Earth loomed in the viewport of the Acheron as the massive vessel settled into orbit. Flight Commander Jon Buchanan felt maudlin, for the planet represented the end of his journey, and at his age he was unlikely to command another expedition. Yet the emotion was mixed with an insatiable curiosity, for centuries had passed down on Earth.

I’ll miss the stars, he thought as he settled into the pilot’s chair on the ship’s lander, but who knows how far we’ve advanced in six centuries.

“I wonder what we’ll find? How far mankind has advanced since we left?” He wondered aloud. His copilot, Lieutenant Paul Cardo, sighed heavily, for this conversation had taken place many times before.

“Yes, yes, Jon,” Paul began informally, exhausted of the military courtesies nominally due to his superior. “Maybe they’ve cured the common cold since we left, and perhaps pigs have been bioengineered to fly. They’re more likely to have killed themselves off. Too bad the high res cameras are busted, or I’m sure I’d be winning my wager already.”

Cynical bastard. Three years with this guy in tow is enough to piss off anybody. Lieutenant Paul Cardo, cynic of cynics, king of pessimists.

“Aren’t you the least bit curious, Lieutenant? It’s been almost six hundred years down there.” Jon tapped the keyboard, preparing the spacecraft’s lander for reentry. From orbit, Earth looked much the same, possessing the same familiar landmasses and oceans, and the usual preponderance of orbital junk floating around about it.

I guess I hoped for more, I mean, you’d think we’d have ships all over the system by now.

Paul smiled wryly and lay back in his chair, loosening the straps slightly. “Honestly, I was more impressed with the Bellatrix system. Three habitable planets, can you believe it? If NASA is still around, I’m signing up for the colonization fleet. The plant and animal life we seeded there should have spread around nicely by the time we get back. Earth can go to Hell for all I care.”

“Any hails from below?” Doctor Mary Christine, the medical officer aboard Acheron, drifted through the air toward them. She watched over the pair like a mother hen, albeit one that had to fend off occasional advances from both men. The imbalance between men and women on Acheron had made things interesting, to say the least.

More frigid than the Arctic. Not that I didn’t try to warm her up…

Jon frowned a moment, checking the communications display. “Still nothing. No radio traffic. But it’s possible they aren’t even looking. We’re pretty late, after all. Who knows if they even use radio anymore.” One of the lines to the primary fuel tanks had been cut, slowing their return trip by nearly fifty years and making almost thirty percent of their fuel completely inaccessible. But, better late than never, the Commander thought.

“Fifty years is beyond late, sir.” Paul answered cynically. “When you show up fifteen minutes late to your interview, that’s late. We’re raised from the fucking dead, a bigger feat than Christ bringing back Lazarus, I think.”

Mary tilted her head and reached for a hand hold, stabilizing herself before strapping herself into her seat. “Well, you’d think somebody would be answering, somewhere. I mean, the Russians sure were twitchy when we left. They should be yelling at us on general principle.”

Paul cracked a sardonic smile, his first in a while. “The Russians would blow a space pebble out of the sky with nukes if it so much as drifted over their country.”

“Like I said, twitchy.” Mary laughed, adjusting the straps. “Anyway, I’m ready over here. We going down?”

Jon took a final, wistful look at his homeworld, probably the last time he would ever see it from space. “Prepare for deorbit burn…”

Reentry was uneventful, as far as such things go. The lander leveled off, finally, having come through the return trip in remarkably good condition. Jon worked the flight controls while Paul searched for a suitable landing site. The Acheron lander was a spaceplane, and maintained enough of a fuel reserve for a period of atmospheric flight.

Paul nearly had to yell over the roar of the engines. “Still not getting anything. Air traffic control should exist, right? You’d think, anyway. Radio traffic is negative. Mojave salt flats look to be our best bet.”

Mary muttered just barely loud enough to hear. “A desert hike to civilization. Wonderful.”

“There’s a built up area near Mojave itself. Looks pretty densely settled,” Paul added. “Sending the coordinates to your console now, sir.”

“Acknowledged.” Jon said simply, concentrating on the lander’s flight path. It may have been a spaceplane, he reflected, but it flew like a brick attached to a rocket engine. “We’re coming in pretty hot, I want to keep some fuel reserves in case we need to take off again.”

