Memory is a funny thing. We can lose it and never realize it is gone until we meet someone who fills that emptiness. How we react in a moment of revelation like that tells more about ourselves than when we come prepared. There are parts of my life I have not missed forgetting. And there are others I would dearly wish to have back now that I have learned what I’m missing. The trick is finding a way to get what is lost without losing what is had. It’s like having your cake and eating it too, and I happen to like cake.
Alarms blared as Director Malcolm McDonnell, Commodore Caroline Murphy, and Yarl Erik Torson followed their Arnam guide through the station’s corridors. Hatches opened and closed around them, revealing other Arnam rushing to duty stations. Many of them carried weapons, and the closer the small group came to the hanger bays, the more and heavier the weapons they saw. One enterprising squad jogged through a crossing corridor, each of them carrying what looked like anti-tank weapons an entire Earth squad would have worked together to move one of.
The Arnam were preparing for War, and they looked like proficient practitioners thereof.
Another hatch opened and Erik’s massive bulk strode into the hangar bay as their guide stepped to the side. Caroline and Malcolm gave the man a nod as they followed the Aesiran through the hatch, and then all three stopped for a moment.
The hangar bay was larger than it had been when Malcolm had arrived. His Blackhawk fighter had been the only presence, and it had filled the hangar. The hanger was three times larger now, and a quick scan showed where the hatches he’d thought were solid bulkheads had opened wide to reveal two more spacecraft.
One was a small Earth shuttlecraft designed to hold maybe seven people, including the pilot. It was a boxy kind of practical, a standard utilitarian modern American design. Not as graceful as the century-old designs in his force.
The other shimmered with the same rainbow of colors the other Aesiran ships in system boasted. She was slim and trim and looked ready to race at a moment’s notice.
“That is a beautiful fighter,” Caroline said in an awed voice.
Malcolm smiled and spun to look at his Blackhawk starfighter. She was turn of the last century cool. Painted flames danced down her massive engines and the flowing curves of her fuselage and fins made her sexier than any modern starcraft.
“Best fighter in all the worlds,” Malcolm replied with pride.
Dawn flickered into existence before them both and bowed. “Why, thank you.”
“I may have other thoughts on the matter,” Erik said towards the cyber. Then he smiled. “But I would never argue them with a lady.”
“Handsome and intelligent,” Dawn said as she looked up at his massive frame. “The ladies must be falling over themselves to catch you.”
The big man gave her a bashful look and scratched the back of his neck before letting out a grumbling chuckle. “I spend my time on trade missions for a reason.”
Dawn smiled and patted the arm she could reach. “The trick is finding the one worth being caught by, I think.”
“Just the one?” Erik asked with a snort, and then turned towards Malcolm and Caroline. “It has been an honor to meet you. Perhaps our paths will cross in the future. Until then, may you have safe travels.”
“Safe travels,” Malcolm returned and held his hand out.
Erik glanced down at the hand for a moment, before palming it in his bear-sized paw and shaking Malcolm’s world.
It took more effort than Malcolm would ever admit to stop from stumbling when the larger man let him go.
Then Caroline stepped past him and spread her arms out wide. “Come on you big teddy bear.”
Erik smiled and enveloped her in a hug that lifted her feet nearly a meter off the deck. He put her down far more gently than he’d handled Malcolm, smiled at both of them once more, and turned to walk towards his shimmering shuttle.
“You two got to know each other real well, I see,” Malcolm said as the other man entered his ship.
“Are you jealous?” Caroline asked from his side.
Malcolm shrugged. “Just wondering what the competition is like.”
Caroline actually giggled. “If this were a competition, honey, you would never have a chance.”
“I’m serious,” Caroline said and turned to face him. “He’s got the body of a god and the voice of an angel. He’s got to have a girl in every port.”
“Okay. Now I’m jealous.”
She hit him. It wasn’t hard. Just enough to get the point across. Then she stepped closer and leaned against him to get another point across. He felt every curve of her body as she wrapped her arms around him and her breath tickled his ear.
“Come home with me.”
She was good. He had to give her that. She actually made him want to do it.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he said with all the amusement he could manage injected into his tone.
She put her arms on his shoulders and arched her back so she could look him in the eyes. That action also emphasized some of her other pleasing physical attributes. And he could believe that was a happy coincidence all the way to the chain gang if he wanted to.
