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The following is the electronic Advanced Reader Copy originally sent to my Beta Readers in December. Take a look, and if it interests you, the final version is available for purchase now.


Failure is mandatory. It was one of my earliest lessons. Charles and me used to get a refresher course on that at least once a week back in the old days. Sometimes I’m amazed we survived to grow up at all. But I learned something back then. Never give up. Never surrender. Never stop looking for some new way of breaking or changing the rules of the game. Maybe even find a new game entirely. Or just introduce new players to the field. The trick is to never stop trying no matter how bad it gets. Because failure is mandatory, but how we respond to it defines who we are in the end. I have failed many times in my life. I have never given up.



“Speak for yourself, Mister McDonnell,” John Smith transmitted across the channels and bared his teeth in an expression nobody would call a smile. “I have not yet begun to fight.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to charge someone with being lazy on the job,” Malcolm McDonnell said with a chuckle. “But now might be a good time to start.”

“Yeah. That’s about to happen, all right,” Smith said and his eyes went out of focus. “In three.”

Malcolm McDonnell frowned and looked at the displays in confusion. They told the tale in hard numbers. The Shang were at least ten seconds out from their standard missile engagement range. Maybe twenty.

“Two,” Smith continued his countdown with a confident gleam in his eye.

“Mister Smith?” Malcolm asked.

“One,” Smith said and tapped his temple twice to tell Malcolm that he was working on a feeling.

Then hyperspace opened and eight hammerheaded destroyers crackled into existence with gravitic cannons, lasers, and missiles dispensing death and destruction ahead of them. They accelerated straight through the Shang formation atop plumes of blue fusion flame and chaos reigned in their wakes to the utter and complete delight of one Director Malcolm McDonnell.

“Hello boys,” a voice said from one of his displays and Malcolm turned to see Caroline Murphy smiling at him. “Did you miss me?”

“Every day of my life,” Malcolm said with his very best smile. And a man raised in one of the great families of Earth had access to the most brilliant of smiles in all the worlds.

“Liar,” Caroline whispered and bestowed a far softer smile on him in return.

Another display flashed to show him three of the new Shang cruisers drifting out of formation with wreckage spewing out of their wounded flanks. A fourth blip blinked in and out to indicate the last known location of a cruiser that had simply come apart during the surprise flank assault.

“I thought we went over this before,” Malcolm returned as a different display flashed for his attention. Malcolm watched her destroyers spin around to face the Shang fleet once more as maneuvering thrusters slid them towards the other defending ships. “New life and all that jazz.”

Caroline shook her head and the destroyers lit off their drives as Hellcat starfighters launched from their broadside hangar bays with a metronome rhythm.

“You’re going to make me blush,” she said with an impish smile.

“Always,” Malcolm returned as if speaking an oath.

“Sounds promising.” Caroline shook her head and her eyes glinted with amusement. “Now are you going to hold my coat while I beat these friends of yours all on my lonesome? Or do you want to join the party?”

“I’ve always loved a good party,” Malcolm said and turned to the display with Olivia Wyatt’s face on it. “Captain?”

Olivia smiled at him. “I’m already coordinating with her captains, Director.”

Malcolm sighed and looked towards Erik Torson’s display. Times like this made him wonder why he bothered to act like he was in charge around here.

“Professionals,” Erik answered the unspoken question with a smile. “It’s why we have them.”

Malcolm nodded in agreement and turned back to Olivia. “Do it.”

“Yes, Director,” Olivia said and turned away from him to address the entire fleet. “All ships, advance at maximum acceleration and prepare to engage the enemy.”

She paused, looked at Malcolm for a moment, and then sighed as the entire formation began accelerating towards the Shang fleet.

“That would be the Shang for clarification. The Pennsylvania Star Fleet is not, repeat not, our enemy at this time.”

“At this time?” Caroline asked with an upraised eyebrow. She crossed her arms and stared at Olivia for a fulminating second.

Olivia answered the unspoken challenge with a steady gaze.

Caroline turned to Malcolm and smiled once more. “She really is a professional, isn’t she?”

“I trust her with my life,” Malcolm said.

Caroline nodded. “I remember a time when I trusted you with mine.”

“You still can,” Malcolm said.

“I know,” Caroline said and her face broke into a radiant smile. “That’s why I’m here.”