At the rate of speed necessary to keep the lander in the air, it was difficult to make out the details of the settlement below through the cockpit window, but it still appeared simple and rundown, somehow. He flipped off the main engines and glided over the flats.

“Here we go. Hold on tight.” Jon warned. “Skids down and coming in.”

The lander had seen use in the Bellatrix system, and was designed for rough landings on unprepared surfaces. Still, Jon winced slightly as the craft made contact with the salt flats, skidding to a halt over the desert flats.

“Earth. What a dump.” Paul mused as whine from the engines died down. “I’d rather be in orbit.”

Mary unstrapped herself from her seat and smiled warmly. “Oh come now, Paul. It can’t be that bad.”

“Better knock on wood.” Paul answered, pointing out the window. “We’ve got a welcoming committee, and they don’t look like NASA folks.”

Jon looked up from his post-flight checklist and frowned. Dust clouds stirred up around the craft as a group of men, armed from the looks of it, approached the lander on horseback.

I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. At least they aren’t apes in a Charleton Heston flick.

Paul cursed. “Fuckers are fast. They must have figured we’d land here when they saw us circling.” The Lieutenant reached for the arms locker. With a six hundred year trip to a totally different system, NASA had seen fit to give them that luxury, at least. “You want the Glock or the Sig, sir.”

“Sig. You know that.” Jon answered dismissively.

“Suit yourself, barbarian.” Paul answered, fastening the holster to his belt. “Mary?”

“I’m fine, thanks.” The doctor shook her head. “I’d do more harm than good, I’m afraid.”

“Well, sir, shall we go see what they want?”

Jon nodded his assent and opened the hatch. The sweltering desert heat assaulted him almost immediately, and his hand moved automatically to shelter his eyes. The worlds of Bellatrix had been cool, temperate places, and he had almost forgotten how extreme the Mojave heat could be.

It didn’t take long for the horsemen to reach the lander. Their leader was a hardy man. He had the look of someone who had spent his life in the desert, with tanned, leathery skin stretched across a frame bordering on malnutrition. The turban wrapped around his head was covered in dust and sweat. Certainly, whatever Jon had expected of the future Earth, this hadn’t been it.

“Peace be upon you, my friend.” The leader said in strangely accented English, making a sign with his hands. “Do you come from the Caliph in your aero-plane?” The man was relaxed, sporting a genuine-looking smile, but his cohorts looked fastidious enough with their large rifles only slightly downturned.

“Um… we come from NASA. Hold on a moment.” Jon replied. Some instinct overwhelmed him in that moment, and he turned, waving Mary back before she could approach the hatch. His voice was barely audible. “Doctor, stay in the ship. Lieutenant, you’re with me. And keep your fool mouth shut, for the love of God.”

“Yes, sir.” Paul answered, his face serious as he exited the hatch, his face briefly registering surprise. “I see your point.”

Jon turned to the leader of the horsemen again. “Do you know of NASA?”

The horseman rubbed his beard thoughtfully for a moment, his smile fading into a frown. “This is not familiar to me. Is that an agency of the government?” The stress on the word “government” was strange, and held a sort of religious awe.

“Yes, it is. Can we speak to your local representative?” Jon offered.

“You mean the emir’s sheriff?” The leader offered, pointing to the golden badge on his breast. That, at least, appeared familiar. “I am he. How can I serve the Caliph?”

The Commander felt the knife’s edge he was perched upon and knew he had to choose his words carefully. “How did you know we were from the government?”

The horseman’s face brightened visibly. “Oh, I am a learned man. I have studied the ancient texts and I know that only the Caliph’s men could afford the extravagance of a real aero-plane. You know, some of the others, they said that you were djinn, because only they could fly. They are fools who cannot read. But I knew! The Caliph’s men have powers, for Allah has blessed them. And to think the others did not believe!”

Thank God for my religious history class, I’m going to be needing it now.

“You are very wise. What is your name, sheriff?”

“I am called Ahmed, sirs. Ahmed Johnsen.”

Paul muttered under his breath, barely audible to the Commander. “Fuck. Would have been better to blow the planet up.”

To be continued…

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