I learned something at Arnami Prime. The Arnam are not simply humans with blue skin and black eyes. They are Alien in a way most of us never realize. They don’t show it to us when they come to our space. They try to act more like us. They wear sunglasses to avoid disturbing us with those black orbs in their eye sockets. And they rarely walk around in natural formation while in our space. The truth is that they are born soldiers, designed from the ground up as the ultimate weapon in a war that ended two thousand years ago. Now we’ve found them another war to fight. God help us all.
Rainbow light invaded normalspace, heralding Normandy’s arrival at a distant star thousands of lightyears from Earth, and hundreds of lightyears from the Peloran Gateway. That bridge across the stars was months away in the past, and Normandy and her consorts had traveled deep into Arnam space.
Into the very deepest part of it, in fact.
Director Malcolm McDonnell leaned against the bridge’s rear bulkhead and watched the main screen render the Arnami Prime system, home of the Arnam race, in all its glory. It was probably one of their most heavily defended systems. It was certainly the busiest one he’d seen in the last few months.
Hundreds of spaceships plied the lanes between planets, asteroid belts, and moon systems. Miners, transports, and warships called out their presence via transponders, while defense stations drew lines in space where no ships dared pass.
It was an impressive sight.
It looked much like the swarm of ships always moving around Earth, but there was something different here. It lacked something.
So Malcolm watched and tried to puzzle it out. That had always been his job in the old days. He was the watcher. The one who looked and analyzed things. Charles had been the thinker. The one who came up with the plans. His brain shied away from the third member of their group. The one who had done things.
Malcolm blinked that thought away and let his eyes unfocus. He sat still and the lights representing thousands of spaceships played over his eyes. He frowned. There was a pattern. He just couldn’t see it on the wall. He blinked again as that thought came to mind. He wondered what it meant. He examined the thought, looking at it from every angle to see where it could go.
And that is when he recognized the problem.
“Could you show that in three dimensions?” Malcolm asked.
The bridge crew looked towards Captain Olivia Wyatt and she raised one eyebrow in his direction. Normandy and her sisters had been designed as flagships for the Republic of California, complete with full flag bridges, but Malcolm had signed off on Olivia’s request to repurpose their flag bridge years ago. The Peloran had heavily upgraded the standard bridge they stood in now, but it was still old and small compared to modern starships. It simply didn’t have room for the kind of full holoprojection sensor display he was asking for.
She met his eyes, and he let her see his very real concern. She nodded after a moment.
“Make it so,” she ordered and waved towards the screen.
Lieutenant Anton Lee ran his fingers over the sensor station. The screen took on a third dimension and expanded away from the forward bulkhead towards the center of Normandy’s bridge.
Where it quickly engulfed Olivia. Olivia pursed her lips, stood up out of her chair, and strode back to the bulkhead Malcolm leaned against.
“What are you looking for?” she asked and turned to face forward again.
“That,” Malcolm answered as he analyzed the pattern he’d sensed but not seen.
Now he saw it in all its glory. The entire Arnami Prime system was a machine. It moved like a metronome, each part taking a step in the larger pattern. Ships, stations, moons, and even planets took their place in the tapestry that was a living star system. It was like the Arnam were one giant life form and every step they took was part of the whole.
It was an amazing sight, marred only by the handful of ships that didn’t follow the pattern. Like the small fleet hovering around the Class One Colonization Ship Wolfenheim that stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Wow,” Olivia said in an awed tone. “I feel like I arrived at the prom without my dress.”
“It is a beautiful sight,” Malcolm agreed absentmindedly as he continued to study the plot.
She turned another eyebrow at him.
He had the distinct feeling she was considering whether or not to see if he could breathe vacuum, so he quickly replayed their conversation in his mind. Whereupon he realized that his statement could be taken wrongly.
Or very, very rightly.
He did not blush. Malcolm McDonnell had grown up in one of the Great Families of Earth, where three of the most important lessons to be learned were control, control, and control. So he answered her eyebrow with a light smile and waved his hand at the projection.