“I thought you were here to secure Wolfenheim for our not-so-mutual Family interests?”

“That’s the orders I sailed under,” Caroline said with a corrective shake of her head. Then she sighed. “But we all know why they sent me.”

“The Family could teach Machiavelli a thing or two, couldn’t they?”

“Come on, Malcolm,” Caroline said with another shake of her head. “You know the score as well as I. Machiavelli was one of us.”

“That’s true,” Malcolm whispered. Then he let out a long breath and stopped flirting around the main issue. “I don’t want to fight you, Caroline.”

Caroline nodded. “And I don’t want to fight you.”

Malcolm aimed a decisive nod at her. “So how about we deal with our common enemy now so we can discuss the particulars of that homecoming in more…comfortable surroundings?”

“Do you…promise?” Caroline asked with a wicked glint in her eyes.

“With all my heart,” Malcolm answered and placed his hand over the referenced organ.

Caroline’s smile took on a radiant aura once more and she opened her mouth to reply. But the displays flashed a warning of incoming missile launches and her jaw snapped shut.

Missile after missile boiled out of the Shang starships and streaked towards the converging defending fleets in wave after wave of oncoming destruction.

“All ships, hold offensive fire,” Olivia ordered. “Rig for maximum point defense.”

“Are you sure about this?” Caroline asked with a doubtful look.

“Those are too many missiles for just our point defenses to handle,” Olivia returned. “We need every weapon to stop them.”

Caroline looked at her for a moment before nodding. “Well argued. I assume you plan to target the Shang themselves once we are close enough to guarantee hits?”

“Yes,” Olivia said.

Caroline nodded again. “You have fought this kind of action at Epsilon Reticuli, Serenity, and New Earth.”

Malcolm frowned and glanced at Dawn, wondering if he was hearing what he thought he was. It sounded like she was saying something for the record to defend an action she thought her superiors would disagree with.

“I will direct my ships to follow your lead for the duration of this battle,” Caroline continued with a formal nod.

“I have directed my captains to do the same,” Erik added from his display. Then he gave Olivia a wry smile. “We are…yours to command.”

“Thank you,” Olivia said, and a light blush just might have colored her cheeks. Then she nodded and cleared her throat before meeting their gazes and continuing.

“Let’s roll.”

“Let’s roll,” the other two echoed as the Shang missiles began to streak into the combined defensive fire of all three fleets.

Malcolm’s Blackhawk vibrated with the constant fire of point defense missiles from his launchers, and they struck out with allied lasers and even gravitic cannons to lay down a wall of death in front of the Shang missile swarm. The wall of explosions, flares, and countermeasures held in space for a moment, and then began to march back towards the Shang fleet as the three fleets merged and charged the invaders as one.

Malcolm watched his capacitors and fuel levels drop as even the Peloran-upgraded fusion generator labored to keep up with the energy demands of constant fire at this level. He glanced up to where Dawn sat atop the console and winced. They weren’t going to be able to keep this up for long.

Dawn nodded in agreement to his unspoken comment and shifted her head to the side. The display she pointed out showed their ammunition levels falling well below operational minimums for everything except the purely anti-ship warheads.

Malcolm cleared his throat and smiled. At least they would have plenty of big booms to shoot at the enemy when Olivia ordered them to open fire.

Dawn shrugged in recognition of their shared understanding.

Malcolm returned his focus to the mass holocaust of Shang missiles as the combined fleet pushed them further and further back towards the attacking fleet. They drove in on plumes of blue fusion flame or whatever energy fields the Aesiran used and began killing the missiles even as they left the tubes. Explosions lit the Shang fleet like the fires of Armageddon and the defenders continued to accelerate into them.

Malcolm glanced at the display showing their combined effective closing rates and shook his head. It was going to be a fast knife fight and their gravitic cannons would only have time for one shot. That just meant they were going to have to make it count.

“All ships, prepare for offensive fire,” Caroline ordered. “In three…”

One of the destroyers flashed on his displays, and Malcolm nodded towards Dawn.


Dawn smiled and the Blackhawk’s capacitors dumped power into the gravitic cannon.


The gravitic cannon’s display blinked to show it was at maximum power.


