“Agreed.” Benjamin nodded, but his expression was calm. “On the other hand, we’ve already made our preparations. As you just pointed out, somebody like Kare’s going to realize he’s looking at something out of the ordinary as soon as he gets a detailed analysis. I doubt he’s going to have any idea just how ‘peculiar’ it is before they make transit, though, and once they do make transit, they’re not going to be in a position to tell anyone about it. I agree with Collin, Daniel, and Isabel, Father. The survivors are going to conclude that whatever it is that makes this terminus ‘peculiar’ is going to require a much more cautious — and time-consuming — approach before they try any second transit.”

“I agree that’s the most overwhelmingly likely outcome,” Albrecht conceded. “‘Likely’ isn’t the same thing as ‘certain,’ however. And, to be honest, I expect someone like Hauptman to take his initial failure as a personal affront and push even harder.”

“The only way to positively prevent that would be too take the star system back,” Benjamin pointed out.

“Which we’re already planning to do . . . eventually,” his father pointed out in return, and Benjamin nodded again.

“Should I assume you want me to be thinking in terms of bringing that operation forward?” he asked.

“I’m not sure I want it brought forward yet,” Albrecht said. “What I do want, though, is to make sure we don’t fritter away our cover assets. Losing Anhur that way in Talbott last year was just plain stupid. And we’re lucky that idiot Clignet and his ‘journal’ didn’t hurt us any worse.”

Benjamin nodded again. Commodore Henri Clignet’s ex-State Security heavy cruiser Anhur had been captured with all hands — or, at least, all surviving hands — in the Talbott Cluster the next best thing to six T-months before. Benjamin wasn’t going to shed any tears for Clignet and his fanatic cutthroats. In fact, he’d always considered the commodore one of the loosest of the loose warheads among the ex-SS personnel Manpower had recruited. On the other hand, he was also aware that his personal dislike for the entire strand of the Alignment’s strategy they’d been recruited to support might help to account for his less than hugely enthusiastic view of Clignet and his fellows.

“At least he didn’t know who’s actually pulling the strings where he and the others are concerned,” he pointed out loud. “All he could really confirm is that Manpower’s provided a home for several of the Peeps’ waifs.”

“True, but he confirmed that not just to the Manties but for Haven, as well.” Albrecht shook his head with a smile of rueful, irritated respect. “Who would’ve thought the Manties would hand him and his entire crew back to Haven in the middle of a shooting war?”

“I wouldn’t have,” Benjamin admitted. “On the other hand, it was a damned smart move on their part. It left Haven with the responsibility of trying and executing them, which ‘just happened’ to wash so much of the People’s Republic’s dirty linen very much in public. And Pritchart and Theisman actually had to thank them for it.” It was his turn to shake his head. “Talk about a win-win solution for the Manties!”

“Agreed. But it looks to us like neither the Manties nor the Peeps have any clear picture of exactly how many Clingets ‘Manpower’s’ managed to get its hands on. So I think it’s time for us to arrange a little discreet reinforcement for them. And I want to get Luff and all the rest of his ‘People’s Navy in Exile’ pulled in where no one’s going to be stumbling over any more of them.”

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Benjamin said, his tone thoughtful. “At the moment, Clignet’s basically demonstrated that he and his friends have become pretty much garden-variety pirates who’re simply being subsidized by Manpower. Everybody knows about the relationship now, but nobody’s got any reason to expect that they’re being recruited for a specific mission. For that matter, they don’t know that, when you come right down to it. As far as they know, they are just doing what they have to do to survive, and they aren’t looking more than a few months into the future at any given moment. They aren’t going to be doing that until we offer them our little . . . inducement for Operation Ferret, either.”

“And your point is?” Albrecht’s question could have been irritated, angry, but it was merely curious, and Benjamin shrugged.

“I know we’ve planned all along on reinforcing Luff, but I’ve never been comfortable with the notion — not entirely. It’s one thing for an ‘outlaw transstellar’ like Manpower to be subsidizing ships which more or less just fell into its lap; it’s another thing entirely for that same ‘outlaw transstellar’ to be supplying those pirates with newer, more powerful ships. That’s my first concern. The second one is that pulling them in from their independent operations is going to be an escalation. They’re going to know that we — or Manpower, at least — really have something significant in mind for them to do. Some of them aren’t all that tightly wrapped, as Clignet demonstrated. They may not like the idea of Ferret, and they may try to wiggle out of having anything to do with it. At least some of them are probably going to be opposed to the notion of attacking Verdant Vista, too. Collin and I both pointed out that possibility when the idea first came up, you know. Even the People’s Republic of Haven took its opposition to the slave trade seriously, and some of these people are likely to do the same thing.

“And, finally, sooner or later, exactly how they prepped for any attack on Verdant Vista is going to come out. Somebody’s going to be captured somewhere else and talk, or they’re just going to drop a hint in the wrong place and it’s going to get back to Manty or Havenite intelligence. And when that happens, people are going to start wondering, first, just how Manpower came up with the ‘reinforcements,’ and, secondly, why Manpower was willing to put a bunch like Luff’s People’s Navy in Exile ‘on retainer’ — and pay them well enough to keep them there — for however long it takes.”

“Agreed. Agreed to all of it.” Albrecht nodded. “On the other hand, if we actually mount the operation, then probably by the time anybody on the other side starts putting two and two together, they’ll have other things to worry about. Don’t forget that little surprise we’re putting together for Manticore out in Monica right this minute. In other words, I’d say the chances are considerably better than even that ‘Manpower’s’ relationship with this particular batch of ‘pirates’ isn’t going to be of any great burning significance after the fact.

“Second, this wormhole survey expedition has me worried. If we wipe out the people mounting it, and turn the system into someplace that no longer has any habitable real estate, we should also reduce interest in a ‘killer’ wormhole that no longer goes anywhere interesting, anyway. Not to mention getting Jeremy X and his merry band of lunatics on Torch out of Manpower’s hair — and ours — as permanently as possible. And clearing the way for us to reassert sovereignty — after a decent interval, of course — over the system for ourselves.