"Scan for Starcademy."
They were no longer children. None of them. Seth Goddard stood next to the Helm, glancing now and then at the others. The oldest of them, Harlan and Suzee, were old enough to be fully-fledged STARDOGs. The others, well, Commander Goddard had a feeling that after what they'd been through, there would be little question of initiating them into the ranks after a few short processes.
Then there was Catalina, who had already graduated with honors from a prestigious institution on Yensid… Not in Engineering. Though mechanical operatives were still a hobby for her, after switching dimensions, she'd discovered a very latent talent for art. Finally, outside the walls of Starcademy or the Christa, it was allowed to grow and flourish.
He looked at the rest of them… What would they have been, had they not enrolled in Starcademy all those years back? What would have become of them if they hadn't boarded the Christa against orders?
The length of their trip back had been longer than expected. With their crash landing on the planet and various other detours along the way, their voyage was nearing nine years. Nine whole years, and the Christa had become their life, their livelihood, and to a greater extent, their family. Did they miss the people at home? Yes. They did. But for some reason, no one seemed especially excited that the Sol system was within a day's voyage.
"You see that star there?" Harlan mused, pointing out the viewscreen monitor. Commander Goddard had never known his father, but he had a feeling that Harlan had turned out very much like him. "That's the Sun. Not just a sun, but THE Sun. I never thought we'd see it again.
Suzee shrugged, noncommittally. It wasn't her sun, Seth realized, looking idly down at the controls on the Helm. But she also had enough tact not to bring Harlan down by saying anything about it. She'd changed from the egotistical and spoiled genius that had boarded the Christa years back. Suzee had definitely mellowed.
Radu leaned on his console, looking toward where Harlan was pointing. It wasn't his sun, either, though he did show a bit more enthusiasm for the discovery. Out of all of them, Radu had changed both the least and the most. He was still the considerate, quiet cadet he'd always been, but there was a larger air of confidence around him. Harlan considered him an equal, whereas at the beginning, the two had barely been on speaking terms.
Miss Davenport stood on the other side of the Helm, and did not look at the viewscreen. Perhaps out of them all, she feared returning the most. Fired, the former assistant principal had no job to return to. And even if she did, it would likely be a secretary's work. She wouldn't be able to stand it. T.J. was very learned, but her age made her likely unable to sign on as a crew trainee for a starship. Plus, she'd never received proper field training.
Seth didn't like to think about that, mostly because it reminded him of his own predicament. For allowing the students onto the Christa in the first place, he'd lose his status. Completely. Most likely, he would never reach out to the stars again.
Rosie and Bova were two completely different stories.
Rosie had boarded the Christa as an entirely-too-energetic ball of optimism in the form of a military cadet. In the course of the nine-year voyage, her attitude had darkened. Not in a bad way… In fact, just the opposite. She allowed tension into her life. She allowed herself to acknowledge that not everything in the universe was well and good. Using that knowledge, she learned to use her naturally bubbly personality to counteract the things that brought the crew down.
They all loved her for it. That, and she was a very accomplished medical officer. She'd go far in the field.
Bova learned to allow life into his life. There was no mistaking the fact that he was still quite talented at pointing things out that were wrong, but at least he would smile once every few days. There was feeling in his voice. And regarding the friends he'd made on the Christa, he was almost as loyal to them as Radu was, and that was saying a lot.
Thelma was still cracked.
Oh, how they would miss Thelma. Maybe they could persuade her to leave the ship. Maybe, Commander Goddard thought, they could have the ship. Maybe…
You won't be getting your own ship anytime soon, Seth, he said to himself.
"I've got it," Rosie said, her voice wholly unenthusiastic. A rare trait for a Mercurian to be able to display.
"I wonder if they're waiting for us," Harlan said. He didn't exactly sound happy, either.
"No," Bova answered.
"…My parents really don't leave Mercury," Rosie added. "It's too cold for them. I mean, they've been there almost their whole lives; at least I was used to it."
"My parents are on Yensid. And Catalina's aunt doesn't even know I'm real yet, the b—"
"Okay, radio transmission," Rosie supplied, quite suddenly.
Seth shook his head. "Not now, Rosie."
"It's from the UPP. Uh…" She shrugged. "It's got an urgent tag."
Sighing, he rolled his eyes. "Alright. Play it."
A few seconds passed, and then the audio message came through. "…Unidentified Starship, please Identify yourself."
Without being asked, Rosie opened up a channel. Seth responded, "Starship Christa, Commander Seth Goddard… Crew of…" He considered, then said, "Crew of nine."
Goddard continued. "We were lost in space for nine years. Requesting permission to dock at the Starcademy."
There was a pause at the other end, followed by a voice that everyone recognized… Especially Harlan. "Admiral Cody. We read you, Commander Goddard. You understand there must be some paperwork done before you can dock. You have all been listed as dead for quite a while."
It was an interesting welcome, to way the least.
"…Understood. How long do you think we'll have to wait?"
"A week. A week and a half." Admiral Cody seemed uncaring.
Seth felt the need to say something. "These students have been away from their families for years… They want to get home."
The statement was all but ignored. "Speaking of the students, will they be re-enrolling in Starcademy?"
They all looked at each other, baffled. It hadn't occurred to them that after a trip like they'd taken, they would still be required to finish school. Harlan couldn't help but speak up. "What?"
"Harlan," Cody began. "We have a procedure. All of you should know that. If you want to become a STARDOG, you have to follow the…"
The last few words were drowned out by various forms of discontent uttered by the crew.
Something they hadn't expected. Paperwork, fees, fines, red-tape and various forms of discipline. On some level, they all knew it was coming. There wasn't any way to avoid it, but all of them had lived their own lives on the ship for almost a decade… Didn't they deserve to at least maintain some semblance of that at home?
"I'm going to really miss you all," Rosie said.
"I will, too," Harlan added.
Radu looked at the floor. Suzee looked away.
"We'll return transmission in a while," Seth said, with little concern for the Admiral's authority. He signed for Rosie to cut the channel before a response could be sent.
Thelma, who had up to that point been relatively silent, suddenly smiled. She looked up at the crew, those who hadn't averted their eyes, and said quite proudly, "I am now familiar with the nature of that large spatial distortion chasing us!"
A smile crept onto Harlan's face. "What spatial distortion?"
The smile remained on the android's face. It was a proud smile. An almost matronly smile. "Screen on," she said.
It was there. Right behind us. Where had it come from?
"That… spatial distortion," Thelma finished.
Commander Goddard remembered back to that day. The very first day… They were so scared, and all they wanted to do was get home. "You suppose we could turn this ship around?" he asked.
"I believe that is very possible," Thelma answered.
They all looked at the Commander expectantly. Even Miss Davenport… There was hope in her brown eyes. Maybe…
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
"Mister Radu," Seth said, "Plot a course. And Mister Band?"
Harlan shrugged. Finally, that confidence was back.
"I'm on it."