Life is about change. If we never change, we don’t really live. I’ve been through a lot of change in my life. Most of it has been painful in one way or another. But without that change, I would have died a long time ago. Or turned into the kind of guy I wouldn’t want to be, at least. And that’s the real kicker. I want to wake up each morning, look in the mirror, and be happy with the man looking back at me. If I’m not, it’s time for a change.
Malcolm pounded on the punching bag in the empty fitness center. Twenty-five days had gone by since leaving Sunnydale, far too long as far as he was concerned. He was bored. For the first time in years, Director Malcolm McDonnell of the Wolfenheim Project had nothing to do, and he hated it. He’d been so careful to make certain that there were people to do everything that needed doing that he’d organized himself completely out of a job. Now he was just a glorified passenger on a starship that didn’t need a word of input from him.
A knee flashed up to strike the bag, followed by a punch and an elbow that kept the punching bag vibrating in a steady rhythm. Rivulets of sweat poured down his upper body, soaking his athletic shorts, and he breathed deeply to keep the oxygen flowing through his body. Normandy’s crew were at their stations, ready to arrive in Independence, which gave him the very rare opportunity to get in a real workout.
There were many things Malcolm liked about his body. He was perfectly healthy thanks to the Peloran Treatments and his one-in-a-million reaction to them. He would be until the day he died. He was stronger and faster than when he was young, his senses sharper, and he healed from wounds that would kill a normal human. But he was a naturally thin and lanky fellow, and his body rid itself of “unnecessary” muscle tone on a daily basis. He ran and lifted weights like an Olympic medallist, all to maintain just a little bit of muscle tone. He liked having muscle tone. So unlike most Ageless, he exercised every day. And today was a very special day. Today he was alone in the fitness center, with the gravity dialed up to twice Earth standard. It was a very good day to push his body to its limits.
He slammed one final quivering fist into the punching bag to stop it, and sucked air into his lungs. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and flexed his hands. His muscles jittered from head to toe, fatigue chemicals filling them to the point that even he could barely stand. He was done.
He stumbled over to a bench, breaths coming in ragged gasps, and sat down, willing his heartbeat to drop back down to normal. It seemed like it took forever, but finally the rapid thumping slowed. His breathing became regular, and sweat began to evaporate into the chill air of the fitness center.
The hatch opened, and fresh air swarmed into the fitness center. Dawn stepped in from the corridor and wrinkled her nose. “Are we finally done with this torture?” she asked with a wry smile, holding a tempting beer in each hand.
“Yeah,” Malcolm answered in a breathless hiss.
“Good,” Dawn whispered and strode forward as light as a feather. It was like she didn’t even notice the high gravity.
He took one beer from her hand with a muttered “Thanks” as holographic fields came to life in the middle of the fitness center.
“Always,” she answered, her tone betraying amusement. “Here it comes,” she added as a maelstrom of gravity-generated colors Malcolm didn’t have names for filled the center. That wasn’t a surprise, of course. He didn’t have names for most colors. Peach was a fruit, for instance.
“There,” Dawn announced, pointing her beer at one display.
Malcolm absentmindedly twisted the top off his beer and tossed it into a nearby trashcan. He loved watching ships leave hyperspace. He’d watched every recording he could find since he was a child, and had made special trips to see fleet maneuvers that involved them. It was beautiful. To the child he’d been, it had been proof that mankind could go wherever it wanted to go. To the adult Malcolm, it was a reminder that they were not alone in the galaxy. To the Malcolm who sat in the chair, it was a promise. They were coming. No matter the cost, no matter how hard anybody hit them, the people of Earth would never stop coming.
He would never stop coming.
The displays went blank for an instant and then came back to life with pinpricks of stars dotting the darkness of normalspace. Nine more starships and four dozen fighters appeared over the next few seconds, shedding the colors of their own hyperspace energies into the Independence star system. Malcolm just smiled as the light pulsed out from them, a message to anyone in system that visitors had arrived, and then faded away. The show was over in seconds, but Malcolm remained where he was, letting the feelings it evoked flow through him.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Dawn asked, sipping her beer with satisfaction.
