26 October 2326
Sejora and Neeshu had observed the battle for the ISDF station from the relative comfort and safety of their ‘borrowed’ Comet-class transport shuttle.
The battle was over, and appeared to have ended in a draw. The ISDF may have lost an important asset, but the Tarhinans had been unable to board the station, which had been one of the primary objectives of their operation.
Even though they could have made a short FTL-jump to a safe distance, they had decided to remain behind and watch the battle unfold. They were far enough away to be safe from getting caught in the crossfire, and they had decided that knowing the outcome of the battle might be relevant to them and their future.
They sat in the shuttle’s small cockpit, strapped in and ready to go at a moment’s notice, talking about their next course of action.
Sejora pointed at the shuttle’s sensor screen and said, “They’re gone. I think we should move in closer to see if there’s anyone to rescue or anything to salvage.”
“You really think they left people behind?” Neeshu asked. “They seemed pretty thorough.”
“They were in and out in no time. I’m sure they just performed a superficial scan and didn’t bother with boarding and sweeping the place room to room.”
“Most of the station was probably vented out to space, so there was no point in looking.”
“Maybe, but it’s a huge station. I’m sure they overlooked something. If they’re anything like our own fleet guys, they definitely rushed the job.”
“But what will we do if we find someone. We’re not exactly equipped for a salvage operation.”
“We’ve got light vac-suits in the back. We’ll figure something out.”
“Alright then. Let’s go back and check it out.”
“On my way Ma’am.”
He grasped the ship’s controls and oriented it so that it pointed towards the station. His wife, meanwhile, made sure that they had a radar lock on their target. This would allow them to execute a much smoother and more precise approach, since the computer would then be able to display their velocity relative to the station.
Since said station was the only known physical object within a few light-years, using it as a reference point was the only logical thing to do.
Once everything was set up, Sejora throttled up the main engines. He kept them running until the indicated velocity went from negative to positive. This meant that they were no longer moving away from their target but were now heading towards it.
He kept accelerating until their speed would allow them to reach their destination in a reasonable amount of time.
“We should reach the station in about an hour,” he said as he cut off the engines. “Run an active scan, let’s see if we can spot anything interesting before I have to turn this box around.”
“Yessir!” Neeshu replied and laughed.
She calibrated the sensors with ease. It was a simpler model than the one she had used on the remote observatory, so she was more than familiar with its operating system.
While the scan was in progress, Sejora programmed their deceleration burn into the autopilot. He could fly the manoeuvre himself, of course, but this way would be more precise and efficient.
Once the scan was done, he would only need to push one button, and the ship would point its engines towards their target and execute the burn until their relative velocity reached zero. This would happen as close to the target as possible, as long as it could happen in a safe manner.
We’ve got something!” Neeshu exclaimed. She would have jumped out of her seat, had she not been strapped to it with a four-point harness.
“What do you have?” her husband asked, looking over.
“A handful of objects, a while away from the other debris. Based on the size, they could be escape pods.”
Neeshu switched to a different sensor, then continued, “They’re emitting EM-fields and are radiating heat. There’s something alive over there, even if it’s just the electronics.”
“Alright, let’s go get them. How far off course are they?”
“They’re pretty far out and moving away from the station at a decent pace. We’ll pass them in five minutes, so you can start your deceleration burn. I’ll give you the vectors once we’re in pursuit.”
Sejora did as his wife suggested. He adjusted his program so that the autopilot would cancel out their velocity as soon as possible, and not just once they reached the station.
He leaned back as the computer took care of the manoeuvre. They were briefly pressed back into their seats while the engines were running at full throttle.
Neeshu then gave her husband the promised coordinates, and he adjusted their orientation accordingly before engaging the engines one more time. She had locked on to the new target with the ship’s radar and was guiding Sejora so that he could fully focus on piloting.
It took the transport shuttle another hour to catch up with the unknown objects. Sejora had opted for a slow approach, so that he could use the manoeuvring thrusters to perform the final course and velocity adjustments. That way, he did not need to flip the ship around once more.
“Go suit up and get ready in the cargo hold. I’ll have to swallow them up one by one,” Sejora told his wife.
“On my way.”
Minutes later, Neeshu was in the shuttle’s cargo hold, wearing a vacuum-suit. She was holding on to an overhead handrail, while a sturdy cable was tethering her to the ship itself. The artificial gravity had been deactivated and the atmosphere pumped into pressurised storage tanks, so that they could open the rear hatch in outer space.