“Don’t be silly,” she whispered. “It’s a great idea. Come home with me and show everyone you’re a loyal member of the Family.”
Malcolm shook his head. “They’ll never trust me again.”
“You made a mistake,” Caroline said with an answering shake. “But you can get everything back if you come with me. Willingly.”
Malcolm sighed. “Wolfenheim was no mistake, Caroline. It was a plan I entered into willingly. They’ll never trust me if I backtrack on that.”
“Of course they won’t.” Caroline’s eyes grew sharp. “But they’ll let you live.”
Malcolm’s breath caught in his chest at her directness. “I know.”
“Then don’t play dumb with me, Malcolm,” she said and patted his chest with one, very promising hand. “You’re far too smart to do it justice.”
“You think I’m smart, do you?” Malcolm asked and placed a hand on her wandering one. “Sounds promising.”
“When you’re not being an idiot,” Caroline returned with another playful smack that felt so familiar. Then she raised her eyes to his to let him know that every word she was about to say was completely truthful. “Bring back Wolfenheim, and they will let you live. You can retire to whatever life you want to live.”
Caroline paused for a moment before taking the direct approach of simply sliding closer to make certain he had a firm feel of all the assets she brought to the table. “With whoever you want to live it with.”
Malcolm had seen promises like this in the past, performed by women with far more experience and cunning. He’d become good at seeing their faults. The false promises. The batted eyelashes that disguised secret disgust. Even the best working girls couldn’t hide the fact that it was just a job to Ageless eyes.
Caroline was not lying.
“That sounds promising,” Malcolm said and raised one eyebrow in recognition of her honesty. “But it’s a hard choice to make when I don’t even remember what I lost.”
She sighed and sorrow filled her eyes. “I’m sorry you don’t remember.”
He placed his hands on her hips, like it was the one place in the universe they were meant to be. Like he’d put them on her hips before. The twin stirring of memories in the back of his mind and the flickering of her expression told him he had. “So am I.”
She leaned forward to put her head into his chest. That felt right too. “I’ll tell you everything if you come home with me.”
She looked up at him and met his gaze. She didn’t bat her eyes at him like a lady of the night. This wasn’t a trick. It was a promise that covered everything she said and so much more.
“I’ll tell you all about us.”
Malcolm smiled. “I think I can imagine us pretty good on my own.”
She smacked him for that one.
He couldn’t fault her for that. He had asked for it, in a manner of speaking.
“Trust me, Malcolm, I know what your imagination is capable of.” She smiled at him in a playful manner and bit her lip in a way that tempted just about every bone in his body. “But I would blow your mind wide open if I told you everything we have shared. What we could share again.”
“And that sounds intriguing,” Malcolm whispered. He tried to make it sound like he’d meant to do that. The truth was that he was having trouble breathing at the moment and it was all he could manage.
“I’ll tell you what they did to you,” she said in a far more serious tone that her eyes echoed.
He swallowed at that and sucked in a deep breath.
“I know what they did to me,” he finally growled. The fact that he couldn’t remember standing like this with her, even as his body told him they had in the past, told him everything he needed to know about what they did to him. They’d taken his life.
Caroline looked down for a moment and then met his gaze again with promise in her eyes. “I’ll tell you who did it. And why. And if you come back with me, I’ll even help you find justice for it. You had a better life than you can imagine, Malcolm. Just come home with me and I’ll help you reclaim it.”
And that was why they sent her to bring him back.
Even doubting that the Family really would forgive him, he wanted to go back with her. She wasn’t playing him. Well, she was, and they both knew it. But she wasn’t lying to him. She meant every word. Every promise it implied. Everything that went with it.
She would take him home, and they would be amazing. Again.
They had sent the very best lure they could find to bring him back. Because she wasn’t a lure at all. She was truth and promise and history and future all in one. They might never trust him again. And they certainly wouldn’t help him find justice. But The Family had sent her, and they would honor their part of the promise. As long as he behaved, they would leave him alone for the rest of his life if he just came home with her. And he could spend a lifetime with her and never feel cheated.
All he had to do was betray Charles. His oldest remaining friend in all the worlds.
He let out a long breath and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that.”
“Why?” She stared at him with something close to exasperation in her stance.
“Because it wasn’t a mistake,” Malcolm said very calmly. “We weren’t wrong. Me and Charles.”
