Admiral Cooper belted out orders over the neural net. Too many things were happening at once. Half his fleet was leaving to join Kwan, along with the Marines aboard those ships. Supplies needed for the massive numbers of vessels had stripped Juventas’s warehouses clean. His Vice Admiral in charge of logistics was struggling to make sure supply chains remained operable. Somewhere on the other side of the continent, terrorists had destroyed key supply depots and several ground-based transportation chokepoints.
In the middle of all this, Vice Admiral Kennedy had been assassinated somehow. Cooper was still not clear on all the details. All he knew was a terrorist bomb got him while he was visiting an SSI facility.
The gray hair above his ears, the source of his nickname in the Navy, “Silver Wings,” was taking over a wider swath. Before long, if this pressure keeps up, the gray would claim all his hair, he thought.
And now he had to find time, in the middle of all these preparations for the opening salvo in what could be the decisive battle in the war, to speak with the civilian interim head of SSI.
He did not mean to snap, he thought. That probably sounded vicious.
Resolving to maintain a more moderate tone, he stood from his desk and offered a hand to the woman entering his office.
Vicki Fenner entered and he realized here was someone else with silver in their hair, despite her relatively youthful mid-30s. Fenner had a streak of silver right down the middle, reminiscent of an old horror film character or somebody dressing up for Halloween.
In fact, Cooper knew, many of his Marines called Fenner “the Witch of Clarion.” He could see now how she got that nickname.
“Director Fenner, how do you do. I apologize for not being able to see you before this. We’ve been busy with the war, as you may well imagine. My condolences on the loss of your boss.”
Fenner nodded in appreciation. She carried herself with authority, Cooper thought. She seemed very self-assured, unsurprisingly, since she was head of SSI for Juventas even if only as an interim director.
Fenner said, “Likewise the loss of your Vice Admiral. You’ll be happy to know we have taken reprisals against the Resistance for their deaths.”
The color in Cooper’s face drained a little. He did not want to know what SSI was doing to the local population. He could imagine it was . . . gruesome. And likely far out of proportion to the two or three lives lost in the blast. SSI’s head was taken out, after all. They would be out to teach a lesson to the Resistance, no doubt. And since when did the Resistance become so troublesome it started being capitalized in reports?
Enough small talk, Cooper decided. He said, “What can I do for you, Director Fenner?”
“Since Vice Admiral Kennedy’s assassination leaves us without a liaison with the Navy, I want to make sure that our civil obedience measures meet with your approval.”
“I am going to be unable to provide you with another liaison at the moment, if that’s what you are asking me. The Sixth Fleet is involved in matters of galaxy-wide importance. We are at a critical juncture in the war right now. SSI is normally in charge of population control. You have free reign to continue. I have far too much on my plate at the moment than having to worry about terrorists and malcontents. You deal with it as you may.”
“As you wish, sir.”
Fenner bowed her head respectfully, and made a hasty exit. Let the Admiral get back to his war, she thought. I’ve got my own to fight.
Out in the hallway she said, “StarCen, take me to my office.”
Fenner popped away, and appeared inside her spacious suite at SSI’s Juventas Headquarters.
She sighed at the sight of the holoportrait of Sidney Fleming, her recently deceased boss. He had recruited her personally, years ago, and shepherded her rise through the organization. When his former second-in-command was discovered to be a traitor, he personally executed him and promoted Vicki to his position on the spot.
She smiled at that, recalling how she had planted the fake diplomatic pouch at the man’s apartment, then arranged a raid when he was out of town. The poor fellow never had a chance.
She suspected that Fleming knew the whole thing was a setup, too. But he never said anything, and she did not, either. She had won her promotion, and he let her have it.
Now the man she admired and respected was gone. But, like she said to Cooper, he and the Vice Admiral were avenged. Fenner started with everyone retained at the holding facility, executing them one by one. She did not care if the persons were simply brought in for questioning or were known members of the Resistance. Regardless, they were shot in the head and disposed of. Then she quite literally emptied the prisons SSI had across the globe in much the same way. Some of the district commanders balked, claiming that some were needed alive for intelligence purposes. After the first three hundred or so executions, she relented and let the districts decide for themselves who to kill. But, the cleansing continued.
When the dust settled, 511 executions occurred in retaliation for the bombing that took out Director Fleming, Vice Admiral Kennedy and one other SSI agent.
That was about right, Fenner thought. The Resistance would perhaps think twice before trying a stunt like that again.
A skycab flew by the fake window.
That was close, she thought. Too close.
Another one passed even closer, and hit the first one. Both went tumbling down to the ground.
“Boss, did you see that?”
The call came in on the neural net from her number two, Esther Gavel, who had taken over the position she previously held.
“Yeah, I did. What’s up with that? Those were skycabbies, too. Not drones.”
She peered down at the street below in the holoscreen that served as an office window. Both vehicles littered the street, a two piles of carbon fiber wreckage.
“StarCen, don’t you control aerial traffic? How did this happen?”
“I am not sure, Director Fenner. I am investigating right now.”
“Were there any people involved, or were the cabs empty?”
“One person was onboard one of the cabs, SSI Agent Wainwright.”
“What? Esther, did you hear that? StarCen says Bill Wainwright was in that crash.”
“I’m going to send some people down to take a look, Boss. I’m going too.”
“I’ll join you.”
Fenner took a couple steps back from the window to make sure there was plenty of space around her.
She said, “StarCen, take me down to the street.”
She popped away, and appeared on the sidewalk, a holographic circle fading away. Around her various members of SSI also popped in, circles appearing first and followed by the people.
In the middle of the street, two mangled skycabs lay in pieces, with fiberglass and plastic parts scattered about. In the middle of the wreckage, the bloody body of a man slumped over one of the seats.
Several agents recognized Wainwright and approached the wreck. Gavel, a short plump woman in her 40s wearing her hair in a bun, sidled up next to Fenner as the two women watched.
She said, “Boss, what do you think happened here? StarCen doesn’t make mistakes on traffic control.”
“Something’s not right,” Fenner said.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up.
“Everybody get away! Get away from the wreck!”
Five more bodies flew in the air, along with parts from the skycabs, as the bomb hidden inside Wainwright exploded. Fenner and Gavel threw their arms up to cover their faces. StarCen immediately ported them to safety in the Director’s office.
They raced to the window and stared down at the smoke rising from the street.
Gavel looked at the Director with wide eyes. She said, “That’s the second bomb in a row you’ve survived, huh, Boss?”
Fenner nodded, absently, watching the mess down below.
She said, “I’m starting to seriously get pissed off now.”