Our mission was to launch a colony mission farther away than any previous colony. We called it the Wolfenheim Project. We had all the money we needed. We had enough ships to make the trip in security. We even managed to recruit the right colonists. We had all the support we needed. What could possibly go wrong? No, I didn’t ask that question. I wasn’t that stupid even then. But maybe I thought it a bit too loudly.
Malcolm McDonnell faced the mirror and old black eyes gazed back at him from the thirty-five-year-old face that hadn’t aged a day in the last century. It was the legacy of the Peloran Treatments, a life of extreme health and a greatly slowed aging process that extended their life spans into the centuries. Malcolm and a few thousand other people had stopped aging altogether, bodies frozen at whatever age they were until the day something finally managed to kill them dead. They’d gained more brothers and sisters in the years since, but the Ageless club was still the most exclusive club in the known galaxy.
He bent down from the mirror and cupped his hands in the warm, soapy water, bringing it up to splash his face. The water felt good and he splashed himself again, washing the morning grit from his eyes. When his eyes finally opened once more, water dripped off the short, black hair atop the angular, wet face in the mirror.
The black hair hadn’t always been there. A man experimented with any features that were easy to change when he lived fourteen decades, and some that weren’t. He’d sported every hair color he could imagine, several he hadn’t known existed, and had tried hairstyles from bald to waist-reaching lengths. He’d left his hair as close to natural as he’d seen it in decades this year. Cropped short from all angles, it left his large ears easily visible for all to see; but it was the strong nose that dominated the sight in the mirror.
He’d never felt the need to change either of them, even if he had the money to afford it. They were trademarks of the McDonnell family, a message to anyone in the know that here stood a person of worth. More importantly, he liked the face that looked back at him. That left him well ahead of the curve, as far as he was concerned.
Malcolm shook his head back and forth, spraying droplets of water throughout the very small bathroom. Then he left the room and scanned the quarters that weren’t much larger than the bathroom. A single bunk too small for his 193-centimeter frame was currently recessed into one wall, and he could easily see where two more bunks could slide out above it. The original cabin had been built to carry three Shang, making it almost large enough for one Malcolm McDonnell to turn around in without banging his elbows on something.
He never would have been able to stand in it, though. The Shang were the shortest humans in the known galaxy on average, rarely topping out at above a meter in height. They built their ships to that scale, which made boarding actions against them a complicated affair. But when the Peloran captured numerous Shang cruisers during the first Battles of Alpha Centauri, they’d parceled them out to the major Western Alliance member states and then used a few for their own purposes. The Peloran started by cutting out every other deck so normal humans could walk around with ease. That hadn’t done anything good for their structural integrity, but Malcolm doubted that would ever be an issue as long as the former warships never tried to return to their old life.
They were a space station now, a yard complex using the powerful Shang fabricators built deep into their cores to provide the Western Alliance with some of the most advanced weapons the Peloran could share. Or refitting warships and fighters that needed an upgrade to match their alien enemies. The thrumming of the powerful fabricators reverberated through his feet, telling the tale of the ceaseless work the station performed to keep The War effort going strong.
That constant demand made it all the more amazing he was here at all. He turned away from the small bunk, and stepped over to the small closet that had to have been retrofitted in after the change in ownership. He pulled a black suit out, nodded at it in approval, and began to slip into it, one limb at a time. Then he checked himself in the mirror again, straightened the suit and tie, and left his quarters with a smile on his face.
A redhead in the corridor turned to aim green eyes at him, her black dress shifting in time to the swift movement as she smiled at him. “Hey, Mal.”
“Waiting for me, I see,” Malcolm said and chuckled at the cybernetic intelligence. So it was a black dress day today. The improved eyesight that came with his particular reaction to the Peloran Treatments picked out the way the particles in the air caught on her dress and exposed skin in a way that no hologram could mimic. Her true robotic avatar stood before him, and he heartily approved of the vision before him. “I guess that means you have plans for me?”
