"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 off hand."

            "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 quite yet, 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 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. 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 –"