“I’m afraid you’ve lost me,” Benjamin admitted.

“That’s because Collin just turned up something you don’t know about yet. It would appear our good friend Klaus and his daughter Stacey don’t want to see their opposition to Manpower falter just because of a little thing like their own morality. Collin got a look at the provisions of their wills a few T-months ago. Daddy left everything to his sweet little baby girl, pretty much the way we’d figured he had . . . but if it should happen that she predeceases him or subsequently dies without issue of her own, she’s left every single share of her and her father’s ownership percentage — and voting stock — to a little outfit called Skydomes of Grayson.”

“You’re joking!” Benjamin stared at his father in disbelief, and Albrecht snorted without any amusement at all.

“Believe me, I wish I were.”

“But Hauptman and Harrington hate each others’ guts,” Benjamin protested.

“Not so much anymore,” Albrecht disagreed. “Oh, everything we’ve seen suggests that he and Harrington still don’t really like each other all that much, but they’ve got an awful lot of interests in common. Worse, he knows from direct, painful personal experience she can’t be bought, bluffed, or intimidated worth a damn. And, worse still, the daughter he dotes on is one of Harrington’s close personal friends. Given the fact that he won’t be around anymore for Harrington to irritate, and given the fact that he knows she’s already using Skydomes’ clout to back the ASL almost as strongly as he is, he’s perfectly happy with the thought of letting her beat on Manpower with his money, too, when he’s gone. Which” — he grimaced — “makes me wish even more that our little October surprise on her flagship had been a bit more successful. If we’d managed to kill her, I’m sure Klaus and Stacey would have at least reconsidered who they want to leave all of this to.”

“Damn,” Benjamin said thoughtfully, then shook his head. “If Hauptman and Skydomes get together, Harrington would have control of — what? The third or fourth biggest single individually controlled financial bloc in the galaxy?”

“Not quite. She’d be the single biggest financial player in the Haven Quadrant, by a huge margin, but she probably wouldn’t be any higher than, oh, the top twenty, galaxy wide. On the other hand, as you just pointed out yourself, unlike any of the people who’d be wealthier than she’d be, she’d have direct personal control of everything. No need to worry about boards of directors or any of that crap.”

“Damn!” Benjamin repeated with considerably more force. “How come this is the first I’m hearing about this?”

“Like I said, Collin only found out about it a few T-months ago. It’s not like Hauptman or his daughter have exactly trumpeted it from the rooftops, you know. For that matter, as far as Collin can tell, Harrington doesn’t know about it. We only found out because Collin’s been devoting even more of his resources to Hauptman since his active support for Verdant Vista became so evident. It’s taken him a while, but he finally managed to get someone inside Childers, Strauslund, Goldman, and Wu. Clarice Childers personally drew up both Hauptmans’ wills, and it looks very much as if they decided not to tell even Harrington about it.” Albrecht shrugged. “Given the sort of tectonic impact the prospect of what would be effectively a merger of the Hauptman Cartel and Skydomes would have on the entire quadrant’s financial markets, I can see where they’d want to keep it quiet.”

“And Harrington would probably try to talk them out of it if she did know about it,” Benjamin mused.

“Probably.” Albrecht showed his teeth for a moment. “I’d love to see all three of them dead, you understand, but let’s be honest. The real reason I’d take so much pleasure from putting them out of my misery is that all three of them are so damned effective. And however much I may hate Harrington’s guts — not to mention her entire family back on Beowulf — I’m not going to underestimate her. Aside from being harder to kill than an Old Earth cockroach, she’s got this incredibly irritating habit of accomplishing exactly what she sets out to do. And while she may not be as rich as Hauptman is, she’s already well past the point where money as money really means anything to her. From everything we’ve been able to find out, she takes her responsibilities as Skydomes’ CEO seriously, but she’s perfectly satisfied running it through trusted assistants, so it’s not as if she’d be interested in adding Hauptman to Skydomes as an exercise in empire building, either. In fact, I sometimes think she’s at least partly of the opinion that what she’s got already represents too much concentrated power in the hands of a single private individual. Combining Hauptman with Skydomes would create an entirely new balance of economic power — not just in the Star Kingdom, either — and I don’t see her wanting to stick her family with that kind of power.”

“So he’s planning on sneaking up on her with it and trusting her sense of duty to take it in the end?”

“I think that’s what’s going on, but I think it’s really Stacey Hauptman who’s doing the ‘sneaking up’ in this case,” Albrecht said.

“Either way, it’s a fairly unpalatable prospect,” Benjamin observed.

“I don’t think it’s going to make the situation fundamentally worse,” Albrecht replied. “It’s not going to make it any better, but I don’t expect it to have any sort of catastrophic consequences . . . even assuming Hauptman shuffles off before we pull the trigger on Prometheus.”

Benjamin’s expression turned very, very sober at his father’s last seven words. “Prometheus” was the codename assigned to the Mesan Alignment’s long awaited general offensive. Very few people had ever heard the designation; of those who had, only a handful realized how far into the final endgame of its centuries-long preparations the Alignment actually was.

“In the meantime,” his father continued more briskly, “and getting back to my original complaint, we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do about Kare and his busybodies. It’s not going to take them very long to complete their survey of the terminus. They’re going to figure out that something’s peculiar about it as soon as they do, and we really don’t need them making transit and finding out where it goes.”