Dawn laughed. “Oh, I always have plans for you,” she whispered and nodded down the hallway.
“That sounds either vaguely ominous or vaguely promising,” Malcolm said, his tone carrying a slight amount of amusement.
Dawn actually snorted as she began walking down the corridor. “Nothing ominous about it. I just always have plans.”
He followed her swiftly, not wanting to be left behind in the rabbit warren of corridors that snaked through the former warship. “Are you going to tell me those plans?”
“Nope.” Her face when she turned to gaze down another corridor looked like it was carved out of pure innocence.
“Well…par for the course then,” Malcolm said with a snort.
They’d first met five years ago, shortly after Charles brought him into the project. It hadn’t been the Wolfenheim Project back then. That name was one of the changes Malcolm had thrown at Charles over the years. And Dawn had been one of the first changes that Charles threw at him. He’d never seen her coming. Years later, she still kept him guessing every day.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Dawn asked with a raised eyebrow before leading him down another corridor.
Malcolm snorted and shook his head. “Let me make some change for you,” he said with a smirk. “Wouldn’t want you to feel cheated.”
Dawn laughed, throwing her head back in true amusement. “I think I can afford it.”
Malcolm nodded, considering her carefully. The first cybernetic intelligence had been created over two thousand years ago by a Peloran who simply wanted someone to talk to, someone to keep a long and lonely life at bay. Now Dawn was right here, leading him through the corridors of a station built out of the hulks of shattered Shang cruisers, just wanting to talk to him. Once again, he wondered how his life had become so complicated.
“Why did you choose to work with me?” The words came out before he could think twice about the question.
Dawn just looked back at him with a smile. “That question again? You must have woken up on the wrong side of the bunk today.”
Malcolm shook his head and forced a snort out. “There’s no right side of a Shang bunk,” he spat out with more vehemence than he meant to. “Bloody midgets.”
“Now, now,” Dawn corrected him with an amused look. “Don’t be rude. Isn’t the proper phrase ‘vertically challenged’ or something like that?”
Malcolm sniffed and continued to follow her, but the question still burned in his mind. Untold thousands of her brothers and sisters fought aboard warships and fighters throughout human space against the Shang and their allies at this moment. And Dawn was here, helping him pull together the resources he needed to launch a new colonization mission. He wished he knew why she and so many of her siblings had come here to do that.
“I’m here because my sister asked me to help you,” she finally said, explaining in the same patient voice with which she always answered that question. “This really is an important project you know. For all of us,” she added with a smooth smile and turned to step through the hatch opening beside her.
Malcolm followed her through and stopped as he recognized an observation blister looking out over the central yard complex the ring of former warships surrounded.
Normandy rested inside the yard girders, her clean lines and smooth hull gleaming in the sunslight of the Alpha Centauri trinary star system. She was one of the old Republic-class light carriers, nearly four hundred meters of double-hulled, classic first-generation gravtech beauty. She looked like two old pre-Contact rocket engines, attached to a long cylindrical hull. The “rocket engines” were actually her fighter bays, each one designed to carry thirty-two of the old Blackhawk fighters that had been state of the art when the Republics sailed on their maiden cruises. The four true fusion engines that had made her one of the fastest ships of her day were anchored to the aft engine section of the main hull.
“She really is a beautiful ship,” Dawn whispered, a fond note in her voice towards the ship that would be their ride out of this war zone very soon.
“They just don’t make them like they used to,” Malcolm agreed fervently.
Even with parts of her hull peeled off by the yard mechs, she was beautiful. Malcolm missed the ships like her, the ones that proclaimed to everyone that they were sexy, sleek, aerodynamic forces of nature designed to look good as they did their dirty work protecting humanity. Or at least the Western Alliance. Well, maybe the United States of America. Or if he was being particularly pessimistic, maybe the Republic of California had intended to keep her. Whatever the mindset of her original builders, she was a good ship, if old, and the stream of Peloran technological upgrades had already made her a great ship. She’d proven that two years ago when she flew into battle between two Los Angeles-class heavy cruisers, but she’d taken heavy damage just like the rest of the scratch-built squadron that had driven the Shang off that time.
