The Life & Times of Commander Cacti


Chapter 1: Desolation

By Robin Sharrock


For centuries the Imperials and the Federals had fought over the Frontier systems, battling it out far away in space while the diplomats drank Topaz Lemonade and discussed treaties. The core systems of both empires were relatively quiet and safe - they are so well protected anyway. The point is, as the Cold War continued, a full-scale galactic fight could flare up. This is where Commander James Cacti came in. His mission was to sign the first extradition treaty with the Federals. He was taking his ship the 'Vesuvius', with 12 Imperial politicians, to the home of mankind its self, Sol. He didn't want to go, he hated missions like this, but the Imperials considered him dangerous. He was a superb fighter, and that was why. They didn't want him causing trouble and upsetting the Feds so they had posted him to 'His Imperial Majesty's Diplomatic Relations Commitee, of His Imperial Majesty's System Of Achenar', on his 30th birthday. At least he had been able to keep his ship, a sea-blue Puma Clipper. But God how he hated politicians! His late Navigations Officer, Vera Camus (a liberated slave whose master had been a minister on Mars), had memorably told him "Politicians would eat the contents of their own gut for money and power." He would never forget it and this lot were the same.

He sat down heavily, creaking his leather chair and sighed. He longed for his battle days. He remembered the thrill of pressing the Red Alert button and shouting "Fighters at six! Fighters at six! Battle stations!". He slurped the remaining contents of a bottle of "Topaz Fresh Mountain Springwater" and dropped it to the floor where Robert, his clean-up droid, scurried off with it to recycle. It was 14:00 Galactic Mean Time and the diplomats were due at 15:32. He sighed again and picked himself up. He would complain yet again to the clerk at Camp Jameson, though it wouldn't get him anywhere, then would look around the town's CBD and possibly find a new piece of junk to place on his ships control panel.

Cacti checked the bulletin board for a bloke called 'Stott' - but to no avail - then pulled on his blue veterans jacket and jumped out of the ship onto the cool concrete of the ship-bay. He looked around and saw only a janitor polishing the ships of the line whilst whistling an old army tune. Cacti felt the surge of heat hit him as the massive doors were opened. A jet whooshed overhead, quite high. To cacti it looked like a Hawk Airfighter. In an instant it was gone. An Imperial Trader at the other end of the garage wheeled slowly out of the bay.

"Tch. Probably off to fight for Emperor and Empire, like I should, not escorting politicians".

He walked to the elevator and passed the whistling janitor, who seeing an Imperial Lord, dropped his cloth and snapped crisply to attention, saluted with precision and said:

"Good day, sir!"

Cacti, not expecting a salute from a lowly janitor, returned the salute.

"Morning, and what are you, an ex-combateer looking at that salute, doing here?"

"'Tis the afternoon if I'm wrong sir. Veteran of the '33rd sir. Invalided out 'cos of me bein' old, 61 sir, not a day older."

"You too eh?" Cacti felt sorry for the old soldier. He'd probably served loyally in the Emperor's forces most of his life, and then was booted out. If he remembered his history at the 'academy the '33rd had been the forlorn hope at the battle of Biggs Colony back in '89. That bloody day Imperial forces had under-estimated a rag-tag rebel force with disastrous consequences - they had suffered over 74,000 losses. If there was one thing he hated about the Empire, it was how badly they treated the rank and file. Officers were pampered to bits while the real soldiers were treated like that, and as for the slaves, well.....

Cacti, not really wanting to engage in a conversation, tossed the man a credit slip.

"Clean old "Vesuvius". Give her a good shine!

"Yes sir, and thankyou sir!" As cacti walked on he turned back and saw the man set about his task with his polish hose. A clipper normally took about 20 minutes.

Camp Jameson seemed quiet, only a few aimless shoppers walked its cool corridors. The place was initially an army base, with the naval base being on Peter's Wreck. The army was usually under-funded but recently had been reorganised and purchaseable commissions had finally been abolished. The main area was deserted. A massive banner hung on a wall showing Emperor Hesketh Duval pointing at the observer. He was saying:

"Fight for your Emperor! Share in our Empire's Glory! Join the Imperial Army! Enlist today!"

Underneath that was a caption saying "Go forth young man!" with picture of a slave marching off to war.

Since 3201 slaves had been allowed to join the army (but still not the navy) once they had passed a loyalty test and had swore an oath to serve the Empire. After 7 years field service they would be granted citizenship.

