dazzled’ may not be exactly the right word for it,” Permanent Senior Undersecretary of Commerce Omosupe Quartermain said, “but when you’ve been looking into a completely dark closet long enough, even a candle can seem blinding. And let’s face it, our beloved President is a very dark closet indeed,” she added, and Kolokoltsov smiled sourly.

    Between them, she, Abruzzi, Wodoslawski and Kolokoltsov represented four of what certain newsies — headed by that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned muckraker Audrey O’Hanrahan — had begun to call “the Five Mandarins.” O’Hanrahan had been forced to explain the term’s origin to her readership initially, but once she had it caught on quickly. Abruzzi’s publicity flaks were doing what they could to discourage its use, but it continued to spread with insidious inevitability. By now, even some of the tamer members of the Legislative Assembly were using it in news conferences and speeches.

    It wasn’t going to do them a lot of damage here on ancient, weary, cynical Old Terra. Old Terrans understood how the game was played, and they were far past the stage of expecting that ever to change. Besides, all politicians — and bureaucrats — were the same, really, weren’t they? And that being the case, better to stay with the mandarins you knew rather than stir up all the turmoil of trying to change a system which had worked for seven T-centuries.

    But there were other planets, other star systems, whose wells of cynicism weren’t quite so deep. There were even places where people still believed the delegates they elected to the League Assembly were supposed to govern the League. Once O’Hanrahan’s damned clever turn of phrase reached those star systems and they figured out what “mandarin” meant, the repercussions might be much more severe than here on the League’s capital planet.

    “I can’t fault your observation, Omosupe,” Wodoslawski said, “but why do I have the feeling this particular glimmer didn’t come from the force of his intellect at all?”

    “Because unlike him, you have a measurable IQ,” Kolokoltsov replied. “Although, to be honest, it did take me several minutes to realize I was basically talking to his family’s ventriloquist’s dummy.”

    “Ah!” Wodoslawski said. “The light dawns.”



    “Exactly.” Kolokoltsov nodded. “Yeou Transstellar has a lot invested in President Yeou.” And in all of us, as well, he carefully did not add out loud. “I’m inclined to think this is at least mostly a case of Kun Sang reminding us of that investment.”

    Quartermain and Abruzzi grimaced in understanding. Yeou Kun Sang was the president’s younger brother. He also happened to be on Old Terra at the moment (officially on a “personal family visit” to his older brother which just happened to have been announced as soon as word of the New Tuscany incidents hit his home world’s faxes) and the President and CEO of Yeou Transstellar Shipping. Yeou Transstellar was one of the Solarian League’s dozen largest interstellar shippers, and, like most of those shippers, it actually owned very few freighters. Its business model — like its competitors’ — relied on leasing cargo space from people who did own freighters…which meant that whether the great commercial dynasties of the Solarian League liked Manticore or not, they did a great deal of business with it.

    “I’m surprised Kun Sang didn’t go directly to you, Omosupe,” Abruzzi said after a moment.

    “So was I, at first,” Quartermain agreed. “But now that I think about it, Kun Sang’s always been inclined to stay out of the day-to-day details of managing the clan’s business with Commerce or Interior. And the Yeou family’s really old money, you know. They’ve been one of the first families of Sebastopol for the better part of a thousand years, and they like to pretend all that sordid business of trade is beneath them.”

    “Yeah. Sure it is.” Abruzzi rolled his eyes.

    “Well, part of the pretense is that everyone knows it’s only a pretense,” Quartermain pointed out. “And the fact that Kun Sang started out as a mere planetary manager and worked his way to the top tends to make it a bit more threadbare in the Yeous’ case. Still, now that he’s at the top, he’s more or less required by tradition to work through the interface of professional managers. The ‘hired hands’ that do all of those sordid, business-related things the aristocratic family doesn’t sully its own digits dealing with, especially where politics are concerned.”

