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As the sun set, the first line of attackers came silently over the brow of the hill. They were the scouts, shadowy figures moving with no apparent coordination down to and across the river, on to the waist-high savannah scrub on the near side. When the last man was across, the second wave appeared, a line of hover-tanks with chopper cover, advancing at no more than walking pace. The counterattack waited until the tanks had reached the river. Then a bright mesh of ruby pulsed-laser beams lanced out from the nearer hillside, probing for the soft underskirts of the hover-tanks and the chopper rotors. Yellow and red tracers replied. The air became a multicolored confusion of stabbing pencils of light, smoke from burning vegetation and the fitful glare of crippled tanks and choppers.

Suddenly the whole hillside was lit by an intense blue-white fireball, spreading from a point close to the river bank. It grew rapidly, changing color to a greenish-yellow.

Merle Walters gave a grunt of surprise, leaned forward and hit a button on the console in front of him. The display stopped, frozen with the fireball about forty meters across. He swiveled in his chair and pressed the intercom. "Franny, get Alex Burns on the line. I think I've finally caught him."

He waited impatiently as the connection to Redondo Beach was made, looking at his watch as he did so. Eight-thirty, that made it five-thirty in California. Alex would still be around. When the intercom buzzed he reached out his right arm to pick up the phone. The left sleeve was empty, pinned to his dark jacket. As he placed the receiver to his ear, the screen lit up to show a trim, ruddy-faced man in his early forties.

"Alex, I think you've finally goofed." Walters grinned in triumph at the man on the screen. "If I had another arm I'd be rubbing my hands together here. I'm reviewing the simulation you've done for Exhibit Three of our proposal. One of your boys has gone wild and thrown in a tactical nuke. You know that's right out."

"Mr. Walters, I invite your attention to Page 57 of the Work Statement of the Request For Proposal." Burns answered in the careful speech of an Inverness Scot, unchanged after sixteen years in Southern California. "The RFP very clearly states, and I quote: 'Although nuclear weapons may not be employed, clean imploders up to 1,000 metric tons TNT equivalent may be used. No more than three such devices will be available in any single engagement.' The fireball that you are looking at in Exhibit Three is a new Morton Imploder, type four, one hundred and fifty TNT tons equivalent."

Alex Burns's face showed the slightest trace of a smile. Merle Walters looked at the display screen, thumbed rapidly through his copy of the Request For Proposal, and swore. "Alex, you Gaelic bastard, you did that on purpose. Don't deny it. I've known you too long not to recognize your touch there. Tell your lads the simulations are damn good—but I'd like them a lot better if you'd put some faces on the attackers. All I can see is blobs."

Burns nodded gloomily. "I know, Mr. Walters. I feel the same way. But the people at GSA won't say who we're fighting and I can think of at least four possibles. Maybe you can get something for me at the bidders' conference."

"I'll give it a try, Alex—but don't hold your breath waiting for it. I'll be honest with you, that won't be my top priority at this bidders' session. There's something else I have to get an answer on. The Contracts Office have been like a bunch of clams on this one. Jack's trying a little line of his own to get information—we'll tell you tomorrow how it works out."

Burns nodded again. "Goodnight, Mr. Walters. Maybe I could suggest that you should call it a day. You're looking very tired. Trouble with the resumés?"

"As usual. We need two or three good production men, all we can find is a bunch of retired colonels and generals. Keep up the good work on the simulations, Alex, and I'll call you about noon—our time—tomorrow."

Merle Walters broke the connection and leaned back in his chair. He rubbed his hand over the top of his bald, furrowed forehead. Alex was right. He was damn tired. Alex couldn't usually catch him that way. And with just ten days to go before the proposal was due, with all the costing still to be done, he'd better keep something in reserve for next week. He spoke again into the intercom.

"Franny, I'm cutting out. Pull a bunch of those resumés together for me as bedside reading, will you? Remember, I won't be in first thing in the morning. Jack and I will be down at 18th and E Streets, at the Bidders' Conference. I can't be reached there."

