Cassandra’s Return

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Chen was getting out of his car when heard someone call his name. He turned to see Melissa Dawn waving at him from a few spaces over.

“I can’t believe I’m back here.” He grinned at her. It hadn’t been that long since he’d last seen Melissa. He kept in touch with all the old crew, whenever they both had a spare minute. It was just a month or so since he grabbed a cup of coffee with Melissa. She’d finished shooting The Mission, and was excited to talk about the relaunch with someone.

But it was never quite the same since Cassandra was canceled.

“Well,” she smirked, walking up to him. “We can’t do the voyages of the Cassandra without Captain Kei, now can we?”

“Heh, Kei would argue with that.”

Melissa playfully punched him in the arm. “And Paige would tell him that he was being too hard on himself.”

“It’s going to be weird playing Kei again. I mean, he’s got ten years of experience now. I can’t play him the same way I used to. Erica tells me to shoot for ‘worried, but confident.’ Because that’s helpful.” He’d done a couple of projects for Erica over the last ten years. She somehow managed to get everything to work out perfectly, despite her maddeningly vague directions.

“She knows you’ll figure out how to…” She trailed off as the two of them entered the sound set. The Cassandra was there—its cockpit, the common room, the cargo bay, all exactly the way he remembered it from ten years ago.

“Captain on deck!” Jane shouted, snapping a salute at Chen. Robert looked around until he saw them, then grinned like a child.

“Chen, you old dog!” He grabbed Chen in a rib-breaking hug. “How you been?”

“Ugh,” Chen said when Robert released him. “I’m alright. Did your hugs always hurt that much, or have you been working out more?”

Robert laughed. “No more than usual. Erica asked me if I’d need to tone up to play Ryans again. I told her I’d been waiting for her to call me ever since they canceled us.”

Chen nodded, walking down the stairs to the set. He hadn’t realized just how much he had missed working on this show.

“How is the book coming?” Melissa asked Jane.

Dark Hunter hits the shelves in a few months,” Jane said. “The forums are already on fire wondering if Cassandra will delay the next one.”

“Can’t be worse than when you two got married,” Melissa grinned. “I swear, the entire internet was geeking out over the idea of Kain and Ryans actually hooking up.”

“That reminds me,” Jane said. “Have you met our daughter yet?”

Chen missed a step and had to grab the handrail to stay upright. “Wait, when did you two have a kid?” he asked, turning to stare at the couple.

That got another laugh out of Robert. “Not us, us. Kain and Ryans. You read the script, didn’t you? Ryans knocked Kain up shortly after the crew disbanded.”

“We’re going to have to do some flashbacks to show you two actually getting together,” Melissa said, “or the fans will turn violent.”

“True enough,” Robert said, then he turned to Jane. “My niece, Jenny, is playing her. Ain’t nepotism grand? Carrie’s flying in with her tonight. I’ve told you guys that story, right? How my sister was such a big fan of Mina-”

“That she asked Carrie to be her Godmother,” Melissa interrupted. “Yes, only a dozen times in the last eight years.”

“We need to go somewhere tonight,” Jane said. “The entire gang’s back together. We need to celebrate.”

Chen sighed, thoughts of his old friend surfacing. Li had helped him out a lot when he was first struggling as an actor, helping him nail down Kei’s strengths and weaknesses. It was an amusing echo of the guidance Kenji’s gave Kei. Even three years later, it was hard to think that Li was gone.

Jane went pale. “I’m sorry, Chen. I shouldn’t have… that was thoughtless of me. I know you and Li were close.”

He swallowed. “It’s all right. He’d be happy that the rest of us are here.”

“We should still do something,” Melissa said. “We can toast Li’s memory and welcome Jenny to the family.”

Chen smiled at her. “That sounds nice.”

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Athens Gardens

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Kei stared at the map illuminated on the wall.

“We were here, right?” he said, tapping the screen. “The Parisia housing unit. We’ve only gone through three bulkheads, so how can we be in Athens Gardens?”

Smithson shrugged. “You must be reading the map wrong, sir.” She came over to examine it herself.

