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At All Costs: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 8, 2005 09:44 EDT



    "Ah, there you are, Aldona! Come in. Find a seat."

    Aldona Anisimovna nodded to her host with carefully metered deference and obeyed the smiling order. And it was an order, however pleasantly given. Albrecht Detweiler was, quite possibly, the wealthiest and most powerful single individual in the explored galaxy. There were entire star nations, and not just those full of neobarbs or stuck off in the back of beyond in the Shell, worth less than he was. Quite a few of them, in fact.

    The door closed silently behind her. Despite the presence of over a dozen people, the combination office and library radiated a sense of spaciousness. As well it should, even if barely five percent of the population of Mesa even knew it existed. The percentage of people off Mesa who knew about it was, she devoutly hoped, considerably smaller than that.

    It was also by far the most luxuriously and beautifully furnished "office" she'd ever been in, which was saying quite a lot for a full board member of Manpower Incorporated. The superb light sculptures in their tailored niches; the walls paneled in the exotic woods of at least a dozen different planets; the old-fashioned, priceless oil and watercolor paintings, some of them dating back all the way to pre-space days on Old Earth; the antique printed books; and the spectacular view across the Mendel Ocean's sugar-white beaches and sparkling blue water all came together to form an inevitably appropriate frame for the power and purpose concentrated in this meeting.

    "I believe we're all here now," Detweiler observed as Anisimovna settled into one of the powered float chairs facing his desk, and the side conversations ended quickly. He smiled again and pressed a button on his desk panel, and the panoramic ocean view disappeared beyond an abruptly opaque wall of windows as he brought up the security systems which made it impossible for any surveillance device to snoop upon this particular meeting.

    "I'm sure most of you have at least an idea of why I asked you to drop by the island today," Detweiler said, his smile fading into a purposeful expression. "Just in case I've overestimated the IQ of anyone present, however, the immediate cause for this little get-together is the recent plebiscite in the Talbott Cluster."

    Faces tightened, and one could almost feel the combination of anger, tension, and -- whether any of them would have admitted it or not -- fear his words evoked. Detweiler certainly felt it, and he showed his teeth in what definitely was not another smile.

    "I realize that for most Sollies, Manticore and Haven might as well be Shangri-La or Never-Neverland. They're off somewhere on the edge of the explored universe, full of belligerent neobarbs so primitive and bigoted they spend all their time killing one another. That, unfortunately, falls somewhat short of the truth, as all of us are rather painfully aware. What some of you may not realize, is that in many ways the situation is getting worse, not better, from our perspective."

    He tipped back in his own chair and surveyed his guests. One or two of them looked a bit puzzled, as if they couldn't quite see why the situation was any worse than it had always been. After all, both the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Republic of Haven had been the openly avowed mortal enemies of Manpower Incorporated and the genetic slave trade literally for centuries. From the viewpoint of Manpower and the Mesa System generally, the last twenty T-years of warfare between the Star Kingdom amd the Republic had been excellent news. At least it had distracted both of them, to greater or lesser extent, from their interference in Manpower's affairs.

    "Aldona," he said after a moment, "suppose you and Isabel tell us about what happened at Congo."

    "Certainly, Albrecht," Anisimovna said. She was rather pleased her voice sounded so calm and composed. She also managed to avoid breaking out into a nervous sweat, thanks to the last twenty or so generations of genetic modifications to the Anisimov genome.

    "As you know, Albrecht," she began briskly, trying not to think about how many such reports had ended . . . badly in this office, "and as some of the other members of the Board and Council are aware, Congo was rather central to certain plans we had for the Manties and Haven. The wormhole junction there offered additional possibilities in that respect, as well as the more obvious, purely commercial opportunities. After discussions here on Mesa, it was decided that the time to put our contingency plans into effect was rapidly approaching, and --"

    "Excuse me, Aldona," Jerome Sandusky interrupted. He looked at her, but most of his attention was actually focused on Detweiler. "We're all aware, in general terms, at least, of what happened at Tiberian and Congo. In my own case, the fact that Congo's been added to my bailiwick in Haven means I've become reasonably familiar with previous operations there. But what I'm not quite clear on is exactly why it seemed necessary or desirable to put ourselves into a position where something like that could happen in the first place."

    "The decision was made by the Strategy Committee, Jerome," Anisimovna said coolly, and he flushed ever so slightly. "As a member of the Committee," which you aren't, she did not say aloud, "I agreed with the logic, but as you know, the Committee's discussions are privileged."

