"Are you going to be okay, sir?"
"I'll be fine, Commander," Laramie Kinnison said, as she walked through the deserted ship's bridge. "Just give me a moment to say goodbye. This is. . . harder than I'd anticipated."
Commander Jacob Meyers nodded. "I'll have Engineering wait until you've disembarked before they flip the switch. Take as much time as you need, sir."
"Thank you, Commander." The steel-haired woman smiled at the younger officer. "It's been a pleasure serving with you, Jake. I let Captain Lieu know that the Concordia is getting the best first officer in the fleet. He's a good man, he'll take good care of you."
"The pleasure has been all mine, Captain." Commander Meyers snapped to attention and gave Laramie his sharpest, most military salute. Kinnison returned it in kind, the salute of one warrior to another. The younger officer did a crisp about face and left the bridge. The door hissed shut behind him, leaving Kinnison alone with her thoughts and the ghost of her past.
She ran her hand along the back of the captain's chair that had been her throne for the past two years, then moved up to the assistant navigator's position that had been the first duty station of then-midshipman Laramie Kinnison, fresh out of Cape Canaveral and ready for the adventure of a lifetime. The ship had been called "Earth's Hope," a hastily-cobbled together vessel crafted from two decommissioned nuclear submarines and a surplus colony module, giving her an odd dish-and-nacelle appearance that had wags dubbing her the "Starship Enterprise." There had been more joking at its stated mission: the exploration of the galaxy, the discovery of new worlds, to make first contact with other galactic civilizations, to go without fear where no human had even been.
Its hyperdrive, so slow and bulky by modern warp drive standards, had seemed so advanced at the time, its weak sensors had seemed a miracle of engineering. She still remembered the thrill the first time she had worn Alliance blues, the excitement of hearing Captain Finch say in his laconic English accent, "Take us out of orbit, helm, and let's see what's out there."
Their early missions had consisted of simple surveys of anomalous readings on the Arcean-provided starmap. There had been tragedies, of course: crewman Jennings had been lost when a derelict spacecraft came online and the radiation surge from its unshielded reactor had killed him instantly. Victoria Wong had died slowly over a period of days after a Precursor nanomachine had somehow gotten into her bloodstream and torn her apart from the inside out. There was the crew of Shuttlecraft 17, who had failed to outrace a meteor shower that hulled their ship as the crew of the Hope watched in horror.
There had also been lighter moments. Making first contact with the Snathi, a race of tiny squirrel-like mammals big on talk but not exactly credible in their threats. Watching Captain Finch's nonplussed reaction at a Torian ambassador's odd turns of speech. The time that Harris had snuck a personal cloaking device from the lab and no female officer would take a shower without first flinging towels into corners to check for invisible perverts. And then there had been the lucky penny, which Captain Finch had found in the wreck of a precursor vessel, and given to her, calling it, "The finest treasure I've ever encountered in my many years of space exploration."
It had all changed, though, when they'd stumbled across the wormhole. It had flung them all the way across the galaxy, many months from home. On their way back at minimal power and with nonessential systems shut down to preserve life support, they had encountered a Drengin scout that had immediately taken their unarmed ship captive. Over the next two weeks, they had tortured (and in some cases eaten) the members of the crew, extracting from them the location of Earth and its secrets. Captain Finch had died there, as had the other members of the senior crew, leaving then-Lieutenant Kinnison in command. There had been a daring escape and a bitter fight to recapture the Hope, and then a desperate, months-long game of cat-and-mouse with Drengin patrols to get back home. By the time they had arrived at the colony world of Angel, war had been declared, and the Terran Alliance was in a fight for its survival against the Drengin hordes.
It would not fight alone. The Altarians had thrown in their towel with the Terrans, as had the Arceans, but even the combined might of these three nations were no match for the Drengin. The Arceans would fall first, and then Drengin attack fleets would turn towards Earth. There would be losses. Colonies would be conquered and their populations butchered or enslaved. There would be battles in which dozens of ships were killed, hundreds of crew hurled into space, ground wars involving millions of deaths on either side.
But Terra would fight back. They would show the Drengin, as the Germans had learned from the Americans in World War II, just how devastating an economic superpower could be when that wealth was turned towards the practice of war. Key to their war effort would be the Hope, now refitted into a "Victory-Class" heavy cruiser, armed with paired fifth-generation lasers and the most advanced Impulse drives available. Swift and deadly, fleets of these Victory-Class destroyers would strike back deep into Drengin territory, fighting long, terrible battles against Drengin frigates and corvettes. There would be names that would echo throughout the histories of the Earth-Drengin Wars: TAS Fury, TAS Arcadia, TAS Vincennes.
But the most famous would always be the Hope.
