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Chapter Forty-Seven

Aldona Anisimovna tried to remind herself that she was one of the most successful organizers and executives Manpower Incorporated had ever produced. That she had a very nearly unrivaled record of successes. That she was a wealthy and powerful individual, who represented one of Mesa's star bloodlines.

None of it helped particularly.

She and Isabel Bardasano followed the "butler" (who sprang from a bloodline with far higher combat enhancements than the Anisimov genome) down the splendidly furnished hallway, past light sculptures, bronzes, paintings and handloomed textile wall hangings. The designer had deliberately eschewed smart walls or other modern visual technology, aside from the light sculptures, but soothing, unheard sonic vibrations seemed to caress her skin.

It was all very gracious and welcoming, but she drew a deep breath, trying to settle her nerves unobtrusively and hoping the invisible surveillance systems weren't noting her heightened pulse rate, as their guide opened the old-fashioned door at the end of the corridor.

"Ms. Anisimovna and Ms. Bardasano, Sir," he said.

"Thank you, Heinrich," a familiar voice said, and the "butler" who was actually a rather deadly bodyguard, when he wasn't being an assassin, bowed and stepped aside.

Anisimovna walked past him without even acknowledging his presence, but she was grateful when he closed the door behind her and Bardasano from the other side. Not that she'd really expected his . . . services to be required, she told herself firmly.

"Well, ladies," Albrecht Detweiler said from behind the desk workstation, without inviting either of them to be seated, "things don't appear to have gone very well in Talbott, after all."

"No, they haven't," Anisimovna agreed, her voice as level as possible. Detweiler regarded her thoughtfully, as if waiting for her to add something more to that bare agreement, but she knew better than to offer any hint of an excuse. Especially not when he'd kept the two of them waiting, and stewing in their own juice, for almost three standard days since their return from the Republic of Monica.

"Why not?" he asked after a moment.

"Because of a chain of circumstances we were unable to predict," Isabel Bardasano said, her voice as level as Anisimovna's had been.

"I was under the impression that proper planning allowed for all contingencies," Detweiler observed.

"Good planning allows for all the contingencies the planner can think of," Bardasano corrected in an amazingly calm tone. "This particular set of contingencies was impossible to anticipate, since no one can allow for freak circumstances which are inherently impossible to predict."

"That sounds remarkably like an excuse, Isabel."

"I prefer to think of it as an explanation, Albrecht," Bardasano said, while Anisimovna tried to focus her attention on one of Detweiler's pre-space oil paintings. "Under certain circumstances, explanations are also excuses, of course. You asked us why things didn't work out as planned, however. That's why."

Detweiler gazed at her, his lips very slightly pursed, his eyes narrowed, and she looked back squarely. One thing about her, Anisimovna thought; she didn't lack nerve. Whether her lack of fear was completely sane or not was another matter.

"Very well, Isabel," Detweiler said finally. "'Explain' what happened."

"We don't know yet, not fully," she admitted. "We won't know for some time. The only hard fact we have at this time is that somehow a Manty cruiser captain named Terekhov and Bernardus Van Dort figured out what was happening. Terekhov put together what I strongly suspect was a completely unauthorized attack on Monica. And as Aldona and I told you at our last meeting, the program to refit the battlecruisers we—or, rather, Technodyne—were providing had fallen behind schedule."

"You also informed me that there was ample cushion in your timetable," Detweiler interrupted in a deceptively pleasant voice.

If he'd intended to put Bardasano off her pace, he failed. She simply looked at him for a moment, then nodded.

"Yes, we did. And it was an accurate statement. In fact, Izrok Levakonic and the Monicans had managed to get three of the battlecruisers completely refitted and manned before Terekhov showed up, and the biggest unit he had was a heavy cruiser. Had he delayed his arrival for another week, four more Indefatigables would have been ready for action, as well. Under normal circumstances, however, I believe most people would have felt three Solarian League battlecruisers, with up-to-date electronics and weapons fits, ought to have been able to deal with five cruisers and four destroyers."

"Apparently, they would have been wrong," Detweiler said. "And, I might point out to you, if I were inclined to pick nits, that one of the objectives of the operation was to obtain specimens of Manty hardware specifically because we knew it was better than Solly equipment."

"Granted," Bardasano replied. "I would submit, however, that its degree of superiority was greater than anyone had anticipated, including Technodyne."

"I'm much less well versed in technical matters than Isabel, Albrecht," Aldona said, speaking up in support of her colleague, "but we did discuss this with Levakonic. He felt confident of maintaining Monica's security with the combination of missile pods he'd deployed and the battlecruisers already in commission. That part of the operation was his responsibility, and we relied on his expert opinion."

Detweiler switched his gaze to her, and she made herself look back calmly. He appeared to consider her words for several seconds, then gave a tiny shrug.

"I suppose that was reasonable enough, under the circumstances," he said. "However," he continued before Anisimovna's nerves could begin to unknot themselves, "even granting that, the fact that the Manties and this Van Dort somehow tumbled to what was going on speaks poorly of your operational security."

