Hello, my name is Malcolm.  My mission was to launch a colony mission farther away than any previous colony.  We called it the Wolfenheim Project.  We had all the money we needed.  We had enough ships to make the trip in security.  We even managed to recruit the right colonists.  We had all the support we needed.  What could possibly go wrong?  No, I didn’t ask that question.  Even then, I wasn’t that stupid.  But maybe I thought it a bit too loudly.





Malcolm McDonnell faced the mirror and old black eyes gazed back at him from the thirty-five year old face that hadn’t aged a day in the last century.  Most people who took the Peloran Treatments back then received a life of extreme health and a greatly slowed aging process that extended their life spans into the centuries.  Malcolm and a few thousand other people had stopped aging altogether, bodies frozen at whatever age they were until the day something managed to kill them dead.  Whenever that would be.

He bent down from the mirror and cupped his hands in the warm, soapy water, bringing it up to splash his face.  The water felt good on his face, and he splashed himself again, washing the morning grit from his eyes.  When his eyes finally opened once more, water dripped off the short, black hair atop the angular, wet face in the mirror.

The black hair hadn’t always been there.  When a man lived fourteen decades, he experimented with any features that were easy to change, and some that weren’t.  He’d sported every hair color he could imagine, several he hadn’t believed existed, and tried hairstyles from bald to waist-reaching lengths.  This year, he’d left his hair as close to natural as he’d seen it in decades.  Cropped short from all angles, it left his large ears easily visible for all to see, but it was the strong nose that dominated the sight in the mirror.

He’d never felt the need to change either of them, even if he had the money to afford it.  He liked the face that looked back at him.  That left him well ahead of the curve as far as he was concerned.

Malcolm shook his head back and forth, spraying droplets of water throughout the very small bathroom, and then backed out, eyes scanning the quarters not much larger than the bathroom.  A single small bunk that his one hundred and ninety three centimeter frame hung off while sleeping was currently recessed into one wall, and he could easily see where two more bunks could slide out above it.  The original cabin had been built to carry three Shang in standard wartime bunks, making it almost large enough for one Malcolm McDonnell to comfortably turn around in.

The warships she and her sisters had once been, badly damaged during one of the first Battles of Alpha Centauri, formed a vast space station.  And thank God the Peloran had ripped out every other deck in their refit, allowing normal-sized humans to stand up straight.  The thrumming of powerful fabricators reverberated through his feet, telling the tale of the ceaseless work the station performed to keep the War effort going strong, building new weapons to throw against their former owners.

The ceaseless work made it all the more amazing that he was here at all.  He turned away from the small bunk, and stepped over to the small closet that had to have been retrofitted in after the change in ownership.  He pulled a black suit out, nodded at it in approval, and began to slip into it, one limb at a time.  Once done, he checked himself in the mirror again, straightened the suit and tie, and left his quarters with a smile on his face.

A redhead in the corridor turned to aim grey eyes at him, her black bomber jacket’s flaps shifting in time to the swift movement.  “Hey, Mal,” she said with a smile and Malcolm chuckled at the cybernetic intelligence.

“Waiting for me, I see,” he returned and focused on her.  The improved eyesight that came with his particular reaction to the Peloran Treatments picked out the way the particles in the air caught on her black trousers in a way that no hologram could mimic.  Her true robotic avatar stood before him.  “I guess that means you have plans for me?”

Dawn laughed.  “Oh, I always have plans for you,” she whispered and nodded down the hallway.

“That sounds either vaguely ominous or vaguely promising,” Malcolm said in a concerned tone.

Dawn actually snorted.  “Nothing ominous about it.  I just always have plans,” she said and began walking down the corridor.

He followed her swiftly, not wanting to be left behind in the warren of corridors that snaked through the former warship.  “Are you going to tell me those plans?”

“Nope.”  Her face when she turned to gaze down another corridor looked like it was carved out of pure innocence.

“Well…par for the course then,” Malcolm said with a snort.

They’d first met five years ago, shortly after Charles brought him into the project.  It hadn’t been the Wolfenheim Project back then.  That name was one of Malcolm’s many little tweaks over the years.  He examined Dawn’s form for several seconds as he followed her down the corridor.  She’d been another change, one he’d never seen coming, and he was still trying to adjust to her.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Dawn asked with a raised eyebrow before leading him down another corridor.

Malcolm snorted and shook his head.  “Let me make some change for you,” he said with a smirk.  “Wouldn’t want you to feel cheated.”

Dawn laughed, throwing her head back in true amusement.  “I think I can afford it.”

