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Chapter Forty-Seven

"Thank you for finding room in your schedule so promptly, Minister," Sir Lyman Carmichael said as Foreign Minister Marcelito Lorenzo Roelas y Valiente's private secretary ushered him into the stupendous office.

That office offered enough square meters for a basketball game, Carmichael thought more than a tad sourly . . . and with very little exaggeration. Which, given that property values in the city of Old Chicago, the capital of the Solarian League, were almost certainly the highest in the explored galaxy, made the office's size an even more ostentatious statement of its inhabitant's status.

Of course, he reflected, status and power aren't always exactly the same thing, are they? Especially here in the League.

"Well," Roelas y Valiente replied, standing behind his desk—which was no larger than a standard air car—and extending his hand, "your message sounded fairly urgent, Mr. Ambassador."

"Yes, I'm afraid it is. Rather urgent, I mean," Carmichael said, shaking the foreign minister's hand.

Roelas y Valiente allowed his well-trained expression to show at least a trace of concern, and indicated one of the two armchairs on Carmichael's side of his desk.

"In that case, please make yourself comfortable and tell me about it," the Foreign Minister invited.

"Thank you, Minister."

Carmichael's voice was a bit warmer than it might have been in the presence of another senior member of the Gyulay Government.

Roelas y Valiente was the youngest member of Prime Minister Shona Gyulay's cabinet—not even out of his sixties yet, which made him the next best thing to thirty T-years younger than Carmichael himself—and unlike most of his fellows, he obviously felt a sense of responsibility for the proper discharge of his office. That was a pleasant and unexpected surprise here in the Solarian League. He also appeared to be at least reasonably competent, which (in Sir Lyman Carmichael's considered opinion) was an even greater surprise in such a senior League politician.

It was unfortunate that someone who possessed both of those virtues was as much a prisoner of his office's limitations as the stupidest and most corrupt demagogue could have been. There were times when Carmichael, as a bureaucrat (or call it a "career civil servant," if it sounded better) himself, felt a certain envy for his Solarian counterparts. At least they didn't have to worry about the possibility of some unqualified buffoon (like, for example, one Baron High Ridge and his cronies) managing to delude enough voters into sharing his own fantasies of competence so that they gave him actual decision-making power. Some things were more likely than others, but the possibility of any mere elected official exercising genuine power in the Solarian League at the federal level were about as likely as water suddenly deciding to flow uphill without benefit of counter-gravity.

And that, despite any occasional whimsical fantasies Carmichael might entertain, was the true reason someone like a Josef Byng could rise to flag rank, or someone like a Lorcan Verrochio could become a commissioner in something like the Office of Frontier Security. When no "unqualified buffoon" could be given effective power by the electorate, neither could anyone else. And when those who exercised true power were unaccountable to voters, they could not be removed from power, either. The consequences of that were unbridled empire building, corruption, and lack of accountability, all of them as inevitable as sunrise, and bureaucrat himself or not, Sir Lyman Carmichael knew which type of system he preferred.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the type of system the Solarian Constitution had created . . . a fact of which, he never doubted, Roelas y Valiente was even more aware than he was. The authors of the Solarian League's Constitution had represented literally scores of already inhabited, thoroughly settled star systems. Some of those star systems had been colonized a thousand years before the League's creation. All of them had seen the advantages of regulating interstellar trade, of creating a single interstellar currency, of crafting effective regulatory agencies to keep an eye on interstellar finance and investment, of combining their efforts to extradite interstellar criminals, suppress piracy, and enforce things like the Eridani Edict and the Deneb Accords. But they'd also had an entire millennium of self-government, an entire millennium of developing their own planetwide and systemwide senses of identity. Their primary loyalties had been to their own worlds, their own governments, not to some new galaxy-wide super government, and none of them had been willing to surrender their hard-earned sovereignty and individual identities to anyone—not even to the mother-world of all humanity—just to create a more effective regulatory climate. And so they had carefully crafted a constitution designed to deprive the League's central government of any coercive power. They had eviscerated the federal government's political power by granting every single full member of the League veto power; any star system had the legal power to kill any legislative act of which it disapproved, which had turned the League Assembly into nothing more than a debating society. And the same constitution had prohibited the League from imposing any direct taxation upon its citizens.

