Wander was out like a light – ironic, thought Sylvia to herself, since it was so damn bright in that cabin of theirs. Their porthole lacked a curtain and the room was flooded with light, the stars looking close enough to touch here. Were she less tired, she might even have deigned to call the sight pretty, the sky alive with a luminescence completely at odds with the sector's remote location.
Then again, Sylvia mused, that was all relative. Places are only remote when they're far away. If you lived here, well, this would be the center of the universe.
It was the center of Wander's universe once, she remembered, as he slept happily in his blanket burrito across the room. This is where he was from – somewhere out there, one of the little planets, illuminated as brightly as this room, was his childhood home. At least, she hoped so. The busy wandering of the last few days had given her little time for leisure, but now that she had it, it was all she could do to corral her thoughts as best she could as they raced through her head. And two stood out above all else:
Where's that little guy from? And where the heck is he going?
"Get going, you slackers!"
Commander Peepers stood with his hands balled on his hips, glaring at his new charges as they quite conspicuously failed to get ready in a timely fashion. They groaned as they pulled on their helmets, with one or two muttering that it was too early for this sh…
"… you watch your language, private!" barked the Commander, unholstering his blaster for emphasis. "I told you guys we were leaving at dawn, and it's… already dawn-thirty!" Peepers had barely slept, and while he knew the tiredness would kick in eventually, for now he was taking advantage of the fact that he was the only one in the bunk room awake enough to form a coherent sentence.
"I'll see you all in Expedition Ship C612T in ten minutes. March in single file and keep your mouths shut!" he said with an air of finality, and stormed off to the docking bay.
"Syyyyyyyyylvia. Syyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyl. Syyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyl!" Wander's voice was quiet but insistent.
Reluctantly, the zbornak cocked an eye open.
"Wander. I only just got to sleep, like..." She turned her head and looked out the porthole, trying to find a sun or other fixed astral point with which to gauge the time. Then she remembered she had no clue where they actually were relative to any huge celestial body. "... like, a little while ago. Lemme rest a little longer. Go out and explore. 'Kay?" She rolled back over and went back to sleep.
"Yeah, little problem with that, ol' buddy," said Wander, rocking her shoulder insistently. "They say they need our cabin."
Two housekeeping staff - tall, slender, and their feet coated with hard bristles, stood with arms folded in the doorway. Their mop-top heads obscured their facial features, but even in her half-asleep state Sylvia could assume they were less than happy.
"Housekeeping," said one, deadpan, their hair puffing up with their exhalations.
"Oh boy," said Sylvia, slowly standing up. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize it was so..."
As soon as she was on all four feet, the housekeepers bustled around her, brushing the floor with their bristles. It was fairly hypnotic - and very efficient, too. Wander was busily piling up their few belongings outside the door.
"We're here, Sylvia! C'mon. Let them clean the place up."
Sylvia shook her head and followed Wander into the corridor, where a few other passengers were busily carrying their luggage towards the exit signs.
There were, indeed, here. Wherever here happened to be.
Peepers was fuming. He was usually fuming, but this was a special kind of fuming - the kind where sitting alone and counting to ten only increases one's rage with every growled digit. Oh, he'd show them. He'd show them all that he wasn't to be messed with.
Still he sat, gripping the controls in front of him like they were liable to fly away, as his crew sauntered onto the ship. Such transporters didn't come with rear-view mirrors, but in the glass he could see reflected behind him, well, one of the most motley squadrons ever assembled. Their packs didn't look to be filled to specification, and some had brought other belongings besides. A coffee maker wasn't on the approved items list, and he knew that at least one of them had packed a video game instead of a communicator. He turned his seat around in the cockpit and looked out to the living area of the ship, where his charges were in varying states of napping, unpacking, and in one memorable case, wedgie-giving.
"Well, soldiers: since you're all an hour late, we have some lost time to make up. Enjoy your ride."
One soldier raised a finger in query and began to speak: Peepers leapt up and kicked the door closed, bolting it from the inside. He sat back down, strapped himself in, and quickly asked for clearance for take-off. Before the snoozing ATC agent could even reply, he'd engaged the docking bay airlock, opened the door - a tooth, really, in the skull ship - to the universe at large, and disabled the brakes.