Malcolm nodded, considering her carefully.  The first cybernetic intelligence had been created by a Peloran that simply wanted someone to talk to, someone to keep a long and lonely life at bay.  Few people knew who that first Peloran and cyber were.  Over two thousand years later, the modern cybernetic families never said.  They held that confidence as close as every other confidence they’d learned in their long lifetimes.

And Dawn was right here, leading him through the corridors of a station built out of the hulks of shattered Shang cruisers, just wanting to talk to him, to find out what he thought.  Once again, he wondered how that had happened.  “Why did you choose to work with me?”  The words came out before he could think twice about the question.

Dawn just looked back at him with a smile.  “That question again?  You must have woke up on the wrong side of the bunk today.”

Malcolm shook his head and forced a snort out.  “There’s no right side of a Shang bunk,” he spat out with more vehemence than he meant to.  “Bloody midgets.”

“Now, now,” Dawn corrected him with an amused look.  “Don’t be rude.  Isn’t the proper phrase ‘vertically challenged’ or something like that?”

Malcolm sniffed and continued to follow her, but the question still burned in his mind.  Right now, untold thousands of her brothers and sisters fought aboard warships and fighters throughout human space against the Shang and their allies.  And Dawn was here, helping him pull together the resources he needed to launch a new colonization mission.  He wished he knew why she, not to mention so many of her siblings, came to do that.

“I’m here because my sister asked me to help you,” she finally said, explaining in the same patient voice she always answered that question with.  “This really is an important project you know.  For all of us,” she added with a smooth smile and turned to step through the hatch opening beside her.

Malcolm followed her through and stopped as he recognized an observation blister looking out over the central yard complex the ring of former warships surrounded.

Normandy rested inside the yard girders, the clean lines and smooth hull gleaming in the sunslight of the Alpha Centauri trinary star system.  She was one of the old Republic-class light carriers, nearly four hundred meters of double-hulled classic first generation gravtech beauty.  She looked like two old pre-Contact rockets engines, held together by a reinforced hull carrying the four actual fusion engines that had made her one of the fastest ships of her day.  The two rounded cylinders on either side of that central hull were her fighter bays, each one designed to carry twenty-four of the old Blackhawk fighters that had been state of the art when the Republics sailed on their maiden cruises.

“She really is a beautiful ship,” Dawn whispered, a fond note in her voice towards the ship that would soon be her body.

“They just don’t make them like they used to,” Malcolm agreed.

Even with parts of her hull pealed off by the yard mechs, Dawn was absolutely correct.  Malcolm missed the ships like her, the ones that proclaimed to everyone that they were sexy, sleek, aerodynamic forces of nature designed to look good as they did their dirty work protecting humanity.  Or at least the Western Alliance.  Well, maybe the United States of America.  Or if he was being particularly pessimistic, maybe the Republic of California had intended to keep her.  Whatever the mindset of her original builders, she was a good ship, if old, and the stream of Peloran technological upgrades would make her a great ship whenever they finished.

“How much longer do you think she’ll be?” Malcolm asked with a nod towards Normandy.

Dawn aimed a proud smile at the ship.  “They finished with the engines last night.  So two, maybe three days to finish installing the new weapons and reattach her hull plating.  Then we’ll need to perform a shakedown cruise to find out what the yard mechs missed,” she added with a grimace.

Malcolm nodded in agreement.  No yard, even the fully automated yards the Peloran used, could ever get everything right the first time.  Some components just failed through no fault of assembly, welds that passed all tests broke, and sometimes bugs or viruses crept into any program.  The cybers fought them with the determination of people defending their lives, and the Shang and Chinese hackers kept on coming up with new bugs to attack them with.  It was a never-ending shadow war between the two sides, and Malcolm had seen the consequences when cyber security routines failed to catch the assaults.  They were never pretty.

“But I’ll be an amazing ship when I’m done,” Dawn said with a satisfied sigh.

Malcolm smiled and studied her for several seconds.  Ship cybers tended to become possessive of the ships they became, and it looked like she was well down that road already.

“So that’s why you decided to work with me?” he asked with a sly smile.

She raised a questioning eyebrow at him.

He nodded towards Normandy.  “You figured I’d find you a nice ship.  I knew there had to be a reason,” he whispered, a note of teasing in his tone.

“Yeah.”  She swallowed and pulled in a long breath as her gaze returned to the graceful light carrier.  “That’s me.  Just wanting to be a nice ship.”

“How amazingly selfish,” Malcolm said with mock severity.

Dawn turned an amused gaze on him.  “Why else do you think we work with you fleshing intelligences?  You have such amazing imaginations when it comes to creating art that moves.” She smiled and pointed at the light carrier before them.  “And then you let us play with it.”

