Epilogue

Dozens of Black Crow gunboats, their genetic hulls color-shifted to a brilliant white despite their class name, floated outside the yard in perfect formation as they waited for their charge to depart. They looked nearly identical to the old Peloran fighters, only a little bit thicker in the rear ends where the gravity generators that opened wormholes and hyperspace windows rested. Four large gravity engines surrounded the main fuselage on mobile pylons that held them in place. In space mode they actually looked like mini-versions of a Peloran battleship, but their engines, and the pylons that held them, would move together to form a single wing and engine in atmospheric mode so they could knife through the air better.

Buried in the fuselage, two massive projectile cannons resided. They didn't fire shells like ancient bullets, or rely on the old graviton cannons that had been a staple of older fighters. Those were too slow to warm up and fire to be of any use in modern combat craft. Instead, they fired shells in rapid succession that mounted their own miniature gravitational maneuvering drives that homed the "shells" in on their target. Their endurance was short, limiting them to short range, but they could fire at several degrees off center and still hit a target. And they fired instantly, a trait that made them automatically superior to the old gravitational cannons. The rest of the armament hung beneath the nose of the gunboat, in a chin turret that could fire 360 degrees around in nearly all directions, up or down, but the days of keying them into the pilot's eyes were long gone. Modern combat was too fast for anything like that anymore, so the turret was permanently slaved to the co-pilot's seat. The chin turret housed four heavy pulsed laser cannons that could stitch a thousand "rounds" a minute each into any target the co-pilot chose. Lasers might be old, but they still worked just fine, even compared to more complicated energy systems. And they were easy to maintain and repair, a definite plus in the eyes of militaries across the Civilized Sectors, and the majority of the Wild Sectors.

Inside the massive yard, surrounded by the gunboats, hundreds of Terrans, Arnam, and AIs stood at attention in two rows, their pure white dress uniforms gleaming in the artificial light of the yard complex. Lieutenant Samantha Richards watched as a single Terran marched across the single holodisplay of her own Black Crow, between the two rows of crewmen towards a platform set up specifically for this purpose.

She glanced over at the outside skin of the yard and smiled as she looked at the Psion Inc. symbol emblazoning on its otherwise white hull. Mere weeks ago, the yard's gray hull had proclaimed itself to be Barlon Industries' primary yard, but things changed rapidly when one of the Great Corporations was on the verge of complete and utter collapse. In two weeks, Psion Incorporated had gone from being the smallest of the Great Corporations to on a par with the others simply by buying every old Barlon division they could get their hands on and now they were doing what no other Corporation had ever done before.

They were launching an honest-to-God squadron of modern warships into space. Not freighters retrofitted to carry a squadron of century-old Great War era fighters but true modern battle hulls carrying newly built gunboats that could wipe any of those ancient fighters out of space by merely looking at them cross-eyed. This was a true squadron of the line. Of course in firepower it couldn't match other fleets of its tonnage, but the ships were designed to be fast, capable of holding 15 of light-speed in both normal and hyperspace, and the flagship was the slowest in the squadron. Originally ordered by the Pryde Rock Defense Forces to be a high-speed reaction force for use across the sector, the chaos in Barlon after the loss of its entire board of directors had given Psion Incorporated the time and opportunity it needed to snap up the yards in a buyout.

Now Psion Incorporated owned the ships lock, stock, and barrel after a marathon round of negotiations with the government she didn't even want to think about. What had Anderson given the government to be allowed to maintain control of the ships? Chances were, she'd never know, but that was ok with a certain Samantha Richards. She had a new job. She swallowed, reached her hand up to brush a stray blonde hair out of her field of vision, watched as the man she would soon call captain walked up onto the platform, behind the sole podium on it, and pulled out his orders with a flourish. The old-style paper crinkled as he unfolded it crisply, letting everyone see it clearly before putting it down on the podium.

"Psion Incorporated Merchant Marine High Command to Captain Tyler Johensen," he read clearly into the microphone. "As of oh nine hundred hours, April twenty-eight, in the year of our Lord thirty four twenty three, you are hereby ordered to take command and stewardship of the P.W.S. California." He folded up the orders crisply again and stuffed them back into his dress uniform before turning to the commander of the yard as he walked up to the podium. "I relieve you of stewardship of this ship, commander," he projected clearly and they exchanged salutes, the change of command finalized. And then Samantha watched, pulling a stray blonde hair back out of her way again as her new captain marched off the platform towards the first battleship ever owned by a Corporation.

"He handled that well," her co-pilot sitting behind her noted simply and Sam smiled at Jen. The Pelorans handled modern combat differently of course. They used direct neural interfaces to keep their fighters down to one person while maintaining fast reactions to the changing battlefield, but Pryde Rock didn't like that idea. Sam was just as happy. The idea of linking up on such a level with a computer terrified her. Instead Pryde Rock had come up with their own way of achieving fast reactions in their warships and fighters. Something she actually liked but personally had never run into, which wasn't much of a surprise. After all, the Corporations didn't have access to modern military grade AIs.

"Yes he did," Sam responded slowly. "I hope he's as good as my last commander," she finished with a fond smile and Jen chuckled.

