Hello, my name is Malcolm.  I was born in a time of peace.  It was a time of healing with new medicines, and a time of building hundreds of new colonies.  We laughed and danced and loved.  We weren’t perfect by any means, but it was a good time.  But to everything there is a season, a time to every purpose in the heavens.  Even War.  Sometimes especially War.  My time of War came later than others.  I got to build something great.  And then I threw it into The War.  It was time.





Malcolm McDonnell held the controls as a dull vibration ran through his fighter.  She was an old fighter, built a century ago when gravtech was the latest revolution in military technology.  She was a work of art; graceful curves running from nose to tail, and built to proclaim the power of America to all the worlds.  Newer and better fighters replaced her in time, leaving her to be part of a system defense force until even they retired her for something better.

Malcolm rescued her from her mothballs, and the Peloran replaced her aged-warped structure with new alloys, her weapons with Peloran technologies.  They made her into a fighter that could stand with the best of them once again.  But no matter how much work they did, there was one system she’d never been built to use.  The gravitic cannon in her nose twisted the very fabric of space into a swirling vortex that twisted and tore at anything it came into contact with.  That sent a dull vibration running from one end of his fighter to the other.

Eleven more fighters of Malcolm’s squadron fired their gravitic cannons in unison with his.  The beams of twisted gravity shot across space at targets still coming to terms with the idea that they were targets.  The Artificial Intelligences running the Shang warships’ defense grids did everything they could in the time they had left.  Missiles streaked out to meet Malcolm’s fighters, and the ships turned to perform anti-fighter defensive maneuvers.

But the living Shang crews had known without a shadow of a doubt that they were alone with the eight destroyers they were here to kill.  They knew they were winning.  They knew they could simply turn away from any force that could threaten them and never be forced into any battle they didn’t want.  And they knew they could kill Murphy’s squadron without taking any losses at all.  The Shang were the superior race of man in their own eyes, and in those first seconds they simply could not conceive that they had been suckered.  It was even worse for their destroyers.  The cruisers at least had been firing on Murphy, but the destroyers had not yet fired a shot in anger.  They were escorts, there to protect the larger cruisers that did the work of executing their targets from range.  It took time for them to realize the execution had been called off.

It took the counter missiles fired by their AIs several seconds to cross the half-lightsecond between them and the fighters, but the gravitic beams traveled at lightspeed.  One-half second after firing, two of his squadron’s twelve gravitic cannons missed their target.  Half a second after that, Malcolm saw them miss as the light traveled back to him.  He smiled though.  Two misses out of twelve shots was amazingly good.

Dawn had spent the last several minutes monitoring the Shang evasive maneuvers until she knew what their AIs were going to do almost as well as they did.  Ten of her gravitic vortexes smashed into the Shang destroyer without pity, ripping its deflection grid apart.  Then they twisted and tore its armor, sucking it from the ship.  Atmosphere flowed into the gravitic beams as they cored through the battle hull and into the destroyer’s inner core.  The destroyer twisted away, trying to escape the new threat, and the vortexes slashed through the maneuvering target.

It pulled away, ten horrible claw marks riven deep into the hull, deflection grid fluctuating wildly.  One moment it was accelerating away.  The next, it simply came apart.  Sections of the ship began to break away, one at a time, until only the engines remained, flaming for a few more seconds until they ran out of fuel.  It was almost an anticlimactic way for a warship to die.

“Yippie ki-yay!”

Malcolm blinked at Smith’s transmission as the fighters began to bob and weave in an elegant dance against the wavefront of coming missiles.  He glanced at the displays to see another destroyer disappearing in a massive explosion.  Two more, the targets of the other Blackhawk squadrons, remained under power, but wreckage and atmosphere belched out of their horribly wounded flanks.

There was nothing anticlimactic about Smith’s target, and with one glance Malcolm understood the man’s exclamation.  Of thirty-nine gravitic cannons the thirteen Avengers fired, almost thirty impacted the ship, and he watched explosions ripple out of the massive rents they made in its hull.  Again and again, each one more massive than the last, it took the ship barely two seconds to die.  The final explosion left nothing but an expanding fireball in the formation of mighty Shang cruisers.

