The fuzzy orb of light in the center of the viewport shattered into billions of tiny, glowing specks like a storm of glass. Some stars zipped past the ship, while others sopped suddenly, taking their places at the far ends of the galaxy.

Syltavia Enturan’s entire body jostled and jerked in its restraints. A few strands of long, brown hair fluttered past her face. Pulling out of speeds that light itself can’t even keep up with was always jarring.

The World Wanderer—a 200-mile long, 50-mile wide colonizing vessel—slowed to a crawl, and Syltavia loosened the restraints that pinned her to the copilot’s chair. The restraints were necessary at the front of the ship, but in the middle where the passengers were, the artificial gravity adjusted to keep them all from being flung around.

The captain, Doss Weavon, unclipped his restraints as well and shrugged them off his body. He was an ugly fellow, with a crooked nose, a scar dangerously close to his left eye, and a permanent scowl that made it so one could never know if her was being serious or telling a joke. His personality wasn’t much prettier than his complexion, so it was generally assumed that Doss was being serious when he spoke.

Syltavia clipped her hair back under her hat, a navy, short-billed atrocity that everyone in her station was forced to wear. Most copilots were able to take their hats off during a flight, since nobody would even see them. With Doss, however, rules were strictly adhered to, and that included wearing her uniform, hat included.

“I don’t see nothing here,” muttered Doss from his high-backed captain’s chair.

Syltavia looked around through the viewport. Nothing but the blackness of space. Little dots of light flickered all around, too many light years away to even consider visiting. Besides, if those stars were anything like her home solar system, they were already teaming with life forms that refused to make room for anyone else. She shook her head. That’s why they were out in this black pit of nowhere in the first place; with nowhere in their whole galaxy to expand, the Emperor ordered expansion into the far reaches of the universe. The journey this far had been long and boring; the company was far from pleasant.

The passengers—refugees, really—weren’t allowed in or even near the cockpit. Not like they would want to; they had all the amenities they could ask for in the bowels of this behemoth. Parks, sports, famous holo-casts from back home…there was no need to inquire after the captain and his first mate.

“Check the scanners, would you?” Doss glared at Syltavia out of the corner of his eye, head tilted slightly so as to see her over his bent nose.

“Sir,” was Syltavia’s dull reply.

She pushed a button and activated the sensor array atop the massive Catamaran-class ship. Hundreds of sensors buzzed to life across metal craft. A rainbow of colors appeared over the display, the traditional warm up before gathering data from outside the ship. A few seconds later, a green light flashed above the screen, indicating the sensors had finished their job. The screen showed a plethora of blackness.

“Nothing’s here, sir,” said Syltavia.

“Star scat,” Doss cursed. “Check the coordinates.”

Syltavia sighed, but double-checked their location with the coordinates sent to them from the Emperor’s intelligence network. “We’re right where we should be,” Syltavia said, leaning back in her seat. All that time spent traveling and for what? Dead space? She massaged her temples with her fingers. “What now?”

“We head to the rendezvous,” said Doss.

No point lingering around here anyway, thought Syltavia. “I’ll input the new coordinates.”

Syltavia punched in some numbers in the main console, and then began to move the lumbering ship around to point towards their next target. Hopefully their planet hasn’t gone missing in that quadrant.

As the World Wanderer turned, a large, round object filled the viewport.

Syltavia sat up in her chair. “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

Doss grunted. “How’d you miss that?”

Syltavia rolled her eyes, careful not to let her captain see. “The sensors gave no reading. They must be damaged…”

Doss leaned over and tapped on one of the screens near sensor readout. Instantly, the display for the sensors came to life, and there, a large, blinking orb near the center of the display, was the planet.

Syltavia wanted to sink down into her chair and become invisible. How had she forgotten to deactivate the protective screens from overtop of the sensors? The screens were always active during hyper-light travel, just in case some stray dust or debris came in contact with it. Those sensors were expensive, and the last thing they needed was to be blind in space after pulling out of their jump.