The gravitic cannon unleashed its full fury and reached out to rip at their target. The destroyer’s jamming systems fought to give his squadron’s cannons other targets and only three of his fighters found the real target’s deflection grid. The grid flickered and weakened as they tore into it for nearly second, but it was too powerful for three fighter-class gravitic cannons to tear open entirely.

Missiles rippled out of the launchers on his Blackhawks’ flanks and the remains of his fighter squadron filled space with wildly accelerating miniature guided weapons that all had a single goal. Death by mutual extinction with their target. Malcolm’s fire poured into the saucer-shaped destroyer, even as its point defense grid ripped them apart by the scores.

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 a second wave of missiles followed them in, 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 to make attack range ripped the already destabilized deflection grid apart, leaving the destroyer temporarily vulnerable to the next phase of his attack. His lasers pulsed at maximum rate, lashing the destroyer’s armor with enough power to melt her outer armor layers.

The saucer-shaped Shang destroyer spun like a top, keeping the lasers from melting the same armor for more than a second or so, but more missiles poured into the vulnerable destroyer. Some carried old-style chemical warheads that exploded around it, filling space with more flames and debris. Some attacked the destroyer with the last of his electronic countermeasures, blinding its sensitive systems to other incoming missiles. The last missiles generated miniature black holes that ripped the weakened armor off the destroyer and then dug deeper and deeper with each successful hit.

Then Rouen joined the assault and two ship-killer lasers pinned the Shang destroyer like an annoying fly. Four anti-ship missiles followed the lasers in, trying to penetrate the enemy starship’s point defense. Defensive guns ripped two of them apart, and another lost lock to spiral out into space and oblivion. The fourth dodged a final swarm of desperate counter missiles, swooped through the tattered deflection grid, slipped through a hole in the smashed armor, and a miniature black hole clawed at the destroyer from the inside.

It winked out of existence and left behind no evidence that it had ever existed.

Malcolm swung his head around to scan the rest of the fleets as they came together and slashed through each other on directly opposing vectors and speeds as missiles exploded all around.

Rouen bucked as a concentrated salvo of missiles and lasers made it through her defenses. She slewed out of formation, adding more wreckage to the field of battle as she spun away. Then it was one of Murphy’s destroyers that shuddered as the Shang connected with a concentrated barrage. It impacted amid ship, right where the destroyer’s fragile hangar bay connected the more heavily armored prow and aft engine section. Shot after shot tore the hangar bay’s roof and belly apart until they broke the destroyer’s back and sent her tumbling out of the fight in wildly diverging directions.

Malcolm’s jaw dropped as one of his remaining Blackhawks ate a missile clawing its way towards him and came apart. But he looked through that explosion to see just how badly the loss of those destroyers was about to hurt.

The surviving twenty or thirty Shang starships accelerated away from the American and Aesiran ships, flinging missiles back at the defenders. Both Normandy and Murphy’s Grayson had lost the only remaining ships defending their starboard flanks. Another display flashed to show that Erik’s command ship had lost her starboard guard as well.

Malcolm knew what those missiles were going to do to the command ships’ flanks and swung his controls around without thinking. His remaining Blackhawks swung around to slip into the defensive slot covering Grayson’s flank. Then more Blackhawks swarmed out from around Normandy to protect her as Avengers swooped down to help bolster the entire point defense wall. Aesiran fighters boiled out from their formation to defend their command ship and their prows glowed as they prepared to fire on the incoming missiles. Another display flashed to show four or five dozen Hellcats moving into position around him and he had a moment to look to the side to meet one of their pilots’ gazes.

Then the point defense networks of every surviving starfighter synced up with each other as the Shang missiles entered their terminal attack phase. The missiles swooped in as the fighters opened fire and a wall of death marched across the incoming swarm. Explosions filled space as they killed dozens of missiles in that last second. Scores of missiles. Maybe even hundreds. The displays were simply too cluttered for even Malcolm’s mind to track all of the incoming targets.

The one thing he knew for certain was that they stopped most of the missiles with that wall of point defense.


The survivors streaked through the exploding debris of their compatriots and dove down towards the wounded starships they’d come to kill.

One exploded as it hit a Blackhawk instead. Another ran into an Avenger spewing blue fusion flames as it came around to sweep the missile from the sky with its nose. A Hellcat dove down on another one as its lasers and missiles lashed at a second missile. Three Aesiran fighters swept through a cluster of missiles targeting their command ship and only one flew out of the conflagration. One of Malcolm’s Blackhawks swung in front of him barely in time to intercept another missile that tore it apart before his very eyes.