Then it was the Shang’s turn.  Hundreds of missiles streaked in, many from ships already dead, hunting for the fighters that had dared to attack their masters.  Malcolm’s fighters ducked and weaved around him in the best defensive maneuvers Dawn could conceive of.  Decoys and jammers shot out, and scores of missiles lost target lock.  Laser cannons pulsed against missiles still diving in, and scores more died.

Malcolm relaxed back in his seat, sighed, and held his hands on the controls as the surviving missiles came in for the kill.  His left hand rested on the throttle controlling movement in every direction, his right hand holding the stick directing orientation.  It was deceptively simple and complex at the same time, especially for someone who’d never played fighter sims in his life.  But training turned it into instinct.  He no longer thought about moving, and that was the point.

Thousands of years of civilization had taught humans to think things through before acting.  But humans used such a tiny percentage of their mind to form coherent thoughts.  The rest was always working.  If a person paid attention to all the seemingly random feelings that pushed on the edges of the conscious mind though, they could be so much smarter.

At the moment Malcolm felt the undeniable urge to be elsewhere, and he went elsewhere.  He didn’t think about it.  The training was enough that he moved the throttle to the left without taking time to form a coherent thought on the matter.  He simply wanted to be elsewhere, and a dozen fighters shot to the side, maneuvering thrusters flaring.  A second later, a score of missiles his conscious mind did not have the time to recognize as a threat came careening through where they would have been.  They vainly tried to swing back towards the fighters, but were no longer able to make the turn.  They lacked the fuel, and even Malcolm’s subconscious mind paid no more attention to them.

He had far bigger worries.  The fighters’ engines sent long torches of flame into space and the entire formation began a slingshot maneuver that would take them around the Shang fleet.  One of the destroyers flashed on his displays, and Malcolm nodded towards Dawn’s holoform, sitting on console.  She smiled and the gravitic cannon spoke again, reaching out to rip at their new target.  Their new target was ready though, deflection grids and jamming systems oriented to protect against the fighters.  Only three cannons found the target, and though the destroyer flinched, it continued to fight.

This time though, missiles rippled out of the launchers on either side of the fuselage, adding their own brand of chaos to the developing battle.  The fire from a dozen fighters, and four dozen more including the other squadrons, filled space with wildly accelerating miniature guided weapons with a single goal.  Death by mutual extinction with their target.  Malcolm’s fire poured into the destroyer, even as its point defense grid ripped them apart by the scores.  Cruisers and other destroyers joined in, adding their point defense to his target, and Malcolm smiled at the thought of cruisers actually protecting the ships that were meant to protect them.

Only a few missiles made it through the first wave of point defense, most of them horribly blinded by the destruction of their fellows.  They missed the destroyer entirely.  But more missiles followed them, far enough back that their sensors survived.  They flew through the expanding gases of their dead compatriots and shot into their target with a vengeance.

The first missiles ripped the already destabilized deflection grid apart, leaving the destroyer open to the rest.  Later missiles poured into the vulnerable destroyer, some of them carrying old style chemical warheads that exploded around it, filling space with more flames and debris.  Some attacked the destroyer with electronic countermeasures, blinding its sensitive systems to other incoming missiles.  The last missiles came in almost unopposed, generating miniature black holes that ripped through the destroyer without mercy until nothing remained to fight.

“Yippie ki-yay,” Malcolm said with a smile.

Dawn snorted.  “You need to work on your delivery,” she said in a wry tone.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Malcolm responded and scanned the displays.  Two more destroyers exploded from the fire of other Blackhawk squadrons, leaving the Shang flank almost denuded.  Ten cruisers and ten destroyer escorts had started the battle.  Now only five destroyers remained, three of them streaming atmosphere from the wounds in their flanks.  As he watched a second cruiser broke apart and Smith whooped another victory.  That made eight remaining cruisers.

“We’ve got movement,” Dawn announced, sending a flicker through the displays.  He followed the shift to see Murphy’s squadron of eight Austin-class destroyers.  Three of them, each horribly damaged by the Shang bombardment, continued to run towards the Bosphorus forts.  But as he watched, five of the destroyers snapped around in a swift u-turn to face the beleaguered Shang fleet.

