I have met many I would consider friends over the years. There are only a very few that I would trust with my life. There are even fewer that I would drop everything for. Charles and I can go years without seeing each other, drink a beer over a word or two, and go our separate ways after saying everything that needs saying. We are family, in every way that matters. And you answer when true family calls. No questions. No reservations. You just do.
Malcolm leaned back in a sinfully comfortable reclining chair, feet kicked up on a padded ottoman that cradled them with exquisite care. He relaxed in the middle of his day cabin, idly watching one bulkhead. At ten meters long, it was an unthinkably large cabin aboard ship, proof that the Republics had been designed to house admirals and command fleets. But to a man that grew up in houses the rich and famous wished they could live in, the day cabin was only a small greeting room. He hadn’t asked for it, but was profoundly grateful to have that one decently sized room to stretch out in and enjoy the sights.
Those sights appeared on the bulkhead in all their glory at the moment. It was normally light grey, like most of Normandy’s bulkheads, without any permanent decorations. But a starfield dominated the bulkhead’s smartpaint today, filled with dozens of small shuttles moving back and forth between the supply depot and the Wolfenheim Project starships hovering nearby. He loved just watching ships of any kind move through space, and today was a rare opportunity to do it live. He intended to take full advantage of that.
The hatch opened behind him, but he didn’t shift. He was too preoccupied watching the shuttles move through the steps of their intricate dance.
“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” Dawn called out as he heard her step into the day cabin.
“You know the combination,” he retorted, but kept his attention on the view in the bulkhead.
“Sorry, fresh out of Prince Charmings today.”
Malcolm snorted. “I thought I was looking for Princess Charming.”
“I think I have something better than both,” Dawn announced, and he heard another set of feet enter the cabin.
“Impressive sight,” a voice he would recognize anywhere said in approval.
Malcolm kicked his feet off the ottoman and pushed himself up from the chair in a single smooth motion, bringing the newcomer into view. Charles Edward Hurst stood before him in a black three-piece suit and tie tailored to hang off his lanky frame perfectly, just like old times. Shoulder-length brown hair and stubble gave him a scruffy look the man never would have allowed in the past. Peloran grooming standards were obviously rubbing off on him.
Malcolm absorbed the sight of his old friend for an instant, and then launched himself forward to wrap the man up in a bear hug. “Charlie!” he shouted and thumped the man on the shoulder.
“Mal,” Charles returned with an answering bear hug and a few thumps that would have broken a lesser man’s shoulder. A holoform wearing a formal black dress and an ever-present calm smile stood behind the other man. Malcolm gave Dorothy a quick nod and thumped Charles’ shoulder again.
“It’s good to see you,” Malcolm whispered in Charles’ ear before pulling away and patting the man’s shoulders far more gently. “Been too long.”
Charles smiled. “Far too long.”
“Well, we’ll just leave you two alone to bond,” Dawn announced and cocked her head towards the hatch that led into her quarters. Dorothy smiled at Malcolm before following her sister out of the cabin. Malcolm stopped for a moment, just watching the backsides of a set of pants and a dress. But he had more important things to think about and turned back to Charles.
Charles turned from watching as well and smiled at Malcolm. “So how does that work?” he asked with a wave of one hand towards the hatch the girls had disappeared through.
“Better than you’d think,” Malcolm answered with a snort. “She has her own door outside. She just put that in for ease of access.”
“Hatch,” Charles corrected, a wry smile on his face.
Malcolm winced. “Ah. Right. Silly navy terms.”
“Everything has a reason,” Charles corrected, then smiled. “Even if we lowly mortals cannot understand it.”
“True that.” Malcolm shrugged and turned away from the hatch. “And honestly, I’m really trying to learn all the lingo. Sometimes it just…” he paused for a moment and opened a hand into the air with a sad smile. “Goes away.”
Charles patted his shoulder with a commiserating nod. “Keep trying. You will get there eventually.”
“Right.” Malcolm shook his head to clear it. “But I don’t want to talk about that. This is a time for beer!”
“Hallelujah,” Charles responded with a chuckle and looked around the day cabin. “Where is it?”
“Ask and ye shall receive,” Malcolm said and stepped over to the small refrigerator in his room. He opened it and frowned as his eyes took in the prominent lack of beer in the fridge.
“Did you drink it all?” Charles asked with an upraised eyebrow.
“Of course not,” Malcolm returned with a quelling look. “Dawn?”
