Intergalactic Security Project Head David Anderson watched from the observation booth, fighting serious misgivings. The problem wasn't the boy's test results. They were flawless. The four-year-old with flyaway hair and huge blue eyes, currently sipping a juice box in the testing room, was scoring far above expectations. His DNA profile, synaptic responses, problem-solving abilities, and personality assessment were all perfect for the program.
Perfect. He was absolutely perfect for the project, except for one not so minor problem. That problem was currently storming toward him, her sky blue eyes full of thunderclouds, threatening storm. David watched her reflection in the glass, crossing his arms and awaiting the inevitable explosion.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she hissed, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around to face her.
He'd never seen Madeline quite so angry. Though, lately, she was always angry. Not that he could blame her. Soon Charles would cut all ties, faking his death, and leaving her raise their son on her own.
She'd agreed to this. Hell, she'd insisted on it, fearing for their son's future — the whole planet's future.
David swallowed a sigh, supposing that agreement didn't mean she had to like it. At the very least, he owed her honesty. "Charles insisted that Mark be tested. He wants your son in the program, if he's suitable."
"No!" She shook with fury, hands clenched. "Our family's paid enough. Do you hear me? We've paid enough!"
David pinched the bridge of his nose. Had Charles not told her? Was the man insane? "Of all people, you know what's coming. What choice do we have?"
"Not this!" Madeline swayed slightly on her feet, her flushed face quickly going pale. "David, please, not this."
Her knees buckled. David managed to catch her, easing her down to the floor as chills overtook him. He'd known Madeline for well over a decade, and she was no fainting waif.
As he touched her pale cheek, he found her skin cool and clammy. Telling himself it was probably the flu, David fought back a surge of panic, then called for a medic. With that done, he started a cursory examination. "How long have you been feeling sick?"
Madeline didn't answer. She clenched her eyes shut, avoiding his gaze, which gave him the excuse to really look at her.
So beautiful. David found himself caught off-guard, not used to exposing the depth of his feelings like the raw nerve they were. He crushed them down, forcing himself back toward clinical detachment, and only then did he see the fine lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
Exhaustion? Stress? Considering what was coming, perhaps a bit of both.
A hint of started to return to her cheeks. She opened her eyes and tried to pull away. "I'm fine."
"You're not fine. Stay down." He checked his watch. The medics should be there soon.
Madeline tried to get up again, failed, and let out a sigh. As David tried to make her comfortable, he realized that she'd lost weight. She'd always been a woman of elegant curves. He wasn't accustomed to holding her like this, but he was sure he shouldn't be feeling bone, as though she was malnourished.
Another chill rippled through him. He met her gaze, hoping he was wrong, but her resigned tears told him everything he didn't want to know.
"You're just sick," he insisted. "It'll be okay."
Madeline looked away, starting to tremble. They couldn't lose her. He couldn't lose her. Speaking the words would make it real, but David forced them out. "You're dying."
Madeline's lack of response felt like a punch to the gut. As David tried to collect himself, she choked back a sob.
"It's the tech I've been studying," she said, so quiet she might as well have whispered. "Radiates wavelengths of energy we didn't even know existed. I have weeks, David. Weeks."
He fought the urge to argue. He'd have her medical file sent to his office at once, but Madeline wasn't one for hysterics, or jumping to conclusions. Like him, she was a creature of facts and data. If she was this upset, she knew with absolute certainty that there was nothing she could do.
Not that David wouldn't try. Meanwhile, he forced himself to focus outside himself, on the woman in his arms and the boy in the testing room. The boy who had no idea he was losing both parents. "We can postpone Charles' mission."
"No." Madeline grabbed David's hand in both of hers, locking her gaze with his. "He has to do this. He has to give our son a future."
David had a sinking feeling. "Does Charles know?"
She shook her head, confirming his suspicions. "There's nothing he can do. I didn't want him distracted. This mission, his mission is too important."
Glancing toward the testing room again, David said, "What about Mark …"
"I've already filed the paperwork," Madeline said, squeezing his hands tightly. "You'll be Mark's legal guardian when we're both … when we're both gone. But promise me that you'll keep Mark from your program."
It was all moving too fast. David struggled to keep up. "Maddie, he's perfect …"
Her blue eyes flared with anger. Medics arrived, thundering down the hall, but she kept his hand in hers and held his gaze like a vice. "We've paid enough, David. Love him and let him be a normal boy. Promise me."