“Absolutely,” Malcolm answered and sucked in a long breath before asking the next thought that came to mind. “Do you think we’re alone?”
Dawn laughed. “Oh, not a chance.”
She pointed her beer at the gas giant now dominating the view on one display. Several dozen ships appeared, holding the gas giant’s orbitals against any threat. Most were frigates or destroyers, but a few cruisers supported them. It wouldn’t be enough to stop a major invasion, but the planetary defense force was more of a warning against attack than a true defensive fleet. The actual battle squadrons that orbited distant Independence were the real threat. Most of the ships flew the flag of Independence: red, white, and blue with a single star. A few warships flew the Peloran flag as well, proving that they still considered the system important enough to garrison.
“You know what I mean,” Malcolm muttered as he scanned for the navy blue flag of Pennsylvania.
“Every ship is squawking their codes, and not a one of them is our friend Murphy.” She turned her head and smiled at him. “I think we’re clear.”
Malcolm nodded in relief. “Then I suppose we should resupply, huh?”
“Well, what do you know?” Dawn said with a shrug. “We just got a message from Independence traffic control.”
“Good or bad?” he asked.
Dawn chuckled. “Very good. They’ve got a supply depot waiting for us, too.”
Malcolm snorted. “I love it when a plan comes together.”
“Even when it’s not yours?”
“Especially when it’s not mine.” He winked back. “The surprise makes it better.”
“Ah. Right.” She waved her beer at him. “Everyone loves a good surprise.”
He finished taking another sip of his and waggled his eyebrows at her. “Yup.”
She aimed a sly expression at him. “It’s the bad surprises that bring all the screaming and running and gnashing of teeth, right?”
Malcolm shrugged. “Eh. I prefer shooting at bad surprises.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Oh you have no idea how much joy I’ve gotten out of envisioning you shooting some of the paper pushers I’ve had to deal with over the last few years,” she said after a few seconds.
Malcolm raised an eyebrow at her. “Point me at ’em,” he only half joked.
She actually giggled at his comeback. “Oh, I’ve been tempted.” She nodded towards the outside view of the approaching supply depot and then made a show of sniffing and wrinkling her nose at him. “We’ll be loading for a while, by the way.”
“Right,” Malcolm said with a nod as his stomach growled. His furnace needed refueling after all the calories he’d burned, but she was right. He had a far more important problem that needed taking care of right now. So he guzzled down the last of his beer and rolled onto his feet in a graceful motion. “I need to shower.”
Dawn frowned at him. “What a waste of a good beer,” she scolded. “I am going to stay right here and enjoy mine.”
“You do that,” Malcolm noted with a chuckle. “Don’t forget to tell me if I miss something important.”
“Why would I ever forget something like that?” she asked in an innocent tone.
“It’s amazing how much you forget when you think it’s for my own good,” Malcolm answered and stepped into the dressing room.
“Oh,” Dawn said in an unrepentant tone from his earpiece. “Not that old argument again.”
“No argument,” Malcolm whispered as he walked towards the showers. “Just an observation.”
“You are a very suspicious person, you know that?”
“I survived growing up with the Hurst Family,” he said deadpan.
“Good point,” Dawn whispered, and he could almost see her raising one finger in the air. The only question he had was which finger she’d be raising.
“No peeking,” he ordered and stepped into the showers.
“You’re no fun,” she returned in a disappointed tone as he reached up to twist the shower handles. Water sprayed out over him, and he smiled as the warm flow relaxed his exercise-strained muscles.
Five hours later, Malcolm leaned back from the wreckage of his second meal of the day. Ravaged plates lay scattered across his day cabin’s table, telling the tale of his ravenous hunger. The remains of a Philly cheesesteak, a giant bowl of clam chowder, an entire pan pizza, and far more dotted the table. His eyes strayed to the slice of pecan pie before him. It looked delicious, and his stomach rumbled as it caught the hint of fresh sugar on the way. He smiled and reached for a fork.
“Oh, not again,” Dawn whined.
He froze, one hand on the fork, and turned to aim a baleful gaze at the cyber.