"That could be taken more than one way," she whispered back and Sam's smile turned into a blush.

"Only if you try," she muttered back after a short silence and Jen nodded understandingly. She couldn't have missed the blush, but Sam was thankful she'd not continued. It was another life after all. She had to get past it.

Sam sighed lightly and placed her hands back on the controls of her gunboat. A twitch of one cheek engaged her squadron comm. net and she took a quick breath. "This is Cat to Squadron Alpha-Cal. Move into escort position and prepare to lead her out," she ordered firmly and smiled as the eight ships under her command moved crisply to perform her orders.

Andrea felt Jack smile as the battleship finally moved out of her moorings on gravity plating alone, barely making any eddies at all in the gravitational field. After all, it wouldn't do to rip the construction yard apart with a full-scale gravitational field. She felt his annoyance at the itching of the regrowing process and almost regretted slapping him so hard. Almost. After all, he still deserved at least a little bit of pain for what he'd put her through. Dallying around with another woman! Even if she was an AI and a partner, she'd felt far too much…admiration in his mind when she'd caught him watching the girl modeling swimsuits. No, he deserved to lose the tooth, and the itching regrowing it caused. Of course, maybe the loss of his right arm and the much greater amount of itching its regrowing process caused was enough. No, that had been for something entirely different. The tooth was much more personal.

She smiled contentedly and patted the stump of his right arm softly. It wasn't nearly as far along as the tooth, the doctors saying it would be another month before it finished regrowing and he could put any weight on it. So he lay on his left side, watching the holovid as she lay next to him and held his one good hand tightly against her bosom. She felt his attention shift away from the scene of the battleship launching and migrate over to her head, leaning against his chest. She smiled at the fond feeling of his mind and cuddled in a little closer to him. She liked this so much. Wanted it to last forever. Knew it couldn't, but still hoped.

He'd felt different from the moment he'd walked in the door a month ago. She didn't fully understand everything, but she could feel that a part of him had woken up while he was gone. A part of him he'd spent a long time trying to forget, but now it was back again. Around her, he'd so far managed to keep that part of him subdued, but she could tell it was there. Down deep in his psyche, wanting to get out again. It hungered. It felt pain and anger. It knew betrayal and all the dark emotions he never let himself feel around her. She suppressed a shiver and shied away from that part of his mind again, choosing only to listen to who he wanted to be. Who he had been all the time she knew him.

She felt him smile again before his attention went back to the holovid. Someone he knew was on that ship. Several someones. People he knew and liked. Andrea hugged his hand closer to her bosom and tried to fight her fears. She didn't want to lose him again, but he'd had a taste of something he'd not felt in a long time. Something he enjoyed. Could a quiet, comfortable life on the coast compare in any way to the life he'd relived out there when he was gone? She honestly didn't know, feared it couldn't, but she could feel his wish to make it work. He loved her. Surely that would be enough. All you needed was love, right? That's what the singers said. But Andrea knew live was more complicated than songs.

Finally the coverage of the battleship setting wake cut away to other news and Jack's attention returned to more important matters. Andrea giggled as he nuzzled the crown of her head with his nose, and felt his pleasure. He didn't want her worrying about his past, but it was hard to hide what you felt from an empath. He really did love her. She held onto that thought, that feeling, and kissed his hand gently. He relaxed back into the couch, and she felt a pang of regret. The doctors had said not to do anything strenuous while his pieces were regrowing and she giggled again at his train of thought.

"Not yet, silly," she whispered flirtatiously. "Daddy would kill me if we did anything like that before getting married," she added with a smile and he chuckled.

"No, I'd be the one he'd kill," he whispered into her ear and then tenderly nipped the pointed tip of it. Then he lay back and she snuggled up close again. It was good to just lay together after all, especially while he was still healing. He wasn't really right of course. Daddy wouldn't kill either of them. But he would be very disappointed in both of them. He expected them to act like adults, and she didn't want to hurt him.

Not after all the years he'd cared for her after her birth parents died. He'd helped her so much. Given her a life and kept her from inheriting the melancholy most of her race felt. Yes, her birth world was dead. Even now after a century of terraforming thanks to both the Pelorans and Pryde Rock, it was still a shadow of its former self. As were her people. But she was different. She was alive. She loved spending time with Terrans, picking up their ways and their feelings. They were so…temporary. So many of them took life one day at a time, not looking to the future but simply to today. They tried to forget the past, and the hurts it caused, always looking to make the now the best moment of their lives.

It was a good way to live. She smiled as she felt him begin to drift away into sleep. She loved the feel of his sleeping mind. It was like an innocent baby, without any of the memories of hurt he fought with constantly while awake. He really was a good person. She just wished he would realize that and stop fighting himself. But that was a thought for the future. For now, she would take her life one day at a time. She smiled again and let her head slip down onto the couch next to his chest as she held his left hand tenderly. He loved her, and whatever happened in the future, that was enough for now. She would hold on to the man he wanted to be, help him hold on to it as well. Hopefully that would be enough to keep him with her.

One day at a time.