He levered himself to his feet and walked to the outer office, limping slightly. He could disguise it if he tried, but it was pointless in front of Franny. She knew him better than he knew himself. She had the resumés all ready for him—probably had them ready two hours ago. Her plump, pretty face was set in what he thought of as her 'take your medicine like a good little boy' expression.

"Mr. Walters, I discussed this earlier with Mr. Tukey." She held out a locator. "If you'd carry this about with you, it would be so much easier for us to get messages to you. Look, this new one only weighs an ounce—and it's only an inch wide, it wouldn't be any trouble."

He looked at it, then peered at Franny from under his thick, grizzled eyebrows—his sternest expression. "Franny, I've told you once and I'll tell you again. I'm not going to wear a damned beeper. It's an invasion of privacy. When you see Jack Tukey tomorrow, you tell him exactly what he can do with that thing. Tell him it's only an inch wide, so he shouldn't have any trouble." His gray eyes twinkled beneath the bushy brows. "Goodnight, Franny, and thanks for another day."

He went slowly out into the chilly November evening. Ten minutes later, Franny locked up and left also. The Washington office of WAWD Corporation was closed for the night.

* * *

The Bidders' Conference was scheduled for 9 AM in the biggest Conference Room of the old Interior building. Merle Walters was there by 8:45, watching the arrivals. About a hundred people. Say two per company. So fifty groups interested in the procurement. Merle knew the real competition like the back of his hand. Three groups, and WAWD. The other forty-six were innocents, flesh-peddlers, or companies looking for subcontract work. When Tolly Suomi of VVV Industries arrived at two minutes to nine, Merle followed him in and sat in the same row. Suomi looked his way and inclined his head. Merle had no doubt that Tolly knew the real score as well as he did.

Biggest Conference Room, so more than a twenty million dollar job. Coffee served, so more than fifty million. Merle read the signs almost subconsciously, the pricing signals that only the pros could read. Then Petzell would be running the Government side, for a job over five hundred million dollars.

Merle was sitting smugly on that train of thought when the senior government man came forward to the podium. Instead of Petzell it was his deputy, Pete Wolff. Merle sat up and took notice. What the hell was going on? He'd been tracking this procurement for a year, sniffing it and sizing it. He'd been pegging it at about a billion two. Surely they couldn't have missed the mark so badly? He leaned forward to catch the opening remarks, ignoring the stab of pain in his left side.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen." Wolff looked around at the sea of faces, old friends and old enemies. "I want to begin by running over the procedures we will be following on questions and answers. First, though, I should tell you that I'm deputizing today for Howard Petzell." He looked around with a slight smile. "He is home today with a bad case of the 'flu."

Merle leaned back, then looked across at Suomi. He was sitting there with a half-smile on his face, stroking his gray beard with one finger. Chalk one up to VVV's intelligence service. Suomi had known about Petzell's illness in advance.

Wolff closed the opening preamble with the usual warning about staying away from the technical men in the Government until the award was announced. Well, why not? Anybody who didn't have all his sources lined up well before the Request For Proposal hit the streets was a dead duck anyway.

Wolff came at last to the guts of the meeting. "We will now answer the questions from prospective bidders. All questions have been submitted in writing in advance. All answers will be given in writing to all attendees. Will you please identify yourselves as you read your questions. First question, please."

"Jim Peters, Consultec. How will you be applying the Equal Employment Opportunity Clause in this job?" The speaker was well-known to Merle. From his Baltimore offices, Peters could be relied on to find a few hundred talented mercenaries for any job.

"As far as feasible. We know it's not easy for any of you. We don't expect an exact split, but we do want to see some WASPs in there. We can't accept a bid that's all blacks and Puerto Ricans. And we'd really like to see some minorities up near the top of your team, not just a bunch of retired West Pointers. That answer it?"

Peters shrugged. Wolff and the other government men knew his problem well enough.


