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Chapter Six

Hexapuma's bridge was fully manned when Terekhov stepped onto it. The ship's casualties left her short of all the officers she truly needed, but the damage to Auxiliary Control and the backup bridge there had been far too severe to be repaired out of Hexapuma's shipboard resources. That meant there was no tactical crew to take over if anything happened to the bridge proper, but it also meant there was no need for an entire backup set of officers, either, which at least eased the pressure on the survivors. And that there was no reason Ginger Lewis shouldn't man her customary battle stations position in Engineering rather than haring off as acting exec to take charge of AuxCon.

Midshipwoman Zilwicki stepped around Terekhov and walked quickly to her own position at missile defense. She seated herself at the elbow of Lieutenant Abigail Hearns, the Grayson born (and extremely youthful) young woman who had replaced Naomi Kaplan as Hexapuma's tactical officer.

I wonder if any other heavy cruiser in the entire Queen's Navy's ever had a pair that young in charge of its tactical section? a corner of Terekhov's mind wondered. They can't have much more than forty-five T-years between them!

Maybe not, he reflected, but the job that youthful pair had already done during the Battle of Monica left him without any qualms about relying on them now.

"Any IDs?" he asked.

"Not yet, Sir," Abigail replied without ever looking up from her own displays while her long, slender fingers played across her console, working to refine the data. "Whoever it is, they opted for an almost polar approach, and we don't have any platforms in position for a close look at them. We're redeploying now, but it's going to take a while."


Terekhov crossed to his own command chair, settled into it, and deployed its displays. There were several possible explanations for why someone might have opted to approach a star system from well above the ecliptic, but aside from gross astrogational error, very few of those explanations would have applied to merchant shipping. Most of a merchant ship's likely destinations in any star system lay in the plane of the system's ecliptic, so translating into hyper in that plane and on the same side of the system as the destination in question required the shortest normal-space flight to reach it. Then, too, crossing a star's hyper limit from significantly above or below the plane of the ecliptic also imposed greater wear and tear—which equated to higher maintenance and replacement costs—on a freighter's hyper generator and alpha nodes. That was true for warships, too, of course . . . but maintenance costs ran a poor second to tactical considerations where they were concerned.

The most likely reason for a polar approach by a warship or a squadron of warships would be to avoid any nasty little surprises a defender might have attempted to arrange on a more conventional approach vector. The fact that it also gave better sensor coverage of the entire system (or, at least, of the entire ecliptic) wasn't anything to sneer at, either. A defender could still hide on the far side of the system's central star, or in the shadow of one or more of its planets or even moons, but it got harder against someone looking down—or up—from system north or south.

"Sir," Abigail said after several more tense moments, "CIC's managed to isolate a count on the footprints. They make it ten. Best estimate is that five of them are in the four million-plus tonnage range."

"Thank you." Terekhov's tone was calm, almost absent, as he studied his own repeater displays, and no one else had to know how difficult it was for him to keep it that way.

If CIC's estimate was accurate, then five of the unknowns fell squarely into the tonnage bracket for ships of the wall. And if that was what they actually were, their arrival could be nothing but bad news for HMS Hexapuma and the rest of her squadron, because there weren't five Manticoran wallers in the entire Talbott Cluster. So if five of them were turning up now, they had to belong to someone else . . . like the Solarian League.

Although, now that I come to think about it, just what the hell would Solly wallers be doing way out here? This is Frontier Fleet's bailiwick, not Battle Fleet's, so they shouldn't have anything bigger than battlecruisers in the vicinity, either. On the other hand, none of the local systems have anything the size of a dreadnought or a superdreadnought in inventory. So . . .

"Bring the Squadron to readiness, Mr. Nagchaudhuri," he said.

"Aye, aye, Sir," the communications officer replied, and sent the order (which Terekhov was quite certain was thoroughly unnecessary) to the other three ships of his battered "squadron."