The intent had been to provide the member star systems with the ability to protect themselves from any sort of despotic central authority, on the one hand, and to systematically starve the potentially coercive arms of that central authority of the sort of funding which might have allowed them to encroach upon the rights of the League's citizens, on the other.

Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences had refused to be evaded. The universal right of veto had, indeed, eviscerated the political powers of the League, but that very success had created a dangerous vacuum. For the League simply to survive, far less provide the services which its founders had envisioned, there had to be some central power to manage the necessary bureaucracy. It was really a very simple choice, Carmichael reflected. Either some central power emerged, or the League simply ceased to function. So, since the Solarians had systematically precluded the possibility of running the League by statute, they were forced to turn to bureaucratic regulation, instead.

And it worked. In effect, the bureaucracies became self-directed, and for a while—a century or two—they functioned not simply effectively, but well and even more or less honestly. Unfortunately, the people running those bureaucracies had discovered an interesting omission in the Constitution. Acts of the Assembly could be vetoed by any full member system, which meant there was no probability of a statutory despotism, but there was no provision for the veto or repeal of regulations. That would have required the statutory creation of someone or something with the power to repeal or reform the regulations, and the bureaucrats had cultivated far too many friends and cozy "special relationships" for that ever to happen. And while the federal government could enact no direct taxation measures, there'd been no constitutional prohibition of regulatory fees or indirect taxes—imposed by regulation, not statute—on businesses or interstellar commerce. To be sure, all of the League's federal funds combined represented an absurdly small percentage of the Sollies' Gross Interstellar Product, but given the staggering size of the League's GIP, even a tiny percentage represented a stupendous absolute cash flow.

There'd been actual attempts at political reform, but the bureaucrats who wrote the League's regulations, who managed its appointments and the distribution of its expenditures, had always been able to find someone willing to exercise his veto authority to strangle those efforts in the cradle. And always out of sheer, selfless, disinterested statesmanship, of course.

Still, there were appearances to maintain, here in the kabuki theater that passed for the Solarian League's government. Carmichael knew that, yet he felt an undeniable sensation of regret for what he knew he was about to inflict on this particular Solarian.

"Forgive me," Roelas y Valiente said as Carmichael laid the traditional and thoroughly anachronistic briefcase in his lap. "I completely forgot to ask if I could offer you some refreshment, Mr. Ambassador."

"No, thank you, Minister."

Carmichael shook his head with a smile of appreciation for the Foreign Minister's offer. Quite a few of his fellow ministers, Carmichael suspected, would have "forgotten" to make any such offer to a neobarb ambassador, regardless of the wealth and commercial power of the star nation he represented. In Roelas y Valiente's case, however, that forgetfulness had been completely genuine. It was rather refreshing, really, to deal with a senior Solly politician who didn't seem compelled to look for ways to put "neobarbs" in their proper place. Which only lent added point to Carmichael's regret this morning.

Now, as Roelas y Valiente nodded acknowledgment of his polite refusal and sat back in his own chair, Carmichael opened the briefcase and extracted its contents: a computer-chip folio and a single envelope of thick, cream-yellow parchment bearing the Star Kingdom of Manticore's arms and the archaic wax seal tradition required. He held them both in his hands for a moment, gazing down at them. The envelope was heavier than the folio, even though it contained no more than three sheets of paper, and he found himself wondering why in the galaxy high-level diplomacy continued to insist upon the physical exchange of hardcopy documents. Since the content of those hardcopy documents was always transmitted electronically at the same time, and since no one ever bothered to actually read the paper copies (except, perhaps, at the highest levels when they were initially handed over, and it was deplorably gauche for a foreign minister to just rip a note open and read it in the ambassador's presence, anyway), why were the damned things sent in the first place?

That was a question he'd asked himself more than once over the half T-century and more of his service in the Manticoran diplomatic corps. It was also one which had become rather more relevant to his own activities in the seven T-months since Admiral James Webster's assassination had made him the Manticoran ambassador to the League. There'd been more than enough exchanges of diplomatic correspondence (although, to be fair, most of it had been exchanged at a level considerably lower than this) since the Battle of Monica. Especially once the Manticorans' discoveries about the involvement of Manpower and Technodyne in the Talbott Quadrant had come to light. No doubt Roelas y Valiente expected this to be more of the same, and despite his pleasantly attentive expression, he couldn't possibly have been looking forward to receiving it. Yet Carmichael devoutly wished that "more of the same" was all he was about to hand the foreign minister. Unfortunately . . .

