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Chapter Five

The face in Aivars Terekhov's mirror was thinner and gaunter than the one he remembered. In fact, it reminded him of the one he'd seen when he'd been repatriated to Manticore as a returning prisoner-of-war. The last few months might not have been as bad as that nightmare experience, but they—and especially the six weeks since leaving Montana—had still left their imprint, and his blue eyes searched their own reflection as if seeking some omen of the future.

Whatever he was looking for, he didn't find it . . . again. His nostrils flared as he snorted in mordant amusement at his own thoughts, and he splashed cold water across his face. Then he straightened, dried his face, and reached for the fresh uniform blouse Chief Steward Joanna Agnelli had laid out for him. He slid into it, feeling the sensual warmth of it as it slid across his skin, then sealed it and examined himself in the mirror one more time.

No change, he thought. Just a man with a shirt on this time.

But the man in the mirror wasn't really "just a man with a shirt on," and Terekhov knew it. He was once again Captain Terekhov, commanding officer of Her Manticoran Majesty's heavy cruiser Hexapuma.

For now, at least, he reminded himself, and watched his mirror's lips twitch in a brief almost-smile.

He turned away from the mirror and stepped out of his private head into his sleeping cabin. The door to his day cabin was slightly open, and he could just see Commander Ginger Lewis, his acting executive officer, and Lieutenant Commander Amal Nagchaudhuri, Hexapuma's communications officer, waiting for him. He paused for just a moment longer, then drew a deep breath, made sure his "confident CO" expression was in place, and went out to meet them.

"Good morning," he said, waving for them to remain seated when they started to rise.

"Good morning, Sir," Lewis replied for both of them.

"I assume you've both had breakfast already?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Well, I'm afraid I haven't, and Joanna gets cranky if I don't eat. So if the two of you don't mind, I'm going to nibble like an obedient little captain while we go over the morning reports."

"Far be it from me to try to get between Chief Agnelli and her notion of the proper feeding of captains, Sir," Lewis said, and grinned broadly. So did Nagchaudhuri, although not every acting exec would have been comfortable making jokes at what could have been construed as the captain's expense, and Terekhov chuckled.

"I see you're a wise woman," he observed, and sat down behind his desk. The terminal was folded down, giving him a level work surface or—in this case—a surface for something else, and Chief Steward Agnelli appeared as quickly and silently as if the captain had rubbed a lamp to summon her.

With a brisk efficiency that always reminded Terekhov of a stage magician bedazzling his audience, Agnelli whisked a white linen cloth across the desktop, added a plate with a bowl of cold cereal and fruit precisely centered upon it, set out a small pitcher of milk, a plate of steamy hot muffins, a butter dish, a tall glass of chilled tomato juice, a coffee cup, a steaming carafe, silverware, and a snowy napkin. She considered her handiwork for a moment or two, then minutely readjusted the silverware.

"Buzz when you're finished, Sir," she said, and withdrew.

Terekhov found himself once more searching for the puff of smoke into which his resident djinn had just disappeared. Then he shook his head, reached for the milk, and poured it over the waiting cereal.

"With all due respect, Sir, that doesn't look like a particularly huge breakfast to me," Lewis observed.

"Maybe not," Terekhov acknowledged, then gave her a sharp glance. "On the other hand, this is about what I usually have for breakfast, Ginger. I'm not exactly off my feed, if that's what you were subtly asking."

"I suppose I was, actually."

If Lewis felt particularly abashed, she showed no signs of it, and Terekhov shook his head. Ginger Lewis looked a great deal like a younger version of his wife, Sinead, whose portrait hung on the wall behind the commander even now. She was just as self-confident as Sinead, as well. In fact, Terekhov sometimes felt as if she were channeling Sinead, and he more than suspected that she'd decided it was more important than ever that someone aboard Hexapuma be willing to admit she was mother-henning the captain.

Although, between her and Joanna, it's not likely I could miss the point, now is it?

"Well, consider yourself not so subtly answered," he said aloud, his tone making it obvious that it was not a rebuke. "And while I crunch away at my modest—but healthy, very healthy—repast, why don't the two of you get started telling me all the things I need to know?"

"Yes, Sir."

Lewis pulled out her personal minicomp and called up the first of the several memos to herself which she had composed.

"First," she said, "there's the sick report. Lieutenant Sarkozy still has twenty-seven patients in sickbay, but she expects to discharge three more of them today. That will be . . . eight of our own people and twelve more from Warlock and Aria who've returned to duty so far. And she says that Lajos should be returning to duty in the next two or three days."