“It’s one sure way to make an impression with the visiting barbarians,” Malcolm said with a deprecatory wave at himself. “Though I find myself wondering if even the Arnam could do something like this on purpose.”
Olivia held his gaze for two long seconds before smiling. “I agree. The planning it would take is…awe inspiring.”
“That it is,” Malcolm said with another smile. “We all know the power of the subconscious mind. It can make us do things we would never knowingly plan to do.”
“Would you care to speculate?” she asked.
Malcolm looked away and nodded towards the projection again. “You’ve seen how much the Peloran and Arnam promote order, calm, and cooperation in their daily lives?”
“This could be just like that, only magnified to the scale of a star system.” Malcolm shook his head. “They may not even think it is abnormal.”
Olivia turned her attention back to the holofield and let out a long breath before whispering in his ear. “We’re going to need to go over the records.”
“To see if the other systems we’ve gone through are like this,” Malcolm finished for her.
“At least we know the Aesiran are made of different stuff.” Malcolm pointed towards a large group of ships orbiting Arnami Prime. Part of the holoprojection expanded to show them in higher detail, and while they had their own order, it was pure chaos compared to the rest of the system.
Two dozen Aesiran freighters orbited around Arnami Prime, and a dozen nimble warships swam around them like sharks on patrol. Strobe lights on their curved hulls emitted psychedelic rainbow hues in every direction, creating a hypnotic beauty unlike anything the Peloran or Arnam bone-white spires could claim.
Malcolm had to admit to himself that they were beautiful ships.
Lieutenant Lee cleared his throat and spun to aim a hand at another set of ships that did not match the Arnami pattern.
“We’ve localized eight Pennsylvania Star Fleet vessels, Ma’am,” Lee reported as another window zoomed in on them. “They are in standard planetary orbit at this time.”
“So Murphy beat us here again,” Olivia said with a shake of her head.
“She is a determined individual, isn’t she?” Malcolm asked as he examined the eight Austin-class destroyers. Those shark-like ships and hammerheaded prows carried enough firepower to blow his scratch-built little fleet out of space if they ever caught him.
When they caught him.
Olivia turned a measuring gaze on Malcolm. “You sound proud of her.”
“I am.” Malcolm shrugged. “It’s a pleasure to be stalked by a capable opponent.”
“This capable opponent could end everything right here,” Olivia said with a raised eyebrow.
Malcolm smiled. “Not with the Arnam watching. She doesn’t want that kind of diplomatic incident.”
“All she has to do is follow us out, and she’ll be able to catch us at her leisure.”
“Which means we just have to lose her tail long enough to get away.”
Olivia snorted. “Yes. That’s all we need to do.”
Malcolm smiled. “I have faith in your ability to run away.”
“I’d rather fight her and be done with it,” Olivia growled back.
“I have faith in that ability as well,” Malcolm said in a softer tone.
She paused and met his gaze with wide-open, unguarded eyes for a long moment.
Malcolm had to admit that he loved it when she did that. She spent so much of her time measuring people like she was forecasting the moment when they would betray her. It was good to see her completely forget that cynicism, even if only in such brief moments.
“But even if we win, we’ll be weaker and they’ll just send someone else to do their job,” Malcolm said with a shrug. “We need to find a way to resolve this that doesn’t include shooting each other into tiny little bits.”
Olivia’s response was cut off when the communication’s officer raised her hand to her ear in the universal sign of an incoming signal. Then she blinked and looked over to her captain.
“The local defense commander, a Tarian ap Seren, welcomes us to Arnami Prime, Ma’am,” Lieutenant Eva Jones reported. “By name. He requests Director McDonnell’s attendance for dinner in three hours.”
“Interesting,” Malcolm said and turned his gaze back to Olivia. “One wonders why he would seek to delay us like this.”
“Indeed,” she said and turned her face back to him. “Do you know him?”
Malcolm shook his head. “Never heard of him.”
“Then you need to make yourself presentable,” she said with a wrinkled nose. “I don’t want you making my fleet look sloppy.”
“Hey,” Malcolm began in an outraged tone. “I don’t have a single sloppy bone in my body.”
