November 23rd 2012
Lt. Cal Mason’s funeral turned out to be a contained affair. The squadron stood proudly in formation but otherwise only a handful of officers and deck crew attended. Kerny, a pit crew mechanic, showed up. Cal helped Kerny’s family escape the Nul system about a year ago. Now the quiet giant stood there, wringing his hands as if that would keep back the tears that were threatening to burst through.
Admiral Showalter ran through the routine. His face was granite as always. Words were said. A three-volley salute. Launch the empty casket. And that was that. The group was dismissed and gently dispersed.
Penny, Showalter, and Kerny remained, as if taking a step away was a step towards accepting.
Cal Mason was constantly under guard. Despite the cuffs binding his hands and the link-chain to the wall, someone was always watching him. It’d been a couple days and three more jump-points. Cal was a model prisoner but he kept his eyes and ears open the whole time. The crew of the Constellation were being extra cautious about using names or discussing things around him. That was good; it meant they weren’t settled on the notion of killing him.
Despite their attempts at secrecy, here’s what he still managed to pick up:
The ship was called the Phoenix. An engineering monitor let that slip.
The big guy who’d spoken to the leader woman who may or may not be Cassandra was nicknamed Trunk. From his size and general mannerisms, he seemed like the strongarm of the bunch. There was some connection with Cassandra but Cal hadn’t figured out if it was romantic or a bond weathered by battle/thievery.
There was a gunner who liked to talk. Really liked to talk. His name was Nesser Yahro. He’d flat out told Cal that one. Had a problem with the drinking too, which explained why he didn’t remember the bulk of their discussions. He also seemed to be the back-up pilot when Cassandra was flying herself. Cal could always tell who was flying. Where she was a dancer on the controls, he was a wrecking ball.
The last crewman was the ship’s mechanic. He wanted nothing to do with Cal and did everything in his power to stay out of sight, which was annoying to Nesser as it was interfering with their ongoing Trigger game. Nesser called him Mahony.
It was shortly after early-meal on the third day when she approached Cal, speaking to him for the first time since he was taken.
“Oh sure. Who doesn’t love being handcuffed?”
“Depends on the company.”
“True.” Cal said with a conceding nod. She grinned. Cal weighed his options. He could dish what he knows in the hopes of catching her off-guard and tipping her hand. On the flipside, if she doesn’t bite, she might make up her mind on the whole ‘kill him’ discussion…
No, he thought. Better bide his time see if he can get a line on what they’re up to or where they’re going. Consequently, a heavy pause hung in the air.
“Be sure to let us know if there’s anything we can do for you?” She said, taking a sip from her cup.
“How about letting me go?”
“I’ll get right on that.” She started walking away.
“Bye Cassandra.” Cal said, mostly out of curiosity. She slowed for a nanosecond, her mind caught the hesitation and she tried to move on. But Cal saw it. That answers that question, he thought.
It didn’t really because her name isn’t Cassandra. Sasha Tai moved up to the pilot’s chair, her mind churning as to how he heard that name. She slid behind the controls and flipped it off auto. Hydraulics pulsed into the controls as she took the helm.
In retrospect, she shouldn’t have stopped the Vanduul from killing the pilot, Mason. Having him onboard was putting everything at risk but she had seen what Vanduul do to UEE prisoners. She told herself she would sleep better putting a round through his brain herself than letting the Vanduul go to work on him.
She checked the Nav-plan. They’d been changed, again. Nesser was wasting too much time and burning too much fuel with his inefficient flight plans. Trunk came up as she recalibrated the approach.
“Mahony’s got the stuff stowed.” He said, checking on Cal before sliding into the seat beside her, “What’s going on up here?”
“Nesser’s gonna run this ship into the ground.” She whispered; making sure Nesser was out of earshot. Sasha paused for a second then leaned over to Trunk.
“Has anybody been talking to him?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“He called me Cassandra.”
“Weird.” Trunk chewed on that for a minute, “Well, then he doesn’t know what it is.”
“Don’t sweat it, sis. If he becomes a liability, we dump him out the airlock.”
Back on the Gemini, Penny was in her bunk. Showalter hadn’t really enforced her punishment for Cal’s stunt on Yar so she enforced it on herself. She scrubbed the flight deck, helped the pit crews, ran sims for rookie pilots, anything to stay busy. She worked herself to the point of collapse. That was the only way she could sleep.
Except for today. The second she hit the bed, she realized something. In all the madness, she had completely forgotten. She snatched the SysBook off her shelf and pulled up all the photos Cal had sent her of the settlement on Yar. Of the missing equipment. After two hours of study, she couldn’t figure out what the equipment was so she switched to the settlement itself.
Oddly all the info-links were locked behind dense security protocols. She kept prodding for a way around them, running some innocent keycrackers until one took-
The settlement on Yar was set up as a research lab back in 2880. Back then everybody was running high off the new Synthworld project. Corps were all trying to figure out ways to get their foot in the door of the lucrative government project.
She kept digging. Apparently, the settlement formed to work on a single project, a project called Cassandra.
Although most of it was a dense web of science-speak and formulas, the Cassandra Project was attempting to redesign a planet on a molecular level. A self-replicating nanovirus designed to break down an existing planet and rebuild it.
And the scientists on Yar got it to work.
That’s when her screen suddenly went black.