"I'm afraid that I've come to call on you concerning a very grave matter, Minister," he said in a much more formal tone. "There's been an incident—an extremely serious incident—between Her Majesty's armed forces and the Solarian League Navy."

Roelas y Valiente's polite expression transformed itself almost instantly into an impenetrable mask, but not instantly enough for someone with Carmichael's experience to miss the shock—and astonishment—that flared in his eyes first.

"This," Carmichael continued, indicating the chip folio, "contains complete sensor records of what occurred. At Foreign Secretary Langtry's instructions, I've reviewed them personally, with the assistance of Captain Deangelo, my naval attach'e. While I'm obviously less qualified in these matters than Admiral Webster was—or, for that matter, than Captain Deangelo is—I believe they clearly demonstrate the background circumstances, the sequence of events, and their outcome."

He paused for just a moment, letting what he'd already said settle in, then drew a deep breath.

"Minister," he said slowly, "I'm afraid we find ourselves facing the very real probability of a direct military confrontation between the Solarian League and the Star Empire of Manticore. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that we've already had one."

Despite Roelas y Valiente's best efforts, his facial muscles twitched and his nostrils flared. Aside from that, however, there might have been a marble statue seated in his chair.

"Just under one month ago, on October twenty-first," Carmichael continued, "in the system of New Tuscany, three Manticoran destroyers—"

"Jesus Christ," Innokentiy Arsenovich Kolokoltsov muttered, suppressing an urge to crumple his own copy of the official Manticoran note in his fist. "What was that goddammed idiot thinking?"

"Which one?" Nathan MacArtney asked dryly. "Byng? Prime Minister V'ezien? That Manticoran klutz—what's-his-name . . . Chatterjee, or whatever? Or one of the other assorted Manticoran idiots involved in handing us something like this?"

"Any of them—all of them!" Kolokoltsov snarled. He glared down at the note for a few more incandescent seconds, then flipped it angrily—and contemptuously—onto the deck of the third member of their little group.

"I admit none of them seem to have exactly covered themselves with glory," Omosupe Quartermain observed with a grimace, picking up the discarded note as if he'd deposited a small, several-days-dead rodent in the middle of her blotter, "but I wouldn't have believed even Manties could be stupid enough to hand us something like this!"

"And why not?" Malachai Abruzzi demanded with an even more disgusted grimace. "They've been getting progressively more uppity for years now—ever since they managed to extort that frigging 'technology embargo' against Haven out of your people, Omosupe."

Quartermain gave him a moderately scathing look, but she didn't deny his analysis. None of them did, and Kolokoltsov forced himself to step back and consider the present situation as dispassionately as he could.

None of the four people in Quartermain's office had ever stood for election in his or her life, yet they represented the true government of the Solarian League, and they knew it. Kolokoltsov was the permanent senior undersecretary for foreign affairs. McCartney was the permanent senior undersecretary of the interior; Quartermain was the permanent senior undersecretary of commerce; and Abruzzi was the permanent senior undersecretary of information. The only missing member of the quintet which dominated the Solarian League's sprawling bureaucracy was Agat'a Wodoslawski, the permanent senior undersecretary of the treasury, who was out-system at the moment, representing the League at a conference on Beowulf. No doubt she would have expressed her own disgust as vehemently as her colleagues if she'd been present, and equally no doubt, she was going to be more than moderately pissed off at having missed this meeting, Kolokoltsov reflected.

Unfortunately, she was just going to have to live with whatever her four colleagues decided in her absence. And they were going to have to decide something, he thought sourly. It came with the territory, since—as every true insider thoroughly understood—it was the five of them who actually ran the Solarian League . . . whatever the majority of the Solarian electorate might fondly imagine. Politicians came and went, changing in an ever shifting shadow play whose sole function was to disguise the fact that the voters' impact on the League's policies ranged somewhere from minute to totally nonexistent.

There were moments, although they were extraordinarily infrequent, when Kolokoltsov almost—almost—regretted that fact. It would have been extremely inconvenient for the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, of course, and the consequences for his personal and family wealth would have been severe. Still, it would have been nice to be part of a governing structure that wielded direct, overt authority rather than skulking about in the shadows. Even if they were extraordinarily lucrative and luxurious shadows.

"All right," he said out loud, and twitched his shoulders in something that wasn't quite a shrug. "We're all agreed they're idiots. The question is what we do about it."