Olivia smiled. “I would never accuse you of having only one sloppy bone.”
Malcolm raised one finger to register the fair hit and gave her a wink as he turned towards the lift. She was right about one thing. He really did need to spruce himself up if he was going to meet the new neighbors.
Malcolm adjusted the black tie of his double-breasted business suit and followed his Arnam guide through the space station that comprised the heart of Arnami Prime's defense network. The light was far dimmer inside that station than he was used to, but his eyes had already adjusted to it. Mostly. His shoes squelched with each step on the wet, spongy material that made up the Arnam station’s decking.
Thank God for waterproof leather.
A hatch opened in front of the guide, and the dark blue man stepped to the side before waving Malcolm onward.
Malcolm nodded his acceptance and thanks to the alien and strode through into the small meeting room on the other side.
The Arnam dominating the room was powerfully built, and his short, bright blue hair was a striking contrast to his dark blue skin. A dark blue skinsuit covered most of his body, leaving only his head, hands, and feet free. The fingers and toes were long and supple, and infinitely black orbs rested where other humans kept their eyes, making him look undeniably alien.
Malcolm knew they'd been designed to live deep under water, and their eyes were built to draw in far more visible light than other humans. Their multiple thin eyelids closed when in bright light, and he had no doubt that they’d been most neighborly in giving him enough light to see with. It may be dim compared to the light of Earth he’d grown up with, but was undoubtedly bright for them.
Unlike most Arnam Malcolm had met, this man wore no sunglasses in an attempt to hide the eyes that unsettled many Earthborn humans. Instead he stared straight at Malcolm with those dark orbs, as if daring the Earthborn human to say a word.
Malcolm accepted the challenge inherent in that gaze and met it without hesitation.
The Arnam smiled and held his long-fingered hand out towards Malcolm. “I am Commander Tarian ap Seren. It is an honor to meet you.”
“I am Director Malcolm McDonnell,“ Malcolm returned the formal introduction and clasped the alien hand. “The honor is all mine.”
“Thank you for agreeing to join me for dinner,” Tarian said with a nod.
Malcolm cocked his head to the side. “Your invitation was so polite, I could hardly refuse.”
“Indeed.” Tarian gave him a wry chuckle. “You’re advance team came through a few months ago and I had the pleasure of speaking with your…John Clark. He is…quite the character.”
“They broke the mold with him,” Malcolm said with a smile. “Thank God.”
Tarian laughed out loud at that and nodded. “I enjoyed his presence. But it was a relief when he took it elsewhere.”
“As you will be relieved when we do the same?” Malcolm said with an amused smile.
“Indeed,” Tarian said with a nod. Then he winced. It was artfully done. A mere flicker of the edge of his mouth that betrayed just the right amount of annoyance without requiring it be recognized. “I apologize for delaying you, but matters have come to my attention that require a slight deviation from your plans.”
Malcolm raised an eyebrow as his paranoia went into overdrive. He felt no danger from the man, and had long since learned to trust the extra instincts that came from his particular reaction to the Peloran Treatments. The man’s apology seemed genuine.
“Our plans,” Tarian corrected with another slight wince. “I recognize these plans have long been settled by your people and mine, and so now I must apologize for any duplicity you may think I have performed this day.”
“Duplicity?” Malcolm asked. The alien’s words sounded ominous, but he still felt no danger from the man. It was an intriguing dichotomy.
The Arnam smiled at him. “I did not invite you to dine with me alone, Director McDonnell. The others have already arrived.”
“Others?” Malcolm hoped the single word would draw an explanation out of the alien.
Tarian raised a single eyebrow at him. “Others who have already been informed that this is a neutral meeting ground.”
“Neutral?” Malcolm asked as he considered that addition. The only outsiders he knew of in system were the Aesiran and Murphy. That brought interesting thoughts to mind.
“All who come in peace, may go in peace,” the alien said with thin lips. “Do you understand?”
“I do.” If Murphy was willing to accept that, then so was he.
Tarian aimed a long gaze at Malcolm before nodding in decision.
