26 October 2326
Colonel Theodore Brasher sat in his command chair on the bridge of ISC Paladin.
His legs were crossed and his chin rested on the back of his hand as he stared at the countdown being displayed in the corner of the main viewscreen. He had left Earth’s orbit the day before, after being relayed a call for reinforcements from ROTA.
This was highly irregular and even more unusual. As the name indicated, the station was very remote, which was its primary way of defending itself. They had never called for backup from a combat unit, and why the academy’s commander had chosen to do so now remained a mystery.
There had been no communication with Zeta Station since the initial call for reinforcements, and Brasher wondered what was going on over there. He hated the uncertainty and kept going through random scenarios in his head, but any one of those was as likely as the next.
“Did we hear anything new?” the Colonel asked his Comm-Off.
“No, Sir,” the Lieutenant replied. “We have been unable to establish communications with Zeta Station. Their hypercom appears to be offline.”
He acknowledged the information with a short nod and returned to his silent contemplation.
He knew that he could rely on the people under his command. Every single man and woman aboard the ships that made up Guard Squadron Sol One had been working and training together for the past year and a half. The Commanding Officers of his escorts had learnt to anticipate his orders and their crews, as well as his own, operated at peak efficiency.
This made Sol One the most elite rapid-response force in Terran space. They were professionals with at least four years experience from serving aboard other ships in other units. The situation they had been sent to investigate might be unknown, but they would find out what was going on and react accordingly.
Eventually, their journey came to an end. As the final seconds counted down on the mission timer, the navigator announced, “Returning to normal space in five, four, three, two, one, FTL jump completed!”
In an instant, the absolute darkness that dominated every viewport and external monitor was replaced by the familiar star-sprinkled backdrop of interstellar space.
“Status report!” Colonel Brasher called out.
“All systems nominal, Sir. Jump completed without incident, no damages to report,” his First Officer said. “Engine room reports FTL-generators in cool-down mode, ion drive on standby.”
“Weapons and sensors operational and on standby,” the WSO reported. “Ready to engage on your command.”
“Target coming up on sensors, Sir,” said the Comm-Off. “Sector Blue-Charlie, distance four-niner-five kilo. The rest of Sol One has completed their jumps and are entering formation.”
After a moment, the Lieutenant added, “Sir! I’m picking up other objects between us and Zeta. Eight blips in what looks like a standard fleet pattern. Distance three-eight-eight kilo.”
“Identification?” Colonel Brasher wanted to know.
“Negative, Sir. No IFF, assuming hostile.”
“Understood. Lieutenant, give me fleet-wide.”
“Go ahead, Sir.”
“Attention Sol One! We are about to engage the enemy. All vessels to combat stations, bring weapon systems online!”
As soon as the words had left his lips, a controlled panic broke out aboard the seven ships that made up the guard squadron.
Within minutes, every single person aboard any of these vessels had donned military-grade vacuum suits and were back at their posts. Every station was manned and ready, every sensor was pointed at the enemy, and every missile launcher, rail-gun, and plasma cannon was ready to open fire.
The squadron’s flagship Paladin, an Armstrong-class space domination battlecruiser, spearheaded the formation. The impressive warship was flanked by the light cruisers Melody and Ngurumo, accompanied by four smaller escort destroyers.
Once the order had been given, they accelerated towards the Tarhinan strike force at max thrust while maintaining adequate separation, allowing them to manoeuvre and avoid incoming fire if necessary.
The enemy commander reacted as Colonel Brasher had expected. Their strike force turned its attention away from the beset station to face the new threat that had presented itself. Next, the Tarhinans launched enough missiles to saturate space between the two opposing flotillas.
The warheads were launched way out of range, but their goal was to force the ISDF ships to react and limit their room to manoeuvre. Instead of risking the overload of his squadron’s point-defence lasers, Brasher gave the order to fire missiles of his own. These missiles flew straight at the incoming weapons and detonated among them. Their blast radius was wide enough to cause chain reactions, clearing the way for the Terran ships.
As the distance shrunk, the ships eventually ended up in range of direct fire. Rail-gun rounds bounced harmlessly off the thick armour of the capital ships for the most part. The smaller destroyers, however, were less lucky.
On both sides, the escort ships sustained heavy damage from kinetic projectiles. They were pierced in multiple locations. Some lost propulsion or power and were condemned to drift in a straight line until their systems could be restored. Others vented part of their atmosphere into space, and their crews had to rely on their vac-suits in order to stay alive.