A wheeze accompanied her words, her breathing labored. Still, she wouldn't let go, begging with her stare. David wanted nothing more than to ease her pain. There was little he wouldn't do for her, but this? The Earth's future was at stake. The entire Federation's …
As the medics took her blood pressure, David realized he couldn't bear her spending her last days in fear. The program was still in its infancy. Surely he'd find enough suitable children in time.
"All right," he relented, squeezing her hands. "You have my word. I promise."
Tears streaked down her cheeks as the medics raised the stretcher. "Bring him to me, David. Bring Mark, I need to prepare him."
David spared a quick glance toward the testing room. The proctors were assembling the next phase, a collection of brightly-colored blocks in variety of sizes and shapes. Regardless of his promise, he couldn't bring himself to interrupt the test, if only to assure himself whether Mark really was suitable or not.
Love or duty. His life always came down to this. "I'll bring him as soon as he's finished. They'll have you settled and comfortable by then. In the meantime, he can go back to the daycare."
He felt adrift as they wheeled her off, an oxygen mask distorting any reaction she might have had to his delay. David fought the urge to follow. There was too much to do, and far too little time to do it, his promise adding another layer of pressure onto an already overloaded plate.
David knew he should feel honored. This time she'd chosen him, of all people, but why? Why, if she didn't want Mark in the program? She had to know that the safety of the entire Federation — and all of its citizens — couldn't be held hostage to one mother's fears, or promises made to quell personal pain.
Still, he would try. David rose and turned his attention back toward the testing room. The viewscreen showed yet more perfect results, taunting him. Worse, the full import of her plea started sinking in.
A parent. He had no idea of how to be a parent, let alone to a child about to suffer so much loss. At least he was used to feeling overwhelmed. He fell back into old patterns, making a list of what had to be done.
The first item was obvious: break the news to Charles. How did he tell someone they were about to walk out on their dying wife, orphaning their only child? Who was he to convince his best friend that leaving was the right choice? That it was the only choice?
Weight of looming responsibility threatened to crush him like an olive in a press. David rollsed his shoulders back, drawing himself up to his full height, then went to streamline Charles' preparations. That was one thing he could do for both of them. He could give his friend more time to spare for his wife and son.
Madeline deserved that extra time. So did Mark.
After that? He'd just have to play it by ear.
David had declared Charles' staging area off-limits. They couldn't afford anyone getting wind that his death was fake, or the Spectrans might figure out who Cronus was, and come after his family. Or, David grimaced at the thought, at least after Mark.
But there were some things he refused to do. Telling his best friend that the woman he loved was dying was a task deserving a personal visit, not hiding behind the sterile contact of a cell phone.
Three vehicles, two identity changes, and a security override later, he finally arrived. While he waited inside the specialized shipping container that served as Charles' portable base, he read Madeline's medical file, along with the findings from her research. The materials she'd been studying hadn't been found inside any form of shielding. That begged the question, had the ship they were taken from simply been too damaged, or were the Spectrans immune from the effects?
The sound of booted feet finally pulled him from his thoughts. Then there was silence, as Charles no doubt sensed that something was amiss. David wasn't at all surprised, moments later, to find himself looking down the barrel of a gun.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Charles huffed, holstering his weapon.
"It's good to see you too." David flipped the cover on his tablet closed.
Charles turned and grabbed a bag he'd left in the shadows. "This better be important."
"Very," said David, searching for the right words. "It's about Madeline."
He saw Charles tense, and David realized the last time he'd uttered those words, their friendship had nearly been destroyed. Charles turned, then began pulling items from the bag, sorting them into the crates he'd been preparing for use on Riga.
"She hasn't changed her mind, has she?" Charles spoke in a forced, light tone. "About me going?"
"No. She hasn't."
"Then what is it? What's so important that you'd risk coming here, after all of your lectures about running this by the book?"
David smirked. It wasn't that many lectures. "Charles," he sighed, "Madeline's sick."
His friend finally stopped what he was doing. "How sick?"
Charles turned to him, frowning. "What do you mean, dying? She was fine this morning."
Of all the absurd …
David brought her medical report up on his tablet, then handed it over. He watched with a heavy heart as Charles read, emotions rioting over his friend's face as he tried to absorb the news.