“Maybe,” Kei said, frowning. “It just seems like we’ve come a lot further than we have. I mean… I don’t know. What do you think, Mr. Kenji?” He’d learned that if he wanted Kenji’s advice, he had to ask for it. The man always had something to say, but his refusal to volunteer his opinions was a little frustrating at times.

The older man stroked his beard. “It could be a malfunction in the map.” As if to prove his point, the map flickered a few times before coming back dimly. “If we are in the Athens Garden, and it certainly appears that way, it puts us closer to the bridge than expected.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “The information center here might have hard copies of the floor plan. I’ve found paper is less likely to malfunction.”

Kei looked around. Over the last thirty years, the garden had turned in to a jungle. Vines crawled across the walkways. Bushes engulfed the fences that surrounded them. One of the large cobblestones was split down the middle where a tree root had gone searching for water.

The lighting was virtually non-existent. Moss had grown over all of the floor lights, and the ones on the ceiling could barely penetrate the canopy. Staticy recordings of birdsongs played over the aging speakers.

“It must have been beautiful thirty years ago,” Smithson said. She rarely made comment like that; the military tended to crush that kind of thinking, or at least train soldiers to keep it to themselves. He liked it when she opened up, though. He felt he got to see the real Paige Smithson.

“It’s beautiful now,” Mr. Kenji said absently, shining his flashlight over the trees.

Kei thought “spooky” might be a better word, but he didn’t say anything. “Smithson, why don’t you take point?”

“Yes, sir,” she nodded. She moved down the overgrown path, sweeping back and forth with the light attached to her rifle.

They came to a clearing with a large fountain made of white marble in the middle. The gap in the trees let the light from above come down. It was surprisingly bright after the poorly lit corridors and even darker garden.

Surprisingly, the fountain was still working. But then again, if the plumbing had broken here, there wouldn’t be this jungle. Four statues of women surrounded it. They were done to resemble the ancient Greek style. Each had a pot on her shoulder, and water flowed in an endless rush into the fountain between them.

“The information center should be around here somewhere, but I don’t see it,” Kei frowned.

“Over there,” Smithson said, pointing her gun at a wall of vines. “Must have overgrown it.”

Kei clipped his light to his shoulder and drew out his combat knife. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he crossed the plaza. He had the strange sense he was being watched, but he did his best to ignore it as he started cutting away at the vines.

There was indeed a door hidden there, and it slid open at his touch. Dust flowed out and making his water and causing him to sneeze.

“Should have put my helmet up,” he said, trying to sound casual as he wiped at his eyes. “Was that statue always like that?” he asked, once he could see again. The closest statue was turned at the waist so she was looking away from the fountain and towards the information center. She only held her pot with one arm, the other held a finger to her lips.

Smithson looked at the statues, then back to Kei. “Must have been,” she said.

“But why only her?” he asked. “The others are all looking in to the fountain, and using both hands to hold their pots. Why is this one different?”

“She was probably supposed to be pointing to the information center, so people could find it, only the artist messed up.”

“You’d think they’d fix something like that.”

She shrugged. “From what I understand the Starland was well past deadline and over-budget by the time they launched. No time or money to bother fixing statues.”

Kei wasn’t really sure he wanted to think on this any longer. He was starting to feel very uncomfortable here. It was probably the dust.

“Hold this point while I see if there’s any maps in tact. See if you can get through to Kain while you’re at it. I’d really like a status report by now.” She could also tell them where the hell they were, but that didn’t sound like a very Captainy thing to say. He took another breath, and entered the information center.

“Welcome to the-” Kei jumped at the voice, flinging his knife at the source in a panic. It bounced off the cheerful face of an automaton.

“Please refrain from littering in the Athens Gardens, sir.”

Kei’s heart was racing, and he hoped that Smithson and Mr. Kenji hadn’t noticed anything. He collected his knife, then stopped, looking at the automaton. Aside from the dust, she looked like she was in good condition. She was modeled to look like a young woman in her twenties, dressed like a flight attendant.

