Humanity is a diverse lot. We have many beliefs, many wishes and dreams. We fight each other, and sometimes kill each other. Too often, we see only the differences and think, “they aren’t as good as us.” But some days we rise above what separates us. Some days we stand united. There aren’t enough of them. But they are the best of days, no matter how fleeting.
Malcolm flexed his fingers as hyperspace roiled around the Blackhawk fighter. In the near distance, Normandy flailed through the gravitic maelstrom surrounding the Pleiades Cluster. He’d heard stories of the Pleiades but assumed they were just that. Wild stories told to impressionable children.
Seeing it now, he understood why the NASA missions had never even tried to explore the Hyades Cluster. Her one hundred or so stars tore at hyperspace so badly that old rocket ships could never have navigated it. But the over one thousand stars that made up the Pleiades were a true terror to anything without modern gravtech. Even modern vessels had to tread carefully and watch for gravitic currents that would pull them lightyears off course without warning.
But Bosphorus guided them through the outer layers of chaos. The giant star astronomers still called Celaeno stood out even against the backdrop of the cluster, giving them a target to aim for. That beacon-star quality was why Constantinople claimed the system decades ago in their constant drive to dominate the interstellar trade lanes. The name made sense. It was twenty-five lightyears from the center of the Pleiades Cluster, and anchored the best routes into the hyperspatial maelstrom that surrounded the cluster. Ships sailed those paths to the Alcyone star system, deep in the center of the cluster, to find the greatest single reason that anyone ever came to the Pleiades. The Gateway.
Peloran space lay on the other side of that unique phenomenon, thousands of lightyears away as light traveled. It was a shortcut through the stars that could save mankind years of travel through unknown regions of space far beyond the furthest extremes of human expansion. Or at least the branch of humanity born on Earth.
Malcolm flexed his fingers again. He’d never dreamed of piloting a starfighter in his youth. He hadn’t even flown combat simulators. A member of the Hurst Family, no matter how remote, didn’t have time to waste on something like that. Malcolm’s strain of the McDonnell Family was one of the many cadet branches married into that iconic family, so he’d grown up in all the best Hurst Family schools and training programs.
Some of it he hadn’t minded. They had some amazing daughters after all. Unfortunately, most of them just weren’t the kind of people he wanted to spend time with outside of school. Didn’t matter how pretty a girl was, when her gaze felt like a snake sizing up its next meal, he just wanted nothing to do with her outside of approved Family functions. Well, he didn’t want to see them at those either, but one had to keep up appearances.
The problem was that not one bit of that training had prepared him for this day. The Hursts were expected to lead mankind into the next century by example. They were not expected to actually pick up weapons and brandish them at the enemy. There were always enough expendables from the lesser branches of humanity for that brute force approach, after all. Let them fight, and bleed, and die if necessary. A Hurst would fight with his mind on the battlefield of the boardroom and change worlds.
That training had made it possible for him to wrangle the Wolfenheim Project into being. It enabled him to acquire a Class One Colonization Package, the escorting warships, the colonists, and everything else he needed to complete the mission. Because of it, the Wolfenheim Project was a reality. But no amount of that training had prepared him for flying into a potentially hostile system in a starfighter.
They’d drilled every day of the month it took to sail from Independence to Bosphorus, burning the practical lessons of piloting a starfighter in combat into his subconscious. He doubted he would ever be as good as Anderson, let alone Smith, Jones, or White. He had to smile as those names hit his mind again. The universe knew John Anderson by the name of Hunter Roberts, former commander of the USS Los Angeles’ fighter squadron. He’d quietly retired after Captain Wyatt’s court martial to the Serenity system, where the locals were happy to take in one of the heroes who’d saved their world. And they were even happier to cover for him when he very quietly informed him that he was going to join the Wolfenheim Project with Captain Wyatt under a new name. Malcolm wondered how they’d managed to thin out the volunteers who stepped forward to give life to Mister Roberts’ retirement on Serenity. He envisioned them starting with a cattle prod to find the ones who broke first.
