Prologue
The Stargazer

Location: Outer Rim of the Jovian Sphere
Date: Fri 13 May 096
Time: UST 0518

The Stargazer was one of the largest cruiseliners ever built and a perennial favorite of the vacationing rich and famous. It was on its way back to Earth after its passengers had indulged in a week-long stay at the resorts of Ganymede. In keeping with its name, the ship boasted four expansive observation decks for its passengers to soak up the beauty of the sea of stars. The Stargazer made a tradition of spending a day at both the beginning and end of its voyages cruising at a leisurely pace for that express purpose. In several hours, the ship would head for the hyperspace gates that would take it home, but for the time being, the passengers could enjoy the last few moments of their vacation.
Some passengers, however, were not so obsessed with maximizing their leisure time. In one of the staterooms, a young boy not even four years old slept peacefully in an oversized bed. In a chair at the bedside, the boy's caretaker, a young woman still in her teens, had dozed off as well. By looking at the two of them, no one would imagine the chaos that would soon engulf their world.
The whole ship shook violently, waking the two of them instantly. The child, who had not yet learned the meaning of danger, did not act with his caretaker's urgency, lazily rubbing his eyes as he sat up. The ship was rocked by two more violent blows in quick succession. For a moment, everything went pitch black, causing the child to cry out in fright. The emergency lights kicked in after a few seconds, filling the interior of the ship with a dull red glow. As both the child and his caretaker looked around in bewilderment, an automated voice delivered instructions over the blaring alarms that echoed in the corridors.
"Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. Please move toward the designated evacuation point for your level. Remain calm and you will be evacuated in an orderly fashion."
After a brief pause, the message repeated itself, part of an indefinite loop. Although the child could not discern the significance of the events around him, his caretaker responded with a level-headed composure that belied her years. She picked up the child in spite of his protests and carried him outside the room. The ship shook again shortly after they entered the corridor, but the young woman did not allow fear to take hold of her. She followed the lights running along the floor, surprised to encounter so few people along the way. Another rocking of the ship nearly caused her to fall, but she narrowly managed to stay on her feet and continued toward the evacuation point.
Even though the child lacked the ability to assess the situation through reason, the noise, the red lights, the rocking of the ship, and the uncharacteristic demeanor of his caretaker were enough to ignite his rudimentary sense of fear. He began to bawl loudly and would not be quieted by his caretaker's attempts to calm him. Fortunately for both of them, his surrender to fear did not delay their arrival at the evacuation point.
Each evacuation point held eight six-man pods and two had already been jettisoned at this one. A few people were lined up to enter the pod on the far right when they arrived. As soon as the two approached, one of the people, a crewmember by the look of his uniform, eyed them with no small measure of hostility.
"All the other pods at this point've been shorted out," he said. "There're five of us here already. You're just gonna have to find yourself another point."
His lack of manners was hardly appropriate for the staff of a luxury cruiseliner of the Stargazer's caliber. However, the child's caretaker was not concerned about etiquette at this point. The next evacuation point was nearly fifty meters away and she was not willing to leave without a few answers at least.
"What's happening?" she asked the crewman.
"Isn't it obvious!? We're under attack!"
"What do you mean? By who?"
"Beats the hell outta me," the crewman replied bluntly. "Pirates, separatists, who gives a damn? All I know is that they've already punched a buncha holes in this tub. There's no way the Navy'll get here in time to save it, so I'm bailin' while I can."
As a passenger, she knew that both she and her charge had precedence when it came to evacuation. Nevertheless, she could tell by looking in the crewman's eyes that he would easily kill the two of them before giving up his spot in the pod. The ship was rocked once again, much more violently that any of the previous times.
"Shit," the crewman cursed, "that one nearly hit the reactor... Oh, man, she's so screwed... Another hit like that and she's toast..." He then shouted to the woman in front of him. "Hey, lady! Light a fire under yer ass! We've gotta get the hell outta this mother!"
The boy's caretaker knew there was only one thing she could do. She thrust the child into the unsuspecting arms of the crewman.
"Wh-what the hell?" the crewman sputtered. "Why the hell are you givin' me this damn kid!?"
"You said there were five of you, right? That makes six."
"Whoa there, babe," he said, holding the child as if he were a canister of toxic waste. "I don't wanna share my pod with this kid. Take him to the next evac point."
"There's no time," she insisted. "You said it yourself, one more hit and this ship is done for. I've got to do whatever I can to protect that boy. This could be the last pod that goes out."
The crewman eyed her suspiciously. "I ain't tradin' places with you if that's what you're thinkin'. I'll take the damn kid if that's what it takes."
"Good," she said. "I'm counting on you then."
"Goddamn, woman," the man said in astoundment. "You're really fuckin' nuts, you know that?"
She did not reply. Though the child did not understand the conversation between his caretaker and the crewman, he knew he was in the arms of a strange man and that his beloved caretaker was going. He began to bawl again, louder than before and much to the consternation of the crewman.
"Tabby, Tabby, Tabby!" he cried over and over again.
Leaning forward slightly, his caretaker put a hand on his cheek and tried to hush him, using the most soothing voice she could muster.
"Now, now, Dieter," she cooed, "don't cry. Tabby's going to go in the next pod. You be a good boy now."
Even though she was trying to stop her charge from crying, she could not help the tears that started to roll down her cheeks. The sight of his caretaker crying stilled the boy and he stared at her in wide-eyed wonder. Standing erect, she looked directly in the crewman's eyes.
"Go."
The crewman's features softened somewhat, but his resolve remained unshaken.
"Man, I feel bad for you and all," he said, "but there's no way I'm dying here. No goddamn way..."
"Just go..." she said quietly. "And don't you dare let anything happen to him."
Without another word, the crewman ducked into the pod. Just as the hatch was closing, the child shouted out his caretaker's name one last time before it was sealed. She heard the sound of the pod being ejected only seconds later and breathed a sigh of relief.
The ship shook one last time with an explosion that tore through the majestic cruiseliner like paper and obliterated everything in a blinding flash of light.