“Barrage four away,” the young officer at Missile Control reported.
Captain Anders sighed.
“Acknowledged,” he said, waving dismissively.
Eight years he’d been out here. He held the rank of captain of this station, but he was purely an administrator. The crew of 50 men and women under his command were technicians and mathematicians, not soldiers. This conflict was fought in abstract; they’d never see the enemy. God willing, they would never see the enemy’s warheads either. The paycheck was incredible. It had seemed worth it. Four years of hibernation and eight years sat staring into space-quite literally-later, and he was beginning to have second thoughts. He’d thought his old job had been dull, running herd over a department of statisticians running numbers for a banking consortium. All he had to do then was make sure reports were filed on time, that targets were met and egos didn’t clash. But at least there, when he clocked out, he could go to a bar, or go dancing, see a new film, eat at a five star restaurant. Not that he often did. No, he’d go home, stream some show, drink crappy beer then go to sleep and do the same thing the next day. He’d leapt at the opportunity to serve Nashcorp in a new role. And now here he was, sat in a multi-billion dollar tin can in orbit around Neptune. At the end of his shift his only option was to go to his quarters, stream some show, drink crappy beer then go to sleep and do the same thing the next day. He’d never really appreciated his freedom until it was gone.
Two more years. Just two more years and the journey home would begin. He’d be so rich, he’d never have to work another day in his life. Hopefully it would seem worth it.
“Oh! Sir, uh…captain,” said a startled voice.
Captain Anders glanced round, mildly surprised. Although there was a communications station on the bridge, it was manned as a mere formality. The long-range communications from earth were run on a strict schedule, reliant on specific trajectories between them, comm satellites, and earth. This unscheduled interruption meant they were receiving a short-range communication.
Anders leaned forward in his chair. “Lieutenant Lane, was there something you wish to bring to my attention?”
Lane nodded, stark amazement writ large across their face.
Anders struggled to sound calm as he added, “Please, do so.”
“Ah, of course.We’re being hailed. Sir” Lane added, unused to having to fulfil their role.
“You’re certain?” Anders replied.
“Yes sir. There is a hail coming in, range…180 kilometres,” Lane reported, hesitant over read-outs from equipment they’d never before used over the course of eight years.
A strained silence had fallen over the crew. Eight long years, and every day of it routine and exactly by the book. Every head turned in unison to stare at Anders. The moment seemed to stretch into an eternity.
“Right. Well,” Anders grasped for protocols he’d learned over a decade ago. “Okay! We need an identity for our visitor. Lane, ask who they are.”
“Lieutenant Chambers, please run a check on the station’s armaments. We need them brought up to full readiness but, ah, don’t target our visitors.”
Chambers glanced down at his control board, then back up.
“All of them?” He asked.
Anders nodded, “Better safe than sorry. Now…what else?”
“Sir, if I may?”
Of everybody on the bridge, one man seemed alert, prepared. He stood to attention, ramrod straight, and giving the impression of straining at an invisible leash.
Anders sighed. Ensign Tremaine. This assignment was his first, straight out of college. He knew every rule, protocol, guideline and procedure and could recite them on request. He was just so darn eager.
“Ensign. Feel free to jog my memory,” Anders told him.
“Sir! We need to go to amber alert and lock down the long range warheads, sir!” Tremaine replied eagerly.
“Very well, see to it. Lane, do you have an ID on our visitor?”
Lieutenant Lane, against all odds, actually looked more nervous than before.
“Sir,” they replied, “it’s, they. They claim to be from the Barsenas Consortium.”
Their opposition. The reason they were out here. They were supposed to be all the way across the solar system. It would have taken them years to travel to meet them. Anders couldn’t fathom why they’d bother.
“Sir, we should target them!” Said Ensign Tremaine.
Anders sighed and rolled his eyes. The ensign was exhausting.
“Perhaps we should determine their purpose in dropping by first, Ensign.”
Tremaine wilted visibly, disappointed. Understandable; years of tedium could make anybody eager for a break in routine. But there must be a very good reason for this extarordinary circumstance.
“Lieutenant Lane, any further communications?” Anders asked.
“Yes. Sir. They’re asking to come aboard, they have something of great importance to discuss with you, sir.” Lane reported.
“Very well. Let them close and dock. I’ll meet them in briefing room four.”
“Sir!” Tremaine bristled in outrage, “We can’t just let them–”
“Ensign, enough!” Captain Anders snapped.
He strode from the bridge, thoughts racing. He wasn’t entirely certain he should be having a sit-down with their “enemy” in this conflict but the situation was well outside of anything that could be expected. Any break was welcome.