    "In this instance, however, Aldona," Detweiler said easily, "I believe we might make an exception. This is something all of us need to be brought fully up to speed on, so go ahead and answer Jerome's question for all of us." She looked at him, and he nodded. "My authority," he added.

    "Very well, Albrecht." Anisimovna returned her attention to Sandusky. She spent a moment or two organizing her thoughts, then leaned slightly forward in her chair, gray eyes intent.

    "For most of the last two decades, the Manties and the Peeps have been shooting at each other," she began. "From our perspective, that's been a good thing in many ways. They've always hated us, and we've never been able to penetrate their military or political establishments the way we have the League or most other star nations. We've managed to . . . enlist certain individual bureaucrats, diplomats, officers, and politicians, but never in sufficient numbers to undermine their dogged devotion to the Cherwell Convention."

    More than one of her listeners grimaced at mention of the Cherwell Convention, and Anisimovna smiled thinly.

    "For the last seventy T-years, the one thing -- the only thing -- the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven have agreed on is the suppression of the genetic slave trade. And let's be realistic -- historically, their efforts have been much more effective than those of anyone else. We have zero market penetration in either of them, and although we've historically had major penetration in some areas of the Silesian Confederacy and Midgard, the Manties and the Peeps have made life hard on us even there. To be honest, it's really only since the two of them started concentrating on one another that we've been able to regain ground we'd been steadily losing in both of those areas. The Andermani Empire is another sore point, particularly since it happens to lie in such close proximity to the other two, but the Andies have never been as aggressive about attacking our interests outside their own territory.

    "While the Manties and the Peeps were actively at war with one another, we managed to expand our enfluence and markets on the peripheries of their spheres. And their concentration on one another also made it easier for us to acquire a degree of penetration -- of enfluence, not sales -- which we'd never had before in both the Star Kingdom and the Republic themselves. Things, in other words, were looking up.

    "Then along came the Manties' 'Operation Buttercup,' Pierre's assassination, the so-called 'Manpower Incident' on Old Earth, the cease-fire, and the overthrow of the Saint-Just version of the Committee of Public Safety. In combination, they produced three serious consequences for us."

    She made a face and shrugged, then began ticking off points on her fingers as she summarized them.



    AT ALL COSTS – snippet 10:

    "First, the end of the fighting would have been bad enough all by itself, given the way it was bound to free up their resources and attention for other concerns -- like us. But, second, the overthrow of the Committee of Public Safety and the effective dismantlement of State Security hurt us badly in Haven. Not only did we lose the majority of the contacts we'd managed to make with the SS, but the new régime -- Theisman, Pritchart, and their bunch -- are almost fanatical in their hatred of everything we stand for. And, third, the 'Manpower Incident' happened before Theisman's coup, but its main effects weren't felt until afterward, when Zilwicki and Montaigne got back to Manticore with the records Zilwicki managed to hack. We were able to manage at least some damage control in the Star Kingdom, but let's not fool ourselves; we took a real body blow there, too. And the fact that that lunatic Montaigne has managed to pull us and our operations back into the limelight for the Manty public hasn't helped.

    "Fortunately, our best and highest surviving contact in Manticore wasn't in Zilwicki's files and remained in place. She wasn't really what we could consider a reliable asset -- she was using us as much as we were using her, and she definitely had her own agenda -- but Descroix was willing to do what she could to mitigate Manty operations against us and assist with damage control domestically in the wake of the 'Manpower Incident' in return for our financial support and the intelligence we could provide her. Unfortunately, she was completely unwilling to do the main thing we wanted out of her."

    "Which was?" Sandusky prompted, as if he didn't already know the answer to his own question, when she paused.

    "Which was to get rid of the damned cease-fire," Aldona said flatly. "We wanted Manticore and Haven shooting at each other again. To be frank, at that time, the Strategy Committee was actually more concerned about Haven than Manticore. Manticore has the bigger merchant fleet, and the stronger tradition of arrogating some sort of interstellar police power to itself, even to the extent of locking horns with the League. But the Republic is much larger, and the new régime there clearly has a 'crusading spirit,' whereas the High Ridge régime in Manticore was about as venal -- and shortsighted -- as we could have asked for. Unfortunately, neither side, each for its own reasons, wanted to resume hostilities. And initially, at least, it looked like something of a tossup as to whether or not Theisman and Pritchart could make their new Constitution stand up. For at least a few years, they were going to be involved in what amounted to a civil war, even if they managed to win it in the end.

