A Rising Thunder – Snippet 16
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.”