He sat at the end of a long table. Nashcorp believed in strictly enforced chains of command, so rather than a round table that facilitated open discussion, the head of a department held court from the head of the table. Anders wasn’t a big fan of this set-up as a rule, but on this occasion he was glad of it. It allowed him to feel like he had control of the situation.
Down the table was the representative of the Barsenas Consortium. She was quite the imposing figure. Military background, actually deserving of the rank that he had never felt cofortable with. He’d never met her before, never even heard of her until they identified who exactly was visiting. But they’d been out here eight years due to her skill. Every barrage they had launched had been intercepted and destroyed.
“Welcome aboard, Captain Winger,” he began, “I believe there was something you wished to discuss?”
“Right to the point? Very well. Earth has been destroyed.”
She stated it the same way she might have said her hair was grey, or that she took her coffee black.
Anders smiled uncertainly, “Destroyed?”
“Specifics, of course. To be more precise, half the earth is gone. As best as we could determine, there was an impact event of a magnitude beyond anything we could recreate artificially.”
“So…” Anders struggled to find the words, “an asteroid? You’re saying earth was hit with an asteroid?”
She shook her head, “A lot worse. It was the moon. The moon collided with earth and smashed a very large chunk of it away. There’s nothing left alive.”
His mind reeled at the enormity of her words, his pulse raced. It seemed impossible.
Ah, when? When did this happen?” He croaked.
“Five years ago. We discovered it about a year later. We could ‘t get a signal to you so I decided to come and tell you in person. You deserve to know. And, we should discuss what comes next.” She replied, still calm.
He envied her that, although on reflection she’d had longer to come to terms with it.
“Sorry, this is a little overwhelming…what comes next. What is there to discuss? We float around out here until we die!”
“That’s one option,” she replied, “But it seems a little senseless. I propose another. A quicker solution.”
He stared blankly at her. He could think of only one way to interpret her words, but didn’t want to believe it.
“You’re suggesting suicide?” He asked.
Another casual shrug. Her calm was infuriating.
“Technically it would be murder. You give your staff the same gift I gave mine. The quickest way is probably detonating your warheads. This station will be destroyed in an instant, no pain for anybody, no suffering,” she explained it in the same off-hand manner as she had the devestation of their homeworld.
“You can’t be serious!” He exploded in outrage, “I can’t just kill my crew. There’s a hundred people aboard this vessel, they don’t deserve to die!”
She smiled at him, condescendingly he thought. “They’re going to die. Soon. How many years will your supplies last? How long after that will it take them to die?”
“This is insane! I-I can’t just consign them to death. How could I possibly hope to explain–”
She cut him off, “You can’t tell them, man.”
For the first time she sounded ruffled.
“You need to deal with this quickly, and quietly. If you let them know what’s happened, what will happen, it would break them.”
Anders couldn’t help himself. He giggled.
“I can understand that. I’m not exactly coping too well myself.”
She glared at him.
He giggled again, waved his hands as he tried to compose himself.
Her frown lessened.
“I understand, Captain Anders. I had difficulty processing this myself. The decision I made was not an easy one to make, but I assure you it was the correct one,” she told him, calm once more.
His mind raced, weighing the options. Hours ago he’d been bored, wishing for something to break the tedium. Be careful what you wish for, right? He didn’t want this responsibility. He could see the sense behind her words. All this time, for nothing. No amazing payday, No returning home. No point. But to kill his crew. Kill them, or live out the short remainder of their lives floating around Neptune in a giant tin can. But surely he should give them the choice.
“They’d panic,” Winger spoke up, interrupting his musings, “better to give them a peaceful, oblivious end.”
The intercom in front of Anders bleeped.
“Yes?” He answered absently
“Oh. Tremaine. What is it?”
“Can I speak to you in private sir?” The ensign seemed to be whispering. “It’s a matter of some urgency”
“Of course.” He looked up at Captain Winger, “I’ll be back in a moment.”
She huffed impatiently, but inclined her head to dismiss him.
Ensign Tremaine, it turned out, was waiting right outside.
“Captain, I thought you’d want to see this,” he said as he handed over a datapad, ” it’s a scan of the enemy, uh, the visitor’s vessel.”
Anders scanned through the report.
“Is this correct?” He asked, “That ship’s been in the vicinity of a nuclear detonation?”
“Yes sir,” Ensign Tremaine confirmed, “And there’s scoring that suggests debris impacting the vessel as it fled the explosion.
“But sir,” he continued,”this is the most exciting part; analysis of the energy signature of the explosion confirms it was one of our missiles. Is that why she’s here? To surrender?”
Anders leaned heavily against the corridor wall, fighting rising gorge. The thought of what had been about to happen…
He straightened, tugged at his uniform.
“Ensign, prepare a communication for home announcing that we believe we have been victorious. As soon as we reach position, send it.
“I need to talk to Captain Winger.”