"Good," Terekhov said. Surgeon Lieutenant Ruth Sarkozy had been HMS Vigilant's ship's surgeon before the brutal Battle of Monica. Vigilant was one of the six ships Terekhov had lost in that engagement, but Sarkozy had survived, which had turned out to be an extraordinarily good thing for a lot of reasons, including the fact that Surgeon Commander Lajos Orban, Hexapuma's own surgeon, had been one of Hexapuma's thirty-two wounded. Sarkozy had turned out to be an outstanding substitute for him—a point Terekhov had emphasized in the post-battle reports he'd already drafted—but like all too many of his surviving personnel, she was obviously feeling the strain of doing too many people's duty. She had to be even more relieved than anyone else to see Orban recovered enough to leave sickbay! It was fortunate that his injuries, while messy, had been less severe than they'd originally appeared. With quick-heal, Sarkozy had gotten him back on his feet (although he'd remained very shaky) in less than a week, which made him far luckier than people like Naomi Kaplan, Hexapuma's tactical officer, who was still conscious only intermittently.

And Lajos was a hell of a lot luckier than the seventy-four members of the ship's company who'd been killed in action, Terekhov thought grimly.

"Ansten isn't going to be back on his feet again for a while, according to Sarkozy's current reports," Lewis continued. "Of course, he claims he'll be ready to resume his duties 'any time now.' " She glanced up and looked Terekhov in the eye. "Despite any rumors to the contrary, I'm not so drunk with power that I want to stay on as acting XO any longer than I have to, but somehow I don't think that's going to happen. Lieutenant Sarkozy's let him move out of sickbay and back to his own quarters, but I think that was only because she needed the bed. And probably partly because he was driving her towards raving lunacy." Her lips twitched. "He's not exactly . . . the best patient in the recorded history of the galaxy."

Terekhov was drinking tomato juice at that particular moment, and his involuntary snort of amusement came very close to sparking sartorial catastrophe. Fortunately, he managed to get the glass lowered in time without quite spraying juice all over his uniform blouse.

Calling Ansten FitzGerald "not the best patient" was one of the finest examples of gross understatement to come his way in quite some time. Hexapuma's executive officer was constitutionally incapable of taking a single moment longer from his duties than he absolutely had to. He was also one of those people who deeply resented the discovery that in the face of sufficient physical trauma his body was prepared to demand he take some time to recover while it got itself back into proper running order.

"Part of it," Terekhov said as severely as he could as he wiped his lips with the napkin, "is that Ansten is aware of how shorthanded we are. How shorthanded all of us are. And, of course," he lowered the napkin and smiled crookedly, "he's also got enough sheer, bullheaded stubbornness for any three people I could think of right offhand."

"Should I take that as an indication that you don't want me handing the job back over to him this afternoon, Sir?"

"Frankly, nothing would please me more than to have you hand it over to him," Terekhov told her. "Believe me, Ginger, I know you've got plenty to do down in Engineering without adding this to the load. But I'm not prepared to put Ansten back into harness until Sarkozy—or Lajos—is ready to sign off on it, whatever he thinks."

"I can't pretend I wouldn't rather go back to Engineering full-time," Lewis said, "but I agree with you where Ansten is concerned. Do you want me to break it gently to him, Sir, or will you tell him yourself?"

"The cowardly part of me wants to leave it to you. Unfortunately, I believe they told me at Saganami Island that there were certain responsibilities a commanding officer wasn't allowed to shuffle off on to a subordinate. I suspect facing Ansten under these circumstances qualifies."

"I stand in awe of your courage, Sir."

"And well you should." Terekhov said with an air of becoming modesty, then turned to Nagchaudhuri.

"Anything new from the Monicans this morning, Amal?"

"No, Sir." The tall, almost albino-pale communications officer grimaced. "They've repeated their demand that we evacuate the system immediately right on schedule, but that's about all. So far."

"Nothing more about that 'medical necessity' civilian evacuation of Eroica they trotted out yesterday?"

"No, Sir. Or not yet, at least. After all, the day's still young in Estelle."

Terekhov smiled in sour amusement, although it wasn't really particularly funny.

There was no doubt in his mind that he was the most hated man in the Monica System, and with good reason. He and the ten warships under his command had killed or wounded something like seventy-five percent of the total personnel strength of the Monica System Navy. They'd also destroyed the Monicans' main naval shipyard, killed several thousand yard workers, and wiped out at least two or three decades of infrastructure investment in the process. Not to mention destroying or permanently disabling twelve of the fourteen Solarian battlecruisers with which Monica had been supplied. He still wasn't certain exactly how those ships had factored into the elaborate plans someone had worked out to sabotage the Star Kingdom's annexation of the Talbott Cluster, but all the evidence he'd so far been able to collect from the wreckage of Eroica Station only served to further underscore the fact that those plans had required a sponsor with very deep pockets . . . and very few scruples against killing people in job lots.

