We’re all going someplace. If you’re prepared you even have a plan to get there. We always liked to plan ahead, but we all have to learn how to deal with the curve balls that tend to impact any plan we make. We planned the Wolfenheim Project to be a message to the aliens that we were coming. That they would not keep us locked up in our little corner of the galaxy forever. That we would never let them stop us. We were so melodramatic back then. But that was the plan. As was being ready for the curve balls.
The hatch slid open and Malcolm McDonnell looked out upon Normandy’s bridge. The screen’s forward view showed hyperspace’s rainbow rivers flowing into a dark black morass. It was beautiful and mind-boggling at the same time. And it was the end of the line. Their final destination awaited, months and thousands of lightyears in time and space from Earth.
Captain Olivia Wyatt turned a smile towards him and spoke in a calm soprano. “You may enter.”
“By your command,” Malcolm answered and stepped onto the bridge with Dawn on his heals. They quickly took their standard positions at the back of the bridge and leaned against the rear wall. Bulkhead. Whatever.
Olivia’s smile grew and she walked back to join them. She leaned back as well and scanned the displays showing Normandy and her charges moving towards the star system that would be their home.
“I just received Erik’s report,” Olivia explained and waved a hand towards the darkness staining hyperspace’s rainbow colors ahead of them. “His scouts have detected no unauthorized presence in the system. Nobody waiting to ambush us as far as he can see.”
“Erik,” Malcolm said with a teasing smile. “He called you himself, did he?”
“He did,” Olivia said without taking her eyes off the displays. Though a slight blush put the lie to her unconcerned persona. She pulled in a deep breath and continued. “Have I thanked you for giving me a Peloran hyperdrive to play with today?”
“I don’t think so,” Malcolm returned, willing to let her change the subject again. He’d already lost the over-under on when the two would admit the obvious, so he had nothing to win from pushing her buttons further.
“Well then, allow me to correct that error now.” She paused for a moment, and her lips twisted in amusement. “What we have right here is a virgin system. No colonies. No defenses. No hyperspace jammers. We’re about to exit hyperspace directly into the planetary orbitals of a new colony.”
“That’s not going to be a problem for very long, is it?” Malcolm asked with a wry look.
“Oh, no. Your friend Charles hid a few surprises aboard Surprise when he gave her to us that will take care of that issue real quick,” Olivia answered. She aimed a wink at him before continuing. “But this is going to be an exciting ride for all of us.”
Malcolm smiled. “The exciting rides are the best rides.”
“Precisely.” Olivia chuckled. “You ready?”
“With that warm up? Please.” Malcolm waggled his eyebrows at her. “I’m filled with anticipation.”
Olivia turned back to her bridge crew with a smile of her own. “Lieutenant Lopez?”
“Ma’am?” the helmsman asked.
“Prepare for surface action on my command.”
“Surface action on your command, aye Ma’am,” the helmsman answered immediately and ran his fingers across the helm controls.
Olivia nodded in approval. “Lieutenant Jones?”
“Ma’am?” the communications officer asked in a calm soprano.
“Transmit to fleet. Commence surface action, now.”
“Transmitting ‘Commence surface action, now,’ aye Ma’am,” the communications officer reported and leaned to the side to listen to her earpiece. Then she nodded. “All ships confirm receipt.”
Olivia aimed a pleased smile at him. “And now we get to enjoy the view.”
“I’ve always enjoyed the view from up here,” Malcolm answered with a smile of his own.
She cocked an eyebrow at him as a squadron of Avenger starfighters opened a dozen holes in hyperspace and rose to the surface of normalspace in sprays of rainbow energy.
The frigates Crichton, Hammond, Reynolds, Parker, and Cochrane followed the fighters, arriving inside their defensive formation with perfection. Then the destroyers Philadelphia and Rouen breached the barrier with larger rainbow sprays.
Wolfenheim, Surprise, and the remains of the captured Shang destroyer smashed through behind them, leaving Normandy and her Blackhawk starfighters alone in hyperspace.
“Ma’am?” the helm officer responded.
“Commence surface action, now.”
“Commencing surface action now, Ma’am,” he answered and ran his hands across his controls.
Hyperspace rippled ahead of them as Normandy’s hyperdrive tore at the wall between them and normalspace. Rivers of multi-colored gravity snapped at Normandy’s deflection grid in protest, and the hardy ship vibrated under the assault. Then the very fabric of hyperspace tore apart and Normandy exploded into normalspace with a wave of rainbow energy washing out in every direction.