    "About two T-years ago, however, it became evident they were going to win, and quite handily. In addition, one of the handful of contacts we'd managed to hang onto in the Republic -- your contact, as a matter of fact, Jerome -- informed us that the Havenite Navy was secretly in the process of some sort of major rebuilding program. The notion of a Theisman-Pritchart government, firmly in control of a star nation and an economy the size of the Republic, with a resurgent navy under its command, didn't make anyone on the Committee happy. Nor was anyone enthralled with what Montaigne and Zilwicki were up to in the Star Kingdom. You may recall the rather spectacular failure of our attempt to remove Montaigne by direct action. That was primarily the result of Zilwicki's active alliance with the Audubon Ballroom, and then Klaus Hauptman and his daughter climbed onto the bandwagon and began building actual light warships for those butchers."

    She shook her head.

    "So far, it was all straws in the wind, but it was pretty obvious which way the breeze was blowing in both star nations. And they still weren't shooting at each other.

    "The only bright spot was the High Ridge Government's total diplomatic tone deafness. They might not want active military operations, but they didn't want a formal peace settlement, either, which produced steadily growing frustration in the Republic. The same source which had warned us about the existence of Bolthole -- even though he didn't know exactly what was going on there -- also kept us informed about Pritchart's rising anger and the public opinion which agreed with her. While we knew we couldn't get Descroix to actively seek to derail the negotiating process, we were able to feed her certain selected information which helped move her at least a bit in the direction we wanted. So the Committee saw a situation which was growing rapidly less stable and offered the possibility of producing the result we were after.

    "That's where Verdant Vista entered the picture. We knew High Ridge had managed to seriously alienate several key allies, including the Republic of Erewhon and, we hoped, Grayson. We didn't have very high expectations where Grayson was concerned, but Erewhon seemed to offer possibilities. In addition, certain of our friends in the League -- specifically, Technodyne Industries -- really wanted access to the Manties' new technology, and Erewhon had that.

    "So the idea was to use Verdant Vista to worry Erewhon. We knew the Cromarty Government had promised the Erewhonese the Star Kingdom's assistance in their efforts to eject us from Congo. But we also knew the High Ridge Government was completely and totally -- one might almost say vehemently -- disinterested in the project. And we knew this was an area in which we could count on Descroix's support behind the scenes.

    "With all that in mind, we abandoned our relatively low profile and started deliberately drawing attention to our presence there. We planted a few stories in the Erewhonese 'faxes about 'atrocities' on Verdant Vista, and we encouraged an upswing in 'piracy' in the area. The cruisers that were destroyed at Tiberian were part of that strategy. The idea was to draw the Erewhonese Navy into committing additional light units to piracy suppression in the vicinity, then to pounce on those units with modern Solarian heavy cruisers and wipe them out. Whether the Erewhonese decided we were directly involved in backing the 'pirates' or not, they were bound to become even more furious with the Star Kingdom when they started suffering losses among their warships as well as their merchant traffic. Given the peculiarities of the Erewhonese honor code, it was likely that if we continued to provoke them long enough, and if the Manties continued to ignore their demands for assistance, the Erewhonese would eventually withdraw from the Manticoran Alliance."

    "Which would be good for us in exactly what way?" Sandusky asked, frowning intently as he followed her explanation.

    "Erewhon's abandonment of the Alliance was bound to shake up even the Manticorans. The Manty woman-in-the-street seemed willing enough to go along with High Ridge as long as there was no clearly perceived external threat to the Star Kingdom's security. If, however, the Alliance seemed to be crumbling, still without any formal peace treaty, that was likely to change, hopefully in the direction of greater militancy directed towards the Republic. And, to be honest, although High Ridge's disinterest in suppressing slavery was good for us, we doubted that he'd be able to ignore the issue much longer, given the way the Winton dynasty's always hated us and how hard Montaigne, Zilwicki, Harrington, and people like the Hauptmans were all pushing it. So we were perfectly willing to see his government fall, especially if that contributed to the resumption of hostilities we wanted.