“Coming,” Dawn proclaimed as she walked back through the hatch with two cold bottles in her hands.
Malcolm frowned at her. “Where’d you get those?”
“In the butler’s pantry, of course,” she said and placed the bottles on the table.
“What’re they doing in there?”
“You were drinking too much,” she said, turned away, and walked back through the hatch without another word, but her actions said everything that needed saying.
“Ease of access,” Charles said in a skeptical tone, filling the silence that followed her departure.
“Yeah,” Malcolm whispered, chewing his lip. “I keep telling myself that.” He stepped back to the table, twisted the top off his beer, tossed it into the trash, and moved to sit back down in his chair. He pointed the beer at the chair across the ottoman from him and returned his feet to their rightful place on it so he could relax and drink.
“Keep it up,” Charles said in a wry tone as he followed the command. “Sooner or later you’ll believe it,” he added before taking a careful sip. His expression brightened and he smiled. “This is good.”
Malcolm chuckled. “Callahan Brewery’s best stock.”
Charles laughed out loud and gave the bottle a fresh examination. “Doesn’t he give these out with every special order?”
Malcolm aimed an innocent look at his old friend. “Why, this was the special order. And I have the customs receipts to prove it,” he finished with a raised finger. “So don’t you suggest anything else.” He paused to take a deep breath and smiled at the bottle. “Totally worth the special trip, too.”
Charles took another long draw and nodded in agreement. “Yes, it would be. The old man does good work.”
Malcolm raised his bottle high and smiled. “The very best.”
Charles leaned back further in his chair and took another sip, giving every impression of just enjoying the taste. But Malcolm knew his old friend well enough to realize he was holding back from saying something. Malcolm turned to watch the shuttles ferrying to and from the supply yard outside and just gave his friend time.
“I hear you lost Hastings,” Charles finally said into the silence.
Malcolm sighed, but didn’t turn from the view of outside. “She was a good ship in her time. Maybe will be again. But we just didn’t have enough time to fix everything.”
“I am sorry,” Charles said in a tone that left no doubt he meant it.
“Nothing you could do about it.” Malcolm smiled at his friend and raised his beer again. “Thanks to your warning, we got everybody out. Even her crew.”
“Dorothy told me it was close,” Charles said over his beer.
“Too close.” Malcolm swallowed and looked at his friend in complete seriousness. “They’ve got Austins. Eight of them. If they ever get those main cannons into range, they’ll cut every one of my ships apart in seconds.”
Charles frowned. “You think they are following you?”
Malcolm chewed his lip for several seconds before answering. “I don’t think they sent someone who’ll give up easily.”
Charles nodded very slowly, still thinking. Finally he smiled and let out a long breath. “Well then. I may have found something that will brighten your day,” he noted in a pleased tone.
Malcolm cocked his head to the side, examining his friend for a moment. “What?”
“Look over there,” Charles said, pointing his beer at the bulkhead showing outside space.
Malcolm followed the aim of the bottle and frowned as he focused on a ship the size of a modern destroyer approaching them from the gas giant. She wasn’t like any ship he’d ever seen before. A wedge-shaped hull the size of a frigate dominated her forward half, with a pair of long rectangular cargo pods hanging off her rear. A massive collection of engines completed the ship’s final meters, though they were currently inactive as the ship drifted near them. She looked like some kind of modular cargo transport, though he’d never seen that particular design before.
“A transport?” Malcolm asked with a frown.
“Yes,” Charles answered with a chuckle. “The cybernetic families built her for us.”
“The cybers?” Malcolm asked in surprise, eyes glancing towards the other cabin. “Not the Peloran?” They’d integrated themselves into both Terran and Peloran society so well that sometimes it was hard to remember they had their own separate resources to call upon. And they never advertised the fact.
“I was hoping you would catch that,” Charles noted in an approving voice. “She is a side project I asked the cybernetic families to undertake to…deal with the side effects of other new projects. Those cargo pods are actually carrier bays designed to support a full Avenger squadron.”
Malcolm whistled. “Cowboy squadron, right?”
“Yes,” Charles said with a slow nod, and Malcolm considered the ship very carefully. Charles’ Cowboys had started using cybernetically piloted drone fighters to augment their numbers during the early Battles of Alpha Centauri. The name had caught on with the public, and forces across the Alliance were adopting them into common use. Even Normandy flew cowboy squadrons since it was so very hard to find good, retired fighter pilots.