"Oral Jones, Rockdonnell Industries. It's not clear from the Request For Proposal how much Government Furnished Equipment we should assume. Can you give us any guidance?"

"It's been left open. It's up to you. Use GFE for anything, weapons, food, medical supplies, if you want to. Bid it yourselves if you think you can get it cheaper. We'll be happy to give you our price lists so you can see what we pay."

Merle sniffed. Dumb question. Nobody could undercut Government prices on supplies, unless they were buying stolen goods. GSA insisted on the best prices in town from everybody. Merle waited for the real action to start.

"Warren McVittie, Lockheed. I have a question on types of bid."

Merle noticed that the Lockheed and the Rockdonnell reps were sitting in pairs. Jack Tukey was over on the left-hand side, well away from Merle, where he could keep an eye on Suomi's crack salesman, Vince Menoudakis, and also on the men from Lectron Industries and Lockheed. He and Merle were careful to remain well apart, to get independent views of the meeting, and Tolly Suomi and Vince Menoudakis followed the same logic. Merle also noticed that the Lectron and Lockheed men were not their most senior reps. Suomi's presence confirmed Merle's own feelings—that this meeting was going to be a real ground-breaker. Top men should be there. Score one point against Lectron and Lockheed.

"The bid request is not clear," went on McVittie. "On Page 24 of the RFP, there's a note to say that bidders may choose to quote cost-plus or fixed price. That's a new clause for this kind of procurement. Are you actually inviting Fixed-Price bids for the whole job?"

The action had arrived. Merle Walters leaned forward intently. This was one of the questions he had come to hear an answer to. Wolff looked a little uneasy, and paused before he replied.

"Just what it says. Bid it cost-plus-fixed-fee, cost-plus-incentive-fee, or fixed price. It's up to you. I think I should tell you that, other things being equal, fixed price bids will be favored." He stopped, then apparently felt obliged to add another comment. "I know it's new, but this will probably be our policy in the future on this type of project."

Fixed price. A whole new set of parameters to worry about. Merle sat, deep in thought, until he was roused by Jack Tukey's voice.

"Jack Tukey, WAWD Corporation. I'd like to ask about deliverables, especially in view of what you said about a preference for a fixed-price contract. What are the project deliverables, and how will they be evaluated?"

"If you bid fixed price, there's only one real deliverable. The overall tactical position at the end of the contract period must be acceptable in territorial holdings. We realize this gives you problems in bidding, since we can't at this time reveal to you the exact area where the engagement will be fought. However, this deliverable will be developed in detail during the final contract negotiation, when a vendor has been selected."

Nasty. In other words, you're bidding it blind, fellers. And if you won't play the Fixed-price game, you probably lose outright. Some smartie in the Government was being super-tricky. Merle tried to fit it together.

"Vince Menoudakis, VVV Industries." The voice was soft, with a slight trace of a stammer. Merle awakened again from his trance. He always liked to see an artist at work, and Vince was one of the great ones. "Mr. Wolff, the geography makes a big difference to the cost of the action. You know that just as well as we do. Now, wouldn't it save the Government money if the bidders could be told the fighting area? There would be less work for you in negotiation, more precise bids from each of us, and a bigger effort on our part to get the really best strategies for the terrain. Where will the project be located, Mr. Wolff?"

Merle smiled to himself. In five or six sentences, Vince had somehow done his usual stroking job. How did he do it? Wolff was smiling and nodding, responding to some mysterious warmth in the questioner. Menoudakis, if he were available, would really be a catch for WAWD. Earlier tries proved that Tolly Suomi knew it. He had Vince pretty well locked in.

"Yes, it would certainly save time later. Our main area—," Wolff actually began to reply before he realized what he was doing. He stopped. "Our main area is—roughly in the latitude range 15 to 25 degrees, as it says in the Request For Proposal. That is as far as I can go—after all, Mr. Menoudakis, war has not yet been declared. We don't want to start an international incident here, do we?"

