Copyright © 2018
Nathan M. Hurst
From the docking deck, Austin Kramer gave the front of his tunic a tug to straighten it. There was no need, but the nervousness of the situation demanded he do something. Receiving a five star general aboard the station was not something he did every day. Ensuring his ceremonial uniform was as ready and as properly turned out as it could be, would hopefully give the right impression. Composure and control.
The others of the delegation were already aboard and preparing for the coming meeting in their various assigned quarters, each with a small entourage. Ten of the most powerful people on the planet, with the eleventh arriving in the shuttle he now saw across the approach controller’s display screens. The controller and shuttle pilot chatter coordinating the final delicate manoeuvres.
He felt the docking clamps activate through the palm of his hand as he stabilised his weightless attitude to face the airlock, vibration sudden and definite. Situated at the end of the stations axel, the docking bay provided space for three shuttles within a barrel interior, each docking clamp locating the shuttle in place to receive the extending airlock and walkway to the docking deck. It would be a matter of a couple of minutes before the inner door opened and he would greet General Ed Hallard. The red light on the airlock door switched to green, the door slid aside to reveal a small wall of people. After a moment of inspection by the general’s bodyguard, the general moved forward from behind the wall to greet him.
“Austin! How is zero-g treating you?” said General Hallard affably. He offered his hand and they clasped forearms, a spacers greeting, linking and stabilising them as one mass while they spoke and floated in place. “Is Sommers here yet?”
“Yes, General. You are the last to arrive. The others will be congregating in the main briefing room within the next few minutes. We should go directly.”
“Quite right,” Hallard said with a smile. “Are all preparations in place?”
“As you instructed. The commanders on the ground are waiting on the council’s word. They are ready.”
“Good.” The general took a deep breath and looked around the docking deck. “Ah, station air,” he said. “It never gets better.”
Entering the elevator to the outer ring of the station, they each took one of the vertical couches around the elevator wall. A simple padded silhouette of a human figure on the wall oriented the user and a ‘U’ bar dropped down over the head to secure the individual in place. It appeared unnecessary at the hub, but as the elevator moved towards the outer habitat ring, the centripetal effects would begin. The couches simplified the human process, made orientation easy and mitigated injury. A ping announced the closure of the doors and a light female voice asked, “Destination?”
“Briefing rooms, floor six,” he stated. A second chime sounded as the elevator display showed an icon representing the requested section of the station and the forum levels. The lift began to descend.
Minutes later they were walking through the doors to the forum, security at the door saluting the general as he passed, he returned a casual salute and walked briskly down the steps to the remaining seat on the forum floor. The circular arena had four rows of seating full of support staff and aides, the seats raked up steeply from the speaker’s floor, a large hanging projector unit dominated the ceiling and currently gave a holographic display of the station logo – Orbital Command Platform Two, Green Vale.
The situation room was buzzing with low spoken conversations and last minute instructions before General Hallard took his place. Hallard sat for a moment to connect to the local console at his chair and to speak in hushed tones of greeting to a couple of the aides in the seats behind his own. Greetings out of the way, he composed himself and stood to address the assembled group. The room instantly fell silent, a muffled cough or two heard as people settled. People always coughed as meetings began, perhaps it was a nervous habit, or an unconscious communication to the group to punctuate the need for silence, it was certainly universal. He discarded the distracting thought.
“Thank you all for attending at this critical time. Our work and discussions over these last few months have come to the point of action. We are all aware of the history which brings us here, the impending global danger to all our peoples, and the inability of our governments to act and coordinate. The paralysis of these governments on this matter and the ticking timer on the situation demands that we act and take matters into our own hands. Without your input here today, humanity will be lost. You are guaranteeing a future for our children and generations to come.” Hallard clicked a controller in his hand and Kramer watched as the holographic projector above the centre of the forum suddenly displayed a giant image of Jupiter, stunning turbulent swirls of cloud driven by 400 mph winds, reds, creams and brown stratified across the atmosphere. It was always a planet to demand respect. But, the image shifted, and zoomed, shifted and zoomed, until another image filled the holographic display.
“This is why we are here today,” there were nods of agreement around the room. “What we know about it at this moment is limited. We have been collecting data on this ship since the tracking station Hubble-08 picked it up passing Neptune. That was only two months ago. Latest estimates suggest it will obtain close proximity to Earth within the next six weeks.”
The holographic image flicked again, this time a much closer image, more surface detail but the resolution was poor.
“Analysis of the ship’s surface gives us much to concern us. It appears to be formed from a large oblate spheroid, possibly an asteroid which has been converted for extended durations in deep space. We have identified defensive towers and hangar bays, and parts of the surface which appear to be for venting, possibly for directional control and thrust. With the information available to us at this time, we believe the purpose of the ship to be either a colonisation mission, or military invasion force. Both outcomes must be considered, but both would be equally catastrophic for this world.”