“Flying off a freighter,” Malcolm whispered with a shake of his head. “Or do we start calling them jeep carriers? That’s going to put a new spin on things.”
“More than you think,” Charles answered. “They are going to be marketing downgraded versions of this ship to the public. Purely for cargo transport uses.” He waved a hand at her. “But that girl is fully armed and operational. All Peloran tech under the hood. If those Austins meet her, they will not enjoy the experience,” he finished with a feral smile.
Malcolm let out a low whistle. “And she’s mine?”
“Not exactly,” Charles equivocated. “We only have a few of them right now, and all are in testing.” Then he smiled. “I may have arranged for that girl to get lost in paperwork.”
“You arranged for something to get lost?” Malcolm asked with raised eyebrows.
Charles sighed. “Must be your corrupting influence.”
“Don’t believe a word he says,” Dorothy shouted from the other cabin. “He asked and we agreed.”
Malcolm cocked his head at Charles.
Charles shrugged, raised his beer in a toast, and took another swig.
Malcolm answered his motions and sighed. “So how does that work?” he finally asked with a glance at the hatch.
Charles let out a long breath as he considered his words. “Much better than I ever expected. She is…” he trailed off and shook his head, unable to find the right ones.
“Yeah,” Malcolm whispered. “She fills in all the holes, doesn’t she?”
Charles glanced over his shoulder at the hatch for a long second before answering. “Yes.”
Malcolm studied his friend for several moments, recognizing the utter contentment radiating from him. The man could die tomorrow, but he was happy. That meant a lot. “I envy you sometimes.”
“Really?” Charles jerked his head towards the hatch. “What about her?”
Malcolm pulled in a long breath and sighed. “She’s a good friend. It’s what administrative cybers are supposed to be. Friends to everyone they work with. But you? Truthfully, how often does Dorothy finish your sentences?”
Charles laughed and looked back out towards the stars. “Hell. She usually starts them for me.”
“That’s what makes you such a good team,” Malcolm whispered, a hint of envy creeping into his voice.
Charles sighed again. “God does not always give us what we want, Mal,” he said in a very serious tone. “Just what we need.” He jerked his head towards the hatch with a meaningful look. “And sometimes we find out after all the kicking and screaming, that He gave us what we really wanted after all.”
Malcolm stared at his friend for several seconds. The Charles he’d grown up with never would have said anything so sappy if his life depended on it. And God was just some guy that some people believed in. But looking his old friend in the eyes, Malcolm realized that he really meant it all.
“I remember when we made fun of people who talked like that,” Malcolm finally whispered.
“Me too,” Charles returned without hesitation. Then he glanced towards the hatch with another meaningful look.
This time, Malcolm took the hint. “Sometimes I just wish I could find someone that fits…me. Just me. Someone that knows me so well she…starts my sentences for me,” he finished with a chuckle.
Charles glanced at the hatch and smiled. “Yes. That is a good thing to look for.” He raised his beer again. “To sometimes.”
Malcolm returned the toast by raising his beer too. “To sometimes.”
They leaned back and watched the ships moving, savoring the good beer for several minutes. Finally, Charles spoke again. “So how is Captain Wyatt doing?”
Malcolm pursed his lips and let out a low whistle. “She’s doing good,” he answered, letting more admiration leak through than he meant to. “You picked real good there.”
Dawn stuck her head through the hatch. “Oh, Malcolm thinks Olivia is doing amazing,” she said in the tone of a sister tattling on her older brother.
“Hush, you,” Malcolm growled back.
“Baby pictures!” she returned, waving one finger in the air.
Malcolm’s smile took on an evil glint. “New job.”
She covered her heart as if struck by a killing blow and stumbled back into her cabin.
Charles looked back and forth between them and shook his head. “So Dawn really is working out, I see,” he finally said with complete aplomb.
“Oh, she’s a real slave driver,” Malcolm snorted back.
“I wouldn’t have to be if you weren’t such a lazy, good-for-nothing slob!” Dawn shouted from the other room, seemingly having completely recovered from his killing shot of a moment ago. Malcolm shrugged at Charles. “I saw that!” He stuck his tongue out at the door. “That too!”
Malcolm chuckled and turned to Charles. “Honestly, we’re good. She’s good. They’re all good. I couldn’t do it without them. We’ve got a good team thanks to all the suggestions you made. I wouldn’t want any of them gone. Does that answer all your questions?”
