Although Manpower had found the Star Kingdom's deep involvement in the League's merchant shipping made possible by the Junction inconvenient in the extreme, the Alignment had actually been much more concerned by the Republic's existence. After all, although the official Republic of Haven had consisted only of the Haven System itself and a handful of its oldest daughter colonies, its influence had pervaded the whole Haven Quadrant, making Nouveau Paris the natural leader of that entire volume, and the Quadrant had been growing steadily in both size and economic and industrial power. There'd been no doubt in the mind of the Alignment that the Republic would stand staunchly by the historic Beowulfan position in any open conflict, and it promised to form a power bloc poised to come to Beowulf's aid from well beyond Mesa's reach. Manticore, on the other hand, had been only a single star system — although it was in the process of becoming an extraordinarily rich one — with a tradition of powerful domestic opposition to territorial expansion. Which was why the Alignment's initial attention had been focused on crippling the Republic of Haven as expeditiously as possible, and the subtle encouragement of certain domestic philosophies and political machinations — and machines — had offered Mesa a pry bar.

            That particular effort had worked out rather well . . . except, of course, for the unfortunate side effect it had produced where Manticore was concerned. The Legislaturalist régime and its policies had transformed Haven from a shining example into a vast, voracious, shambling, ramshackle entity, thoroughly detested by its neighbors and the majority of its involuntary citizens and perpetually hovering on the brink of outright collapse. As such, it had scarcely constituted any sort of threat . . .  until, that was, it turned its sights upon Manticore, at which point, things had departed drastically from the Alignment's strategic playbook.

            Manticore had declined to be absorbed. In fact, it had resisted so strongly and successfully — and had embraced so many military innovations in the process — that it had come within a hair's breadth of toppling the People's Republic, instead. In fact, it had toppled the People's Republic . . . which had not only threatened to resurrect the old Republic of Haven, but also provided both Haven and Manticore with an enormous military edge over any potential opponent. Not to mention the fact that the previously anti-expansion Star Kingdom was busily converting itself into a star empire, instead.

            The thing that makes it so damned irritating, Albrecht reflected, is that everything else is going so well. In a lot of ways, Manticore and Haven shouldn't matter a fart in a windstorm, given their limited size and how far away they are. Unfortunately, not only are they both likely to grow nothing but bigger and stronger if we don't take steps, but the wormhole network gives Manticore the ability to reach almost any part of the Solarian League quickly, in theory, at least. And they aren't really that damned far away from us, either. Talbott is bad enough in normal-space terms, but the entire Manty home fleet is only sixty light-years — and two junction transits — away from Mesa by way of Beowulf. And the Manties keep right on introducing new pieces of hardware at the most inconvenient times. Not to mention pushing the damned Havenites into following their lead!

            "I don't think we want to abandon the onion at this particular moment," he said finally. Benjamin started to say something more, then closed his mouth and nodded, accepting the decision, and Albrecht smiled at him.

            "I understand that you're thinking about our internal arrangements and the way we compartmentalize information and operations, not the face we present to the galaxy at large, Ben," he said. "And I'm not saying I disagree with you in theory. In fact, I don't disagree with you in practice, either. It's just a matter of timing. We've always intended to bring the entire Strategy Council fully inside well before we actually push the button, after all. It may well be that we need to reconsider our decision trees and pull that moment further forward, too. I don't want to do that precipitously, without considering all of the implications — and without carefully considering which of the Council members might pose additional security risks — but I'm perfectly willing to concede that this is something we should be looking at very seriously."

            "I'm glad to hear you say that, Father," Collin Detweiler said. Albrecht glanced at him, and Collin smiled a bit crookedly. "I think Ben feels his shoes pinching a bit harder than the rest of us because his emphasis is so much on the military side of things. But I have to say that my toes are feeling a little squeezed, too."

            "They are?"

            "Oh, yes." Collin shook his head. "I'm glad you've at least let me bring Bardasano most of the way inside. That makes coordinating covert ops a lot simpler and cleaner. But that's not quite the same thing as making them easy and efficient, and now that we're ramping up to the main event, its inconvenient as hell when the only person I've been allowed to bring that far inside has to spend so much of her time hundreds of light-years away."

            "How serious a problem is that, really?" Albrecht asked, his eyes narrowing intensely.

            "So far, it hasn't been all that bad," Collin admitted. "It's cumbersome, of course. And to be perfectly honest, the need to keep coming up with convincing rationales for why we're doing some of the things we're doing can get pretty exhausting. I'm talking about internal rationales, for the people we actually have doing them. You don't want idiots planning and executing black operations, and the non-idiots you need are likely to start wondering why you're doing things that don't logically support the objectives they think you're trying to accomplish. Finding ways to prevent that from happening uses up almost as much energy as figuring out what it is we really do need to accomplish. Not to mention creating all sorts of possibilities for dropped stitches or embarrassing gaffes."

            "Daniel?" Albrecht looked at the third younger man. "What about your side of things?"