"At this point," Bardasano said, "we don't know how our security was penetrated. I see two possibilities. One is that the penetration took place on the Monican side. President Tyler and his closest advisers had to be brought fully into the picture, at least as far as their part of the operation was concerned. Their security arrangements were beyond our control, and we don't know how or where they might have been breached.

"The second possibility," she continued unflinchingly, "is that the penetration was on our side of the operation. In that case, the most likely scenario is that this Terekhov literally stumbled over the Marianne."

"Marianne?" Detweiler repeated.

"The special ops ship we were using to deliver weapons to our proxies," Bardasano explained. "We've used her and her crew dozens of times before. They're reliable and experienced in this sort of covert operation, and using our own ship and our own people let us maintain a far lower profile and avoid an entire additional layer of potential leaks."

"So why do you think she could be involved?"

"Because she's the only direct link between our terrorist proxies and Monica." Bardasano shrugged. "Izrok needed emergency transportation for additional shipyard technicians. Marianne was already headed for the Cluster. He asked me if we could transport them for him, and I agreed. Apparently, I shouldn't have."

She made the admission without flinching, and a flicker of what might have been approval showed in Detweiler's eyes.

"If she is the clue the Manties picked up on," she continued, "they must have taken at least some of her personnel and sweated them. They don't actually know anything about the Monican side of the operation, but they do know they delivered technicians to Monica. That could have been enough. Unfortunately, we probably won't know whether or not that's what actually happened for some time. Marianne's movement schedule means we don't expect contact with her for another couple of weeks."

"This is all speculation," Detweiler remarked, and Bardasano and Anisimovna both nodded.

"We barely managed to get out of Monica, and take the only Frontier Security personnel directly involved in the operation with us," Anisimovna said. "We couldn't afford to wait around for any more details. If they'd captured Isabel or myself—"

She broke off, and it was Detweiler's turn to nod.

"Point taken," he acknowledged. He considered them silently for several more seconds, then seemed to reach a decision.

"Sit," he said, pointing at two of the chairs facing his desk, and Anisimovna hoped her enormous relief didn't show as she obeyed the command.

"None of us are happy about what's happened in the Cluster," Detweiler said. "I trust you're both prepared for the fact that you're going to face a lot of recrimination and accusations of incompetence?"

Anisimovna bobbed her head, and this time she didn't try to disguise her glum expression. Whatever else came of the Talbott fiasco, she'd be a long time rebuilding her prestige and repairing her damaged powerbase.

"Having said that, and assuming no new revelations suggest it really was your fault, I'm inclined to agree that the failure almost certainly stemmed from factors outside your control." He shrugged. "As I said at the beginning, it was always a crap shoot, and apparently we crapped out. So, starting from that, what's your feeling as to whether or not OFS is going to let this stand?"

"I think they are," Anisimovna said. Managing the Solly bureaucracies was her own area of expertise. "Verrochio is livid, and he's going to be even angrier if the Manties are able to prove his involvement. But he doesn't have the forces under his own command to take unilateral action, and the other Frontier Security commissioners won't support him. Not after something as spectacular as what the Manties did to Monica, and especially not if Tyler or any of his cronies roll over on us and cooperate with a Manty investigation."

"We don't need him to win," Detweiler pointed out. "You say he's 'livid' over this. Is there any probability of playing on that anger to maneuver him into a direct military confrontation? Whether the other commissioners approve or not, that would be something our friends in the League could probably spin into the pretext for intervention we need. Especially if he gets the crap shot out of him.."

"I don't see any way to do it," Anisimovna replied. "Angry as he is, he's not going to risk his own position. Neither is his vice-commissioner, Hongbo, who—unfortunately, perhaps in this instance—has a great deal of influence with him and is far less likely to let anger shape his decisions."

"I was afraid of that."

Detweiler tipped his chair back, folding his hands, fingers interlaced, across his midsection, and Anisimovna felt a sudden fresh pang of anxiety. That relaxed posture normally indicated that Albert Detweiler was quietly, icily, dangerously furious about something.

"Three weeks ago," he said, "Eloise Pritchart sent an invitation to Elizabeth Winton. She suggested the two of them meet in a face-to-face summit, in a neutral location of Winton's choosing."

Anisimovna felt her eyes widen and fought a sudden urge to turn and look at Bardasano in shock. Pritchart was proposing a peace conference?

"We found out about it from our mole in the Manties' Foreign Office," Detweiler continued. "The proposal itself arrived on Manticore nine days ago, and our mole's control did very well to get it to us this quickly, although he had to use the Beowulf conduit to do it. I'm not exactly delighted at that. That conduit is too valuable to lose. In this case, though, I think our man's decision was justified."

"Excuse me, Albrecht," Anisimovna said, "but do we have any idea what prompted Pritchart to do something like this?"

