At long last, the Sixth Fleet ships had been sent off to join Kwan’s forces in Operation Golden Return. Personally, Admiral Cooper thought the whole thing should not have been named Operation Golden Return, because that was the underlying motivation of going back to Gotha Mu in the first place. StarCen should have tried to obfuscate the ultimate purpose, somehow. This name advertised their reasoning to the whole galaxy.

War was expensive. Besides the personnel, there were more ships to build and repair, more robots and androids and high tech resources needed, operations to fund, support people to find and feed, and the list went on and on and on.

Who knew that a minor colony like Seychar would have a dwarf planet loaded with gold ore? The fact that the Republic won the day at the start of this conflict had rankled Tetrarch Thrall. This Cooper knew beyond doubt. It was not just that they won, they won by the hair of their teeth. The fact the Republic had a single, solitary ship left when the dust settled was salt in the old man’s wounds.

Now the League would be returning in force with over 90 ships to claim the prize. Even after three years of mining, spies confirmed there was a veritable fortune in gold ore left on Gotha Mu. Entire square kilometers of rock with large streaks of gold were all over and under the surface.

The League was coming back, and claiming it all. Tetrarch Thrall would be reasserting the League’s dominance in the galaxy. And then . . .

And then they would make their final thrusts toward Diego and hopefully end this war once and for all.

Cooper had no idea how the defeated Republic would be brought to heel, from a governance standpoint. Perhaps the Tetrarchs would divide their territory, and form new tetrarchies or fold them into the existing ones. Perhaps the Republic would become a series of colonies under League control.

He pondered which scenario would be the easiest under existing power structures, and which one would be more preferable in the long term.

Ah well, he thought. Plenty of time to decide power structures later.

He stood and stretched, working the kinks out of his body. He glanced at the clock in his mind’s eye and realized he had been at the office over 14 hours. Again.

He walked around the desk into the open part of his office and said, “Port me home, StarCen.”

He popped into existence in the courtyard of his mountain chalet, several kilometers outside the city. One of the maids had evidently been keeping an eye out for him. She ran forward to greet him, all smiles.

Cooper smiled back. This young woman was rather attractive, he thought, dressed in a traditional black and white outfit. But he wondered how much in salary and food the human staff cost his office. He had surrounded himself with Naval staff, but at this chalet if he dismissed the civilians they would have nothing. So, reluctantly, he reversed his earlier decision and let them stay in place. They certainly seemed grateful. This young maid, for instance, seemed very eager to please.

In all his time with war preparations, he had not yet focused much on the civilian side of governing. He would have to get serious about it, and go in depth on the budget for the entire quadrant. How were the finances on Juventas and the other three planets? He had no idea, but he resolved to find out.

Together, he and the maid walked back toward the entrance of the chalet. They heard a whistling sound coming from high above. Both looked up and over their shoulders.

The blood drained from Cooper’s face as he recognized the sound of an incoming shell.


He pushed the maid roughly forward and they both rushed for the door. It swished open and they scambled inside just as a mortar exploded in the courtyard.


Cooper found himself lying on the floor, the maid tangled up with him. They held on to one another tightly and he could hear her heart pounding. Or was that his?

He stood and reached down to help her up. Staff from elsewhere in the chalet came running.

The butler ran up with a worried look.

“What happened? Admiral, are you alright?”

“We’re fine. Terrorists happened. Somebody lobbed a shell just as I ported in. StarCen, identify those responsible. Give us a location and send a strike team out.”

“Affirmative, Tetrarch Cooper. A lone individual is one mountaintop over. An SSI team is on its way.”

“Good,” Cooper muttered.

SSI was in charge of security for the chalet, a holdover from Lopez like the human staff. That, he decided, would have to change. He would order a Marine detail to take over security in the morning.


Eighteen-year-old Dillon Dvorak pulled his electronic scope down and frowned. He had misjudged the mortar’s timing, evidently. He did not see any bodies lying on the ground, only a crater in the chalet’s courtyard.

Oh well. Maybe he could still score some kills today. He smiled in satisfaction as the gunship took off from the SSI security bunker at the base of the distant mountain. They would be coming for him. He grabbed the portable mortar launcher, threw his scope in a backpack and ran down the trail leading off the mountain.

Brown hair, brown eyes, and a wiry build, Dillon traced his ancestry to the Czech Republic. He stood six feet, or 183 centimeters, and his long legs raced downhill, rapidly gaining distance.

The gunship shot across the valley toward him. He did not have much time.

Thoop! Thoop!

The first green blaster bolts sailed over his head. The gunship was still too far away for accuracy. Dillon ducked and zigged to the left.

“Almost there!”

The crevasse he had picked out ahead of time grew closer. He ran full tilt, ducking as another bolt sailed over him.


He jumped downhill across the last meter to the crevasse, roughly hitting the side of the narrow cleft in the ground. He tumbled down two more meters to the bottom, scuffed but not seriously injured. He looked up and watched more green bolts fly overhead.

Inside the crevasse, he backed up into a shallow alcove near the floor.

“Not quite a cave,” he said to himself, “but good enough!”

The gunship arrived on scene, hovering above the crevasse. Half a meter wide, and two meters deep, it offered no view from above of Dillon hiding in the alcove. The pilot maneuvered over it, tilting down so his front blasters could tear apart any sign of life. But he could not find any on scanners or visually.

The gunship rose vertically and backed away. It settled down on a flat outcrop of rock uphill and five SSI agents jumped out, dressed in black combat fatigues with rifles at the ready.

They spread out and headed down toward the crevasse.

Dillon exited the alcove and set the mortar down on the ground, pointed up at the clear sky at a pre-arranged setting. He stepped back, covered his ears and mentally activated the switch.


A missile shot out, arcing almost straight up. The SSI team members craned their necks to follow the rocket trail . . .


The mortar landed in the middle of the team. Bodies flew in all directions.

“Idiots,” Dillon said, hearing their death cries.

He made a couple of mental adjustments over the neural network, recalling where the flat spot of ground was that the gunship was most likely to land. He then quickly sent another mortar up.


The pilot aboard the gunship had an idea this one was aimed at him. He pulled back on the stick and the vessel levitated into the air . . . too late.


The gunship spiraled down quickly to the ground and burst apart.

Dillon shimmied up and out of the crevasse, the mortar tucked away once more into his backpack.

He poked his head up at ground level and smiled at the carnage nearby.

“Success! Oh, man, what a success.”

He jogged uphill toward the bodies and quickly grabbed blasters, ignoring everything else. Four looked serviceable, but the fifth gun had been badly damaged in the explosion.

He passed on examining the gunship’s wreckage.

“Don’t get greedy, Dillon.”

He turned and started running downhill again.

“Now for the hard part. Really getting away this time.”

StarCen would be monitoring the area closely now with all the explosions. He needed to put distance between himself and the scene of the crime.

“At least running downhill’s easy.”


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