Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 33 

“Yes.” Benjamin grimaced. “As a matter of fact, the Gamma Center records which ‘mysteriously’ survived McBryde’s cyberbomb showed Simões as on-site when the suicide charge went off.” He sighed. “I should’ve wondered why those records managed to survive when so much of the rest of our secure files got wiped.”

“You weren’t the only one who didn’t think about that,” his father pointed out harshly. “It did disappear him pretty neatly, though, didn’t it? And no wonder we were willing to assume he’d just been vaporized! God knows enough other people were.” He shook his head. “And I still think we did the right thing to use the whole mess to undercut Manticore with the League, given what we knew. But that’s sort of the point, I suppose. What’s that old saying? ‘It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you think you know that isn’t so.’ It’s sure as hell true in this case, anyway!”

“I think we could safely agree on that, Father.”

They sat silent once more for several moments. Then Albrecht shrugged.

“Well, it’s not the end of the universe. And at least we’ve had time to get Houdini up and running.”

“But we’re not far enough along with it,” Benjamin pointed out. “Not if the Manties — or the Andies — move as quickly as they could. And if the Sollies believe this, the time window’s going to get even tighter.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” His father’s tone was decidedly testy this time, but then he shook his head and raised one hand in an apologetic gesture. “Sorry, Ben. No point taking out my pissed-offedness on you. And you’re right, of course. But it’s not as if we never had a plan in place to deal with something like this.” He paused and barked a harsh laugh. “Well, not something like this, so much, since we never saw this coming in our worst nightmares, but you know what I mean.”

Benjamin nodded, and Albrecht tipped back in his chair, fingers drumming on its arms.

“I think we have to assume McBryde and this Simões between them have managed to compromise us almost completely, insofar as anything either of them had access to is concerned,” he said after a moment. “Frankly, I doubt they have, but I’m not about to make any optimistic — any more optimistic — assumptions at this point. On the other hand, we’re too heavily compartmentalized for even someone like McBryde to’ve known about anything close to all the irons we have in the fire. And if Simões was in the Gamma Center, he doesn’t know crap about the operational side. You and Collin — and Isabel — saw to that. In particular, nobody in the Gamma Center, including McBryde, had been briefed about Houdini before Oyster Bay. So unless we want to assume Zilwicki and Cachat have added mind reading to their repertoire, that’s still secure.”

“Probably,” Benjamin agreed.

“Even so, we’re going to have to accelerate the process. Worse, we never figured we’d have to execute Houdini under this kind of time pressure. We’re going to have to figure out how to hide a hell of a lot of disappearances in a really tight time window, and that’s going to be a pain in the ass.” Albrecht frowned, his expression thoughtful as he regained his mental balance. “There’s a limit to how many convenient air-car accidents we can arrange. On the other hand, we can probably bury a good many of them in the Green Pines casualty total. Not the really visible ones, of course, but a good percentage of the second tier live in Green Pines. We can probably get away with adding a lot of them to the casualty lists, at least as long as we’re not leaving any immediate family or close friends behind.”

“Collin and I will get on that as soon as he gets here,” Benjamin agreed. “You’ve probably just put your finger on why we won’t be able to hide as many of them that way as we’d like, though. A lot of those family and friends are going to be left behind under Houdini, and if we start expanding the Houdini lists all of a sudden . . .”

“Point taken.” Albrecht nodded. “Look into it, though. Anyone we can hide that way will help. For the rest, we’re just going to have to be more inventive.”

He rocked his chair from side to side, thinking hard. Then he smiled suddenly, and there was actually some genuine amusement in the expression. Bitter, biting amusement, perhaps, but amusement.

“What?” Benjamin asked.

“I think it’s time to make use of the Ballroom again.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you.”