“Even Adam?” Caroline asked with a hard look.
That hurt. But he just nodded. “Even Adam.”
“He would be-“
“I know,” Malcolm interrupted. “I know. But I can’t go back.”
“You always were too proud,” she whispered.
“I was always too right,” he corrected.
“About some things,” she said and raised her eyes to his again.
“Was I right about you?”
She extricated herself from his arms and stepped away. He knew the answer before she spoke it. Her entire body projected it like a halo, and he wondered what he’d done.
She shook her head in exasperation. “You don’t even know what you’re apologizing for.”
“Yes, I do.”
She furrowed her brow, and spread her arms out wide.
“Fine. What is it?” she spat out in rapid succession. “What can you possibly be sorry about when you don’t even remember what happened?”
“I’m sorry I hurt you.”
“You never hurt me.” Caroline snorted at him. “You just…forgot me.”
“The unkindest hurt of all,” Malcolm said as smoothly as possible. It wasn’t his fault and they both knew it, but it didn’t do any good to protest the point. “You are worthy of being remembered.”
“You know it.” Her look showed a mixture of coy embarrassment, appreciation of his flattery, and confidence that he was right.
Yes. She was pretty much the perfect catch. Only a fool would let her go. But he had to, and they both knew it.
“I’ll never forget you again,” Malcolm said with a smile.
She sighed and leaned back in to kiss him on the cheek. “And I’ll never stop chasing you.”
“I know,” Malcolm said, and very carefully did not raise a hand to touch his burning cheek.
“You should consider what you want to do when I catch you,” Caroline whispered and stretched her body in a way that made it easy to consider that eventuality in full, living color.
“Trust me,” he said with a wry look. “I am.”
Caroline smiled. “Any ideas you want to share with me?”
“In public?” Malcolm asked with a wink. “On an alien space station? I’m not certain this is the best venue for that kind of conversation.”
Caroline laughed. It was a crystal clear laugh that made him thrill from head to toe.
He wanted to hear it again. So he gave her his very best smile.
“Do you have any ideas?” he asked with a waggle of his eyebrows.
Caroline pursed her lips for a fulminating moment before returning his smile. “Nothing worth talking about.”
That was when she leaned in again and kissed him full on the lips. It was a good kiss. It was a long kiss.
Malcolm’s toes curled, and he imagined himself in a Saturday morning cartoon, steam coming from his ears while his body went hard and straight all over.
They had kissed like this before. Deep, long, and passionately. Their lips fitted together like they were designed that way.
And then there was her tongue.
Yes, there would definitely be steam coming from his cartoon version’s ears in any good story.
Caroline stepped back, smiled, and turned to glide towards her shuttle in a hip-swaying gait that accentuated every curve of her body.
“Catch yah later,” she said over her shoulder.
She was good.
Malcolm remembered an old saying about hating to see someone go while loving to watch them walk away. He was in love with watching her walk away.
She was amazing.
And that was going to be a problem for him. If he let her go like this, he would never regain the advantage. So he did one of the most difficult things he’d ever done in his life. He stopped watching her walk away and took one, long breath before saying a single word.
She stopped and looked back at him with a gaze that promised…everything. And nothing. It was amazing what she could say, or not say, with those eyes.
Malcolm cleared the frog out of his throat so he could speak, and tried to act as naturally as he could. There was nothing casual about the question he needed to ask, but time honored traditions required that he act like it was.
“Just one hint. For old time’s sake. Why do you still care what happens to me?”
She shook her head and swayed to the shuttle, making him think she was going to leave without another word. But she stopped as she reached the top of the steps and turned once more to rest one hand on the hatch as she looked at him.
And then she finally spoke.
“You saved my life.” Her lips opened to say something else, but she stopped herself and shook her head. “I would be dead on the side of the road if you had not come that night.”
He could see it as she said it. Her body on the side of the road, her face broken and bloodied with an expression of pain and horror filling it. He didn’t know if that was a century-old memory or today’s imagination, but he could see it like it was real.
Caroline shook her head and gave him a very serious look. “You have enemies who want you dead, Malcolm. I am not one of them. I owe you my life. I will protect you if just come home with me, but the farther you run, the harder you make it. You have to cooperate with me sooner or later, or your fate will be out of my hands.”