Years of exploration and strange discoveries had altered her to the point where she was scarcely recognizable. Her hull was four times as powerful as a standard Victory-Class Cruiser. Her crew, seasoned and efficient from their long years of exploration, were legendary, as was her captain, a much younger Captain Laramie Kinnison. In engagement after engagement, she would fight against long odds, often emerging as the sole survivor of a bitter engagement, her hull pockmarked and battered, her crew bloodied and torn, but never giving up the ghost. She was legend.
It was whispered on the streets that so long as Earth still had Hope, the Alliance would never fall. Certainly, the Navy seemed to believe it. Her escorts had a survival rate that was. . . less than optimal. . . but there was never a shortage of volunteers to fly on her wing. There had been times when it seemed as if she must fall: a particularly vicious battle between fleets of Drengin frigates and Terran Victory-class ships came to mind, when she'd been blasted down to a mere sliver of structural integrity and three fleets of cruisers had sacrificed themselves in a delaying action to allow her to escape. But she had survived. She had returned to battle stronger than before as a Mark II Victory class cruiser, heavily armored against Drengin mass drivers, her new more advanced plasma cannons and warp drives making her even faster and deadlier than before.
She would meet her nemesis shortly after, in a Drengin Ranger-class precursor vessel whom the Terrans nicknamed the "Monkey's Paw," a deadly ship using ancient technology given the sole mission of hunting down and destroying the tiny ship that had been such a thorn in the Drengin's side. There would be long running engagements in which the Hope and her escorts would drive the Monkey's Paw back from the assault vessels dropping their troops on Drengin homeworlds, battles in which escort after escort would be lost, but would bloody the nose of the Monkey's Paw badly enough to force it to retreat. Ironically enough, the Hope herself would never be allowed to engage the ship that hounded her so: the Paw was just too powerful to risk losing the pride of Earth's military. Kinnison understood the logic, for the loss of Earth's flagship would be a devastating blow to morale, but it was still hard to watch so many escort cruisers dying from the Paw's devastating batteries of mass drivers, so hard to resist chasing down that immense precursor vessel as it limped away from yet another battle. In the end, Hope would never fire a shot against the Monkey's Paw: the coup de grace would not come from a Victory-Class cruiser, but Earth's very own Ranger-class ship: the "Lucky Ranger."
It was a sign of the end for the Hope. Already, the Victory-Class was being outmatched by the new Marathon-Class battleships coming off the docks at Terra Shipyards. The cruisers that had fought for so much of the war would be relegated to escort duty for the newer, larger battleships that would finish the job of crushing the Drengin. Even then, the losses amongst the small cruisers against the newer Drengin ships were so severe that the Terran Senate ordered Earth's Hope reassigned to rear guard duty so as to not risk losing her in battle. The battered old warrior that had fought for so long would not be there when the Terran warships first invaded the Drengi system. But she would have one last hurrah, escorting in the fleet of troop transports that would finish the job of capturing the Drengin homeworld and ending the war.
There would be other wars, against the Yor and the Krynn, but the Earth's Hope would never again fire her weapons in anger. Terran military doctrine was being redefined: expeditionary fleets would now consist of a small unit of larger battleships (and later, superdreadnaughts), while planetary defense forces would be made up of dozens of tiny but heavily-armed Wasp defense fighters. There was no place for the cruiser in Terran military doctrine and one by one, the valiant Victory-class cruisers were mothballed or scrapped. Earth's Hope and Commodore Laramie Kinnison would be reassigned to the Terran defense fleet, watching over the homeworld she had served so well for so long.
And now, even that was done. Maintaining the Earth's Hope at full combat readiness had become far too expensive, and its highly experienced crew were deemed too valuable to be allowed to languish on the back lines. Despite her protests, Laramie had been promoted to Admiral, in command of Earth's new flagship: the powerful superdreadnaught-class Earth's Hope 2. It was larger, faster, more powerful, and more heavily armored than the Hope, a truly modern marvel of military engineering. But she knew that it would never hold the same place in her heart. Once she left the ship, the museum engineers would shut down her systems, relocated her to her place of honor at the Drengin War Memorial, and convert her into a museum ship, a silent monument to those who had fought and died in that war.
But first, there was one last thing to do. Laramie reached under the assistant navigator's console, pulled off a small access panel, and peeled off the tape on its back. A battered, ancient coin fell into her hand. She smiled at the memory as she flipped it, caught it deftly out of the air, and slipped it in her uniform breast pocket. "Finest treasure in the galaxy," she said to herself. "Wasn't going to leave this behind."
She turned out the lights herself before she left. One last salute to the darkened bridge, and the door closed on the career of an illustrious ship, and on a chapter of human history.