Not that it helped me any…

“There she is,” whistled Doss, apparently forgetting all about Syltavia’s blunder. “If all goes well, this will be our new home.” He turned to Syltavia. “What do you think?”

Syltavia stared at the blue-green ball that was the planet. After finding four other planets that were already occupied or unsuitable for life, she didn’t have much hope. Still, there had to be some planet out there that hadn’t already been colonized. “Don’t know yet. We still don’t know if it’s habitable.”

“Then we’d best send out our scouts.” Doss flipped a switch, activating the comms to the entire ship. “Ladies and gentlemen of the World Wanderer. We have arrived.”

Even from within the confines of the cockpit at the front of the ship, Syltavia could hear the roar of cheers from the hundred million people within the ship’s hull. By the sounds of it, the people were just as ready to be done with this voyage as Syltavia, and they even had luxuries not afforded to her.

“Before you celebrate too much,” Doss continued into the ship’s comms, “we still need to scout the planet for hostiles, breathable atmosphere…well, you know the drill. So hang tight, all of you. But with any luck, this is your new home, so might I suggest packing up and get ready to disembark.”

Syltavia looked at Doss with hard eyes. “You could be giving them a lot of false hope, you know.”

Doss gave a rare chuckle. “Any hope is better than none at all. Besides, I need our scouts and scientists to get prepped for their mission, and who in outer darkness knows where they are by now! Surely they’ll have heard the announcement.”

Syltavia smiled despite herself. Doss was a grumpy old man—there was no denying that—but he still had his moments.

“Now,” said Doss, “let’s get this floating zoo into orbit.”

 

*****

 

Syltavia checked the chronoscope. It had been approximately one full standard rotation—maybe even two—since the three scout ships had undocked and made their way down to the planet’s surface. Syltavia wondered what they would find there.

Communications from the surface were sparse. Word came to her and Doss when the ships landed, and when the crew had finally exited their ships to begin their explorations. It seemed that the air was breathable, so that was a good start. Now the scientists would take soil samples to determine how well crops would grow, the soldiers would fly around in their skiffs searching for other civilizations, and the Emperor’s appointed Voice would make the ultimate decision if this planet was indeed fit to be part of the Empire.

“Want a drink?”

Syltavia jumped in her seat, snapping back into the present. Doss pulled out a bottle of some sort of beverage—alcohol, most likely.

“I’m fine. Thanks.”

“Come now,” pushed Doss. “It’s been a long trip. Your spirits could use a little upliftment.” The captain poured himself a glass, looked at the bottle, and then took a long swig right from the container.

Syltavia grimaced. “Thanks, but I don’t want my judgment clouded before we know what’s going on.”

“Nonsense!” said Doss. “What could possibly happen? We’re in orbit, safely away from anything nasty down below.”

“What about Mancastovar?”

“Pah,” scoffed Doss. “We knew that planet was already occupied by the satellites orbiting around her. That’s why I didn’t drink! I could tell there might be a problem. Sixth sense, you know. But here? Nothing. The sky is ours, which means if there are any locals, our tech far surpasses their own. We have nothing to worry about.”

“That’s very confident of you.”

Doss held up the glass to her, but Syltavia shook her head.

“Suit yourself,” said Doss, and he emptied the contents of the cup into his mouth.

Time passed slowly for Syltavia, but Doss seemed to be enjoying himself more and more with every minute. Finally, after nearly finishing the entire bottle, he got up from his chair.

“If you don’t mind, I’m off to take a nap.”

Without waiting for Syltavia’s permission—not that he would need it—he left the cockpit, slid the door shut behind him, and Syltavia was left to herself.

She slumped back in her chair and sighed, tossing her hat to the floor beside her. “I wish he wouldn’t do that,” she said to herself.

She stood up and walked around the cockpit, checking the scopes occasionally and making sure the comms system was still functioning. Everything was running as it should.