            "It doesn't really matter very much one way or the other from where I sit, Father," Daniel Detweiler replied. "Unlike Benjamin and Collin, Everett and I have been openly involved with our R&D programs all along, and no one questions how thoroughly we compartmentalize on that side. Obviously, everyone knows some R&D has to be kept 'black,' and that helps a lot from our perspective. We can set up quiet little projects whenever we feel like it, and no one asks very many questions. At the same time, I have to agree with Collin that bringing Bardasano this far inside has been a considerable help, even for us. We can use her to handle the security on anything we need kept really well hidden while we get on with the business of coordinating the programs themselves. It would help if we could bring people like Kyprianou all the way in, though."

            Albrecht nodded slowly. Renzo Kyprianou was in charge of bio-weapons research and development and a member of the Mesan Strategy Council. At the moment, however, not even the Strategy Council knew everything the Alignment was up to.

            Not surprisingly, I suppose, he mused, given that the Alignment's always been so much of a . . . family business.

            His lips twitched in an almost-smile at the thought, and he wondered how many members of the Strategy Council had figured out just how close he truly was to his "sons."

            The official demise of the Detweiler line had been part of the strategy designed to divert the galaxy's — and especially Beowulf's — attention from Leonard Detweiler's determination to uplift human genetics in general. The Detweilers had been too strongly and fiercely devoted to that goal for too long, and the apparent — and spectacular — assassination of the "last" Detweiler heir by greedy elements on the Manpower Inc., board of directors had punctuated the fact that the increasingly criminal Mesans no longer shared that lofty aspiration. It had also served to get Leonard's descendants safely beneath anyone else's radar, of course, but its most useful function had been to help explain and justify Mesa's switch to the full-bore exploitation of genetic slavery by Manpower. The steady, ongoing improvement of the alignment's own genomes had been buried under Manpower's R&D programs and camouflaged as little more than surface improvements in physical beauty.

            But whatever the rest of humanity might have thought, the Detweiler line was far from extinct. In fact, the Detweiler genome was one of the — if not the — most improved within the entire Alignment. And Albrecht Detweiler's "sons" were also his genetic clones. Bardasano, for one, he felt certain, had figured that out, despite how closely held a secret it was supposed to be. It was possible Kyprianou had, as well, given how closely he worked with Daniel. For that matter, Jerome Sandusky might cherish a few suspicions of his own, not that any of that trio was going to breathe a word of any such suspicions to anyone else.

            "All right," he said. "As soon as Everett, Franklin, and Gervais get back to Mesa, we'll all sit down and discuss this. As I say, my only reservation has to do with the timing. We all know we're getting close — very close — and I don't want last-minute impatience to push us into making a wrong decision at this point."

            "None of us want that, Father," Benjamin agreed, and the other two nodded. Taking the time to think things through had always been a fundamental principle of the Alignment's operational planning.

            "Good. In the meantime, though, what's your impression of Anisimovna and Bardasano's report?"

            "I think Bardasano's probably put her finger on what happened," Benjamin said. He cocked an eyebrow at Collin, and his brother nodded.

            "And whether she's right about what caused the operation to blow up is really beside the point," Benjamin continued, turning back to Albrecht. "We've lost Monica; Verrochio is going to pull in his horns, exactly as Anisimovna's predicted; the entire Technodyne connection's been shot right in the head, at least for now; and Manticore's accepted Pritchart's invitation. Leaving summit meetings aside for the moment, we're still going to have to rethink our entire approach to Talbott, at the very least. And we're going to have to find some other way to get through to those idiots in Battle Fleet."

            "Well, Monica's not that big a loss," Albrecht observed. "It was never more than a cat's-paw in the first place, and I'm confident we can find another one of those if we need it. Having Verrochio go all gutless on us, now . . . . That's more than a little irritating. Especially after all the investment we made in Crandall and Filareta."

            "Why is that a problem, Father?" Daniel asked after a moment. Albrecht looked at him, and Daniel shrugged. "I know neither of them came cheap, but it's not as if we don't have fairly deep pockets."

            "That's not the problem, Dan," Collin said before Albrecht could reply. "The problem is that now that we've used them, we're going to have to get rid of them."

            Daniel looked at him for several seconds, then shook his head with a pursed-lip sigh.

            "I know I'm only the family tech weanie, not an expert in covert ops like you and Benjamin," he said, "but usually I can at least follow your logic. This time, though, I don't really understand why we need to do that."

            "Collin's right, Daniel," Albrecht said. "We can't afford to have either of them asking questions — or, even worse, shooting off his or her mouth and starting someone else asking questions." He snorted. "Both of them had the authority to choose their own training problems and deploy their squadrons where they wanted to for the exercises, so that's not a problem. But now that the entire Talbott operation's gone sour on us, we can't have anyone wondering — or, worse, actually asking — why both of them chose such obscure locations. Locations which just happened to move their task forces so close to Talbott and Manticore itself just when things were coming to a head at Monica . . . almost as if they knew something was going to happen ahead of time.