“What?” he growled.
She aimed a disgusted wave of her hand at a display as it came to life with eight starships radiating hyperspatial energy. “Murphy,” she spat out.
His fingers clenched around the fork, working it like a dog working a bone. “You sure?”
Dawn snorted. “Just got the transmission.”
“Bloody hell.” He felt the fork bend under his assault and looked down at its horridly misshapen hulk. Well. That was another fork ruined.
“Why can’t she just wait until we’re done loading supplies, for once?” Dawn growled.
Malcolm dropped the ruined fork in disgust. “We got the important stuff, right?”
Dawn’s eyes narrowed. “That depends on what you call important.”
“Can we live without it?” he asked in an exasperated tone and came to his feet.
“Yes,” she growled, looking even unhappier to be admitting that than he expected. “This is all your fault, you know.”
Malcolm waved towards where Murphy’s squadron now appeared on his bulkhead. “Hey, don’t blame me. She’s the one on our tails.”
“Only because you are a criminal,” Dawn said with crossed arms.
Malcolm aimed a hurt expression at her as he turned around. “I have not broken a single law during this entire project,” he said in an innocent tone and began walking in her direction.
She raised a single eyebrow at him and he cleared his throat.
“Well, not any important laws at least.” He shrugged and came to a momentary stop near her. “Now that we’re out of their jurisdiction.”
Dawn rolled her eyes. “Right.”
“Blame Charlie!” Malcolm tried with a shrug of both shoulders. “He’s the one that arranged for all that money to get to us.”
Dawn stepped over, leaned in so close he could feel her breath on his skin, and glared as she poked him in the chest with an accusing finger. “And you knew about it the whole time, so that makes you a conspirator.”
He smiled and poked her back. “You did too.”
“Oh.” She pulled back and frowned at him. “Right.” She turned to another holofield where shuttles spilled out of the Wolfenheim Project starships. “Well, we’re almost ready to dive.”
Malcolm waved at the bulkhead showing a massive view of the nearby gas giant. “So long Independence. We barely knew yah.”
“That’s Perseverance,” Dawn corrected.
“Whatever,” Malcolm responded with a wry smile. He strode over to his favorite chair, sat down, and kicked his feet up onto the ottoman.
Dawn sat down in the other chair with a frown, and they waited for the fleet to leave. It was only minutes later that the displays flashed and they returned to hyperspace.
“And that’s that,” Dawn reported, shaking her head.
Malcolm let out a long breath, interlaced his fingers behind his head, and watched the ships dive deeper into hyperspace. He didn’t have anything else to do. That thought soured his expression for a moment, but he pulled in a breath and decided that he was going to make the best of a bad situation and enjoy watching the lightshow. Somehow.
Dawn shifted a few minutes later and looked at the hatch to the corridor outside the day cabin.
Malcolm aimed a questioning look at her.
“You’ve got company.” She blinked and then smiled. “And I think you’ll want to talk to him.”
“Well then. Don’t keep him waiting,” Malcolm ordered and turned towards the hatch. He caught a glimpse of Dawn sticking her tongue out at him, but the hatch opened without further delay.
A brown leather flight jacket moved into the cabin, worn by a young man with dirty brown hair and a black Stetson atop it. The kid swore up and down that John Smith was his real given name. Though the seventeen-year-old baby face could say the sun died while you slept with such guileless sincerity that you’d believe him until you saw the glowing orb for yourself. The real life Boy Scout, who surely helped old ladies cross the street in his spare time, was also a veteran of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, the Cowboys. He was, in short, one of the cutest little killing machines Malcolm had ever met.
Malcolm smiled and sprang to his feet to welcome the kid, as a redheaded holoform wearing blue jeans and a matching flight jacket followed the kid in. Dawn, on her feet even quicker than he, rushed over to welcome the other cyber. Avatar and holoform leaned in close to exchange greetings, and Malcolm shook his head. Anna had the “high school student on the run from a truant officer” look down perfectly. She even had freckles on her cheeks. She looked so bloody cute he felt like a dirty old man every time he looked at her. Not that he saw her very often.
