You can find allies in the most unlikely places if you look for them. Sometimes even if you don’t. Some will stand beside you with grim determination and stalwart stoicism while they meet the enemy with all of their skill and training. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere with daggers in their hands. The trick is arranging which back gets the dagger. The next trick is learning how to live with the daggers.
Normandy's gun ports glowed with energy as her spin brought her bow across the enemy fleet. Her single gravitic cannon latched onto one like a dog taking a bone in its teeth and shook the enemy starship down to its structural members. Her four capital-class lasers slashed out at other targets and massive rents opened across their hulls, sending puffs of atmosphere and debris into space. Explosions rippled through the ships as magazines lost containment or power reactors overloaded. Her smaller point defense laser and missile clusters spewed death towards other nearby starships, and shrapnel ricocheted through their interior spaces as bulkheads, systems, and human bodies splintered under the assault.
Normandy tore the heart out of the Shang formation, cementing her position as the big dog on the battlefield for everyone to see before her bow spun away.
But her compatriots had no reason to let her take the prize without a fight and pounced on the survivors like a well-trained hunting pack. Missiles, gravitic beams, and lasers splattered atmosphere, debris, and tiny alien bodies into the depths of space and one destroyer after another lurched away from the battle. The last destroyer’s deflection grid warped away the combined assault of every starship’s point defense batteries for a second. Two seconds. It almost made three seconds before the first lasers began sneaking through. Weapons fire poured through the tattered grid without interference by four seconds and the warship’s armor melted under the assault. Then one of the shots penetrated a magazine and the starship disappeared in a boiling explosion.
No computer ever managed to calculate which ship got the lion’s share of credit for that kill. There’d simply been too many lasers and missiles raining down on it to know who got the killing blow. A simple squadron kill marker flashed on the displays as wreckage spread out to join the remains of its nine compatriots in Wolfenheim’s wake.
Normandy’s bow came around to face the colony ship once more and her maneuvering thrusters pulsed just long enough to bring her to rest. She drifted in space long enough for her more wounded compatriots to slip back into formation with her. Then their main engines came to life again, and blue fusion torches lit space as they sought to catch the ship they’d come all this way to protect.
Surprise and Rouen held position and waited for the better part of four dozen starfighters to assemble around them, though. Then several dozen tractor beams lanced out to snatch pieces of wreckage from the battlefield. Most were broken pieces of damaged or destroyed fighters, but most of a Shang destroyer followed the other wreckage as well.
Surprise and Rouen spun on maneuvering thrusters, holding the salvaged ship between them, and exploded to maximum acceleration to chase down Wolfenheim and their wounded compatriots. The gaggle of starfighters followed, dragging more assorted Shang and Earthen wreckage behind them, and their fusion torches lit space like lighthouse beacons.
Malcolm smiled as he realized the method of their madness. With this many spare parts at their disposal, repairing the damage they’d just taken would not be a problem for the foreseeable future.
That was when Erik’s worried face appeared on one of Malcolm’s displays.
“They will come again,” Erik said without preamble.
Malcolm’s eyes flicked to another display that showed the Aesiran fleet. Two of their escorts showed heavy damage, but his sensors couldn’t detect any further major damage. Oh, none of the Aesiran warships had survived without taking hits, but they seemed as spry now as they had been before. Malcolm frowned as something about that started his mind racing.
“They were taking our measure with that strike,” Erik explained. “It’s how they work. They will come again.”
John Smith’s frowning face appeared on another display as the Aesiran talked. “He’s right. We’re in more danger now. We have to leave before their full attack arrives.”
Malcolm ran his eyes over the displays again to see where Wolfenheim was. He grimaced. She might be able to dive now, but it would be close. He returned his focus to Erik.
“We should be able to leave any second now. How about you?”
Erik shook his head. “Our transports need another minute.”
“We don’t have another minute,” Smith growled. “They’re coming right now.”
Erik said something that sounded awful in a language Malcolm didn’t recognize as hyperspace opened up in front of them.
Twenty Shang destroyers appeared streaming rainbow light in every direction as they bled off the energies of hyperspace. Then twenty more ships arrived on either side of the combined fleet to cut off any attempt to avoid the new blocking force.
Malcolm gritted his teeth. Sixty destroyers against their little fleet was simply not a fair fight. He looked towards Erik and the man just shook his head.