She released her hold on hyperspace and it lashed her with one last tendril of energy that set off nearly every alarm. Normandy rang like a bell under the assault until the wall finally snapped shut once more
“Rough ride,” Malcolm whispered just loud enough for Olivia to hear him.
“I’ve had rougher,” Olivia said as the consoles flashed with warnings and protests from all over the ship. Then she stepped away from the bulkhead.
“Color me intrigued,” Malcolm said to her back.
She paused for a moment and gave him a sly look. “Not in front of the kids.”
Then she left him behind and waded into the chaos of an entire ship’s crew dealing with a far too exciting ride.
A form flickered into existence next to him. It took possibly a second for the ship’s holoemitters to build her body and arms one curve at a time. A black leather jacket and ratty black jeans snapped into focus shortly before the rosy face and short, brunette hair. Ariel’s holoform pulled in a simulated deep breath and turned a smile towards Malcolm.
“We came in a little too close to the planet,” the ship’s cybernetic mind reported as her captain dealt with the crew and the mess they were all in.
Malcolm looked back and forth between Ariel and Dawn, once again amused by how similar they dressed and acted. They could pass for sisters any day of the week, which was probably truer than not considering cybernetic familial ties. He preferred Dawn’s redheaded curls, but would admit that Ariel was an amazing brunette if pressed.
“Did you break anything important?”
“We lost some capacitors when that last tendril hit us, half my sensors and other systems are blind, and I’ll have a scar down my starboard flank until we can get it fixed.” Ariel paused to give him a shrug. “But I didn’t lose anything I can’t fabricate.”
“We shouldn’t have tried coming in this close,” Malcolm said as Lopez pulled them up and away from the planet under Olivia’s orders.
“We didn’t,” Ariel said in a firm tone. “Trust me. I confirmed the calculations before we went through. We came in no where near our target coordinates.”
“What happened?” Malcolm asked in concern.
“I haven’t had time to fully diagnose the issue,” Ariel said with a wince. “And with so many of my systems down, it may take a while to do so. Whatever caused it, we aren’t moving anywhere until I can get everything working again.”
“Do you have any rough ideas?” Malcolm asked.
Ariel aimed an upraised eyebrow at him and snorted. “I’m a century old ship you found in mothballs and had retrofitted up to the ability to survive a few thousand lightyear trip. Then I got shot up by a bunch of dirty Shang, and ended up having to strip a fair bit of a Shang destroyer to get the spare components to repair myself.”
Ariel waved at all the flashing lights on the bridge consoles. “And now I just got shivered down to my timbers by a rough ride none of us were expecting. Pick a reason.”
“I’m sorry,” Malcolm said.
“Don’t be,” Ariel returned with a melancholy smile. “You gave me a ship again. I may be a bit long in the tooth and battle scarred, but that’s better than the alternative. Besides, looking on the bright side, there’s always the possibility that my failings had nothing to do with this. It could be enemy action.”
“That’s the bright side?” Malcolm asked with a raised eyebrow.
“From a certain point of view,” Ariel said and winked.
“Wow. I really couldn’t have given this old girl to a better mind if I’d tried,” Malcolm said with an answering wink. Then he cocked his head to the side and gave her a wicked grin. “Which, come to think of it, I did.”
“You tried to give this ship to a glorified AI,” Ariel said with a disgusted sniff.
“With cybernetic support,” Malcolm corrected.
“A fighter cyber, not a warship cyber.”
Malcolm shrugged. “I’ll grant you there’s a difference there.”
“Worlds of difference.” Ariel turned to look at Dawn. “No offense intended.”
“None taken,” Dawn answered with a mischievous smile. “I know not everyone is fast and nimble enough to maneuver a fighter in battle.”
“And not everyone has enough processing power to control hundreds of thousands of tons of warship,” Ariel said without missing a beat.
The two cybers aimed some truly epic side-eye at each other and Malcolm tried to suppress a smile. Olivia turned a questioning gaze their way and they bestowed upon her a positively innocent pair of faces until she turned away. Then they raised their fists in front of Malcolm and bumped them together.
Malcolm sighed and rolled his eyes at their display.
Olivia finally nodded in approval and walked back to Malcolm’s bulkhead. She aimed a pointed look at Ariel as she cut between them and leaned next to Malcolm.
“That was a ride to remember,” she said with a sidelong look at him.
“The best ones always are,” Malcolm returned and raised an eyebrow at her.
She smiled and nodded towards a display showing the colony ship next to them. “We’re holding position off Wolfenheim’s flank, now.”
“Good,” Malcolm muttered and let out a long breath. “We’re alone?”
Olivia shrugged. “As alone as we can confirm. But I remind you, there are no hyperspace jammers here yet. Commodore Murphy could be preparing to leave hyperspace right now.”