Nice try, Vince. Pulling an area out of Wolff wouldn't have helped VVV much—everybody else would share the information. Suomi had gone along with it just to rub in to the rest of them what a master Vince Menoudakis was. Jack Tukey had hit the nail on the head the first time he had met Menoudakis at a debriefing. "I don't remember what he said to me, Merle, but if he'd asked me to marry him I'd probably have agreed."

The meeting broke up at about 11:30. Merle and Jack Tukey shared a cab back to the WAWD offices on Wisconsin Avenue. They had lots to talk about. Jack had news on the evaluation procedure, straight from the horse's mouth: Petzell's secretary.

"Do you realize I was in the Embers with Lottie Mitchell until two o'clock this morning? I'm telling you, she nearly drank me under the table. I should be getting danger money for my liver. I had seven bourbons and then I just lost count—and Lottie didn't have a hair out of place. Then we went on over to her apartment, and you won't believe this but at half-past-three I found myself doing—"

"Jack, I should get money from you for introducing you to Lottie in the first place," interrupted Merle. "Stop stringing me out, and get to the point. I'm well aware that you do it on purpose."

Jack Tukey grinned. It was a pleasure to see Merle rise to the bait. "All right, if you've got no romance in your soul. It's going to be a four-man review board. Technical evaluation will count 40 points, price 60 points. Now for the bad news. This one's going fixed price, or nothing. Lottie says there's no way they'll give it out on a cost-plus basis. Where does that leave us, Merle?"

Walters looked out at the leafless November trees on Pennsylvania Avenue. "In deep shit, my boy. In up to our necks." He spoke quietly, almost abstractedly. "You know, we've never tried to be the low dollar man on these bids. WAWD offers quality. But I don't know if we can do it this time. Six outfits underbid us. They'll not be a patch on us technically. But you heard those deliverables. Completely undefined. Have the status half-way right after a year, and you'll get paid. And an option to renew for another two years. Doesn't matter how shaky the field position is, as far as I can tell." He fell silent as they drove through the rutted streets of Georgetown. "I'm telling you, Jack. Some half-wit's dreamed this one up to make his name in the Government. We've got to think of some way around it. Fixed price war, is it? What's our edge now?"

He was silent again for a few minutes, then nodded. "When we get to the office, Jack, call up Lottie and make a date for tonight. Most of all, I have to know where this war will be fought. That's the top priority. Location, and combatants. We've got a six-month job ahead of us, and two weeks to do it in. You'll have to risk your kidneys again. And one other thing. I need to know how they'll be auditing this one. If it's genuine fixed price, there shouldn't be any Government audit of it at all."

Merle sat slumped in the car seat, staring into space. His right hand rubbed the shoulder of his empty sleeve and his blunt features were twisted in thought. Jack thought how much the old man was aging, how ill he looked. Maybe this effort was just too much to ask of him.

Merle glared at him, suddenly alive again.

"Stop gawping at me like a half-wit, Jack. When we get to the office, I want to talk to CBS and NBC. You handle ABC. Here's the way it goes."

Jack felt a surge of relief as Merle outlined his plans. Down but not out. As usual, Merle seemed to have found his angle.

"Can we price it low enough, Merle?"

"If it works out the way I'm hoping, we can underbid everybody in the business. I want you to fly out to the West Coast tomorrow night and bounce the main ideas off Alex Burns. He's key to this. I'll find somebody else to woo Lottie in your absence. Maybe I'll recruit Vince Menoudakis for the job."

Jack sniffed. "You'll be doing Lottie a disservice. You know these high power sales types. Lots of promises—until it's time to deliver. Then they don't have what it takes. Tolly Suomi, he's the man for my money."

"You don't have that much money, Jack. Here, give me a hand to get my stiff leg out of the cab. I feel like Pinocchio today."

* * *

The air was full of gray sand and black smoke, blinding the soldiers and blotting out the fierce desert sun. Tanks were barreling forward through the dust, a group of men with combat lasers following each one. The long, high scream of an omniprojector was approaching along a dry wadi, and a Clarke neutralizer was turning to meet it, lobed antennae moving into exact phase for cancellation. The operators of the neutralizer were tunneling deep into narrow trenches in the sand, reading the strength of the omniprojector signal on the dials set in their helmet displays.

