"You wanted to see me, Albrecht?"
Albrecht Detweiler turned from his contemplation of the panorama of sugar-white beaches beyond his luxurious officer's windows as the dark-haired, boldly tattooed woman stepped through its door.
"Yes, I believe I did," he observed, and tilted one hand to indicate one of the chairs in front of his desk.
Isabel Bardasano obeyed the wordless command, sitting with a certain almost dangerous grace and crossing her legs as he walked back from the windows to his own chair. Her expression was attentive, and he reflected once again upon the lethality behind her . . . ornamented facade.
Bardasano belonged to one of Mesa's "young lodges," which explained the tattoos and the elaborate body piercings. The young lodges represented a "new generation" of the Mesan corporate hierarchy, one which had embraced a deliberately flamboyant lifestyle, flaunting its wealth and power under the nose of a virtuously disapproving galaxy. Very few members of any of the lodges had been admitted to the full truth of Mesa's plans, for several reasons. The largest one was that the wealth, sense of privilege, and arrogance which underlay their flamboyance had been deliberately encouraged as one more sign of Manpower and its fellow outlaw corporations' excesses and general degeneracy. It had been more necessary than ever to distract attention from the Alignment's activities now that the culminating moment was so rapidly approaching, and the "young lodges" had done that quite well. Of course, their members' lifestyles had also made them rather more vulnerable to the activities of the Audubon Ballroom's assassins. That was unfortunate, but all the genotypes in question had been conserved elsewhere, and it had been well worth the price tag in terms of misdirection. And if it also convinced the rest of the galaxy that Mesa at large was increasingly dominated by hedonistic sybarites and useless drones, so much the better.
But some of those "hedonistic sybarites" were anything but useless drones, and Bardasano was a prime example. In fact, she was the prime example. The Bardasano genotype had been notable for at least half a dozen generations for its intelligence and ruthless determination. There'd been a few unfortunate and unintended traits, as well, unhappily, and at one point there'd been serious consideration of simply culling the line's last several iterations and starting over again from a significantly earlier point. The positive traits had been so strong, however, that a remedial program had been instituted, instead, and Isabel was the current example of how successful it had been. It had been necessary to eliminate two of her immediate predecessors when their inherent ruthlessness had made them just a bit too ambitious for anyone else's good, but intelligent ambition, properly tempered, was always a useful thing, as Bardasano herself demonstrated. And if there was still a slight tendency towards sexual disorders and mildly sociopathic behaviors, neither of those posed any serious handicap, especially for someone whose area of expertise was covert operations. Of course, they'd have to be dealt with in the next generation or two if the Bardasano line was going to earn back permanent alpha status within the Alignment, which Isabel understood.
In the meantime, however, she was quite possibly the best covert ops specialist the Alignment had produced in at least the last T-century. It amused Detweiler that those outside the Alignment's innermost circle often cherished doubts about Bardasano's sanity, particularly when it came to her attitude towards him. The fact that it was well known within Mesa's star lines that the Bardasanos had almost been culled meant that her apparent insouciance with him only added to her reputation for . . . oddness, and provided a valuable extra level of protection when he or one of his sons called upon her services. As he gazed at her across the desk, he toyed once more with the notion of telling her that a cross between the Bardasano and Detweiler genotypes was even then being evaluated, but decided against it. For now, at least.
"Well," he said, tipping back slightly in his chair, "I'd have to say that so far, at least, removing Webster—and, of course, Operation Rat Poison—seems to be working out quite well. Aside from whatever new weapons goody the Manties seem to have come up with."
"So far," she agreed, but there was the merest hint of a reservation in her tone, and his eyebrows arched.
"Something about it concerns you?"
"Yes, and no," she replied.
He waggled his fingers in a silent command to continue, and she shrugged.