At the moment, however, he and Roberto Tyler, President of the Union of Monica, were both rather more preoccupied, although from different perspectives, with a more pressing concern. Aivars Terekhov had lost sixty percent of his hastily improvised squadron, and more like three-quarters of his personnel, in destroying those ships and the military component of Eroica Station. His four surviving ships were all severely damaged. Only two of them remained hyper-capable, at least until they'd been able to make major repairs, and those two offered far too little life-support capacity for all of his surviving personnel. Which meant he couldn't pull out of Monica, even if he'd been inclined to do so. Which he wasn't, since he had no intention of allowing Tyler and his people to "vanish" any inconvenient evidence before someone arrived from Manticore to examine it more fully and systematically than Terekhov's own resources permitted.

So far, there was no reason to believe Tyler suspected that half of the Manticoran intruders were too crippled to withdraw. And, fortunately, there was also no evidence to suggest he intended to push Terekhov into making good on his threat where the remaining pair of Indefatigable-class battlecruisers were concerned. Those two ships had been moored in civilian shipyard slips on the far side of Eroica Station's sprawling industrial complex. Terekhov had declined to target them in his initial attack, given the horrendous number of civilian casualties that would have entailed. But when the surviving units of the Monican Navy had demanded he surrender or face destruction, he'd given them back an ultimatum of his own.

If his ships were attacked, he would destroy those remaining battlecruisers with a saturation nuclear bombardment . . . and he would not permit the evacuation of civilians from Eroica Station first.

It was entirely possible some members of Tyler's administration thought he was bluffing. If so, however, the President remained unwilling to call that bluff. Which was a very good thing for everyone concerned, Terekhov thought grimly, since the one thing he wasn't doing was bluffing.

"Do you think there's any truth to Tyler's 'medical emergency' claims, Sir?" Lewis' question pulled Terekhov back up out of his thoughts and he gave himself a mental shake, followed by a physical shake of his head.

"I won't completely rule out the possibility. If it is a genuine emergency, though, it's a very conveniently timed one, don't you think?"

"Yes, Sir." Lewis rubbed the tip of her nose for a moment, then shrugged. "The only thing that struck me as just a bit odd about it is that he's waited this long to trot it out."

"Well, he's already used the running-out-of-food argument, and the life-support-emergency claim, and the damaged-power-systems claim, Ginger," Nagchaudhuri pointed out. "That old fairytale about the boy that cried wolf comes to mind now."

"That it does," Terekhov agreed. "On the other hand, this one is a bit different in that we can't verify—or disprove—his claims as easily as we did the others."

Nagchaudhuri nodded, and Terekhov busied himself spreading butter across a warm muffin while he pondered.

It had been relatively simple to dispose of most of the Monicans' so-called emergencies. Although Hexapuma's shipboard sensors had been severely mauled, Terekhov still had more than enough highly capable remote reconnaissance platforms to keep an eye on everything happening in the Monica System. Those same platforms had been able to monitor the surviving components of Eroica Station and disprove Tyler's claims about things like power spikes or atmospheric leaks caused by collateral damage from the bombardment of the station's military component. But claims of disease among the station's inhabitants were something else.

"I think we're going to have to arrange an examination of some of these conveniently sick Monicans," he said after a moment. "Which probably means it's a good thing Lajos is just about fit for duty again."

"Sir, with all due respect, I'm not sure offering the Monicans hostages of their own is the best move," Lewis said, rather more diffidently than usual. "Once we send—"

"Don't worry, Ginger."

Terekhov's voice was a bit indistinct as he spoke around a bite of buttered muffin. He chewed, swallowed, and cleared his throat.

"Don't worry," he repeated in a clearer tone, shaking his head. "I'm not about to send Lieutenant Sarkozy or Lajos aboard Eroica Station. If they're prepared to put some of their deathly ill patients aboard a shuttle and send it out to us, we'll examine them here. And if they aren't willing to, I'll take that as evidence they know we'd see through their bogus claims."

"Yes, Sir." Lewis nodded.

"In the meantime, what's the latest from Commander Lignos about Aegis' fire control?"

"They're making at least some progress, Sir," Lewis said, accessing another of her memos. "It's not anything the yard dogs back home would be ready to sign off on, but by swapping out those components with Aria, Commander Lignos should be able to get at least her forward lidar back on-line. That's still going to leave—"

"So Tyler turned down your invitation to offer his sick citizens free medical care, did he?" Bernardus Van Dort said dryly. He and Terekhov sat in the captain's briefing room later that morning, chairs tipped back, nursing cups of coffee, and Terekhov snorted.