The good news, such as it was and what there was of it, was that the missile pods deployed about his ships contained all-up Mark 23s, not the Mark 16s which normally lived in Hexapuma's magazines. The Mark 16's laser heads produced greater destructive power than almost anything else below the wall of battle, but they'd never been intended to take on superdreadnought armor. They could inflict a lot of superficial damage, possibly even cripple the heavier ship's sensor suites or rip up the vulnerable nodes of its impeller rings, but good as they were, they had far too little punch to actually stop a waller.

But the Mark 23 was a very different proposition, he thought grimly. His control links were still too badly damaged to manage more than a few dozen pods simultaneously. Certainly he couldn't come close to matching the multi-thousand-missile salvos the Manticoran Alliance and the Republic of Haven had become accustomed to throwing at one another! But he could still fire almost four hundred attack birds in a single launch, and if those were Solly dreadnoughts or superdreadnoughts, they were in for an extraordinarily unpleasant surprise when three badly mauled cruisers and a single destroyer opened fire on them with that many capital missiles from well outside their own engagement range.

And what if they are? that corner of his mind jeered. Even if you destroy all five of them outright, so what? Great! You'll begin the war with the Sollies with a resounding triumph. That should be plenty of comfort when two or three thousand ships of the wall head for Manticore with blood in their eyes!

At least he'd have four or five hours before he had to start making any irrevocable decisions. Not that—

"Sir, we're being hailed!" Nagchaudhuri said suddenly, spinning his chair to face his captain. "It's FTL, Sir!"

Terekhov twitched upright in his own chair. If the unknowns were transmitting using FTL grav-pulses, then they damned well weren't Sollies! In fact, if they were transmitting FTL, the only people they could be were—

"Put it on my display," he said.

"Yes, Sir!" Nagchaudhuri said with a huge grin, and punched in a command.

A face appeared on the small com display by Terekhov's knee. It was a dark-complexioned face, with a strong nose and chin and thinning hair, and Terekhov's eyes widened in surprise as he saw it.

"This is Admiral Khumalo," the owner of that face said. "I am approaching Monica with a relief force. If Captain Terekhov is available, I need to speak to him immediately."

"Available," Terekhov thought with a sort of lunatic glee as the first outriders of almost unimaginable relief crashed through him. Now, there's a word choice for you! He probably thinks it would have been bad for morale to say "if he's still alive," instead.

"Put me through, Amal," he said.

"Aye, aye, Sir." Nagchaudhuri punched in another command. "Live mike, Sir."

"Terekhov here, Admiral Khumalo," Terekhov said into his com pickup. "It's good to see you, Sir."

Their relative positions put Hexapuma and Khumalo's flagship the better part of thirty light-minutes apart, and even with a grav-pulse com, that imposed a transmission delay of over twenty-seven seconds. Terekhov waited patiently for fifty-four seconds, and then Khumalo's eyes sharpened.

"I don't doubt that it is, Captain," he said. "May I assume there's a reason your ships are sitting where they are?"

"Yes, Sir, there is. We found it necessary to remain close enough to Eroica Station to keep an eye on the evidence and, ah, present President Tyler with an argument sufficient to prevent any hastiness on the part of his surviving navy."

" 'Surviving navy'?" Khumalo repeated the better part of a minute later. "It would appear you've been quite busy out here, Captain Terekhov." His smile was decidedly on the wintry side.

Terekhov thought about replying, then thought better of it and simply sat there, waiting.

"May I assume you've already written up your reports on this . . . incident?" Khumalo asked after several more moments.

"Yes, Sir. I have."

"Good. Let me have them now then, if you would. I should have ample time to review them, since my astrogator makes it roughly seven and a half hours for us to reach your current position. At that time, please be prepared to come aboard Hercules."

"Of course, Sir."

"In that case, Captain, I'll see you then, when we don't have to worry about transmission lag. Khumalo, clear."

Seven hours and forty-five minutes later, Aivars Terekhov's pinnace drifted out of Hexapuma's boat bay on reaction thrusters, rolled on gyros, reoriented itself, and accelerated smoothly towards HMS Hercules. The trip was short enough that there was no point bringing up the small craft's impeller wedge, and Terekhov sat back in his comfortable seat, watching the view screen on the forward bulkhead as the superdreadnought grew steadily larger.