"Not specifically, no." Detweiler frowned. "At the moment, my best guess is that she found out about what was happening in Talbott. She's demonstrated she's a very shrewd politician, and she may well have calculated that the pressure of a potential conflict with the Solarian League would force Winton to accept terms."

Anisimovna nodded, but very carefully said nothing. From Detweiler's tone, it was unlikely he would have appreciated the observation that it might have been their own efforts which had offered the Republic the wedge which might bring their carefully nurtured war to a premature conclusion.

"According to our mole," Detweiler went on, "it took two days to convince Winton to accept the offer. In the end, however, she did. And guess what 'neutral site' she proposed for their little get together?"

Anisimovna frowned, but Bardasano snorted harshly.

"Verdant Vista," she said flatly, and Detweiler's chuckle was even harsher than her snort.

"On the money," he agreed.

"Do we have a date for this summit?" Bardasano asked.

"Not yet. I'm sure the Manties will be proposing one in their reply to Pritchart, but our mole doesn't have that level of access. Even after they propose one, messages are going to have to go back and forth between Manticore and Haven, and transit time is almost eleven days each way, even for a fast dispatch boat via Trevor's Star. So it's not going to happen next week, but it looks like it is going to happen."

"Elizabeth Winton hates Haven's guts," Anisimovna said. "Even if the summit meets, how likely is it to result in an actual peace treaty? Especially after Haven initiated the attack, and given that everyone's convinced Haven was behind the Harrington assassination attempt?"

"Under normal circumstances, I might think along the same lines," Detweiler said. "But Winton's been adopted by one of those frigging treecats, and you can bet she won't attend a conference without the little monster."

"Oh." Anisimovna grimaced.

"Yes, we can't afford to overlook the little bastards any longer, can we?" Detweiler growled.

It was unusual, to say the least, for him to allow his ire to show that clearly, but Sphinx's treecats had been a sore point with Manpower and Mesa literally for centuries. The possibility of unlocking the secret of telepathy had been impossible for the bioengineers of Mesa to resist, but they'd been remarkably unsuccessful in obtaining specimens. In fact, they'd managed to obtain only one living treecat in over three hundred T-years, and they'd discovered quickly that a treecat in captivity simply died. They still had some of the creature's genetic material, and some work continued with it in a desultory fashion, but without much prospect of successfully building the ability into humans.

The fact that the wretched little animals were even more intelligent than Manpower's own worst-case assumptions had come as an unpleasant revelation. And the ability of a fully functional telempathic to communicate its observations about the mental state of someone on the other side of high-level diplomatic negotiations was something political analysts were going to take some getting used to.

"We know, even if Winton doesn't, that Pritchart never wanted to go back to war in the first place," Detweiler continued. "If some dammed treecat gets a chance to communicate that to Winton, it's entirely possible the two of them will agree to a joint examination of the disputed diplomatic correspondence. In which case peace is likely to start breaking out all over."

"Not exactly a desirable outcome," Bardasano murmured, and Detweiler rewarded her with a tight grin and another hard chuckle.

"Nicely put. Now, what do we do to prevent it?"

"Killing Winton or Pritchart would be the most effective solution," Bardasano said thoughtfully. "On the other hand, if we could get to either of them easily, we'd have already done it. Hmmm . . ."

She thought for several seconds, then nodded to herself.

"I see one possibility," she said.

"Which is?"

"I've already prepared the operation you wanted on Old Earth," she told him. "I haven't scheduled a date for it yet, however. And I've also set up the groundwork for Operation Rat Poison. I can activate both of them immediately, and set them up to happen simultaneously, or at least in close succession. Given Elizabeth Winton's existing attitude towards Haven, I'd say there's a pretty good chance it would destabilize any summit arrangements."

"Especially Rat Poison," Detweiler agreed, his eyes lighting with pleasure at the prospect. Then they narrowed. "Probability of success?" he demanded.

"On Old Earth, very high," Bardasano said promptly. "Probably approaching a hundred percent. Rat Poison's more problematical, I'm afraid. Our choice of vehicles is much more limited, and all the ones we're currently considering are outside the inner circle, so access is going to be more of a problem. To make it work with one of the present vehicles, we'll have to use a two-stage control, and that's going to up the chances of something going wrong. I'd say probably sixty percent, plus or minus five percent either way, if we mount the op immediately."

"I'd really rather wait, at least until we could get better odds," Detweiler murmured.

"We can do that," Bardasano told him. "In fact, given a few more months of prep work, I could improve the odds significantly. But if we wait, we lose the opportunity to derail the summit. And we also increase the risk that even Winton would blame us for it. If the attempt hits at the same time as someone with an obvious Havenite connection kills Webster, though, the Manties are almost certain to connect the two ops and blame both of them on Haven. And I might point out, Albrecht, that even if the attempt itself fails, the mere fact that it was made ought to accomplish what we want."

"There is that," Detweiler agreed. He sat motionless for perhaps fifteen seconds, obviously thinking hard. Then he nodded his head sharply.

"All right. Do it."


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