"So far, and in the short term, it's had exactly the effect we wanted," she said. "I'm not talking about whatever they did at Lovat, you understand. That's outside my area of expertise, and I'm sure Benjamin and Daniel already have their people working on that full time. If either of them needs my help, I'm sure they'll tell me so, as well. But leaving that aside, it does look like we got what we wanted out of the assassinations. The Manties—or, at least, a sufficient majority of them—are convinced Haven was behind it; the summit's been derailed; and it looks as if we've managed to deepen Elizabeth's distrust of Pritchart even further. I'm just not entirely happy with the fact that we had to mount both operations in such a relatively tight time frame. I don't like improvisation, Albrecht. Careful analysis and thorough preparation have served us entirely too well for entirely too long for me to be happy flying by the seat of my pants, whatever the others on the Strategy Council may think."
"Point taken," Detweiler acknowledged. "And it's a valid point, too. Benjamin, Collin, and I have been discussing very much the same considerations. Unfortunately, we've come to the conclusion that we're going to have to do more and more of it, not less, as we move into the end game phase. You know that's always been part of our projections."
"Of course. That doesn't make me any happier when it's forced upon us, though. And I really don't want us to get into a make-it-up-as-we-go-along mindset just because we're moving into the end game. The two laws I try hardest to bear in mind are the law of unintended consequences and Murphy's, Albrecht. And, let's face it, there are some fairly significant potential unintended consequences to eliminating Webster and attacking 'Queen Berry.' "
"There usually are at least some of those," Detweiler pointed out. "Are there specific concerns in this case?"
"Actually, there are a couple of things that worry me," she admitted, and his eyes narrowed. He'd learned, over the years, to trust Bardasano's internal radar. She was wrong sometimes, but at least whenever she had reservations she was willing to go out on a limb and admit it, rather than pretending she thought everything was just fine. And if she was sometimes wrong, she was right far more often.
"First and foremost," she responded, "I'm still worried about someone's figuring out how we're doing it and tracing it back to us. I know no one's come close to finding the proverbial smoking gun yet . . . so far as we know, at any rate. But the Manties are a lot better at bioscience than the Andermani or Haven. Worse, they've got ready access to Beowulf."
Detweiler's jaw tightened in an involuntary, almost Pavlovian response to that name. The automatic spike of anger it provoked was the next best thing to instinctual, and he reminded himself yet again of the dangers of allowing it to affect his thinking.
"I doubt even Beowulf will be able to put it together quickly," he said after a moment. "I don't doubt they could eventually, with enough data. They certainly have the capability, at any rate, but given how quickly the nanites break down, it's extremely unlikely they're going to have access to any of the cadavers in a short enough timeframe to determine anything definitive. All of Everett's and Kyprianou's studies and simulations point in that direction. Obviously, it's a concern we have to bear in mind, but we can't allow that possibility to scare us into refusing to use a capability we need."
"I'm not saying we should, only pointing out a potential danger. And, to be frank, I'm less worried about some medical examiner's figuring it out forensically than I am about someone reaching the same conclusion—that it's a bioweapon and that we're the ones who developed it—by following up other avenues."
"What sort of 'other avenues'?" he asked, eyes narrowing once again.
"According to our current reports, Elizabeth herself and most of Grantville's government, not to mention the Manty in the street, are absolutely convinced it was Haven. Most of them seem to share Elizabeth's theory that for some unknown reason Pritchart decided her initial proposal for a summit had been a mistake. None of them have any convincing explanation for what that 'unknown reason' might have been, however. And some of them—particularly White Haven and Harrington—don't seem very convinced it was Haven at all. Since the High Ridge collapse, we no longer have enough penetration to absolutely confirm something like that, unfortunately, but the sources we still do have all point in that direction. Please bear in mind, of course, that it takes time for information from our best surviving sources to reach us. It's not like we can ask the newsies about these things the way we can clip stories about military operations like Lovat, for example. At this point, and even using dispatch boats with streak capability on the Beowulf conduit, we're still talking about very preliminary reports."
"Understood. Go on."