Khumalo must have pulled out of the Spindle System literally within hours of the arrival of Terekhov's dispatch informing him of his plans. In fact, Terekhov was frankly astonished that the rear admiral had obviously responded so promptly and decisively. It was clear he hadn't waited to call in a single additional ship; he must have simply ordered every hyper-capable hull in the star system to rendezvous with his flagship and headed straight for Monica.

His scratch-built force was even more lopsided and ill-balanced than Terekhov's "squadron" had been. Aside from Hercules—which, for all her impressively massive tonnage was still one of the only two or three sadly obsolescent Samothrace-class ships lingering on in commission as little more than depot ships on distant stations—it consisted solely of the light cruisers Devastation and Intrepid, and the three destroyers Victorious, Ironside, and Domino. Aside from Victorious, not a one of them was less than twenty T-years old, although that still made them considerably more modern and lethal than anything Monica had possessed before the sudden and mysterious infusion of modern battlecruisers.

The other four "superdreadnought-range" hyper footprints had belonged to the ammunition ships Petard and Holocaust and the repair ships Ericsson and White. Terekhov was relieved to see all of them, but especially the two repair ships, given the state of his own command.

Not that it's likely to be "my command" much longer, he reflected as the pinnace sped towards Hercules.

All of his reports had been burst-transmitted to Hercules within minutes of his conversation with Khumalo, but so far, the rear admiral hadn't said another word to him. Under the circumstances, Terekhov found that more than a bit ominous. There were several reasons Khumalo might have hastened off to Monica, and one of the ones that came most forcibly to mind, given the admiral's lack of combat experience and general "by The Book" attitude, was a desire to sit on Terekhov before he got the Star Kingdom into even worse trouble. In fact, Terekhov wouldn't blame him a bit if that was the reason he was here. Augustus Khumalo hadn't been assigned to the Talbott Cluster because of his brilliant combat record and demonstrated ability to think outside the box. The real reasons he'd been sent to Talbott by the High Ridge Government were his connections to the Conservative Party . . . and the fact that no one in High Ridge's cabinet had ever dreamed Talbott might turn into a critical flashpoint. They'd wanted a reliable administrator for a post of decidedly secondary importance, not a warrior, and that was precisely what Khumalo had given them.

And the truth was that Terekhov could see any number of perfectly good and valid reasons for Khumalo to repudiate Terekhov's own actions, and not just from the personal perspective of the admiral's career. Stopping whatever plot had been set in motion by the provider of those battlecruisers had been absolutely essential, but avoiding an open conflict with the Solarian League was equally vital. That was the entire reason Terekhov had set himself up to be publicly disavowed by the Star Kingdom as a sacrifice to placate the Solarians. If Khumalo was as politically aware as Terekhov suspected he was, then the admiral would no doubt recognize the advantages in disavowing him immediately. Khumalo could always stay exactly where he was, maintaining the status quo in Monica until the more powerful relief force which had undoubtedly been dispatched directly from Manticore arrived, on the grounds that the situation, while not of his own or the Star Kingdom's official making, still had to be stabilized until an impartial investigation could get to the bottom of what had really happened. If it should happen that the Queen and the Grantville Government chose not to disavow Terekhov after all of the reports were in, there would always be time for Khumalo's repudiation to be withdrawn.

And besides all of those perfectly good and logical reasons of state, Terekhov thought with a sour grin, on a personal level, he's got to be totally and completely pissed off with me for putting him in this situation in the first place, no matter how good my reasons turn out to've been! I know I'd be royally pissed at me if I were him, anyway.

He glanced at the time display ticking steadily down in one corner of the visual display and shrugged mentally. Another eighteen minutes, and he'd have the chance to observe Rear Admiral Augustus Khumalo's reaction firsthand.

It promised to be an interesting experience.