Malcolm chuckled at that image as he considered the other three pilots. He was pretty certain they’d all died in the call of duty, which made their inclusion in his force a rather interesting matter. He sometimes wondered if their deaths had been faked, but the footage was too consistent. Which left the question of how they’d come back. The only thing he could think of were the cloning chambers the Peloran used to return their dead soldiers to duty, but everyone knew they didn’t work right on the Terran branch of humanity. Unless what everybody knew was a carefully crafted campaign of misinformation. That thought placed added importance on the shipping container full of cloning chambers he wasn’t supposed to know about. The Peloran had delivered that shipment, very quietly, the week before they left New Earth. If they truly had fixed the issues and begun returning dead Terran soldiers to the land of the living, Malcolm wondered just how his culture was going to survive the upheaval. He chuckled again at what that would do to inheritance laws and all those spoiled brats waiting for their old man to die and shuffle off this mortal coil.
“A penny for your thoughts?” Dawn asked and he turned to examine her.
Dawn’s holoform sat atop the console, smiling back at him. Her physical avatar sat behind him in the Blackhawk’s guy (or gal) in back seat where he couldn’t see her, so her holoform stood a mere twenty centimeters tall atop the main console. Her holoform wore black boots, slacks, and a black leather jacket that made her look like the very image of a stylish fighter pilot. Dawn was the real brains of their Blackhawk. She flew them, and if they ever had to fire on an enemy, she would be doing that too. But he flew them too, and it was their cooperation that would, hopefully, make them a deadly team in combat. If they had to fight.
Malcolm shrugged. “I don’t know.” She cocked her head to the side, intrigued by his answer. He chuckled and waved at the cockpit around them. “I guess I just never expected to be flying a fighter through hyperspace.”
Dawn nodded slowly and turned to face hyperspace. “On the plus side, it does provide some nice views.”
Malcolm glanced at her profile for a long moment and caught her looking back at him with a sly expression. Then he laughed, leaned back in his seat, and looked out through the canopy at the beautiful rivers of multicolored gravity flowing around them.
“That it does,” he said in admiration. There were some good views here. And he felt closer to them now than he had on any starship he’d ever traveled on.
A display flashed and he glanced over to see what it said. “Ah,” Dawn began, her tone still amused. “We just passed the last hyperspace buoy. I’ve updated time and space coordinates. We’re coming in on target.”
Malcolm nodded and scrutinized the display. They were on final approach to Bosphorus and rising steadily towards the hyperspace wall. The gravity flows brightened around him, colors becoming more pronounced as they approached normalspace. More displays came to life as recon drones punched through the wall and returned views of the Einsteinian universe above them. Rivers of color faded, replaced in the canopy by a view that should have been darkness with pinpricks of light, if his experience was any measure. It wasn’t, and Malcolm’s jaw fell open.
Celaeno burned in the distance, and behind it the Pleiades Cluster filled the sky with more light than Malcolm had ever seen in any night sky. The light of over a thousand stars within a few dozen lightyears of each other was truly awesome to behold when one stood mere lightyears away.
“Wow,” was the only world Malcolm could whisper.
“Yeah,” Dawn returned, her voice hushed as well.
“That’s…something,” he finally added, unable to make his mind work enough to come up with whatever words described that sight. Not that he expected to ever come up with those words. No human had ever conceived of a sight like this when they invented language, and even now the words of mankind failed to convey the wonder in his mind.
“That it is.” Dawn sighed in pleasure. “I thought you’d like the view.”
“Thank you,” Malcolm whispered in awe.
“Your welcome,” she answered, and they fell into silence as they just watched.
Malcolm glanced at the time display an eternity wonder and reflection later to see only a minute had passed.
“Well, now that we’ve all had a chance to admire our destination,” Captain Olivia Wyatt of Normandy transmitted in a voice that tried to sound composed. She failed to conceal the awe, but Malcolm had to give her points for the brave attempt. “I think it’s time we actually go there. All ships are cleared to surface.”
He glanced out to see Smith’s Avengers flash out of hyperspace, and then gravity began to swirl around Normandy. One second, she was a calm bubble cutting through the chaos of hyperspace. The next second, a maelstrom of gravity erupted as her hyperdrive tore at the wall separating them from normalspace. Then a rainbow of colors flashed for a moment. Malcolm blinked the light away, and Normandy was gone when his eyes opened again.