He didn’t know how many fighters died in that last split second, and he was far too busy slewing his fighter to count them as every instinct he’d learned to listen to screamed at him to get out of where he was right now. Three missiles clawed towards him in a triangular formation he almost avoided with a last ditch twist of the stick to get an extra gee of sideways acceleration out of the maneuvering thrusters.

The fighter swung her tail away from two of the missiles and nailed them with a last-second volley of point defense lasers.

The third missile exploded just off his starboard side and whips of gravity clawed out for him. His deflection grids held for a split second before coming apart, and the missile’s gravitic generators tore at his starfighter. They shredded his tail fins, and opened up the nose ahead of his cockpit. Internal systems tumbled out and a display blinked to show that his gravitic cannon had just died, along with one of his lasers and missile launchers. His upper right engine tore away without warning, and deep furrows opened up in the lower right engine.

Then a piece of wreckage smashed into his canopy and it simply exploded around him. Crystalline slivers of the transparent canopy slashed out and Malcolm felt a sharp pain in his cheek as one of them drew blood. But the air exploding outwards carried most of those slivers away from him.

He would have sucked in a deep breath of relief if he wasn’t in vacuum.

That put a dampener on things like breathing. Or seeing for that matter. He could feel his eyeballs freezing even as he got a far closer and clearer look at space than he’d ever wanted to get. Malcolm pondered that thought for a bit and realized it was true. In over a century of going into space, he’d never…what was that saying the spacers always used…ah yes…there it was. He’d never breathed vacuum before.

It was not an enjoyable experience.

Then his flight suit’s seals engaged and a force field bubble swung up and around from behind his head to link up with his chest. The seal blinked twice in confirmation and air blasted into his face from compressed canisters on his chest. It smelled stale and old, but he opened his mouth and sucked the air in like it was the life giving nectar of the gods. Then he swallowed hard and felt his ears pop.

They popped hard enough to hurt in fact.

A hand waved to catch his attention and Malcolm focused on Dawn as she sat atop her console with hair waving outward in the vacuum of space.

“Are you all right?” she asked from his earbuds.

“Yeah,” he croaked from very unhappy vocal cords. He cleared his throat and tried it again. “I’m good.”

She raised one eyebrow at the voice that sounded anything but good. Then she pointed upward and he followed her finger to see a Hellcat drifting upside down mere meters from his cockpit.

The starfighter pilot looked directly at him through her clear cockpit and her lips moved.

“How are you?” her words came through his earbuds.

“I’ll live,” he said in a voice that sounded at least a little bit more lively than his first words.

“Good,” the pilot said with a smile that Malcolm felt he should remember from somewhere. “Commodore Murphy would kill me if she knew I let you die on me.”

“Well then,” he croaked. “I’ll try real hard to keep you from getting killed.”

“That’s the spirit,” the other pilot said with another of those ironic smiles.

Then another voice cut through the channels.

“This is Captain John Smith of Phantom Squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Wing One Twelve, The Cowboys, to all Shang vessels. I warned you. Now take this warning with you. Tell all of your people. The Cowboys defend this colony. Do not return if you value your lives.”

Malcolm glanced at one of his surviving displays to see the last of the Shang ships running back over the Red Line in a full-fledged retreat. They weren’t even firing missiles anymore.

He’d survived. His people had survived. Malcolm relaxed back in the remains of his cockpit and let out a long breath of relief.

Then hyperspace opened up and swallowed the fleeing Shang starships.

“You know they’re just going to come back, right?” Caroline asked.

“Of course they are.” John shook his head and returned her gaze over the displays. “They were always going to come back. But this is a psychological war. The only way we will truly drive them away is if we convince them that they are beaten. That every time they face a Cowboy, they will die.”

Caroline shook her head in amazement. “They’ll kill you. They’ll hunt you down, and they will kill you.”

“They already did.” John Smith smiled. “They killed me most spectacularly. I’ve seen the footage. But here’s the trick. We Cowboys always come back. The Shang can kill us a dozen times and we will come back a dozen times more to face them. We will say our name and we will fight them again and again until they learn that they cannot beat us. We will become their personal boogeyman, and we will haunt them until they leave our space forever.”

