Kara Ritter raised her glass as ordered, alongside the rest of the bridge crew. The bubbly liquid swirled slowly under one-quarter gravity, caused by the engines on low thrust, just enough to keep liquid in the glass. She wondered how many of the others felt what she was feeling right now.
"This is the first of five bottles of champagne in the cargo hold of the Last Ditch," Captain Monoma was saying. "One for each Earth year in our mission."
Ritter fantasized about sneaking into the hold to smash the other four, but only briefly. It would get her in entirely too much hot water for a purely symbolic action against a cavalcade of empty symbolism. The champagne wasn't real champagne, and not just because the town of Champagne had been lost to the Bactarans four decades ago. Even the grapes used to make it were just the closest genetic approximation that the Redland scientists could get to grow in the Redland soil. The champagne glasses were single-use printed plastic, because fragile glasses were a non-starter on a combat-ready starship. Even the years were based on the solar revolutions of a world Ritter had never seen.
"You've all served with distinction throughout this year, and I look forward to completing this tour of duty with each and every one of you." As he spoke, he looked towards each of the bridge crew in turn. When his eyes met Ritter's, she couldn't help but imagine the words he would really have spoken to her if this hadn't been a memorized speech. Monoma had been Captain of the Last Ditch for eleven years now, and it was clear from his practiced cadence given one of these speeches for each and every one.
"For thirty-six years, the crews of the Last Ditch have kept watch in the skies of Redland." Like the glass and the champagne and the years, this was more poetic license. The skies of Redland, tidally locked to the red dwarf star it orbited, always faced the sun, and as such was the one thing in the system the Last Ditch never really saw. More important was the watch it kept over the system's warp bridges. If danger was to come, it'd come through those. But it wouldn't, and in Ritter's entire life, not a single molecule had emerged from the bridges.
"For thirty-six years we've repelled the threat of the Bactarans from our space." Once, Ritter finished the sentence mentally, you've repelled them once. Two years before she was born, a single Bactaran scout ship had entered the system and been destroyed. She'd read the reports; based on the wreckage, the damn thing hadn't even had any weapons. Some of the ship's spare parts had been salvaged and were still in use on the Last Ditch today.
"And I thank you all for your service over the years. Here's to thirty-seven."
"Hear, hear!" Cribbins responded from the scope monitoring station. Always so eager to please, Ritter thought; he must be looking to move up in the next tour.
"And here's to all those that came before," Jen Dixon chimed in as she entered the flight deck, grabbing a drink that had been set down near the door. Someone had evidently expected the first officer to show up late to the ceremony.
"Hear, hear," the captain raised his glass in response. The crew began to quaff their drinks, as quickly as the low gravity allowed the liquid to slide down their mouths.
"Now, let's get back to work," Dixon commanded. "You all have your maintenance to do, and I know some of you are falling behind schedule." Ritter felt the accusation as if Dixon had named her personally. "No one forget, each of you has a responsibility to the entire crew. If one station's system fails, it puts us all in danger. We're all—"
Dixon froze midsentence, staring at Cribbins. No, not Cribbins—just next to him, at his station. Like the rest of the bridge crew, thrown off by the unflappable XO's sudden speechlessness, Kara's eye followed Dixon's gaze to find a blinking red light on the scope readout. She'd never seen that light illuminated before.
Ritter couldn't be sure whether the bridge crew stared at that light for five seconds or five hours, but the instant the silence was broken, absolute chaos filled the bridge. This was it. With her place on the bridge, it seemed like every crew member with somewhere to be had to cross in front of her as she watched. She watched Jen Dixon, who was out here to ensure the safety of her children, Zenith and Quasar. She watched Jim Cooper, the father who'd vowed before Ritter was crawling that he'd never let any harm come to his children. She watched Jes Verdim, a first-tour rookie like herself, as they manned the weapons console that they learned to operate from their uncle, who'd raised them like a father. She watched Joel Cribbins, brown-noser extraordinaire, whose ambition would have him take command of this ship one day. Despite herself, she'd grown to know each and every member of this crew over the past year, and suddenly each of their lives flashed before her eyes.
Dixon's order broke Ritter out of her reverie. "Ritter, are they broadcasting?"
Ritter checked her station's readouts. "No signals incoming, XO," she responded in a practiced tone. "All the strongest S/N ratios are known sources."
"Cribbins, what's the engine signature?"
Cribbins was paging through a series of spectrum readouts until he found one that matched closely what he saw on his primary display. "Here it is. Engine spectra indicate an ion drive, intensity combined with thermal readings suggest it's fusion-driven."
"What kind of ion engine? What's the reaction mass?"
"Looks like ninety percent krypton, ten percent radon," Cribbins read off the results of the spectrograph.
