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Chapter Seven

"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 StateSec, 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 reexamining 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. Once a single false conclusion or assumption gets itself planted in a logic train, it goes right on generating more and more false images."

"Fine, but . . ." Ruth shook her head. The gesture expressed more in the way of confusion than disagreement. "I don't see that as any kind of significant factor in this case. I mean, we're dealing with internal correspondence between people within Mesa Pharmaceuticals itself. That seems pretty straightforward to me." A bit plaintively: "Not a mirror in sight."

"No?" said Cachat, smiling thinly. "How do we know 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 kept going. "How do we know that she or he was working for Mesa Pharmaceuticals?"

"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 we dug out of the files came from Pharmaceuticals' headquarters on Mesa."

"I don't doubt it," said Victor. "But you're misunderstanding my point. How do we know that the person sending these from Pharmaceuticals' headquarters was actually working for Pharmaceuticals?"

Ruth looked cross-eyed. A bit cross, too. "Who the hell else would be sitting there but a Pharmaceuticals 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 thought 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 Mesa Pharmaceuticals, 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 Manpower."

He pointed to the electronic memo pad in the princess's hand. "That would explain everything in that correspondence."

Ruth looked down at the pad, 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 Pharmaceuticals 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 the display of Ruth's pad. "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.

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 galaxy 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 jealously 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 someone 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 suavery."

"There's no such word as 'suavery,' " replied Ruth. "In fact, 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 pad—"is anything other than what she or he seems to be. Which is to say, a very highly placed Mesa Pharmaceuticals manager giving orders to a subordinate. Or, rather, ignoring a subordinate's complaints."

"But . . ." Ruth looked back down at the pad, frowning. "Victor, you've read the correspondence yourself. Pharmaceuticals' own field people out here were complaining about the inefficiency of their own methods, and this Wedermeyer just blew it off. It's like she—or he, or whatever—never even looked at their analyses of her own corporation's labor policies."

For a moment, the frown darkened into something very harsh. "The murderous and inhuman labor policies, I should say, since they amounted to consciously working people to death. But the point for the moment is that even their own employees were pointing out that it would be more efficient to start shifting over to increased automation and mechanical cultivation and harvesting."

"Yes, I know. On the other hand, despite their complaints, Pharmaceuticals was showing a profit."

"But only because Manpower was giving them a discount rate on their slaves—and pretty damned steep discount, too!" Ruth argued. "That's one of the points their own managers were making—that they couldn't count on that discount rate lasting forever." She grimaced. "If it went out from under them, if they had to start paying the full 'list price' for their slaves, then the inefficiencies their people here on Torch were pointing out would have really come home to bite them! In fact, there was this one—"

She paged through the documents on her pad for a moment, then found the one she wanted and waved it in triumph.

"Yeah, this one! From what's-his-name." She glanced at the display. "Menninger. Remember? He was talking about Pharmaceuticals' overall exposure. They were already leasing their entire operational site here from Manpower, but they were counting on Manpower's giving them preferred slave prices, as well, and let's face it, Manpower transtellars don't have a whole lot of fraternal feeling for each other. Manpower's eaten quite a few of its Mesan competitors along the way, and this guy was worried they were setting Pharmaceuticals up for their next sandwich by putting them deep enough in Manpower's pocket they'd have to accept an unfriendly takeover or go bust!"

Jeremy X cleared his throat. "Let's not forget how closely most Mesan corporations collude with each other, as well, though. Sure, they've demonstrated a huge share of shark DNA over the years, but they do work together, as well. Especially when they're engaged in something the rest of the human race isn't all that likely to want to invest in. Openly, at least. And you can add to that the fact that we're certain that many of them are actually owned, in whole or in part, by Manpower. Like Jessyk."

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."


"Which was part of my point about wondering if this Wedermeyer might be working for someone besides—or, in addition to, maybe—Pharmaceuticals," Victor said. "If Manpower does have a hidden stake in Pharmaceuticals, then they may have been in a position to go on offering their 'discount rate' forever. As long as they were charging enough to cover their bare production costs, at least. I mean, there's nothing in the correspondence from this end that's concerned with humanitarian considerations. They're simply saying they could squeeze their profit margins upward, in the long run, if they started switching over. Even by their own analysis, it would have taken quite a while to amortize the equipment investment, especially assuming their outlay for slaves stayed where it was. They were more concerned about the long-range consequences of losing that rate—of having Manpower yank it out from under them, or threaten to, at least, at a time when it would give Manpower the greatest leverage with them. But there's nothing in the correspondence from the Mesa end to explain why the locals' analysis was being 'blown off,' to use your own charming term, Ruth. Suppose Wedermeyer was quietly representing Manpower's interests? Wanted Pharmaceuticals deeper into Manpower's pocket . . . or simply knew there'd already been a quiet little off-the-books marriage between them? In that case, he or she could very well have been in a position to know they were worrying over nothing. That their 'discount rate' was grandfathered in and wasn't going to be going away anytime soon."

Ruth had her lips pursed also. "But what would be the point, Jeremy? Oh, I'll grant the possibility of Wedermeyer working for Manpower. I doubt her own supervisors would have missed it if she was doing it against their interests, though. I mean, Pharmaceuticals has been around for two or three T-centuries, too, so it damned well knows how the game is played. Somebody besides her had to be seeing at least some of these memos, given the extended period over which they were written. The fact that she didn't even bother to come up with an argument—not even a specious one—for her position suggests she was pretty damned confident, that she wasn't worried about getting hammered by one of her own bosses. That only makes sense if Manpower does own Mesa Pharmaceuticals, and what possible motive could they have had for hiding that connection, really?

"It's not like their position with Jessyk, where the legal fiction that Jessyk's a separate concern helps give them at least a little cover when they're moving slaves or other covert cargoes. There wouldn't be any point in maintaining that sort of separation from Pharmaceuticals, and there was certainly no legal reason they'd have had to hide that connection. And there are a lot of reasons why they shouldn't have bothered. If the two of them were already connected, they were at least doubling their administrative costs by maintaining two separate, divorced operations here on Torch. Not to mention everywhere else the two of them are doing business together. Why do that? Even assuming they are in bed together, and that Manpower is covering its production costs back home, despite the discounted rate, we're still looking at Peter robbing his own pockets to pay his flunky Paul. They were discounting their slaves to Pharmaceuticals by over twenty-five percent. Leaving aside all the other economic inefficiencies built into the relationship, that's a hell of a hit to the profit margin they could've made selling them somewhere else instead of dumping them here to subsidize Pharmaceuticals' inefficient—by their own field managers' estimate—operation!"

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."

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