Malcolm nodded in understanding. It was the scenario they had expected all along. They could be alone. Or not. Their first warning would be an eruption of rainbow light from hyperspace.
“You said Surprise had some surprises that could change that?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes,” Olivia answered. “But it will take time to deploy them.”
Malcolm nodded in understanding. They had to follow the plan as laid out then. Malcolm pulled in a deep breath and gave the order.
“Order Wolfhenheim to deploy her colonization pods into orbit, now.”
Olivia returned his gaze for a second before nodding. “Lieutenant Jones?”
“Ma’am?” Lieutenant Jones asked from the communications center.
“Order Wolfenheim to deploy her stage one colonization pods into orbit, immediately.”
“Ordering Wolfenheim to deploy stage one colonization pods into orbit, aye Ma’am,” Jones repeated before whispering into her microphone. She nodded after a few seconds. “Order’s received and acknowledged, Ma’am.”
Malcolm turned his attention to the forward screen focused on the Class One Colonization Ship and waited for the inevitable. Wolfenheim came apart before his eyes. The massive engines that had pushed her across five thousand lightyears of space separated first, moving away on small plumes of blue flame to take up positions around her. The outer skin flaked off next, individual hull plates popping away from the superstructure under their own power. Maneuvering thrusters flared and the hull plates surrounded the starship like a swarm of bees protecting their queen.
The colonization pods came last, one after another disengaging the bolts locking them into the superstructure before ejecting from the starship. More thrusters spun and pushed them into stable planetary orbits near Wolfenheim. They continued ejecting until hundreds of them surrounded the denuded tangle of girders and structural members jutting out of the central core that had transported ten thousand colonists to a new home.
Wolfenheim had fulfilled her purpose. Soon her remains would become the colony’s first space station.
Lieutenant Jones frowned and concentrated on her station for a moment before turning towards Olivia. “Ma’am?”
“Yes, Lieutenant?” Olivia asked.
“I have a message coming in from the surface,” Jones reported and looked straight at Malcolm. “Mister John Clark suggests that you meet him down there, at your earliest convenience.”
Malcolm chuckled at her diplomatic language. He’d known John Clark his entire life, and the man never “suggested” anything. And his earliest convenience meant immediately, if not sooner.
“I guess I have my marching orders,” Malcolm said to Olivia.
“I guess you do,” she said with a smile. “Ride carefully.”
“I always do,” Malcolm answered, brought a hand up to make a sloppy salute, and turned to exit the bridge. The hatch opened and Malcolm passed the Marine sentry guarding the entrance to the bridge from any crazed maniacs who decided to attack it with a respectful nod. Then he and Dawn walked back to enter the lift at the end of the corridor.
Dawn leaned against one wall and smiled as the lift accelerated away from the bridge and sent them rocketing down through the old ship. The lift slowed to a stop as they reached a junction, and then they shot sideways. The lift came to a stop again and opened onto Normandy’s fully operational starboard hangar pod.
Malcolm and Dawn stepped off into the long cylinder and stopped in their tracks as they saw the bald head and beaming smile of John Park waiting for them.
“Preacher?” Malcolm asked in confusion.
The older man nodded his head at Malcolm. “It is not every day I get to see John Clark.”
Malcolm sighed. Long experience had taught him that Park did not like to explain himself, so he probably wouldn’t get any more information if he asked. He could take it or leave it.
And the simple fact was that John Park was worth taking anywhere.
Malcolm nodded his acceptance and walked down the line of empty launch cradles. Dawn and Park followed him down to where his Blackhawk starfighter waited to fly. There Malcolm stopped and smiled at the older man.
“Age before beauty,” he said and waved a hand towards the fighter.
“From the lips of a blind man,” Park rejoined. Then he climbed up the ladder and swung himself into the seat taking up the cockpit’s rear end.
Malcolm rolled his eyes towards Dawn and scrambled up after the preacher. He dropped into the front seat, grabbed the ends of the five-point harness, and proceeded to lock himself in with a series of clicks.
Dawn flickered into existence atop the main console as he finished securing the last belt, her action figure-sized holoform smiling at him. She nodded and crossed her arms as she commanded the starfighter to come to life around them.
Displays lit up all around him on the console and the canopy as it slid back to lock into position. Systems hummed and beeped to life, the fighter twitched in its cradle’s embrace, and green lights ran across the displays to proclaim them ready.
Dawn gave him a single questioning look.
“Let’s fly,” Malcolm ordered.