"She's known for a week," snapped Charles, looking for a brief moment like he might hurl the tablet into the container's inner wall. "Why didn't she tell me?"
David shook his head. While he could guess, he really didn't want to play messenger. Having to deliver the news himself was bad enough. "You'll have to ask her."
Charles began pacing, boots clomping on the container's metal floor. As usual, his expression revealed little, but the tightness in his movements and the way he ran his fingers through his hair betrayed his inner conflict to knowing eyes.
"I leave in three days," said Charles, still pacing.
David felt like he stood on a precipice. Would Charles want to cancel his mission? Postpone it?
Could they afford that?
"Then don't waste time talking to me," said David. "Talk to her."
She chose you. Talk to your wife.
Charles finally stopped, nodding. "Just answer one question for me."
Seeing the taut line of Charles' stance, David knew what he was going to ask. "I didn't know. Not until she collapsed. I came straight here after seeing she was well secured in the hospital, and stable."
"The hospital …" Charles looked over the crates and boxes, like they might hold the answers to this new dilemma. "What will we do about Mark? It's not safe to take him to Riga."
David hesitated. His friend looked completely lost, falling back onto task prioritization just as David did earlier.
Was it right to say more? Maybe Charles could talk Madeline into another caretaker. Someone who made more sense. Before David could speak, though, Charles shook his head and stormed out. That left David killing more time since they couldn't be seen together.
He resumed making lists and plans of what had to be done. At minimum, he would move Madeline and Mark in with him once Charles "died." If Madeline only had three weeks, she was deteriorating rapidly. While he might not know children, he could guess that caring for an active four-year-old would quickly become a challenge.
David felt a tightness in his chest. Which would ultimately be worse? Leaving her behind and knowing she'd be gone, or having to watch her wither away until there was nothing left?
While he had no choice between the two, Charles did. If anything would cause his friend to push back his mission, this would be it. Or he might back out all together.
Sighing again, David started a list of alternate agents. They'd all be a far slide down to second best, though. Just as Mark was a perfect candidate for the program, Charles was the perfect man for this mission, and replacing him could very well cost them the war.
Which put David in an awkward position: hoping his best friend would choose duty over love. Knowing which way Charles usually leaned, David had to wonder why Madeline saw anything in either of them. Frankly, she deserved better.
David made it back to his office before his burner phone buzzed. He waited until the door was shut before pulling out the disposable cell, then glancing to see what Charles had to say.
A single text stared back: "We follow Mad's plan. Congrats. It's a boy!"
Grinding his teeth, David shoved the phone back in his pocket. After all his trouble to talk to Charles in person, this is the thanks he gets? A text congratulating him on becoming an instant father? Having that shipping container take some extra, bumpy detours before reaching Riga was starting to sound pretty good.
He had so much work to do. Hours of running around had seriously eaten into his day, so David dug into all of the tasks he could easily move off his plate, a combination of prioritization and triage that had always served him well.
Things were starting to feel manageable again when the door to his office opened. Rona — his secretary — peeked inside.
He eyed her apologetic expression with slight dread. "What is it now?"
"Madeline asked me to remind you to collect Mark from daycare and bring him to the hospital."
David frowned. Didn't he have three days? "I'm pretty sure she has a husband."
"Who's currently prepping for a test flight."
Damn. David sighed, checking the time. Didn't they have any other friends? "I have something I need to finish. Remind me in a half hour."
He waited until the door closed before groaning in frustration. There was no point in calling Madeline. She'd just tell him to get used to it, and to let Mark get used to him.
Most fathers got at least nine months' warning. Three days, three weeks, or even three months wasn't enough time. Not to figure out how to be a father. A spark of disgust drove away his self-pity, though. Madeline was dying. Charles had to leave her and Mark behind for the sake of every citizen and world within the Federation. And a happy four-year-old boy was about to have his world changed, forever.
As problems went, David supposed his paled in comparison. He just had to remember that he didn't have the luxury of hoping he'd make this work. There was no other choice.
For Madeline's sake, for all of their sakes, he had to.
David stared down at curious blue eyes, wondering how to best approach this. "Your mother asked me to pick you up."
The four-year-old loosely held a stuffed powder blue airplane. "Why?"