“Bloody hell,” Malcolm growled.  Murphy’s destroyers leapt as their engines came to full power, and they began to close the range with the Shang.  Malcolm shook his head.  This was not supposed to happen.  Then one of Malcolm’s Blackhawks took an engine hit from a Shang missile and he forgot all about those other ships.  The engine disappeared, fragments flying in every direction, and their complex defensive maneuvering pattern unraveled.  Blackhawks scattered to avoid the fighter now spinning out of control.  The fighter passed within meters of Malcolm’s cockpit before careening out of the battle and the blood drained from his face.  That had been far too close.

Other squadrons’ Blackhawks, and even some Avengers, spun away from the battle or simply came apart altogether as missiles meant to shatter warships found them.  Then five massive gravitic vortexes swept in from Murphy’s squadron, bracketing a single cruiser with their devastating power.  Three barely missed the wildly maneuvering cruiser, but two gravitic beams smashed through the deflection grid.  They tore into the nose, opening her armored core like a can opener.  They dug deep into the structure, and further into the core, ripping the ship apart from the inside.  In less than a second, nothing but the lifeless wreck of a warship remained.  Malcolm had to suppress a shudder as he realized how truly deadly those destroyers were.

“Smith?” he asked.

“Yes, I see it,” Smith answered, his voice unhappy to say the least.

Malcolm pulled the right stick over and the Blackhawk spun to avoid an incoming missile.  “We can’t abandon them now.”

“Agreed.”  Smith’s tone was full of reluctance, but the voice he used a second later was devoid of any hint of that.  “All fighters, continue circling and maintain fire.”

Malcolm glanced at the fuel display as the five fighter squadrons swung around the Shang fleet, keeping half a lightsecond away.  Far enough away to be hard to hit, close enough that the cybernetic minds could successfully calculate the far dumber Shang artificial intelligences.  Unfortunately, the Blackhawks were short-range birds, and he watched the display drop further down towards the absolute minimum it would take to return to Normandy.  They would not be able to continue the fight for long.

A cruiser flashed on his display and he nodded to Dawn.  She opened fire, and nearly half of their remaining fighters hit the larger target.  But Shang cruisers carried deflection grids far more powerful than any destroyer, and it shrugged off the minor assault with contemptuous ease.  Missiles followed the grav cannon assault, peppering the deflection grids with more gravitic interference.  The grid fluctuated, but held against everything a Blackhawk squadron could throw against it.

Malcolm gritted his teeth in anger just as a quartet of much larger missiles swooped in from the flank.  Last-ditch point defense lasers burned one away, and then a second.  The third detonated just short of the cruiser’s deflection grid, generating gravitic sheer that no mere fighter missile could ever dream of.  The cruiser’s deflection grid flickered and faltered long enough for the fourth missile to penetrate the cruiser’s last line of defense.  It burrowed deep in the cruiser’s bow before exploding and ripped the ship’s forward section wide open.  The cruiser initiated a desperate spin, trying to bring fresh deflection grids between it and the true threat now hounding it.

One display showed Smith’s Avengers bringing down one more cruiser, while a focused salvo of destroyer grav cannons smashed yet another cruiser into expanding debris.  The other Blackhawk squadrons focused on cruisers of their own, and if they did only minor damage like Malcolm, Murphy’s destroyers spared just enough attention to send missiles their way.  The cruisers that made up the heart of the Shang fleet writhed under the combined assault, belching armor, atmosphere, and other debris into space from mounting numbers of wounds.

The Shang made tough ships though, and even as damage codes filled the displays, Shang launchers filled space with their missiles.  More fighters disappeared or spun away after barely surviving near hits.  Murphy’s destroyers lurched as deflection grids flickered and the missiles dove in for the kill.  But as the Shang missiles smashed into them, they learned once again how resilient the Austin-class destroyers were.  With forward hammerheads wrapped around armored cores made of the densest alloys known to humanity, the Austins truly were America’s best destroyer.

Explosions wreathed the wedges, tearing weapons and outer hull plating away from the destroyers, but meters of armor behind them stopped every weapon the Shang could throw at them.  They melted under the assault, torn and twisted by the devastation wrought on them, but they held, and Murphy’s destroyers continued to close the range.

But no destroyer could carry enough armor to protect them from all angles.  A swarm of missiles arced around a hammerhead and attacked the thin hull plating protecting a destroyer’s main engines.  She lurched to the side, half of her engines ripped away, and began to drift out of formation.  Then three Shang cruisers focused fire on one destroyer and their combined fire actually cracked the armored wedge, ripping it off at the base of the ship’s main fuselage.