“We’ll leave you two boys alone,” Dawn said and led Anna away. The girl actually giggled as they walked away. Giggled.
Malcolm turned back to share a bemused look with the young boy in front of him and had to suck in a lungful of air to reengage his brain. “Welcome to my humble abode, Mister Smith,” he finally said, waving towards the chair that Dawn had so recently vacated.
“Thanks, Mister McDonnell,” the kid answered and bounced past him to take his seat. Bounced.
Suddenly feeling very old, Malcolm followed the kid and relaxed down into his seat again. He arranged his feet back on the ottoman and smiled at the pilot he hadn’t seen in months. Smith usually sent Anderson to deal with him, so this must be rather important. “Long time no see.”
Smith nodded in acceptance of the point but remained silent.
“So what can I do for you?” Malcolm asked.
Smith waved a hand at a part of the bulkhead in answer. The Privateer that recently joined them sailed on the other side of that bulkhead, rivers of gravity parting around her. His voice was proud when he finally spoke. “She’s a beautiful ship.”
“Yes, she is,” Malcolm returned, even though he wasn’t sure he really agreed. She was too blocky for him. She had too many straight lines and angles and weird things sticking out of her hull. Give him an old first-generation gravtech beauty like Normandy, all curves and smooth lines, and he was much happier. But, beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and Smith was obviously one beholder who loved that ship.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time on her lately,” Smith said with a smile.
Malcolm nodded. Smith was an Avenger pilot by training. It made sense that Charles wanted him to test a ship designed to carry them, especially since thirteen Avengers came with her. “I know.”
The kid blushed at his wry comment and met his gaze. Then the boy looked away again, back to admiring the beautiful ship out there. “I’m really going to have to thank him for her, aren’t I?”
Malcolm chuckled. “Yes, you will.”
Smith nodded at him and smiled. “You have no idea how much I love being back in an Avenger,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. The Blackhawks are nice birds, but…”
He trailed off and Malcolm smiled. “But nothing holds a candle to the first girl you love.”
“Yeah,” Smith answered with a smile. “I just wish I could give an Avenger to each of my pilots. But that would make us all targets.”
Malcolm nodded in understanding. The fighter squadrons on Normandy had a single pilot-cyber team controlling twelve fighters. The beauty of the system was that the enemy didn’t know which of the twelve fighters the pilot flew, making it impossible for them to target him. Handing out the Avengers to the other pilots would be like waving a giant sign that said “Shoot here.” And while cybers could come back from dying by just loading up a previous backup, death for genetic humans was a bit more permanent.
Or at least it was for most of them. Charles hadn’t exactly told Malcolm where he managed to find three former Cowboys for this project, but Malcolm could read between the lines. He knew exactly how many Cowboys had died before his Wolfenheim Project got off the ground, and he was willing to bet he could guess exactly who all three of them had once been, starting with this very young John Smith. Bad Chad Adelman of the rather rich and famous Adelman Family of Texas. If Malcolm was right, Charles was playing his cards awful close to his chest.
“And besides, Normandy can’t support Avengers,” Malcolm said with one raised eyebrow. Her hangar bays were designed for the equally ancient Blackhawks built half the size of a “fighter” that had more in common with a small starship than any other fighter in service.
“They’re too big,” Smith agreed. Then he sighed, and Malcolm knew the kid was ready to say what he came here to say. “The problem is that we have sixty-four Blackhawk starfighters and only three pilots for them. We were having each of my people commanding twelve fighters per standard Cowboy doctrine, which left twelve as a combat space patrol under Normandy’s direct control, and gave us some spares in case of breakdown. Plus the fighter you chose as your personal ride, of course.”
“Of course.” Malcolm returned Smith’s smile with an amused look. Sometimes it was good to be Director.
“Now that I’ve moved over to my new ship, that leaves twelve more fighters we could hand over to Normandy,” Smith said, but a speculative glint filled his eyes.
Malcolm frowned and leaned back in his chair. “But you have another idea.”
Smith shrugged. “It would be best for many reasons if we had another pilot.”