            "Oh," he waved one hand, "it's unlikely anyone's even going to notice, much less ask questions. But unlikely isn't the same thing as impossible, and you know our policy about eliminating risks, however remote, whenever possible. Which means Crandall and Filareta are both going to have to suffer fatal accidents. Even if someone finds all of their hidden accounts, the money passed through enough cutouts no one will ever be able to tie it to us, but if they should happen to mention that Manpower suggested their exercise areas to them, it could start the damned Manties or Havenites asking questions of their own. Like how even Manpower could have the resources to put so many pieces into play simultaneously."

            "I don't think we need to worry about acting immediately, though, Father," Benjamin said. Albrecht looked at him, and it was his turn to shrug. "Trying to get to either of them while they're still out with their fleets would be a royal pain in the ass, even if everything went perfectly. And the odds are that it wouldn't go perfectly, either. Much better to let them go ahead, carry out their planned exercises, and then head on home. Both of them are very fond of our pleasure resorts, after all. It won't be too difficult to convince them to drop by for a complimentary visit as a way of expressing our thanks for their efforts, will it? They'll take their own precautions to cover any connection between us before they avail themselves of our generosity, too. And when they do, Collin can arrange things quietly and discreetly."

            "Or Bardasano can, anyway," Collin agreed.

            "And it's still remotely possible we can somehow prod Verrochio into providing the shooting incident we need," Benjamin added. He saw Albrecht's expression and chuckled. "I didn't say I thought it was likely, Father. Frankly, at the moment, I can't think of anything that could possibly have that effect. But if it should happen to happen, we're going to need Crandall and Filareta in place to exploit it. And as you've always told us, never throw away an asset until you're positive it's about to become a liability."

            "I can see that," Albrecht acknowledged. "But while we're on the topic of removing liabilities, Collin, what do you think about Webster and Rat Poison?"

            "I agree with your decision, Father. And Bardasano's suggestion that we combine the two operations is an indication of why it's been so useful to have her so far inside. I don't know that it's going to have the effect we all hope it will, but I don't see anything else we can do in the available timeframe with a realistic chance of derailing this summit. And, frankly, I can't think of anything that would be likely to make more waves for us than having Elizabeth and Pritchart sit down across a table from each other and figure out someone's been manipulating them both. My only possible quibble would be with just how obvious we want to make the Havenite connection."

            "Well, like you and Benjamin, I think Anisimovna's and Bardasano's analysis of how much Ambassador Webster is hurting us on Old Terra is reasonably accurate," Albrecht said more than a little sourly. "And, frankly, I got pissed. I know — I know! I'm not supposed to do that. But I did, and, to be honest, it felt good to vent a little. Obviously, calling the Manties 'neobarbs,' however satisfying, isn't something we want to allow to shape the way we think about them, of course. Despite which, I do think we need to make it very clear Haven was behind the assassination."

            "I don't disagree with you there," Collin said. "But let me think about this. I'll call Bardasano in and discuss it with her, too. We probably do need something fairly glaring to focus the Manties' attention on Haven. Normally, they'd be inclined to do that anyway, given who they're at war with at the moment and the Havenite tradition of eliminating problems through assassination. But, like you, I'm a little anxious about their connecting it with Monica instead of Haven, now that the wheels have come off that particular operation. Rat Poison could very easily start them thinking in Manpower's direction, as well, given the target. And, frankly, however reluctantly Elizabeth may have agreed to sit down with Pritchart, she has agreed. Logically, that's likely to make them question why anyone on Pritchart's side would try something like this. Bearing all of that in mind, we probably do need something to point them rather firmly in Haven's direction. On the other hand, much as we'd prefer for them to be stupid, they aren't. In particular, Givens is especially not-stupid, and she's managed some pretty fair disinformation schemes of her own over the last couple of decades, which means she's probably especially wary of having someone else do the same thing to her. So if we do build in a direct Havenite connection, we've got to make it look like one Haven's done it's damnedest to erase or conceal."

            "I'll leave the tactical decisions up to you," Albrecht said. He sat for a few more seconds, obviously thinking hard, then shrugged.

            "I suppose that's just about everything for this afternoon, then. But I'd like for you and Daniel to brief me on the current status of the spider and Oyster Bay sometime in the next few days, Benjamin."

            "Of course. I can tell you now, though, that we're still well short of being able to implement Oyster Harbor, Father. We’ve only got thirty or so of the Sharks, and they were never intended to be much more than prototypes and training ships to prove the concept. They’ve got decent capability for their size, but they’re certainly not wallers! We're not even scheduled to lay down the first of the real attack ships for another three or four T-months."

            "Oh, I know that. I just want a better feel for where we are on producing the actual hardware. But as Collin's just pointed out, it's entirely possible that we're not going to manage to short-circuit this summit of Pritchart's after all. If we can't, and if the frigging Sollies keep falling over their own feet this way, we may have to take things into our own hands earlier in the process than we wanted to. And if that looks like happening, I'll need to know our exact status when we think about timing."