Caroline turned to aim a disbelieving look at Malcolm.

Malcolm shrugged and smiled. “We have Peloran cloning chambers. They can’t kill us and make it stick anymore.”

“You people scare me,” Caroline whispered.

“I’m sorry.” John Smith smiled again, shrugged, and became the teenager he normally acted like once more. “But this fight really is bigger than any of us.”

“It’s your fight,” Caroline said to him. “But it’s not mine.”

“I know you haven’t signed up,” John Smith said with a nod. “I just need you to realize that I have. This is for all the marbles. For everyone on Earth and beyond, and I won’t back down.”

Caroline nodded slowly and looked back towards Malcolm. “What am I going to do with your people?”

Malcolm spread his arms out wide and tried to inject a lighter tone into the conversation. “What do you want to do with us?”

Murphy returned his smile with interest. “Oh, you would like to know that, wouldn’t you?”

“I’m all ears,” Malcolm said and made a profound attempt to waggle his ears at her.

Caroline laughed and shook her head. “You always were.”

Malcolm let out a long breath and leaned forward. “I promised you a more comfortable place to discuss all of this.”

Caroline nodded and sobered once more. “Yes, you did.”

“So why don’t we go on down to the planet and discuss all of this over a nice view of a shiny new colony?”

Caroline pursed her lips and aimed a speculative gaze at him. “You aren’t trying to lure me into a compromising position are you?”

“I could be.” Malcolm shrugged. “Or maybe it’s just that my suit air smells horrible. Maybe I’d rather negotiate with you on a beautiful planet surrounded by all the fresh air we can breathe.”

Caroline nodded very slowly at him. “We have spent the last few thousand lightyears aboard ship, haven’t we?”

“We have.” Malcolm spread his arms out wide in a welcoming gesture. “Come on down with me. I think we can come to a mutually acceptable solution to all of our orders.”

“That sounds…promising,” Caroline whispered.

Malcolm nodded at her. “We find ourselves in promising times, I think.”

“In more ways than one,” Caroline whispered once more. Then she sighed nodded. “Okay, Malcolm. I’ll come and see what you have in mind.”

“I’ll be waiting for you.”

Caroline’s display cut out and Malcolm turned to Dawn with a questioning look.

“We can land, can’t we?”

“Oh yes, we can certainly land,” Dawn said with a smile.

Malcolm frowned at that. “Why do I sense a ‘but’ in there?”

“I didn’t say anything about landing in one piece.” Dawn chuckled at Malcolm’s expression. “Just hold on. The ride might be a bit rough.”

“Don’t promise me a good time,” Malcolm whispered and tried to relax again. “Then fail to deliver.”

“When have I ever failed to deliver on a promise?” Dawn returned with a wink and their Blackhawk rotated on a burst of maneuvering jets. The three remaining engines powered up and began gently accelerating towards the planet. The third flickered for a moment, failed for a moment longer, and then came back up in a blast of exploding hydrogen that passed through every shade of blue, yellow, orange, and all the way into the red.

“Um…is that going to be a problem?” Malcolm asked in a worried tone.

“Don’t worry,” Dawn said. “I’ve got this completely under control.”

She gave him stunning smile and the engine kept power as they dropped out of formation with the remaining defense fleet. They passed through the smashed starships that had fallen out of formation earlier in the battle. They dodged the wreckage of destroyed starfighters and dead missiles and sunk further in towards the gravity well surrounding the planet. Their Blackhawk’s deflection grid came up to full power and they entered atmosphere as the air turned to flames around them. The third engine coughed red flames again and one of his displays flashed a low power warning.

“The good news is that we’re definitely going to land now,” Dawn said.

“And the bad news?” Malcolm asked with more a tremor than he wanted to reveal.

“That engine’s not getting us back into space, so landing is our only option.”

“I take it back. This isn’t anything like a good time,” Malcolm said and held on tight as they fell towards the ground like a meteor. A sonic boom blew the flames away as they dropped below the speed of sound and he saw the colony below them. Thrusters flared, gravplating came to life, and the fighter shed hundreds of kilometers an hour of speed each second.

And that was when engine three coughed one more time and died.