Charles sighed. “Yes. I think it does.” He looked around the quarters with a smile and raised his beer again. “To sometimes,” he repeated the toast.
Malcolm followed his look with a smile and raised his beer. “Yeah. To sometimes.”
They leaned back in their chairs and just relaxed, two old friends that didn’t need to say anything else to say everything that mattered. Cargo shuttles passed before their eyes on the bulkhead, slowly emptying the supply depot of the supplies set aside for them.
Movement caught Malcolm’s attention, and he turned to see Dawn stepping into the day cabin with a worried look on her face. “We just detected eight emergence signatures on the New Earth–Sunnydale Run.”
Malcolm groaned and held the cool bottle against his forehead to stem the headache he could already feel coming. “Not again.”
“Transmission arriving.” Dawn shifted her head to the side for a moment, before looking back at him. “Same as before. Commodore Murphy, blah, blah, blah,” she said with a smile. “Stand down and prepare to be boarded, blah, blah, blah. I can send her a rude response, if you want,” she finished with a hopeful smile.
“Wait,” Charles interrupted, pulling Malcolm’s attention to his thoughtful gaze. “Dana Murphy?” the other man asked in a very pointed tone.
Malcolm could almost feel the light bulb go off in his brain as that name opened a doorway into his past. In both of their pasts, going all the way back to their years in the private schools reserved for the Hurst Family and those family aligned with them. Like the Murphy Family daughter he and Charles had gone to school with. “I don’t know. She’s trying to arrest me. We haven’t exactly had time for a heart to heart yet.”
Charles sighed and looked at Dawn. “Can I see a picture of her?” She nodded and, a view of Commodore Murphy appeared in the air next to her. Charles frowned at the picture for several seconds before shaking his head. “I do not know. But I never allowed myself to get caught in her snares. You were the one holding a torch for her.”
Malcolm studied the picture for several more seconds, but beyond that near recognition it just didn’t seem quite right. “I still don’t know,” he finally whispered in a doubtful tone. She certainly could be that girl, all grown up, but there were too many differences to be certain either way. “Maybe?”
“So,” Charles noted in a very serious tone. “Maybe the girl you and three quarters of the senior class were carrying a torch for all senior year?” His expression showed he still thought Malcolm had been an idiot back then.
Malcolm shrugged back. He couldn’t argue the fact. He’d done more stupid things back then than he cared to remember. And in fact, he was very certain that he didn’t remember all of them. “But we were kids back then,” he protested. “Young and stupid goes with the territory.”
“True,” Charles intoned as he scanned her holo again. “But squadron commanders are a dime a dozen in Pennsylvania service. They sent her squadron for a reason. Maybe they decided to send someone who knew you.”
Malcolm wanted to protest, but he just nodded in agreement. Charles’ thoughts made sense and went parallel enough to his thoughts that it disturbed him.
“So what do you want us to do?” Charles asked in a decisive tone.
Malcolm recognized the question for what it truly asked. Charles had the connections to make certain this Commodore Murphy never made it out of Sunnydale. Their eyes met and he knew Charles really was making the offer. “No,” he finally said, his voice firm. “I don’t want you burning resources you’ll need later. I’ll find a way to handle it. And if I’m lucky, she’ll give up sooner or later. All I have to do is stay a step ahead of her.”
Charles smiled in approval. “Can we at least delay her, then?”
Malcolm chuckled. “Oh, I think that’ll be easy. Her fleet probably didn’t expect a trip this long. I mean, they’re Pennsylvania Star Fleet.” He shrugged and Charles smiled. For a “Star Fleet,” they’d always been more of a prestige force than a true deep-space fleet. That was why they had so many destroyers. The more squadrons and fleets they had, the more commodore and admiral positions they could give to people with the right connections. “They’re probably sucking on emergency rations by now and are gonna wait as long as it takes to get real food on board. Not to mention spare parts for all the stuff that probably broke down on the way out here,” he added with another chuckle.
“Good point.” Charles’ eyes brightened at the thought. “I think we can do something to help you there.” He took another sip from his beer, gave it an appreciative look, and placed the bottle on the deck with a decisive motion. “But I should go now.”
Malcolm followed Charles to his feet and stepped forward to hug his old friend again. “Thanks, man. Good luck at Hyades,” he finished with a thump on the shoulder.