"You might say that." He shook his head. "There are times I wish I hadn't stopped you from presenting your credentials as Baroness Medusa's personal representative. If I had, at least all of this diplomatic crap would be landing on your plate, instead of mine."

"If you think—" Van Dort began, but Terekhov shook his head again, harder.

"Forget it. I didn't spend all those years in Foreign Office service without learning a little bit about how the game's played, Bernardus! The minute you open your mouth as Medusa's officially accredited representative, this stops being a case of a single rogue officer Her Majesty can disavow if she has to. We can't afford to give Tyler and his crew any basis to attack the notion that I acted independently of any orders from any higher authority. Especially since I did!"

Van Dort started to open his mouth, then closed it. Much as he hated to admit it, Terekhov was right. Van Dort's own experience in the politics of his home system of Rembrandt, his decades of work as the founding CEO of the multi-system Rembrandt Trade Union, and his experience working to set up the annexation plebiscite for the entire Talbott Cluster all supported the same conclusion.

Which didn't mean he had to like it.

He sipped from his own coffee cup, savoring its rich, strong taste, and hoped Terekhov couldn't see how worried he was becoming. Not over the political and military situation here in Monica, although either of those would have provided ample justification for two or three T-years' worth of normal anxiety, but over Terekhov himself. The captain was the glue which held the entire squadron together, and the burden of command pressed down on him like a two or three-gravity field. It didn't go away, either. It was always there, always weighing down upon him, and there was nothing any of his officers—or Van Dort—could do to relieve that constant, grinding pressure, however much they might have wished to. Not that knowing they couldn't kept anyone from trying, of course.

"What about Bourmont's units?" he asked after a moment.

Gregoire Bourmont was the Monican Navy's chief of naval operations. He was the one who'd issued the demand for Terekhov's surrender after the Battle of Monica, and from the tone of the handful of messages which had passed between the two sides since, his continued inability to compel that surrender was only making him more belligerent.

Unless, of course, it's all an act, Van Dort reminded himself. Aivars isn't the only one who understands "plausible deniability," after all. If Tyler lets Bourmont play the part of the saber-rattling military hard ass, then he can play the role of conciliating statesman. Or try to, anyway. And if anything goes wrong in the end, he can always try to head off the consequences by offering Bourmont up to Aivars as a sacrificial lamb and sacking the "hothead" who pushed things ever so much further than his civilian superiors would ever have authorized.

"All of his ships—such as they are and what there are of them—are still sitting in orbit around Monica," Terekhov said. "From all appearances, they plan to go right on sitting there, too."

"Have there been any more departures from the system?" Van Dort's tone was almost painfully neutral, but Terekhov snorted again, more harshly than before.

"No," he said. "Of course, that's not a lot of comfort, given how many ships definitely did 'depart from the system' before I sent my little explanatory note to Admiral Bourmont."

Van Dort nodded. That was the real source of the anxiety gnawing at the nerves of every surviving man and woman of Terekhov's battered squadron. The truth was that Terekhov's threat to nuke Eroica Station wasn't actually necessary any longer. Hexapuma, the light cruiser Aegis, and the older (and even more heavily damaged) Star Knight-class heavy cruiser Warlock had managed to restore enough of their fire control to manage several dozen of the Royal Manticoran Navy's new "flat pack" missile pods, and the ammunition ship Volcano had delivered over two hundred of them to the squadron. With those pods full of MDMs, Terekhov could have annihilated Bourmont's entire remaining naval strength long before those ships were able to get into their own range of his units.

Unfortunately, Bourmont might not realize that. Or, for that matter, believe it, despite the evidence of what similar pods had done at Eroica Station. The fact that no one outside Eroica Station appeared to have seen any of the tracking or tactical data from the opening phase of the engagement actually worked against Terekhov in that respect. Bourmont literally hadn't seen any hard evidence of what the Manticoran squadron had done, or how. In fact, it very much looked as if the only people who really had seen any of that evidence were either dead or among the tiny handful of survivors Terekhov's small craft had plucked from the shattered ruins of the station's military component and the hulked wreckage of two of the battlecruisers his squadron had engaged.

Personally, Van Dort had come to the conclusion that Terekhov probably wouldn't nuke the civilian portion of the station no matter what happened. Or not any longer, at least. Given his range and accuracy advantage, he was far more likely to settle for picking off Bourmont's cruisers and destroyers, instead. In fact, Van Dort thought, the threat against Eroica's civilians had actually become the way Terekhov was avoiding the necessity of killing any more of the Monican Navy's uniformed personnel, since it prevented Bourmont from pushing him into doing just that.