    “Exactly,” Kolokoltsov agreed. “Which I think is part of the point he’s making, assuming I’m reading the situation accurately. He still keeping his thumbs out of the soup, but at the same time he’s letting us know — indirectly, at least — that he’s sufficiently concerned to be on the brink of coming into the open.”

    “Which, for a family that’s spent so much time operating in the Sebastopol mode, indicates a lot of concern,” Quartermain said soberly.

    “Exactly,” Kolokoltsov repeated. “I’m pretty sure Kun Chol was reading from a prepared script, and what it all came down to was finding out how much worse we expect this to get and how long we expect it to last.”

    “If we had the answer to either of those questions –” Abruzzi began, then cut himself off, shaking his head grimly.

    “I notice neither Rajampet nor Nathan has joined our little tête-à-tête,” Quartermain observed.

    “No, they haven’t, have they?” Kolokoltsov showed his teeth for a moment.

    Nathan MacArtney, the permanent senior undersecretary of the interior, was the fifth “Mandarin,” and Fleet Admiral Rajampet Kasul Rajani was the Solarian League’s chief of naval operations.

    “Is there a reason they haven’t?” Wodoslawski asked.

    “Nathan’s out of the office at the moment,” Kolokoltsov replied. “He’s on his way out to Elysium — family business, I think — and I don’t really trust the security of his communications equipment until he gets there. Besides, he’s already out beyond Mars orbit. The light-speed delay would be almost a minute and a half.” The permanent senior undersecretary of state shrugged. “I’ll see to it that he gets a complete transcript, of course.”

    “Of course.” Quartermain nodded. “And Rajampet?”

    “And I think we all already know what Rajampet’s contribution would be.” Kolokoltsov’s colleagues all grimaced at that one, and he shrugged. “Under the circumstances, I thought we could just take his excuses and posturing as a given and get on with business.”

    Quartermain nodded again, more slowly this time. The permanent senior undersecretary of commerce was a striking woman, with gunmetal gray hair and blue eyes that contrasted sharply with her very dark, almost black skin, but at the moment those blue eyes were narrowed in speculation. She had no doubt Nathan MacArtney was exactly where Kolokoltsov had said he was, but she wasn’t exactly blind to the fact that as much as MacArtney personally despised Fleet Admiral Rajampet Kaushal Rajani, he was also the closest thing to an ally Rajampet had among the civilian permanent senior undersecretaries who actually ruled the Solarian League. That was inevitable, really, given the fact that the Office of Frontier Security belonged to the Interior Ministry, which meant MacArtney’s personal empire was even more directly threatened than most by the specter of a successful “neobarb” star nation’s resistance to OFS’s plans. Not to mention the fact that Frontier Security’s entire position depended on the perceived omnipotence of the Solarian League Navy.

    “So what, exactly, is the point of this meeting, Innokentiy?” Wodoslawski asked.

    “I realize there’s not a lot we can do about the Manties’ shipping movements,” Kolokoltsov replied just a bit obliquely. “At the same time, I feel pretty confident that while Yeou Kun Sang may have been one of the first to ask those questions of his, he’s damned well not going to be the last. Under the circumstances, I think we ought to be thinking about how we want to respond — not just in private, Malachai, but publicly, with the newsies — when those other people start asking. And I’d appreciate it if you and Omosupe could give us a better feel for how bad this is really going to be, Agatá.”

    “Exactly what do you think we’ve been trying to do? Especially since your little tête-à-tête with that son-of-a-bitch Carmichael?” Wodoslawski demanded tartly, and he shrugged.

    “I know you’ve been warning us we were headed for trouble,” Kololokoltsov said in a slightly apologetic term. “And I may not’ve been paying as much attention as I should have. I’ve known it would be bad, but I haven’t really tried to conceptualize the numbers for myself, because it’s not my area of competence and I know it. I know they’re huge, but I’ve been a lot more focused on finding ways to prevent it from ever happening than on trying to really grasp numbers that big. I’m trying now, though, so could you go ahead and give it another try, please? What I’m looking for isn’t the reams of numbers and detailed alternate contingency estimates and analyses in all of those reports of yours but more of a broad overview. Something even an economic ignoramus can grasp. In that sort of terms, just how bad is this really likely to get?”