Once the hatch was open, Sejora manoeuvred the shuttle into position just in front of the closest object. Neeshu was guiding him for the final approach.
“Fifty metres away! Forty! A little lower. Down two metres! One! Stop! Perfect! Watch out, he’s drifting to the left! Twenty metres away! Ten!
Eventually, and after much shouting, the object floated inside the cargo hold, travelling at the same speed as the ship surrounding it. Neeshu used the handrails to position herself above the salvaged object, then carefully pushed down against it until it made contact with the floor.
She then secured it to the ship with some heavy-duty tension belts before returning to her initial position.
“That’s one down! It’s definitely an escape pod. Let’s go to the next one!”
They repeated the same manoeuvre three more times, until all the pods they had detected were safely aboard. Once that was taken care of, Neeshu closed the rear hatch and restored the atmosphere within the cargo hold.
Eventually, Sejora turned the artificial gravity generator back on, and Neeshu was able to stand on her two feet once more.
Since the shuttle was once more on an escape trajectory away from the station and there were no obstacles ahead of them, Sejora decided to join his wife in the rear of the transport shuttle to inspect what they had found.
“Those two in the back look bigger, what’s special about them?” Neeshu asked.
“They’re medical pods,” Sejora explained. “They’re designed to accommodate a bunch of medical equipment on top of the standard life support. Their autonomy is also a lot longer than that of a regular pod.”
“Alright. Let’s open them up, then. I’m sure whoever’s inside is anxious to get out.”
“Maybe we should ditch the suits first. I have a feeling that vac-suits in Tarhinan black and red is the last thing those people want to see right now.”
“Right. Good thinking, husband.”
After taking off their vacuum-suits and putting them back into storage, they went to work on the first pod. The design was different from what they were used to, but the interface was designed so as to make a rescue as easy and straightforward as possible.
The pod was open less than two minutes later, and to their surprise, it contained not one, but two men in ISDF jumpsuits.
“Look, two for the price of one,” Neeshu said.
She laughed while helping the first man to his feet.
“Are you alright?” she asked him. “What’s your name?”
The man struggled to stand, so she helped him sit down against a wall. Once he had settled down, he slowly said, “Osondu. Cadet Emenike Osondu. I’ll be fine. Thanks for getting us out of there.”
“What were you thinking, squeezing two people into a one-man pod?”
“There was only one pod left, and neither of us wanted to die, so we took a chance.”
“You were damn lucky, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, Sejora helped the other man, who had introduced himself as Cadet Carlos García, sit down next to Osondu. The West-African patted his friend on the shoulder and forced a smile.
“We made it,” he said.
García tried to smile in return, but grimaced instead.
“Where’s Defour?” he asked.
“There’s another pod. We’re going to open it now,” Sejora reassured the two Cadets.
Neeshu tended to Osondu and García, while her husband went to open the other pod. She brought them some nutrition cubes and water rations so that they could regain some strength.
Suddenly, Sejora shouted, “Get the medkit! Now!”
His wife dropped what she was doing and ran over to the cargo hold’s control pod to fetch the first aid kit. She was back at her husband’s side moments later.
He had just helped a young woman out of her pod, who was struggling to breathe. Sejora grabbed the medkit from his wife, retrieved a small blue syringe, and rammed the needle into the side of the woman’s neck.
Seconds later, she inhaled deeply and almost jumped up. Neeshu caught her and rested her down on her back once again.
“Calm down, I’ve got you,” she said.
“Where am I?” the young woman asked.
“You’re on a transport ship. We fished your escape pod out of the void. What’s your name?”
“Cadet Amanda Defour. Thank you for saving me.”
She paused briefly, then spoke again, “Did you find...”
“We’re here, Sky! Don’t worry,” Osondu interrupted her.
This brought a smile to Defour’s face, even though her breathing was still laboured.
She then turned her attention back to her saviours, “Who are you? Where is this ship from?”
“And I’m Neeshu. Now don’t freak out, but we originally came here with the strike force that attacked you. But we didn’t want any part of that, so we ditched them before that happened,” she added quickly.
“You are... You’re Tarhinans?”
“Yes, I’m afraid we are.”
“Funny, that’s the second time in as many days that I’ve been saved by a Tarhinan.”
Defour passed as soon as she was done talking. Neeshu checked her vitals and reassured Osondu and García. The young woman from the UCC was merely exhausted.
“So... We’re not POWs?” García asked.
“Not at all,” Sejora said. “In fact, it’s more the other way around. We’re surrendering to you, and kindly ask that you escort us to Terran-controlled space where we would like to request asylum.”