“Right,” Malcolm returned and looked back out at hyperspace. Good pilots were rare. Ones that were Ageless, with all the increased reflexes that went along with that, were even harder to find. “There’s not one person in the fleet that can fly a starfighter the way your people do.”
Smith nodded very slowly, as if in deep thought. “Well,” he began in a doubtful tone, but he didn’t fool Malcolm at all. The boy knew exactly what he was going to say next, so Malcolm remained silent and waited for the next words. “I can think of one person on this ship that can do what we do.”
Malcolm raised one eyebrow as he waited, but Smith’s silence finally forced the question out. “Who?”
“I’ve seen him handle a fighter already,” Smith answered with a smile. “And he’s already got good chemistry with a cyber I know could handle twelve fighters with ease.”
“Who?” Malcolm repeated, wondering who could actually impress a retired Cowboy.
“His name’s Malcolm McDonnell,” Smith noted without any hesitation at all.
The name didn’t register for a second. Then Malcolm laughed. It was just too ridiculous. “No.”
“Why?” The kid was still smiling, but Malcolm felt something underneath the childlike skin. The eyes looking at him from the face of a child were those of a smart and powerful Family scion.
“Well,” Malcolm said with a trace of uncertainty. “I’m Director Wolfenheim. There’s way too much involved in that to focus on a single fighter squadron.”
“Really?” Smith asked with an amused smile. “I was under the impression you were chewing at the bulkheads for something to do.”
Malcolm sighed. “That may be true.”
Smith raised one eyebrow.
“Fine, it is true,” Malcolm corrected. “But I’ve only ever played with small ships. The Blackhawk was as much for Dawn as it was for fun. I never expected to actually use it in combat.”
“I would hope you never have to,” Smith said with a firm nod. “But I’d be negligent in the duty you gave me to best utilize the fighters we have to defend this project if I didn’t try to get as many qualified pilots for them as possible.”
“Four was fine before,” Malcolm said with a sigh. “Why do you need five now?”
Smith shook his head. “Four was never fine for this job. We’ve always needed more. Sixty-four fighters is a paltry escort for a job like this. There’s a reason modern destroyers carry integral fighters, but we went with what we had and could use effectively. Now thanks to Charles, I’ve got more fighters than I had. It’s still not enough mind you, but it’s more. I want to use them as effectively as possible.”
Malcolm rubbed his chin and frowned. “Why would it be more effective to have five pilots instead of four? We’d have the same number of fighters in space.”
Smith nodded. “That’s true, but it’s a matter of focus. The greatest weakness of the cowboy squadron is that with one pilot for each twelve birds, we can really only focus on one target or direction at a time. Granted, we can focus a massive amount of firepower on that one target, but it’s still only one target.”
Smith shrugged. “Four pilots means we can focus on four things, though Normandy can be counted on for another focus. Mostly close in point defense, you know, but that’s insanely important in fleet defense. A fifth pilot would give us an option to move on another focus, another mission, whatever we need, without negatively impacting other plans. And without radically reducing Normandy’s point defense network. She’s already got twelve fighters. Twenty-four fighters are not twice as good. There’s a curve in usefulness, where having too many close in fighters starts to hurt rather than help, and we’re pretty far along on the curve right now. It just makes sense to have a fifth pilot, and I know you can do it. One question is whether or not you’d be willing to follow my orders.”
Malcolm leaned back in his chair and frowned. “Well, that’d be a bit of a change.”
Smith shrugged. “You’d still be Director of course. But when in flight, you’d need to be willing to accept my commands without reservation. And at the same time be able to trust your instincts when your subconscious tells you that Something Bad is about to happen.”
“I’ve usually listened to that still, small voice in the back of my mind,” Malcolm said with a snort. “And I’ve generally learned to regret the times I ignored it.”
“And that leads to my final question,” Smith said and steepled his fingers. “Do you regret the times you risked your life for others?”
Malcolm raised one eyebrow at the man.
Smith cleared his throat in the uncomfortable silence, but took the bull by the horns and leaned forward. “Look. Many people like us refuse to lift a single finger to protect them.”
“Like the Hurst family?” Malcolm asked with a shrug.