"Mr. Suomi calling on line one, Mr. Walters."

"At last." Merle grunted in satisfaction. He left the screen display running, reached over and picked up the receiver. Tolly Suomi's bland, unlined face appeared on the intercom screen.

"Perhaps I am calling at an inopportune time, Merle. It sounds as though you are tuned to the NBC news report. Should I call back later?"

"No. I've been trying to reach you all day. I asked your office to find you and give you the message to call me. Where are you, Tolly?"

"Newark, New Jersey."

"Can you be here in Washington, tonight?"

Suomi's face, as usual, betrayed no curiosity or surprise. "I can. By seven o'clock at the latest, perhaps by six-thirty."

"I'll be here." Merle broke the connection and leaned back in his chair, looking for a comfortable position.

On the screen, the Clarke neutralizer had been homed on by a seeking missile and was out of action. The omniprojector was advancing again. Men fell before it, flopping and convulsing like landed fish as the vibrations tuned to their central nervous system frequencies.

Merle watched as the NBC newscaster summarized the day's fighting, the advances and retreats. It was on the nose with his own scratchpad estimates. He placed a call to Alex Burns and sketched out a scenario. Alex objected to some of the ideas, and they went at it hammer and tongs for the rest of the afternoon. When Suomi arrived they were still arguing. Merle waved him to a seat, fired a final salvo, and cut the connection.

"Never try and argue with a Scotsman, Tolly. Stubborn as donkeys. Must be the oatmeal."

Suomi smiled, smooth white in smooth ivory. "Alex Burns?"

Merle nodded. "You know him, do you? He's right again, blast him." He leaned back, his voice a bit too casual. "Had any chance to see much of Alex's work? I was wondering what you think of him."

"The same as you do, Merle. Not just the best, the very best." Suomi smiled the Tolly smile, a fraction of an inch elevation of the corners of his mouth. "Don't let's be coy, Merle. You know quite well I've tried to hire Alex Burns from you. Probably as many times as WAWD has tried to steal Vince Menoudakis—and with the same success. Nothing."

"Tolly, I don't own Alex. His job does. Get ahead of us on the simulations, and Alex would take a job with VVV tomorrow to find out how you do it. I couldn't hold him a day."

"And how to do that, when Alex Burns leads the world on simulation mock-ups." Suomi waved his arm at the display screen. "He's an artist with that thing. He can make it more real than reality. Burns is an artist the way Disney was, posing as something else. I'll tell you, Merle, I've needed an Alex in the past six months."

Merle nodded, his eyes averted. "Aye, it's been a hard time for all of us, Tolly."

The reaction was a Suomi maximum. One eyebrow raised a fraction of an inch. The sign of strong emotion. "Hard? When you've won the last four war jobs, in a row? Merle, I'm not here for social reasons. I dropped everything to get here today—just as you knew I would. We've been running in circles since the November bidders' conference, trying to find out how you can price the way you do and still make money. We've got our sources in Contracts Departments, same as you—and we still don't know how you do it."

Merle smiled, rubbing his left shoulder in his habitual gesture. "You're not a poker player, Tolly. You show your hand."

"I'm a chess player, Merle. I can tell when somebody is planning seven moves ahead and the rest of us are playing six. We've been competitors for a long time, the two of us. For fifteen years we've been neck and neck. Now, what's your secret?"

"You know, don't you, that we sewed up the TV rights for the Trucial War with NBC? That was a twenty million dollar deal, just for special footage."

"I know. It was a neat idea, putting it on the same basis as the Olympics—but I know that's not your trick. We caught on to that last Christmas and now we use it in our bids too." Suomi placed his hands flat on the desk between them. "The real thing, Merle. What will it cost me to get it? You know I'll find out anyway, if I stick at it. And VVV won't go broke without it. But you have to know what it feels like to lose four big ones in a row. Name your price, I'll pay it."

