The gusto with which the Audubon Ballroom had gone after Manpower and all its works had been one more element, albeit an unknowing and involuntary one, in camouflaging the Alignment’s true activities and objectives. The fact that at least some of Manpower’s senior executives were members of at least the Alignment’s outer circle meant one or two of the Ballroom’s assassinations had hurt them fairly badly over the years. Most of those slaughtered by the vengeful ex-slaves, however, were little more than readily dispensed with red herrings, an outer layer of “the onion” no one would really miss, and the bloody warfare between the “outlaw corporation” and it’s “terrorist” opposition had helped focus attention on the general mayhem and divert it away from what was really going on.

Yet useful is that had been, it had also been a two-edged sword. Since all but a very tiny percentage of Manpower’s organization was unaware of any deeper hidden purpose, the chance that the Ballroom would become aware of it was slight. But the possibility had always existed, and no one who had watched the Ballroom penetrate Manpower’s security time and time again would ever underestimate just how dangerous people like Jeremy X and his murderous henchmen could prove if they ever figured out what was truly going on and decided to change their target selection criteria. And if Zilwicki and Cachat actually were moving towards putting things together . . . .
“How likely do you really think it is that the two of them could pull enough together to compromise things at this stage?” he asked finally.
“I doubt anyone could possibly answer that question. Not in any meaningful way, at any rate,” Bardasano admitted. “The possibility always exists, though, Albrecht. We’ve buried things as deeply as we can, we’ve put together cover organizations and fronts, and we’ve done everything we can to build in multiple layers of diversion. But the bottom line is that we’ve always relied most heavily on the fact that ‘everyone knows’ what Manpower is and what it wants. I’d have to say the odds are heavily against even Zilwicki and Cachat figuring out that what ‘everyone knows’ is a complete fabrication, especially after we’ve had so long to put everything in place. It is possible, however, and I think — as I’ve said — that if anyone can do it, the two of them would be the most likely to pull it off.”
“And we don’t know where they are at the moment?”
“It’s a big galaxy,” Bardasano pointed out. “We know where they were two T-weeks ago. I can mobilize our assets to look for them, and we could certainly use all of our Manpower sources for this one without rousing any particular suspicion. But you know as well as I do that what that really amounts to is waiting in place until they wander into our sights.”
Detweiler grimaced again. Unfortunately, she was right, and he did know it.
“All right,” he said, “I want them found. I recognize the limitations we’re facing, but find them as quickly as you can. When you do, eliminate them.”
“That’s more easily said than done. As Manpower’s attack on Montaigne’s mansion demonstrates.”
“That was Manpower, not us,” Detweiler riposted, and it was Bardasano’s turn to nod.
One of the problems with using Manpower as a mask was that too many of Manpower’s executives had no more idea than the rest of the galaxy that anyone was using them. Which meant it was also necessary to give those same executives a loose rein in order to keep them unaware of that inconvenient little truth . . . which could produce operations like that fiasco in Chicago or the attack on Catherine Montaigne’s mansion on Manticore. Fortunately, even operations which were utter disasters from Manpower’s perspective seldom impinged directly on the Alignment’s objectives. And the occasional Manpower catastrophe helped contribute to the galaxy at large’s notion of Mesan clumsiness.
“If we find them, this time it won’t be Manpower flailing around on its own,” Detweiler continued grimly. “It will be us — you. And I want this given the highest priority, Isabel. In fact, the two of us need to sit down and discuss this with Benjamin. He’s got at least a few spider units available now — he’s been using them to train crews and conduct working up exercises and systems evaluations. Given what you’ve just said, I think it might be worthwhile to deploy one of them to Verdant Vista. The entire galaxy knows about that damned frigate of Zilwicki’s. I think it might be time to arrange a little untraceable accident for it.”
Bardasano’s eyes widened slightly, and she seemed for a moment to hover on the brink of a protest. But then she visibly thought better of it. Not, Detweiler felt confident, because she was afraid to argue the point if she thought he was wrong or that he was running unjustifiable risks. One of the things that made her so valuable was the fact that she’d never been a yes-woman. If she did disagree with him, she’d get around to telling him so before the operation was mounted. But she’d also take time to think about it first, to be certain in her own mind of what she thought before she engaged her mouth. Which was another of the things that made her so valuable to him.