Home One to World Wanderer,” came a voice garbled in static. “Come in, Wanderer.”

Syltavia looked around, but Doss was gone. It was just her now. The scouts were calling her.

“This is the Wanderer,” she said aloud, voice calm and composed.

“We have conducted our search and tested the area, as have the others. The atmosphere is strong and stable, and the ground is fit for crops and livestock. There are rich amounts of resources on which to subsist, including plenty of fuel sources we can use to power our ships, making this a prime hub for future exploration. There are no other colonies within the range of our sensors, and we do not think that there are any present at all. The Emperor’s Voice has given his approval. You may send word to the fleet that we have room enough here for three more Catamarans and their passengers, plus room to grow. Begin deploying landing craft at your earliest convenience. We will set up beacons for them to home in on.”

Syltavia smiled. “Copy that. We’ll have our first settlers down to you in approximately two hours. Wanderer out.” She deactivated the comms and jumped for joy.

This was it! Finally, after years of hunting for a place to expand, they had found one. Perhaps now Fleet Command would give her a promotion, or give her a ship of her own!

She forced her elated thoughts just below the surface of her emotions and dialed in to the main hangar. “This is First Officer Enturan. We have just received word that the planet below is habitable, and we are to begin colonizing immediately. Prepare your shuttles for departure. I will announce the news to the passengers momentarily.”

“It will be done right away, sir!” came the jubilant reply from the deck officer.

Syltavia pressed another button, activating the comms to the rest of the ship.

“Attention passengers of the World Wanderer. This is First Officer Enturan. Effective immediately, we are to begin our descent to the planet below to begin colonizing our new home.”

Cheers. Adulation. The ship roared to life with the celebrations of the millions of passengers. Syltavia couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. This was it. They were finally finishing their long journey.

They were home.

A red light flashed on the console, accompanied by a shrill beeping. Curious, Syltavia looked at what was causing the alert. The monitor showed a large mass heading towards them. Slowly, the outline of a large vessel—nearly the size of the Wanderer itself—appeared on the display. The design was unlike anything she had ever seen before. Whatever it was, it wasn’t from the Empire.

She called up the captain’s quarters, but no response came from the apparently passed out captain. She bolted out of the cockpit and pounded on the captain’s door.

“Captain! We have incoming!”

No response.

“Doss! Get up, will you?”

Syltavia punched in a string of numbers on the keypad next to the door and it slid open. “Doss!” she yelled, barging into the captain’s room. “Doss, we have an unidentified ship approaching. Get up!”

The captain mumbled something about New Sephonia—the last planet they had scouted—and rolled over, snoring. Syltavia threw her hands in the air.

Scrat!

She punched the captain in the arm, but he was too far-gone to wake from it. Even if he did wake up now, he was clearly not sober enough to deal with this potential threat.

Syltavia rushed back into the cockpit. The incoming ship was still a fair distance away, and it seemed to be moving out of the Wanderer’s path. Syltavia locked on to the new ship and hailed it.

“This is First Officer Enturan of the World Wanderer. You are entering restricted space. Transmit identification immediately.”

The silence from the radio was broken by waves of static. The new ship was either not connected to the traditional wavelengths used for ship-to-ship communications, or it was ignoring her completely.

Syltavia could only assume it was the latter.

The new ship stopped its approach near the Wanderer, yet far enough away that her built-in laser turrets wouldn’t cause any damage to it. Not that they were used for combat to begin with. The Wanderer only had lasers turrets to assist in blowing away any objects—such as asteroids—that came too close. They would be useless in a firefight.

“Repeat, this is—”

Static erupted from the comms speaker. It was apparent now that the new arrival didn’t want to hear anything else, which meant it didn’t care who was staking claim to this planet.

