25 October 2326
Colonel Zhou Shen was irritated.
Despite having someone in the brig who was clearly involved in some sort of irregular, if not illicit behaviour, he was not one step closer to getting to the bottom of the mysteries that had started to pile up over the last few days.
He stared at the file being displayed on his MFD, as if that would somehow cause new information to appear.
“Cadet Lundström,” he murmured to himself.
He had read the file so many times that he almost knew it by heart. Superficially, there was nothing wrong with it, but something told him that it was just too clean. It contained all the necessary information required for a transfer to the ROTA, but nothing beyond that.
He was a ware that it was not uncommon for soldiers to only submit the bare minimum of files when applying for the officer’s training program. But even in those cases, there would be a plethora of miscellaneous information attached to the file.
Not in the case of Cadet Maja Lundström, however.
Zhou leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temples. One of his security teams had apprehended the young blonde in a restricted technical area. That in itself was grounds for disciplinary action and would have sever consequences for her.
She had also refused to answer any question that Captain Barnaby or the Colonel himself had asked. Her refusal to cooperate was highly suspicious, but without a confession, they were unable to link her to anything beyond her trespassing.
On the list of things that required an explanation, that act of trespassing ranked fairly low. On top of the original issue, the mysterious signal emanating from his station, he now had two soldiers in the infirmary after being incapacitated by an unknown weapon.
They had been found floating unconscious in the central cylinder’s main tunnel, not far from the area where the elusive Cadet Lundström had been caught.
To make matters worse, these two had been directly involved in the investigation of the signal. Sergeant Lorenz and Lieutenant Olchevski would require at least another day of rest before they were back on their feet, further delaying any chance of obtaining some form of result.
The Colonel reached across his desk for his cup of green tea. The hot beverage always had a soothing effect on him, especially in times like these, when he was about to be overcome by anger.
Instead of grasping the cup, however, he managed to knock it over in his haste, spilling the liquid across his desk. To make matters worse, this had been his last batch, and he would have to wait for the next supply ship to arrive in order to get more.
Sergeant Simons, the Colonel’s orderly, had been about to enter his superior’s office. He stopped dead in his tracks as soon as he heard Zhou swearing loudly in Mandarin. He did not understand the words, but the tone was enough to convey the Colonel’s intense displeasure.
Simons was on his way back to his desk when his intercom went off. To his surprise, it was not the Colonel, but the station’s command post, requesting the CO’s immediate presence.
The Sergeant turned about once more and prepared himself to face the storm that would be welcoming him. He took a deep breath, let the door slide aside, and stepped into his superior’s office.
Before Sergeant Simons could even attempt a salute, the Colonel said, emphasizing each syllable, “This is not the right time, Simons.”
“Apologies, Sir. I just got word from Captain Ndiaye. You are needed in the command post, priority one, Sir.”
“Priority one?” Zhou raised an eyebrow.
“Those were his exact words, Sir.”
“Alright. If he can’t handle his job without me looking over his shoulder, so be it,” the Colonel got up from behind his desk and walked towards the door.
He turned around to address his orderly, “Clean up this mess here, Simons.”
Colonel Zhou avoided the station’s command post as much as possible. While he was technically supposed to run Zeta Station from there, he preferred to exert his authority from the comfort of his office.
The command post was a spherical pod attached to one of the ends of the station’s central cylinder. In the beginning of Zeta Station’s history, it had allowed a tremendous view of Earth. Now that the station had been relocated deep into interstellar space, however, the view through the panoramic windows was the same as through any other viewport.
On top of that, due to its location, there was no artificial gravity in the command post. This made working there rather tiresome, which was another reason why Zhou tended to stay away from there as much as possible.
The Colonel grabbed his MFD on the way out and headed for the nearest vertical access shaft. He followed the ladder all the way up until he reached the central cylinder, at which point he headed towards what was commonly referred to as the station’s bow, since it came before habitat ring one.
He had to swipe his personal identification card and type in the corresponding code twice in order to reach the inside of Zeta Station’s command post. Once inside, he was greeted by Captain Fatou Ndiaye.
“Good morning, Sir!” the tall woman from the West-African Commonwealth greeted him.
“Morning, Ndiaye,” Colonel Zhou replied, “what’s the rush?”
“We have unidentified incoming ships, Sir. No IFF, and they’re not responding to our attempts to contact them.”
“Any chance that it’s the reinforcements that I’ve requisitioned?”
“Not likely, Sir. They would have identified themselves by now.”
“Understood. Let’s go have a look.”
Zhou and Ndiaye used the handrails to pull themselves towards the command post’s main viewscreen, which had already been centred on the approaching ships.
“There are eight... no, nine ships of various sizes, Sir,” the Captain began to explain, “one small one appears to have broken off from the main formation, the others are accelerating straight towards us and should be within weapons’ range in about an hour.”
“Let’s ignore the runaway and focus on the rest. Get this station combat-ready and regroup all non-essential personnel in secure sections.”
“Also, try to get some more information on the incoming vessels. Max resolution scan with whatever high-gain sensors we have operational.”
Ndiaye snapped with her fingers, drawing the attention of a nearby Sergeant. She pointed at him, making him understand that he was to execute the mentioned scan.
The Colonel and Captain exchanged a glance, both officers grimacing slightly. They were thinking the same thing. The data gathered so far did not bode well.
The high-resolution scan of the incoming flotilla took eight precious minutes during which the crew of Zeta Station’s command post was condemned to inactivity. They needed more data to make informed decisions and react to the situation appropriately.
Any generalised measure they could take was likely to provoke a panic aboard the station, which the Colonel would very much like to avoid.