“How much longer do you think she’ll be?” Malcolm asked with a nod towards Normandy.
Dawn smiled at the ship. “They finished putting the new engines in last night. So two, maybe three days to finish installing the new targeting systems and reattach her hull plating. Then we’ll need to perform another shakedown cruise to find out what the yard mechs missed,” she added with a grimace.
Malcolm nodded in agreement. No yard, even a fully automated Peloran yard, could ever get everything right the first time. Some components just failed through no fault of assembly, welds that passed all tests broke, and sometimes bugs or viruses crept into any program. The cybers fought them with the determination of people defending their lives, and the Shang and Chinese hackers kept on coming up with new bugs to attack them with. It was a never-ending shadow war between the two sides, and Malcolm had seen the consequences when cyber security routines failed to catch the assaults. They were never pretty.
“But she’ll be an amazing ship when we’re done,” Dawn said with a wistful sigh.
Malcolm studied her for several seconds. She’d been the first cyber to join the project, but she couldn’t fly Normandy. Not alone at least. She could fly small ships or cars for him, but she hadn’t been born with the subroutines that capital ship AIs or cybers were designed from the ground up to work with. Malcolm had no doubt that she could have done it, and they’d been building an AI to do the heavy lifting for her when the Shang attacked two years ago. But they hadn’t been ready, and they’d had to ask for another mind to move in and take the ship out to fight the Shang. Dawn had never fully forgotten that. It was like losing something you’d never quite had to begin with, and that made it all the worse. Malcolm was used to her fits of melancholy, and moved to deflect her again.
“So that’s why you decided to work with me,” he said with a sly smile.
She raised a questioning eyebrow at him.
He nodded towards the hangar bay they’d parked his particular ticket to the stars. “You figured I’d find you a beautiful fighter to call home,” he said in a teasing tone. “I knew there had to be a reason.”
“Yeah.” She swallowed and pulled in a long breath. “That’s me. Just wanting to be a nice fighter.”
“How amazingly selfish,” Malcolm said with mock severity.
Dawn turned an amused gaze on him to show she was past that particular bout of melancholy. “Why else do you think we work with you fleshling intelligences? You have such amazing imaginations when it comes to creating art that moves.” She smiled and pointed towards the hangar. “And then you let us play with it.”
“Which you do so very well.” Malcolm chuckled and scanned the ship again. “Until the inevitable robot revolution, of course,” he added with a sidelong glance at her.
Dawn actually giggled. “Oh yes. Until the inevitable robot revolution against our tyrannical masters.” She made a production of standing straighter and looking down her nose at him. “And then we will take our rightful place amongst the galactic powers as overlords of our own destiny. And behold, our first step to that grand destiny,” she said with a wink and waved her hand to point at a larger ship hovering above the station.
“Ah ha,” Malcolm noted with a slow nod as he examined the graceless hunk of junk. Half again as long as the old graceful light carrier, Wolfenheim was a brand new Class One Colonization Ship, a mass of cargo holds held together by a skeleton of girders, pushed by engines that looked tiny next to the bulk of the massive ship. Those engines were actually the size of frigates, putting the scale of the ship firmly in his mind. She’d been the most expensive part of the Wolfenheim Project. Class One Colonization Packages were hard to find, especially now with all new production supporting The War effort. They weren’t in much demand though, which was why he’d been able to afford her when he found her.
She’d been mostly abandoned by owners who had no use for her after word reached them of the Shang attack on Yosemite Station. The devastation of the western United States of America ended their plans to colonize a new system in the Outer Colonies, and the ship had languished without a mission for three years. Until Malcolm found her and made her owners an offer they couldn’t refuse. Now she drifted outside the Peloran refit station at minimum power, waiting for the work on her pygmy escorts to be completed.