The other ships of the fleet followed her out, erupting in multi-colored flashes of their own and leaving hyperspace a roiling mess of turbulent gravity in their wakes. Wolfenheim was last to leave, and her mammoth bulk left a virtual gravitic storm behind as she punched through into normalspace. The other Blackhawks followed her in a staccato series of flashes until Malcolm and the eleven Blackhawks he commanded flew alone in hyperspace.
He waited for a few moments, watching the natural rivers of hyperspace flow through the wakes of the ships, erasing all evidence that anyone had ever been there. It was like the universe was trying to forget they had ever existed. He licked his lips, wondering if there was a lesson in that.
Malcolm shook his head and turned to Dawn. She cocked her head to the side, waiting for him to give the command. He let out a long breath and nodded. That was enough for her, and she turned her head away. Energy crackled through their fighter, and the hyperdrive reached out to claw at the very fabric of hyperspace. The displays blanked out, the canopy went solid black, and something snapped around them. Then the displays and canopy returned to life, and normalspace came into focus all around him.
Displays showed nearby space, dominated by the Wolfenheim Project’s fleet and empty of anything else. Other displays showed further objects. Celaeno lay in the distance, a gas giant floated nearby, and an Earth-sized moon orbited it. One display showed Bosphorus Station itself in orbit over her home moon, and the scores of freighters docked in her massive bays. Even now, in the middle of The War, the business of trading continued.
Small forts formed a shell of protection between Bosphorus Station and Malcolm’s fleet. Heavily armed and armored, they were the final line of defense against any attack into Bosphorus. Cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and even corvettes swarmed around the forts, a testament to just how seriously the Constantinople Trade Union took the security of their trade depots.
“Contact,” Dawn announced, and one of the displays shifted to show a new view.
A single squadron of eight destroyers moved towards the defensive shell, pursued by an enemy Malcolm recognized in an instant. Shang.
“Well, that’s just bloody awesome,” Malcolm noted with a scowl.
“It gets better,” Dawn returned, highlighting the missiles streaming from ten Shang cruisers. The ten destroyers escorting them did not fire, probably conserving their ammunition. Even Shang destroyers didn’t have enough ammunition bunkers to maintain the long-range missile bombardments the Shang preferred, but the cruisers pelted their targets with wave after wave of destruction. The eight destroyers and nearly one hundred fighters shot down scores of missiles, their combined defense grid filling space with laser pulses, counter-missile missiles, dazzlers, and more. Decoys sucked Shang missiles away from their targets, but despite every trick in the book, they were only eight destroyers. Several missiles snuck through the squadron’s defense grid and exploded around the destroyers.
“Ouch,” Dawn whispered.
“Yeah,” Malcolm whispered, even though the handful of missiles weren’t enough to do major damage to a dedicated warship. But as the display continued to show new data, he could see that those weren’t the first missiles to penetrate the defenses. Deflection grids fluctuated, and some of the destroyers sent out far fewer defensive missiles and lasers than they should have. They’d been taking fire for some time.
They were Murphy’s squadron. Their identification codes proclaimed it. He considered ordering the fleet to jump back out again and leave Bosphorus to its own devices. A quick glance at the ranges of the Shang fleet and the Bosphorus defenses, followed by a second of quick head math, suggested that they could probably get an update on the routes into the cluster quickly enough to avoid any action. As long as Bosphorus didn’t drag their feet before transmitting it. And Murphy was trying to stop him, so he didn’t owe her anything. It would serve her right.
Malcolm let out a long breath. She was here because of him. That made this his responsibility. And whether he liked it or not, she was American. They were Shang. He had enough American blood on his hands already. He just couldn’t sit by and watch them add more without doing something.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered, shaking his head in disgust.
“What?” Dawn asked, looking concerned.
“We have to do something about that,” he grumbled.
She followed his eyes to Murphy’s squadron. “You mean we need to help them?”
“That does seem kinda crazy, doesn’t it?” Malcolm asked.
Dawn turned back to him with a gentle smile. “Sometimes crazy works. The trick is knowing when.” She studied him carefully. “Does it feel right?”
Malcolm met her gaze and sucked in a long breath as he considered her words. He knew what she was asking. Was it his instincts or his mind? It was easy to double think oneself into doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, after all. But doing something just felt right, and he nodded.
“Good,” she returned with an approving nod. “Then let’s get cracking. I assume you want to talk to Olivia?”