"What concerns me most," she continued with a slight shrug, "is that once Elizabeth's immediate response has had a little time to cool, White Haven and Harrington are still two of the people whose judgment she most trusts. I think both of them are too smart to push her too hard on this particular issue at this moment, but neither of them is especially susceptible to spouting the party line if they don't actually share it, either. And despite the way her political opponents sometimes caricature Elizabeth, she's a very smart woman in her own right. So if two people whose judgment she trusts are quietly but stubbornly convinced that there's more going on here than everyone else has assumed, she's just likely to be more open-minded where that possibility is concerned than even she realizes she is.
"What else concerns me is that there are two possible alternative scenarios for who was actually responsible for both attacks. One, of course, is that it was us—or, at least, Manpower. The second is that it was, in fact, a Havenite operation, but not one sanctioned by Pritchart or anyone in her administration. In other words, that it was mounted by a rogue element within the Republic which is opposed to ending the war.
"Of the two, the second is probably the more likely . . . and the less dangerous from our perspective. Mind you, it would be bad enough if someone could convince Elizabeth and Grantville that Pritchart's offer had been genuine and that sinister and evil elements—possibly throwbacks to the bad old days of State Security—decided to sabotage it. Even if that turned around Elizabeth's position on a summit, it wouldn't lead anyone directly to us, though. And it's not going to happen overnight, either. My best guess is that even if someone suggested that theory to Elizabeth today—for that matter, someone may already have done just that—it would still take weeks, probably months, for it to reach the point of changing her mind. And now that they've resumed operations, the momentum of fresh casualties and infrastructure damage is going to be strongly against any effort to resurrect the original summit agreement even if she does change her mind.
"The first possibility, however, worries me more, although I'll admit it would appear to be a lower order probability, so far, at least. At the moment, the fact that they're convinced they're looking at a Havenite assassination technique is diverting attention from us and all of the reasons we might have for killing Webster or Berry Zilwicki. But if someone manages to demonstrate that there has to be an undetectable bio-nanite component to how the assassins are managing these 'adjustments,' the immediate corollary to that is going to be a matching suspicion that even if Haven is using the technique, it didn't develop the technique. The Republic simply doesn't have the capability to put something like this together for itself, and no one as smart as Patricia Givens is going to believe for a moment that it does. And that, Albrecht, is going to get that same smart person started thinking about who did develop it. It could have come from any of several places, but as soon as anyone starts thinking in that direction, the two names that are going to pop to the top of their list are Mesa and Beowulf, and I don't think anyone is going to think those sanctimonious bastards on Beowulf would be making something like this available. In which case Manpower's reputation is likely to bite us on the ass. And the fact that both the Manties and the Havenites' intelligence services are aware of the fact that 'Manpower' has been recruiting ex-StateSec elements is likely to suggest the possibility of a connection between us and some other StateSec element, possibly hiding in the underbrush of the current Republic. Which is entirely too close to the truth to make me feel particularly happy.
"That could be bad enough. If they reach that point, however, they may very well be willing to go a step further. If we're supplying the technology to some rogue element in Haven, then what would keep us from using it ourselves? And if they ask themselves that question, then all of the motives we might have—all of the motives they already know about because of Manpower, even without the additional ones we actually do have—are going to spring to their attention."
Detweiler swung his chair gently from side to side for several seconds, considering what she'd said, then grimaced.
"I can't disagree with the downsides of either of your scenarios, Isabel. Still, I think it comes under the heading of what I said earlier—the fact that we can't allow worry about things which may never happen to prevent us from using necessary techniques where we have to. And as you've just pointed out, the probability of anyone deciding it was us—or, at least, that it was us acting for ourselves, rather than simply a case of Haven's contracting out the 'wet work' to a third-party—is low."
"Low isn't the same thing as nonexistent," Bardasano countered. "And something else that concerns me is that I have an unconfirmed report Zilwicki and Cachat visited Harrington aboard her flagship at Trevor's Star."