“It has been an honor to fight with you, Son of Donnell,” Erik said in sorrow.
“The honor is all mine, Son of Tor,” Malcolm returned with a resigned sigh.
That was when things took a decidedly odd turn.
“This is Captain John Smith of Phantom Squadron,” Smith transmitted on all channels with a grim look. “Marine Fighter Attack Wing One Twelve, The Cowboys. This fleet is under my protection. Let us pass in peace or you will be destroyed. This is your first, last, and only warning.”
Silence reigned for several moments as the challenge overrode all other chatter. Then the child-like face of a Shang appeared on a display with a cherubic smile.
“Cowboy,” the Shang said in a high voice. “You are outnumbered and outgunned. But your challenge amuses me. Surrender and you will be given honorable treatment. Continue to fight and you will be destroyed.”
“Then you choose your fate,” John Smith decreed like a judge declaring a death sentence and his signal cut out without any further warning.
Hyperspace opened once more into the silence and Malcolm watched eight Austin-class starships appear like sharks in search of prey. Hellcat-class starfighters spilled out of launch bays as they fired eight massive gravitic cannons into the Shang destroyer formation blocking Wolfenheim’s retreat. They sheared through deflection grids like hot knives through butter and tore into the armor beyond. Missiles and lasers followed them in, making their way through the holes gravity had made, and explosions wreathed the Shang destroyers. Lasers melted deep into torn and savaged armor, and the surprised alien destroyers had no chance to respond before the fusillade tore the heart out of their formation.
The Shang commander’s transmission cut out with a finality that left no doubt that John Smith’s sentence had been delivered.
Then the Pennsylvania Star Fleet squadron flew straight through the hole that had been his ship on tongues of blue flame. The Shang outnumbered them by two to one, but the Austin-class destroyers were larger than most destroyers and carried far heavier weapons. They were built to destroy true capital ships when firing in unison, and what they did to smaller ships was simply horrific. Their point defense lasers and missiles smashed into the weakened deflection grids all around them, and their Hellcat starfighters joined the assault with wave after wave of their own missiles and lasers.
Shang destroyers reeled away from the destruction in confusion and surprise and the Earth-built ships accelerated out the other side of the decimated formation with nary a tithe of their point defense grid needing to even engage return fire.
Malcolm shook his head very slowly. John Smith had known she was coming when he challenged the Shang. He’d planned it all with malice aforethought and the arrogant Shang had walked right into it. Now everyone in range of those transmissions knew it. That had to affect their morale if anything did.
Caroline Murphy’s face appeared on one of Malcolm’s displays and dragged his mind to far more important things.
“Hello, boys,” she said with an impish grin. “Did you miss me?”
“Every day of my life,” Malcolm answered with a wry smile. It was supposed to be a joke. At least that’s what he’d thought when he started it. But by the time the last word slipped out of his lips, he knew he meant every single one of them. His eyes widened at the realization, and then he noticed Caroline just looking at him.
“Now I know that’s a lie,” she said with a shake of her head. “You haven’t even known you missed me for most of your life.”
“Oh, that was my old life.” Malcolm waved one dismissive hand to the side as if throwing it all away. “That was before I met you for the second time and learned how much I've been missing.”
Caroline gave him a huge smile. “Nice save.”
Malcolm bowed. “Stick around and you’ll see more where that came from.”
“I intend to.” Caroline sighed and shook her head. “So are you boys going to hold my coat while I deal with these ruffians, or do you want to be part of the fun?”
“I want to have fun,” Malcolm said before his mind could catch up to his tongue.
“Fabulous!” Caroline said with a wink. “Erik?”
“Lead on, brave valkyrie,” the Aesiran said with a chuckle and a nod. “I shall follow.”
“Captain Wyatt?” Caroline asked with a searching gaze.
“Commodore Murphy,” Olivia said as her face appeared on another display. “How do you wish to proceed?”
A display flashed for Malcolm’s attention. He looked up to see Caroline’s destroyers flipping end over end to face their enemy again before their engines came back up to maximum burn.
“Well,” Caroline said with a smile. “I was thinking I was going to make another firing pass on them. They’re not going to be so surprised this time around though, so I’ll trust you to complement my attack in the most efficient way possible.”
Olivia considered that for a second before saying a single word. “Why?”