And there was the stick. The Family had sent her as the ultimate carrot. A willing and eager treat to lure him back. A woman who loved him and would do anything to save him. Or at least loved the idea of him that had saved her a century ago. And he could tell he’d loved her too. He’d seen successful relationships built on far less.
But her carrot had a time limit.
“How do you know it already isn’t?”
“I don’t,” she said with a shrug. “I might be the last person in all the Families who still believes in you, but if you choose to come home with me, I will stand with you all the way. They promised me, and I won’t let them forget it. Win or lose, I won’t let them have you again.”
And there it was. The final reason they sent her. She would never give up on him. She truly was amazing. She was a path worth taking anywhere. And maybe one day he would. But that could not be today.
She smiled one more time in recognition of his choice. “You be careful out there, Malcolm. Don’t let me catch you until you’re ready to be caught.”
Then she turned and stepped into her shuttle.
He watched the hatch close behind her and stayed in place as her shuttle lifted off the deck to take her out of his life. Out of his sight at least. He doubted she would ever be out of his life again.
He could live with that.
Malcolm smiled and practically skipped towards his fighter. He whistled as he climbed up the ladder and jumped into the cockpit, in some of the best spirits he’d experienced in longer than he could remember.
That girl was good for a man’s soul.
The canopy closed and Dawn’s holoform appeared atop the fighter’s main console. She was the size of an action figure now, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand or to sit on his shoulder if she wanted to. She spent most of her time at this size sitting atop their fighter’s main console, and right now she was giving him a measuring look.
“I guess now we know why they sent her,” she said after a few moments.
“Yup,” he said with a chuckle.
“Did you happen to leave any other weapons laying behind they can send after you?”
He gave her a long look. “Jealous?”
“Worried,” Dawn said as she lifted their starfighter off the deck.
Malcolm chuckled again. “Don’t be.”
Malcolm let out a serious sigh. “Because this mission is bigger than me. And I won’t let anyone get in the way of that.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Dawn said and gave him a sad smile.
Malcolm gave her another long look as she moved them out of the Arnam space station on thrusters. They entered open space, and stars and blackness surrounded them. Maneuvering thrusters spun them to face their squadron of starships, and he saw the blue fusion flames of powerful engines at full burn in the distance.
He gave a long look at the sensor display. It was small and two dimensional, but he could compare what he saw now with what he’d seen on Normandy’s bridge. Now that he understood the patterns, he could see Arnam spacecraft retreating from the Shang advance. It was an orderly retreat, with many ships holding position and trading long-range fire with the invaders while others fell back. And then they would skirt back while other ships took up the front line for a few seconds.
It was a constantly rotating front that meant no single ship was exposed to fire for more than a few seconds. It made sense. They were slowing the Shang invaders, keeping damage to their defense ships to a minimum, getting their civilian ships out of the line of fire, and consolidating their military defenses all at the same time.
Numerous craft in the outer system scattered further out towards interstellar space, and a Shang squadron overran one of them. It disappeared from the display with sickening suddenness as others continued to run for safety.
Malcolm wondered if they would escape the carnage coming for their system, or suck more Shang invaders out to hunt them down as well. He wished them luck either way.
Malcolm felt his fighter’s four main fusion engines come to life. Blue flames poured out of them and slammed him against the back of his seat as he and Dawn exploded out of planetary orbit. They shot past Caroline’s slow shuttle like a rabbit passing a turtle on the straightaway, and flashed past the Austin-class destroyers waiting for her in the blink of an eye a few seconds later.
He zoomed the display in to see Caroline’s squadron falling behind his rapidly accelerating fighter. They were going to lose valuable time and space if they wanted to follow him.
He could see Wolfenheim, Normandy, and the rest of his little fleet accelerating away from the planet, but his velocity had already passed theirs and he watched the range shrink.
Malcolm glanced over to another display to see their fuel reserves dropping like a rock as their velocity became measurable as a percentage of the speed of light. The Blackhawks had always been short-range fighters, and even with the Peloran upgrades he’d secured before they left Alpha Centauri, running after a fleet at full acceleration sucked hydrogen like a thirsty man in the Sahara. Dawn had decided the fuel expenditure was worth it though,, and Malcolm had to admit that he approved of her priorities.
He considered his highly advanced skin to be worth far more than some elemental hydrogen he planned to burn off in the future anyways.