And I don’t doubt she’ll talk it over with Benjamin, too, he thought sardonically. If she has any reservations, she’ll want to run them past him to get a second viewpoint on them. And, of course, so the two of them can double-team me more effectively if it turns out they agree with one another.
Which was just fine with Albrecht Detweiler, when all was said and done. The one thing he wasn’t was convinced of his own infallibility, after all.
“All right,” he said aloud, leaning back again with the air of the man shifting mental gears. “Something else I wanted to ask you about is Anisimovna.”
“What about her?” Bardasano’s tone might have turned just a tiny bit cautious, and she cocked her head to one side, watching Detweiler’s expression intently.
“I’m not about to change my mind and have her eliminated, if that’s what you’re worrying about, Isabel,” he said dryly.
“I wouldn’t say I was exactly worried about it,” she replied. “I do think doing that would be wasting a very useful asset, though, and as I said before, I don’t think anything that happened in Talbott was her fault any more than it was mine. In fact, given the amount of information I had and she didn’t, it was almost certainly more my fault than hers.”
Bardasano, Detweiler reflected, was one of the very few people, even inside the Alignment’s innermost circle, who would have made that last admission to him. Which was yet another of the things that made her so valuable.
“As I say, I’m not about to have her eliminated,” he said. “What you’ve just said goes a fair way towards answering the question I was going to ask, though, I think. Which is — do you think it’s time to bring her all the way inside? Is she a sufficiently ‘useful asset’ to be made a full member of the Alignment?”
It wasn’t often Detweiler saw Bardasano hesitate. Nor was that actually what he was seeing in this case, he realized. It wasn’t so much hesitation as surprise.
“I think, maybe, yes,” she said finally, slowly, her eyes narrowed in thought. “Her genome is an Alpha line, and she already knows more than most people who aren’t full members. The only real concern I’d have about nominating her for full membership — and it’s a minor one — would be that she’s got a little more highly developed sense of superiority than I’d really like to see.”
Detweiler arched an eyebrow, and she shrugged.
“It’s not just her, Albrecht. In fact, I’d say I was a lot more concerned about someone like Sandusky than I am about Aldona. The thing is that quite a few of us — including some who are already full members — have a tendency, I think, to automatically assume their superiority in any matchup with any normal. That’s dangerous, especially if the ‘normal’ is someone like Zilwicki or Cachat — or, for that matter, Harrington, although, given her pedigree on her father’s side, I suppose she’s not actually a normal herself, wherever her loyalties might lie. It’s also something I have to guard against in myself, however, and in Aldona’s case, I think it’s probably exacerbated by the fact that she isn’t already a full member . . . and she thinks she is. Based solely on what she and the other members of the Strategy Council who aren’t full members know, or think they know, about the stakes we’re really playing for, most of her sense of superiority would be survivable. And the’s certainly smart enough to understand what’s really going on — and why — if you decide to tell her. So, if she does come all the way inside, I think we could probably count on knocking most of that . . . smugness out of her in fairly short order. May I ask why the question’s arisen at this particular time?”
“In light of the implications of what happened at Lovat, I’m thinking about trying to resurrect the Monica operation using a different proxy,” Detweiler replied. “And given the way we got our fingers burned last time, I want whoever is in charge of it this time around to know what we’re really trying to accomplish.”
“I knew what we were really trying to accomplish last time,” Bardasano pointed out.
“Yes, you did. But one of the things which is such a useful part of your cover is your relative lack of official seniority outside the Alignment itself. That’s why Anisimovna had primary responsibility, as far as the Strategy Council was concerned, at least, last time. And it’s also one reason I couldn’t send you back out to handle this solo this time around. There are other reasons, however, including the fact that I want you close to home to monitor the situation between Manticore and Haven. And to deal with Cachat and Zilwicki, if we can locate them. I don’t want you out of reach if I need you, and there’s a limit to how much we can send streakers zipping around the galaxy without someone starting to notice that our mail seems to get delivered just a little quicker than anyone else’s.”
“I see.”