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Return

by

Heidi Wainer

     Evelyn unsealed her transport cocoon and pried her way out. Another successful toss completed. Now she could immerse herself in scanning routines she’d performed hundreds of times before, and in another five hours, her first day back from leave would be over. No need to think, no time to grieve.

 

     The porthole loomed in front of her. Nothing here, as expected, only twinkling stars forming unfamiliar patterns.

     She opened Aiden’s cocoon. “Come on, we only have five hours to map wherever the wormhole tossed us this time.”

     The dark-haired junior officer crawled out of his air-gelled cocoon and straightened his uniform jacket. “You’re always focused on getting home. Slow down for a change, enjoy the quiet.” The capsules systems hummed around them.

     As Commander of Recon X-Five, Evelyn once vowed her capsule would always return. Her name would never be engraved on The Wall of the Missing next to the five lost crews. Her son would never grow up without a mother, no matter how dangerous her job.

     Now, her son would never grow up. Now, nothing mattered.

 

     What a fool she had been. All those hours spent discovering how to jerry-rig secondary systems to get back to the tube was time she should have spent with Seth. Time she would never get back.

 

     Evelyn fired up the orienteering scanners. Those missing crews could have returned if they had enough chutzpah. Every system on this ship could be reconfigured. She’d created procedures for every foreseeable failure, and she supposed she’d still use them to get home if something went wrong. The ghosts in her apartment were preferable to dying in the cold vacuum of space. Food laced with chemicals was better than starving. She scoffed at the idiocy of those so called officers on the Wall of the Missing.

 

     Aiden activated the recon sensors. “Anything on telemetry?”

 

     “Nope, we tossed into empty space, like the last 231 times.”

 

     “Maybe this toss is the one.” Aiden peered through the porthole as the sensor array powered up. “This might be the toss to discover a resource rich paradise.”

 

     “You’re kidding, right?” Evelyn chuckled. “The terminus of this wormhole moves every five hours, and Proden Corp’s been tossing recon vessels every cycle since they stabilized our end of the tube ten years ago. Do you really think we’ll be the ones to strike paradise?”

 

     “They’ve found seven planets.” The array’s control projection formed in front of him. “Only, none were close enough for the geoscans to determine extraction potential, let alone justify permanent stabilization of the tube.   

 

     There’s millions of planets out there. We’ll hit a good one soon.”

 

     All three bars atop Evelyn’s console turned green, indicating the orienteering scanners had achieved astrolock. She fired thrusters. “Standard scanning rotation initiated.”

 

     Years ago, she’d been as optimistic as her junior officer. After Aaron’s lung cancer took him, leaving her alone with a toddler, her optimism had shifted to determination. A world with clean air might spare Seth the same fate. As finder, she’d be guaranteed emigration. Why was she here now? Habit? To escape from the ghosts surrounding her at home? “Starting the twist in 5… 4…”  

 

     All sixteen sensors blared. “Uh… Evelyn.”

 

     Something was wrong. Aiden stared slack-jawed out the porthole.

 

     The amazing arc of blue, white and green, rising into view made her squeal. “We did it. We actually found a planet.” She’d never seen colors so bright. She bounced on her toes and her jaw dropped to the floor. The clouds were white not brown. The oceans were blue, not black. There wasn’t any smog, any grime. It was pristine.

 

     Aiden rotated the orange sphere in the projection, switching his scanners to planet reconnaissance.

 

     “We’re right on top of it.” Her heart raced. Her limbs tingled. Seth will love this world. The thought punched her in the gut. An image of him prone in the med unit, his skin ashen, his mouth foaming, filled her mind. She squelched her fury before it overwhelmed her.

 

     Proden didn’t deserve a world that beautiful. Corporations pour poison into water and don’t care when it kills children. They were greedy and heartless as long as they profit. She forced herself to focus on her scans.

 

     “Atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, 18% oxygen, less than half a percent Carbon Dioxide. Those ratios haven’t existed back home since the dark ages.” Aiden read from his holomatrix. “Gravity is at 91%, a little lighter than home, but well within tolerance. Temp scans show reasonable fluctuations.”

 

     Tears filled Evelyn eyes. She gripped the edge of her console, welcoming the bite of sharp steel on her palms, as if physical pain would block her grief from consuming her. “I’ll start return prep.” She had to focus on established procedures. She couldn’t think about what this world would have meant for Seth. “They’ll need time to stabilize the wormhole.”  

 

     “It’s beautiful.” Aiden’s grin stretched as wide as his face.

 

     It was hard to imagine their home world had once been that wild and untouched.