"Visited Harrington?" Detweiler said a bit more sharply, letting his chair come upright. "Why is this the first I'm hearing about this?"
"Because the report came in on the same streak boat that confirmed Elizabeth's cancellation of the summit," she said calmly. "I'm still working my way through everything that was downloaded from it, and the reason I requested this meeting, frankly, has to do with the possibility that the two of them actually did meet with her."
"At Trevor's Star?" Detweiler's tone was that of a man repeating what she'd said for emphasis, not dubiously or in denial, and she nodded.
"As I say, it's an unconfirmed report. I really don't know how much credibility to assign it at this point. But if it's accurate, Zilwicki took his frigate to Trevor's Star, with Cachat—a known Havenite spy, for God's sake!—on board, which would mean they were allowed transit through the wormhole—and into close proximity to Harrington's fleet units—despite the fact that the entire system's been declared a closed military area by Manticore, with 'Shoot on Sight' orders plastered all over the shipping channels and newsfaxes and nailed up on every flat surface of the Trevor's Star terminus' warehousing and service platforms. Not to mention the warning buoys posted all around the system perimeter for any through traffic stupid enough to head in-system from the terminus! And it would also appear that Harrington not only met with Cachat but allowed him to leave, afterward. Which suggests to me that she gave fairly strong credence to whatever it was they had to say to her. And, frankly, I can't think of anything the two of them might have to say to her that we'd like for her to hear."
Detweiler snorted harshly in agreement.
"You're right about that," he said. "On the other hand, I'm sure you have at least a theory about the specific reasons for their visit. So be a fly on her bulkhead and tell me what they probably said to her."
"My guess would be that the main point they wanted to make was that Cachat hadn't ordered Rat Poison. Or, at least, that neither he nor any of his operatives had carried it out. And if he was willing to confirm his own status as Trajan's man in Erewhon, the fact that he hadn't carried it out—assuming she believed him—would clearly be significant. And, unfortunately, there's every reason to think she would believe him if he spoke to her face to face."
Detweiler throttled another, possibly even sharper spike of anger. He knew what Bardasano was getting it. Wilhelm Trajan was Pritchart's handpicked director for the Republic's Foreign Intelligence Service. He didn't have the positive genius for improvisational covert operations that Kevin Usher possessed, but Pritchart had decided she needed Usher for the Federal Investigation Agency. And whatever else might have been true about Trajan, his loyalty to the Constitution and Eloise Pritchart—in that order—was absolute. He'd been relentless in his efforts to purge FIS of any lingering StateSec elements, and there was no way in the world he would have mounted a rogue operation outside channels. Which meant the only way Rat Poison could have been mounted without Cachat knowing all about it would have been as a rogue operation originating at a much lower level and using an entirely different set of resources.
That was bad enough, but the real spark for his anger was Bardasano's indirect reference to the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned treecats of Sphinx. For such small, fuzzy, outwardly lovable creatures, they had managed to thoroughly screw over altogether too many covert operations—Havenite and Mesan alike—over the years. Especially in partnership with that bitch Harrington. If Cachat had gotten into voice range of Harrington, that accursed treecat of hers would know whether or not he was telling the truth.
"When did this conversation take place, according to your 'unconfirmed report'?"
"About a T-week after Elizabeth fired off her note. The report about it came from one of our more carefully protected sources, though, which means there was even more delay than usual in getting it to us. One of the reasons it's still unconfirmed is that there was barely time for it to catch the regular intel drop."
"So there was time for Harrington to go and repeat whatever they told her to Elizabeth or Grantville even before she headed out for Lovat, without our knowing anything about it."
