"Houston, we have a problem."
Captain Sterling's voice was perfectly level and without any emotional inflection, but there wasn't a person on the bridge of the U.S.S. Plymouth, including the captain, that looked completely calm, cool, and collected. Reflected in every face turned up to the observation screens along the forward bulkhead on the bridge were shock, anger, resentment, and fear. Somehow it seemed worse because only a few moments before those same faces had projected excitement and joy. The abrupt shift in emotions was almost enough to make one giddy with the sharp drop from euphoria to darkest depression.
After more than a decade of nothing but endless space and the echoing of voices and footsteps against metal bulkheads, they had at last reached their destination, the planet in the ninth orbit of a blue star light years from their home galaxy, and everyone was eager to catch their first glimpse of the world that would be their new home. They had wandered up to the bridge one by one or in pairs to stand quietly near the aft bulkhead of the bridge, staring up at the screens, listening to the sounds of approach as the captain and crew at last maneuvered the great, hulking ship into orbit.
From space, the planet, dubbed Georgia in honor of the President, just as the first colony had been named New Savannah for her home town, was as beautiful as Earth herself. Spirits soared as the colonists studied the bright globe of green growing things, blue sky, and aqua seas.
Armed finally with something that offered serious resistance, the captain had instigated a series of braking orbits, dropping to a slightly lower orbit each time they'd slowed the ship sufficiently to do so. As the ship slowed enough for a closer look, the cameras were activated and they began to search for a visual of the drop zone.
Tension coiled more and more tightly within the waiting group as the ship slowed to what seemed a crawl. At last, the location selected by the computers appeared on the viewing screens, eliciting gasps of wonder from the colonists. Their destination, New Savannah, almost seemed to leap out at them. Backed up to a ridge of purple, ice capped mountains and fronted by a tangled green valley of lush vegetation the stark white, rigidly symmetrical buildings protruded from their natural surroundings almost obscenely.
It was home for all that, and almost as one those who'd intruded on the bridge surged forward for a better look as the cameras magnified the images to bring them closer and closer until details began to emerge.
Just as the excitement of the colonists reached fever pitch, threatening to spill over into noisy jubilation, something completely unexpected came within view. The jolt was universal, immobilizing every soul on deck with shock.
Minutes ticked by while everyone simply stared at the screens, stupefied. After a time, project leader, Eden Chisholm, frozen with shock from the first flutter of movement she'd noticed, felt thaw begin to set in. As it did, a flood of thoughts and emotions washed through her, creating more chaos, not less.
The one thought that seemed to pound through her most viciously was that she'd dedicated almost twenty years of her life already to a project that looked like it was doomed to failure before they'd even started. Abruptly, calm purposefulness settled over her.
"It'll be six months--at least--before we get a response from Houston."
Ship's captain, Major Sterling sent her a sharp glance. "Indisputable, but protocol---."
Eden shook her head fractionally in warning and glanced around the crowded bridge. "Enough gawking, ladies. Back to your stations, if you please. We'll have a first colonist meeting directly after the evening meal tonight."
The women blinked, as if just awakening, exchanged looks with the others around them and finally began to leave. Eden studied their expressions carefully. Some merely looked dazed, others fearful, bewildered, and still others angry. When the hatch had closed behind the last of the colonists, Eden moved closer to the viewing screens.
"This is Captain Sterling of the U.S.S. Plymouth, Houston. I repeat, we have a problem. Colony Alpha has apparently already been claimed."
Eden glanced sharply at the captain. "This is a scenario we considered, Ivy."
Ivy's dark eyes narrowed. "It was only considered a very remote possibility and you know it, Eden. No one, even you, expected to find signs of intelligent life. They could be hostile."
"And they might not be!" Eden retorted.
"I still have to file a report. Houston might want to abort the mission."
A cynical smile curled Eden's lips. "You're not serious? After all the time and money that went into this project? They'll expect us to proceed as planned, and you damn well know it."
Ivy frowned. "I can't authorize a landing until I file a full report with Houston and get a go."
Eden planted her hands on her hips and turned to face the ship's captain. "You're not in charge of the colonization project, only the ship. The decision to proceed, or abort, is mine."