“Good. Please accompany me,” he said in a commanding tone that put the lie to the courteous words and turned to lead Malcolm towards a hatch on the far side of the room.
It opened as they approached, and Malcolm followed the alien through it with all of his senses alert. The room on the other side was far larger, built to host a throng of people at once. Beautiful art on the walls, floor, and ceiling told him it was probably used for grand balls and similar ceremonies.
Only two other people stood in the room, making it look even larger than it probably was. He was entirely unsurprised by exactly who one of them was.
The woman wore short, black hair, and sported brown eyes, a slim build, and a pale face his subconscious mind recognized from long ago. He’d last seen her wearing the uniform of the Pennsylvania Star Fleet while trying to convince him to surrender. Today she wore a far more civilian skirt and blouse that looked amazing on her.
Which was not a high achievement for the outfit. That girl could wear a newspaper and take a man’s breath away.
The man was exactly what Malcolm expected to see. He towered above everyone in the room with a body the Greek gods would have envied sticking out of his brown jacket and pants. A shock of brown-blonde hair topped his head and a brightly colored tattoo peeked out from under his grey shirt, while bright blue eyes met Malcolm’s gaze.
He was an Aesiran, and Malcolm had to admit the man was an impressive sight.
Tarian led Malcolm across the vast, empty room towards where the two humans waited for them. He waved a hand at the larger man and gave Malcolm a smile.
“Director Malcolm McDonnell? This is Yarl Erik Torson.”
“Yarl,” Malcolm said in his light baritone and held his hand out.
“Director,” Torson returned in a deep basso that reverberated through the very deck while he took Malcolm’s hand and shook the world around them.
Malcolm extricated his aching hand from that powerful grasp when the world stopped moving. Then he surreptitiously flexed it to make certain it still functioned.
The hand, not the world.
“And I believe you already know Commodore Caroline Murphy,” Tarian said with another wave of his arm.
“We have met before,” Malcolm said and held his aching hand out to her. “Commodore?”
“Director,” Caroline said and took his hand in a far more comforting grip. It was a gentle, smooth hand, filled with power and delicate precision at the same time.
He could hold that hand forever and never grow tired of it.
Malcolm held on longer than the strict rules of formality decreed, and one of her eyebrows rose in a questioning challenge. He brought the hand up in response and kissed it in a far older ritual than would usually be performed on an occasion such as this.
“It is a pleasure to see you in the flesh,” Malcolm said.
She extricated her hand from his with a look that seemed hauntingly familiar and shook her head very slowly. “You never change, do you?”
Malcolm wished he knew what she meant by that, but whatever memories of her might be hiding in his mind were still maddeningly hazy. He could see a slight twinkle in her eyes that suggested she might have a favorable opinion, and realized in that moment that he sure hoped she did.
“Would you want me to?” He turned to face the only table in the grand room and held his arm out for her.
She gave his arm a long look before bringing her eyes up to his. “You do realize I’m here to arrest you, right?”
“Of course you are,” Malcolm returned with a beatific smile. “But that’s no reason to forget our manners. And escorting a beautiful lady to her seat is the height of manners for any well-bred man.”
“You are hardly well-bred,” Caroline said with an arched eyebrow.
“True.” Malcolm shrugged and kept his arm out. “But common courtesy and strict training demands that I act the part when in company as polite as yours. My lady?”
“Charmed,” Caroline whispered and slipped her arm in his.
Electricity ran through his body and he knew he’d done this before. He’d held countless ladies over the years just like this, but the feel of her arm in his pulled memories he couldn’t quite see from the depths of his mind. They were there, flitting from side to side and daring him to catch them, but they disappeared before he could.
But as he walked with her, as he felt the sway of her gait next to him, he knew they had walked together before. His eyes met hers, and there was memory in them as well. Strong memories. Both good and bad.
“I was also trained to treat all kinds of disreputable folks with the utmost courtesy,” Caroline said with a measuring look at Malcolm.
“Disreputable, am I now?” he asked in a tone of mock offense, and decided it was time to probe her for information. “That’s not what you said the last time you expressed your true feelings for me.”
