"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' 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 Association, 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 Monican 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. 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 Myers, 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 out in the back of beyond, 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 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 sausage machine 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."