Malcolm chuckled at how well she knew him. “Yes please.”
Dawn looked away for a second as she sent a communications laser to Normandy. Then she nodded and turned back to him. “Here she comes.”
Olivia flickered into existence moments later, her twenty-centimeter holoform standing next to Dawn’s. “Yes, Malcolm?” she asked, her tone betraying mixed curiosity and doubt.
Malcolm smiled. “Dawn told you already?”
Olivia chewed her lip before answering. “She said something crazy about getting involved in a fight with a fleet twice our size.”
Malcolm cleared his throat. Yes. It did seem crazy. He sighed. “Look, we need to help them.”
“My ships don’t have the firepower to deal with that fleet,” Olivia informed him with a firm shake of her head.
Malcolm nodded in acceptance of her statement.
“And it’s our job to protect Wolfenheim,” she added, both eyebrows rising as if daring him to correct her.
“They’re Americans,” he returned in a calm tone.
Olivia looked uncomfortable and turned away from him. “But they’re not on our side,” she said, her tone more firm than her body language suggested.
Malcolm smiled at her and shrugged. “The enemy of my enemy…”
“Is only the enemy of my enemy,” Olivia cut him off, shaking her head hard. “Malcolm. I understand why you want to help. And, God help me, I love that you want to.” She smiled. “But they outnumber us two to one, and outmass us by…more. We just can’t do it.”
Malcolm sighed and looked at the display. The eight destroyers still held on, but they weren’t going to make it to the Bosphorus forts. They were taking too much damage. Another salvo of missiles rolled over them, stabbing deep into their defensive grids. They belched fresh atmosphere and wreckage into space, even as another salvo of missiles shot back towards the Shang. The missiles died far short of the Shang inner defensive ring though. Mere destroyers couldn’t fire enough missiles to saturate the point defense of a Shang fleet. “They’re going to die if we don’t do something.”
“And they’ll still die if we try,” Olivia whispered, her tone resigned. “All we’ll do is die with them. Trust me, Malcolm. We can’t help.”
“Smith wants in,” Dawn interrupted the argument. Malcolm nodded at her, and the wing commander flickered into existence next to Olivia.
“We don’t have to send in the warships,” Smith’s holoform said the moment he appeared, confirming that he’d been listening in. Or that his cyber had brought him up to speed very quickly. “Our fighter wing can do the job.”
Malcolm shook his head. Blackhawks had been the best fighters of their day, but even after the Peloran refits, they were still space superiority fighters, not attack birds. “We can’t take on cruisers without heavy support.”
“Blackhawks can’t,” Smith said with a smile. “But they can seriously bad-touch a destroyer. And Avenger squadrons eat cruisers for breakfast.” His smile turned nasty. “Been there. Done that.”
Malcolm blinked as the thought hit him and nodded very slowly. He’d seen enough battle footage of Avenger squadrons ripping cruisers apart to know that Smith was right. Still. “You’ve only got one squadron. There are ten cruisers.”
Smith shrugged. “We’re not trying to beat them, right? Just get their attention? Give those destroyers time to make it to the forts?”
Malcolm glanced at the display showing the battle out there and nodded. “Yes. That would work.”
“Well, I can guarantee we can get their attention,” Smith promised with a wry grin. “Move in. Hit them hard. Pull back out once those destroyers get out of range. They’ll never see it coming,” he finished in a proud voice.
“We can grab their attention so you can sneak in,” Olivia said with a dawning smile.
“How?” Malcolm asked, intrigued by her sudden change of mind.
Olivia shrugged. “They already know we’re here. It’s hard to hide a starship-sized transit, and Wolfenheim’s a real pig.” She paused in disgust and shook her head. “They see us right now. If we burn our engines hot, they’ll think we’re running. And that’s guaranteed to get their attention.”
“And while they’re looking at her, we sneak in from another direction,” Smith finished, his tone filled with admiration.
“Exactly,” Olivia answered with a conniving smile.
“That would increase the chances of it working,” Smith added. Then his eyes flicked back to Malcolm. “Assuming you’re decided on helping Murphy. We could sail away right now and she’d never be able to bother us again.”
Malcolm sighed. “I know. But she’s here because of us. And her people didn’t ask to die out here like this. If they do, it’s our fault.”