"Shouldn't we have Rajampet—or at least Kingsford—in here for this?" MacArtney asked.

"Rajampet's not available," Kolokoltsov replied. "Or, not for a face-to-face meeting, at any rate. And do you really want to be discussing this with anyone electronically, Nathan?"

"No," MacArtney said after a moment, his expression thoughtful. "No, I don't believe I do, Innokentiy."

"That's what I thought." Kolokoltsov smiled thinly. "We probably could get Kingsford in here if we really wanted to. But given how close all of those 'First Families of Battle Fleet' are, he's not likely to be what you might call a disinterested expert, now is he? Besides, what do you really think he could offer at this point that we don't already have from the damned Manties?"

MacArtney grimaced in understanding. So did the others, although Quartermain's sour expression was even more disgruntled than than anyone else's. She'd spent twenty T-years with the Kalokainos Line before she'd entered the ranks of the federal bureaucracy. The others had spent their professional lives dealing with the often arthritic flow of information over interstellar distances, and all of them had amassed far too much experience of the need to wait for reports and the dispatches to make their lengthy, snaillike way to the League's capital planet. But there was more to it for Quartermain, especially this time around. Her earlier private-sector experience—not to mention her current public-sector responsibilities—had all too often brought her nose-to-nose with the Star Kingdom of Manticore's dominance of the wormhole network that moved both data and commerce about the galaxy. She was more accustomed than the others to dealing with the consequences of how that dominance put Manticore inside the loop of the League's communications and carrying trade, and she didn't like it a bit.

In this instance, however, all of them were unpleasantly aware that it was going to take much longer for any message traffic from the League's own representatives in the vicinity of the Talbott Sector to reach them. Which meant that at the moment all they had to go on was the content of the Manticorans' "note" and the sensor data they had provided.

"And how much credence do we want to place in anything the Manties have to say?" Quartermain demanded sourly, as if she'd been following Kolokoltsov's thoughts right along with him.

"Let's not get too paranoid, Omosupe," Abruzzi said dryly. She glowered at him, and he shrugged. "I'm not saying I'd put it past them to . . . tweak the information, let's say. But they're not really idiots, you know. Lunatics, maybe, yes, if they actually mean what they've said in this note, but not idiots. Sooner or later we're going to have access to Byng's version of the data. You know that, and so do they. Do you really think they'd falsify the data they've already given us knowing that eventually we'll be able to check it with our own sources?"

"Sure they would," Quartermain retorted, her dark-complexioned face tight with intense dislike. "Hell, I shouldn't have to tell you that, Malachai! You know better than anyone else how much the successful manipulation of a political situation depends on manipulating the public version of information."

"Yes, I do," he agreed. His position made him effectively the League's chief propagandist, and he'd manipulated more than a little information of his own in his time. "But so do the Manties, unless you want to suggest that they haven't built themselves a very effective public relations position right here on Old Terra? And let's not even get into the contacts they have on Beowulf!"

"So?" Quartermain demanded.

"So they're not stupid enough to hand us information that's demonstrably falsified," he said with exaggerated patience. "It's easy enough to produce selective data, especially for a PR campaign, and I'm sure they're very well aware of that. But from what Innokentiy's been telling us, they seem to have given us the entire sensor files, from beginning to end, and the complete log of Byng's original communication with the Manties when they arrived in New Tuscany. They wouldn't have done that if they hadn't known our own people's sensor records and com logs were eventually going to confirm the same information. Not when there's any possibility that the information's going to leak to the newsies."

"Probably not," MacArtney said. "On the other hand, that's one of the things about this entire situation that most bothers me, Malachai."

"What is?" Abruzzi frowned.

"The fact that they haven't already handed this to the newsies," MacArtney explained. "It's obvious from their note that they're pissed off as hell, and, frankly, if the data's accurate, I would be, too, in their place. So why not go straight to the media and try to turn up the pressure on us?"

"Actually," Kolokoltsov said, "I think the fact that they didn't do that may be the one slightly hopeful sign in this entire damned mess. However angry their note may sound, they're obviously bending over backward to avoid inflaming the situation any farther."

"You're probably right," Abruzzi said. "Of course, the question is why they might be trying to avoid that."