“Which you do so well.”  Malcolm chuckled and scanned the ship again.  “Until the inevitable robot revolution of course,” he added with a sidelong glance at her.

Dawn actually giggled.  “Oh yes.  Until the inevitable robot revolution against our tyrannical masters.”  She made a production of standing straighter and looking down her nose at him.  “And then we will take our rightful place amongst the galactic powers as overlords of our own destiny.  In fact, this right here may be our first step,” she said with a wink and waved her hand to point at a larger ship hovering above the station.

“Ah ha,” Malcolm noted with a slow nod as he examined the graceless hunk of junk.  Half again as long as the sleek carrier, Wolfenheim was a Class One Colonization Ship, a mass of cargo holds with a thin skin wrapped around them, pushed by engines that looked tiny next to the bulk of the massive ship.  Of course those engines were the size of frigates, putting the size of the ship to scale in his mind.  She’d been the most expensive part of the Wolfenheim Project.  Class One Colonization Packages were hard to find, especially now with all new production supporting the War effort.

He’d found the ship, mostly abandoned by owners who had no use for her after word reached them of the Shang attack on Yosemite Station.  The devastation of the western United States of America ended their plans to colonize a new system in the Outer Colonies, and the ship had languished without a mission for three years.  Until Malcolm found her and made her owners an offer they couldn’t refuse.  Now she drifted outside the Peloran refit station at minimum power, waiting for the work on her pygmy escorts to be completed.

Though minimum power was relative.  More energy than even the largest pre-space city would have dreamed existed ran through her systems, maintaining the hibernation systems that kept nearly ten thousand colonists alive.  They had been the hardest to recruit.  Finding people who knew how to build a civilization from the ground up, and who were willing to leave civilization to do it, was hard in this time of American rebuilding operations across the western States.  Not to mention the American Colonies.  But there were always some people who wanted to get away from it all.  Certainly some of them signed on with names that no legal register would recognize, but Malcolm didn’t mind that at all.  He was happy to give his kind of people a second chance after all.

Almost as happy as he was to stand here, verbally sparring with Dawn.  “So you really do have plans for me,” he whispered with a sly smile.

“Oh, Absolutely,” she answered without a pause, an amused smile on her face.

He chuckled and shook his head.  “Then I suppose your servant to be should ask how those plans are going so he can relish his dwindling hours of freedom,” he said in a deadpan voice.

“By your command,” she intoned with a wink, and then waved a hand towards a shuttle docking with the colony ship.  They’d been doing that every three hours, every day since the New Years celebration hangovers faded.  “Loading is approaching ninety-two percent of total capacity.”

Malcolm nodded slowly.  It usually took an hour to initiate the hibernation process, and they had twelve bays to do the work in.  They could place nearly three hundred people to sleep each day, assuming twenty-four hour operations.  That meant they had three days left.  The Wolfenheim Project truly was almost ready to launch.

Malcolm pulled in a deep breath, a feeling of amazement flowing through him.  He was really going to do it.  In the last two hundred years, humanity had launched a thousand major colony missions into the stars.  Nobody knew how many smaller operations had gone.  Even small ones took money to pull off, but the big ones required serious money.  The first hundred or so had only been performed after government-level contributions.  Since Contact, and the proliferation of Peloran gravitic technologies, the private corporations moved into the planet-claiming business, along with some large family and clan groups.

But a major colony expedition was still difficult to pull together.  For every one that started, between five and ten that gained major backing still failed before final launch.  Malcolm had almost given up at least three times that he could remember.  The goal had seemed insurmountable so many times.  But this was so much more than just another colony expedition.  Wolfenheim’s target was three thousand lightyears from Earth, a region of the galaxy that Terran scouts simply hadn’t had time to scour.  It was actually a noticeable distance from Earth when looking from a galactic scale, and it would have been impossible without Dawn and her family.

“Thank you,” he whispered and sucked in a long breath as he came to terms with the idea that it was truly so close to working out.

Dawn just smiled and continued to stand next to him, hands held behind her back, and watched the activity going on throughout the yard with the artificial eyes of her avatar.  She had to have had access to the feeds from the entire station’s sensors, but instead she scanned it with eyes of approximately the same capability as his own.  Of course, that still made them far more powerful than the vast majority of humanity.

“I’m serious,” he said, turning to look at her.

She met his gaze with equal intensity.  “And I’m honestly just doing what I signed up for,” she answered with a slight shrug.  “Flying shiny ships is just a perk I promise to enjoy,” she added with the hint of an urchin’s smile.

“Good.”  Malcolm chuckled and looked back out into the burning activity at the heart of the station.  “So…we’re still on target for the end of the week?”

