The massive starcruiser moved silently through the vastness of space, the exhaust ports of the great ion drives blazing like a quartet of suns. The Milky Way galaxy spun lazily before it, a stream of glittering jewels against the velvet drapery of the universe.
The engines were a low hum at the periphery of his awareness, a gentle rumbling beneath his feet. These sensations had been part of his life since childhood, and he wondered if he'd miss them when he arrived home.
Home. He let the word settle in his mind, still disbelieving. After all this time, his people were going home. Not that any of them had direct knowledge of their ancestral homeworld, of course. They, like the generations before them, had been born and bred among the stars, raised for the sole purpose of fighting in a millennia-long war that spanned hundreds of galaxies. Their entire species, down to the last child, had been taken from their planet by one of the factions involved in the struggle. With a little training and education, they proved formidable warriors and clever tacticians. They were considered among the brightest of the soldier races, and many rose high in the ranks of the armed forces and diplomatic corps. It was he, in fact, who'd finally managed to broker the armistice that put an end to hostilities and brought peace to a war-ravaged sector of space. In honor of their service, his people had been given this ship, along with the star-charts necessary to find their way home. For his own great achievement, he had been placed in command.
He looked out of the viewscreen. The ensign at sensors told him it would be several minutes before they could scan their destination planet. All were understandably eager. He'd heard the stories, of course. Every child did, as they were passed down from each generation to the next, a piece of his species' living memory. In his mind's eye, he could already feel the cool air on his skin, taste the salt of the oceans and hear all the sounds of the many forests.
He wondered how they would be received by those who'd been left behind. A race of placeholders had been created by the recruiting aliens, to keep the ecology balanced until the soldiers could return to take their rightful place within it. For himself, he was looking forward to shedding the trappings of technology and returning to the ways of his ancestors, to living as one with the land. He--
The report from the science officer roused him from his musings. There were some disturbing reports coming in from the initial scans. Average temperatures were considerably higher than predicted norms, the myriad of species had been reduced to a dwindling handful, the land was quickly turning to desert and the oceans had become toxic. What was worse, the placeholders had bred to the point of overpopulation, and a once-vast store of resources was almost depleted.
His people turned to him, unsure of what to do.
He stood for a moment, deep in thought. Though it was unexpected, they were not unprepared. Their ship was a modified deep-space colonial ark. Its systems contained an elaborate array of terraforming machinery. What's more, their computers held the DNA sequences of all known organisms that had existed at the time of recruitment. They could fix the damage with little difficulty. But there was still the matter of the placeholders.
The Neanderthal sighed, then shrugged, turning at last to his crew.
"They'll have to go."