    "From another perspective, once Erewhon withdrew from the Alliance, the Erewhonese were going to suddenly start feeling very lonely, especially if their one-time allies and the Republic did start shooting at each other again. Under those circumstances, it seemed likely they'd feel the need to bolster and maintain their own military, which would probably mean going back to the people who'd built all of their ships of the wall before they joined the alliance. Which happens to be our good friends at Technodyne. Which meant Technodyne would be able to get a direct look at the latest and best Manty war-fighting hardware. Whether or not the League's navy would be interested in it, Technodyne and the Mesan Navy certainly were, and getting access to it for ourselves and the system defense contingents of our friends in the region would have been a very good thing. That's why Technodyne was so cooperative about coming up with the Tiberian-based cruisers."

    "But it didn't work out that way, did it, Aldona?" Detweiler asked. His tone was almost avuncular, but that didn't make Anisimovna feel one bit better. She started to reply, but someone else beat her to it.

    "No, Mr. Detweiler, it didn't," Isabel Bardasano said.




AT ALL COSTS – snippet 11:

    The younger woman sat beside Anisimovna, and she met the Mesan Chairman of the Board's eyes levelly, with every appearance of complete equanimity. Which, Anisimovna thought, was probably accurate in her case. She envied Bardasano's composure, yet she was none too certain about the confidence, even arrogance, upon which that composure rested. At the moment, however, she was mostly grateful to Bardasano for intervening. And for reminding Detweiler that Anisimovna had not had primary, or at least solo, responsibility for the Verdant Vista operation.

    "It should have," Bardasano continued. "Unfortunately, we hadn't counted on the Battle of Tiberian. Nor had we counted on the Stein Assassination, or on the fact that Elizabeth Winton would decide to send Anton Zilwicki, of all people, as her representative at the funeral on Erewhon. And we certainly hadn't counted on the interference of a Havenite spy and some sort of rogue operation by a Frontier Security governor!"

    She shook her head, her expression disgusted.

    "We got exactly the break with Manticore that we wanted. Unfortunately, instead of falling into Technodyne's arms, which is what we're almost certain the then current Erewhonese government would have done, left to its own devices, the Havenites and Governor Barregos, managed to convince them to run straight into the arms of the Republic of Haven. Worse, Ruth Winton was right there on the spot and actually managed to get the Star Kingdom, however marginally, involved in supporting what was effectively a Havenite-planned operation against Congo. That left the two of them standing as joint sponsors of the 'Torch' regime on Verdant Vista -- a relationship which seems to be surviving so far despite the fact that they're shooting at each other everywhere else. And just to make the situation even better, we have strong indications that in the course of his own contributions to generating this fiasco, Zilwicki managed to get his hands on some sort of evidence which led to the disappearance of Countess North Hollow and the destruction of the North Hollow Files, which ultimately played its own part in the fall of the High Ridge Government and Descroix's complete loss of power."

    "Speaking of Descroix . . . ?" another of Detweiler's guests inquired.

    "No longer a problem," Bardasano replied with a thin smile.


    "But eliminating her didn't eliminate the fallout from the entire Congo debacle," Sandusky pointed out.

    "No, it didn't," Anisimovna agreed. "It comes under the heading of damage control, at best."

    "Agreed," Detweiler said.

    He sat back from his desk for a moment, surveying the people he'd assembled. They looked back, and he knew what they were seeing -- the culmination of almost five centuries of steady genetic improvement. Much of the rest of the galaxy remained blissfully unaware that what the Ukrainian maniacs of Old Earth's Final War had failed to achieve with their "Scrags" had, in fact, been achieved on Mesa.

    But Mesa had learned more than one lesson from the Slav Supremacists, including the need to be cautious. To build a position of security first, before trumpeting the fact of one's superiority to those who would justifiably see in one the hateful image of their future master.

    "I didn't gather you all here just so we could recount our failures. Nor, for the record, do I believe that what happened to our Congo operations was the fault of anyone in this room or on the Strategy Committee. No one can allow for all the vagaries of blind chance bound to occur in a galaxy with this many inhabited worlds and competing power blocs.

    "But the fact remains that we're entering a period of growing risk . . . and opportunity. The situation vis--vis Manticore and Haven is perhaps the most clear-cut, recognizable threat we face. At the moment, that threat is manageable, so long as we take steps to ensure it remains that way. The greater threat -- and opportunity -- we confront, however, is the fact that we are finally approaching the point towards which we and our ancestors have worked for so long. For now, that remains unrecognized by the vast majority of those who might oppose us. As we begin our final preparations, however, it becomes more and more likely our actual objectives will be recognized. That moment of recognition must be delayed as long as possible, and I believe one of the keys to doing that may be the fashion in which we manage the Manties and Peeps."