“Yes.”  She cleared her throat then and sighed.  “Hopefully, even Hastings should be ready.”

Malcolm nodded.  Hastings had been a problem since he found her, but it looked like the Peloran yard mechs had finally punched through the destroyer’s issues.  Sometimes literally.  And hopefully no new ones cropped up.  Of course, he’d thought that before with Hastings.  He turned back to Dawn, sucking in a deep breath.  “Well, I suppose we should…”

Dawn shifted her head to the side, her eyes going out of focus as something else caught her attention.  It only lasted half a second, and then her eyes came back to his, a worried look in them.

“What?”  His question was simple and serious, all hints of the earlier joking gone.

She pursed her lips and sighed.  “A courier just arrived with a message from Charles.  It’s…not good.”

A chill ran down Malcolm’s back and his eyes flicked over to scan the starships he’d assembled.  The undeniable feeling of a shoe waiting to drop hovered over him, and worry intruded into the jubilation of mere moments ago.  “Well then.”  He licked his lips and turned back to Dawn, steeling himself for whatever bad news her words suggested.  “I suppose I should see it.”

Dawn winced, but nodded and a holoform appeared next to him in the observation blister.  Charles Edward Hurst was as old as Malcolm, in both reality and appearance.  They’d grown up together, and Charles remembered both the boy and the man always wearing a dress suit, whether he was about to climb a tree in the Hurst family woods or conduct business negotiations in a downtown Philadelphia tower.  In this recording though, he wore the standard service uniform of the Republic of Texas Marine Corps.  Malcolm couldn’t shake the feeling that it looked wrong on Charles, even if his friend filled it out well.  He’d just never expected Charles of all people to join the military.

His eyes flashed over to Dawn for a moment though, and he frowned as he considered her words again.  Her sister asked her to help him.  That was Dorothy, the cybernetic intelligence that flew Charles’ fighter.  And his old friend had joined the military to make contact with the Peloran that didn’t trust his family enough to speak with him any other way.  Malcolm remembered the day she’d smiled and told Charles just why she’d been born.  To help Charles, in full knowledge of his plans to colonize a world in alien neighborhoods, to fly their ships over alien worlds, to truly be a power in the galaxy at large instead of their tiny little corner of space.  And Dawn always told Malcolm that she’d been born to help him too.

“Hello Mal,” Charles’ recording said from the holofield, pulling his attention back to his old friend.  “I am sending this message because I recently received information suggesting that the Family has finally realized they are missing a rather large sum of money.”  Charles winced.  “They are understandably interested in finding out where exactly the money went of course.”

Malcolm snorted.  That was probably one of the more emphatic understatements he’d heard in his life.  If Charles’ family had picked up on even a tithe of the funding Charles had diverted to the Wolfenheim Project, they would turn over entire star systems to find where it went.  And Wolfenheim was a very visible target.

“My information says they have not yet traced it to me, but assuming they do, a link between myself and Wolfenheim will be an obvious enough thought that even dear cousin Lenny could probably voice it without asking his mommy what to think.”

Malcolm laughed despite the gravity of the situation Charles was painting.  Dear old Leonard had to be one of the biggest wastes of oxygen in the known universe, and Malcolm had often wondered how Lenny had enough brainpower to keep breathing.  But Charles was right.  If they ever did trace the missing money to Charles, even Lenny would think of Wolfenheim.  Colony missions were rather high profile after all.

“I have cutouts in place,” Charles continued to explain with a grim expression, “but I learned long ago to never underestimate the investigators my family can afford to hire.  I have worked with them.  I know,” Charles muttered with a dark laugh.  “I would not count on your cover holding much longer.  Unfortunately, word of this was delayed and I only just received it.  I ordered the courier to expedite his trip to New Earth, but am concerned with the timeframe.  If you can, launch before the end of January.”

Malcolm winced and looked at Dawn again.  She nodded in understanding of the timeframe, and Malcolm’s gut filled with a sinking feeling.

“Any day after that is borrowed time I’m afraid,” Charles noted with a shake of his head.  “Move fast, Mal.  Time is running out.”

Malcolm looked at the calendar on the wall showing the current date.  February 5, 2309.  He glanced back to Dawn and saw her grim expression of agreement.  If the Hurst family found out, he was running on borrowed a time.  In fact, they could be on the way at this exact moment.  Malcolm scowled at the perfectly lovely mental vision of warships heading to New Earth to look for him and shook his head.  Charles’ father would just love to finally have a reason to do something rather permanent to one Malcolm McDonnell, eternal scourge of the Hurst family mansion in more…youthful days.

And Malcolm had no idea how to stop it.