Anyone who knew engine technology knew what that meant, and a terror of silence hung in the air momentarily. The Last Ditch's own engines used a krypton-radon mixture for their reaction mass, the radon being both a byproduct of the complex fusion process as well as an excellent reaction mass candidate for ion thrust on account of its huge atomic weight. These engines were highly effective and efficient, and they'd been salvaged from Bactaran ships decades ago.
"It's a Bactaran engine," Ritter announced absent-mindedly.
"It is," agreed the captain. "Ready all weapons."
"Coilguns already standing by," Verdim called back. "Waiting on magazine crew to report missile status."
"Conn, prepare full military thrust. Don't give them a chance to report back."
"Three minutes to widest coilgun range, sir."
Ritter trained the radio receivers on the vector of the unknown ship. The multifrequency readout still showed no distinguishable signals.
"Magazine is reporting in," Verdim announced. "Missiles will be ready to fire in one minute."
The bridge crew watched the numbers on their displays count down, the distance between the vessels closing. An occasional status update broke the tense near-silence as the volley timer counted down to two minutes, then one and a half, then one minute. Ritter watched her display when suddenly, a spike on the frequency histograph popped up above the background noise. She pressed a few keys to tune her headset to that frequency and listened for the Bactaran threats. She had learned a handful of Bactaran words just for situations like this—"attack", "surrender", "communication", and the like—and she called the words up in her head as the tuner acquired the signal. She turned up the volume slowly.
"...charting vessel Sebastian, requesting an open channel," her headset suddenly spoke up in the deep baritone of a Human man's voice. "We are peaceful explorers. If able please respond with codec H-283."
Ritter froze as a thousand questions raced through her head. How did they speak English? Had Humans survived? Why hadn't they been contacted until now? She opened her mouth to announce the signal but was cut off when Dixon announced that forty seconds remained until weapons range.
"Stay calm, everyone," the captain responded, again preventing Ritter from calling out. "Remember your drills."
"We're getting a si—" Ritter tried to interject again, but Verdim called out again from the weapons console.
"Magazine reports ready to fire, sir."
"Very well then," the Captain said as Ritter finally found codec H-283 in their operating system. She patched the signal into the codec and routed the output to the main bridge screen. The Captain began to give the order as the screen flickered with glitchy output from the codec, "Fire all missiles immed—"
His voice stopped cold when the image of a Human in a clean-pressed white and black military uniform appeared on the screen. "Repeat," the Human said, "This is the charting vessel Sebastian, requesting a response—are you reading me?"
"Hold fire!" Dixon called out. "Veer off!"
"Belay that," Captain Monoma replied. "It could be a Bactaran trick. The engine signature is Bactaran."
"So is ours," Ritter interjected. "Maybe they scavenged their engines just like we did."
The timer on the main screen ticked down. Five seconds until coilgun range. The captain waited until one second remained to relent. "Stand down weapons. Open a return channel. Veer off, but stand ready to make another pass."
Verdim's hand, hovering over the fire controls, relaxed and moved away, safing the controls. Ritter was already entering the commands to open a channel on the same frequency as the other officers carried out their orders. "Audio and video, sir?"
"Just audio right now."
"Attitude change confirmed, captain," Cooper responded from the conn station. "Will be ready to make a firing pass in no earlier than five minutes."
"Connecting to your headset now, captain," Ritter reported, alongside a hand signal indicating the actual moment of connection.
"Charting vessel Sebastian, we are answering your call. If you're receiving us, please respond, over."
The bridge was silent for a few seconds until the response was played over the bridge speakers. "Unknown vessel, we're receiving you. This is the UEN charting vessel Sebastian, Captain Stanley Brauer speaking. To whom are we speaking?"
"This is Captain Armond Monoma, fleet commander of the Redland fleet," the captain responded. Ritter smirked; this was a half-truth she could get behind. The Last Ditch was the entirety of the Redland fleet, so as captain, Monoma was not strictly lying. "My vessel is the Last Ditch, and you've got four minutes to prove this isn't a Bactaran trap."
"We're a little confused over here," Captain Brauer responded, his face on the video stream furrowed and inquisitive. "Did you say Redland?"
The crew looked at each other. They couldn't know what Redland was, could they? Whether Bactaran agents or a genuine Human fleet, word of this colony's existence had never left this star system.
"Confirmed, Captain. The Redland fleet." Monoma repeated more slowly, and with a little more emphasis on the word "fleet".
"Any relation to the Curt Redland that disappeared at the tail end of the occupation?"
"Funny you should mention, our colony has a governor by that name. We never heard anything about the occupation ending, though."
The possibilities swirled in Kara's head. Had they been wrong about the fate of Earth this whole time? Could there still be Humans alive there? If this was a Bactaran trap, it was quite an elaborate one—even going to the trouble to design a whole new uniform. But even then, how could they simulate a video of a speaking Human in real time?
"Just got one question for you, Captain Monoma. Where the hell have you been all this time?"