A lengthening silence. Merle looked out at the gardens far below, dusk falling over the bursting azaleas of early May. "You seem sure of yourself, Tolly. Got an insider in our accounting department?"

"I don't need that, Merle. Look at this office." He gestured at the furniture. "The better you're doing, the cheaper and lousier the fixtures. I daren't sit down too hard on this chair in case it falls apart. Come on, Merle, let's get to it. What's your price?"

"I've got my price, Tolly. Here's the ticket I'm selling." He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out his wallet. From it he took a sheet of paper about seven inches square. "That came to me yesterday."

Tolly Suomi read through it, caught his breath, and read it again, slowly. At last he lifted his head and looked Merle Walters straight in the eye. "How long, Merle?"

"You tell me. The medics can't seem to agree. One month, six months, two years. From now on, it's a game of roulette. Good thing Jack Tukey's ready. He'll make a good president for WAWD." He paused expectantly. "Don't you agree, Tolly?"

Suomi hesitated, for the beat of a hummingbird's wing. "An excellent president, Merle. He has a good business head, he eats work, and he can pick the right people—and keep them, too. Jack will make a good president for WAWD—a great president. In ten years' time." His voice raised a little. "You see, Merle, we've met, what, thirty or forty times over the past fifteen years? But I think I know you as well as you know me. Jack Tukey has one failing, but it's one you can't live with. Jack doesn't hate war—yet—as Merle Walters hates it. He doesn't hate the stupidity of it, the cruelty of it, the very idea of it."

Merle bowed his head. "I'm a war hero, Tolly, didn't you know that? To a lot of people in this country I'm Mister War himself. Generals are proud to shake my hand. I got this—" He gestured at his empty sleeve and left leg. "—being a hero, forty years ago in the Pacific. Fighting your countrymen. No, it's Tolly Suomi that really hates war, I would say. You remember World War Two, Tolly?"

"I was eight years old when it finished, Merle. I remember it. I lost no arm, no leg. But I was on holiday in the country, when my family was home in Nagasaki. I remember that. And other things, I remember your cost-benefit study, showing that napalm is not a cost-effective weapon of war. How much did that study cost you, Merle?"

"Enough so no one would question our results. And VVV Industries' analysis, showing that antipersonnel fragmentation bombs aren't a good investment of war capital. How much did that one cost you, Tolly?"

"As you say, Merle, enough. Vince did a marvelous sales pitch on that one."

"The next president of VVV, Tolly? Would Vince want it?"

Suomi looked quizzically at Walters and waved the thought away. "You don't hire Liszt and ask him to move pianos. Vince is an artist, too. He has something we can't analyze—no place for it in chess or poker. People like him, he likes them, he sells them. Never fails. He's right where he is."

Merle nodded quietly, rubbing the side of his face with his hand. The two men sat in silence for several minutes. Finally Merle spoke.

"So now you can guess my price, Tolly. The price for the secret, the way we can underbid the market, every time, on the fixed price war jobs. Only one way I'll accept payment." He gestured at the photograph of Lyndon Johnson, hanging on the wall. "Know why I've got that picture up there, Tolly? I'll tell you. He's the man who turned me from a hawk to—what I am. I lost two sons in Vietnam. Two boys, too young to vote, to feed the ego of a man who wouldn't ever admit he was wrong.

"Merger, Tolly. Merger, with you at the top. Vince Menoudakis as VP of Sales, Alex Burns as VP of Production. And Jack Tukey, as Executive VP, waiting in the wings. Your time will come, too, Tolly, and Jack has to be ready. And maybe I'll be around here for a while yet, as a high-priced easy-life consultant for you—when you need stirring up a bit. Life's not chess, and life's not poker, but there's some of both in it. Merger, Tolly. Let's talk terms."

Suomi sat, face expressionless, one hand stroking his beard. "Perhaps. Perhaps. Would Jack Tukey work for me?"

