Chapter Twenty

“You wanted to see me, Albrecht?”
Albrecht Detweiler turned from his contemplation of the panorama of sugar-white beaches beyond his luxurious officer’s windows as the dark-haired, boldly tattooed woman stepped through its door.

“Yes, I believe I did,” he observed, and tilted one hand to indicate one of the chairs in front of his desk.
Isabel Bardasano obeyed the wordless command, sitting with a certain almost dangerous grace and crossing her legs as he walked back from the windows to his own chair. Her expression was attentive, and he reflected once again upon the lethality behind her . . . ornamented façade.
Bardasano belonged to one of Mesa’s “young lodges,” which explained the tattoos and the elaborate body piercings. The young lodges represented a “new generation” of the Mesan corporate hierarchy, one which had embraced a deliberately flamboyant lifestyle, flaunting its wealth and power under the nose of a virtuously disapproving galaxy. Very few members of any of the lodges had been admitted to the full truth of Mesa’s plans, for several reasons. The largest one was that the wealth, sense of privilege, and arrogance which underlay their flamboyance had been deliberately encouraged as one more sign of Manpower and its fellow outlaw corporations’ excesses and general degeneracy. It had been more necessary than ever to distract attention from the Alignment’s activities now that the culminating moment was so rapidly approaching, and the “young lodges” had done that quite well. Of course, their members’ lifestyles had also made them rather more vulnerable to the activities of the Audubon Ballroom’s assassins. That was unfortunate, but all the genotypes in question had been conserved elsewhere, and it had been well worth the price tag in terms of misdirection. And if it also convinced the rest of the galaxy that Mesa at large was increasingly dominated by hedonistic sybarites and useless drones, so much the better.
But some of those “hedonistic sybarites” were anything but useless drones, and Bardasano was a prime example. In fact, she was the prime example. The Bardasano genotype had been notable for at least half a dozen generations for its intelligence and ruthless determination. There’d been a few unfortunate and unintended traits, as well, unhappily, and at one point there’d been serious consideration of simply culling the line’s last several iterations and starting over again from a significantly earlier point. The positive traits had been so strong, however, that a remedial program had been instituted, instead, and Isabel was the current example of how successful it had been. It had been necessary to eliminate two of her immediate predecessors when their inherent ruthlessness had made them just a bit too ambitious for anyone else’s good, but intelligent ambition, properly tempered, was always a useful thing, as Bardasano herself demonstrated. And if there was still a slight tendency towards sexual disorders and mildly sociopathic behaviors, neither of those posed any serious handicap, especially for someone whose area of expertise was covert operations. Of course, they’d have to be dealt with in the next generation or two if the Bardasano line was going to earn back permanent alpha status within the Alignment, which Isabel understood.
In the meantime, however, she was quite possibly the best covert ops specialist the Alignment had produced in at least the last T-century. It amused Detweiler that those outside the Alignment’s innermost circle often cherished doubts about Bardasano’s sanity, particularly when it came to her attitude towards him. The fact that it was well known within Mesa’s star lines that the Bardasanos had almost been culled meant that her apparent insouciance with him only added to her reputation for . . . oddness, and provided a valuable extra level of protection when he or one of his sons called upon her services. As he gazed at her across the desk, he toyed once more with the notion of telling her that a cross between the Bardasano and Detweiler genotypes was even then being evaluated, but decided against it. For now, at least.
“Well,” he said, tipping back slightly in his chair, “I’d have to say that so far, at least, removing Webster — and, of course, Operation Rat Poison — seems to be working out quite well. Aside from whatever new weapons goody the Manties seem to have come up with.”
“So far,” she agreed, but there was the merest hint of a reservation in her tone, and his eyebrows arched.
“Something about it concerns you?”
“Yes, and no,” she replied.
He waggled his fingers in a silent command to continue, and she shrugged.
“So far, and in the short term, it’s had exactly the effect we wanted,” she said. “I’m not talking about whatever they did at Lovat, you understand. That’s outside my area of expertise, and I’m sure Benjamin and Daniel already have their people working on that fulltime. If either of them needs my help, I’m sure they’ll tell me so, as well. But leaving that aside, it does look like we got what we wanted out of the assassinations. The Manties — or, at least, a sufficient majority of them — are convinced Haven was behind it; the summit’s been derailed; and it looks as if we’ve managed to deepen Elizabeth’s distrust of Pritchart even further. I’m just not entirely happy with the fact that we had to mount both operations in such a relatively tight timeframe. I don’t like improvisation, Albrecht. Careful analysis and thorough preparation have served us entirely too well for entirely too long for me to be happy flying by the seat of my pants, whatever the others on the Strategy Council may think.”
“Point taken,” Detweiler acknowledged. “And it’s a valid point, too. Benjamin, Collin, and I have been discussing very much the same considerations. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re going to have to do more and more of it, not less, as we move into the end game phase. You know that’s always been part of our projections.”
“Of course. That doesn’t make me any happier when it’s forced upon us, though. And I really don’t want us to get into a make-it-up-as-we-go-along mindset just because we’re moving into the end game. The two laws I try hardest to bear in mind are the law of unintended consequences and Murphy’s, Albrecht. And, let’s face it, there are some fairly significant potential unintended consequences to eliminating Webster and attacking ‘Queen Berry.'”
“There usually are at least some of those,” Detweiler pointed out. “Are there specific concerns in this case?”
“Actually, there are a couple of things that worry me,” she admitted, and his eyes narrowed. He’d learned, over the years, to trust Bardasano’s internal radar. She was wrong sometimes, but at least whenever she had reservations she was willing to go out on a limb and admit it, rather than pretending she thought everything was just fine. And if she was sometimes wrong, she was right far more often.
“Tell me.”
“First and foremost,” she responded, “I’m still worried about someone’s figuring out how we’re doing it and tracing it back to us. I know no one’s come close to finding the proverbial smoking gun yet . . . so far as we know, at any rate. But the Manties are a lot better at bioscience than the Andermani or Haven. Worse, they’ve got ready access to Beowulf.”