The Raid On Zeta Station

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Part 5

After a few uneventful minutes of standing around, a Staff Sergeant fought his way through the crowd of waiting Cadets, opened up the auditorium, and allowed them in.

The men and women who aspired to become officers of the International Space Defence Force started filling up the seats closest to the entrance, situated at the back of the room. By the time Defour, Lundström, Osondu, and García made it inside, they had to walk half-way towards the front of the room to find empty seats.

The auditorium was exceptionally large for a structure drifting freely through space. It spanned over two decks in height and was so long that the curvature of the habitat ring was clearly visible. The entire ceiling was covered in luminescent plating which brightly lit up the entire room.

The far end of the room featured a small podium with a speaker’s desk as well as a massive holo-display for presentation purposes. The seating was raised towards the back of the room and each seat featured a foldable mini-desk, an integrated screen, and an earpiece to ensure that no Cadet missed any detail of the lecture.

Everyone present was chatting with their neighbours, creating a deafening background noise that filled the entire room.

No one had noticed how much time had passed when the door suddenly flung open again. Seemingly out of nowhere, Major-Professor Felix Everton stepped into the auditorium and made his way down towards the podium with long strides.

A Cadet seated right next to the door jumped up and shouted, “Officer on deck!”

Everyone else stopped talking immediately and stood to attention, facing the front of the room. Once Everton had made it all the way, he turned to face the Cadets and simply said, “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Sir!” came the thunderous reply from the Cadets.

“Please be seated.”

The room was briefly filled with noise as everyone took to their seats. Then, silence reigned. Major-Professor Everton enjoyed the calm for a minute before he began to speak again.

“First of all, let me say that I am pleased to see that on the one day I was late, all of you were here on time,” he paused again and chuckled.

“Also, I have to disappoint you one more time. I know how eager you all are to find out how well you handled your essays. Unfortunately, I was prevented from grading all of them, but I shall be finished in due time.”

Major-Professor Everton paced around the podium as he spoke. The Cadets were used to his lectures and many of them did not give him their full attention. He was well aware of this, but also knew that most people who attended ROTA had little interest in what he taught. Today, however, he had decided to mix things up.

“So. We have talked in great length about the intricacies of the current system, of its strengths and weaknesses. To find out how that system came to be, however, we will have to delve somewhat deeper into History.”

Many Cadets groaned softly, and a few of them let their heads drop into their hands. Major-Professor Everton came to a halt behind the speaker’s desk, rested his elbows on it and folded his arms together.

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about our galaxy’s History?”

The room went silent. Cadets looked at each other, their facial expressions blank. No one had expected this turn of events.

“This is new,” Lundström whispered to Defour, leaning towards her slightly.

Cadet Defour nodded as only response. She was too busy trying hard not to jump up and down to be able to formulate a response. As eager as the young woman from the UCC was to answer, she was curious to hear what her fellow Cadets would come up with.

Everyone was so taken by surprise that a whole agonisingly slow minute went by before anyone made an attempt to contribute.

At long last, a rather short young man seated in the third row stood up. Everton gestured towards him, beckoning him to speak.

“Sir, the colonies were granted autonomy through the signing of the Atlantis Charter, including the right to self-administration.”

“Very good, Cadet. Textbook, in fact,” the Major-Professor said. “But the Atlantis Charter was only signed in twenty-three-oh-two. That’s too recent to be of interest to us today, though it does play a role eventually.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Think back further.”

“You mean, how the war started, Sir?”

“Yes and no. Let’s try it like this. Where are you from, Cadet...”

“Cadet Manuel Vasquez, Sir. I’m from the United Andean Territories, Sir.”

“Good. And since when does your nation exist, Cadet Vasquez?”

“Twenty-three-oh-one, Sir, like all the nations on Earth,” the Cadet answered, uncertain of where this line of questioning was supposed to lead.

Everton started wandering about the podium once again before continuing to speak.

“And before that?” he asked.

“My home was... administrated by the... Central Government?”

“Yes! Precisely!” Everton almost shouted, pointing at the young Andean with both hands, “So just like her colonies only obtained their autonomy fairly recently, Earth herself underwent some major changes not too long ago. Now why was that necessary?” he looked around the auditorium, “Anyone?”

Silence engulfed the auditorium once more. After another quiet minute, Cadet Defour could stand it no longer. She rose up from her seat and blurted out, “Because the colonies were mismanaged and had grown beyond what the original system could handle!” she took a deep breath and added, “Sir!”

“Very good, Defour, though somewhat of an understatement,” Everton smiled. “Let me show you why.”

The Major-Professor returned to the speaker’s desk and rested his MFD on it, automatically synchronising the device with the auditorium’s holo-display. Before showing anything, he said, “It’s a complex matter, so we shall take our time and look into it in detail.”