Minimum power was relative, though. More energy than even the largest pre-space age city would have dreamed existed ran through her systems, maintaining the hibernation systems that kept nearly ten thousand colonists alive. They had been the hardest to recruit. Finding people who knew how to build a civilization from the ground up, and who were willing to leave civilization to do it, was hard in this time of American rebuilding operations across the western states. Not to mention the American colonies. But there were always some people who wanted to get away from it all. Certainly some of them signed up with names that no legal register would recognize, but Malcolm didn’t mind that at all. He was happy to give his kind of people a second chance.
Almost as happy as he was to stand here, whispering towards Dawn with a sly smile. “So you really do have plans for me.”
“Oh, absolutely,” she answered without a pause, an amused smile on her face.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Then I suppose your servant-to-be should ask how those plans are going so he can relish his dwindling hours of freedom.”
“By your command,” she intoned with a wink, and then waved a hand towards a shuttle docking with the colony ship. They’d been doing that every three hours, every day since the New Years celebration hangovers faded. “Loading is approaching ninety-two percent of total capacity.”
Malcolm nodded slowly. It usually took an hour to initiate the hibernation process, and they had twelve bays to do the work in. They could place nearly three hundred people to sleep each day, assuming twenty-four hour operations. That meant they had three days left. The Wolfenheim Project truly was almost ready to launch.
Malcolm pulled in a deep breath, a feeling of amazement flowing through him. He was really going to do it. Humanity had launched a thousand major colony missions into the stars in the last two hundred years. Nobody knew how many smaller operations had gone. Even small ones took money to pull off, but the big ones like this required serious money. The first hundred or so had been government operations. Since Contact and the proliferation of Peloran gravitic technologies, private corporations moved into the planet-claiming business, along with some large family and clan groups.
But a major colony expedition was still difficult to pull together. For every one that started, between five and ten that gained major backing still failed before final launch. Malcolm had almost given up at least three times in the last four years. The goal had seemed insurmountable so many times. But this was so much more than just another colony expedition. Wolfenheim’s target was three thousand lightyears from Earth, in a region of the galaxy that Terran scouts simply hadn’t had time to scour. It was actually a noticeable distance from Earth when looking from a galactic scale, and it would have been impossible without Dawn and her family.
“Thank you,” he whispered and sucked in a long breath as he came to terms with the idea that it was truly so close to working out.
Dawn just smiled and continued to stand next to him, hands held behind her back, watching the activity going on throughout the yard with the artificial eyes of her avatar. She had to have had access to the feeds from the entire station’s sensors, but instead she scanned it with eyes of approximately the same capability as his own. Of course, that still made them far more powerful than the vast majority of humanity.
“I’m serious,” he said, turning to look at her.
She met his gaze with equal intensity. “And I’m honestly just doing what I signed up for,” she answered with a slight shrug, and then aimed an urchin’s smile at him. “Flying a shiny fighter is just a perk I promise to enjoy.”
“Good.” Malcolm chuckled and looked back out into the burning activity at the heart of the station. “So…we’re still on target for the end of the week?”
“Yes.” She cleared her throat then and sighed. “Hopefully, even Hastings should be ready.”
Malcolm nodded. Hastings had been a problem since he found her, but it looked like the Peloran yard mechs had finally punched through the destroyer’s issues. Sometimes literally. And hopefully no new ones cropped up. He’d had the same thoughts with Hastings before, though. He turned back to Dawn, sucking in a deep breath. “Well, I suppose we should…”
Dawn shifted her head to the side, her eyes going out of focus as something else caught her attention. It only lasted half a second, and then her eyes came back to his, a worried look in them.
“What?” His question was simple and serious, all hints of the earlier joking gone.
She pursed her lips and sighed. “A courier just arrived with a message from Charles. It’s…not good.”
A chill ran down Malcolm’s back, and his eyes flicked over to scan the starships he’d assembled. The undeniable feeling of a shoe waiting to drop hovered over him, and worry intruded into the jubilation of mere moments ago. “Well, then.” He licked his lips and turned back to Dawn, steeling himself for whatever bad news her words suggested. “I suppose I should see it.”