“I don’t care who the Manties are able to trot out to the newsies,” Albrecht replied. “Unless they physically invade Mesa and get their hands on a solid chunk of the onion core, a bunch of Sollies — most of them, maybe — are still going to think they’re lying. Especially where the Ballroom’s concerned. God knows we’ve spent enough time, effort, and money convincing the League at large that the entire Ballroom consists of nothing but homicidal maniacs! For that matter, they’ve done a lot of the convincing for us, because they are homicidal maniacs! So I think it’s time, now that these preposterous rumors about some deeply hidden, centuries-long Mesan conspiracy have been aired, for the Ballroom to decide to take vengeance. The reports are a complete fabrication, of course. At best, they’re a gross, self-serving misrepresentation, anyway, so any murderous response they provoke out of the Ballroom will be entirely the Manties’ fault, not that they’ll ever admit their culpability. And, alas, our security here is going to turn out to be more porous than we thought it was.”

Benjamin looked at him for another moment, then began to smile himself.

“Do you think we can get away with its having been ‘porous’ enough for them to have gotten their hands on additional nukes?”

“Well, we know from our own interrogation of that seccie bastard who was working with Zilwicki and Cachat that it was the seccies who brought themthe nuke that went off in the park,” Albrecht pointed out. “Assuming anyone on their side’s concerned with telling the truth — which, admittedly, I wouldn’t be, in their place — that little fact may just become public knowledge. In fact, now that I think about it, if Cachat and Zilwicki are telling their side of what happened, they’ll probably want to stress that they certainly didn’t bring any nukes to Mesa with them. So, yes, I think it’s possible some of those deeply embittered fanatics, driven to new heights of violence by the Manties’ vicious lies, will inflict yet more terroristic nuclear attacks upon us. And if they’re going to do that, it’s only reasonable — if I can apply that term to such sociopathic butchers — that they’d be going after the upper echelons of Mesan society.”

“That could very well work,” Benjamin said, eyes distant as he nodded thoughtfully. Then those eyes refocused on his father, and his own smile disappeared. “If we go that way, though, it’s going to push the collateral damage way up. Houdini never visualized that, Father.”

“I know it didn’t.” Albrecht’s expression matched his son’s. “And I don’t like it, either. For that matter, a lot of the people on the Houdini list aren’t going to like it. But messy as it’s going to be, I don’t think we have any choice but to look at this option closely, Ben. We can’t afford to leave any kind of breadcrumb trail.

“McBryde had to know a lot about our military R&D, given his position, but he was never briefed in on Darius, and he was at least officially outside any of the compartments that knew anything about Mannerheim or the other members of the Factor. It’s possible he’d gotten some hint about the Factor, though, and he was obviously smart enough to’ve figured out we had to have something like Darius. For that matter, there are a hell of a lot of Manties who’re smart enough to realize we’d never have been able to build the units for Oyster Bay without it. So it’s going to be painfully evident to anyone inclined to believe the Manties’ claims that the Mesan Alignment they’re talking about would have to have a bolt-hole hidden away somewhere.” He shook his head. “We can’t afford to leave any evidence that might corroborate the notion that we simply dived down a convenient rabbit hole. If we have to inflict some ‘collateral damage’ to avoid that, then I’m afraid we’re just going to have to inflict the damage.”

Benjamin looked at him for several seconds, then nodded unhappily.

“All right,” Albrecht said again. “Obviously, we’re both responding off the cuff at the moment. Frankly, it’s going to take a while for me, at least, to get past the simple shock quotient and be sure my mind’s really working, and the last thing we need is to commit ourselves to anything we haven’t thought through as carefully as possible. We need to assume time’s limited, but I’m not about to start making panicked decisions that only make the situation worse. So we’re not making any decisions until we’ve had a chance to actually lookat this. You say Collin’s on his way?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then as soon as he gets here, the three of us need to go through everything we’ve got at this stage on a point-by-point basis. Should I assume that, with your usual efficiency, you’ve brought the actual dispatches about all of this with you?”

“I figured you’d want to see them yourself,” Benjamin said with a nod, and reached into his tunic to extract a chip folio.

“One of the joys of having competent subordinates,” Albrecht said in something closer to a normal tone. “In that case,” he went on, holding out one hand for the folio while his other hand activated his terminal, “let’s get started reviewing the damage now.”