"Yes." Bardasano shrugged. "Frankly, I don't think there's very much chance of Elizabeth or Grantville buying Haven's innocence, no matter what Cachat may have told Harrington. All he can tell them is that as far as he knows Haven didn't do it, after all, and even if they accept that he was telling her the truth in so far as he knew it, that wouldn't mean he was right. Even if he's convinced Harrington he truly believes Haven didn't do it, that's only his personal opinion . . . and it's damned hard to prove a negative without at least some outside evidence to back it up. So I strongly doubt that anything they may have said to her, or that she may have repeated to anyone else, is going to sidetrack the resumption of operations. And, as I said before, now that blood's started getting shed again, the war is going to take on its own momentum all over again, as well.
"What worries me quite a bit more than what Zilwicki and Cachat may have told Harrington, frankly, is that we don't know where they went after they left her. We've always known they're both competent operators, and they've shown an impressive ability to analyze any information they get their hands on. Admittedly, that's hurt us worse tactically than strategically so far, and there's no evidence—yet—that they've actually begun peeling the onion. But if Cachat is combining Haven's sources with what Zilwicki is getting from the Ballroom, I'd say they're more likely than anyone else to start putting inconvenient bits and pieces together. Especially after they start looking really closely at Rat Poison and how it could have happened if Haven didn't do it. Working on their own, they can't call on the organizational infrastructure Givens or Trajan have access to, but they've got plenty of ability, plenty of motivation, and entirely too many sources."
"And the last thing we need is for those Ballroom lunatics to realize we've been using them for the better part of a century and a half," Detweiler growled.
"I don't know if it's absolutely the last thing we need, but it would definitely be on my list of the top half-dozen or so things we'd really like not to happen," Bardasano said with a sour smile, and, despite himself, Detweiler chuckled harshly.
The gusto with which the Audubon Ballroom had gone after Manpower and all its works had been one more element, albeit an unknowing and involuntary one, in camouflaging the Alignment's true activities and objectives. The fact that at least some of Manpower's senior executives were members of at least the Alignment's outer circle meant one or two of the Ballroom's assassinations had hurt them fairly badly over the years. Most of those slaughtered by the vengeful ex-slaves, however, were little more than readily dispensed with red herrings, an outer layer of "the onion" no one would really miss, and the bloody warfare between the "outlaw corporation" and its "terrorist" opposition had helped focus attention on the general mayhem and divert it away from what was really going on.
Yet useful as that had been, it had also been a two-edged sword. Since all but a very tiny percentage of Manpower's organization was unaware of any deeper hidden purpose, the chance that the Ballroom would become aware of it was slight. But the possibility had always existed, and no one who had watched the Ballroom penetrate Manpower's security time and time again would ever underestimate just how dangerous people like Jeremy X and his murderous henchmen could prove if they ever figured out what was truly going on and decided to change their target selection criteria. And if Zilwicki and Cachat actually were moving towards putting things together . . .
"How likely do you really think it is that the two of them could pull enough together to compromise things at this stage?" he asked finally.
"I doubt anyone could possibly answer that question. Not in any meaningful way, at any rate," Bardasano admitted. "The possibility always exists, though, Albrecht. We've buried things as deeply as we can, we've put together cover organizations and fronts, and we've done everything we can to build in multiple layers of diversion. But the bottom line is that we've always relied most heavily on the fact that 'everyone knows' what Manpower is and what it wants. I'd have to say the odds are heavily against even Zilwicki and Cachat figuring out that what 'everyone knows' is a complete fabrication, especially after we've had so long to put everything in place. It is possible, however, and I think—as I've said—that if anyone can do it, the two of them would be the most likely to pull it off."
"And we don't know where they are at the moment?"
"It's a big galaxy," Bardasano pointed out. "We know where they were two T-weeks ago. I can mobilize our assets to look for them, and we could certainly use all of our Manpower sources for this one without rousing any particular suspicion. But you know as well as I do that what that really amounts to is waiting in place until they wander into our sights."
Detweiler grimaced again. Unfortunately, she was right, and he did know it.
"All right," he said, "I want them found. I recognize the limitations we're facing, but find them as quickly as you can. When you do, eliminate them."
"That's more easily said than done. As Manpower's attack on Montaigne's mansion demonstrates."
