Whatever else had happened in the last eight months, she reflected, Augustus Khumalo appeared to have found his niche. All of the reports from the Quadrant had emphasized how the general Talbotter opinion of Khumalo had changed in the wake of the Battle of Monica. As far as Michelle could tell, most Talbotters appeared to believe that the only reason Khumalo and Terekhov didn't routinely walk across swimming pools was because they didn't like wet shoes. To give him credit, Khumalo's aura of confidence and assurance didn't seem to owe itself to a head swelled by popular adulation, however. In fact, it appeared to Michelle that what had actually happened was that his own performance had surprised him as much as it had surprised so many other people. And, in the process, he'd grown into the full dimension of his responsibilities.

            Which could, of course, just be my own way of pretending that he had to grow into them instead of just admitting that we’d all underestimated his abilities from the beginning.

            "At the moment, Sir," she continued out loud, "my gravest concern is the readiness state of my units. The shipyards back home are pushing so hard, that –"

            "There's no need to explain, Milady," Khumalo interrupted. "I've been kept updated. I know they rushed all of your battlecruisers out of the yard, and I also know what short notice you received when they handed you this particular hot potato. I'm not at all surprised if you have readiness problems, and we'll try to give you as much time as we can to deal with them. And, of course, all of the assistance we can. Speaking of which, is there anything we can do to help with your current problems?"

            "At this point, I genuinely don't think so," Michelle said. "We deployed with almost eighty of Hephaestus' yard dogs on board, and over the last couple of weeks they've dealt with most of our hardware problems. We do have a couple of minor faults we haven't been able to deal with out of shipboard resources, but I'm confident your repair ships can set all of them right fairly quickly and easily. What no one else can do for us, though, is to bring our people's cohesiveness and training up to Fleet standards."

            "How bad is it?" There was no impatience or condemnation in Khumalo's question, only understanding, and Michelle felt herself warming further towards him.

            "Honestly, it's not good, Sir," she said frankly. "And it's not my captains' fault, either. We simply haven't had time to deal with the problems that normally get handled in a routine working-up period. We've got a few weak spots among our officers — more than I'd like, really, if I'm going to be honest — thanks to the manning pressures Admiral Cortez has to deal with. And some of our ratings are a lot greener than I'd really like. On the other hand, I've just come from a tour with Eighth Fleet, and that's probably enough to give me a jaundiced view of just about anybody else's training and experience. I don't think we have any problems that can't be set right by a few more weeks — a T-month, if I can get it — of good, hard drill. Well, that and, possibly, a little judicious personnel reassignment."

            "A month we can probably give you," Khumalo said, glancing at Shoupe as he spoke. "I'm not sure how much more than that's going to be possible, though. Both Admiral Blaine and Admiral O'Malley are under pressure to get their commands concentrated at the Lynx Terminus as soon as possible, for reasons I'm sure you understand at least as well as I do. That puts us under pressure of our own to get O'Malley relieved down on the 'southern frontier.' At the moment, he's still at Monica, but we've redeployed a support squadron to Tillerman. That's close enough to Monica — and to Myers — to keep an eye on the Sollies without staying any more obviously in their faces then we have to. So as soon as our damaged units at Monica have managed to complete enough repairs to get underway for home — which will probably take another six to eight T-weeks — and Ambassador Corvisart completes the . . .  treaty negotiations, we'll be withdrawing our forces as far as Tillerman."

            "I'm confident of the month, Sir," Captain Shoupe said, answering his unasked question. "And I think we can probably squeeze out at least a few more weeks. As you say, it's going to be at least another month or two before Admiral O'Malley is going to be able to withdraw from Monica, anyway."

            "Should we think about deploying my squadron — or some of it, at least — forward to Monica to support O'Malley, Sir?" Michelle asked.

            "As a show of force for the Sollies, you mean?" Khumalo raised an eyebrow, and Michelle nodded. "I don't think that's really imperative at this point, Milady," he said then. "Frankly, if two squadrons of modern battlecruisers aren't enough to deter Solarian thoughts of aggression, then I don't see how three squadrons would have that effect. Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible that a dozen squadrons — of anything less than wallers, at least — would deter some of the idiots we’ve seen out here. Even Sollies ought to be beginning to figure out that they don't want to tangle with Her Majesty's Navy on anything like even terms, but I'd be disinclined to risk any money betting on that possibility." He grimaced. "You'd think what Terekhov did at Monica would begin hammering at least a little sense into their brains, but I've come to the conclusion that their skulls are better armored than their wallers are."

            His expression was profoundly disgusted looking, and Captain Shoupe looked, if possible, even more disgusted than he was.