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 two months might not have been as bad as that nightmare experience, but they — and especially the last six and a half weeks of them — 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 with a grin. 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 tomorrow or the next day."

            "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 substituted for him in outstanding fashion — a point Terekhov had emphasized in the post-battle reports he'd already written — 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! Even with quick-heal, it had taken him the better part of a T-month and a half to get back on his feet, but at that, he was luckier than Naomi Kaplan, Hexapuma's tactical officer, who was still conscious only intermittently while the quick-heal worked on her battered body.

            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 is officially ambulatory again today," Lewis continued, "and he insists he's ready to resume his duties." 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. I do have a few qualms about handing the job back to him, though. Lieutenant Sarkozy's let him out of sickbay, but I think that was partly because she needed the bed. And 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 which had 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. He'd been insisting Sarkozy release him from sickbay for the last two weeks, despite the fact that he'd remained far from fit for duty.