"That was Manpower, not us," Detweiler riposted, and it was Bardasano's turn to nod.
One of the problems with using Manpower as a mask was that too many of Manpower's executives had no more idea than the rest of the galaxy that anyone was using them. Which meant it was also necessary to give those same executives a loose rein in order to keep them unaware of that inconvenient little truth . . . which could produce operations like that fiasco in Chicago or the attack on Catherine Montaigne's mansion on Manticore. Fortunately, even operations which were utter disasters from Manpower's perspective seldom impinged directly on the Alignment's objectives. And the occasional Manpower catastrophe helped contribute to the galaxy at large's notion of Mesan clumsiness.
"If we find them, this time it won't be Manpower flailing around on its own," Detweiler continued grimly. "It will be us—you. And I want this given the highest priority, Isabel. In fact, the two of us need to sit down and discuss this with Benjamin. He's got at least a few spider units available now—he's been using them to train crews and conduct working up exercises and systems evaluations. Given what you've just said, I think it might be worthwhile to deploy one of them to Verdant Vista. The entire galaxy knows about that damned frigate of Zilwicki's. I think it might be time to arrange a little untraceable accident for it."
Bardasano's eyes widened slightly, and she seemed for a moment to hover on the brink of a protest. But then she visibly thought better of it. Not, Detweiler felt confident, because she was afraid to argue the point if she thought he was wrong or that he was running unjustifiable risks. One of the things that made her so valuable was the fact that she'd never been a yes-woman. If she did disagree with him, she'd get around to telling him so before the operation was mounted. But she'd also take time to think about it first, to be certain in her own mind of what she thought before she engaged her mouth. Which was another of the things that made her so valuable to him.
And I don't doubt she'll talk it over with Benjamin, too, he thought sardonically. If she has any reservations, she'll want to run them past him to get a second viewpoint on them. And, of course, so the two of them can double-team me more effectively if it turns out they agree with one another.
Which was just fine with Albrecht Detweiler, when all was said and done. The one thing he wasn't was convinced of his own infallibility, after all.
"All right," he said aloud, leaning back again with the air of a man shifting mental gears. "Something else I wanted to ask you about is Anisimovna."
"What about her?" Bardasano's tone might have turned just a tiny bit cautious, and she cocked her head to one side, watching Detweiler's expression intently.
"I'm not about to change my mind and have her eliminated, if that's what you're worrying about, Isabel," he said dryly.
"I wouldn't say I was exactly worried about it," she replied. "I do think doing that would be wasting a very useful asset, though, and as I said before, I don't think anything that happened in Talbott was her fault any more than it was mine. In fact, given the amount of information I had and she didn't, it was almost certainly more my fault than hers."
Bardasano, Detweiler reflected, was one of the very few people, even inside the Alignment's innermost circle, who would have made that last admission to him. Which was yet another of the things that made her so valuable.
"As I say, I'm not about to have her eliminated," he said. "What you've just said goes a fair way towards answering the question I was going to ask, though, I think. Which is—do you think it's time to bring her all the way inside? Is she a sufficiently 'useful asset' to be made a full member of the Alignment?"
It wasn't often Detweiler saw Bardasano hesitate. Nor was that actually what he was seeing in this case, he realized. It wasn't so much hesitation as surprise.
"I think, maybe, yes," she said finally, slowly, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Her genome is an Alpha line, and she already knows more than most people who aren't full members. The only real concern I'd have about nominating her for full membership—and it's a minor one—would be that she's got a little more highly developed sense of superiority than I'd really like to see."
Detweiler arched an eyebrow, and she shrugged.