After a moment of silent reflection, Zhou said, “Have all non-essential personnel return to quarters and remain on standby.
Captain Ndiaye confirmed the order and returned to her station. With a few precise movements, she activated the station’s automated PA-system, and a few seconds later, the recording of a clear and gentle female voice echoed across the corridors.
“All non-crew and off-duty personnel. Return to quarters immediately. Remain there until further notice. I say again...”
The message repeated itself for the next minute, accompanied by yellow flashing lights, which indicated that it was not an emergency, but also not a drill. Colonel Zhou made a mental note to check whether or not his order would have been followed in fifteen minutes. This provided everyone enough time to return to their cabins.
In the meantime, the station’s sensors had completed their scan, and the results were being displayed on the main viewscreen.
“Looks like a fairly large capital ship, probably a cruiser,” said Ndiaye, “there are also a few smaller ships, likely destroyers, and two large vessels that barely register in the infra-red. My guess is those are tankers. The other two medium-sized ships could be anything.”
“Identification?” Colonel Zhou asked briefly.
“The destroyers’ signature corresponds to a known Tarhinan model, Sir. Looks like we have an enemy strike force incoming.”
The Colonel grasped the handrail tighter, until his knuckles became white. He then said through gritted teeth, “I bet the two unknown ships are troop carriers.”
“A recon mission would not require this many ships. One small and fast destroyer could do the job. If they wanted to blow us out of the void, the cruiser alone would be more than enough, no need for escorts. The fact that they showed up with an entire strike force tells me that they plan to board us,” he took a deep breath before adding, “this could get even uglier than I thought.”
Suddenly, a realisation struck him. It all came together and finally began to make sense. The mysterious signal. The inexplicable behaviour and subsequent silence of one of his Cadets. The enemy strike force appearing out of nowhere. Lundström must be a Tarhinan operative who had infiltrated the ROTA in order to broadcast its secure and classified location.
A part the Colonel wanted to go to the brig and confront the young woman. This was not the time, however, as the enemy strike force got closer with every passing moment.
He stared at the viewscreen in front of him until his vision began to lose focus. Suddenly, he turned to Captain Ndiaye and firmly said, “Put the station on full alert. Call to combat stations.”
“Yes Sir,” the woman from the West-African Commonwealth replied.
She executed the command, and moments later the station’s interior was bathed in red light, while the same disembodied female voice as before called out, “All personnel to combat stations!” interrupted by a shrill siren at regular intervals.
A few moments earlier...
The mood in cabin 2B2-035 was at an all-time low.
Cadets Defour, Osondu, and García, who were still confined to quarters, had not received any news about their fate since the previous day. They had woken up not long ago, and shared some of their emergency rations for breakfast. The night had been rough, bringing them troubled thoughts instead of restful sleep.
“You look like hell,” Osondu told Defour.
The young woman looked at him through barely open eyes and said, “You don’t look any better yourself.”
“At least my hair is not defying gravity in unnatural ways.”
“At least I have hair.”
The two Cadets attempted to stare at each other in a menacing way, while García just sat back and followed the exchange in silence. After a moment, all three of them laughed wholeheartedly, releasing some of the accumulated tension.
This did not last long, however, as their smiles soon faded, only to be replaced by the same tired expression they wore before. They sighed almost simultaneously and stared into space.
Cadet García broke the silence moments later, “At least it’s not just us who’s confined to quarters.”
The ship-wide order for all non-essential personnel to return to quarters had come through over the intercom not long ago. The three Cadets had perceived it with mild interest, wondering what it was about.
Osondu had responded by raising his head to the ceiling and shouting, “We’re already here!” thereby causing another moment of humorous respite.
“Yeah, I wonder what’s going on out there,” Defour commented on García’s statement.
“Me too,” Osondu chimed in, “it could be anything, really. Too bad there’s no way of knowing.”
“As long as it’s not the zombie apocalypse,” García said, letting out a chuckle.
“You watch too many ancient movies.”
“A reactor leak then, maybe?”
“That’s more likely, but as far as we know, the reactor has been humming along quietly for ages and is being maintained almost zealously, just like the rest of the station, so why would anything go wrong now?”
“True. The way the station’s tech-staff talk about it, you’d swear the reactor if some sort of deity.”
“Ha, you’re right there. It really seems like they worship the thing.”
All of a sudden, the station’s PA resounded across the corridors once more.
“All personnel to combat stations!”
Defour gasped slightly, while all three of them raised their heads as their eyes opened wide.
“Combat stations? What the hell?” Osondu asked no one in particular.
“Okay, I did not see that coming,” García admitted.
At the same time, they heard how their cabin door unlocked itself automatically.
The three Cadets exchanged questioning glances. After a moment, Defour got up and walked towards the door. Once there, she turned towards her friends.
“Are you guys coming or what?”
“Where are we going?” Osondu asked.
“We’re being called to combat stations, haven’t you heard?”
“We’re Cadets. We don’t have combat stations.”
“Technically,” the young woman from the UCC said with a grin, “we are supposed to assist in damage control. We can’t do that from our cabin now, can we?”
The two men looked at each other and shrugged. They both got up simultaneously and stood next to Defour.
“Wait,” García said.
“Are you getting cold feet already?”
“No. I was just thinking, maybe we should gear up a little before we rush out there?”
Defour nodded approvingly. “Good thinking,” she said.
They all went to their lockers, put on their utility belts, and filled their light backpacks with some basic gear. Once they all felt somewhat ready, Defour went back to the door and let it hiss open while smiling at her fellow Cadets before venturing out into the hallway.