“Don’t worry. We don’t need that one anymore,” Dawn said. Then the deflection grid came down. The Blackhawk shuddered as the wind caught its tortured control surfaces and the other two engines shut down with it.

“Dawn?” Malcolm asked and latched onto the pilot’s chair with a white knuckled grip.

Dawn just smiled as they plummeted towards the ground. “We don’t need those either. Gravplates will slow us down just fine.”

“Are you certain?” Malcolm asked with a glance as more displays began flashing and the altimeter screeched for his attention. The main generator had just given up the ghost, half their capacitors weren’t answering the power drain anymore, and they were running out of air space far quicker than he liked.

“Absolutely,” Dawn said and gave him another dazzling smile as the airspeed display dropped below 100 kilometers an hour. “Gravplates always have their own emergency power. And here we come.”

The Blackhawk slowed to a stop and touched down on her landing skids with one shuddering motion. And then the starfighter settled down with all the grace of an old grand dame holding court. The fact that it happened the moment the gravplate power display winked out was almost certainly a coincidence.

The force field bubble over his head rolled back into his suit and fresh wind touched his face, taking away the stale smell of his suit air. It wasn’t a bad smell. Different from Earth and New Earth for that matter. But he thought he could get to like it. He certainly liked it better than suit air.

“I’m not certain I can say that was a good time,” Malcolm whispered with a false calm and popped his five-point harness to stand up. “But it sure was memorable.”

“Yeah, well you may want to shimmy yourself on down to the ground before I turn all the gravitics off.” Dawn frowned as another set of displays began flashing red. “Or they run out of power and turn themselves off.”

“That bad?” Malcolm asked and swung his legs out over the edge of the cockpit to find the ladder.

“Don’t make me start counting the seconds,” Dawn said in a careful tone.

“Got it,” Malcolm said and his feet failed to find the ladder. He looked out over the edge and realized why. Several claw marks tore through where it had been when the battle started. Well. That was awkward. “How many seconds do we have again?”

“Not enough for a proper Cowboy dismount,” Dawn answered with a wince.

“Shiny,” Malcolm muttered and jumped out of the fighter. The wind whipped through his hair and he planted himself on the ground in one of those perfect three-point landings the superheroes did on all those networks shows. He was going to have to see if that looked as good on camera as it had felt while in the air. Sticking the landing hurt in places he hadn’t realized he had places, but the airtime had been fun.

Possibly even worth it.

With that important thought in mind he came to his feet and turned to Park and Clark with a confident smile. “Tell me the truth, guys. Was that impressive or what?”

“Looks like you barely made it out alive, kid,” Clark muttered with a glance towards the damaged starfighter.

“Oh, I was never in any real danger,” Malcolm returned with airy confidence.

Then he heard metal tearing and clattering behind him and saw Park’s and Clark’s eyes open wide in surprise. He also felt the holoemitters in his uniform power up to take the load of Dawn’s holoform.

“Dawn?” Malcolm asked and her holoform stepped forward into his field of vision. “Please tell me that wasn’t our starfighter falling apart behind us.”

Dawn made a show of turning to look behind them before smiling at him. “That’s not our starfighter that fell apart behind us.”


She met his gaze with wide-eyed innocence.

“Are you lying to me?”

She aimed a sunny smile at him. “Absolutely.”

That was when a sonic boom washed over them and he turned his eyes up to see a shuttle dropping towards them. Thrusters flared, wings extended, and it banked around to land next to the remains of his starfighter. The shuttle appeared bright, new, and pristine next to the wreck as it settled on its landing skids and came to a rest.

“I’m shocked…shocked that you would mislead me so remorselessly,” Malcolm said in a disappointed tone and walked towards the shuttle.

The side of the shuttle opened to reveal the Hellcat pilot from above. She walked to the bottom of the ramp and gave Malcolm a long look. She turned her gaze to Park and Clark for a moment, and then came about to examine the remains of his starfighter. She finally turned back to Malcolm with an upraised eyebrow.

Malcolm frowned as that familiar feeling returned. He couldn’t remember her, but the back of his mind told him he’d met her before.

“Are any of you armed?” the pilot asked and scanned the welcoming party with a narrowed gaze.

Park opened his suit wide and spun in place to show he hid nothing underneath.