    “That depends on how far the Manties are prepared to push it, now doesn’t it?” Wodoslawski snorted. “We can give you a pretty fair estimate, I think, for what happens if they settle for simply recalling all their own shipping, though.” She raised her eyebrows at Quartermain as she spoke, then returned her attention to Kolokoltsov when the permanent senior undersecretary of commerce nodded. “And the short answer to that part of your question is that it will really, really suck.”

    “I’m not precisely sure what that technical term means,” Kolokoltsov told her with an off-center smile.

    “It means Felicia Hadley has a point,” Wodoslawski replied without any answering smile at all, and Kolokoltsov scowled.

    Felicia Hadley was the senior member of the Beowulf Delegation in the Legislative Assembly. That gelded body had exercised no real power in centuries, but it still existed, and Beowulf, unlike most of the League’s member systems, still took it seriously enough to send delegates who could seal their own shoes without printed instructions. Hadley was a prime example of that, and ever since the current crisis had begun, she’d been a persistent (and vociferous) critic of the government’s policies. She’d even formally moved that the Assembly empanel a special commission of its own to investigate exactly how those policies had come to be put into place! Fortunately, there’d been too few delegates present for a quorum when she made the motion, and Jasmine Neng, the Assembly Speaker (who, unlike Hadley, understood which side of her personal bread was buttered) had killed it on procedural grounds and removed it from the vote queue before most of the other delegates (or any of the ‘faxes) even realized it was there.



    It was equally fortunate the newsies knew as well as anyone that the Assembly possessed no real power, because God only knew what would have happened if they’d actually bothered to cover its sessions. If any of their stringers had been there to report Hadley’s passionate address to the empty seats of Assembly Hall the public might actually have believed what she was saying — might even have started insisting someone in a real policymaking position listen to her! Of course, there was no mechanism for that to happen, but a lot of the Solarian electorate didn’t realize that.

    Hadley had also been warning anyone who would listen from the beginning that the League was playing with economic fire. She’d actually produced numbers to support her allegations, although Kolokoltsov hadn’t paid a lot of attention to them. He hadn’t needed her to tell him it would be bad, and as he’d just admitted, he wasn’t a number-cruncher, anyway. He’d accepted Wodoslawski and Quartermain’s warnings that the situation was potentially serious, but he’d left that side up to them while he concentrated on trying to control the non-economic aspects of the crisis. After all, if he’d only been able to convince the Manties to see sense, they wouldn’t have pushed things to this point in the first place. The way he’d seen it, all he really needed to know was that there would be serious consequences if he couldn’t make the Manties recognize reality, and to be honest, he hadn’t wanted the distraction of dealing with hard potential numbers like the ones Hadley had been throwing around. Now, though…

    “So how good a point does she have?”

    “A damned good one, and if you’d actually read the reports my staff’s been generating for the last couple of T-months, you’d already know that.” Wodoslawski said bluntly. “Better than two thirds of our total interstellar commerce — the percentage is higher for freight; lower for passengers and information — travels in Manticore-registered bottoms at some point in the transport cycle, Innokentiy. Almost thirty percent of it travels in Manty ships all the way from point of origin to final destination; another twenty-seven percent travels in Manty bottoms for between thirty and fifty percent of the total voyage. And another ten or fifteen percent of it travels in Manty bottoms for up to a quarter of the total transit.” Her expression was that of someone smelling something which had been dead for several days. “As you can see, simply pulling their own shipping out of the loop will reduce our available interstellar lift by better than half.”

    Kolokoltsov looked profoundly unhappy, and Quartermain made a sound halfway between a snort of amusement and a grunt of disgust.