Cacti laughed and walked on towards the shopping area. He walked into the mall and saw what he was looking for:

'Mike's Military Memorabilia, we sell Imperial cast-offs!'

He entered the shop and purchased an old 18th century tinderbox showing a red-coated infantryman with a bayonet thrust out in front of him while a dark man backed away. He turned it over and it had inscribed 'Smiths of Sheffield, 1799'

"Got that on Earth, so I did!" the shopkeeper remarked. He was lonely and was pressing Cacti for a conversation. Cacti, late, politely asked what he was doing in Camp Jameson, an army base.

"Captain Michael Harrison of the Dragoon Guards, 33rd Brigade. Lost a leg in the cleanup operation after Biggs', I stood on one of them blasted Squidtech mines!"

Cacti grimaced and wondered why so many Biggs Colony veterans were here. He remembered the bulletins of the day and how the Imperial Bio-Research Ministry, usually so sophisticated at biological techniques, had pumped the soldiers full of drugs for the dangerous campaign on Biggs Colony. The Emperor had then become fascinated with the threat of Biological warfare from the Feds' and made all the students at his academy that year have the immunity pills. At the time the authorities had said it had no side effects, but...

After his card had been swiped he grabbed a tin of 'Topaz Tizer' from a refreshment droid and ran out, not noticing the desolation and lack of people. It was 15:28.

He reached the landing bay area and saw no sign of any incoming ships. His ship was still there, all nice and clean. The janitor had gone. He climbed aboard, put the old tinderbox on his dashboard and did a ship status:


SHIP STATUS FOR ISL 'VESUVIUS', 27/06/3300, 15:33 GMT

HULL INTEGRITY: 100%
FUEL STATUS: TANKS FULL, 500 IMPERIAL TONNES
SHIELD CHARGE: ...99.87%
THRUSTER STATUS: ...MAIN THRUSTERS READY
LEATHER SEAT MOISTNESS:...DRY
CARGO STATUS: 22t REMAINING, 500t IMPERIAL H-FUEL
PASSNEGER CHECKLIST: WARNING: 0/12 PASSENGERS ONBOARD
CREW CHECKLIST: WARNING: 0/8 CREW OPERATIVE
BATTERY POWER: >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>77% CHARGE
SHIP'S COMPUTERS: ...OPERATIVE AMD MUL-MIL CPU FOUND
AIRLOCKS: OPEN
NAVIGATION SYSTEMS: ....LOCATING...DONE. ROBOCRUISE ver.22.8 FOUND
WEAPONS CHECK: WEAPONS CHECK DONE. LASER TYPE CLASSIFIED.
UNDERCARRIAGE CHECK: DOWN.
ALIGNING BATTLE SITES...done
MISSILE CHECK...done
CABIN TEMP. AND PRESSURE CHECK: 21C AS REQUESTED
ALL CHECKS COMPLETE.

TAKE-OFF ABORTED, NO CREW!


Damn! Damn! Damn! where was everybody! He turned on the comms. screen and found no-one at the display. Where was everybody!?

Furious, he jumped out of his ship and looked around. Nobody.

"Fine! I'll just go!", and he did just that. He activated his Robocruise for Peter's Base, switched to one-man mode and started up his thrusters. There was a smooth roar and a slight shaking of the ship as his engines came alive. He waited six seconds then pressed the take-off button. The 'Vesuvius' shot upwards vertically and stayed motionless at 120 feet for a while until Cacti aimed her high in the sky. As the ship descended slowly he pulled up the undercarriage with a scrape and a thud and powered off. The ascent was slow, a Puma only had a 6.0 Earth G acceleration. At 2km altitude he typed a message on his CPU interchange:

"Where are you, you bastards!?" and chuckled to himself. Then he realised he was supposed to be annoyed and he transmitted it all around the planet. The tingle of the computer confirmed it had been sent. Cacti was now bored, but he just could not figure out why Topaz air-traffic was so quiet and why Camp Jameson was deserted. He hadn't seen anyone really, except a few passers-by, a shop - steward and an old soldier. But no military personell and that was strange in a military base in a military system, in a military empire. He was just under 1AU away from Peter's Base so he activated the star dreamer and relaxed, letting the inducer take effect as he drifted off...


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Continue the story with Chapter 2