Chapter 7

“I don’t mean to sound skeptical,” said Jeremy X, sounding skeptical. “But are you sure you’re not all just suffering from a case of EIS?” He pronounced the acronym phonetically.

Princess Ruth looked puzzled. “What’s ‘Ice’?”

“EIS. Stands for Excessive Intelligence Syndrome,” said Anton Zilwicki. “Also known in the Office of Naval Intelligence as Hall of Mirrors Fever.”

“In State Sec, we called it Spyrot,” said Victor Cachat. “The term’s carried over into the FIS, too.”

Ruth shifted the puzzled look to Jeremy. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“It’s a reasonable question, Princess,” said Anton. “I’ve spent quite a few hours pondering the possibility myself.”

“So have I,” said Cachat. “In fact, it’s the first thing I thought of, when I started re-examining what I knew — or thought I knew — about Manpower. It wouldn’t be the first time that spies outsmarted themselves by seeing more than was actually there.” He glanced at Zilwicki. “‘Hall of Mirrors Fever,’ eh? I hadn’t heard that before, but it’s certainly an apt way of putting it.”

“In our line of work, Ruth,” said Anton, “we usually can’t see things directly. What we’re really doing is looking for reflections. Have you ever been in a hall of mirrors at an amusement park?”

Ruth nodded.

“Then you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s easy to get snared in a cascade of images that are really just reflections of themselves. In this particular instance, the fact that Manpower so often works through intermediaries could be fooling us into thinking there’s more there than there really is.”

“Fine, but…” Ruth shook head. The gesture expressed more in the way of confusion than disagreement. “I don’t get it. We’re not dealing here with mercenaries or cut-outs. We’re dealing with correspondence between two different people — agencies, I should say — within Manpower itself. That seems pretty straightforward to me.” A bit plaintively: “Not a mirror in sight.”

“No?” said Cachat, smiling thinly. “How do we know that the person on the other end of this correspondence, back on Mesa” — he glanced down at the reader in his hand, then did a quick scan back through the report — “Dana Wedermeyer, her name was –”

“Could be a ‘he,’ actually,” interrupted Anton. “Dana’s one of those unisex names that ought to be banned on pain of death seeing as how they create nothing but grief for hardworking spies.”

Cachat and kept going. “How do we know that she or he was working for Manpower?”

“Oh, come on, Victor,” protested Ruth. “I can assure you that I double-checked and cross-checked all of that. There’s no question at all that the correspondence from the Mesan end of the stuff we dug out of the files –”

Here, youthful pride triumphed for a moment. “Thought they could erase that stuff from me, did they? Sorry. But the point is, I’d bet my life that those missives came from Manpower’s headquarters on Mesa.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Victor. “But you’re misunderstand my point. How do we know that the person sending these from Manpower’s headquarters was actually working for Manpower?”

Ruth looked cross-eyed. A bit cross, too. “Who the hell else would be sitting there but a Manpower employee? Or high-level manager, rather, since there’s no way a low-level flunky was sending back instructions like those.”

Anton sighed. “You’re still missing his point, Ruth — which is one I should have though of myself, right away.”

He looked around for someplace to sit. They’d been having this discussion in Jeremy’s office in the government complex, which was quite possibly the smallest office used by a planetary-level “Minister of War” anywhere in the inhabited galaxy. There were only two chairs in the office, placed right in front of Jeremy’s desk. Ruth was in one, Victor in the other. Jeremy himself was perched on a corner of his desk.

The desk, at least, was big. It seemed to fill half the room. Jeremy leaned over and cleared away the small mound of papers covering another corner of his desk with a quick and agile motion. Barely more than a flick of the wrist. “Here, Anton,” he said, smiling. “Have a seat.”

“Thanks.” Zilwicki perched himself on the desk corner, with one foot still on the floor, half-supporting his weight. “What he’s getting at, Ruth, is that while it’s certainly true that this Dana Wedermeyer person was employed by Manpower, how do we know who he was really working for? It’s possible that he — or she, damn these stupid names and what’s wrong with proper names like Ruth and Cathy and Anton and Victor?—had been suborned and was really working for Mesa Pharmaceuticals.”

He pointed to the reader in the princess’s hand. “That would explain everything in that correspondence, without having to bring in the possibility that Manpower isn’t what it seems to be.”

Ruth looked down at the reader. Frowning, as if she was seeing it for the first time and wasn’t entirely sure what it was. “That seems a lot more unlikely to me than any other explanation. I mean, presumably Manpower maintains some sort of supervision over its employees, even at management levels.”

Victor Cachat sat a bit straighter in his chair, using a hand on one of the armchairs to prop himself up enough to look over at Ruth’s reader. “Oh, I don’t think it’s all that likely myself, Your Highness.”

She turned her head to glare at him. “What? Are you going to start on me now, too, with the fancy titles?”

Anton had to suppress a smile. Just a few months ago, Ruth’s attitude toward Victor Cachat had been one of hostility, kept in check by the needs of the moment but still sharp and — he was sure the princess would have insisted at the time — quite unforgiving. Now…

Once in a while, she’d remember that Cachat was not only a Havenite enemy in the abstract but was specifically the enemy agent who’d stood aside — no, worse, manipulated the situation — when her entire security contingent had been gunned down by Masadan fanatics. At such times, she’d become cold and uncommunicative toward him for two or three days at a time.

But, most of the time, the “needs of the moment” had undergone the proverbial sea change. Cachat had been present on Torch almost without interruption since the planet had been taken from Manpower, Inc. And, willy-nilly, since she was the assistant director of intelligence for the new star nation — Anton himself was the temporary director, until a permanent replacement could be found — she’d been working very closely with the Havenite ever since. Of course, Victor never divulged anything that might in any way compromise the Republic of Haven. But, that aside, he’d been extremely helpful to the young woman. In his own way — quite different way — he’d probably been as much of a tutor for her as Anton himself.

Well… not exactly. The problem was that Cachat’s areas of expertise were things that Ruth could grasp intellectually but probably couldn’t carry out herself, in the field. Not well, certainly.