 

     “Take a good look,” Evelyn studied the contrast of white clouds against the rich blue oceans. “It’ll never be like this again.” She wiped her cheeks. Why should she care if humanity carved through those endless green forests?

 

     The air would stay clear for a few generations at least.

 

     Aiden tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

 

     “Within a month, a million greedy people will be down there. As soon as word gets out Proden Corp’s found a planet where you can breathe unprocessed air, people will shoot each other for spots on the transports.”

 

     “Proden has protocols to prevent that.” Aiden rubbed his face as he focused on his screen. “Geoscans are in.” He sucked in a whistle. “Six months of resource extraction from this planet will recoup Proden’s entire outlay, all twenty years and then some… It’s almost a shame; fewer high value resources would keep it untouched longer.”

The magical blue ball hanging outside the porthole entranced her. Shame was an understatement. People were going to overrun this world. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves. Billions of people would come here for clean air and water, and in a few hundred years the planet would become as toxic as the one they left. This gorgeous planet would only delay the inevitable extinction of the human race.

     Planets like this should be protected from humanity. “What if we didn’t go back?” Her own words startled her.

 

     “What if we landed?”

 

     Aiden gawked at her. “But once the wormhole shifts, it’ll never return. We’d be stuck.”

 

     “Yeah, that beautiful planet would never be overrun with toxic soup.” Children born there would never be poisoned, like her precious Seth.

 

     The argument she and Aaron had after the third crew disappeared flashed through Evelyn’s mind. “I bet they found a planet,” he had said. “They recognized that humans would ruin it and kept it to themselves.”

 

     “That’d be suicide,” she had insisted.

 

     “No, anyone with a little ingenuity could convert a capsule into a habitation pod. Even a student could modify the sensor arrays to ascertain the nutritional content of individual species.” He’d shown her how, to prove his point, although she had believed him. He’d worked on the capsule’s design schematics. 

 

     “It would be selfish,” she had argued.

 

     “Would it?” Aaron asked. “Or would it be the most selfless act a person could commit? They’d be saving a world, they might even be saving humanity.”

 

     At the time, Evelyn considered her husband crazy. Now, staring at this immaculate planet, she knew he was right. She glanced at Aiden. He was young, strong, healthy.

     “No one would ever know what we found.” Aiden’s eyes grew wider. “We’d end up on The Wall of the Missing… I’d never make up with Tasha.”

     “You’re never going to make up with Tasha.”

 

     Aiden sighed. “Wouldn’t anyone grieve if you disappeared?”

 

     Evelyn cringed. Ever since Seth’s death, her so called friends avoided her. Even Rachel, her best friend and neighbor, treated her like broken china when they passed in the hallway. No one would miss Evelyn, not anymore.

They continued their scans without speaking, the noise of the thrusters filling the void.

 

     “We wouldn’t survive a month.” Aiden clicked through the incoming data stream. “We don’t have edibility scanners, med kits or even the most basic of habitation units.”

 

     “We’d be fine. You passed basic survival.”

 

     “Barely,” he groaned.

 

     “Barely is all you need. Down there you won’t have to convert carbide processers into long term air filters. You’ll need fire building and food processing. You did wildercamp.”

 

     “That was one week in a dome… I was twelve.”

 

     “That’s all you need.” She waved at his scanner controls. “I can adapt the capsule’s scanners with a few simple tweaks.”

 

     A green continent shifted into view.

 

     Aiden licked his lips. “I wonder what real meat tastes like? They say synthameat is the same, but I’ve read the difference was like night and day.”

     Evelyn gazed out the window. “Those forests will be gone in a decade.”

 

     “I know, but the twenty billion people back home, they deserve…”

 

     “They don’t. They’ll destroy it.” Her jaw clenched as she gripped the console. “They’ll dump sludge in the parks where children play.” Where her child played.

 

     “Not necessarily, we’ve learned from our mistakes.”

 

     Evelyn glared at him.

 

     “Some of them.” He shrugged.

 

     “Look at it.” Pristine white flowed across the blue and green ball. She couldn’t protect Seth, but she’d be damned if she let them poison this precious planet. “We’d live the rest of our lives in paradise. There’d be room to walk without bumping into anyone… places to hear… silence.”

 

     The hum of the life support systems seemed to increase. “I never get silence.”  His bit his lip, stared out the porthole, then rubbed his face.  

 

     “If we go back, you never will.”

 

     “Yeah.” Aiden’s voice shook. He opened a vid on the side of his projection controls.

 

     The message read. “I’m sorry bud, but you need to see this.” A blonde woman kissed a man clearly not Aiden.

 

     “We should… land.”

 

     “Okay.” She swallowed hard at the untouched planet sparkling before her. “Initiating set down procedures.”