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 run 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 to be critical of 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."