Those were the last words that Captain Navaso spoke before she went into exile, breaking from the Unified Colonies, along with 899 loyal members of her colony.
“Okay, okay, so the story goes, this king sent his daughter over the sea to a distant land to secure an alliance with a country that was formerly their enemy. And with her, he sent gifts and such.”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know if these people did dowries. Anyway, the gifts included the usual stuff you’d expect, precious metals and precious stones, coins, and jewels. And the one big gift, the real gift, you might say. A crown made for the prince, and set with a very special one-of-a-kind jewel. A jewel that was sent by the heavens. A jewel that could shine without sunlight. But this king had angered the gods, so they ordered the sea fairies to destroy the ship and drown the king’s daughter—“
The newly appointed Captain Dorus gazed at his new crew, each one interviewed and hand-picked by him. The not-so-hotshot pilot, Orson, who retired early after she was nearly killed flying into a star during a practice maneuver. The experienced engineer, Rekha, whose tendency to tinker a little too much got her booted off the first four ships she was assigned to. A doctor, Shade, who had no specialty because she kept getting distracted by new discoveries. And the actor, Kellu, whose purpose there no one—including himself—quite understood.
The Shifting Night Anomaly was so called at first because its margins seemed to change every so often, making it difficult, if not impossible, to map. We had sent probe after probe inside for three generations. Out of the near thousand probes that were deployed, only forty-seven were recovered. The more we learned about the anomaly, the more we realized how fitting the name was. There were no systems and no stars within, only remnants of dead worlds. Only strange and exotic gases. Only nebulas haunted by the ghosts of stars that flickered and faded before they could burst into life.
We are not deserters. We are not thieves. But we have been named as such by the imperial navy. We are hunted by the ships we once called our allies. The empress gave our captain a precious treasure as a gift. It was but a gesture. In truth, the treasure belongs to the empire, as all things do. Our captain has taken it.
The warship Mynotragon.
In the year 2025, humanity received an answer to one of its most fundamental questions: “Are we alone in the universe?”
Only one thousand standard years later, unnoticeable and unfathomable to the greatly aged cosmos, a galactic alliance was formed, a coalition of inhabited worlds bound together in cooperation, friendship, and mutual progress. The Grand Unified Milky Way. The G.U.M. was protected by the Milky Way Planetary Rangers, whose members hailed from every planet in the alliance, and whose mission was to patrol within and outside the borders of their home, the galaxy the Earth humans charmingly named the Milky Way.
“Captain!” Marlowe yelled out. The coils of the grasping tentacle slid past each other, tightening their grip around Santi’s waist.
That was when I knew. In the midst of chaos, with half the crew—swords and daggers drawn—converging on the barrel where Santi had been hiding, with the ship trapped in the grip of a whirlpool, with the hull shattering from the force of those monstrous tentacles, when I heard Marlowe speak that word, that was when I knew that all my suspicions were true.
His person was bare of any adornment save the many rings that he wore on his fingers, and when he folded those fingers together and laid them on the table, the stones upon the rings aligned as if they were the very planets in my home system.
“They were worlds once,” the man, the merchant, said, locking me in a gaze that seemed to vibrate from his carnelian-colored eyes, “before they fell into decay, and then just…fell.”
I wondered what value there was in dead worlds.