Caroline aimed a smile at Malcolm. “I’m supposed to bring you home, not watch some alien scum kill you.”
She paused to throw a glance towards Erik. “No offense intended.”
“None taken,” the alien returned with a smile.
Caroline turned her attention back to Olivia. “That makes us bosom buddies in my book.”
“For now,” Olivia said in a challenging tone.
“For today,” Caroline returned with a nod.
Olivia smiled. “That is acceptable.”
Then another of Malcolm’s displays blinked with plans for a joint attack against the Shang squadron.
“Does this meet your approval?” Olivia asked the other commanders.
“It’s fabulous,” Caroline said after a second of study. “Now, don’t leave me hanging, boys.”
Her signal cut out and Erik shook his head. “Perish the thought.”
“I’m with you there, man,” Malcolm answered.
Olivia looked back and forth between them for a moment with unreadable eyes before her signal cut out as well.
“So,” Erik said and aimed a serious look at Malcolm. “Your Olivia?”
“Not mine,” Malcolm answered without missing a beat as the fleets began to shift formation around them. “But she is an amazing woman and a gifted commander.”
Erik gave him a bemused chuckled. “You seem to have a gift for surrounding yourself with amazing women.”
Malcolm’s gaze flicked over to watch Surprise and Rouen coast past the lumbering Wolfenheim and her escorts. Normandy and the four unwounded frigates put on a boost of acceleration to match speed with the two destroyers and his eyes tracked over to another display in time to see the entire formation come to life on the plumes of blue fusion flames.
“It is a gift and a curse in equal measure,” Malcolm said between clenched teeth as his fighters thrust their way into formation around the larger ships.
Erik laughed. It was a deep, booming laugh that revealed true mirth.
“You have that right, my friend. Now let’s go kill these alien scum your Caroline speaks of.”
Malcolm glanced at the displays to check the status of his Blackhawks and the two wounded warships that were Wolfenheim’s final defensive ring.
“As long as it’s the right alien scum, yes?” Malcolm asked with a look back towards Erik.
“Says the puny Earthling.”
A display blinked and Malcolm focused on it to see the smashed Shang destroyer now trapped in Wolfenheim’s tractor beams. It was blinking as individual weapons came to life, but not in an angry red that suggested a threat. It was in a friendly green. That was interesting.
“I see an arm wrestling contest in our future,” Malcolm said absentmindedly as he studied the display for more information.
Hastings’ long-lost symbol blinked in the display and Malcolm frowned as he wondered why. Then a face appeared next to it. Mary’s face.
They’d had to leave Hastings behind, but her crew and cybernetic intelligence had linked up with the fleet before they left. And now she was taking control of the remains of that Shang destroyer so she could bring it into their defense grid.
Malcolm smiled. He loved his people.
“Do your worst, little man,” Erik rumbled.
“I’ll make you cry,” Malcolm said with renewed confidence.
He watched Normandy’s formation drive forward into the Shang force blocking their escape. Then he scanned over to the see the other two Shang fleets shadowing Wolfenheim and the Aesiran trade fleet. Numbers blinked for attention as they accelerated to pinch the two fleets from both sides, but projected courses showed they were just a little bit behind the curve ball.
No more than a minute or so behind, but they’d been expecting their blocking force to slow the fleets down rather than force them to accelerate all the harder. Caroline’s arrival had smashed their plans and now they struggled to adapt to the new reality of what the Aesiran and Earthborn fleets were about to do to the blockers.
“That’s the spirit,” Erik returned jovially. “Do try to remember it when I humiliate you in front of your friends.”
“Oh, so it’s a public display of strength now?” Malcolm asked with a smile.
A display flashed for his attention and Malcolm turned to watch Caroline’s destroyers and fighters burn into the Shang fleet for a second time. Gravitic beams and capital lasers tore through ship after ship, and missiles flashed into space to die milliseconds later in orgies of gravitic destruction. The destroyers tore through the Shang fleet and out the other side, leaving confused devastation in their wake.
“All displays of strength should be as public as possible to make certain everybody gets the point,” Erik said into the silence that reigned in the seconds after her display.
“Can’t say that I disagree with you there,” Malcolm responded with a nod of approval. “So I’ll just have to make you cry in public.”
Erik chuckled at the boast. “Better men than you have tried.”