Syltavia flagged the ship as hostile on the scanners right before the red light flashed again. The display showed a pod of five small ships leaving their mother ship, but they didn’t head towards the planet; it was a show of force, suggesting that they were willing to fight their way through if need be. Sending out so few also insinuated that they intended on hiding their numbers. The rest of the fleet was too far out to be of any help to Syltavia in this situation. It was up to her to get them out of this mess while still staking claim to the planet. But how?

If only Doss hadn’t gone and liquored himself up. He was as good as useless to her at this point. He might as well have not even come on this voyage for all the good he was now. She looked at the display. Why aren’t they sending out more ships, or heading planet side? The five unidentified ships circled their mother ship, but didn’t venture far from her side. It’s a defensive formation. They think I might attack! She didn’t need to defeat this new threat after all; she just needed to keep them occupied until more help came.

Syltavia toggled the comms. “Fleet Command, this is First Officer Enturan of the World Wanderer. We have arrived at sector 5-CA, coordinates FN-1P-XR. The planet is approved by the Voice.”

“That is excellent news!” came the overly cheery reply of Fleet Command’s comms operator.

Syltavia ignored him. “One hostile ship has made orbit alongside us before we could unload our passengers. They have fighters flying escort. Requesting backup immediately.”

“Copy that, World Wanderer. Assistance is on its way.”

“How long before you arrive?”

“Approximately half a standard rotation.”

Scrat.

Perhaps she could stall the other ship long enough. If nothing else, Fleet Command could fight for the planet’s control once they arrived. A green light lit up on the console. Oh, star scat!

Scopes showed one of their own massive landing craft propelling forward from one of the docking bays. It moved slowly towards the planet. Even from the Wanderer, the sheer size of those shuttles was impressive. That one shuttle alone contained a small city’s worth of people. Syltavia noticed the five, smaller red craft on her display begin moving towards the shuttle.

She activated the comms once again. “Scramble fighters! We have hostiles!”

“Roger,” was the only reply, but no matter how quickly they worked to get escorts out to the shuttle, it was too late. The enemy craft approached at unparalleled speed, and before the first fighter could leave the Wanderer, the shuttle full of colonials blasted apart. Debris peeled off from the ship, and the shuttle listed lifelessly towards the planet and its atmosphere.

“Do not launch any more shuttles!” Syltavia shouted into the comms. “They won’t get through!” Those landing craft carried nearly a million passengers each, people excited for their new home; a home they would never see. Anger boiled up inside of Syltavia.

Those murderers will pay for this.

But what could she do against a hostile ship when all she had at her disposal were a few escort fighters and debris lasers? She looked down at the sensor display; the opposing ship held its position. Why would it attack, but not make motions to land on the planet? Why would it send out fighters but not landing craft? Was it just trying to keep the Wanderer from sending out landing parties? If so, why did it care so much?

She pushed back her hair that hung in front of her face. He mind raced. Why did the Emperor want the planet? That answer was simple: they had run out of room and needed a new world on which to expand. Could this new ship be part of another expansion team from some unknown empire? They were close to the edge of uncharted space, after all. But if so, why not try and get down to the surface first?

Syltavia’s scopes flashed as fighter after fighter emptied out of the hangar and headed towards the enemy. Why did that ship only send out five fighters instead of unleashing everything at us at once? Perhaps it was testing them. Perhaps it wanted to know how big of a threat they were.

Or maybe because it’s waiting for backup.

Isn’t that what Syltavia was doing? Trying to stall long enough for help to arrive? With any luck, her backup would arrive first, but she couldn’t be certain. She needed to act quickly in order to get her people to the surface before more of the enemy arrived. Without time to think things through properly, Syltavia put a plan into motion.

She spoke into the comms once again. “How many fighters do you have ready for action?” Her voice didn’t waver. She was calm, composed, and knew that if she wasn’t, everyone acting underneath her would begin to fear. Fear would lead to their failure, and that she would not have.

“Only fifty, sir,” came the deck officer’s reply.