“Can you tell me what happened here?” he asked.

“Certainly, sir,” she said. She whirred slightly when she moved, he noticed. Dust in her motors, no doubt. “The Athens Garden was built by Mr. And Mrs. Tobias as a place to relax and enjoy the peacefulness of nature, even during trans-solar flights. This area is filled with flora from the midwestern United States. If you-”

“Cancel response,” Kei ordered. “Can you tell me what happened to the ship?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, in that same cheerful tone. “I don’t understand the question. Try being more specific.”

“Where did all the people go?”

“I’m sorry. This information is protected to ensure our clients’ privacy. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

He sighed. Automatons weren’t very bright, and this model was thirty years old. “Do you have any maps?”

“Of course,” she said, gesturing to a dust-covered table beside her. “Please help yourself.”

He took a map, and turned to leave.

“Thank you stopping by. Have a nice day-day-day-day-death.” He was halfway out the door, but he turned back sharply.

“What did you say?” he asked. She had slumped forward and didn’t respond. Her programming must have finally crashed.

“The sooner we’re off this hunk of metal, the better,” Kei muttered. “Is everything all right out here?”

Smithson was staring down a pathway, her gun braced against her shoulder. “Thought I heard something,” she reported. “Laughter. Probably just a glitch in the ambient noise systems, though.”

Kei glanced around. Something was off — even more off than before, at any rate. The statue raising her finger to her lips was smiling at him. He was almost positive she wasn’t smiling before. The other two hadn’t moved.

“Smithson,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Where’d the fourth statue go?”

She turned around, lowering her gun, but keeping it ready. She stared at the fountain. “There’s no way someone could have moved it,” she said. “Not without me hearing it.”

“I’ve got another question,” he said. His heart was beating painfully against his ribs, as he drew out his sidearm and flipped the safety off. “Where did Mr. Kenji go?”

The Starland

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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.”

The Cassandra’s First Mission

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“Incoming ships,” Kain reported.

Mr. Kenji glanced at his display screen. “No company transponders.”

“That means they’re pirates, right?” Kei asked, looking nervously to the old man.

Mr. Kenji nodded.

“We should launch the fighters, then, shouldn’t we?” Kei wished that Mr. Kenji had taken the captaincy when he offered it. The old man had insisted that the owner of the ship should be the captain, but at least he had agreed to come on as the executive officer and keep Kei from getting himself killed on his first mission.

“We have been paid to protect the convoy,” Mr. Kenji said, a humorous note in his voice.

Kei grabbed the radio and tried to sound confident. “Ryans, Smithson, we have incoming bogeys. Launch when ready and move to defensive positions. Our primary goal is the safety of the convoy. The Cassandra will provide supporting fire if they have any ships.” All in all, he thought it came out pretty good, except when his voice cracked in the middle of it.

“Mauler launched,” Ryans voice crackled over the com, even as the ship rocked slightly.

“Fighter-One launched,” Smithson said a moment later, her voice stiff and formal.

“Launches confirmed,” Kain replied. She banked the ship to hover near the starboard flank of the convoy.

“Focus optical scanners on Fighter-One’s IFF and put it up on the main screen,” Kei said. While this was their first real combat, Kei had seen enough of Ryan’s fighting in the circuit to know that trying to sync the scanners to the Gladius would only make him nauseous.

Fighter-One appeared on the screen, looking like it was right in front of the Cassandra. Paige Smithson flew an APA Ramrod, a hard-working, reliable mech. It was favored by most armies for mechanized infantry. It was heavily armored with a stocky build that let it move across most terrains with little difficulty. Not that terrain was a problem in space battle, Kei reminded himself.

In contrast, Michael “The Maul” Ryans’ mech, which allegedly had at least started as a Jetfire Omega, was bright and flashy, and not really all that practical outside tournament fighting. It had all its sensors mounted on its head, for crying out loud. It was fast, Kei admitted, and the long arms and legs gave it high mobility in the hands of a talented pilot.