    Tension had gathered perceptibly in the palatial office as he spoke. Now the big room was utterly silent as he swept his eyes slowly from face to face, searching for any signs of weakness, of wavering commitment. He found none, and he allowed his chair to come back fully upright.

    "Fortunately for us, Haven and the Manties have managed to get themselves back into a shooting war despite the failure of our original plans for Erewhon. That's good. But the Manties are clearly intent on expanding into the Talbott Cluster, despite the distraction of the war, and that's bad. Bad for many reasons, but not least for how much closer to Mesa it will bring their advanced naval bases.

    "Also on the deficit side of the ledger, we still haven't managed to obtain access to first-line Manticoran naval hardware. No matter how everything else works out, eventually we are going to find ourselves in open conflict with Manticore, unless we can somehow arrange for someone else to handle that chore for us. We'll continue to pursue the option of finding someone else to do the deed, and I'm sure we'd all find it extremely satisfying if we could, indeed, find a way to use Haven and Manticore to neutralize each other. I don't believe we can count on that, however, so it behooves us to continue planning for an ultimate direct confrontation. With that in mind, anything we can do to reduce Manticore's military, economic, and industrial power bases is eminently worthwhile. Which obviously includes keeping them from annexing the Cluster and all the industrial potential those planets represent.

    "I happen to know the Strategy Committee is already working on a plan to at least destabilize and hopefully permanently derail the Talbott annexation. Personally, I give it no more than a thirty percent chance of succeeding, but I could be being unduly pessimistic. Aldona and Isabel will be our contacts for that particular operation, and I want it clearly understood by everyone in this room -- whatever we may say or do for the consumption of others -- that while I very much hope for their success, we must all be aware that that success is at best problematical. In other words, there will be no penalties and no retaliation if, through no fault of their own, this plan miscarries."

    Anisimovna's expression didn't even flicker, despite the enormous sense of relief she felt at Detweiler's pronouncement. Of course, he hadn't said there would be no penalties if the plan miscarried and he decided the fault was theirs.

    "While they deal with that aspect of the problem, Jerome," he continued, turning to Sandusky, "you will be polishing up the final details of our arrangement with Mannerheim. Make it very clear to President Hurskainen that it's almost certainly going to be up to him to provide the military muscle when the time comes for the open move to retake Congo." He grimaced. "We can't afford to postpone that particular necessity very long. We've got some time, but the last thing we need is for an entire planet of Ballroom fanatics to get loose in the galaxy. Especially not a planet which controls that particular wormhole junction."

    "What about the indirect approach we've discussed?" Sandusky asked in a businesslike voice.

    "We'll keep it in reserve," Detweiler directed. "It has a certain appeal on its own merits, but at the moment, Verdant Vista appears to be the only point over which the Manties and Havenites continue to find themselves sharing any common ground. Any move against this so-called 'monarchy' at this time would certainly be seen as our handiwork, however many cutouts we employed, and I don't want us to do anything which might push them closer together where we're concerned than they already are.

    "Nonetheless, Isabel," he turned back to Bardasano, "we do need to keep the thought in mind. This is your particular specialty, and I want a detailed operational plan on my desk and ready for implementation before you and Aldona head out to meet with Verrochio. We'll call it . . . Operation Rat Poison."

    An ugly ripple of amusement ran around the room, and he nodded in satisfaction.




    "I've done the best preliminary groundwork I could for you and Aldona in Talbott," he continued to Bardasano. "Technodyne doesn't know everything we're up to, but they've agreed to at least listen to our proposition. I expect you'll probably be hearing from a Mr. Levakonic shortly, and everything I've been able to discover about him suggests he should be amenable. On the minus side, you're also going to have to deal with Kalokainos. The old man is bad enough, but Volkhart is an idiot. Unfortunately, Verrochio and Hongbo are firmly in Kalokainos' pocket, so we're going to have to at least go through the motions of 'consulting' with him. You may actually have to involve him in the initial strategy discussions, although I trust you'll be able to cut him out of the circuit fairly early. I've had our official representative in the area briefed to help you accomplish that -- not fully, but in sufficient detail for him to understand what he has to do. He's supposed to be pretty good at this sort of thing."

    "Who is it, Albrecht?" Anisimovna asked.

    "His name is Ottweiler, Valery Ottweiler," Detweiler replied.

    "I know him," she said, frowning thoughtfully. "And he really is good at this kind of thing. In fact, if it weren't for his genome, I'd say he should be brought fully inside."