Now there was a loaded question. With relief, David noticed Celia, the daycare manager, approaching. Due to testing so many children within Intergalactic Security, he spoke with Celia fairly often. Her smile was definitely forced. Did she know?
"Madeline called," said Celia, sadness etching fine lines in her friendly features. "She realized you don't have a car seat."
Yes, she knew. And he hadn't even considered that he'd need a special seat. "No, I don't."
"We have a spare. I'll get it."
Mark had given up waiting for an answer to his question. Watching him pretend his plane was flying, David wished life could stay that simple. Would the children he found for his project be like this? So innocent and full of life?
They'd be orphans, just like Mark would be within a month, technically. At least he'd have caretakers for the project's children, or he hoped. Surely Security Chief Paulson was just joking when he said David should house and raise the whole lot.
"Patty, watch the kids for a moment," called Celia. She approached with a small booster seat. "They're not the easiest things to install if you've never done it before. I'll give you a hand."
David took the odd contraption from her, and she scooped the boy into her arms. He tuned out her chatter as she kept Mark entertained, juggling work and personal issues in his head, then swapped the car seat for the boy so Celia could install it.
While he'd carried Mark before to take him to testing, the process never felt natural. Now it felt even less so. Especially when the boy lurched in his arms, straining toward something.
"I'll get it." Celia picked up the plane, setting it in the back seat. "All right, let's get you situated."
David gladly handed Mark over. The moment the boy could reach the plane, it was back in his grubby little hands, mock flying as Celia cinched him in.
"Is that sanitary?" David watched uneasily.
"Helps build their immune systems." Celia smiled, touching Mark's cheek. "Be good for David."
She closed the door and sighed. "Poor thing. It's good of you to help."
"It's what friends do." David shifted uncomfortably on his feet. How could he not help? Madeline was ill because of his project, and he was sending her husband on a mission deep into dangerous territory.
Yeah. He was a great friend.
David drifted in and out of listening to Mark's excited tale. Apparently his plane was flying around the world, with Charles piloting and Mark co-piloting. David couldn't help but wonder if Mark would retain his enthusiasm for aircraft and flight after his father's "crash."
When they arrived at the hospital, David parked in the visitors' lot. It took him a moment to free Mark from his strappy prison. He immediately had a minor heart attack as the boy leapt from the back seat onto the asphalt, plane held high for an apparent dive-bombing run. His mother's looks and his father's fearlessness. Devastating on two fronts.
Somehow David closed the doors and locked the car without losing Mark. He turned to his charge, who smiled up at him with bright eyes so much like his mother's that for a moment David was thrown back to happier times. When Mark offered his hand, David shook off the memories and took it, seeing the value in an impromptu leash.
Being a tall man, walking while holding a four-year-old's hand required some adjustments. Hopefully with practice he could manage it with dignity. For the moment, he settled for crossing the parking lot without letting Mark — or the plane the boy kept dropping — get run over.
David quickly revised his estimate of how much help he'd need for the project. Five children, all to receive implants making them something more than human. Whether any of them would be as young as Mark when they arrived remained to be seen, but he had the bad feeling that another year here and there would make them more of a handful, not less.
When they reached the automatic doors, Mark jerked to a stop. He looked around the bland lobby with wide eyes, gripping David's hand harder, and David was forced to stop and lift him.
"Mama's here?" Mark gripped David's suit coat, the plane crushed between them.
There was no point in lying. "Yes. She's here."
David already knew which room she was in. When they stepped in to see her, Mark went completely still and quiet, taking in the sight of his mother hooked up to an IV and monitors.
She looked so pale, though a bit better than when she collapsed. David swallowed and saw that Charles wasn't here. He didn't know if he should be relieved his friend was hard at work, or disappointed.
"Hey, Munchkin," Madeline said with a tired smile, holding out her hands to Mark.
The boy reached for her. Still reeling from the sight of her weakened form, David set him on her bed, watching as she pulled Mark close, stroked his hair, and offered soft assurances.
Again, the enormity of what David had promised hit him. Mark wouldn't be part of the program. They wouldn't have the barrier of superior and trainee between them. In three weeks, if the worst-case prognosis was correct, he really would be the father of Madeline's son.
This was never the way he'd hoped they'd end up "together." The war hadn't even started, and already, it was claiming its first victims. Unfortunately, Madeline wouldn't be the last.