A mad house of destructive energies flashed back and forth across the space that separated the Shang and Terran forces.  Malcolm watched everything without concentrating on any of it, just observing the flickering images of chaos.  Dawn fired on their target again, and five of their gravitic cannons hit the cruiser’s deflection grid.  Another salvo of Murphy’s missiles struck the Shang cruiser and it belched fire, shedding armor and internal systems.  One more of his fighters to a missile-hit dead center, engine pods shooting away in four directions before running out of fuel.

Another cruiser broke in half, victim of Smith’s Avengers.  A single gravitic beam smashed into a different one, and flames and armor erupted into space.  A Shang destroyer blundered into a stream of missiles meant for one of its charges and came apart.  The staccato images of destruction flashed across his displays as Malcolm reacted to missiles swarms he had no time to focus on.

Then without warning, the Shang stopped firing.  All fire stopped in fact, and Malcolm looked at the empty space around them in confusion.  He turned to aim a questioning look at Dawn and saw a triumphant smile on her face.

“They’re signaling their complete and utter surrender,” she reported.

Malcolm frowned and looked at the surviving warships, every single one torn open to one degree or another.  They continued maneuvering for combat, making themselves as hard to hit as possible, and he could see the telltale result of jammers still trying to confuse enemy targeting systems, but no weapons remained in space.

“Director?” Smith’s voice asked.  “What do we do?”

Malcolm looked at Dawn and she just smiled.  He pursed his lips, weighing his options.  On the one hand, he could order them to start firing again and would not lose any sleep.  The Shang had killed enough people over the years.  On the other hand, he could accept their surrender.  Though he was not in a position to do anything with it.  Then here was Murphy.  If she accepted their surrender, she would have to stop following him while she secured them.  And if she didn’t, he would know what to expect from her in the future.  “Tell Commodore Murphy we’ll follow her lead.”  Dawn blinked at him in surprise, then nodded in response.  Malcolm relaxed back in his seat and waited to find out what Murphy’s decision would be.

Finally her holoform appeared on the console, standing next to Dawn with her hands clasped behind her back.  A display showed she was broadcasting on an open frequency.  “This is Commodore Murphy, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Star Fleet,” she announced in a hard tone.  “I accept your surrender.  Stand down and prepare to be boarded.  Any resistance will be considered a violation of your surrender.  I trust I am understood.”  It was not a question, and Murphy remained in place, waiting for the Shang’s response.

Within seconds, the Shang warships ceased maneuvering and shut down their deflection grids.  The displays showing target lock warnings went green as the Shang targeting systems turned off, and Malcolm smiled in relief.  They’d done it.

“Good,” Murphy intoned, and then her holoform turned towards Malcolm.  “Director McDonnell?” was all she said, but Malcolm smiled as a display showed her transmission shifting to private frequencies.

“Commodore Murphy,” he answered and waited for his transmission to reach her.  His holoform would be appearing on her display as soon as it arrived, relaying his words just as her holoform did to him.  He wondered what her next words would be.  Would she demand his surrender as she had in Alpha Centauri and Sunnydale?

Murphy smiled at him before speaking again.  “Thank you for your help.  I regret that I must ask you to surrender as well.”

Malcolm shook his head, but managed a questioning raised eyebrow.  “Always with you it is ‘surrender and prepare to be boarded.’  Can’t we start with something else?”

Murphy frowned at him, betraying a mix of confusion and something else he couldn’t quite identify.  “I have my orders,” she noted with a shake of her head.  “You know why I’m here, and yet you helped my squadron.  Why?”  Her holoform took on a curious look, cocking her head to the side.

“Because the Shang have killed far too many of us, and I couldn’t stand by and watch them kill any more,” Malcolm answered her question without hesitation.

Murphy nodded very slowly, deep in thought.  “You are not what I expected.”

“I try not to be,” Malcolm answered with a chuckle.  “It keeps people on their toes.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Murphy sighed and aimed a considering look at him.  “Are you going to surrender or keep running?”

Malcolm laughed and shook his head.  “Can I ask you a question of my own before answering that?”

Murphy examined him for several seconds, far longer than the time delay imposed by the transmission lag could explain.  “I suppose it would be rude of me to say no,” she finally said.