    “Agatá and I have been telling and telling all of you the Manties are in a position to inflict plenty of grief on us,” she pointed out. “And I have to add that the figure she just gave you is what we’re looking at if the Manties simply decide to go home and take their ships with them. Now that they’re closing their termini to our shipping, it’s not just the reduction in the number of hulls available to us; it’s how much longer those hulls are going to take to reach their destinations. If transit times double, effective lift gets cut in half, which means things are going to get worse. A lot worse. Unfortunately, how much worse is impossible to predict at this point, to be honest. The shipping networks have always been incredibly complex and fluid, and I don’t think anyone could give us hard numbers on just how badly simply taking the Manty-controlled termini out of it is going to extend shipping times. I can tell you it’s going to be bad, though. And that assumes they stop at closing just their termini.”

    Kolokoltsov lips tightened at her last sentence.

    Reports of withdrawing Manticoran shipping had been trickling into news accounts for weeks. Although Lyman Carmichael had officially informed Old Chicago of the Star Empire’s decision to recall all its freighters and passenger liners only the week before, it was obvious the order must have gone out at least a couple of T-months earlier than that — probably as soon as word of the Battle of Spindle reached Manticore. It had taken people a while to notice what was going on, mostly because the delay in transmitting instructions across such vast distances, even with Manticore’s commanding position in the wormhole network, meant the recall had reached its recipients piecemeal. By this time, though, the trickle of withdrawing Manticoran merchant vessels had become a flood. More newsies than just O’Hanrahan had picked up on it now, and Kolokoltsov wondered how those newsies were going to react once it finally leaked out that the Star Empire had officially notified the League of its intention to close all Manticoran wormhole termini to Solarian-registry vessels.

    Rajampet, predictably, had waved off the threat. It was only to be expected, he’d pointed out, and while it might be an inconvenience for the League, the impact on the Manties themselves would be even worse, given how huge a percentage of their total economy depended on servicing Solarian shipping needs. Besides, it would only be temporary — just until the SLN got around to pinning back the Manties’ ears and taking control of the wormhole network for itself.

    Funny how the man in command of the navy responsible for protecting Solarian commerce can be so blasé about watching that commerce go right down the crapper, Kolokoltsov thought bitterly. I guess he doesn’t see what’s happening as the Navy’s fault. After all, no one’s actively raiding our shipping, now are they? Although exactly what else we should be calling what happened at Zunker eludes me.

    The reports from Zunker and Nolan had arrived, almost simultaneously, over the weekend, and the newsies hadn’t yet picked up on them. That wasn’t going to last, though, and it was hard for Kolokoltsov to decide which incident would ultimately prove more infuriating to the Solarian public. The Zunker Terminus was officially the territory of a Manticoran ally, so closing it to Solarian traffic presented no gray areas. The Idahoans hadn’t signed the Shingaine Convention either, which meant were arguably within their rights under interstellar law to deny terminus access to anyone they chose. And they were also within their rights to request the Royal Manticoran Navy’s assistance in enforcing that decision. The fact that the local Manty commander had actually fired on Solarian battlecruisers showed just how far the Star Empire was prepared to escalate things, however, and the “insult” was going to arouse a passionate fury in at least some of the League’s citizens, especially those with whom Abruzzi’s propaganda had been most successful. Unfortunately, other members of that same citizenry were going to realize it wouldn’t have happened if that fool Floyd hadn’t pushed things. Even more unfortunately, some of them were going to figure out the Manty commander had deliberately not blown Admiral Pyun’s battlecruisers out of space. When they recognized the implications of that…

    As far as public opinion was concerned, though, what had happened at Nolan might be even worse. Unlike Zunker, the Nolan Terminus was claimed by the Solarian League, not by the Manties or one of their allies. And when the terminus astro control staff — all of them Solarians — had refused transit to the Manticoran freighters queuing up to return home (he made a mental note to remind Abruzzi to play down any references to the Shingaine Convention when he spun that one), the Manty naval commander had marched them to their personal quarters almost literally at pulser point and put his own people aboard the command platforms. And then he’d offered to blow away the local Frontier Fleet detachment if it tried to intervene! Kolokoltsov could already hear how the ‘faxes were going to play up that “blatant act of aggression” in Solarian space!