“Hey, Paigey,” Ryans called out over the comm. “Bet I can take down more of them than you.”

“This is a defensive mission,” she snapped, her voice dripped irritation, like it did every time Ryans called her ‘Paigey.’

“You know what they say about the best defense.” The Mauler shot forward into the vid-screen.

“I think there’s also a saying about bringing a sword to a gun-fight.”

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Kei said.

“I’m sure Ryans and Smithson will at least buy us enough time to get the convoy out of the pirates’ territory,” Mr. Kenji said with a completely straight face. Kei had known Mr. Kenji for most of his life, and he still couldn’t tell when the old man was joking or not.

“Ryans,” Kei said over the comm, his voice coming out whinier than he intended. “Could you at least pepper them while you’re closing to melee range?”

“I wanted to give them a fighting chance,” Ryans laughed, “but you’re the boss.”

“If the Cassandra takes any damage because of you ego,” Kain said, “I’ll beat some humility into you.”

“Bogeys spotted,” Smithson reported. “I count eighteen mechs. Four Ramrods. The rest are Sunbursts. Looks like they launched from a Lancer.”

“What are Sunbursts like?” Kei asked his pilot.

“Budget mech,” Kain said with distaste. “Take a Ramrod, strip half the sensors, replace the armor with tin, and give it an engine that can’t even make sublight-2. It’s cheap, and ugly as sin.”

Flashes of light flicked from the Mauler as it closed with the enemy robots, and some of the Sunbursts were already drifting out of formation, their thrusters dead. The others returned fire, but Ryans’ erratic flying made him difficult to hit. He closed on one of the Ramrods and brought his mech’s thirty-five-ton mace crashing into its side.

Kei’s stomach quavered as he saw the bursts of air hissing out of the damaged cockpit. Maybe the pilot had a space-suit on. Probably not.

One of the Sunbursts approached him, and he didn’t even bother with the mace. He grabbed the mech’s shoulder and ripped one of the thrusters off before kicking the robot away. It tumbled through space for a moment before it tried to return to the battle. The pilot couldn’t seem to compensate for the missing thruster, though, and ended up spinning uncontrolled to the side.

The remaining Ramrods formed around him, while the Sunbursts disengaged, moving towards Smithson.

“Hardly seems fair,” Kain said, smirking. “It was over as soon as they let him get in range.”

Mr. Kenji shook his head. “The Sunbursts aren’t a problem, but the other three Ramrods will keep him busy while the Lancer gets a missile lock on him.”

“What?” Kei almost screamed, before turning to Kain. “Fire on the Lancer!”

“Can’t at this range,” Kain said. “If he’d stayed near the convoy…” he let the sentence hang.

“Ryans, disengage!” There was no response. “Disengage!”

Mr. Kenji hit a few keys on his console. “No good, they’re jamming him. He can’t hear us.”

“Target the Sunbursts,” Smithson called out.

“I’ll never hit them,” Kain said. “The Cassandra’s not built for anti-fighter combat, that’s why we have you two. Can’t you take them out?”

“Yeah, but not in time. Give them something to worry about other than me so I can line up a shot on that Lancer.”

“Do it,” Kei said.

The ship hummed for a moment before two beams of plasma shot forward at a significant fraction of light speed. The pilots of the Sunbursts pulled away out of instinct and Smithson took off towards the Lancer, her thrusters blazing.

A burst of inspiration struck Kei. “Mr. Kenji, send schematics on the Lancer to Fighter-One. Smithson, aim for the missile bays. If he’s lining up a shot, they’re open.”

“Yes, sir,” Smithson said. She raised her mech’s arm and the large-barreled rifle that sat on it. There was a burst from the end of the gun, and a moment later, the The front of the Lancer burst open in a bright flash.

The remaining Starbursts scattered, moving away from the Cassandra and the convoy. The two remaining Ramrods broke off and followed them.

“I won the bet,” Ryans said. “Four Starbursts and two Ramrods.”

“Frigates count for five, Ryans,” Smithson replied. “Add in the three Starbursts I took down, and I think you’ll find I won.”