HMS Hercules' forward boat bay was considerably larger than Hexapuma's, and it seemed oddly quiet as Terekhov swam the personnel tube from his pinnace, then swung himself into the boat bay's regulation one standard gravity.

"Hexapuma, arriving!" the bay speakers intoned, and the side party came to attention as Terekhov landed just outside the painted line on the deck.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" he asked the boat bay officer of the deck.

"Permission granted, Sir," the youthful lieutenant in question replied, returning his salute, then stepped back to clear the way for Captain Victoria Saunders, Hercules's commanding officer.

"Captain," Terekhov said, saluting her in turn.

"Welcome aboard, Captain Terekhov," Saunders replied, returning the courtesy. The auburn-haired captain was a good fifteen T-years older than Terekhov, and her expression gave very little indication of her emotions. Her crisp, Sphinxian accent might have been just a bit more taut than usual, but her handshake, when she offered it a moment later, was firm.

"Thank you, Ma'am." Terekhov was unusually aware of the white beret which marked Saunders as the commander of a hyper-capable unit of the Royal Manticoran Navy. His own matching beret was tucked neatly under one of his epaulets, since courtesy precluded his wearing it aboard another captain's command, and he wondered if he was so aware of Saunders' because the odds were so good that he himself would never again be permitted to wear it.

"If you'll come with me, Captain," Saunders continued, "Admiral Khumalo is waiting for you in his day cabin."

"Of course, Ma'am."

Terekhov fell in beside Saunders as Hercules' captain escorted him to the lifts. Saunders made no particular effort to make small talk, for which Terekhov was grateful. There was no point pretending this was a normal courtesy call by one captain upon another, and trying to would only have twisted his own nerves more tightly.

It was odd, he reflected, as he followed Saunders into the lift car and she punched in the proper destination code. He'd thought about this moment literally for months—now it was here, and his stomach muscles were tense and he seemed preternaturally aware of every air current, every tiny scratch on the lift car's control panel. The fact that Khumalo had arrived before any Solarian response was an unspeakable relief, and he was guiltily aware that the knowledge that Khumalo's seniority would make whatever happened from here out his responsibility was an almost equal relief. But Khumalo's arrival also meant Terekhov's personal day of reckoning was at hand. He felt the consequences of his own actions race towards him, and he was far too honest with himself to pretend they didn't frighten him in a way facing the Monican Navy hadn't. This fear lacked the sharp, jagged spikes and raw terror of facing the enemy's fire, but in many ways, that only made it worse. At least in combat there was the illusion that his fate hung upon his own decisions, his own actions. In this case, that fate now hung upon the decisions and actions of others, and nothing he could possibly do at this point would affect those decisions one way or the other.

And yet despite the fear, he felt . . . content. That was what was so odd about it. It wasn't that he felt happy, or that he would have no regrets if it turned out his naval career was, in fact, over. It was simply that he knew, with a certainty which admitted of no doubts at all, that the decisions he'd made and the actions he'd taken were the only ones he could have taken and still been the man Sinead Terekhov loved.

And beside that, he realized, all of the other consequences in the universe were secondary.

The lift car delivered them to their destination, and Terekhov followed Saunders down a passage to the cabin door guarded by the traditional Marine sentry.

"Captain Saunders and Captain Terekhov to see the admiral," Saunders told the Marine.

"Yes, Ma'am. Thank you, Ma'am," the Marine corporal replied, as if he hadn't already known perfectly well who the two naval officers were. He reached down and keyed the bulkhead intercom switch. "Captain Saunders and Captain Terekhov to see the admiral," he announced.

The door slid open immediately, and Captain Loretta Shoupe, Augustus Khumalo's chief of staff, looked out at them.

"Come in," she invited, standing back to clear the way, and then led them across a truly stupendous dining cabin into the only moderately smaller day cabin where Khumalo awaited them.

The admiral remained seated behind his desk as the trio of captains entered.

"Find seats," he said before any formal military courtesies could be exchanged, and Terekhov and the two women settled into three of the day cabin's comfortable chairs.