Twelve hours had passed since Chief Sergeant Lorenz had left the magnetic anomaly detector in Major-Professor Everton’s cabin. Curiosity got the better of her, and since she was off duty she decided to check up on it. The old man was housed in another cabin and she would log the entry so that any interference caused by it would not be misinterpreted.

She left the cabin she shared with three other NCOs and made her way towards the officers’ quarters. As expected, she did not cross paths with many people. Most of the occupants of Zeta Station were off duty like her and were likely to have returned to their respective cabins by now.

Lorenz was relatively new on Zeta Station. She had only been transferred here a few months prior after finishing a one-year stint aboard a front-line battlecruiser. She had seen her fair share of action and had vowed to enjoy her time away from combat until she would be rotated back aboard a fighting unit.

As a member of the maintenance staff, she often wandered the Station by herself on her way to her next assigned task. Whether she walked the brightly-lit corridors or the dark and remote maintenance tunnels, the ancient station creeped her out.

It was not so much the anachronistic design or the layout that bothered her. Something about the overall atmosphere of the place, however, especially when it was empty, got to her and made her feel uneasy.

“Come on, Monika, focus. Don’t let the old place drive you crazy,” she spoke to herself while picking up the pace.

For no apparent reason, her heart was racing, and the hair on her arms stood on end as she entered the level on which Major-Professor Everton’s cabin was located. In the back of her mind, something got hold of her train of thought and loaded it up with a sense of foreboding. She shook her head to clear her thoughts and continued to walk.

Once in front of the door, she checked the cabin’s info-screen that still showed the maintenance notice she had left there. According to the readout, no one had been through this door and the corridor had only seen light foot traffic.

Chief Sergeant Lorenz activated the door’s manual release and firmly pushed it aside. She then took out her torch and pointed the beam of light into the room that opened up before her.

There, in the centre of the room, rested the portable magnetic anomaly detector, exactly as Lieutenant Olchevski had left it.

Lorenz slowly approached the device as if she feared that it may explode at any moment. She chuckled at her own thought, which was simply ridiculous.

After a few more steps, she knelt in front of the MAD and tapped the control panel with her index finger to make it come alive. The screen lit up instantly.

While she was not qualified to set up and calibrate the device, Chief Sergeant Lorenz had received some basic training in its operation to obtain a readout. She was also versed enough to interpret whatever information the device would throw at her.

She navigated through the various options presented to her and looked for the readout summary. The screen displayed a simplified version of the insanely complex data the device had gathered since its activation. A green horizontal line showed the average of all magnetic activity within a hundred metre radius around the sensor. Significant changes in activity that deviated from this average were shown as a red line that wandered above and below the green average line depending on the intensity of the magnetic fields.

Lorenz studied the graph from the very beginning. She almost missed the first peak, as it only lasted for a few seconds. When she noticed the second peak, she raised an eyebrow, but remained otherwise placid. The third peak of similar intensity caused a sharp intake of breath.

“What the...” she exclaimed.

Chief Sergeant Lorenz paused the readout and went back to the beginning. She compared the peak intensities and determined that they were not just similar, but identical in strength. She also noticed that the interval between the peaks was the same, down to the millisecond.

She let the readout continue and gave the small screen her full attention. Her muscles tensed and she leaned forward until she was only a few centimetres away from the display. The peaks continued to appear, always with the same interval and intensity.

It took the Sergeant the better part of twenty minutes to scan through the data recorded by the MAD over the last twelve hours. The average of magnetic activity was fairly normal and corresponded to the change in activity of the station itself. The peaks, however, left her perplexed. She rubbed her temples with her hands before looking at the data once more.

She tried to recall the rotational period of the station’s habitat rings, intending to mentally superimpose it on the graph that unfolded in front of her eyes.

Suddenly, she got up from the cabin floor and ran to the viewport. She almost pushed her face against the cold material separating her from the daunting void of interstellar space, her hands flat on the cabin wall to the left and right of the small window.

She remained completely still and waited. Her breath condensed on the viewport, and soon the only sound she heard was the beat of her own heart, which pounded louder than ever.

Then, as the mast swung by outside, she felt it.

There it was, the vibration the Major-Professor had complained about.

Again, she remained motionless, almost forgetting to breathe, waiting for the cabin to rotate past the mast again. This time, she not only felt it, but heard a low hum accompanying the vibration as well. Her eyes opened wide and she almost tripped over herself as she ran back to the magnetic anomaly detector.

She switched the display back to live readout and kept one eye on it while waiting for the mast to pass by one more time. As the mast came and went, the readout spiked with the same intensity as all those peaks she had studied before.

Chief Sergeant Lorenz reached for her MFD, almost dropping the device on the floor in her haste. She synchronised it with the detector and uploaded the data recorded so far. Once done, she got up and ran out the door, forgetting to lock it back.

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