She skipped a beat. It was done and gone so quickly he barely had time to notice, and he wondered if anyone else had. But he’d felt it in the drag of her hand and knew he’d touched on something. Her face was a mask of vague pleasantness by the time he managed to turn his gaze onto her, but the slightest tint of what might have been a blush colored her cheeks.
“Well, I was obviously mistaken, then,” Caroline said. “Because only the most disreputable of louts would use it against me at a time like this. Or run so far away from me.”
Malcolm placed his free hand over his heart to register the fair hit. “Five thousand lightyears and counting. How much farther can you chase me?”
“I can chase you for another five if that’s what it takes.” She spun and stepped close to press her body against his. He felt every curve under that thin fabric for a moment before she looked straight up into his eyes to deliver the message that she wasn’t bluffing.
An entirely different message slammed into his mind as well. A man could lose a lifetime in those deep brown eyes and count it a blessing from God.
“Ten. Twenty,” she whispered into the thundering sound of his own heartbeat. “You name it, and I will follow.”
“Promises, promises,” Malcolm said amidst vain hope that she couldn’t feel his heart skipping beats like an entire tap dancing troupe.
“Nothing but truth,” Caroline said and stepped away to slip her arm back into his.
“Truth is the foundation of all human relationships,” he said and continued leading her to the table.
“And here I thought it was lies,” she said while looking straight up at him.
She was right. He remembered well how politics inside the Hurst Family were pursued, and her eyes betrayed the toll they’d leveled on her. Malcolm met her gaze without hesitation and told her the complete and total truth.
“I will never lie to you.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. It was only a moment, but it was impossible to miss when staring directly into them. Yes, he could spend a lifetime lost in them and never regret it.
Her eyes focused on him again and she smiled before slashing back with her own verbal riposte. “Hence our lack of a relationship.”
That sense of familiarity and truth skittered down his spine again. She was right in their lack of a relationship, but warnings told him she was not being truthful about the reason. Which meant he had an opening to change the truth if he did it right.
“Ah, but there you are wrong.”
She raised one eyebrow at him, welcoming him to continue before she cut him off at the knees.
“You are pursuing me. And I am leading you on a very merry chase.” He winked at her. “That is the very definition of most relationships I’ve seen.”
Caroline’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Well, put like that, I guess you have a point.” Then they hardened towards him. “But not all relationships are mutually beneficial, or even mutually permissive, and I’m very much afraid that ours cannot be.”
Malcolm leaned away with good grace, willing to give her some of that point in exchange for her admission. Not all of it though. If he let it stand without any challenge, it could be laid in stone that would be far too difficult to change.
“Ah, but there you are wrong,” he said with another wink. “I give you full permission to pursue me.”
Caroline rolled her expressive eyes in a way that said he had no say in the matter. But she did not correct him, accepting his modification to the relationship with good grace.
“Now what benefits could be entailed in this relationship of ours?” Malcolm asked.
Her eyes hardened at his questioning tone and he leaned in to keep speaking before she delivered on any perceived promise to kick his knees out from under him.
“I do believe that negotiations conducted in good faith can create beneficial results for everyone involved.”
Her eyes softened again. “And you would negotiate? In good faith?”
Malcolm smiled and held his eyes on hers. She needed to see that he meant them. That they were the most honest words he could use in the moment. And that he believed them all the way to his core.
“With you? I will always act in good faith.”
Her eyes softened at that, as if remembering something pleasant. The smile that touched her lips made him wish he could share it. Then she nodded and turned to lean against him in a most pleasing manner.
“You lead, kind sir,” she whispered and grasped his arm with both hands. “I shall follow.”
Electricity ran up and down his arm and his body thrilled to the feel of her brushing against his hip, memories flittering in the back of his mind. Malcolm remembered falling in love at first sight. He must have done it half-a-dozen times before he turned thirty. This was different. This wasn’t the first time they’d seen each other. But he let himself be lost in walking with her just as he had in those other times, as he tried to remember why he wanted to.