Smith nodded very slowly before nodding at Malcolm. “I agree. Now you stay with Normandy. The rest of us will go in and teach those Shang a lesson or three.”
Malcolm shook his head. “No. I’m going in too.”
“No,” Smith said with a raised eyebrow. “You’re staying here.” His voice left exactly zero doubt who was in charge on that point. Malcolm might give missions, but Smith commanded them.
Malcolm swallowed as the Marine’s eyes glared at him, but he cleared his throat and met them with stubborn resolve. “My idea. I can’t send you into danger and just watch.”
Smith’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t have any experience at this.”
Malcolm shrugged. “And I never will if you leave me behind.” Smith cocked his head to the side at Malcolm’s tacit admission that he could do that. Malcolm wasn’t challenging his authority. He was merely questioning the idea of giving that order.
“True.” Smith nodded and measured Malcolm very carefully. Malcolm sat up straight, willing the man to see that he was ready. “Very well,” Smith finally said. “You stay behind us.” Malcolm opened his mouth to say that he didn’t need their protection, but Smith’s eyes flashed and he shut his mouth again. Smith grunted and then turned to Olivia. “Captain?”
“Captain,” she returned with a respectful nod.
Smith crooked a smile at her. “Let’s do this.”
“Agreed.” Olivia turned an approving look towards Malcolm. “Director?”
“Malcolm,” Malcolm corrected with a smile. “You take care of the fleet.”
“Yes, Malcolm,” she returned with a smile. Then she sucked in a breath and nodded. “You make sure you come back.”
“Well, I see you’re making progress, Mister McDonnell,” Smith noted in an amused tone.
“Mmmm?” Malcolm asked, watching the empty spot where her holoform had been.
“She didn’t order me to come back,” the other pilot answered with a snort.
“True.” Malcolm aimed a questioning glance at Dawn’s satisfied holoform. “Well, I’m sure you coming back is implied, Mister Smith,” he added with a smile.
“Yeah. I’m sure.” Smith snorted again and his holoform faded out, signaling an end to the conference. Then his voice came from the speakers. “Form on me and follow your beam,” he ordered in a voice that erased all other thoughts.
“Roger that,” Malcolm responded without hesitation as a beam appeared on their displays, and nodded towards Dawn. She smiled back and they swung away from Normandy. The eleven other Blackhawks of their squadron accelerated with them, maintaining a defensive formation. Each one was controlled by one of Dawn’s shards, copies of her main personality residing in each of the Blackhawks’ computer systems. The fighters could fly on their own, but she and Malcolm commanded the entire cowboy squadron from their fighter. Having tested the arrangement in simulations, he liked it. Dawn could easily move the fighters in unison, since she was the brain of every single one and knew her own moves perfectly.
The thirty-six other Blackhawks of their fighter wing formed up into a triangular formation. Malcolm couldn’t tell which had flesh and blood pilots and which were flown by cybernetic minds. Just the way it was supposed to be.
Smith’s baker’s dozen of Avengers took point and accelerated towards the Shang fleet. Malcolm idly wondered why Smith had taken to flying thirteen fighters. It seemed counterintuitive somewhere in there, but he shook his head. It probably made sense somewhere, even if he couldn’t think of it. He would have to consider that. It made interesting ideas come to mind for a planetary defense force.
Then all thoughts of fighters disappeared as the fleet’s engines came to full power. Massive plumes of blue flames reached out from the warships, bringing light to the darkness of nearby space. Wolfenheim’s multiple fusion engines, each the size of a frigate, belched out the largest torches of light, beacons demanding the attention of anyone with eyes. She was a great big clumsy excuse for a starship, and her engines barely moved her compared to what they would have done to a warship. But what she lacked in nimbleness, she more than made up in ability to catch the attention of every single person in the entire system.
In comparison to the light show created by the colony ship and her escorts, the sixty-one starfighters slunk away in almost total darkness. Malcolm’s displays showed his gigawatt-class gravity drive running far above normal levels, dropping the fighter’s effective mass to almost nothing. It was an incredibly wasteful way to fly, and Malcolm had to bury his inner accountant down deep to keep from wincing as he watched the fuel levels drop. Controlling gravity itself at levels approaching full nullification was expensive, but it had advantages.