Clark pulled a pistol out of his belt and laid it on the ground. Then he placed a knife next to it. Two more knives came out of his boots, and another pistol slipped out of a shoulder holster. He continued divesting himself of various blades and firearms until a pile of weapons large enough to topple a third world government lay at his feet. Then he smiled at the pilot and raised his open hands to her.

She sighed and aimed her final examination at Malcolm.

“I’m just armed with my wits,” he said and raised his hands as well.

She nodded very slowly and turned her back on him to face the shuttle.

“You’re in no danger here,” the pilot announced.

Malcolm frowned and tried to decide if he’d just been insulted. Then Caroline stepped from the hatch and banished that thought from his mind.

“I knew that already,” Caroline said as she walked down the ramp. “In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I told you that.”

The pilot remained admirably silent as she stepped to the side to let her commander pass.

Caroline reached the end of the ramp and gave him a wry smile. “I told you I’d catch you, Malcolm.”

“Consider me well and truly caught,” Malcolm answered and held his hand out to her. She placed hers in his and he raised it to his lips in a fluid and gallant motion. Then he turned to wave his free hand at the colony taking shape around them. “Welcome to Wolfenheim, Caroline.”

She looked around at Park, Clark, and the weapons at the older man’s feet.

“You’ve assembled quite the rogues’ gallery here, I see.”

“Only the very best,” Malcolm returned.

“Yes. They are at that.” She smiled sadly and reached up to cup his cracked and bloody face in her hands. “You took this for me?”

His cheeks burned even more at her touch than it had to the touch of naked vacuum. He swallowed and fought to keep his composure as that burning feeling shot throughout his body. She leaned in close and leaned her head on his chest, leaving her fingers to sizzle lightning bolts into his side as they flitted downward towards his waist.

“There was a lot more blood the first time you saved me, you know,” she whispered into his chest.

Malcolm licked his lips and tried to tell his heart to slow down a beat or two. It ignored his command with blithe abandon.

“I do hope it belonged to the other guy,” he finally managed to say.

“Guys,” she corrected quickly. “There were…a lot of them. Far too many for any rational individual to charge in on a whim and a prayer.”

She leaned back and looked up into his eyes with a hard stare. “You never hesitated then, either.”

“Did I win?” Malcolm asked with a wry grin.

“No,” she whispered and shook her head again. Then she turned to look towards the pilot and sighed. “But you did buy us the time we needed to escape. And to drag you out with us after we ran them over with our car.”

Malcolm followed her gaze and the pilot nodded slowly. Malcolm let out a long breath. That answered one question he had, but it opened up so many more. He was about to ask the first when she pushed herself away and glared up at him.

“God damn, you Malcolm!” she screamed. “Why do you keep doing this to me!”

Malcolm froze and tried to think of something to say. But nothing came to mind and he just stared back at her in confusion.

“I’m supposed to arrest you! Don’t you understand that?” she shouted in desperation. “Why do you keep trying to save my life when I’m here to arrest you?”

“Because I don’t mind if you arrest me,” he answered without hesitation and held his wrists out to her. He felt a calm fall over him in that moment and knew without question it was the right thing to do. “I won’t resist you.”

She stared at him for a hopeless second and then shook her head. “But I’m supposed to take you home!”

“Then take me home,” Malcolm said with a genuine smile and knew he meant every word of it. Every word and more. “I won’t fight you. I’ll go wherever you want me.”

Caroline shook her head again turned to look at the colony.

“And leave behind all the money and resources spent on a Class One Colonization Package?” she said in a helpless tone. “The Family would never forgive me for just leaving it out here.”

“Then don’t leave,” Malcolm said in that same calm tone.

“What are you?” Caroline stopped and peered up at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

Malcolm sighed and smiled one more time. “The Family funded this expedition. I think that entitles them to a seat on the Board of Directors. And since you are the most senior Family representative here, you should take it until they send someone else.”

Her mouth hung open in utter shock at the insane idea and he just smiled at her.

“We’re all here, Caroline. Everything you’ve crossed five thousand lightyears to claim is all right here. All you have to do is be willing to take it and you can fulfill all of your orders in one fell blow.”

Caroline shook her head and looked out at the colony again. “This isn’t what they wanted.”

“I know that.” Malcolm shifted his fingers just enough to grasp hers. “But do you truly wish them to get everything they want?”