Scrat. For a cruiser as large as the Wanderer, fifty was practically nothing. But then again, they were supposed to retreat should things get dangerous. With scouting crews on the surface of a habitable planet, retreat wasn’t an option. They needed this planet, and she wouldn’t abandon her people to whatever creatures these beings were.

“Send half,” said Syltavia. “And call back those already deployed immediately. Do not attack the enemy just yet.”

“Yes, sir.”

Obedient, that one. That was good. She would need quick underlings if this were to work out.

“Once your twenty five fighters are deployed, have them approach the enemy mother ship as one unit. Harry the ship on its far side. I am not concerned about destroying it. Just keep it and her fighters occupied. Have ready every landing craft available to be deployed on my mark.”

“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”

Syltavia sat down in the tall-backed captain’s chair and watched as a swarm of fighters exit the Wanderer both on the display and through the viewport. The display showed the twenty-five fighters approach the enemy mother ship within minutes. In the distance, red laser blasts lit up the blackness of space.

Here we go…

“Deck officer, deploy the shuttles! Have them head for the planet immediately. We need them to land as close to the beacons as possible. If any enemy fighters break off from protecting their mother ship to attack the shuttles, you follow them and protect these landing craft at all cost!”

“Understood, sir!”

The first landing shuttle left the Wanderer within a few minutes. Syltavia nodded her head in appreciation to Doss for telling the passengers to ready themselves well in advance; otherwise this whole plan would be star scat in a supernova.

At least he did something before passing out.

Shuttle after shuttle exited the massive ship from her multitude of hangar bays. In no time there were dozens of shuttles moving as fast as their engines would allow towards the planet. Usually the shuttles approached on their own, so as to avoid any accidental contact on the way in. As it was, the situation did not allow for such luxuries.

“Deck officer, deploy your remaining fighters. Have them patrol near the mother ship’s perimeter on the near side. Do not let any of their fighters through. Chase if you must. But under no condition will you allow our transports to be attacked!”

“Consider it done, sir!” By his acknowledgments, the deck officer was beginning to take his job more seriously. This could very well be his last job in that title, so it was about time he worked for his pay.

Syltavia watched the sensor display, chewing the nails on her fingers one by one. This had to work. Countless lives rested on this single gambit; what other choice did she have? The enemy ships didn’t seem to realize that Syltavia was sending shuttles to the surface—either that or her fighters were doing their job in keeping the enemy at bay. There were more enemy fighters on the radar now, and it looked as if a full-fledged skirmish had broken out near the opposing ship.

Just keep them occupied…

One of the enemy fighters crossed through the line of her fighters on the radar. They finally realized what she was doing. Let them come. Syltavia pursed her lips as she engaged the Wanderer’s ginormous engines.

“Man the turrets!” she called into the comms speaker. “We’re about to make a whole lot of debris!”

Sluggishly slow—as only a ship carrying millions upon millions of people can be—the Wanderer crept closer to the oncoming enemy fighters, as well as her own landing shuttles. Blood-red laser blasts erupted from a nearby fighter, striking a transport across the length of its hull. Even from this distance, Syltavia could see the oxygen—and people—pouring out into the empty vacuum that surrounded them. Before the fighter could find another shuttle to target, one of the Wanderer’s escort fighters picked it off, sending it into the shuttle it had just disabled, ripping an even bigger hole in its side.

Hundreds of shuttles now swarmed towards the planet, its green and blue hues promising safety from the battle above. Dozens—perhaps even a hundred—of fighters swarmed the shuttles, some firing at them, others being fired upon. More than a few shuttles burned into oblivion.

We’re being slaughtered. Finally, after an eternity of slogging towards the fleeing shuttles, the Wanderer was in range of the enemy fighters. “Open fire!” shouted Syltavia.

Laser turrets—both above and below the ship—let loose with a barrage of crimson lasers. Enemy fighters thought twice about focusing on the shuttles and began taking evasive maneuvers. While this made it difficult for the Wanderer’s fighters to make a shot, it left the shuttles clear for a welcome reprieve, if only briefly. The first shuttle entered the atmosphere, flames licking its hull as it sped downward.