The main engines and maneuvering thrusters flared with a dull light, maintaining just enough power to hold them on the crest of the grav wave. The total lack of drive plumes had the advantage of making them all but invisible to the standard shipboard scanners of a Shang warship, even as the grav wave propelled them directly towards the enemy fleet. They passed one percent of lightspeed in a matter of seconds, and continued to accelerate for the better part of a minute.
Then the massive grav drive powered down, the main fusion drives turned off entirely, and the fighters became holes in space moving at nearly ten percent the speed of light. Malcolm glanced at the display showing their course and the projected Shang course. Assuming Murphy’s squadron continued to run, his little force of fighters should intercept the Shang in five minutes. She just had to hold out that long.
Malcolm winced as the displays showed another missile strike breaking through the defense grid, and one of the Austin-class destroyers staggered to the side. Wreckage flowed out of her wounded flank, telling the tale of catastrophic damage inflicted on the tiny warship. He looked to Dawn and she returned a worried gaze. Then she pointed him at another display, and he nodded in understanding.
The Red Line denoting the edge of the Bosphorus jamming zone glowed behind them on the displays. They could no longer dive into hyperspace to escape. Once they started shooting, they would be committing to combat until they accelerated out of range the old-fashioned way. Malcolm smiled, at peace with his decision to intervene.
He flexed his fingers on the controls, leaned back, and watched the missile engagement. The Shang disliked moving in close against the heavy gravitic cannons that American warships used. A well-placed, or lucky, gravitic beam could cripple a ship in seconds. Missiles didn’t have the ability to twist gravity as powerfully as one of those brutal cannons, but they could do serious damage in sufficient numbers.
The Shang fired in those numbers, but the American defense grids attempted to stop those missiles with every weapon at their disposal. Scores of decoy drones broadcasting the electronic signatures of destroyers sucked missiles away from the real warships. Other drones simply sought to jam the missiles’ ability to track any targets at all. The real warships cut their electronic emissions to make themselves look like anything but warships, and missiles simply wandered off target to self-destruct after their fuel ran out. It was a complex war between Shang and American AIs that no biological human could possibly keep up with. It was a war that the Pennsylvanian ships enjoyed a pronounced advantage in thanks to the traditional Shang distrust of advanced AIs.
What the Shang had was numbers. Scores of missiles dove in towards the destroyers, and even if the American AIs tricked scores of them into missing, there were always more missiles flying in, with their singular mission being to kill something and die trying. A wedge of missiles dove in towards the destroyers, ducking and weaving through the defensive fire of counter missiles sent to slay them. Most died, but some made it through and closed with the destroyers. Lasers lashed them, ripping more apart, but two made it through everything.
The first exploded just short of the target’s deflection grid, tearing at the destroyer’s control over gravity. A gravitic sheer powerful enough to bend even light away from the target failed for a split second as a missile threw every last bit of its power into that single attack. A hole opened in the deflection grid, and the second missile flew through it without any resistance at all. The onboard generator became a miniature black hole, sucking everything in for the barest instant. It sucked in armor, air, and anything or anyone unlucky enough to be inside its event horizon. And then the generator reversed, pushing everything it collected back out. The missile exploded, using fragments of the target to rip it open from the inside.
Malcolm winced as the destroyer lurched, and three of her escort fighters simply disappeared, but the survivors stayed in formation and continued to fire at the incoming stream of missiles. She was an Austin-class destroyer, the best American destroyer ever built, and she would not go down easily. But she would go down if someone didn’t do something about it. Which made it a very good thing for her that someone was about to do something.
“All fighters, attack pattern Alpha,” Smith transmitted.
Malcolm glanced at Dawn and she nodded back. She was ready. He smiled as the grav generator powered up again, the main fusion drives fired at maximum power, and they effectively slammed on the brakes. Blue fusion torches filled space with kilometers-long blue beacons of light, broadcasting to everyone with eyes that they were coming.
But the Shang didn’t have time to do anything as the fighters closed into firing range. It was a perfectly executed high-speed attack coming out of complete darkness. Malcolm continued to chuckle as he imagined the Shang crewmen trying to come to terms with the idea that suddenly they were the ones in danger.
“All fighters, fire for effect,” Smith ordered in an iron tone.
“Hello, boys,” Malcolm said with a nasty chuckle as the fighters opened fire. “We’re ba-ack.”