Kramer watched as General Hallard paused to collect his thoughts, and for his last statement to sink in with the assembled decision makers. But he knew for many the decision was already made.
Hallard continued, “We have people on stand-by and in place on the planet surface. All they need is our final decision. Now is that time. If there are any last moment considerations, they should be heard now.”
Stern faces watched the general as he returned to his seat. The forum began.
Adrian Carter was the first to stand, an Australian tech leader, CEO and primary owner of the company that created the Crystal memory hardware used for 90 per cent of the global networks quantum computers.
“I’ve read the arguments, as we all have. I understand that many of these considerations have been aired before, that this is a session to agree and not overturn the course of action before us. But I would like to remind everyone of the tremendous risk that is posed to our world and its people. We are all agreed that this vessel is dangerous, and the fact that they have the technology to travel across the stars to reach us only reinforces my belief that they are far more able to destroy us than we are of protecting ourselves without total commitment and unity from all nations. We must act as one nation, one voice and ten billion swords. We must strike at the heart of this foe quickly and without hesitation. I vote and agree to this action.” This drew a round of applause from the group, agreement and backing. Carter sat to allow the next speaker.
A tall, stick thin man stood, his features elven and androgynous. Head of Bionix Corp, Dylan Addis had clearly been undergoing the many rejuvenating programmes of his own company. The Californian waited for the noise to subside, then nodding to himself he spoke, “I agree in large part with Adrian, but we must attempt communication first. Diplomacy must be our first action.”
“We’ve been transmitting for months. Ever since the ship was first sighted. It has not responded. I don’t see how your approach is going to achieve anything other than waste more time”, interrupted Sven Olsan, of the Scandinavian contingent. “Time we don’t have.”
“Sven’s right,” agreed the Japanese ambassador Sakura Ishikawa. “You have had your window of diplomacy.”
“Diplomacy can be implemented in parallel to other actions. It is not constrained by some arbitrary timeframe. We should continue to attempt to communicate with this vessel, regardless of events,” said Elizabeth Sommers, of the UK Ministry of Defence. “Having said that, we agree with a forceful first strike. We will only get one chance at a remote off planet strike, if that fails the best we can hope for is a unified ground defence.”
From his vantage point on the walkway around the upper tier of the forum, he could perform his security function with greatest efficiency. Clear lines of sight to all exits, walkways and speakers. He was looking directly at Field-Marshall Sommers as she spoke, moving round the circle he made sure he gained a good view of each of the attending key figures.
“Political planetary unification is the key to our global defence,” said General Hallard as Kramer continued his patrol of the upper tier walkway. He nodded to a guard as he passed, a silent confirming communication that all was clear, no suspicious activity. “To place this council at the head of planetwide decision making during this state of global emergency, please place your right hand to the ballot console before you and confirm your vote for action. Once your DNA scan is confirmed your vote will be logged for the record. Please make your decision now.”
He watched as each of the council placed their vote, the results immediately relayed to the display at the centre of the room. Eleven white spheres rotated in sequence, representing the eleven members of the council, each sphere to turn red or green depending on the outcome of the vote.
Making his way to the forum’s main door he stood next to the guards and turned back to watch the vote come in, the display turned from white to green as the vote was confirmed and logged. It had been as he expected. Those in the council unable to see beyond their desire to attain further power and profit, even in light of an alien ship only weeks away. Then again, if they could capture the prize and attain global power while the rest of the planet was scrambling for answers, the reward could be great. It was the ultimate risk-reward game that they had spent their lives excelling at.
The last green spherical icon clicked over to green. General Hallard got up to address the crowd. It was then that a small icon appeared in the lower corner of his vision. A little circle with a lightning bolt on the diagonal. He blinked twice; a double click; a confirmation. A second icon appeared in its place, a box with a tick. Green, the icon was green. His mind faded out for a moment, the message had been received, the decision made. The icon was replaced again. 5:00. He had five minutes to get off the station.
“Thank you for your sign off on this action. I regret that it is necessary, but it is vital. In years to come, history will mark this decision as the moment the people of the world stood together against a common enemy.”
Kramer turned to the guard to his left, “Time to get the champagne on ice,” he said with a smile. The guard joined in the joke and returned the smile, pressing the door control for him. The door slid quietly open and he walked through and headed out into the reception area. He needed to act fast. Time always seemed to go faster the less of it you had, and right now he was seconds away from all hell breaking loose.
He took the corridor away from the reception area leaving the catering staff to their work; the celebration would be short lived. Hallard and the others had made grave miscalculations in their plans, primary of which was to assume that they could pull off an operation of this kind without the intelligence services of the world learning of it. He couldn’t help but think that Field-Marshall Sommers should have known better, but everyone had their weakness.
