Chapter Nine

            A concealed door slid silently open, and three men stepped through it into the luxurious office. They looked remarkably like younger versions of the fourth man, already sitting behind the desk in that office. They had the same dark hair, the same dark eyes, the same high cheekbones, and the same strong nose, and for good reason.

            They crossed to the chairs arranged in a loose semicircle facing the desk and settled into them. One of them selected the chair in which one of the two women who'd just left had been seated, and the older man behind the desk smiled at them with remarkably little humor.

            "Well?" Albrecht Detweiler said after a moment, tipping back his own chair as he regarded the newcomers.

            "It would appear," the one who'd chosen the previously occupied chair said, in a voice which sounded eerily like Albrecht's, "that we've hit an air pocket."

            "Really?" Albrecht raised his eyebrows in mock amazement. "And what, pray tell, might have led you to that conclusion, Benjamin?"

            Benjamin showed very little sign of the sort of apprehension Albrecht's irony evoked in most of the people who knew of his existence. Perhaps that was because his own last name was also Detweiler . . . as was the last name of both of his companions, as well.

            "That was what's known as a prefatory remark, Father," he replied.

            "Ah, I see. In that case, why don't you go ahead and elucidate?"

            Benjamin smiled and shook his head, then leaned back in his chair.

            "Father, you know as well as I do — better than I do — that at least part of this is the result of how thoroughly we've compartmentalized. Personally, I think Anisimovna might have done a marginally better job if she'd known what our real objectives were, but that may be because I've been arguing for years now that we need to bring more of the Strategy Council fully inside. As it is, though, I think her and Bardasano's analysis of what went wrong in Talbott is probably essentially accurate. No one could have allowed for the sort of freak occurrence which apparently led this Terekhov into stumbling across the connection to Frontier Security and Monica. Nor, I think, could anyone have legitimately expected him to launch some sort of unauthorized preemptive strike even if they'd expected him to uncover whatever it was he uncovered. And, unlike us, Anisimovna didn't have our latest appreciation on Manty capabilities. Let's be honest — what they did to Monica's new battlecruisers surprised even us, and she didn't have as much inside information as we did to begin with. Besides that, she didn't know that what we really wanted all along was for Verrochio and Frontier Fleet to get reamed, even if we did plan for it to happen considerably later in the process. If Bardasano had been allowed to tell her everything, it's possible — not likely, but possible — that the two of them could have designed in a fallback position for something like this."

            He shrugged.

            "Things like this happen sometimes. It's not exactly as if it's the first time it's happened to us, after all. The fact that Pritchart was able to turn what happened into an opening wedge for this summit of hers is a lot more painful, of course, but we've had at least a few other setbacks which have been at least as severe. The thing that makes this one smart as much as it does is that we're moving into the endgame phase, and that reduces our margin to recover from missteps. Which," he added just a bit pointedly, "is one reason I think we may need to reconsider how tightly we do compartmentalize things."

            Albrecht frowned. It was a less than fully happy expression, yet it was a thoughtful frown, not an angry one. His reputation (among those who knew he existed at all) for ruthlessness was well-deserved, and he'd carefully cultivated a matching reputation for the shortness and ferocity of his temper. That second reputation, however, was more useful than accurate.

            "I understand what you're saying, Ben," he said, after a moment. "God knows you've said it often enough!"

            A grin robbed his last sentence of any potential air of complaint, but then the grin faded back into thoughtfulness.

            "The problem is that the onion's served us so well for so long," he said. "I'm not prepared to just throw all of that away, especially when the consequences if anyone we decide has the need to know screws up could be so severe. It's one of those 'if it isn't broken, don't fix it' sort of things."

            "I'm not suggesting 'throwing it away,' Father. I'm only suggesting . . . peeling it back a little for the people trying to coordinate and carry out critical operations. And I agree with you that we shouldn't fix things that aren't broken, as a general rule. Unfortunately, I think there's a possibility that it is broken — or, at least, sufficiently inefficient to be getting dangerous — in this regard," Benjamin pointed out respectfully but firmly, and Albrecht grimaced at the validity of the qualification. It was entirely possible Benjamin was right, after all.

            The problem with a conspiracy embracing a multi-century schedule, he reflected, was that nobody, however gifted at skulduggery and paranoia they might be, could operate on that scale for that long without having the occasional operational faux pas stray into sight. So the approach which had been adopted by the Mesan Alignment all those centuries ago had been to establish what one of Albrecht's direct ancestors had christened the "onion strategy."

            So far as the galaxy at large was aware, the planet Mesa was simply an outlaw world, home to ruthless and corrupt corporations from throughout the Solarian League's huge volume. Not a member of the League itself, Mesa nonetheless had lucrative contacts with many League worlds, which protected it and its "outlaw" owners from Solarian intervention. And, of course, the worst of the outlaws in question was none other than Manpower Inc., the galaxy's leading producer of genetic slaves, which had been founded by Leonard Detweiler the better part of six hundred T-years before. There were others, some of them equally disreputable and "evil" by other peoples' standards, but Manpower was clearly the standardbearer for Mesa's incredibly wealthy — and thoroughly corrupt — elite. And Manpower, equally clearly, was ruthlessly determined to protect its economic interests at any cost. Any and all of its political contacts, objectives, and strategies were obviously subordinated to that purpose.

            Which was where the "onion" came in. Although Albrecht himself had often thought it would have been more appropriate to describe Manpower as the stage magician's left hand, moving in dramatic passes to fix the audience's attention upon it while his right hand performed the critical manipulation the Alignment wanted no one else to notice.