Admiral Cooper strode down the opulent hallway of the Juventas Administration Building, followed by a phalanx of senior officers. He stood five foot ten, or 178 centimeters, with dark hair featuring wings of silver above the ears. He was 55 standard years old.

The silver in his hair did not appear until the war started, and most of the press in the League only had holograms taken from before. They were standard issue images from the Navy, publicly available for the news. When someone met him who only knew about him through the media, they often expressed surprise at how much older he looked from his pictures.

He aged faster because he took each loss personally. And Cooper had lost more ships, sailors, Marines, officers, and bots than he ever cared to remember. Despite the constant positive spin in the news, the war was not going well. Yes, they had bled the Republic considerably. But the Republic had given at least as much as she had taken.

Now he fretted as he walked down the corridor, followed by his staff. This move by Thrall to take over Lopez’s quadrant concerned him. He and his people were playing the enforcer role, and he did not like it.

It was widely known in the Admiralty that Maria Lopez was no fan of the war. Heck, he thought, who was a fan of the war? But Lopez had always been the most vocal in her pronouncements against it.

Thrall, of course, considered her talk merely foolish at best. Now, evidently, he considered it treasonous. Cooper had feared this outcome two months ago when Thrall ordered him to bring the Sixth Fleet to Juventas and maintain his Marines in orbit.

Cooper feared the outcome, but he prepared for it. The men and women and bots under his command were kept in a state of preparation, despite days and weeks of nothing happening.

And now this, the order he had hoped would never come: Take over Juventas.

In private moments with his Captains and Marine General Santos he confided that each time the General Assembly met, he worried Lopez might take it too far. Sure enough, that idiot must have said something stupid in the last meeting. No sooner had it concluded than Thrall gave the order to take over Juventas and arrest her for treason.

His people were ready. The Marines in particular had no problems in grabbing control of the planet. They received almost no resistance. After all, everybody was on the same side here. The people in this quadrant were coming under new leadership, that’s all.

Of course, he was that new leadership. In effect, he was the newest Tetrarch, although nothing was officially announced.

In reality, although this was not something he had shared with General Santos or anyone on his command staff, Cooper felt he was just an extension of Thrall’s will. He would not be doing anything Thrall did not tell him to do. Thrall controlled the Navy, after all, and Cooper was an Admiral who reported to Thrall. Chain of command. Thrall now essentially controlled half the primary planets in the League.

That rubbed Cooper the wrong way, if he stopped to think about it. But Thrall was his boss. If he did not toe the line, so to speak, Thrall would simply have him replaced with a different Admiral. One who would do what Thrall wanted. And there were plenty in the pipeline below Cooper who would be happy for the chance to rise in rank and gain favor with the Tetrarch.

So for now, he thought to himself, to use a sports metaphor . . . if Cooper wanted to play in the game, he had to keep quiet and follow the coach’s orders.

All of these thoughts raced through his mind as they approached the private elevator at last. A Commander stood waiting, clearly anxious. Cooper racked his brain trying to remember the officer’s name. Barton?

The man saluted when the party arrived at the elevator.

“Commander Barton, sir. I’m afraid the elevator cannot accommodate everybody, Admiral.”

“No problem,” Cooper said. “Take me down. Everyone else can wait here.”

The officers all nodded and the tightly clustered group spread out a bit. Cooper followed Barton into the elevator as he waved at the controls. The door closed and they started going down.

“It’s a completely separate system down here, sir. StarCen has no control whatsoever. Our technical engineers were able to poke around, though.”

“Very good. Do we have any holos or audio from what happened?”

Barton shook his head. He said, “I’m sorry, sir. The bunker had no recording apparatus of any kind. All we have are what StarCen captured out in the hall. We can see Lopez and her aide go in this elevator. Some minutes later, the aide comes out, alone.”

The door opened, and the smell of blood assaulted the Admiral’s nose.

MPs stood in place, one next to each body. They stared ahead, stoically. A man and a woman in blue uniforms with “NCIS” in holographic letters on their breasts walked up.

The man appeared to be about 30. He had dark brown hair cut short, military style. He said, “Admiral, I’m Judd Stallings. This is my partner, Patricia Marr-Zhou. We’re in charge of the investigation at the moment.”

“What do you have for me, Stallings?”

By tradition, Cooper knew, members of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were civilians. Thus, they would not be saluting him. They were usually former Naval officers or noncoms, though, and were intimately familiar with how the Navy operates. But it would not do for an Investigator to be in the Naval hierarchy and arrest a superior officer. Thus, all NCIS agents were civilians. Nominally, at least, no one was outside their arresting authority. Not even Admirals.

Stallings said, “We have a holorecord of the Tetrarch and her aide entering the elevator after a conversation with Terry Arthur. A few minutes later, the aide leaves. An hour passes before the next person comes in, one of the guards’ supervisors. He finds the bodies and immediately sounds the alarm.”

“DNA? Fibers? Fingerprints?”

“Just of those four individuals in this room, Admiral.”

“So. Have you picked up the aide for questioning?”

“There’s an APB out on her as we speak,” Zhou said. “Local SWAT is about to take her apartment.”

She, like her partner, looked to be in her early 30s. She was of Chinese descent, with dark hair and brown skin.

“But there’s our first problem,” she said.

Cooper raised a questioning eyebrow and waited for the pair to continue.

Stallings said, “StarCen can’t find her. We doubt she’s in the apartment.”

Cooper raised his other eyebrow. He said, “What do you mean, ‘Can’t find her?’ Is she dead?”

“Not that we can tell, sir,” Zhou said. “It’s like she never existed. StarCen can’t even tell us where she’s been or anything about her background or . . . anything.”

“Somebody had to have known something,” Cooper said. “You don’t get to be in the Tetrarch’s inner circle without anyone noticing.”

Stallings said, “We’re doing some old-fashioned footwork, sir. It seems she was married to a cop on the Capital City Police Force, a guy named Biffender Jones. We are interrogating him now.”

“Good. Well, find her. Although, I have to say, it looks like she may have done us a huge favor. The briefing said something about a nuclear control center down here.”

Zhou nodded. She said, “That’s right. Lopez had access to a command structure outside of StarCen’s control. Our techies noticed the last coordinates for their land-based silos had missiles aimed toward Yorkton.”

Cooper shook his head in amazement, and locked eyes with Barton, who stared back with an equally amazed look on his face.

“Well,” Cooper said, “after you find this Jones woman and arrest her, I’d like to shake her hand.”


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