“Your seats,” Tarian said, bringing Malcolm out of his introspection. A wave befitting that of the best hosts aimed towards the cozy little table with four chairs arranged around it.
Malcolm released her arm and pulled a chair out for her in his best gallant gentlemanly pose.
Caroline smiled and met his eyes again. “This does not change our relationship, you know.”
“It changes everything, actually,” Malcolm returned
She raised one questioning eyebrow at him.
“It’s much harder to shoot someone you’ve eaten with.”
Her eyes flashed and she looked away for a moment. Then she reengaged her lock on his eyes with a determined nod. “You do have a point there. But I could manage pulling the trigger if you proved too difficult to deal with.”
“I’m sure you could,” Malcolm said with a smile. “So I will endeavor with all my considerable charm to be less difficult.”
“And your considerable modesty, I see,” Caroline said with twinkling eyes.
“I would never be so brash as to say that,” Malcolm answered and waggled his eyebrows in an outrageous manner.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said. Then she lowered her magnificent eyes, and her equally magnificent frame, onto the chair with all the grace and dignity of a scion of one of Earth’s most powerful families.
Malcolm leaned forward to push her in, to find that she’d followed protocol perfectly. She managed the precise task of keeping her weight off the chair long enough for him to slide her forward without resistance so smoothly that he wouldn’t have known she’d done it if he didn’t know it was the way it was supposed to be done.
“It’s amazing how polite their warning shots are,” Erik’s deep basso rumbled from the side.
“Indeed,” Tarian returned. “It almost makes we want to watch them fight for real.”
“Not me,” Erik said with a shudder. “The last thing I want is to be nearby when those two start shooting for real.”
Caroline smiled and turned to brush his ear with her lips. “I think we have developed some fans.”
“For certain definitions of the word,” Malcolm returned and straightened his posture as he stepped away from her. He raised a hand to touch his burning ear and turned away from her, his spine tingling in realization.
She was taking advantage of him. She was using the memories he couldn’t recall to control him. And he was letting her. He was playing with fire and he was getting burned. He walked to the other side of the table to open at least a little bit of distance between them and sat down with lips as dry as the Sahara. It took all of his control to keep from licking them as the gravity of his situation hit him like a ton of bricks.
The Wolfenheim Project depended on him to keep his mind straight. His people depended on him. He could not fail. He looked Caroline in the eyes and determined that he would not fail. Whatever the cost.
Tarian shared a wry look with Erik before waving the larger man towards the chair on Malcolm’s right.
Caroline cocked her head to the side and a slow smile twisted her lips before she mouthed two words. “So determined.”
“Always,” Malcolm mouthed back.
Erik sat down gingerly in the chair that looked far too small for his massive frame.
Caroline nodded her head in acceptance of Malcolm’s promise.
“Director,” Tarian said as he sat down in the last chair, tearing Malcolm’s gaze from Caroline. Tarian aimed a long look at him before turning his gaze to Caroline. “Commodore. I think we each understand what we are all doing here.”
Both Malcolm and Caroline pursed their lips at the blue alien.
“But to be clear,” Tarian continued in Malcolm’s direction. “Your fleet is here to found a new Terran colony in our space. It is a worthy goal, and one we agreed to aid you with years ago.”
Caroline opened her mouth to protest but Tarian silenced her with a look.
“And your fleet is here to capture the colony fleet and take it home. I understand there is some question as to the…legality of the funding used to start this project.”
Malcolm considered speaking up, but looked at Caroline first. She was already looking at him, and they shared a quick look. Then she shrugged at him and he shrugged back before they nodded at Tarian.
Erik raised his hand. “I’m just here on a trade mission. Nothing special about me.”
Malcolm turned his gaze to the large Aesiran and knew without a doubt that the man was lying through his gleaming white teeth and friendly smile. On the one hand, he’d always been good at spotting liars. On the other hand, people with “nothing special” about them would never have been invited to this little dinner chat. So both of his very capable hands knew the friendly lie for what it was.
Erik leaned back in his chair, causing it to groan against his bulk, and raised a single goblet in salute. The man knew that Malcolm knew he was lying, which made it less of a lie and more a friendly misdirection.