“I doubt that.” Malcolm gave the alien a wink. “A better man would have taught you humility by now.”
Malcolm interlaced his fingers and cracked his knuckles as their twin fleets accelerated into effective range of the disorganized and ravaged remains of the Shang blocking force.
“No man can teach me humility,” Erik said with a snort.
“That’s fine.” Malcolm gave the other man a wink. “I’ve seen all kinds of learning disabilities.”
Erik opened his mouth, but Malcolm waved one hand towards the Shang in the distance to forestall the response on the man's lips.
Normandy, Surprise and all four starfighter squadrons opened fire a moment later, lashing the Shang with dozens of gravitic beams. Then capital lasers and missiles joined the bombardment.
Shang deflection grids flickered as gravitic beams tore at them, and then failed entirely as missiles exploded across the entire formation. Lasers poured into the vulnerable Shang destroyers and they belched armor and atmosphere into space. The saucer-shaped ships spun to put fresher armor between their vulnerable cores and the Earth ships before disappearing behind a wall of missile and laser fire.
Rouen and the frigates moved to place themselves between Normandy, Surprise, and the enemy with point defense batteries firing at maximum rate. The starfighters joined them, and scores of Shang missiles died long before they entered attack range. But even a ravaged Shang destroyer squadron was a threat, and much of their pinpoint fire passed through everything the Earth ships could throw into space.
Deflection grids flared as missiles tore at them. Armor melted and buckled as lasers heated it far beyond its rated maximum. Rouen staggered to the side as one of her engines exploded, and all four frigates shed armor, air, and other debris under the Shang assault.
And that was when the Aesiran squadron came slashing through the Shang fleet with energy fields visibly crackling all around them. A dozen small warships and dozens of fighters opened fire on the Shang at once, hitting them with dozens of focused energy beams that tore the Shang deflection grids apart. Lasers and missiles joined the assault, filling space between the two alien formations with death.
The Shang died when the last of the missiles washed over them, leaving behind only wreckage tumbling through the heavens.
“And that is how you properly deal with a threat,” Erik said in a proud tone.
“Yes,” Malcolm agreed with a nod. “Properly dealt with, indeed.”
They passed through the wreckage, deflection grids easily redirecting anything approaching too close, and accelerated out towards safety.
“You might even say humiliated,” Erik added with a pointed look.
Malcolm chuckled and raised one finger to acknowledge the point. “You just might.”
A display flashed and Olivia butted into their conversation again. “Are you two boys done lying about how great you are?”
“I have not yet begun to lie about my greatness,” Malcolm responded with chuckle.
“That explains so much.” Erik shook his head in amusement.
“You haven’t seen him in action,” Caroline said with a wink as she appeared on another display. “Take it from me. He can be truly fabulous when he wants to be.”
Malcolm frowned at her word of choice.
“Of course, my lady,” Erik said with a bow. “I would never question your knowledge on the matter.”
Caroline smiled at Malcolm. “See? He’s a smart one.”
Erik panned his head to take in all three of them. “It has been a true honor to fight with you today.”
“And here I thought he said he didn’t want to be nearby when we started shooting.” Malcolm asked in Caroline’s direction.
Caroline giggled. It was an actual, true giggle, and Malcolm turned to see honest-to-God dimples on her cheeks as she shook her head in mirth. “I do seem to remember him saying something like that.”
“I stand corrected.” Erik gave them both a bow of his head. “I look forward to seeing you fight together again. Good day.”
His display dimmed to black and the Aesiran trade fleet began diving into hyperspace one ship at a time.
Malcolm turned to Olivia’s display with a firm look. “Follow him. Now.”
Olivia’s expression turned rebellious and her eyes took in Caroline’s presence.
“I will follow,” Malcolm added. “Trust me.”
Olivia met his eyes for a moment and then nodded.
Her display cut out as well and Malcolm turned his full attention to Caroline once more.
Caroline smiled at him. “Aren’t you ready to surrender to me yet?”
“Not today,” Malcolm said with a shake of his head.
Caroline pursed her lips. “You can’t stay out of my reach forever.”
Malcolm leaned forward and gave her a kindly smile. “I know.”
Wolfenheim dove into hyperspace, and the rest of the fleet followed in a series of hyperspace flashes.
Malcolm gave her a triumphant look. “But this is sufficient unto the day.”
