Kei looked around nervously as they made their way down the ship-to-ship umbilical. He had read about it, the way he had read about everything on his ship. The tube was made up of a double-layer polymer that could easily withstand any space debris that could slip by the Cassandra’s scanners. It attached to the other ship with a redundant magnetic/micro-gravity system. Properly maintained, the umbilical was just as safe as the ship itself.

But Kei couldn’t ignore the fact that half a millimeter of plastic was all that separated him and the hard vacuum of space.

Mina didn’t have that problem. The diminutive tech had leapt out of the Cassandra’s hatch, freefloating down the umbilical.

“Wow,” she said, kneeling on the other ship’s door as she plugged her arm computer into the emergency port. “This is old!”

“Thirty years old, yes,” Mr. Kenji said. “The Starland was going to be humanity’s greatest ship, the culmination of all of Earth’s technological advancements. An entire city, self-sustaining, exploring the universe.”

“What happened to it?” Ryans asked.

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Mr. Kenji told him. “Three days into her maiden voyage, she just disappeared. Nobody’s seen a trace of her since, until now.”

“Why are we doing this?” Kei asked. “Shouldn’t they be sending in Alliance scientists, or the military, or something like that?”

Smithson shook her head. “They want to know what they’re dealing with before they let it become public knowledge. Every Alliance ship — military, science corps, whatever — they’re all constantly tracked and documented. There would be records of where they went, or else the logs would need to be classified, and that attracts even more attention. The Cassandra, though, she’s just a line on a spending report somewhere.” Smithson had served in the Alliance military, so she knew how these things worked.

There was a hiss, and a wave of stale air hit them.

 

“We’re in!” Mina said, cheerfully.

“Be careful,” Kain said over their comms. “Life support’s still running, so the air’s breathable, and bulkheads have kept in the atmosphere in most of the interior sectors. There’s a few bad spots, though, so check with me before opening any- what the… Mina, you were supposed to run a diagnostic on the scanners before we left Tarau.”

“Yeah,” Mina said, irritation dripping in her voice. “That’s why I did. Everything came up green.”

“Then why did I get a flash on life signs just now?”

“You said life support is running,” Kei put in. “Could someone still be on the ship?”

“Doubtful,” Kain replied. “The hydroponics got spaced. Life support can keep the oxygen levels up, but you’d need to eat. Anyway, it’s gone now. Must be a glitch.”

As they entered the ship, the lights struggled to life. Between the dust in the air, sheets of grime on the lights themselves, and their tendency to flicker, they didn’t illuminate much.

“Okay,” Kei said, reminding himself that he was in charge. “Primary objective is the black box. Smithson, Mr. Kenji and I will look for that. Mina, take Ryans and head down to the primary engine rooms, see what they tell you.”

“Keep an eye out for anything salvageable,” Mr. Kenji added. “The Alliance can’t sit on this for too long, and keeping scavengers out of a ship this big will be impossible. They’ll pay well for any information we can provide them on high value sectors.”

“Kain, keep an eye on things,” Kei said.

“Aye, aye, captain.”

“It’s a shopping mall,” Mina said in amazement.

“So?” Ryan said, pushing on the bulkhead door. It was in fine condition, except for the motors, meaning he had to open it and close it manually. It was heavy, and the hinges clogged with who knew what, and the effort was apparently putting him in a bad mood.

“I don’t know, it’s just… there’s a mall, in space.”

“Probably qualifies as ‘high value,’ then,” he grunted. The door beeped, and the locks engaged.

“You’re no fun, you know?” she said. She headed towards the nearest window, wiping away the dust to peer inside. “Wow, this is an antique shop. Look! A Thunderveil 701! I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid.”

“You still are a kid,” Ryans said. “And what did you expect. This place hasn’t been touched since- what was that?”

Mina turned to see him peering through the window of a clothing store.

“I think those style might be a little out of date,” she said.

“Shut up,” he snapped, and put a hand to his comm. “Kain, you there? Get off your lazy ass and do your job.”

“I am doing my job,” Kain said, as irritated as she always was when Ryans spoke to her like that. She tended to overreact to things, in Mina’s opinion. Ryans was like that with everybody, except maybe Mr. Kenji.

“I know I saw somebody in here. Shouldn’t you be noticing that kind of stuff before me?”

“It was probably just some stupid cleaning robot. Some of them are still active. The only life signs down there are you and… Ryans, where’s Mina?”

“I’m right here,” Mina said.

“That’s odd.” Kain’s voice became hard to hear over the static. “You’re not…” She trailed off completely as a cheerful voice called loudly over their comms.

“Welcome to the Starland Bravo Sector Mall! The shops are now open for business.”

“What the hell?” Ryans yelled, wincing at the volume. “Why the hell is this coming in on our comms instead of the loudspeakers? Kain, if you can hear me, I’m switching to delta frequency! Relay that to the others!”

Mina switched her comm as well. “Oh, that’s better,” she said, as the overly cheerful woman stopped shouting in her ear. “Kain, you there?”

“I read you,” Kain said. “Whatever’s causing this feedback is blocking out the others. I can’t reach them, but I’ll keep trying.”

“Let’s just get out of here,” Ryans said.

“Is something wrong?” Mina asked.

“Empty malls are creepy enough when they’re not on a ship that disappeared thirty years ago.”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of ghosts,” Kain said, and you could hear her sneer over the comm. Mina, tired of listening to Ryans and Kain argue, went back to staring at the shops. She wondered if the refrigeration systems in the ice cream parlor were still good.

“I don’t like dealing with problems I can’t punch.”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts. It’s just you two down there.”

Ryans let out a cruel laugh. “A second ago, you weren’t even sure Mina was here. Why don’t you figure out how to actually use those scanners of yours before you tell me what’s- hey! Watch where you’re going, Mina!”

Mina turned around upon hearing her name. She was nowhere near Ryans. For a brief moment, she saw a young woman losing her balance. Shopping bags were flung in the air as she fell to the ground…

And was gone. There was no sign of the woman or her bags anywhere. She and Ryans were alone in the dusty ruins of the mall.

“Kain,” Ryans said, his voice unnaturally steady. “Tell me the Bravo Sector Mall has some kind of hologram system.”

“It does, but only in the main plaza. Why?”

Ryans grabbed Mina’s arm and ran, dragging her behind him. “Sightseeing’s over. Let’s get the job done and get the hell out of here.”

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