"It's not just her, Albrecht. In fact, I'd say I was a lot more concerned about someone like Sandusky than I am about Aldona. The thing is that quite a few of us—including some who are already full members—have a tendency, I think, to automatically assume their superiority in any matchup with any normal. That's dangerous, especially if the 'normal' is someone like Zilwicki or Cachat—or, for that matter, Harrington, although, given her pedigree on her father's side, I suppose she's not actually a normal herself, wherever her loyalties might lie. It's also something I have to guard against in myself, however, and in Aldona's case, I think it's probably exacerbated by the fact that she isn't already a full member . . . and she thinks she is. Based solely on what she and the other members of the Strategy Council who aren't full members know, or think they know, about the stakes we're really playing for, most of her sense of superiority would be survivable. And she's certainly smart enough to understand what's really going on—and why—if you decide to tell her. So, if she does come all the way inside, I think we could probably count on knocking most of that . . . smugness out of her in fairly short order. May I ask why the question's arisen at this particular time?"
"In light of the implications of what happened at Lovat, I'm thinking about trying to resurrect the Monica operation using a different proxy," Detweiler replied. "And given the way we got our fingers burned last time, I want whoever is in charge of it this time around to know what we're really trying to accomplish."
"I knew what we were really trying to accomplish last time," Bardasano pointed out.
"Yes, you did. But one of the things which is such a useful part of your cover is your relative lack of official seniority outside the Alignment itself. That's why Anisimovna had primary responsibility, as far as the Strategy Council was concerned, at least, last time. And it's also one reason I couldn't send you back out to handle this solo this time around. There are other reasons, however, including the fact that I want you close to home to monitor the situation between Manticore and Haven. And to deal with Cachat and Zilwicki, if we can locate them. I don't want you out of reach if I need you, and there's a limit to how much we can send streakers zipping around the galaxy without someone starting to notice that our mail seems to get delivered just a little quicker than anyone else's."
Bardasano leaned back in her chair, obviously thinking hard, then drew a deep breath.
"On that basis, I would definitely recommend bringing Aldona fully inside. Although I also think it would be a good idea to think things over very carefully before we decide whether or not we want to 'resurrect' Monica. And to consider it in light of the concerns I've already expressed about flying by the seat of our pants."
"Granted," he agreed. "And I'm not saying I've firmly decided one way or the other. I'm still thinking about it. However, if we did decide to take this approach, it wouldn't be quite as improvisational as it might first appear, since we could use a lot of the spadework from the Monica operation. Oh," he waved one hand like a man swatting at a gnat, "not in Monica itself, obviously. But in Meyers, and with Crandall."
Bardasano frowned slightly, then nodded.
"Use Crandall to motivate Verrochio, you mean?"
"Use Crandall, yes. And Verrochio. But I'm thinking of Crandall more as . . . reassurance for Verrochio. The motivation we'll supply by way of Hongbo."
"You want to make an explicit approach to Hongbo?" Bardasano's tone was slightly dubious, and Detweiler snorted.
"We've already made an 'explicit approach' to Hongbo," he pointed out. "So far, he's done quite well out of us as our local manager for Commissioner Verrochio. It's not as if he should be particularly surprised if we 'request' his assistance once more."
"My impression is that he'd be . . . quite hesitant to try a variant on Monica this soon," she said. "He's smarter than Verrochio. I think he's probably a lot more aware of the potential consequences if they try something like this a second time and screw up. Oh, he's not worried about the Assembly or the courts. He's worried about what his and Verrochio's fellow OFS satraps will do to them if they get fresh egg on Frontier Security's face."
"I can see that," Detweiler conceded. "And, of course, he's not aware that if we succeed, his fellow Frontier Security commissioners are going to be the least of his worries. Be that as it may, though, I'm really hesitant to let all of our preparation go completely to waste. Especially since we'll have to eliminate Crandall and Filareta after this if we can't use them now."
"Sometimes it's better to just write an operation off, however much you've invested in it," Bardasano cautioned. "That old clich'e about throwing good money after bad comes rather forcibly to mind. And so does the one about reinforcing failure."