Of course it does, Bernardus, the businessman-turned-statesman told himself. And one reason you want it to be true is that you don't really want to think your friend Aivars really would kill all of those civilians.

But the truth of the matter was that Bourmont and the entire surviving Monican Navy had never posed the real threat. No, the real threat, the one which menaced not just Terekhov's squadron but the entire Star Kingdom of Manticore, lay in that handful of ships which had fled into hyper-space in the aftermath of the short, brutal battle. What had made the Union of Monica a viable threat to the annexation of the Talbott Cluster in the first place was its status as a client of the Solarian League's Office of Frontier Security. Neither Van Dort nor anyone else in Terekhov's squadron knew the actual content of any of the treaties or formal agreements defining Monica's relationship with Frontier Security. It was more than likely, however, that those agreements included a "mutual defense" clause. And if they did, and if one of those fleeing starships had headed for Meyers, where the local Frontier Security commissioner hung his hat, it was entirely possible that a Solarian squadron—or even a light task force—was headed for Monica at this very moment.

And a Solly flag officer, especially one working for OFS, isn't going to shed a lot of tears over the deaths of a few hundred—or even a few thousand—neobarbs, Van Dort thought grimly. Even if those neobarbs are citizens of the star nation he's supposedly there to support. Can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, after all. And he's not going to believe any wild stories about Manticoran "super missiles," either. So if a Frontier Fleet detachment does turn up, Aivars is either going to have to surrender after all . . . or else start a shooting war directly with the Solarian League.

"So the situation's pretty much unchanged," he said out loud, and Terekhov nodded.

"We did let the pregnant workers from Eroica return to the planet," he said, and made a face. "I can't imagine what these people were thinking about letting them work in an environment like that in the first place! Every extra-atmospheric work contract in the Star Kingdom contains specific provisions to prevent exposing fetuses to the sorts of radiation hazards aboard a station like that."

"Rembrandt, too," Van Dort agreed. "But a lot of the star nations out here, especially the poorer ones, don't seem to think they have that luxury."

"Luxury!" Terekhov snorted. "You mean they aren't going to enforce proper liability laws against their local employers, don't you? After all, insurance drives up overhead, right? And if they aren't going to be liable—legally, at least—anyway, then why should any of them worry about a little thing like what happens to their workers or their workers' children?"

Van Dort contented himself with a nod of agreement, although Terekhov's vehemence worried him. It wasn't because he disagreed with anything the captain had just said, but the raw anger—and the contempt—glittering in Terekhov's blue eyes was a far cry from the Manticoran's normal demeanor of cool self-control. His anger was one more indication of the pressure he was under, and Van Dort didn't even want to think about what would happen if Aivars Terekhov suddenly crumbled.

But that isn't going to happen, he told himself. In fact, the way you're worrying about it is probably an indication of the pressure you're under, when you come right down to it. Aivars is one of the least likely to crack people you've ever met. In fact, the real reason you're worrying about him is because of how much you like him, isn't it?

"Well, letting them go back dirt-side ought to earn us at least a little good press," he observed out loud.

"Oh, don't be silly, Bernardus." Terekhov waved his coffee cup. "You know as well as I do how it's going to be presented. President Tyler's tireless efforts on behalf of his citizens have finally borne at least partial fruit in convincing the heartless Manticoran tyrant and murderer Terekhov to allow these poor, pregnant women—the women the wicked Manties have been callously exposing to all the threats of a space station environment, along with the rest of their hostages, as part of their barbarous threat to massacre helpless civilians—to return to safety." He shook his head. "If there's any 'good press' going around, trust me, Tyler and his toadies will see to it that all of it focuses on him."

"After reaching his hand into a trash disposer like this one, he probably needs all the good press he can get!" Van Dort replied.

"Assuming he ever stops playing the victimized total innocent and admits that's what he did. Which he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to do."

"No, but—"

"Excuse me, Sir."

Both men turned their heads to look at the briefing room hatch as the youthful voice spoke. Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki, one of Hexapuma's "snotties," looked back at them, and Terekhov arched an eyebrow.

"And just which 'sir' are you asking to excuse you, Ms. Zilwicki?" he inquired mildly. Under most circumstances, there wouldn't have been any question who a midshipwoman under his command was addressing, but Helen had been assigned as Van Dort's personal aide, in addition to her other duties, ever since he'd come aboard ship.

"Sorry, Sir." Helen's smile was fleeting, but genuine. "I meant you, Captain," she said, and her smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. "CIC's just detected a hyper footprint, Sir. A big one."

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