The Captain sat in her high seat overlooking the bridge of her ship. They were six hours out from Earth's solar system, returning from a mission that took half her life to accomplish. She hoped they weren't too late.
The Earth was in dire straits, which had likely gotten worse in the decades her ship had been gone. The global ecosystem was failing, and the planet would not be capable of supporting human life much longer. Fortunately, in the year prior to the start of their mission, astronomers had found what they believed to be the closest habitable planet to Earth. An unprecedented international effort was undertaken then, and when it was finished, the very first long-range starship had been constructed. It was named the ISS Last Hope, and it had been home to Captain Susan Dell and her crew for the last 30 years.
Their mission had been simple: travel at best possible speed to the planet, rendezvous with the probe that had been launched the previous year and deposit an exploration team on the surface. The exploration team, using data gathered from the probe, would find the ideal location for and begin construction of the first extraterrestrial Earth colony. They would be left behind by the Last Hope to perform their mission, while Captain Dell and her crew returned to Earth to report on the planet, and provide navigation charts for the massive colonial ark that should have been constructed over the past 3 decades.
She ran her fingers through her close-cropped silver hair. It had been dark-brown and much longer when the mission began. She was 30-years-old then, the youngest captain in the Space Forces, chosen for her youth as much as her accomplishments, which had been many. All of her crew had been young, so young that she was the eldest among them. They'd had to be. The mission had been calculated to take at least 25 years, and the crew would need to be fit to see it through to the end.
But now they were old, the youngest of them well into their 50s. She had turned 60 last week, and each line on her face and silver strand in her hair had been hard-earned. She toyed with the patch over her left eye, scratching at the deep scar that ran under it from her hairline to her chin. She'd lost more than an eye and the best years of her life to this mission. She'd lost crew. She'd lost friends. She'd lost her husband.
Commander Robert Dell had been First Officer and the ship's Pilot. He was a roguish, cocky sort of fellow, typical of the best star pilots, but he had a warmth and humor that never failed to lift the mood of the ship. No matter how grim their situation, Robert had always been ready with a joke or antic to bring a smile to the faces of the crew. His quick thinking and peerless ability as a pilot had also served them well, especially when they came upon the debris of a ruined world and the vicious aliens that had destroyed it. Thanks to Robert's flying, and the valiant efforts of the crew, the ISS Last Hope escaped danger that day and brought a roving band of genocidal maniacs to justice. That is to say, the ship's Gunner had blasted every last one of them to vapor.
But it was the planet that had taken her husband from her. And her eye.
She shuddered and clenched her remaining eye shut. The memory was 15-years-old, but it still held her fast in its grip, and each year it took a little more from her. She remembered the walk through an alien forest, the strange smells, the odd sounds and the comfortable bed of moss cradled in the roots of a massive tree where they stole some blessed time alone. Then she remembered the crashing in the brush, the horrible roar and the searing pain across her face.
She remembered little after that, save waking up in their camp with a cold empty void in her heart where her husband used to be. Part of her wanted to die there on that planet, to lay her body down in the ground beside his and rot, as her soul would rot without him.
But she couldn't. She had her crew. Her ship. And The Mission.
The Mission. Robert had given his life for it, and she would complete it. Robert had given his life to save the people of Earth, and she could do no less than live her life for the same purpose.
So they left. They left behind a team of scientists, engineers and soldiers to begin the colony, to make this new world ready for the refugees of the old. She raised her Gunner, Lieutenant Carry, to First Officer, giving her the rank of Commander, and promoted a promising young ensign to the rank of Lieutenant so he could fill the vacant Pilot's chair.
She threw herself into their mission, pushing ship and crew to their limits and beyond to get home in time to save their people. No matter what the obstacle: asteroids, space-bourne viruses, pirates or a race of sentient killer robots, Captain Dell always found a way past, around or through it. She stayed focused on the mission, and the mission kept her sane.
And now they were approaching the outskirts of their solar system. They would be home soon. Their mission would be complete, and the people of the Earth would be saved. She heaved a sigh. Perhaps she would return with the colony ship, to end her days on the world that had ended her life.
She was roused from that thought by the beeping of the intercom. It was the ship's operations officer, Lieutenant Cohen.
"Go ahead, Lieutenant."
"Captain, I'm having trouble raising Lunar Station on comms. We're close enough now, we should have no trouble reaching them."
Something cold slithered up Captain Dell's spine. Were they too late? Had the end come while they were gone? Could they be the only ones left?
She shook her head. Such thoughts would lead to madness. There was another explanation. There had to be.
"Lieutenant, see if you can raise Central Command on Earth. Perhaps they're between shifts on Lunar Station."
When they finally reached Central Command, several hours later, the crew of the Last Hope received a brutal shock.
"Um, listen," a low-level functionary of the recently formed Federated Nations of the United Earth said through the comm channel, "we, uh, kinda figured on you people not making it back, so uh..." he cleared his throat, "we, um, made other arrangements."
"Other arrangements?" Captain Dell tried hard to keep her temper in check. "Are you kidding me, boy?" She didn't succeed. "I didn't pull my crew through decades of misery and danger just to be blown off by some child in a uniform." Her voice cut across the comm channel with an edge of steel. "Why am I even still talking to you? Find someone worth my time."
Finally, after several more lower functionaries, officials and ministers, she was connected to the Chief Executive of the Federated Nations. What she told Captain Dell and the crew of the Last Hope was chilling.
"Well," the younger woman said, leaning back in her plush seat behind a wide desk, "after thinking it over, we realized it wasn't the planet that was the problem, but all the damn people living on it." She paused to light a thin cigar. "So," she said, puffing away, "we killed them." She laughed at the shocked look on Captain Dell's face. "Oh, not everyone, obviously," the Chief executive said with a chuckle. "We kept the rich, the powerful, the elite. We kept a bunch of the poor around to work for us, of course. But we wiped out the middle class. Not good for much except bitching and moaning anyway. Anything that needed doing could be done by a machine, or some poor slob willing to work for a bottle of water and a handful of dried meat." She waved her hand dismissively. "So, yeah. Thanks for everything, but, y'know, we're fine."
"Fine?!"Lieutenant Cohen blurted out. "You're not fine! Yes, you may have slowed the depletion of your resources by a few years, but you've done nothing to reverse the damage to the ecosystem! If you want future generations to have a chance at survival, you still need to--"
"What part of fuck off," the Chief Executive growled, "do you people not understand?"
The line went dead.
There was silence on the bridge of the ship.
Captain Dell cleared her throat.
"Does this ship have enough power to return to the new planet?"
"Of course, Captain."
"Even allowing for landing on the planet, taking on passengers and supplies and then taking off again?"
"Um... yes. But, Captain--"
"Good. I want you to do a long-range scan of the planet and locate any camps or slums where these laborers of theirs might be living. Then contact Major Thomas and have him prep his troops for a rescue mission. Pilot, bring us into a fast approach. Commander Carry," the captain said, turning to her First Officer.
"Once we're in range, I want you to target the source of that transmission and launch half our compliment of warheads."
Captain Dell walked up to her seat above the bridge. "Pilot, once that is done, I want you to coordinate with Lieutenant Cohen and get us to those people as quickly as possible. Once Major Thomas and the evacuees are aboard, set a course for the new planet and get us there, best possible speed."
She settled into her chair to wait. It shouldn't take long. She would save the people of this planet. She would bring them home.
She would fulfill her mission.