“Third, one way or the other, within the next few months, it’s going to start becoming evident that the Monican Navy ended up coming into possession of over a dozen Solarian battlecruisers, courtesy of Manpower, Technodyne, and the Jessyk Combine. That being the case, I doubt anyone’s going to be all that surprised if it turns out that we had — I’m sorry, that Manpower had — a handful of additional battlecruisers lying around and handed them over to a bunch of ‘pirates’ it could be pretty sure would use them against Manty interests somewhere else, maybe a little closer to home.

“And, fourth, if we keep them somewhere handy, where we can keep an eye on them and they aren’t going to be flailing around the spaceways making potential problems for us, we remove at least one distracting element from the equation. And if it happens we decide never to mount the operation at all, then we simply detonate those little suicide charges none of them realize ‘Manpower’s’ put aboard their vessels. They all blow up simultaneously in a star system where nobody else is going to know anything about it, and our potential security problem goes away. For that matter, I’ve been increasingly inclined ever since Clignet’s journals surfaced to go with Wooden Horse anyway, if we do mount the operation.”

Benjamin pursed his lips thoughtfully. The chance of any of their ex-StateSec puppets ever discovering the suicide charges which had been built into each of their ships during routine maintenance overhauls ranged somewhere between ridiculously minute and zero. Personally, if he’d been aboard one of those ships, he would have been going over it with a fine toothed comb, given all of the many sets of circumstances he could think of under which it would be convenient for ‘Manpower’ if their mercenary pirates simply . . . went away, as his father had put it. The fact that people who’d been StateSec officers didn’t seem to be even considering the possibility was only one more indication, in his opinion, of how far they’d fallen since Thomas Theisman’s restoration of the Old Republic had turned them into interstellar orphans.

But, as his father had just pointed out, the fact that those charges were there was the underlying premise of Operation Wooden Horse. Once the ‘StateSec renegades’ had attacked Verdant Vista and carried out a flagrant violation of the Eridani Edict, every space navy’s hand would be turned against them . . . including that of the small Mesan Space Navy. On the other hand, the problem might never arise if a single Mesan vessel with the activation codes for those suicide charges should just happen to arrive at their post-Verdant Vista rendezvous and transmit them while all those nasty genocidal StateSec fanatics were in range.

“Let me see if I’ve followed your devious thinking properly here, Father,” he said after a moment. “You’re thinking that we go ahead and mount Operation Ferret and use our reinforced StateSec refugees to take out Verdant Vista. They go ahead and blow out the defenders, then take out the planet itself. As soon as they’ve done that, we deliver their severance checks and all their ships blow up. The planet is so wrecked nobody in his right mind would ever want to live there again, so the only inherent value the system has any longer is the wormhole terminus, which has just been demonstrated to be exceedingly dangerous. At the same time, we take out a huge chunk of the Ballroom’s organized support and body slam its morale — and that of the ASL in general — throughout the galaxy. And because nobody’s going to have any interest on living on the planet, most of the galaxy probably won’t be too surprised — or get too worked up — if Mesa, not Manpower, presses its claim to what’s left. Most folks will probably figure that it’s just Mesa trying to recoup a little of the humiliation it suffered after being thrown out in the first place.”

“More or less,” Albrecht agreed. “And even if it doesn’t work out with Mesa regaining formal sovereignty over the star system, it should throw things into confusion long enough for nobody to have possession of it — or be mounting any more survey expeditions — before Prometheus rolls over them.”

“Neat,” Benjamin said, his eyes slightly unfocused as he considered permutations. “There is the little matter of the Eridani violation, though.”

“We’ve talked about that before, Ben,” Albrecht pointed out. “Either there’s going to be evidence it was the StateSec renegades — who don’t have a star nation anymore — or else there are going to be too few survivors, if any, to identify the attackers at all. In the first case, obviously Manpower’s going to come in for the lion’s share of suspicion, especially after Clignet’s confirmation that it’s been recruiting StateSec mercenaries. That could be . . . unpleasant, but Manpower is only a transstellar corporation, not a star nation, and nobody’s going to be able to prove Manpower gave the order, anyway. That’s going to create enough ambiguity and confusion for our ‘friends’ in the League to derail any effort to apply the edict’s penalties against the star nation of Mesa. There may be demands that Manpower be punished by Mesa, but those can be obfuscated and delayed for however long we need them to be delayed. For that matter, the Alignment doesn’t really care what happens to Manpower at this point, and once a full-scale Prometheus is launched, punishing ‘Manpower’ isn’t going to be especially high on most people’s agendas come anyway. And then there’s the fact that the only actual star nation directly associated with these people, ever, is going to have been the People’s Republic of Haven. I suspect Mesa’s best tactic is going to be to argue that those nasty planet-killing renegades were initially created and enabled by Haven, and that Theisman’s failure in letting them escape with the Havenite warships in their possession is the real ultimate culprit in this whole tragic affair.”

Father and son looked at one another for a moment, then Benjamin shrugged.

“All right, Father. I’m still not sure it’s a wonderful idea, you understand, but you’ve managed to deal with most of my reservations. And, for that matter, you’ve got a pretty good track record for spotting and backing operations against ‘targets of opportunity’ most of the rest of us hadn’t noticed. I think we can go ahead and start organizing things, even if it turns out we never launch Ferret at all. Like you say, getting all of them into the same place will make cleaning up easier if we decide to just write the entire notion off, too. Before we actually start handing them modern Solly battlecruisers, though, I’d like to get Collin and Isabel’s input, though.”

“By all means.” Albrecht nodded vigorously. “I’m inclined to think this is something we are going to have to take care of substantially sooner than we’d thought we were, but I’m not prepared to start rushing in without thinking things through first. We’ve come too far and worked too hard for too long to start taking foolish, unnecessary chances at this late date.”