Caroline’s gaze snapped back to him and her eyes glittered. “That’s a dangerous question to ask, Malcolm.”

“We live in dangerous times, Caroline. And I learned long ago to never shrink away from danger.”

Her fingers squeezed his in reflex and his smile broadened.

Work with me, Caroline. We can build something out here that they never dreamed might exist. All we have to do is work together.”

She shook her head with a wry smile. “You never did know when to stop dreaming.”

“Only a fool would stop dreaming of you.”

“But you did.” Caroline shook her head again, but this time it was a motion of anguish. “You don’t even remember me! How can you trust me with the kind of power you’re offering when you don’t even know who I am?”

“I may not remember you,” Malcolm said with a smile and felt the calm continue to seep into his bones. “But I do know you. I’ve risked my life for you without any question or hesitation. And I hold my life in pretty high regard. I wouldn’t risk it for someone that’s not worth it. So somewhere in the back of my mind, behind the missing memories, I’ve always known you.”

Her face softened as she saw the truth in his words, but she shook her head. “You have no idea how much I’ve compromised to get here. I’m not the girl I was back then. I’m not one of the clean ones. You shouldn’t trust me like this. I’ll just disappoint you.”

“You’re wrong,” Malcolm said in a calm voice. And behind it, in the part of his mind that had forgotten everything, he knew he was right. That sixth sense that told him when to run and when to hide told him right now that it was time to stand exactly where he was. He held his hand out to her. “I know that if you take my hand right now, if you choose to work with me, you will never disappoint me like that.”

“How can you know?” Caroline asked with haunted eyes.

“Because I’m Ageless,” Malcolm said in his most confident tone. “Don’t you know we can see the future?”

“No you can’t,” Caroline snorted at him and shook her head in amusement. “The best you get is feelings.”

“That is very true,” Malcolm said and met her gaze with all his attention. “And right now the feeling I get with every fiber of my being is that if you choose to work with me, you won’t let yourself fail.”

She froze and stared at him for a long moment. “Why? Because I wouldn’t want to disappoint you?”

The words came out hard and bitter and his calm shuddered for a split second. There was more pain in her than she wanted to reveal. More pain than he’d guessed. He wondered how much of it was his fault and his spirit quailed for a split second. Too much of it was. And yet much of it wasn’t. Maybe even most. Maybe. Well, he knew what that felt like. He shook his head and knew every word he was about to say was true.

“You won’t fail because you won’t want to disappoint yourself, Caroline. You don’t want to promise something and then not deliver in the end. I understand that. I’ve been there.”

Her eyes opened wide and he held his hand out to her again.

“I got better. I found people willing to trust me. Willing to work with me. Willing to help me become better than I had been before. Take my hand, Caroline, and maybe we can help each other become better people.” Then his smile turned wicked as another thought tickled the back of his mind. “And maybe we can put a stick in the Family’s eye while we’re about it.”

She laughed at that and turned to look at her pilot. Malcolm followed her gaze in time to see the pilot nod back at her. Caroline pulled in a deep breath, bit her lower lip, and returned her gaze to his.

“Okay, Malcolm,” she said and took his hand. “I guess I’ll do that thing you want.”

“That sounds promising,” Malcolm said and waggled his eyebrows at her.

“We live in promising times,” she returned and brought one hand up to pat his chest with an electric touch. She turned to look at the colony and sucked in a deep breath. She released it and nodded. “Is this really what you wanted?”

“It’s everything I wanted,” Malcolm whispered and followed her gaze.


“Well. You know me.” Malcolm made a production of shrugging. He may have even added a melodramatic sigh to the act. “Whenever I get one thing I want, I quickly add others to the list. Wouldn’t want to get all comfortable and boring, you know.”

“You never did know when to stop,” Caroline whispered in a wry tone.

Malcolm answered by wrapping an arm around her waist.

She leaned against him again and everything felt right as they looked up into the sky. Wolfenheim’s running lights blinked in low orbit where it hovered over the colony and began lowering the orbital elevator. Sunlight glinted off the elevator as it spooled down into the atmosphere on its long, straight cable.

That elevator represented the future of the new colony. The future of everything he’d devoted his life to.

“It’s so beautiful,” one amazed voice whispered into the silence.

“Yes, it is.”