Khumalo tipped back in his own chair, gazing at Terekhov with a thoughtful expression while several seconds trickled past. Then he shook his head slowly.

"What am I supposed to do with you, Captain Terekhov?" he said finally, still shaking his head. Terekhov started to open his mouth, but Khumalo waved one hand before he could speak.

"That was in the nature of a rhetorical question, Captain," he said. "It does, however, rather neatly sum up my current dilemma, doesn't it? I doubt even someone with your own obviously extraordinarily active imagination is truly up to visualizing the reactions of myself and Baroness Medusa when Ericsson delivered your, ah, missive to us. Mr. O'Shaughnessy, in particular, seemed quite . . . perturbed by your conclusions and projected course of action."

Gregor O'Shaughnessy, Baroness Medusa's senior civilian intelligence analyst, was not one of the military's most uncritical admirers, Terekhov knew.

"Frankly, despite any past differences of opinion with Mr. O'Shaughnessy, I found it just a bit difficult not to sympathize with his reaction," Khumalo continued. "Let's see now. First, there was that little act of piracy in the Montana System when you stole Copenhagen—from no less than Heinrich Kalokainos—to use as your forward scout here in Monica. Kalokainos has never been particularly fond of the Star Kingdom, and he has quite a few Solarian assemblymen and, even more importantly, Frontier Security bureaucrats in his hip pocket, as I'm sure I don't have to tell an officer with your own Foreign Service background. Then there was the way you induced President Suttles to incarcerate Copenhagen's entire crew so you could steal their ship. Somehow, I don't think Frontier Security will be exactly enthralled with his actions when news of this little escapade gets back to Commissioner Verrochio, which could still have unfortunate consequences for Montana.

"And let's not forget the fashion in which you completely demolished my own deployment plans by appropriating control of every unit of the Southern Patrol which was supposed to be covering the Cluster's entire flank. Or the fact that you deliberately chose to inform me—who, if memory serves, is your superior officer, nominally, at least—of your plans in a manner which would completely preclude any attempt on my part to countermand your intentions.

"Which brings me to the consequences of those intentions."

He smiled thinly.

"According to your report, you've destroyed an even dozen Solarian-built battlecruisers in the service of a Solarian client state without benefit of any orders to do so or of any formal declaration of hostilities between the Star Kingdom and the client state in question. In the course of accomplishing that destruction, you've also killed several thousand Monican military personnel and an as yet undetermined—but undoubtedly very large—number of Solarian and Monican shipyard techs, many of whom were undoubtedly civilians. You've lost six of Her Majesty's warships, along with sixty-odd percent of their ship's' companies, and suffered crippling damage to the only four survivors of your original force. And, according to both your own report and the rather vociferous complaints I've already received from President Tyler, not content with all of that, you've used the threat of destroying the civilian components of Eroica Station—and, just incidentally, killing all of the civilians aboard those components—to hold the surviving Monican Navy at bay and prevent the removal of any personnel or possibly incriminating evidence from the two remaining battlecruisers."

He rocked his chair gently from side to side, contemplating Terekhov for several more seconds, then raised one eyebrow.

"Would that seem to you to constitute a reasonably accurate summation of your energetic activities over the last two or three T-months, Captain?"

"Yes, Sir," Terekhov heard his own voice reply with unreasonable steadiness.

"And would you care to offer any . . . explanations or justifications for those actions, other than those contained in your reports?"

"No, Sir," Terekhov said, meeting the admiral's eyes levelly.


Khumalo studied his face without speaking for perhaps ten seconds, then shrugged.

"I can't say I'm incredibly surprised to hear that, Captain," he said. "Under the circumstances, however, I thought you might care to be present when I record my official response to President Tyler's demands that I immediately disavow your actions, relieve you of command, place you under arrest pending a well-deserved court-martial, apologize to the sovereign Union of Monica, and agree to submit this entire matter to the 'impartial' investigation and arbitration of the Office of Frontier Security."