Only a few hundred million more people to save, thought Syltavia.

Her Catamaran-class vessel continued to fire upon the other massive vessel. The enemy didn’t yet realize how insignificant her blasts were; at least it was a good distraction. More and more shuttles made their way safely into the planet’s atmosphere, while enemy fighters lingered above, trying to stop any more from making it planet side.

Syltavia watched as her fighters traded kills with the enemy. Soon all but a few of the shuttles had made their entry. It was a miracle. The few fighters that remained of the enemy focused more on staying alive than stopping the shuttles. The Wanderer’s laser turrets had done well in their diversion; only a dozen shuttles remained, and it looked like they would make it safely to their new home.

Syltavia cursed as her display blinked red and beeped incessantly. More ships had just pulled out of hyper-light travel, and they most certainly weren’t from her emperor’s fleet. Five new ships emerged from behind the original mother ship, each about half the size of the Wanderer. But with that many ships, Syltavia knew she wouldn’t stand a chance.

We just have to hold them off until our people are safe on the surface. Safe for the moment, at least. With grim determination, Syltavia angled the Wanderer towards the enemy fleet.

“Prepare to unload everything you have on these star scatters,” she said to her turret operators through the comms. “We just have to buy those shuttles a little extra time.”

No response came through, but the line was still open and she could hear the faint sounds of turret blasts escaping their confines. She had good men under her. She cut the thrusters on the Wanderer and the bulky ship stopped its forward progression. The enemy fleet closed in on her position, and in a few minutes more they would be in firing range.

“We may not get out of this alive, you know.” She spoke softly into the comms.

After a moment of silence, a voice surrounded in static came through her speaker. “We understand, sir.”

Syltavia nodded. These people knew the dangers when they signed up. They were willing to die in order to protect their people.

“You have saved countless lives this day,” Syltavia said, setting her jaw in order to avoid sounding emotional before issuing her last command. “But there are more lives to save, and retreat is not an option. It has been an honor serving with you all.”

Static silence buzzed through the speaker. The door to the cockpit opened.

“What in the darkest depths of space is going on?” Doss was awake, and he didn’t seem happy. He staggered in, eyes widening as he looked out the viewport. “What have you done!”

“I’ve saved our people.” The sensor display beeped. Then, into the comms, she ordered, “Concentrate all fire on the mother ship!” The Wanderer’s turrets blazed with light as the last of the transports neared the planet’s atmosphere. They were almost home free. A green light flashed on the display. The Empire’s fleet had finally arrived.

But they were too late.

The Wanderer, that massive ship that once housed a hundreds of millions of people, shook as it ripped apart by deadly laser bolts, cutting through the fragile hull as if it were cutting through air. Laser blasts from the Wanderer died down as turrets blew apart, killing the operators within. Syltavia watched a lifeless corpse float past her viewport.

The blinding lights of death pierced closer and closer. Syltavia watched as the last shuttle burned through the planet’s atmosphere, escaping the firefight above and entering the safe embrace of the planet below.

It was finished. Her passengers—the billion people that would now populate this new world—were safe.

Syltavia fell out of the captain’s chair as a blast of red light penetrated the viewport, releasing the stored oxygen into the cold, dark nothingness before her. Holding on to the chair as the vacuum of space inhaled, trying desperately to suck her out, Syltavia closed her eyes and took one last breath.

At least they’re safe now.

Syltavia’s grip weakened until the force of the vacuum ripped her from the cockpit. As the last vestiges of oxygen left Syltavia’s ship and she floated lifeless through an endless void, the Imperial fleet arrived, pounding the enemy with their host of munitions, driving the unknown fleet back.

From the planet’s surface, the survivors watched as debris from the Wanderer burned up in the atmosphere, showering the new world with a show of fire.

 

 

 

THE END

 

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