"Hah!" Quartermain snorted harshly. "I think that's probably simple enough, Malachai. They're accusing an SLN admiral of destroying three of their ships, and they're demanding explanations, 'accountability,' and—by implication, at least—reparations. They're not going to want to go public with something like that."

"For someone who doesn't 'want to go public' they seem to be perfectly willing to push things," MacArtney pointed out. "Or did you miss the bit about this admiral of theirs they're sending off to New Tuscany?"

"No, I didn't miss it, Nathan." Quartermain and MacArtney had never really cared for each other at the best of times, and the smile she gave him was thin enough to sever his windpipe. "But I also observed that they're sending only six of their own battlecruisers, whereas Byng has thirteen. Do you honestly believe they're stupid enough to think a Solarian flag officer is going to tamely surrender to a force he outnumbers two-to-one?"

She snorted again, more harshly than before, and MacArtney shook his head.

"I don't know if they are or not, Omosupe. But I do know that the mere fact that they're sending one of their own admirals off to issue what are clearly demands, not requests, to a Solarian task force is going to raise the stakes all around. If Byng's already fired on their warships, and if they send still more warships into the area to press demands against him, then they're clearly willing to escalate. Or to risk escalation, at least. And as they've pointed out in their note, what Byng's already done can certainly be construed as an act of war. If they're already making that point to us, and if they're ready to risk escalation, then I'd have to say that I don't see any reason to assume they're not prepared to see all this hit the 'faxes eventually."

His expression was unwontedly serious, Kolokoltsov realized. Then again, he might well be feeling a little excessively gun-shy at the moment. In fact, Kolokoltsov took just a bit of vindictive satisfaction from the thought that MacArtney might be feeling a certain degree of . . . anxiety. As far as Kolokoltsov was concerned, the Office of Frontier Security clearly ought to have come under the authority of the Foreign Ministry, since it spent so much time dealing with star systems which weren't officially part of the League just yet. Unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry had lost that particular fight long, long ago, and OFS was officially part of the Interior Ministry. He could see the logic, even if he didn't much care for it, since like the Gendarmerie—which was also part of the Interior Ministry—Frontier Security was effectively an internal security agency of the League.

And at this particular moment, that wasn't necessarily such a bad thing in Innokentiy Kolokoltsov's considered opinion, either, given the hullabaloo over that business in Monica. Which, now that he thought about it, probably also helped to explain why Quartermain was even more pissed than usual where Manticore was concerned. The revelations about Technodyne and its collusion with Mesa had quite a few of her colleagues over at Commerce all hot and bothered. Attorney General Brangwen Ronayne had actually had to indict several people, and that was always messy. After all, one never knew when one of those under indictment was going to turn out to have embarrassing connections to one's self or other members of one's ministry. The folks over at Justice would do what they could, of course, but Ronayne wasn't really the sharpest stylus in the box. There was always the distinct possibility that something might slip past her, or even evade Abruzzi and make its way into the public datanets, with potentially . . . unpleasant consequences even for a permanent senior undersecretary.

Still, those occasional teapot tempests were a fact of life in the League. They were going to happen from time to time, and MacArtney and Quartermain were just going to have to suck it up and get on with business.

"As I say," he said just a bit loudly, retaking control of the conversation, "the fact that they haven't said anything to the newsies yet probably indicates one of two things. Either, as Omosupe says, they're trying to avoid pumping any hydrogen into the fire because of its potential for blowing up in their faces, or else they're trying to avoid pumping any hydrogen into the fire because what they really want is to get this whole thing resolved before the public ever finds out about it. In fact, those two possibilities aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, now are they?"

"Not so far, at any rate," MacArtney replied. "But if there's another exchange of fire, or if Byng tells this Admiral Gold Peak to kiss his arse, that could change."

"Oh, come on, Nathan!" Abruzzi snorted. "You know Omosupe and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but let's be realistic here. It's obvious Byng is an idiot, all right? Let's be honest among ourselves. Anyone who fires on warships just sitting there in a parking orbit without even having their wedges on line is clearly a nut job, although I'm sure that if our good friend Admiral Kingsford were here he'd find some way to explain this whole thing away as a completely reasonable action. Obviously it couldn't possibly have been the fault of one of his Battle Fleet friends or relations, could it?"

He rolled his eyes expressively. Malachai Abruzzi was not among the Navy's greatest admirers.

"But unlike Kingsford or Rajampet, we're not handicapped by having to defend Byng's actions, so why don't we go ahead and acknowledge, just among ourselves, that he overreacted and killed a bunch of Manties he didn't have to kill?"