He checked the sensors again to see the Aesiran trade fleet was less than a lightsecond away from Wolfenheim, accelerating for the outer system on the same velocity and course.
The closer he got to his home, the closer he got to them. That was probably a good thing now that he thought about it.
Malcolm smiled. “Get me Olivia.”
Dawn nodded and tilted her head to indicate she was communicating with Normandy.
Olivia appeared on one of the displays a few seconds later.
“Director?” Olivia began with a wan look. “You appear to have led us into a rather rough neighborhood.”
“Yes, Captain,” Malcolm said and looked at the display showing his fleet. It was on a course that brought them closer to the Aesiran trade fleet. “Have you talked to the Aesiran yet?”
Olivia shrugged. “I may have suggested there is safety in numbers. And their captains may have agreed with me.”
“So we go out together?”
Olivia smiled. “Unless you or their Yarl disagree, of course.”
“I doubt that will be a problem.” Malcolm frowned as a thought came to mind. “We’ll need to deploy fighters, you know. Have you cleared that with the Arnam?”
Olivia cocked her head to the side. “Please, Malcolm. I have done this before.”
“I know, Olivia. But if I don’t keep you experienced in dealing with overbearing superiors, you might start to wonder what kind of rinky dink operation you’re working for.”
“Oh, I already knew what kind of rinky dink operation you were when you first approached me,” she said with an amused smile.
“And I still signed up.” She aimed a dazzling smile at him. “So I guess I’ll just have to take my lumps with the best of them.”
“That’s the spirit,” Malcolm said with a smirk.
Olivia returned it with interest. “Now if my overbearing superior will get out of my hair, I need to devote my attention to defending my fleet.”
“Ooohhh…nice riposte,” he said and smiled as he got back into the groove of their long relationship. “But what if your overbearing superior likes getting in your hair?”
“Then my overbearing superior will need to be careful or he’ll lose his fingers.” Her eyes sparkled as she delivered the good-natured warning.
He tipped an imaginary hat towards her in recognition of her victory in their long verbal sparring matches and she faded out.
Leaving him alone with Dawn again. She aimed a concerned look at him, and he knew he hadn’t deflected her from her concern. And she was going to have her say, no matter what he said about it. So he let out a long breath and signaled for her to give him both barrels.
Dawn smiled before accepting his challenge. “I’m serious, Malcolm. You need to look out for yourself. The best stories have the hero winning the day and getting the girl.”
Malcolm smiled and remembered what Erik had asked.
“Just the one?”
Dawn sighed and looked at him. “You’ve worked with Olivia how many years? And you’ve never pulled the trigger. Why think about it now?”
“You say that like I haven’t thought about it before,” Malcolm said with a smile.
Dawn crossed her arms and just increased the voltage of her stare.
“Fine.” Malcolm let out a long breath and shrugged. “We work well together. I didn’t want to destroy a perfectly good working relationship if everything went south.”
Dawn raised a single eyebrow at him.
Malcolm sighed again. “Fine. I still don’t. But…”
Dawn smiled as he trailed off and a light chuckle escaped her lips.
“But Caroline,” Malcolm repeated in a rueful tone. Then he snorted. “You know, I thought I was prepared for this battle, but I never saw her coming, did I?”
Dawn laughed. “Oh, she blew you clear out of the water, mister. I could see the steam coming out of your ears.”
“Thank God for extra innings.”
“Yes, you did recover with some well-executed fire.” Dawn shifted into a more business-like pose. “But now that we know the weapons she brings to the field, you’re going to need to up your game.”
“Or change it.”
“Mmmmm?” Dawn cocked her head to the side in a virtual question.
Malcolm smiled at her. “It comes to mind, that not every weapon is good in every game. And in some games, they can even be a handicap.”
Dawn made a show of scratching her chin before responding to him. “So we need to find a game she can’t win.”
“No.” Malcolm shook his head at that. “She’s too smart to play a game she can’t win. What we need is a game both of us want to win.”
Dawn chuckled. “I can think of one game you both want to win.”
“That is a nice game to think about, isn’t it?” Malcolm said with a rueful grin.
Dawn just smiled at him and waited.
Malcolm sighed. “I could spend the rest of my life playing that game.”
Dawn beamed. “And that’s the spirit I was looking for.”
Malcolm relaxed into his seat and let his mind wander over that game for a very long time.