Smith nodded and gave him an apologetic look. “And most of their allies,” he said very slowly.
Malcolm nodded, acknowledging the clean hit. Then he spread both arms out wide. “And here I am.” He smiled, understanding what the man was thinking. “Directing. Not fighting.”
“Yes,” Smith responded with care, reluctant to be any more direct. Malcolm understood that too. He was as close to the Hurst Family as anyone from the lesser families could get without actually being blood. It didn’t matter if they were chasing him now. A man could pick up a serious case of superiority complex by living a life in those circles. And people like them looked poorly on direct challenges to their humanity. Especially when they thought they were the best humans around. Smith came to his feet and sucked in a deep breath. “You don’t need to answer now. Just think about it and get back to me.”
Smith nodded and turned to walk back to the exit hatch. Malcolm followed his progress to see Anna appearing in the other hatch. She moved to meet him, her green eyes shining brightly as she studied Malcolm. The intensity of that gaze did not belong on her high school–girl looks.
She reminded him of another girl, long ago. Back in a time when he thought Earth was alone in the universe. For a split second, he remembered the man he’d been back then. Just a normal human like everyone else, thirty-four years old and willing to face five of the worst men the Families had bred for a woman from a lesser family. He remembered the feeling of dancing through the katas, diving between men, and lashing out with fists, feet, elbows, and more. That younger version of himself had been willing to die for her. And he probably would have if the Peloran Treatments hadn’t brought him back to the land of the living. Malcolm shook his head. He didn’t need time to think about it.
It was only one word, but the man turned to look at him with one foot in the open hatch and one raised, questioning eyebrow.
“We both know there is no such thing as immortality. Every one of us will die one day, no matter how hard we are to kill. Somewhere, somewhen, someone will make it stick, and then its game over. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. The end,” Malcolm said and saw Smith wince as the shot went home. Then Malcolm smiled and answered the real question. “I grew up in one of the Great Families. We were taught as babes that we were better than everyone else. That we were the end all and be all of civilization. That we were the movers and shakers who made everything work, and everyone else were ants beneath our feet. That is what the Families would have their children believe. I never did. I don’t now. I never will. We have power. Power others don’t have. And we have a responsibility to use that power wisely.” Malcolm shrugged and snorted. “I may have failed on the wise part from time to time, but I’ve never used my power to avoid that decision. I’ve made it, again and again my entire life. Even in cases when doing so risked that life completely. I can make it again.”
“Yes, you can,” Smith said and leaned in hard. “I’m questioning if you will.”
Malcolm frowned leaned back in his seat. “I don’t know if there’s any way to know that question,” he answered with a shake of his head. “How many times can a man go down that well before he can’t pull himself back out? I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that I haven’t drowned yet, and I don’t feel like I’m drowning anytime soon.”
The century-old scion of a Great Family stared at him for several seconds, measuring him carefully. Then Smith nodded and the seventeen-year-old kid returned to give him a cocky smile.
“That’s good enough for me. I’ll see you tomorrow,” the kid said and stepped out of the day cabin. Anna took one step into the hatch, paused to aim another examining look at Malcolm, and skipped out after him. Skipped. With dimples, a freckled smile, and everything that went along with it.
“I like them,” Dawn whispered after the hatch closed behind them, and moved to sit down in the vacated chair again.
“They make me feel old,” Malcolm returned, not wanting to think about the other things they made him feel. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head again.
“Well, that’s fair,” Dawn answered with an amused smile and crossed her legs on the shared ottoman between them. “You are old.”
“Hush, you,” Malcolm shot back.
“Baby pictures,” Dawn warned, one raised finger in the air.
Malcolm chuckled and smiled. She met his gaze and he read the promise in them. She would help. No matter what. “New job?” he whispered, turning the rejoinder into a question.
“Sounds good to me,” she answered with a crooked smile and turned to look out at the multicolored rivers of hyperspaces flowing past them. “I was getting bored anyways.”
“You and me both,” Malcolm said and examined her profile for a few seconds. Then he turned to follow her gaze with a satisfied sigh.
He truly was surrounded by great beauty.