He looked around at the others' faces for a moment, then shrugged.

"All right, so the Manties are pissed off. Well, that's probably not all that unreasonable of them, either. But however pissed off they may be, they aren't really going to open fire on a Solarian task force which, as Omosupe's just pointed out, outnumbers them two-to-one. So what they're actually doing is basically running a bluff. Or, more likely, posturing. They may be prepared to 'demand' that Byng stand down and submit to some sort of Manty investigation, but they know damned well they aren't going to get anything remotely like that. So what they're really hoping for is that Byng will settle for effectively flipping them off, then pull out of New Tuscany and let them claim that they 'ran him out of town' for his high-handed actions."

"And the reason they'll do that is exactly what, Malachai?" MacArtney inquired.

"Because they need to do it for domestic consumption." Abruzzi shrugged again. "Trust me, I know how this sort of thing works. They've got three dead destroyers, they've been fighting a war for twenty-odd T-years, and they've just finished getting their asses kicked when the Havenites hit their home star system. They know as well as we do that even if they hadn't taken any losses at all from the 'Battle of Manticore,' they couldn't possibly take on the Solarian League Navy. But they also know their domestic morale has just been shot right in the head . . .  and that the loss of three more destroyers—especially if it looks like the opening step in getting the League added to their enemies—is only going to hit it again. So they issue these incredibly unrealistic demands to us here in Chicago, and to Byng at New Tuscany, in order to show their own domestic newsies what big brass balls they've got. And then, when Byng basically ignores them and sails back to Meyers in his own good time, they trumpet that the big, bad Sollies have backed down. They tell their own public that the League's cut and run and that, purely in a spirit of magnanimity, Queen Elizabeth has decided to exercise moderation and settle for a diplomatic conclusion to the entire affair."

He shrugged.

"To be honest, they almost certainly realize that they've got enough economic clout that we'll decide to offer reparations—pay them off out of petty cash so they'll go away and leave us alone—just so we can get on with moving our commerce through their wormhole network. The bottom line is that it's no skin off our noses if we offer reparations as long as we make it clear that it's totally voluntary on our part and that we completely reject their right to press any demands against us. They get a settlement they can wave under their public's nose to prove how resolute they were, and we avoid establishing any actual diplomatic or military precedents that might come home to bite us on the arse later."

Kolokoltsov looked at him with a thoughtful frown. It was entirely possible that Abruzzi was on to something, he reflected. That particular explanation of what the Manties were up to hadn't occurred to him, of course. Not immediately, at least. But looked at logically, especially in light of the hammering they'd reportedly taken from the Havenites barely four months ago, there was absolutely no way they could really be seeking some sort of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the SLN. He should have seen that for himself, but unlike Abruzzi, he wasn't accustomed to thinking in terms of massaging public opinion or how to shore up what had to be a badly battered civilian morale.

"I'm not so sure about that," MacArtney said with a mulish grimace. "They didn't exactly avoid an incident at Monica, now did they?"

"Maybe not," Abruzzi conceded. "On the other hand, that was before the Battle of Manticore, wasn't it? And that captain of theirs—what's-his-name . . . Terekhov—is obviously as big a lunatic as Byng! The fact that he dragged them into what could have been a direct confrontation with the League doesn't mean they're stupid enough to want to go there. For that matter, they've got to be aware that they just finished dodging that particular pulser dart. Which is going to make them even less eager to run straight back into our line of fire."

"All of this is very interesting," Quartermain said. "But it doesn't change the fact that we've got to decide what to do about this note of theirs."

"No, it doesn't," Kolokoltsov agreed. "But it does suggest that there's no reason we have to fall all over ourselves responding to it. In fact, it may just suggest that there are some very valid reasons for us to to deal with this in a leisurely, orderly fashion. And, of course, spend a little effort depressing any pretensions of grandeur on their part along the way."

Quartermain looked noticeably more cheerful at that, he noticed, and suppressed a temptation to smile at her sheer predictability.