“What is your Christian name?”  It was an oddly formal question, long out of use in common society, but it just felt right.

“My?”  Her eyes opened wide and she stared at him for several seconds, mixed shock, worry, and confusion written on her face.  “Why?”

“You chased me across the known universe,” Malcolm said, his tone wry.  “I’m curious who would do that.”

Murphy arched an eyebrow at him.  “This is hardly the known universe.”

“I just saved your life,” Malcolm said with a shrug.  “You can grant me at least one grandiose statement, can’t you?”

She stared at him for another few seconds, and he caught just a whiff of disappointment in that gaze.  “Caroline,” she finally whispered, long and slow, emphasizing each syllable.

Malcolm blinked, surprised by the answer.  He’d expected Dana.  She looked so similar.  He glanced at Dawn and she brought a holodisplay to life, showing side-by-side pictures from his high school’s senior yearbook.  One was of Dana Murphy, from the freshman class.  He still couldn’t remember her, but she had an odd ring of familiarity to him.  The other holo was of Caroline Murphy, a face he most certainly did remember.  Underneath, a single word blinked in red.  Sisters.  And that explained why she seemed familiar.  He probably met the younger sister when Dana took him home.  They’d had a nice pool.

“I see,” Malcolm whispered, momentarily caught unawares by the memory of that pool.  They’d had good parties there as he remembered.  But that was a long time ago, and he looked back to the Caroline Murphy who stood before him now.  “And I see why they sent you.”  She blinked and seemed prepared to contest his statement, but he rolled right on before she could ask.  He wouldn’t know what to say if she asked, and that would just make things awkward.  “Well, my name is Malcolm, and now that we’re on a first name basis, can I tell you why I’ve been running?”

She pursed her lips.  “I can hardly wait for your explanation.”  There was a slight mocking tone to her voice, and part of Malcolm growled in anger.  But there was a color of…something in it.  Familiarity.  It was like the echo of a joke he couldn’t remember.

He buried the part that wanted to be angry with her.  There were far better targets for that anger after all.  “Twenty-five,” he intoned, his voice harsh.

She frowned.  “Twenty-five?”

“Winter Contingencies,” he declared and she looked away from him.  He understood why.  The New Washington Winter Contingency had horrified him five years before.  Now it was a statistic, the first of the twenty-five worlds that Shang bombardments sent into new ice ages.  It made him sick to realize that millions dead were a statistic, just one small number in a growing War.  “Another hundred worlds with no measurable industrial output,” he continued after letting her think about the devastation.  “And can you give me the name of a single colony near the Hyades Cluster that hasn’t been abandoned or conquered?”

Her face looked grim when she returned her gaze to him.  “Sunnydale.”

“Sunnydale,” he repeated with grim agreement.  It was the only remaining major Alliance colony left within striking range of the cluster.  “We can’t keep on going like this.  I know the newsies say we’ll have this wrapped up in a year.  That The Fleet assembling at Sunnydale will wipe them out.  ‘Victory is coming’ and all that tripe.”  Malcolm shook his head.  “That’s just propaganda and we know it.  One more Epsilon Reticuli and we’re done.  That’s all she wrote.”  He paused to stare at her, daring her to object.

Caroline let the silence linger for several seconds before nodding.  “OK.  Let’s say I agree with you on that.”  He could almost feel part of her deflating as she admitted her true feelings.  “For argument’s sake,” she added, but he had her.  She agreed with him.  And in her eyes he saw the proof that she knew he knew.  She shook her head to clear it.  “What does this have to do with us?  Right here.”  Her tone was sharp, defensive.

Malcolm just smiled.  “Everything.”  The woman who stood in Bosphorus was not the Commodore Murphy who demanded his surrender at New Earth.  He supposed that almost dying could change anyone’s perspective, but he had the feeling that it hadn’t really changed her.  More like burned something away to reveal the true woman.  The Caroline that pinged memories he couldn’t place.

“We have to build colonies in their space,” he began, his tone more hurried than he wished.  “We have to fly to their stars.  We have to land on their worlds.  We have to show every Alien race out there that we can come to them.”  He paused for a second, willing her to understand.  Pleading with her.  “They can’t just come over, kill a few of us, and go back home, safe in the knowledge that we can’t do anything about it.  We can’t let them.”