Arms crossed once more, and the launch bay’s hatch cover peeled away above them at Dawn’s nod to reveal the dark and starry space beyond. Small reaction thrusters flared and they shot out of the launch bay. More thrusters came to life and spun the fighter towards the planet below them.
Then the main engines came to a blue fusion life and pulled the Blackhawk into the planet’s upper atmosphere. The deflection grid flickered as they cut deep into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and drew a flaming contrail across the sky behind them. Rushing air roared past them as the engines cut out for a second. Then they came to life again and shot blue flames ahead of them. They dropped below the speed of sound with a thundering boom that shook the fighter and sent a shockwave pulsing across the sky and pounding into the land below.
A display blinked for attention and Malcolm looked to see a diagram of the landing spot John Clark had provided them. It was a wide flat area covered by a virgin forest canopy that reached nearly as high as the surrounding ring of hills and cliffs. The trees on them towered above everything else, and measurements flashed on the display. How tall the trees were. How wide the ring was. How many square kilometers were inside the ring. A final statement blinked on and off when Dawn was finished.
Asteroid impact crater.
Malcolm nodded in appreciation as Dawn brought them around onto final approach with a waggle and a curving slice through the air to bleed off the last of their velocity. He looked out and part of the canopy zoomed in to show John Clark waiting for them in a clearing large enough to make the four old troop transports, not to mention the mechs and vehicles spread all over it, look small. The old man stood next to one of them and Malcolm grunted in amusement at the show they were giving him right now.
“Bring us down right next to him.”
“How close?” Dawn asked with a wry grin.
Malcolm considered the question for a moment before chuckling. “Close enough he can feel the heat.”
“By your command,” Dawn acknowledged. Then she crossed her arms and spun the Blackhawk down with several deft uses of the maneuvering thrusters. They floated to the ground with the grace of a butterfly. Then the gravplating cut out and the starfighter settled her massive weight down on her landing gear.
Malcolm felt the local gravity take hold and pulled in a deep breath. He opened the canopy and looked out to see the heat shimmering off his fighter’s flank as it hissed and popped in an effort to dissipate the heat generated by reentry.
John Clark stood far too close to the landing starfighter with arms crossed over his broad chest, glaring up at Malcolm like he would any young punk who’d unwisely trespassed on his lawn.
Malcolm fought the urge to clear his throat. Then he unlatched his five-point harness, clambered out of the cockpit, and slid down the ladder like the cocky young punk he’d been in a younger life. Legs bent like shock absorbers and he smiled as he turned to look at the man he’d flown five thousand lightyears to meet.
John Clark had already been an old man when Malcolm first met him a century ago. The man had been old when John Park had first met him two centuries before that. He rarely claimed fame as one of the oldest Earthborn humans alive in all the worlds, but Malcolm saw that age behind the man’s eyes today. This man had first fought in Vietnam back when it was a nation worth talking about, and seen nations rise and fall for the better part of four centuries.
Generations of progressively advanced and expensive medical technologies had kept thousands of his generation alive. Most of them came from the most powerful families on Earth, though there were always outliers in even a group that small. Most of them looked ancient by modern standards as the oldest medical treatments had kept them alive but not saved their youth. The last time Malcolm’s eyes saw the man, he had been one of those who carried all those centuries on his slight frame and narrow shoulders.
The John Clark standing before him now looked like a healthy pre-space forty or fifty, complete with barrel chest and wide shoulders. Even most of his grey hair was gone, though it still peppered his light beard. He would probably lose another decade or so in the next year, along with the bald spot that still dominated the top of his head.
Peloran medical technology was amazing when it worked right. Now one of Hurst Family’s oldest and most dangerous operatives worked for Malcolm McDonnell thanks to access to that technology, some grunts of approval from a brewer named Michael Callahan, and a few kind words from a preacher named John Park.
John Park brushed past Malcolm and stepped close to wrap his old friend up in a crushing bear hug.
“It’s good to see you again,” Park said with a beaming smile.
“And you,” Clark said and thumped the Preacher’s back hard enough to break lesser men’s ribs. They laughed as only old friends separated for far too long could do.
Malcolm saw himself and Charles in that camaraderie. They were old men, joined together by friendship and a common goal. And if one was a century or two older than the other, that didn’t matter as much now as it had in the past.
They were Family Men, come together once more to form a united front.
Malcolm blinked as the realization hit him a moment before the two older men sobered and turned watchful gazes towards him. If there had been any lingering thoughts that John Park had “just happened” to want to come on down, they died in that moment.
The Family Men wanted to talk to him.
“I read your report,” Clark said in a low rumble.
“You’re quick,” Malcolm returned in hopes of keeping the conversation as light as possible.