"As a matter of fact," he continued, "this may turn out to be useful to us." Abruzzi and MacArtney both looked a bit puzzled, and this time he let a little of his smile show. "I think our friends in Manticore have been getting just a little too full of themselves," he went on. "They got away with demanding that technology embargo against the Havenites. They've gotten away with raising their Junction fees across the board to help pay for their damned war. They've just finished dividing the Silesian Confederacy right down the middle with the Andermani. And they've just finished annexing the entire Talbott Sector and shooting up the entire Monican Navy, not to mention turning the League into the villain of the piece in Monica and the Talbott Sector. They must feel like they've been on a roll, and I think it may be time for us to remind them that they're actually only a very tiny fish in a really big pond."

"And that we're the shark in the deep end," Quartermain agreed with an unpleasant smile of her own.

"More or less." Kolokoltsov nodded. "It's bad enough that the accidents of astrophysics give such a pissant little 'Star Kingdom' so much economic clout. We don't need them deciding they've got enough military clout that they can rattle their battle fleet under our nose and expect us to automatically cave in to whatever they decide to demand from us next time."

"Don't you think it might be a good idea to talk to Rajampet before we make our minds up to tell them to pound sand?" MacArtney inquired mildly.

"Oh, I think it's a very good idea to talk to Rajampet," Kolokoltsov agreed. "And I'm not suggesting that we tell them to 'pound sand,' although I must admit the idea has a certain attractiveness." MacArtney cocked an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "All I'm suggesting at this point is that we refuse to fall all over ourselves responding to them. We may even decide to give them a little bit of what they want, in the end, exactly the way Malachai's been suggesting. But, in the long run, I think it's more important that we make it clear to them who the big dog really is. We'll get around to handling this on our timetable, not theirs. And if they don't like it . . ."

He let his voice trail off, and shrugged.

"Ah, there you are, Innokentiy!" Marcelito Roelas y Valiente's smile was a bit more restrained than usual, Kolokoltsov noticed as he stepped into the Foreign Minister's office.

"I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner, Minister," he said gravely, crossing to Roelas y Valiente's desk. He seated himself without invitation, in the same chair Carmichael had occupied earlier that morning, and Roelas y Valiente leaned back in his own chair.

"As I told you I expected it to earlier, Sir," Kolokoltsov continued, "it took a little time to consult with my colleagues in the other ministries. Obviously, we needed to consider this matter very carefully before we could feel comfortable that we were in a position to make any useful policy recommendations. Especially in the case of an incident with so much potential for setting what could be extraordinarily unfortunate precedents."

"Of course," Roelas y Valiente agreed with a sober smile.

That smile didn't fool Kolokoltsov any more than it fooled Roelas y Valiente himself.

Kolokoltsov would literally have found it difficult to remember (impossible, really, without consulting the archives) how many foreign ministers had come and gone during his own tenure. Given the number of political factions and "parties" in the Assembly, it was extraordinarily difficult for any politician to forge a lasting majority at the federal level. The fact that everyone knew that any government could have only the appearance of actual power meant there was really very little reason to form lasting political alliances. It wasn't as if the continuity of political officeholders was going to have any real effect on the League's policies, yet everyone wanted his own shot at holding federal office. Status wasn't necessarily the same thing as power, and a stint as a League cabinet minister was considered a valuable resume entry when one returned to one's home system and ran for an office that really possessed actual power.

All of that combined to explain why most premierships lasted less than a single T-year before the current prime minister was turned out and replaced by someone else—who, of course, had to dole out cabinet positions all over again. Which was why Kolokoltsov had so much trouble remembering the faces of all the men and women who'd officially headed his ministry over the years. All of them—including Roelas y Valiente—had understood who truly made the League's policy, just as all of them—including Roelas y Valiente—had understood why that was and how the game was played. But Roelas y Valiente resented it more than most of the others had.

Which doesn't mean he thinks there's any way to change the rule book, Kolokoltsov thought, and felt a moment of something almost like regret. Buthe wasn't the one who'd deliberately created a constitution, all those centuries ago, which had precluded the real possibility of any strong central government. He wasn't the one who'd created a system in which the permanent bureaucracies had been forced to assume the roles (and the power which went with them) of policy-setters and decision-makers if the Solarian League was going to have any sort of administrative continuity.

But at least we can give him an illusion of authority, the permanent senior undersecretary bought almost compassionately. As long as he's willing to admitthat it isan illusion, anyway.

"We've considered at some length, Sir," he said, "and it's our opinion that this is a time to exercise restraint and calm. What we'd recommend, Minister, is that—"

Chapter Forty-Six | Storm From the Shadows | Chapter Forty-Eight