Terekhov wondered if the admiral actually expected a response. Under the circumstances, making one didn't strike Terekhov as the wisest possible course of action, even if he did.

Khumalo produced another of those thin smiles at Terekhov's silence, then tapped a key at his workstation.

"Communications," a voice said. "Lieutenant Masters."

"This is the admiral, Lieutenant. I need to record a message to President Roberto Tyler."

"Yes, Sir. Just a moment." There was a brief pause, then Masters spoke again. "Live mike, Admiral. Go ahead."

"President Tyler," Khumalo said, looking into the com pickup at his terminal, "I apologize for not getting back to you more promptly. As you know, the current one-way transmission lag to Eroica Station is well over forty minutes. Given that inevitable delay in our communications loop, I judged it would be wiser to speak directly to Captain Terekhov and hear his version of the unfortunate events here in Monica in person before speaking to you again."

Hear my version of events, is it? Terekhov thought with a mental snort.

"Obviously, I am deeply distressed by the loss of life, both Monican and Manticoran," Khumalo continued gravely. "The destruction of so many ships, and so much damage to the public property of the Union, are also deeply distressing to me. And I must inform you that Captain Terekhov, by his own admission to me in his formal reports, acknowledges that his actions were completely unauthorized by any higher authority."

The rear admiral shook his head, his expression solemn.

"I have carefully considered your requests that I disavow his actions, remove him from his command, formally apologize to your government for his actions, and agree to submit this entire tragic affair to the investigation and arbitration of the Office of Frontier Security. And I am certain my Queen could desire very few things more than a speedy, just, and fair resolution to all of the myriad questions, accusations, and claims and counter-claims arising from events here in Monica."

Khumalo's eyes glanced sideways at Terekhov's masklike, impassive features, then went back to the pickup.

"Unfortunately, Mr. President," he said, "while all of that is true, I am also of the opinion that what my Queen would even more strongly desire is for you and your government to explain to her why you have been directly assisting efforts to recruit, support, encourage, and arm terrorist organizations engaged in active campaigns of assassination, murder, and destruction against the citizens of other sovereign star nations who have requested membership in the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I am further of the opinion that she would argue that my first responsibility is to protect those citizens from future attack and determine precisely who supplied those responsible for the attacks already carried out with the several tons of modern Solarian weapons Captain Terekhov confiscated in the Split System. Moreover, I fear Her Majesty is unlikely to repose the most lively possible confidence in the impartiality of any investigation by the Solarian League's Office of Frontier Security, and that she would be most displeased if the two surviving battlecruisers obviously provided to you by Solarian interests should mysteriously disappear before that investigation could be completed to everyone's satisfaction."

Terekhov felt his jaw trying to drop and restrained it firmly.

"Obviously, at this great distance from Manticore, I cannot know for certain what Her Majesty will ultimately decide when she considers these weighty matters," Khumalo continued. "It is my judgment, however, as the senior officer present of the Queen's Navy, that until I do know what her decision is, it is my duty and responsibility to maintain the status quo in this star system pending the arrival of the substantial reinforcements I have requested from Home Fleet, which will undoubtedly arrive with dispatches directly from Manticore. At that time, should my Queen instruct me to comply with your requests, I will, of course, be only too happy to do so. Until that time, however, I must unreservedly endorse Captain Terekhov's actions and inform you that I concur entirely in his conclusions and have every intention of continuing the policy and the military stance he has adopted since the unfortunate engagement with your naval units.

"It is my earnest hope that this entire situation can be resolved as amicably as possible, between the diplomatic representatives of two civilized star nations, with no further loss of life or damage to property, public or private. If, however, you should choose—as is your undoubted right—to use the military force remaining under your command against any unit of the Royal Manticoran Navy, or should I have any reason to believe you are taking steps to destroy, conceal, or remove evidence from Eroica Station, I will not hesitate to act precisely as Captain Terekhov has already informed you he would act."

Augustus Khumalo gazed directly into the pickup, and his deep voice was very level.

"The decision, Mr. President, is up to you. I trust you will choose wisely."

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