“Speed reading,” Clark said with a laugh. “It’s a lost art.”
Then Clark aimed a determined frown at Malcolm. “You truly do not remember what happened with Caroline Murphy?”
Malcolm shook his head and decided that candor was the better part of valor. “I’ve got a lot of blank nights from that time of my life. That’s one of them.”
Clark shared a long look with the Preacher.
Clark sighed. “Then we need to set this colony up as quickly as possible. And then you need to get Caroline to join us when she catches us.”
“I agree,” Malcolm said, though he had a sinking feeling in the bottom of his heart that it wasn’t for the reasons he would want. “Though I’d like to know why you think we need her.”
“Because while you have been playing house on Alpha Centauri, I have stayed on the inside of Family politics. Caroline defends you very quietly. I’ve heard her say you saved her life, though she’s never gotten into the details. Now Danaka holds a serious grudge against you. I don’t know the particulars, but it’s something personal. She doesn’t like you, and the less said about you in their father’s hearing the better for everyone. If they sent her younger sister to take you home, it’s a safe bet Danaka follows in her wake, and she may not want to bring you home at all. Caroline may be your only hope of surviving a tragic accident out of a faulty airlock.”
And that was the sinking feeling right there. “And here I thought they wanted me back home.”
Clark chuckled. “That’s what the carrot was for. To bring you back willingly. But you ran, and they’ll have sent a stick to break your legs so you never run again. You hear me, boy?”
“Loud and clear,” Malcolm said and bit his lip. Then he glanced at Park. “It’s a bit more blunt than we’ve been talking, but I think it’s close enough to what we’ve been thinking.”
“Preaching made him soft, kid,” Clark growled with a playful look towards Park. “Unwilling to say the hardest truths. But that’s why you recruited me. So I’m telling you right now that when Caroline catches us, you need to make that catch stick, whatever you have to do.”
“You mean I have to take advantage of her?” Malcolm asked and felt a pang of guilt in his core.
Clark cocked his head to the side and peered at Malcolm like an old wise crow. “You have feelings for her?”
“Yeah.” Malcolm nodded in acceptance of that point. “I guess I do.”
“You guess?” Clark asked in a hard tone. “Or you do?”
Malcolm weighed the question in his mind and saw Caroline’s face in his mind. The flirtatious smile that promised much and hinted at so much more. He truly wanted to follow her down the rabbit hole. He answered the question with no hesitation in his voice.
“Good.” Clark nodded in approval. “You’re a little wet behind the ears, but she could do a hell of lot worse than catching you. And if using her makes you feel guilty, that’s good too. It means you somehow held onto your soul through all of this scheming. Just remember that it could be real good for her health to get her outside her father’s plans.”
Malcolm nodded. He wasn’t so certain about the state of his soul, but Mister Murphy would sacrifice his own mother if it furthered his plans. There was just one thing he didn’t understand. It was something he felt Clark knew, and so he asked one more question.
“What are his plans?”
“He wants to be king.”
Malcolm blinked in partial understanding, but far more confusion.
Clark recognized both and laughed once more.
“Charles, heir to the Hurst Family power and fortune, embezzled the funds to make this project a reality, and you know it,” Clark said with a single finger aimed at Malcolm like a gun. “And that might be the only reason Danaka has for keeping you alive. If she can drag you back to Earth with proof of everything you two did, she will have the power to overthrow Charles from his position, thereby leaving it vacant for someone like her father to step in and snatch it. And then he’s a hop, skip, and a happy accident away from kinging himself over the dead body of a certain Mister Hurst we all know and dislike.”
“Oh,” Malcolm said and his eyes went wide as he really understood.
“Yes. Charles put everything at risk for this venture. Now we’re going to have to be real careful about how we plant the landing. Or ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
“We never thought about that possibility.”
Clark snorted and shook his head. Then he smiled and looked around. “Why do you think I let you recruit me for this fine venture of yours?”
Malcolm felt a shiver go down his spine, but smiled back at the older man. “Well, I was kinda hoping the medical benefits had something to do with that.”
Clark laughed and looked at his young arms. “The benefits are amazing, kid. I’ll give you that. I haven’t felt this young in centuries.”
Then he aimed a serious look at Malcolm. “But I am a Family Man. Always have been. Always will be. I will defend the Family with my dying breath. Do you understand me, boy?”
“Completely,” Malcolm said with a nod.
“Good,” Clark said with a smile. He turned to look past his old infantry transport towards the small town of temporary structures and the massive clearing in the forest beyond. “Then you are now in the proper state of mind to pick a location for this fine little Alamo we’re building.”