Author : Rick Tobin
“Low fuel before Jupiter station. Why stop for a wasteland?” Christa Arnold monitored guidance system readings, adjusting orbital programming for Saturn’s crusty moon, Hyperion.
“History, Christa. Your head’s so full of formulas you forget about humanity around you. The Captain’s ancient family lines were among settlers on Hyperion… water miners. Surely you’ve heard of pioneer sacrifices to get us in deep space, beyond the Oort Cloud.” Trent Polart, the ship’s merchandise manager, leaned toward the striking blonde, hoping to discuss something more exciting than the remains of lost colonies.
“I guess. That’s one of those space stories they use to scare us at the Academy. Never cared for such bilge. Space is tough. So what? So is being a gravity goblin on any world. People clamor all over their little pieces of debris while we live out here in the real universe.”
“Big talk for an ensign. You’ll learn. Myths and memories have more meaning than star drives and mega-maps. At the end of the day, the blood inside the hull has to deal with the past, no matter how fast we fly into the future.” Trent waited for a response, but there was none. He saw Christa sit bolt upright, stiff to her duties on the control panel. Trent realized too late she’d seen a reflection on the dial covers.
“And this is what the Union Guild pays you to do on my ship? Dabble at psychology and small talk?” Captain Hasting’s gruff voice piled up on Trent’s ears like a comet strike. He sat up stiff and non-responsive. “Just get us near the surface, Ensign. I want the security team with full fire power and some of the new neutron weapons to land next to the abandoned San Francisco site. Keep sweeping the surface. If anything moves…anything non-human…I want a pinpoint and I want thermals dropped on that spot until the surface rattles. Do you register me?”
“Yes, Captain, sir, I register.” Christa was crisp in her answer as she activated the long range sensors. The United Cruiser Elmendorf turned a heading parallel to the surface of Hyperion, barely missing the crags of its deepest craters. Christa made constant adjustments to compensate for the irregular spin of Hyperion while managing the increasing pull of Saturn. The command center screens came alive with full color feeds from cameras along the belly of the Elmendorf. Christa launched two drones according to standard procedure for close contact with smaller orbitals.
Nothing appeared on scans from the cruiser or the drones. A shuttle craft with fifteen armed regulars finally reached the ghost town. Men in suits emerged along with a rolling neutron canon. The team carefully scoured the ruins and replaced the message beacon batteries that continued their eternal message displayed in a holographic pleading to anyone who might somehow miraculously reappear in the center of the village square. There was no movement. No dust rising from any of the gouged out craters, empty of their precious ice water. Christa noticed that the Captain led the team personally in his orange and blue suit—an obvious transgression under Union protocols.
“He risks his commission leaving his ship like this,” Christa whispered, as they watched the team returning to the shuttle.
“No, he won’t,” Trent replied, “Every Earth commander has the right to perform this ritual until someday we know what happened to three thousand San Franciscans. It’s an honor for any descendent to perform the Rite of Return. It reminds us all that we will not be forgotten…not even if we disappear in the dark voids.”