20 October 2326
Amanda Defour woke up from a very confusing dream. By the time she sat up in her bunk the memory had already faded away, leaving her wondering what it had all been about. She checked the time on her MFD and saw that she was up twenty minutes too early.
Not bothering to try and go back to sleep for such a short amount of time, she dragged herself to the hygiene station that was stacked away behind a privacy panel in the back of the cabin. Only there she realised that the satin bonnet she had been wearing to keep her hair in check had come off over night.
She stared at her reflection in the mirror, raised her hands to her head, and exclaimed, “Oh come on!”
“Are you all right in there?” Osondu asked from beyond the privacy screen.
“No! Stay away!”
“Relax, Sky. Don’t bite my head off, just asking cause I care,” he said, and held his hands up as if to defend himself.
Cadet Defour, meanwhile, became oblivious to the young man from the West-African Commonwealth. Instead, she tried to salvage her looks, spritzing some water in her hair, and brushing it back violently while wincing every other time. Finally, she took a thick rubber band, intending to tie her hair into a bun and be done with it.
The rubber band was not feeling it, however, and snapped while she was about to put it on, propelling itself towards her cheek.
“Fuck!” she cried out.
Outside, Osondu and García looked at each other. García was about to say something when Osondu stopped him with a stern look and a wave of the hand. He shrugged and went back to getting ready himself.
Minutes later, Defour stomped out from behind the privacy screen and grumbled, “Morning.”
“Good morning,” the two men replied in unison.
“Hey, weren’t you going to do that thing with your hair?” García asked.
“It’s called a twist-out,” she replied, suddenly only centimetres away from his face, “and it didn’t work out!”
She went to pick up her MFD from her bunk and walked towards the cabin door.
“Are you guys coming? You’re going to make us late again.”
García looked at Osondu and mouthed, “If looks could kill.”
The two young men followed her out of the cabin and the three of them made their way towards the auditorium situated in the adjacent habitat ring.
They had only taken a few steps when Defour suddenly stopped dead in her tracks.
“Wait! Where’s Sparks?” she almost shouted.
“No idea,” said Osondu. “Her bunk was empty when we got up.”
“Did she even come in at all?” García asked.
“Yes, she did. I couldn’t fall asleep right away and noticed her coming in late.”
“That really isn’t like her.”
They continued in silence towards the access ladder to the other levels. Once there, they climbed down to the next level and made their way to the adjacent habitat ring via a structure referred to as ‘the starbridge’.
The walkway was surrounded by a tube that was mostly transparent, save for some heavier structural elements. Even though the three cadets, who by now were surrounded by many others headed in the same direction, had crossed this bridge countless times before, they could not help but look upwards and be amazed by Zeta Station’s central cylinder which appeared to be turning.
It was in fact them who were on the rotating element of the station, kept in perpetual motion by complicated machinery.
The next obligatory step brought Cadet Defour to the railing. She leaned over slightly and gazed down at the abyss of interstellar space. Due to the brightness of the starbridge’s lighting, she was unable to make out anything, except for the pale glow of a massive nebula which she had yet to identify.
Only the station’s command crew and the navigators travelling to and from Zeta Station knew which nebula it was. The location of the ROTA was a well-kept secret. Even after their training was complete, most graduates from the Academy never found out about it.
Defour picked up the pace to catch up with Osondu and García.
“You’ve been stargazing again?” the man from the USNA asked, smiling at her.
“Don’t you know it,” she replied.
She suddenly ran off, leaving the two men standing there looking at each other. Defour pushed her way through a crowd of Cadets on their way to various lectures until she reached one specific person. She put her hand on the person’s shoulder and spun her around, almost making both of them fall.
“Sparks! Where’ve you been?”
“Oh my God, Sky. You scared me,” Cadet Lundström said, one hand on her chest, the other resting against Defour’s arm.
“I scared you?” the young woman from the UCC asked, then elbowed her friend in the side. “I’m not the one who pulled a disappearing act. What happened?”
“Aw, you missed me. That’s so sweet,” the blonde laughed, hooking her arm into that of her friend. “I’m alright, no need to worry.”
They were rapidly caught up by Osondu and García who greeted Lundström, but did not want to intrude on the moment she and Defour were having any more than necessary. The quartet walked the rest of the way across the starbridge idly chatting until they reached the other habitat ring, where a line had formed outside of their auditorium.
Lundström raised an eyebrow, “Everton is not here yet? And I thought we were running late.”
“Alright, Sparks,” Defour grinned. “What have you done to the man?”
“Me?” she gasped.
“Yes you. Just yesterday you insinuated that I’d use my body to get better grades. So did you follow your own advice or what?”
All four of them broke out in almost hysterical laughter, earning a mix of confused and reprimanding looks from everyone surrounding them.