Tarian raised a single eyebrow at the larger man before continuing. “The question I want answered is why each of you are here.”
Malcolm smiled and purposefully misunderstood the question. He pulled a memory of an old American Astronaut’s words and misquoted them almost accurately. “I think we're going to the stars because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul…we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”
Tarian looked to Erik with a question in his eyes.
Tarian sighed and shook his head. “Did you know we have no word for ‘wanderlust’ in our language? I’ve never understood the concept until, perhaps, right now.”
“Your people are at peace with themselves,” Malcolm said with a smile. “I’ve seen that in action on Earth. We wish we could be as calm as you.”
“Maybe.” Tarian shook his head. “And maybe you wouldn’t if you walked in our footprints.”
Malcolm nodded his acceptance, if not understanding.
Tarian pulled in a long breath. “I am very much afraid that our lack of understanding what is so natural to you will be the nail in the coffin of my entire race if we do not change.”
A shiver ran down Malcolm’s spine as he recognized the complete and utter truth in the Arnam’s statement.
Then Tarian turned to Caroline again. “And would you care to explain why you are here?”
Caroline smiled. “As you said, I’m here to take custody of this man and his ships and bring them home.”
Tarian sighed and lowered his head to rub it very slowly. When he raised his head again he appeared tired. “You two are very good at purposefully misunderstanding me, so I will cut to the meat of the issue. Neither of you were picked for your missions by drawing names out of your proverbial hats. You know each other.”
Malcolm looked at Caroline again and she gave him a minute nod.
Tarian turned to Malcolm again. “So I ask again, why are you here?”
Malcolm let out a long breath before answering. “Because the heir to the Hurst Family trusts me like a brother and knew I would turn Heaven and Earth to fulfill his vision.”
Tarian considered the answer for several seconds before nodding. “That is a worthy reason. And you?”
Caroline pursed her lips at his gaze, glanced at Malcolm, and visibly decided to answer as candidly as he had. “Because the head of the Hurst Family thought I would have the best chance of bringing him home without shots being fired and damaging his expensive, and hitherto unknown, investment.”
Tarian smiled at her sideways comment, but didn’t let it divert him from his line of questioning. “It is obvious that you two know each other.”
Malcolm met Caroline’s gaze and they smiled in unison.
“I assume you were friendly with each other in the past. Perhaps more than friendly?”
Caroline frowned and turned back to the Arnam. “That doesn’t matter.”
Tarian sighed and aimed a look at Erik. “A particularly gullible two hundred year old might fall for that. Would you?”
“I’d like to think I wouldn’t have fallen for it when I was one hundred,” Erik rumbled.
“Indeed,” Tarian said and turned back to Caroline and Malcolm with a grim expression. “It matters, my dear boy, and my dear girl, because if you two were once extremely friendly and are in some way unhappy about how you stopped being friendly, you are more likely to shoot each other while in my territory. I know many such relationships and they are trouble! It is my supreme wish that you do not follow in their wake while in Arnam space. Do I make my concerns on this matter clear enough?”
“Most clear,” Malcolm answered quickly.
“Clear as glass,” Caroline added.
Tarian stared at them for several seconds, and huffed when they said nothing more. “Well? Do I need to worry about you?”
Malcolm turned to Caroline and their gazes locked for a moment. And in that moment, he knew he didn’t want to hurt her. Whatever had happened in the past, there was no animus from him. “No. I won’t start anything with her.”
Tarian nodded and turned his questioning look to Caroline.
She let out a long breath before answering. “He has done nothing that would make me wish to harm him any more than any other human being.”
Malcolm kept his face calm as he frowned on the inside. She was skirting something with that statement. He could feel it.
“And you? Have you done anything that would make him wish to do so?”
Caroline twitched at the direct question, but shook her head. “No.”
It was a simple statement, a declarative statement, and a wrong statement. Malcolm could feel it in his Ageless bones. But it wasn’t a lie. He could feel that too. It was a step removed from a lie, but it wasn’t entirely truthful either.