For the most part, they remained combat-able and kept firing and the oncoming enemy ships.
Eventually, the Paladin’s main armament came into play. The battlecruiser’s heavy plasma cannons targeted the smaller ships first. The cannon’s twin magnetic rails propelled the plasma load that served as projectile at five percent of the speed of light towards its destination.
As manoeuvrable as they were, the escort destroyers had no way of avoiding the strike. They attempted high-acceleration evasive manoeuvres to get out of the plasma’s way, but by the time their engines had built up enough thrust, the projectiles hit their targets.
One destroyer was only grazed. Its hull tore open as if it were made of cardboard, almost splitting the ship into two. Another one was hit head-on. The plasma projectile burrowed itself deep into the destroyer, ultimately connecting with its H2-tank.
The fuel reserve detonated with such force that it momentarily blinded the surrounding ships’ sensors, only leaving behind an expanding cloud of debris with some organic particles mixed in.
Seeing those results, the remaining Tarhinan destroyers veered off course and began accelerating at perpendicularly to their vector.
Seeing as the escort ships were breaking away from the engagement, Colonel Brasher ordered his squadron to focus fire on the enemy cruiser.
The Tarhinan carrier-cruiser’s armament was no match for that of Paladin. Knowing this, the enemy commander ordered to break off the attack and veered off course as well. The cruiser received a glancing blow, and a massive hole opened up in its lower deck.
In a desperate attempt to escape the situation, the Tarhinan flagship performed an emergency FLT-manoeuvre. It disappeared from the scene, leaving behind a trail of debris and vented gas.
Aboard the Paladin, a brief moment of triumph was soon relieved by a return to professionalism. They were still unable to establish contact with ROTA, so Colonel Brasher ordered his squadron to position itself at a safe distance from the station and begin close reconnaissance using smaller shuttles.
The entire universe seemed to spin around Amanda Defour.
In truth, it was her who was spinning uncontrollably, ripped away by the force of the escaping atmosphere, catapulted towards an uncertain fate.
Defour’s stomach seemed to be spinning even faster than the rest of her body. She tried to focus on something, anything else, because emptying her stomach’s contents in her helmet was one of a very short list of things that could make her situation even worse.
One moment, she saw something that seemed close enough for her to hold on to it, but whatever it was, it had already disappeared from view by the time she began reaching out.
With every passing moment, she felt more and more disoriented. Her heart rate never ceased to rise until a persistent beeping added itself to the flood of sensory inputs she was being subjected to. Her vac-suit’s vitals monitor was warning her about her excessively high pulse and blood pressure, which in turn caused Defour to panic even more.
She began to flail around in a futile attempt to halt her rotation and started to hyperventilate shortly after that. Within minutes, she felt light-headed and her fingers were tingling.
Without warning, she fell headfirst through a secondary communications array. The fragile antennae bent and broke under the violent impact.
Though she remained unharmed, Defour reacted with a loud scream that only she was able to hear. This interrupted her runaway breathing and allowed her to calm down enough so that she was no longer in danger of losing consciousness and dying.
Hitting the array also had an effect on her trajectory.
While she had thus far been on her way towards the unfathomable depth of interstellar space, she had unknowingly been deflected back towards the station.
Her involuntary and uncontrolled journey continued for several minutes during which Cadet Defour gathered all her willpower to remain as calm as possible. She forced her eyes shut to avoid the disorienting sights and focused on the sound of her breathing alone.
Her inner ear persisted in letting her know that she was still spinning madly, but she was able to block it out to a point where it no longer affected her.
With her eyes closed, she did not see the other side of the habitat ring towards which she was headed. Moments later, her momentum brought her crashing through the floor-to-ceiling window of an empty compartment.
She kept on going, tumbling through the open doorway on the other side. She hit the door frame hard, bounced off it, then came to a crashing halt as she was thrown against the wall-panelling on the opposite side of the corridor with enough force to dent the tough material.
The station’s automated safety mechanisms sprang into action. The door Cadet Defour had just tumbled through closed itself automatically and was instantly sealed.
It took the young woman from the United Caribbean Commonwealth a few minutes to regain her senses. She felt dizzy and her vision was blurred. At first, she attributed both symptoms to the fact that she had just impacted the station with the force of a projectile.