Chief Sergeant Monika Lorenz activated the intercom next to Major-Professor Everton’s cabin door. She took a step back and stood at ease, legs slightly apart, her hands together behind her back. She did not have to wait long for the door to slide aside, revealing the station’s most senior senior officer.
“Good morning, Sergeant... Lorenz, was it?”
“Yes Sir, good morning Sir,” she saluted.
Everton returned the salute, then said, “And you brought a friend. Good morning, Lieutenant...”
“Olchevski, Sir,” the Lieutenant replied, saluting as well.
Major-Professor Everton looked him over briefly, noticing the lightning bolt on his collar badge which identified him as a high-energy specialist. He carried with him a standard equipment container.
“What can I do for you, Lieutenant? Sergeant?”
“Sergeant Lorenz approached me regarding the disturbance you were experiencing,” Lieutenant Olchevski began to explain. He then nodded to Sergeant Lorenz for her to continue.
“After you described the issue that bothered you, I reported to the comm-off, who ran a diagnostic on the high-gain antenna and all other systems housed in the mast closest to this habitat ring.”
Everton raised an eyebrow. He had not expected the Sergeant to go above and beyond in this matter. He nodded briefly, wanting her to continue.
“After those tests came back nominal, we theorised that it could be a magnetic disturbance caused by something in the ring that would react with the mast or its equipments.”
“And that’s where I come in,” Lieutenant Olchevski took over. “The comm-off has asked me to install a portable MAD in your cabin and record any anomaly occurring over a twenty-four hour period. That way, we will know for sure if anything is not working as it should over on this side.”
He finished his sentence with a faint smile.
“Somehow I get the impression that you don’t quite believe what I’ve told the Sergeant, Lieutenant.”
Olchevski stiffened sligthly, “Sir. I meant no disrespect. I have not personally experienced what you mentioned, but it is an old station and who knows what kind of kinks it developed over the decades.”
“That’s very diplomatic of you,” the old man said, and smiled. “Very well. Set up your equipment and we’ll talk again once you’ve gathered your data.”
Major-Professor Everton went back into his cabin, allowing the two others to step in behind him. He grabbed his MFD from his desk and headed back for the door.
“Please close back behind yourselves once you’re done. I have to head out or I’ll be late to give a lecture no one is interested in.”
Chief Sergeant Lorenz and Lieutenant Olchevski both responded with a rigid, “Yes, Sir.”
Once the door had closed behind the Major-Professor, they began to work. Lorenz made sure that any devices likely to cause electromagnetic interference were properly turned off, while Olchevski opened up the container he had brought with him. Inside was a metre-long innocuous-looking cylinder with eight legs and a spherical bulge in the middle.
The Lieutenant carefully lifted the magnetic anomaly detector out of its case and rested it on the floor in the centre of the cabin. He held down the red button at the top of the central bulge and gave it a five-count before letting go.
A low hum filled the room and three orange lights came on around the button, the first one immediately blinking green. Olchevski went to help Lorenz make sure the room was as electrically neutral as possible while the device self-calibrated.
“What do you think of this, Sergeant?” Olchevski asked.
“To be honest, Sir, I am not sure,” Lorenz replied, slowly, weighing her words as she spoke. “It could be like you said. It is an old station after all.”
“I was merely being polite. I’ve been assigned to Zeta Station for two years, and no one has ever mentioned anything like it.”
“But the Major has not left the station in the last decade. Surely if...”
She was cut off by Olchevsi, “The Major is an old man, Sergeant. And probably lonely too, I’d imagine.”
Lorenz kept her thoughts to herself, as the Lieutenant’s tone clearly indicated that the conversation was over, even though it was a conversation he had started himself only moments earlier. She shrugged and dismantled the cabin’s main electrical panel, preparing to disconnect it from the station’s power grid for the duration of the experiment.
In the meantime, all three lights on top of the MAD had switched to green and stopped blinking. Lieutenant Olchevski pressed the same button again to gain access to the device’s control panel. He made sure that the sensor was set to be fully autonomous so that the readings would be as clean as possible. It came with its own shielded power source and was programmed to store data instead of transmitting it.
Since the immediate surroundings, the Major-Professor’s cabin, had stopped generating electromagnetic fields due to Sergeant Lorenz’ actions, the MAD would only pick up interference and anomalies from sources further away.
Ideally, one anomaly would stand out. Should this not be the case, however, a more in-depth analysis of the recordings would be necessary, which was something no one looked forward to, ever.
Olchevski set an activation timer for the device and stepped back into the corridor. Lorenz disconnected the final relays and left the cabin as well, manually closing the door behind her. She then programmed the screen next to it to show a maintenance notice, signalling to anyone that the room was off-limits for the time being.