    “How much of the League’s gross product are we talking about here, Omosupe?” Abruzzi asked, and Kolokoltsov felt a flicker of surprise as he realized he’d never asked the same question.

    “Damned near twenty percent of our total gross product depends entirely on our interstellar commerce,” Quartermain said in a flat tone. “Another fifteen percent will, at the very least, be seriously impacted.”

    “And,” Wodoslawski added grimly, “something Rajampet seems to have failed to keep in mind is that seventy percent of all federal revenue derives directly or indirectly from shipping duties and tariffs. The other thirty percent derives primarily from protectorate service fees.”



    Which meant, as her listeners understood perfectly well, the tribute extracted from OFS’s empire of protectorate star systems. That particular revenue stream was scarcely what anyone might have called enormous compared to the League’s overall economy, but it was stupendous in absolute terms, and it belonged entirely to the League’s bureaucracies. That was one reason — indeed, the reason, really — Frontier Security had been allowed to build its empire in the first place. And, of course, it was also the primary reason nothing could be permitted to undermine the League’s grip on the protectorates, which had been the entire reason for the belligerent policy which had gotten them into this mess in the first place.

    Unbelievable, Kolokoltsov thought for far from the first time. Unbelievable that the monumental stupidity of just two people could set something like this in motion!

    Of course, a small corner of his brain reminded him, not even Josef Byng and Sandra Crandall could have brought the League to such a pass without the help of Kolokoltsov and his fellow Mandarins.

    Damn it, now I’m starting to use the word! He thought disgustedly.

    “So you’re telling us we’re in a position to lose up to thirty percent of the entire League’s gross product?!” Abruzzi asked incredulously.

    “We’re telling you we’re already losing a big chunk of that thirty-five percent,” Quartermain replied. “Exactly how big a chunk we won’t know until the dust settles and we see how much damage the Manties have actually done us. But I don’t want anyone thinking that’s all that’s going to happen. There’ll be a ripple effect across our entire economy, one that’s going to lead to a significant drop in activity in almost every sector if it lasts more than a very short time. And, as Agatá’s just pointed out, even in a best case scenario, this is going to hammer federal revenues. Most of the system governments won’t be hurt all that badly at first, thank God, but if this goes on for two or three quarters, that’s going to change.”

    “Shit,” Abruzzi muttered.

    “There are a couple of brighter spots buried in all this,” Quartermain said after a moment. “As Rajampet’s pointed out often enough, what’s going to hurt us badly will hurt the Manties themselves worse. In a lot of ways, this really is a case of their having cut off their noses to spite their faces, as my momma used to say. And that’s just looking at the immediate economic and financial impact. If they throw us back on our own shipping resources, and if they close the wormholes so that we need more shipping than ever to meet our requirements, it’s got to lead to a huge upsurge in our own shipbuilding. Eventually, our merchant marine will have to expand to fill the vacuum, and once that happens, it’ll be difficult for Manticore to ever maneuver itself into a similar stranglehold position again.”

    “Assuming there’s still a Manticore to do any maneuvering,” Wodoslawski added.

    “Exactly,” Kolokoltsov said bleakly. He surveyed his colleagues’ faces for several moments, then sighed.

    “Assuming Rajani’s strategy with Filareta works, all of this becomes a moot point. Assuming it doesn’t work, things are going to get a lot uglier before they get any better. In fact, my greatest concern right now is that if the Manties basically tell Filareta to pound sand — and, worse, if it turns out Rajani was wrong about their ability to make that stick — we’re going to find it difficult to revert to that ‘short of war’ diplomatic stance.”

    Heads nodded in glum agreement, and Kolokoltsov castigated himself again for allowing Rajampet’s opportunism to seduce him into accepting the CNO’s strategy. He should have known better than to listen! Yet given what had happened to the Manties’ home system, the temptation to double down had been overwhelming. Surely their morale had to crack under the one-two punch of such a devastating assault and the realization that the League wasn’t going to back off! It had to be that way, didn’t it?

