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 ouriders 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 capacity to think outside the box. The real reason 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! 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 visiual 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.