Then he flicked a series of switches, took a deep breath, and wrenched down on the throttle with all his strength.
As the ship quickly rose to 100% speed, Peepers was pressed back in his cockpit chair, his knuckles white as he gripped the armrests. With fortitude he didn't know he had, he leaned forward and started to wiggle the joystick from side to side, up and down, his ship bouncing through space as if in a tumble-dryer.
Very faintly, over the sound of the thrusters working their hardest, he could hear music to his ears.
Show up late? No seatbelt for you! he thought to himself, before slowing the ship down to a manageable pace and picking up the communicator.
"Ladies, gentlemen, and worthless watchdogs: we're now at our cruising altitude of whatever-thousand feet. Please enjoy your flight and... well, next time, get here on time if you want to hear a seatbelt warning. I expect that room to be spotless, and for you to all be standing at attention in two hours' time, when I will inspect my troops." He paused for a second. "First aid kit's in the bathroom." Then he placed the communicator down, engaged auto-pilot, stretched his arms out behind his head and began to take a well-earned nap.
"Wander, I was thinking," said Sylvia, as they queued up to disembark from the ship. "Let's just camp this time. No more messin' around with inns and hotels and bills and such. What do you say?"
"You know I'd never say no to sleepin' out under the stars, Syl," replied her companion. "I just hope we can find a suitable spot. Wink wink!"
Sylvia frowned. "Wander, you know I don't like it when you do that 'wink wink' thing."
"And I don't like it when you fart in your sleep, but that never stopped you before!" Wander's grin filled his face. Sylvia's frown turned to a glare, and then shot up into an expression of joy as she laughed.
"Oh, shut up," she said, ruffling the fur on the back of his head. "Aw, OK - it's our turn."
She pulled out her battered ID papers and Wander produced his as they approached the ship's customs and immigration desk.
The watchdogs were dazed - every one of them. None had strapped in, and having been thrown around the room, they were struggling to pick themselves up, much less their various belongings and personal items that had bounced around with them.
"I think I broke my clavicle," groaned one as she picked up her backpack, carefully placing it into a locker and rubbing her neck.
"What about my coffee maker?" sighed another. "I saved up three months' wages for that bad boy!"
"Well, I scraped my knee."
"My jaw hurts."
"Guys, knock it off," came an insistent voice from the corner of the room. "I hit my junk off this thing. It's sticking out of the wall, and... well, just come over here."
The rest of the watchdogs crowded around. There was indeed a little protrusion on an otherwise smooth surface. It looked like a switch of some kind. The watchdog had hit it with such force that it had scraped off his uniform, and the uniform gray of the ship's wall had given way to a small chip of red.
"So it's a button?" asked one.
"A red button?"
"A hidden, red button that we weren't supposed to know about?"
The three watchdogs nearest the wall looked into each other's eyes for a second, nodded, and then all three reached out and slammed their hands onto the mysterious red button.
The customs agent was of the same species as the housekeepers, Sylvia noticed. She watched him examine their papers as he mumbled under his breath. Wander busied himself by consolidating some of their belongings into smaller packs as Sylvia waited nervously.
"So, uh, is everything... is everything in order?" she said.
The agent puffed. His hair briefly flew off his face, but Syl couldn't read his expression.
He sat motionless for a second, then stamped both their papers, handing them to Sylvia. Sylvia quickly gave Wander his, then nodded to the agent and thanked them.
"Good luck," she said in response, with a voice not exactly pleasant, but not aggressive, either. Sylvia realized, a little ashamedly, that she was surprised the agent was a lady.
"Man," she said to Wander as she picked up their stuff. "These people around here are kind of weird, aren't they? A little rude, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, that's just their way, Syl," said Wander, leading the way towards the exit door. He hit the button and they stepped into the airlock. "I used to know a few folks from around here, and it's a funny story because..."
Wander kept talking as the airlock opened at the other side. Normally Sylvia loved her friends little stories. But right here all she could do was look, and see. Or at least, she could try to. The light was almost blinding. She narrowed her eyes and adjusted her vision to be confronted with the most beautiful city she'd ever seen in her life.
"... but I ain't been back since. Anyway, let's get movin'!"
Wander strode out of the airlock. Sylvia shook her head to regain her senses and stepped after him, still agog at the place that awaited them.