The Phoenix touched down on the surface of the planet at dawn. Captain Scott Scruff slipped on his protective suit and donned his mask.
“Ready, Cap,” said Charlotte, the Caption’s second-in-command.
Captain Scruff looked at his crew. Charlotte and Walter saluted. Martha just gave him a shaky smile.
“'Ready’ is a strong word there, Charlotte,” said Martha.
“Ready or not—I need some fresh air. Get me out of here,” said Walter.
The crew had traveled for 50 years.
Captain Scruff unlatched the door. An orange light spilled inside, accompanied by some sort of haze. Captain Scruff cautiously reach out a gloved hand and flinched when the haze curled around his fingers, but nothing happened.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The four crew members crept out of the ship. Cracked, dry mud covered the ground. Besides a few shriveled trees, nothing else dotted the landscape. The sky was a strange orange color and filled with large, dark bulbs. The Captain had never seen anything like them. They looked almost fluffy, except for the flashes of light and the falling debris.
“What is it?” asked Walter as the debris hit his mask. Captain Scruff moved forward to inspect the strange particle.
“It’s a tear,” he murmured in wonder. The crew members tilted their heads back and watched the sky.
“It’s… crying,” said Martha.
The hair on the back of the Captain’s neck rose. There was something in the air— some kind of warmth. It seemed to vibrate his bones.
“What’s happening?” whispered Charlotte.
And then the sky erupted.
A flash of light slammed into the ground with a bang. Martha shrieked as the light enveloped one of the nearby trees and set it ablaze. Captain Scruff's ears rang sickeningly.
“What is it?!” shouted Charolette. Another flash of light hit the ground next to her and she stumbled away, pressing her hands to her ears.
“Run!” yelled the Commander.
They all bolted back to the ship, dodging the lights. Captain Scruff heard a scream over the bangs and turned around to see Walter lying on his back, unmoving.
“No!” yelled the Captain. He ran toward Walter’s crumpled form. Tendrils of smoke curled from his body and strange black marks slashed his chest. The suit had been singed away.
“Walter! Walter, can you hear me?”
Walter didn’t move. The Captain knelt and pressed two fingers to Walter’s neck, breathing a sigh of relief when he felt a pulse. He threw Walter over his shoulder and ran to the ship, dodging the flashes of light.
“What . . . what was that?” panted Charolette. She clutched her side and leaned against the ship’s walls.
The engineers had designed the ship to withstand extreme force. A few flashes slammed into the top and the crew felt the whole ship vibrate, but it held steady.
“Some type of—of fire?” said Martha.
“Definitely fire. Walter’s burnt to a crisp,” the Captain said tersely. He wondered if that was good or bad—the burnt skin had fused and stopped the bleeding, at least. But the smell was almost unbearable.
“It came from the sky. What kind of fire comes from the sky?” said Charolette.
“It was so loud. And then there were the tears . . . .”
“It's worse than we thought,” said Captain Scruff. He wasn’t just talking about Walter’s injuries. “We need to leave. Now.”
The ship rumbled as another flash hit the side.
“We can’t abandon the mission, Cap,” said Charlotte briskly. “We have to tell them what to expect.”
“We can’t tell them anything if we’re dead,” snapped Martha.
“That's a trip home, a trip back to here, and another trip home, minimum. 150 years? You want to go back to them and tell them they have to wait another 150 years?”
“I don’t want to, no. But I’m being realistic.”
Captain Scruff let them bicker while he worked on Walter’s wounds. He grabbed the first aid kit and pulled out a small syringe filled with blue liquid.
“Here goes nothing,” he muttered, hoping the medics had done their job as well as the engineers. He pushed the needle into Walter’s arm.
Walter’s eyes snapped open and he gasped.
“Welcome back,” grinned the Captain. Walter groaned and shut his eyes.
“Thought that stuff had pain relief?” said Walter.
“It does. Max dose.”
Captain Scruff watched the blackened skin on Walter’s chest peel off and new skin push up underneath. The wounds were deep, and his chest resembled a bruised apple when the process was complete.
“Better?” asked Captain Scruff. Walter just coughed and waved him away.
Charlotte and Martha hadn’t noticed their newly awakened crew member.
“—then the whole thing is a waste!” yelled Charlotte.
“Enough!” barked the Captain. “Walter’s alive.”
Charlotte and Martha rushed over to the healing table.
“I’m not going to lie, Walter. You’ve looked better,” said Marsha.
“I don’t know. I’d say the bruises bring out your eyes," said Charolette.
“So, what’s the plan, Cap?” asked Martha.
The Captain took a deep breath. “We put it to a vote. Walter?”
“You know what?" said Walter weakly. "I could go for another long nap. Get me out here.”
“We’ve got to see the mission through, Cap.”
“I’m out. The planet’s not ready.”
A voice suddenly echoed throughout the ship.
“I get a vote? I’m touched, Captain.”
“Running out of patience here, Phoenix.”
“You know me. Programmed to make the mission succeed. I’m with your second-in-command, Captain.”
The Captain stared at each of his crew members—Charlotte’s ferocity, Walter’s bruised chest. Martha just closed her yes.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” said the Captain firmly. “But Martha’s right. The tests said this spot was our best hope. It’s not worth it. If anything, I’d say we did complete our mission. The planet’s still not habitable.”
Charlotte sighed, shaking her head. She walked out of the room and into the living quarters without another word.
She’d come around. For now, the Captain had to focus on getting out safely.
“Phoenix, set course for home.”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
The ship vibrated and the engines whirred. The Phoenix shot into the sky among the flashes of fire.
"Martha, help me get Walter into his hibernation chamber."
They carried Walter into the living quarters, careful not to touch his new skin, and set him inside his tube. Charlotte was already asleep in the tube next to his.
"Thanks," murmured Walter. They pulled his door shut and his eyes slowly closed.
"See you on the other side, Cap," whispered Marsha as she stepped into her own hibernation chamber.
That Captain watched the planet grow smaller and smaller in the window.
“Goodbye, Earth,” he whispered.
The ship would land at the Galactic Space Station in half a century. It was the year 4050, and in 2,000 years, Earth had still not healed.