Caroline gave him a half smile, but shook her head.  “So what?  You steal some money, use it to buy a fleet, and run away from everything?  How does that help us?”

Malcolm chuckled very slowly.  She’d asked the right question.  And the answer was waiting on the tip of his tongue.  “I didn’t steal the money.  An official member of the Hurst Family Council gave it to me.”  She raised an eyebrow to say just how slim that excuse was, but he raised one finger to stop her.  “You and me, we’re stuck in a family squabble, but to everyone else out there, this is so much bigger.  Charles Edward Hurst is sending us out there as a warning.  We won’t be stuck in our measly few hundred lightyears of space forever.  We’re coming.  We’re not just one colony.  We’re every colony!”  Malcolm paused to take a breath, knowing he was betraying a missionary’s zeal.  But he just couldn’t help it.  “We’re humanity, we’re Earth, going where no man has gone before.  That is the true heart of the Wolfenheim Project.  Both a warning and a promise.  We will not be forgotten.  We will not go quietly into that long night.”

Caroline pulled in a long breath, and he saw her wanting to believe.  But then she shook her head.  “I can see you’ve thought this through,” was all her voice said, but her eyes betrayed her inner turmoil.

“I’ve had years to think it through,” Malcolm whispered.

She smiled.  “I can’t stop you from running.”  She shrugged and shook her head.  “But I can’t ignore my orders.  And sooner or later, I will catch you.”

Malcolm nodded in acceptance.  “Well, we are a colony expedition.  Hiding isn’t really on my list of things to do.”

She aimed a grim smile at him.  “Then consider very carefully how you want this chase to end.”

“I will,” Malcolm answered and gave her a long look.  “If you do the same.  We can compare notes when we get there.”

She pursed her lips and the hologram looked at a display filled with Shang warships.  “I would prefer an end to this that doesn’t including shooting at each other.”

“Then we’ve already agreed on one very important detail,” Malcolm said with a broad smile.  “And with that progress in hand, maybe I should leave before we find something else to argue about.”

“You mean you should run while you still can?” she asked, snapping her gaze back to him.

Malcolm shrugged.  “I’d prefer to call it a carefully performed extraction from…well…perhaps not entirely unfriendly territory,” he finished with another smile.

She met his gaze for several seconds, measuring him again before answering.  “I can think of worse things to call it,” she finally intoned.

“Then by your leave?”

She shook her head with a rueful smile.  “Where you run, I will follow,” she warned, but her eyes betrayed the promise.

“Then until we meet again,” he acknowledged and turned to tell Dawn to cut the feed.

“Malcolm.”  Caroline’s single word stopped him short, and he turned back to her holoform, one eyebrow raised in a wordless question.  Her smile reminded him of Dana so hard it hurt.  But it was different.  Dana had been a girl the last time he’d seen her smile.  She hadn’t known how hard life could be.  Caroline’s smile spoke of a lifetime of adulthood’s disappoints, but somewhere in there was a child’s hope.  “Thank you.”

He smiled and gave her a bow of his head.  “Anytime, Caroline,” he said, emphasizing all three syllables as she had.  Then he turned to Dawn, nodded, and she cut the feed.  “I think it’s time to go, Smith.”

“Agreed,” Smith’s voice answered without hesitation.  “All fighters, return to base.”  With no more warning than that, their main engines came back to full power, and the fighters began accelerating.

Malcolm pursed his lips and watched the receding warships in the holofield.  It was odd.  He really did feel like he knew her.  Understand her.  But he couldn’t remember her.  Though if she was Dana’s sister, they had to have met.  “She is going to catch us sometime,” he said to Dawn.  She just nodded, recognizing his need to think his words through.  “So we’re going to have to make some plans for that.”  Malcolm glanced at the ships again.  “Plans that don’t involve getting all of us killed.”

Dawn followed his gaze to the diminishing cruisers and destroyers.  “I’ll get Smith and Olivia on that.”

Malcolm let out a long breath as Olivia’s face flashed through his mind.  If there was a way, those two would think of it.  “Thank you.”

Dawn just smiled.  She didn’t need to say anything else.  She never did.  Behind them, the wrecks of the Shang fleet and the barely victorious Murphy faded into the distance.