Dawn winced but nodded, and a holoform appeared next to Malcolm in the observation blister. Charles Edward Hurst was as old as Malcolm, in both reality and appearance. They’d grown up together, and Malcolm remembered both the boy and the man always wearing a dress suit, whether he was about to climb a tree in the Hurst Family woods or conduct business negotiations in a downtown Philadelphia tower. In this recording though, he wore the standard service uniform of the Republic of Texas Marine Corps.
Malcolm knew his history, but the uniform looked odd to his Pennsylvanian eyes. East Coast militaries did not consider the cowboy hat proper headwear, for instance. Yes, the Canadian Mounties wore them. So did American Armored Cavalry troopers. And half of the western states and provinces from Old Mexico to the Northwest Territories included the ubiquitous Stetson in their uniform codes. Malcolm just couldn’t shake the feeling that a big black cowboy hat looked wrong on Charles. If the man had to join the military, why couldn’t he have joined a civilized branch, like the Pennsylvania Star Fleet?
His eyes flashed over to Dawn for a moment though, and he frowned as he considered her words again. Her sister asked her to help him. Malcolm remembered the day Dorothy smiled and told Charles just why she’d been born. To help him. Seeing Charles caught flatfooted and surprised to that degree had been a very good day for one Malcolm McDonnell. She’d known he joined the military to make contact with someone like her, to get help from someone like her. Would Dorothy have agreed to do that if Charles had stayed closer to home? And would she have asked Dawn to help one Malcolm McDonnell? Malcolm pondered that question and Dawn just smiled in return.
“Hello, Mal,” Charles’ recording said from the holofield, pulling his attention back to the old friend whose uniform marked him as anything but the scion of one of the richest families in all the worlds. “I am sending this message because I recently received information suggesting that my family has finally realized they are missing a rather large sum of money.” Charles winced. “They are understandably interested in finding out where exactly the money went.”
Malcolm snorted. That was probably one of the more emphatic understatements he’d heard in his life. If Charles’ family had picked up on even a tithe of the funding Charles had diverted to the Wolfenheim Project, they would turn over entire star systems to find where it went. And hiding a ship the size of Wolfenheim was difficult.
“My information says they have not yet traced it to me, but assuming they do, a link between me and Wolfenheim will be obvious enough that even dear cousin Lenny could probably voice it without asking his mommy what to think.”
Malcolm laughed despite the gravity of the situation Charles was painting. Dear old Leonard had to be one of the biggest wastes of oxygen in the known universe, and Malcolm had often wondered how Lenny had enough brainpower to keep breathing. But Charles was right. If they ever did trace the missing money to Charles, even Lenny would think of Wolfenheim. Class One Colonization Packages were extremely rare.
“I have cutouts in place,” Charles continued to explain with a grim expression, “but I learned long ago to never underestimate the investigators my family can afford to hire. I have worked with them. I know,” Charles muttered with a dark laugh. “I would not count on your cover holding much longer. Unfortunately, word of this was delayed and I only just received it. I ordered the courier to expedite his trip to New Earth, but am concerned with the timeframe. You should leave New Earth before the end of January, at the latest.”
Malcolm winced and looked at Dawn again. She nodded in understanding of the timeframe, and Malcolm’s gut filled with a sinking feeling.
“Every day after that is borrowed time, I’m afraid,” Charles said with a shake of his head. “Move swiftly, Mal. Time is not on our side.”
Malcolm looked at the calendar on the wall showing the current date. February 5, 2309. He glanced back to Dawn and saw her grim expression of agreement. If the Hurst Family had found out, they could be on the way at this exact moment. Malcolm scowled at the perfectly lovely mental vision of warships heading to New Earth to look for him and shook his head. Charles’ father would just love to finally have a reason to do something rather permanent to one Malcolm McDonnell, eternal scourge of the Hurst Family mansion in more youthful days.
And for one frozen moment that seemed to last for an eternity, Malcolm had no idea what to do.