    And it still may be. Sure, they’re recalling their freighters and closing their termini, but they’re doing all that with no idea Filareta’s close enough to hit them this quickly. When he turns up in their own backyard, things could change in a hurry.


    “If the Manties don’t cave, and if we’re looking at this kind of nosedive in revenues, can we go back to that position at all?” Abruzzi’s question put Kolokoltsov’s own thoughts into words.

    “I don’t know,” the permanent senior undersecretary of state said frankly, and Abruzzi scowled.

    Kolokoltsov didn’t blame him. He still wasn’t positive his own proposed strategy — buying time by negotiating “more in sorrow than in anger” until the Navy acquired weapons capable of offsetting the Manties’ tactical advantages — would have worked, when all was said. Patience was not a Solarian virtue, especially where “neobarbs” were concerned. That was one reason he’d been convinced to back Rajampet’s new strategy, despite its potential to restrict his future options. But until this moment, he hadn’t fully realized how badly a failure by Filareta would restrict them.

    If the Manties defeated Filareta — and especially if they also turned the economic screws Wodoslawski and Quartermain were describing — it would be impossible to convince the public that a return to diplomacy stemmed from anything but fear of still worse to come. It would be seen as an admission of impotence. Of ineffectuality. And that was the kiss of death. If the people running the League couldn’t demonstrate they were doing something effective, the electorate might start listening to loose warheads like Hadley and demanding changes. Even completely leaving aside personal consequences, the potential for political and constitutional disaster that represented was terrifying.

    “I don’t know,” he repeated. “I do know that if Rajani’s brainstorm turns into a spectacular failure — another spectacular failure, I should say — the situation isn’t going to improve! In fact, we may find ourselves essentially forced to do what Rajani wanted to do in the first place.”

    “Whoa!” Wodoslawski stared at him. “I thought we were all in agreement that just serving up the Navy as target practice for Manty missiles was what they call a losing proposition, Innokentiy!”

    “We still are. But whatever else may have happened, the Manties have to’ve lost a lot of their missile manufacturing capacity. Rajani has to be right about that, even if he’s wrong about everything else! So the odds are that they’d have to stand on the defensive, rather than coming after us, at least until they’re able to regenerate their industrial base. And as we’ve just been saying, they’ll be trying to do that at a time when they’ve cut off the lion’s share of their own interstellar cash flow.”

    “And this helps us exactly how?” Abruzzi asked.

    “It means they can’t reach just down our throats and rip out our lungs,” Kolokoltsov said flatly. “Not right away, at least. It gives us time to work on ways to negate their combat advantages. For that matter, it gives us time to see if their economy can survive, especially after so much of their home system got clear-cut. And, if we spin it right, we can use what they’ve done to our shipping routes to explain why we’re not yet in a position to take the war to them. Why we have to ‘hold the line’ until our economy and naval logistics recover from their ‘treacherous blow.’ And –”

    “And at the same time we focus the anger over the economic meltdown on them, not us!” Abruzzi interjected, and Kolokoltsov nodded.

    “That’s still going to be tough to pull off,” Quartermain pointed out, blue eyes narrow.

    “No question,” Kolokoltsov acknowledged. “And I can think of a few of our member systems who won’t do a thing to make it any easier.”

    Quartermain’s mouth tightened, her eyes glittering with more than a hint of anger, and Kolokoltsov snorted.

    “We always knew that was at least a possibility, Omosupe. And I’ve been thinking about ways to, ah, rectify the situation.”

    “Oh?” Quartermain cocked her head. “And have any solutions suggested themselves to you?”

    “As a matter of fact, one or two have reared their heads,” Kolokoltsov said. “In fact, one of them came from Rajani, although I rather doubt he’s been thinking about it the same way I have. Let me explain…”

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