"He thinks you walk on water, Tolly. So does Alex."

"Suppose I agree, find out how you operate, then back out?"

"That's tough titty for Merle Walters. A man either goes along with his judgment of people, or he's got nothing. That's the least of my worries, Tolly."

Suomi was nodding slowly. "My ancestry and education prepared me for this, Merle. There has been something that year by year has bound our fortunes tighter together, two caterpillars in one cocoon." He held out his hand. "Agreed in principle—details to be worked out. I hope we both live to see an end—to the lawyers putting the groups together. It will take a while. You control a stock majority, I hope?"

Merle nodded. "As you do. I did a little tracing of the lines on VVV this morning."

"Then it can be done. So now, Merle, tell me. Tell me something that has been on my mind every spare minute for six months. You are bidding fixed price and you are thirty percent lower than the rest of us. How are you doing it?" Suomi was leaning forward intently.

Merle opened the credenza behind him, pulled out a bottle and two glasses. "Champagne, Tolly. Let me savor the moment. You'll have to open it. It takes two hands."

"You were that sure of yourself?"

"Either way, I would drink the champagne. Take a look at this."

He turned on the display screen. The picture filled with scenes of battle, again in the desert. The heat, the smoke, the noise, the chaos, almost the smell seemed to spring from the screen.

"Now, Tolly, what are you seeing?"

"The Trucial War. I don't know which action. Last week's, maybe, up on the border."

Merle smiled and raised his glass. "You've got a great eye, Tolly. It's the Trucials, it's even a border skirmish—but it's next week, not last week. You said that Alex Burns is a genius. I agree. Half the battles in that war never happen. They're Alex's simulations. We ship the footage to NBC—they pay for it—and they weave the commentary around it. Much better for them, they don't have to keep a camera team out in the field. About half the footage is genuine fighting. The rest is Alex."

Suomi's eyes were flicking from the screen to Merle and back again. He was running rapidly through the difficulties, the possibilities. "How can you meet the deliverables? How can you pass an audit?"

"No audit. Fixed price war, remember? Deliverables ? We maintain the lines we promised—you know, these aren't wars to win, they're to hold the status quo. We find the bidders on the other side, as early in the game as we can. We agree what will be fought, what will be simulated. They buy the simulations they need from us—a tidy profit there for WAWD. We have to mix it up, in case there are parties of journalists or junketing politicians. They see genuine battles. How can somebody tell if the other battles they see on the screen are real?"

"And you make a profit?"

"Thirty-five percent. No matter how much the simulations cost, or how much it takes to keep things going smoothly, nothing costs as much as a war—even a small one. One other thing, Tolly. Go and take a look at the war hospitals. There are still deaths, because there are still battles. We stopped the worst maiming a while back, the two of us, when we got rid of the worst weapons. Now, the injuries are down again—and WAWD gets credit for tactics and brilliant fighting."

Merle Walters raised his glass again. "Here's to the merger of WAWD Corporation and VVV Industries—the War leaders. You'll have to keep up the struggle now, Tolly, until some day maybe we'll get some sense. I'm not optimistic. We're aggressive animals, the lot of us. But here's to War, damn its soul."

Tolly Suomi was thoughtful. He flexed his shoulders, feeling a new weight there. At last he too raised his glass. "To the merger. And to our motto: War is much too serious a thing to be left to the Government."

The glasses clinked. On the screen in front of them, the battle raged.


This is a pure example of the type known in science fiction as the "If this goes on. . ." species. If Government is willing to contract out the development of weapons, including the conceptual design, fabrication, and testing, why shouldn't they take the logical next step and contract out the war? If they did, what would happen?

Apart from fairly frequent excursions to England and to the Middle East, I have lived close to Washington D.C. for many years, and have dealt a lot with the Federal Government. The contracting details and bidder's conferences in this story are drawn from the life (if it is appropriate to assign any suggestion of animation to the U.S. Government).

To anyone who thinks the story could actually happen: sorry, even fixed price contracts are subject to federal audit.

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