Walking with purpose and confidence he strode into the nearest security station, there were two guards, one at the monitoring station the other at the door. He had scheduled this post with half the security compliment, stating that the additional resource was needed in the council chambers. With the elevated level of security required for high profile guests it had gone unquestioned. The guard recognised his boss as Kramer approached.
“Sir,” the guard said respectfully as he passed.
The neurotoxin dart hit the guard in the neck from behind, a difficult shot but executed perfectly. He swung his aim to the second guard who had yet to react to the unbelieving scene he was watching on his monitors of an attack on his own post by his own commanding officer. He fired again, a silent dart bridging the distance between him and the second guard in the blink of an eye. The guard didn’t move, dead at his station before any alarm was raised. Concealing his dart gun, the material of which was laced with his own DNA to mask if from the auto-detection sensors dotted about the ship, he stepped back to catch the unbalanced body of the guard at the door and moved him quickly to a workstation and monitor, seating him and letting his body slump. 4:00.
He quickly used the open terminal in front of the first guard, access codes already entered he navigated his way through menus to the forum chamber door controls. A window opened with a display of the room and the attending councillors, everyone applauding and congratulating each other. He locked the doors to the chamber, then encoded a unique priority override. 3:00.
Klaxons began to sound across the station. He looked at the security station primary screen, missiles were being tracked from various high altitude positions in the atmosphere below them and were advancing rapidly, all forecast trajectories converging on their position. The trap had been sprung. He was behind schedule. Navigating quickly to the defence grid controls he started to disable the grid, but it was already at work, unleashing thousands of rounds per minute into the upper atmosphere like a shield of lead. Several incoming missiles blipped out of view as the defence grid did its job. He caught a glance of the council chamber camera display as he worked, pandemonium had broken out as people realised they were locked into a room while a major emergency unfolded. By now the more senior among the council would have understood the implications behind the alert and he noticed one or two of them sitting staring at the floor or monitors, resigned to their fate.
2:00. The clock was running out. Sweat laced his brow and he could feel his fingers slipping across the console keyboard. The bridge had started to announce evacuation orders for non-essential personnel. People were rushing to their muster stations and he heard the first of the life rafts launch from the bay across the corridor from the security station. He had to enter the keycode to disable the defence cannons a second time, in his haste he had mashed the keys. He scolded himself for being such an amateur. Defence Grid: Disabled. The hammering of the guns stopped. He moved off and headed for the nearest life raft.
Security stations were positioned at muster points across the Green Vale for good reason. As he closed the door behind him he turned to a scene of chaos. Where the local security team would have provided instruction for an orderly evacuation, their absence had caused base human instinct to run wild on the assembled station staff. There were enough life rafts for all, but people were in a panic and crushing for the same life boats. Scanning the scene there were two free bays further along. He moved quickly across the floor and to the furthest open door. Room for ten.
0:30. He turned back to the edge of the crowd, calling over the arguments and yelling. He grabbed a couple of people by the arm, frightened, confused eyes turned to look at him.
“This way,” he said.
Some others overheard him and realising their error rushed for the door. As soon as the tenth person crossed the threshold to the life raft he hit the door’s emergency close and it shut like a guillotine. A dismembered arm dropped to the floor; misfortune coming early to one soul. He just managed to reach his seat before the life raft launched. Thunder raged for a couple of seconds as the raft’s thrusters fired them into the black and clear of the station structure. Unbearable g-forces ravaged them, vibrations rattled them, then suddenly there was quiet. There were a few subdued sobs from the survivors, and fear filled the space.
The outside camera relayed the view of the orbital platform to the life raft’s display screen. Several other life rafts had launched, successfully clearing the station and turning towards the planet surface. Without warning the lower central hub received its first impact, a small flash of an explosion, bright and fleeting as the breached oxygen was used up. The force of the blast littered local space with debris as metal tore and contorted. Another missile strike. This time he saw the tiny tail of light from the missile propulsion unit rise from the atmosphere below, like a shooting star in reverse. The structure suffered explosive overpressure from within and began to break apart.
He would be on the ground in ten minutes, a transport already en route to recover him and return him to his superiors for debriefing. The others, would be recovered and likely questioned for their part in the stations operation. His day was just getting started. He thought momentarily of Hallard, Sommers and the others as he stared at the screen and watched the destruction of the defence platform, the structural integrity of the station compromised as the vast rotational mass overloaded the remaining spokes of the wheel. The newscasts would play it out as a disaster, a meteor strike or a fusion failure blamed for the events. It would raise shouts of rage and blame for a short time until the real news story broke. The encroaching alien object from the stars. The moment that happened, the events at the Green Vale orbital platform would be forgotten in an instant, his masters able to control events unhindered.
For now, the global status quo was maintained.
He received his next assignment before the life raft touched the atmosphere.
Cover art by Stephen Sampson