He rocked his chair gently from side to side, contemplating Terekhov for several more seconds, then raised one eyebrow.

            "Would that seem to you to constitute a reasonably accurate summation of your energetic activities over the last three T-months, Captain?"

            "Yes, Sir," Terekhov heard his own voice reply with unreasonable steadiness.

            "And would you care to offer any . . . explanations or justifications for those actions, other than those contained in your reports?"

            "No, Sir," Terekhov said, meeting the admiral's eyes levelly.


            Khumalo studied his face without speaking for perhaps ten seconds, then shrugged.

            "I can't say I'm incredibly surprised to hear that, Captain," he said. "Under the circumstances, however, I thought you might care to be present when I record my official response to President Tyler's demands that I immediately disavow your actions, relieve you of command, place you under arrest pending a well-deserved court-martial, apologize to the sovereign Union of Monica, and agree to submit this entire matter to the 'impartial' investigation and arbitration of the Office of Frontier Security."

            Terekhov wondered if the admiral actually expected a response. Under the circumstances, making one didn't strike Terekhov as the wisest possible course of action, even if he did.

            Khumalo produced another of those thin smiles at Terekhov's silence, then tapped a key at his workstation.

            "Communications," a voice said. "Lieutenant Masters."

            "This is the Admiral, Lieutenant. I need to record a message to President Roberto Tyler."

            "Yes, Sir. Just a moment." There was a brief pause, then Masters spoke again. "Live mike, Admiral. Go ahead."

            "President Tyler," Khumalo said, looking into the com pickup at his terminal, "I apologize for not getting back to you more promptly. As you know, the current one-way transmission lag to Eroica Station is well over forty minutes. Given that inevitable delay in our communications loop, I judged it would be wiser to speak directly to Captain Terekhov and hear his version of the unfortunate events here in Monica in person before speaking to you again."

            Hear my version of events, is it? Terekhov thought with a mental snort.

            "Obviously, I am deeply distressed by the loss of life, both Monican and Manticoran," Khumalo continued gravely. "The destruction of so many ships, and so much damage to the public property of the Union, are also deeply distressing to me. And I must inform you that Captain Terekhov, by his own admission to me in his formal reports, acknowledges that his actions were completely unauthorized by any higher authority."

            The rear admiral shook his head, his expression solemn.

            "I have carefully considered your requests that I disavow his actions, remove him from his command, formally apologize to your government for his actions, and agree to submit this entire tragic affair to the investigation and arbitration of the Office of Frontier Security. And I am certain my Queen could desire very few things more than a speedy, just, and fair resolution to all of the myriad questions, accusations, and claims and counter-claims arising from events here in Monica."

            Khumalo's eyes glanced sideways at Terekhov's masklike, impassive features, then went back to the pickup.

            "Unfortunately, Mr. President," he said, "while all of that is true, I am also of the opinion that what my Queen would even more strongly desire is for you and your government to explain to her why you have been directly assisting efforts to recruit, support, encourage, and arm terrorist organizations engaged in active campaigns of assassination, murder, and destruction against the citizens of other sovereign star nations who have requested membership in the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I am further of the opinion that she would argue that my first responsibility is to protect those citizens from future attack and determine precisely who supplied those responsible for the attacks already carried out with the several tons of modern Solarian weapons Captain Terekhov confiscated in the Split System. Morover, I fear Her Majesty is unlikely to repose the most lively possible confidence in the impartiality of any investigation by the Solarian League's Office of Frontier Security, and that she would be most displeased if the two surviving battlecruisers obviously provided to you by Solarian interests should mysteriously disappear before that investigation could be completed to everyone's satisfaction."

            Terekhov felt his jaw trying to drop and restrained it firmly.

            "Obviously, at this great distance from Manticore, I cannot know for certain what Her Majesty will ultimately decide when she considers these weighty matters," Khumalo continued. "It is my judgment, however, as the senior officer present of the Queen's Navy, that until I do know what her decision is, it is my duty and responsibility to maintain the status quo in this star system pending the arrival of the substantial reinforcements I have requested from Home Fleet, which will undoubtedly arrive with dispatches directly from Manticore. At that time, should my Queen instruct me to comply with your requests, I will, of course, be only too happy to do so. Until that time, however, I must unreservedly endorse Captain Terekhov's actions and inform you that I concur entirely in his conclusions and have every intention of continuing the policy and the military stance he has adopted since the unfortunate engagement with your naval units.

            "It is my earnest hope that this entire situation can be resolved as amicably as possile, between the diplomatic representatives of two civilized star nations, with no further loss of life or damage to property, public or private. If, however, you should choose — as is your undoubted right — to use the military force remaining under your command against any unit of the Royal Manticoran Navy, or should I have any reason to believe you are taking steps to destroy, conceal, or remove evidence from Eroica Station, I will not hesitate to act precisely as Captain Terekhov has already informed you he would act."

            Augustus Khumalo gazed directly into the pickup, and his deep voice was very level.

            "The decision, Mr. President, is up to you. I trust you will choose wisely."