    "Are you suggesting probationer status for him?" Sandusky asked a bit sharply.

    "I didn't say that, Jerome," Anisimovna returned coolly. She and Sandusky had crossed swords entirely too often in the past, and she wasn't certain whether he really opposed the notion or secretly hoped she would suggest it and be supported over his opposition. It was always risky to nominate a normal for probationer status, and he might be hoping this one would blow up, as others had, with the egg landing on her face this time.

    "If this operation succeeds, and if he's as integral to its success as I expect him to be," she continued after a brief pause, "then it might be time for the Council to consider whether or not he should be offered that status. I don't personally know the man well enough to predict how he would react. But he does have a reputation for effectiveness, and he could be even more effective for us as a probationer brought more fully into the real picture."

    "We'll cross that bridge when -- and if -- we come to it," Detweiler decreed. "In the meantime, you and Isabel undoubtedly have a lot of details to take care of before you depart. I'll be meeting with both of you -- and with some of the rest of you -- privately over the next few days. For now, though, I believe we're done, and dinner is waiting."

    He started to push back from the desk, but Bardasano raised one hand in a respectful attention-requesting gesture. She was, by almost any conventional standard, the most junior individual in the room, but her professional competence -- and ruthlessness -- made her lack of conventional seniority meaningless, and Detweiler settled back.

    "Yes, Isabel? You had a question?"

    "Not about the Cluster," she said. "I do have one question concerning Rat Poison, however, and I thought I'd raise it while we were all here, since it may affect Jerome's planning, as well."

    "And that question is?"

    "As you know, most of our current scenarios for Rat Poison are built around the use of the new nanotech. We've run several test operations to be sure it works -- the most prominent was the Hofschulte business on New Potsdam. As you also know," she didn't so much as glance at Sandusky, who had been responsible for that particular "test operation," "I had my doubts about the advisability of using the new technology in an assassination attempt which was bound to attract as much attention and comment as that one did. In this instance, it appears my concerns were misplaced, however, since there's no evidence anyone as much as suspects what really happened.

    "The question in my mind, however, is whether or not we want to consider making additional use of the same technique in the interim. I can foresee several possible sets of circumstances where it could be very useful. In particular, according to Jerome's reports, our primary contact in the Havenite Department of State is almost certainly going to require a completely untraceable weapon sometime in the next few weeks or months."

    "Well, this is an interesting change of mind," Sandusky remarked astringently.

    "It isn't really a change of mind at all, Jerome," Bardasano said calmly. "My concern at the time was that someone would figure out how it was done, but the Andies have run every test they could think of on Hofschulte -- or, rather, his cadaver -- without, apparently, turning up a thing. If they haven't found anything after looking this long and this hard, then the R&D types may actually have known what they were talking about this time. Which," she added dryly, "always comes as a pleasant and unanticipated surprise for us unfortunate field grunts."

    Several people, including Renzo Kyprianou, whose bio weapon research teams had developed the technology in question, laughed.

    "If this technique works as well as it did in our tests, and really is this close to impossible to detect," she continued more seriously, "then it might be time for us to begin making judicious use of it in special cases." She shrugged. "Even if they figure out someone is deliberately triggering the attacks, there's not much they can do about it. Not, at least, without security arrangements which would effectively hamstring their own operations. And I can think of several prominent individuals in both Manticore and Haven whose sudden and possibly spectacular demises could be quite beneficial to us. Especially if we can convince both sides that the other one, not some third party, is responsible."

    "I'll have to think about that," Detweiler said, after a moment. "I felt your original arguments for restraint had considerable merit. But what you've just suggested also has merit. Keeping something like this in reserve, as a total surprise, is always tempting. But if you keep it in reserve too long, then you never use it at all."

    He pursed his lips for several seconds, then shrugged.

    "Jerome, you and I will have to discuss this. Give some thought to the pros and cons and sit down with Isabel before she leaves. Work out a list of potential targets -- not a big one, I don't want to flash this capability around any more obviously then we have to, however unlikely it is that someone will figure out how it works. At the very least, though, we can put the groundwork in place and have Renzo's people begin looking for the best . . . vehicles."

    "Of course, Albrecht."

    "Good!" Detweiler smacked both palms on his desktop and stood. "And on that note, let's get out of here. Evelina's brought in a brand new chef, and I think all of you are going to be amazed at what he can do with Old Earth rock lobster!"

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