Then, however, a low-pitched alarm resounded within her helmet, indicating an issue with her oxygen supply. Being thrown against the wall had damaged her suit’s life support unit, and the vital gas was no longer pumped into her helmet.
Before her mind could even begin to make the conscious decision, her training had already taken over and Defour activated her helmet’s emergency-release. The seal by her neck popped open and the helmet jumped up by a few centimetres, allowing a flow of fresh air to enter her confined environment.
Cadet Defour took a few deep breaths and sat there until her senses had returned to normal.
After a few minutes, she took off her helmet completely, before taking off the remainder of her vacuum-suit. With the oxygen reserve inaccessible, the suit was nothing more than an unwieldy chunk of dead weight she had to carry around.
She slowly got up to her feat and had to steady herself against the wall until she was certain that her legs were able to carry her weight properly.
She gasped when a loud rumbling sound echoed across the corridor and she could feel the floor vibrate. Defour looked around, trying to figure out the source of this commotion, but also wanting to orientate herself as she had no idea where she had landed.
After a little while, the young woman decided to head towards the nearest vertical access shaft in the hope that it was still usable.
Shortly after walking off, she heard loud footsteps coming her way. The Cadet continued towards them, and smiled unexpectedly when she recognised Osondu and García running towards her, still in their vac-suits.
When they saw their friend, the two men stopped dead in their tracks, almost falling over due to the heavy suits they were wearing.
“Sky!” García shouted.
Since she was no longer wearing her suit, Defour could not hear him through his helmet.
Both men released their helmets as she had done before and quickly rid themselves of the vacuum-suits.
“It’s really you,” Osondu said.
“Of course,” Defour replied. “Who else would it be?”
“We thought we’d never see you again!”
“Come on, you know I’m tougher than that.”
They all laughed, then all three embraced each other shortly.
“We need to get to the escape pods. Now,” Osondu said, suddenly serious again.
“Why, what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure what happened, but it feels like the habitat ring is coming apart. We ran halfway around it, and a few bulkheads already slammed shut behind us close to where we had entered the ring.”
“Let’s get going then. The pods should be close to the next ladder, not so?”
“They should be. Let’s hope they work.”
The three Cadets ran off towards the ladder that would allow them to cross between decks. Every now and then, the floor vibrated again and the sound it made became more and more ominous.
When they reached the pods, they saw that some of them had already been ejected.
“Well,” Osondu said. “On the bright side, we know that they work.”
There were only two pods left for the three of them.
Osondu and García nodded at each other, then looked towards Defour.
“One is definitely for you, Sky,” García said.
“Yes. No discussions,” Osondu added, before the young woman was able to open her mouth.
“But... But what about you two?” she asked, her lower lip trembling.
“We’ll be fine,” Osondu grinned. “We’ll just share the other pod.”
“You’ll share? No way! Is that even going to work?”
“We’ll be terribly uncomfortable and will have to ration our resources more, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t. Anyway, it’s better than one of us staying behind and dying horribly.”
“Yeah, I’d rather take my chances sharing a pod with this guy,” García added.
“But what if you both don’t make it?”
“Would you be able to choose who you’d rather have survive?” Osondu raised an eyebrow.
This shut Defour up. She just stared at the both of them, unable to speak any more.
Eventually, she just said, “Fine.”
The trio went to work on the two remaining pods. They were easy and straightforward to set up and prepare for launch.
With only a few manipulations, the pods were ready. Defour settled down in the first one and García made sure she was good to go.
“Sky, your nose is bleeding,” he suddenly remarked.
“Oh. I hadn’t noticed.”
She wiped herself clean with the sleeve of her jumpsuit and smiled.
“I’ll be fine. I’ve been thrown around in a vac-suit like a zero-gee ball. What’s a little nosebleed after that?”
“Fair enough. Safe travelling, Sky. We’ll see you soon.”
Defour activated the pod’s launching mechanism. The hatch closed by itself and performed a quick pressurisation test. Once its computer had determined that everything was good to go, a countdown appeared in a head-up display that unfolded before the Cadet’s face.
Seconds later, she was pressed back against the other side of the pod as the magnetic rails it rested on catapulted the small capsule out into open space.
In the meantime, Osondu had prepared the other escape pod. He managed to squeeze in together with García, even though it had only been designed to accommodate one person. García was barely able to reach the launch button. As they hurled out into space, both men were pressed uncomfortably close together.
All that was left was for the three Cadets to hope that someone would find their pods and pick them up.