Unlike Ruth and Anton, Cachat was not a tech weenie. He was adept enough with computers, but he had none of Zilwicki or the Manticoran princess’s wizardry with them. And while he was an excellent analyst, he was no better than Anton himself. Probably not as good, actually, push came to shove — although they were both operating on a rarified height that precious few other spies in the galaxy could reach to begin with.

Victor’s greater age and much greater experience meant that he was still a better intelligence analyst than Ruth, but Anton didn’t think that superiority would last more than a few years. The princess really did have a knack for the often peculiar and sometimes downright bizarre world of the aptly-named Hall of Mirrors.

But Cachat’s real forte was field work. There, Anton thought he was in a league of his own. There might be a handful of secret agents in the galaxy as good as Victor was in that area, but that would be it — a literal handful. And none of them would be any better.

Anton Zilwicki himself was not one of that theoretical handful, and he knew it. To be sure, he was very good. In terms of fieldcraft, as most people understood the term, he was probably even as good as Victor. Very close, at least.

But he simply didn’t have Cachat’s mindset. The Havenite agent was a man so certain in his convictions and loyalties, and so certain of himself, that he could behave in a crisis like no one Anton had ever encountered. He would react faster than anyone and be more ruthless than anyone, if he thought ruthlessness was what was needed. Most of all, he had an uncanny ability to jury-rig his plans as he went along, seeing opportunity unfold whenever those plans went awry where most spies would see nothing but unfolding disaster.

There was great courage there, also, but Anton had that as well. So did many people. Courage was not really that rare a virtue in the human race — as Victor himself, with his egalitarian attitudes, was quite fond of pointing out. But for Cachat, that level of courage seemed to come effortlessly. Anton was sure the man didn’t even think about it.

Those qualities made him a very dangerous man, at all times, and a scary man on some occasions. With his now-extensive experience working with Victor, Anton had come to be certain that Cachat was not a sociopath — although he could certainly do a superb imitation of one. And he’d also come to realize, more slowly, that lurking beneath Victor’s seemingly icy surface was a man who was…

Well, not warm-hearted, certainly. Perhaps “big-hearted” was the right term. But whatever you called it, this was a man who had a fierce loyalty to his friends as well as his beliefs. How Cachat would react if he ever found himself forced to choose between a close friend and his own political convictions, was difficult to calculate. In the end, Anton was pretty sure that Victor would choose his convictions. But that wouldn’t come without a great struggle — and the Havenite would demand complete and full proof that the choice was really inescapable.

Princess Ruth probably hadn’t parsed Victor Cachat as thoroughly and patiently as Anton Zilwicki had done. There were very few people in the world with Anton’s systematic rigorousness. Ruth was definitely not one of them. But she was extremely intelligent and intuitively perceptive about people — surprisingly so, for someone who’d been raised in the rather cloistered atmosphere of the royal court. In her own way, she’d come to accept the same things about Victor that Anton had.

Anton had once remarked to Ruth, half-jokingly, that being Cachat’s friend and collaborator was quite a bit like being an intimate colleague of a very smart and warm-blooded cobra. The princess had immediately shaken her head. “Not a cobra. Cobras are pretty dinky when you get right down to it — I mean, hell, a glorified rodent like a mongoose can handle one — and they rely almost entirely on venom. Even at his Ming the Merciless worst, Victor is never venomous.”

She’d shaken her head again. “A dragon, Anton. They can take human form, you know, according to legend. Just think of a dragon with a pronounced Havenite accent and a hoard he guards jealousy made of people and principles instead of money.”

Anton had conceded the point — and now, watching Ruth’s half-irritated and half-affectionate exchange with a Havenite agent she’d once detested, he saw again how right she’d been.

It’s not that easy, all things considered, to hold a grudge against a dragon. Not for somehow like the princess, at any rate, with her horror of appearing silly. You might as well hold a grudge against the tides.

“Just trying to stay in practice,” Victor said mildly, “in the unlikely event I should be presented at the Manticoran court in Landing. Wouldn’t want to fumble with royal protocol, even if it is all a bunch of annoying nonsense, because it would undermine my secret agent suavety.”

“There’s no such word as ‘suavety,'” replied Ruth. “In face, that’s got to be the stupidest and least suave word I’ve ever heard.”

Victor smiled seraphically. “To get back to the point, Ruth, I don’t happen to think it’s likely myself that this Dana Wedermeyer person” — he pointed to the notebook — “is anything other than what she or he seems to be. Which is to say, a very highly placed Manpower manager giving orders to a subordinate — and orders which, furthermore, stemmed from the top echelons in Manpower, Inc.”

“But…” Ruth looked back down at the notebook, frowning. “Victor, you’ve read the correspondence yourself. The field people here on what used to be Torch complained again and again that Manpower was losing money — hand over fist, mind you, we’re not talking small change — by using the methods it was using to develop the pharmaceuticals.”

For a moment, the frown darkened into something very harsh. “The murderous and inhuman methods, I should say, since they amounted to forced labor driven to the point where people were deliberately and consciously worked to death. But the point for the moment is that even Manpower’s managers here on the spot were trying to convince their bosses that the methods were so inefficient that they were losing money.”

“Yes, I know. Apparently only Mesa Pharmaceuticals was turning a profit on this planet.”

Jeremy X cleared his throat. “Let’s not forget how closely most Mesan corporations collude with each other — and we’re certain that many of them are actually owned by Manpower.”

Anton pursed his lips, considering the point. “You’re suggesting, in other words, that Manpower was deliberately accepting a loss in order to boost the profits of Mesa Pharmaceuticals — in which they possibly have a major ownership share, even if they don’t control it outright.”


Ruth had her lips pursed also. “But what would be the point, Jeremy? That only makes sense if Manpower does own Mesa Pharmaceuticals — and then we’re looking at Peter robbing his own pockets to pay his flunky Paul. Why bother with the elaborate subterfuge? If their flunky Paul needed money, just give it to him. It’s not as if they ever expected a slave rebellion here would expropriate them and wind up leaving their supposedly-erased files to the mercies of” — here she smiled even more seraphically than Victor had done — “real whizzes like me and Anton.”

Victor nodded. “I agree, and that’s exactly why I don’t think there’s any logical explanation except…”

“Except what?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. But we’ve already agreed that there’s something rotten about Manpower that goes beyond their greed and brutality.” He pointed to Ruth’s reader. “So, for the moment, we can just add this dead fish to the smelly pile.”