“Good luck at Gateway.” Charles squeezed hard, almost forcing the air from Malcolm’s lungs, and stepped away with a nod towards the hatch. “I can find my way out,” he added and began walking towards the day cabin’s exit. Dorothy met him there and Charles looked back, one finger tapping his ear. “Besides, Dorothy tells me I have an escort.”
Malcolm aimed a questioning look at Dawn, and she just smiled in acknowledgement. That question answered, he smiled at Charles again and nodded.
The hatch opened and Malcolm caught a glimpse of John Park in the corridor. Malcolm chuckled, and Charles stepped out to see the man that had practically raised both of them. The hatch closed behind Dorothy, leaving Malcolm and Dawn alone in the cabin. They shared a long look before Malcolm sat back down and reached for his beer.
Dawn moved to pick up Charles’ bottle of beer, and her face brightened at the sloshing sound. She plopped down in the vacated chair, kicked her feet up onto the ottoman, and leaned back to gulp down the beer in a long draw. Finally finishing it, she smacked her lips in approval and smiled.
“The best,” Malcolm returned, and looked at the hatch Charles and Dorothy had left. “She’s always a holoform isn’t she?” His eyes returned to see Dawn sighing.
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “Per American military rules, always a holoform.”
Malcolm wondered what it would be like to be that close to a woman that completed him the way Dorothy completed Charles, and never be able to touch her. He didn’t envy Charles nearly as much after that realization. “I’m not sure I could make that bargain,” Malcolm whispered and swirled the bottle in his hand, feeling the last dregs of beer splashing in the bottom.
“I couldn’t,” Dawn said with a certainty that forced him to look at her over the lip of the bottle. She met his gaze and sighed as she chewed her lip. There was far more going on there, and he relaxed in his chair, waiting for her to say it or not. Finally she smiled at him. “Fifty years ago. American fighter contract.” She winced and shook her head. “Ended badly. My family decided we weren’t going to accept them anymore. Until Dorothy. We didn’t know why she accepted Charles until she let us in on this whole project.” She planted her empty bottle on the deck with a solid thunk and smiled. “But that’s why I have a body, now. That’s how I like it.”
“Me too,” he whispered absently.
“Do you?” she asked in a very serious tone.
He met her gaze for a moment, recognizing the worry in her eyes. He pulled in a deep breath and smiled, measuring the words in his mind. They felt utterly right, so he let them out. “Yeah. I do.”
“Good,” she answered, her voice betraying relief, and looked out into space.
Malcolm followed her gaze to the part of the bulkhead showing where Murphy and her squadron rested. “You know, if she keeps following us, she might get close enough to pounce on us before we can get out.”
“Yeah,” Dawn whispered, her eyes dark. “We’re going to have to be ready to do something about that.”
Malcolm met her gaze and read the question in her eyes. He thought about it for a long moment. It would simplify everything if he could just wipe those ships out with a fighter strike or something equally decisive. He felt the cliff before him, the hungry urge to take that option below him, and shook his head. He mentally stepped back from that cliff and sighed.
“No.” He shook his head hard. “Not if we can avoid it. I need other options.”
Dawn smiled, her gaze approving of his choice. “It’ll make things harder on us if she catches us.”
“I know,” Malcolm whispered and looked back out as the shuttles began to pull away from his ships for what had to be the last time. “But I won’t let this project begin with the legacy of American blood on her hands.”
“Good,” Dawn said, her voice radiating profound approval and relief. “Thank you.”
Malcolm smiled, raised his bottle, and drained it in one final gulp. Then he placed the empty bottle on the deck and just watched the lights move on the bulkhead. He waited, not saying a word, not needing to say a word, for the last preparations to be completed.
A new ship slipped into formation with them, Avengers twice the size of his old Blackhawks escorting her, and he waited to leave another star system behind. He was leaving everything behind. Everything he thought had mattered to him a mere few years ago. Now, with Charles departing again, he realized his old friend had helped him find something that mattered far more than anything back home. It was right here, on the few small ships of this fleet, and it followed him wherever he went.
He didn’t see the hyperdrives power up and he didn’t see the fleet dive back into hyperspace. His breaths came long and deep, lungs filling with air beneath closed eyes. He didn’t see Dawn lay a thin blanket over his shoulders or walk away with the empty bottles. He was at peace, surrounded by the first family he’d realized he could trust in over a hundred years. And that made all the difference.