“But you know someone who did,” Tarian said, cutting straight to the meat of the matter.
Caroline met Malcolm’s gaze once more and nodded. “Yes.”
Tarian turned to Malcolm again. “Does that make you wish to hurt her?”
Malcolm pursed his lips and examined Caroline for a long moment. He knew her. He recognized every curve of her face, and remembered more than one of the curves under her outfit. He could almost remember being with her. He knew he’d loved it. But he didn’t know how he felt about how it ended. Why? He found the right question in that moment.
“Could you have stopped it?”
Caroline bit her lip and he understood in that moment. She knew why he couldn’t remember her. She knew what had happened. And she knew who had done it to him.
“No,” she finally whispered and shook her head with profound sorrow. “I couldn’t have saved your memories if I’d tried.”
And there it was. She knew he didn’t remember her. She knew someone had taken his memories from him. And she hadn’t even tried to stop it. A part of him wanted to kill her for that. But the rest of him recognized the guilt she carried in her soul.
Some battles could not be won. Sometimes you had to withdraw from the battlefield in hopes of preserving your ability to fight in the future. He was in that position right now. No matter what he’d said aboard Normandy’s bridge, he doubted his fleet could win a fight with Murphy’s squadron.
He looked her in the eyes again. “We are only guilty for the things we do. Not for what others do, even those we know.”
Tarian continued to look at him, and Malcolm had the indefinable feeling that his answer wasn’t correct. It was truthful. And it was right. But it was…incomplete. He cast his mind around for how, and then it came to him from that part of his mind that he couldn’t reach. It might be wrong. It might be right. He didn’t know, but he’d learned to trust the whispering voice in the back of his mind long ago.
“Even when they do it in our name,” Malcolm finished.
Caroline’s eyes opened wide.
It was only for a moment. Her eyes flashed back to normal in an instant, but Malcolm knew he’d scored a direct hit with that volley.
Caroline let out her breath again and gave Malcolm a long look. It promised nothing but said much. Her face was amazingly expressive. The problem was that he didn’t know her well enough to understand exactly what she meant. But there was something in there that told him he had in the past. And he just might in the future. Maybe. If he didn’t mess everything up. If she didn’t. If other people didn’t interfere.
There was reason to hope. And somewhere in the back of his mind, a part of himself he couldn’t remember latched onto that hope like a drowning man reaches for a rope.
Tarian cocked his head to the side as something caught his attention.
Malcolm heard a faint murmuring coming from the air next to the Arnam, but couldn’t make it out.
Erik shifted in his groaning seat as someone began speaking to him as well.
Caroline brought a hand to her ear and her eyes went sideways as she concentrated on a new voice in her ear.
“Malcolm?” Dawn said in his earbud.
Malcolm smiled and answered softly enough that he wouldn’t interrupt the others.
“I was wondering when I’d hear from you.”
“Several Shang battlegroups are entering the system,” Dawn said in a concerned tone.
“Lovely.” Malcolm leaned back from the table and picked up a water-filled glass to wet his lips. “How many ships?”
“Five hundred warships have been identified so far.”
Malcolm’s heart nearly stopped at that number. And then he heard the clarification.
“So far?” he hissed.
“There are more arriving as we speak.”
Malcolm looked over to Caroline and her shocked gaze met his. Then they both turned to Tarian.
The Arnam sighed. “It would seem the Shang were impolite enough to interrupt our dinner.”
Tarian rose to his feet and Malcolm saw millennia of worry bearing down on his shoulders. It was in that moment that Malcolm knew without reservation that this man was one of the oldest Arnam he’d ever met. This man’s body had not aged a single day since the aging process designed into his body simply stopped. That was normal for the Arnam. But this man remembered the war that killed his creators. He’d fought in it, and lived. And now he saw war coming for his people again.
The old warrior stood tall and determined as he aimed a long look at each of the people at his table. And then he spoke in a calm voice that promised so much more than any words uttered in anger Malcolm had heard in his entire life.
“You should depart this system while I explain to them how badly they have miscalculated.”