Caroline appeared disappointed at the fleet’s exit. “I will catch you, you know.”
Malcolm raised a hand to keep Dawn from following the starships. Part of him wanted to get out immediately, but he needed to plant some seeds in her. Get her ready for their next meeting, because he had no doubt at all that she would catch him again.
“We can’t fight each other,” he said.
She opened her mouth to answer, but he cut her off.
“We can’t afford to.” Malcolm gave her his best earnest look, hoping she would understand. “Not this far from Earth.”
Her mouth snapped shut and he could tell she understood at least a piece of it.
“We’re too far from home now. It’s too dangerous out here. Even if we survive the fight, we’ll be weakened beyond our ability to survive the threats out here. And I don’t want to do that to you, Caroline.”
Caroline smiled at his comment, and he saw the question in her eyes. Why he was so certain he would be the one doing anything to her. But she didn’t ask that question. She shook her head and sighed before asking a completely different question.
“Well? What do you want to do, then?”
Malcolm smiled as a few ideas came his way. “Well, I was thinking it might be educational if we could…jog some of those memories I’ve lost.”
Caroline leaned back in her chair and raised an eyebrow at him. “Educational?”
“Very,” Malcolm said with a waggle of his eyebrows.
Caroline shook her head and let out a long, exasperated, breath. “You, Malcolm Seamus McDonnell, are a sneaky, underhanded, and dirty-minded man.”
A shiver ran down Malcolm’s spine as his full name slipped off her tongue. She knew how to say it in just the right way to make him consider all the other things she could do with that tongue. Or maybe it was just him. Either way, it was an amazing vision.
“Can you think of any other games you’d like to play more?” he asked with widespread arms.
Caroline shook her head again. “I’m not playing a game here, Malcolm. This is life. Ours.”
“Life is the best game any of us can play,” Malcolm returned with a smile. “The trick is finding the version each of us can live with.”
Caroline’s smile softened. “That’s the real complicated trick in all of this, isn’t it?”
Malcolm bit his lip and met her gaze. “It’s the best trick and the best game in all the worlds. It’s what makes everything worth doing. Getting out of bed in the morning. Going back to bed in the evening. It’s the life intertwined in all of that that makes it all worthwhile.”
Caroline shook her head again. “The only life I see is the one that involves me taking you home.”
Malcolm’s smile grew broader. “I think I can work with that. But there are so many definitions of home out there. And sometimes the farther we travel, the closer we get to it.”
Caroline gave him a long-suffering sight. “My home is Earth.”
“So was mine,” Malcolm said with his very best smile and looked at her for a long moment. “We can talk about home when you catch me again.”
Caroline chewed on her lip for a moment before nodding. “We can talk. But I don’t think even you are a good enough con artist to pull that one off.”
Malcolm placed his hand over his heart. “Then I’ll put my heart and soul into proving you wrong.”
“I know you will,” Caroline whispered and gave him a long look. “Just remember to do your best.”
Malcolm glanced at the displays again to see the two Shang pincers swooping down on them. Her destroyers held their acceleration as they recovered one fighter after another. They didn’t have much time left before they had to be gone, but she couldn’t leave her fighters behind. Not this far away from home.
He raised his index finger and slid his eyes over to Dawn.
He turned his gaze back to Caroline. “Can you get out ahead of them?”
Caroline gave him a warm smile. “Why? Are you worried about me?”
Malcolm shrugged. “I guess I just don’t want to see some alien scum kill you.”
Caroline’s mouth straightened and she gave him a long look. “It would make your life much easier if they did.”
“Yeah, I suppose it would,” Malcolm said with a shrug. “But…um…”
He trailed off as he found himself at a loss for words. There was so much part of him wanted to say, but he just didn’t have the knowledge to know what would make things better and what would make things worse. He didn’t know her well enough. He just didn’t know.
Caroline smiled again as he trailed off. “But? Um?”
“Maybe I don’t want easier,” Malcolm finally whispered.
Caroline’s face softened as she met his gaze. “If you want complications, Mal, I’ve got those in spades.”
“See you later, Caroline,” Malcolm said and tapped his forehead in a sloppy salute.
“Catch you later, Malcolm,” she corrected with a knowing wink.
Malcolm turned his attention to Dawn and lowered his hand.
Dawn smiled, crossed her arms, and their fighter dove into an explosion of rainbow light.