García blinked a couple of times. He was still too weak to fully comprehend what was being said.
Osondu, however, was more alert.
“Understood. We’ll give you the coordinates to an ISDF rally-point where we can contact the fleet on your behalf. What’s with the big pods?” he asked, changing the subject abruptly.
“Those are med-pods. They contain one Sergeant Lorenz and one Lieutenant Olchevski. Do you know them?”
“Not as such, no. Are they alright?”
“They’re stable. We were going to try and wake them up in a while.”
The two rescued Cadets and two Tarhinan fugitives settled down for some more small talk while Defour slept.
After a while, Sejora and Osondu returned to the cockpit, where they programmed a course towards the nearest ISDF station.
Shortly afterwards, the Comet-class shuttle charged up its FTL-generators and left the debris field that had once been Zeta Station behind.
27 October 2326
Major-Professor Felix Everton was standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling aluglass panel that served as viewport in the narrow office he had been assigned as temporary quarters.
His cabin had been requisitioned for that obscure experiment a mere few days ago, and he had been relocated to Ring Two ever since. With all that had happened since then, it felt like ages ago. He had never received any update about said experiment, and had yet to hear from that technical Sergeant and Lieutenant.
“I wonder if anyone will even bother to come out here and salvage some of the material,” he said to himself.
As his gaze wandered across the debris field that had been left behind from the battle that had taken place two days ago, he had no illusions regarding the fate of Zeta Station.
Only a quarter of what had recently been Ring Three remained attached to the central cylinder, held in place by two severely damaged spokes. The remaining fragments were scattered in a slowly expanding arc, drifting away into the void of interstellar space.
Most of the starbridge that once linked the third and fourth habitat ring had been pulverised. One fairly large section remained, but it was almost out of view, hanging high above the station, tumbling away uncontrollably.
The central cylinder had suffered as well. Large chunks of the outer hull were missing, and a cloud of debris seemed to be orbiting close to it. In some places, plumes of gas obstructed the view, testament to a dying station that was slowly bleeding out.
After nearly 130 years of service, Zeta Station was beyond obsolete, and the thought that someone would spend any time, effort, and resources trying to restore it was ludicrous. Even more so given that the station, which had been Everton’s permanent home for the past ten years, was also way beyond repair.
The Major-Professor rested his right hand against the transparent material. He recalled the group of ISDF warships that had arrived and driven the enemy strike force away. They had then taken up positions at a safe distance of the ruined station.
He had been able to observe how smaller support ships had swooped in to rescue the students trapped in Ring Four. They had also gathered up any escape pods that had been launched, and inspected the larger fragments of Ring Three in case someone was trapped inside.
For some reason, Everton had been left behind.
He could only assume that it was due to the fact that the rest of Ring Two was vented out to space, and that the energy output of the backup generator was too low to be picked up by the rescue teams, thus giving the impression of a dead and uninhabited structure.
For now, the air in his makeshift cabin was still being renewed by the ventilation system. He knew that emergency power would only last for so long, and he had no means of communication. Everton also lacked a way to venture out into the vacuum that would greet him as soon as he opened the door.
Major-Professor Everton was not afraid of dying. He had lived a long life, and had few regrets. He had helped to shape the future generations, and considered that he had done a good job in that regard.
He had no living family left, and had long come to terms with the idea of dying alone. But never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that he would be quite this alone.
The irony of it all made him chuckle.
He had been the most senior inhabitant of Zeta Station for as long as he could remember. In that regard, it felt oddly fitting that this station, which had been his home, and now was his prison, would soon become his tomb.
Everton sighed. He had never contemplated accelerating his demise, but he was left with no way out, and literally nothing to do but stare out into the galaxy. Regardless, he had no way to give fate a hand, short of bashing his head in against the wall. That option was below his dignity, however, so he would not even consider it.
The old man stood in front of the aluglass panel a while longer, thinking about this and that.
After a while, the soft hum of the ventilation system faded away, as did the light of the emergency lighting. The habitat ring’s fuel cells, which provided power to lighting and life support, had finally run out of hydrogen.
The only light in Everton’s cabin came from the myriad of distant stars that formed the centre of the Milky Way. It bathed the room into an eerie glow, which was just enough for the Major-Professor to be able to see.
He walked to the bunk that had been installed for him. He lay down, and reached for the picture of his late wife that was resting on the makeshift night stand. He looked at it intensively for a while, as much as the light allowed, then held it against his chest and closed his eyes.
Felix Everton smiled as he fell asleep for the very last time.
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