"Agreed. And I fully intend to kick the entire notion around with Collin before we make any hard and fast decisions. I'll want you in on those conversations, as well, for that matter. But it's not just a case of pushing to recoup our investment. I'm genuinely concerned about the long term implications of whatever they used at Lovat. I think it's just become even more important to keep them under the maximum pressure and prune them back any way we can, and what's occurred to me is that with the summit off the table and the Manties going back to war with Haven, it shouldn't be too incredibly difficult to convince someone like Verrochio that they're under too much pressure from Haven to respond to a full bore threat from the Solarian League."
"A 'full bore threat'?" she repeated carefully.
"What I'm thinking is that with only a very little encouragement, New Tuscany would probably make an even better cat's-paw than Monica did last time around. Frontier Fleet's already dispatched a reinforcing detachment to Meyers, which is probably enough to start bolstering Verrochio's nerve all by itself. And I just happen to know that the senior officer of that detachment doesn't much care for 'neobarbs.' In fact, he doesn't care for Manties. Something to do with getting his fingers rather severely burned in an incident with a Manticoran freighter when he was a much more junior officer. Franklin's contacts in the League meant we could get him assigned without ever having to approach him directly, so he doesn't know a thing about our involvement in this. Given his background, though, I'm sure he's already quite upset about the Manties' wild allegations about the complicity of major League business interests—and, of course, those nasty Mesans—in what happened in Monica. If he were properly approached by Hongbo and Verocchio, I'm fairly confident he'd be amenable to doing something about it, especially if the League's assistance was officially requested by someone with legitimate interests in the area. Like, oh, New Tuscany, perhaps. And one of Verrochio's outstanding characteristics has always been his temper. If Hongbo pumps a little hydrogen into the fire, instead of trying to put it out, Verrochio is going to be just itching for an opportunity to get even with Manticore for his current humiliation. And if he just happened to be aware—or to become aware—of the fact that our good friend Admiral Crandall is in his vicinity with an entire Battle Fleet task force of superdreadnoughts, it might stiffen his irate spine quite remarkably."
"And you want Aldona fully inside to handle New Tuscany and Hongbo," Bardasano said slowly. "Which means we aren't going to be able to fob her off with any nonsense about Technodyne getting hold of Manty technology, or about us only wanting to prevent them from annexing the Talbott Cluster because of its proximity to Mesa, this time around."
"That's pretty much it, yes." Detweiler shrugged. "Without Technodyne and Levakonic to front for us by providing Monica with battlecruisers anymore, she's going to have to be aware of our real knuckleduster. And that's going to suggest to someone as smart as she is that we're up to rather more than she knew about last time. Especially since it's going to become obvious to her that Crandall's task force wouldn't be where it is if we hadn't arranged for it before the two of you ever set out for Monica. She's going to wonder why we didn't tell her about it then, and I don't think it will take her very long to start making some reasonably accurate guesses about just how much else is happening that she doesn't know about. I'd far rather tell her everything that really is going on than have her guess just enough to make some serious mistake trying to adjust for what she thinks is going on."
"I think you really should discuss this with Collin," Bardasano said. "If you still think it's a good idea after that—and I'm not saying it isn't; I just don't know whether or not it is at this point—then I'd certainly recommend explaining everything to Aldona and putting her back in charge of it. But she's going to need something more persuasive than mere greed and bribery to get Hongbo solidly behind her on this one."
"In that case," Detweiler said with a thin, sharklike smile, "it's probably a very good thing we have all those bank records about the payoffs he's accepted over the years from those nasty Manpower genetic slavers, isn't it? I realize he might try to turn stubborn even so. I mean, after all, it's not like the League judiciary is likely to do any more than slap him on the wrist over it. If he does, though, Aldona could always point out that if that same information were to be unfortunately leaked to those Ballroom lunatics . . ."
He let his voice trail off and shrugged as he raised both hands shoulder-high, palms uppermost.
"I suppose that probably would motivate him suitably," Bardasano agreed with a smile of her own. "The Ballroom does come in handy from time to time, doesn't it?"