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Chapter 1 [section 3]

Space stations have taken many forms over the nearly two centuries that humans have lived in space. The earliest were little more than pressure chambers cobbled together to make tiny habitats that rode on the very edges of Earth’s atmosphere. Modern stations are much more complex and variable, both in form and function.

On the small end of the scale are the dozens of solar weather observatories with their spartan living quarters tethered behind gargantuan radiation shields. At the other end of the scale are the ongoing projects to hollow out asteroids of various sizes in the Main Belt, built as alternatives to the more conservatively constructed outposts on Vesta and Ceres.

In between the two extremes are hundreds of orbital hotels around earth, military depots around Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and so many academic research posts that only the computers could really account for them all. Oh, and there’s the Abandonist colony orbiting the sun at about one AU opposite of Earth. Like their population, the Abandonist facilities are a jumble of ad hoc habitats made out of abandoned and retired vessels, conjoined in collective rejection of the laws and politics of the rest of humanity.

Venus Orbital Station, operated primarily by private contractors under the auspices of NATO Space Command, is one of the multiple middling-sized military depots. Imagine a grain silo with five rings stacked around it, blown up more than a hundred times in size, and spun around like a top. It’s fairly standard, so if you’ve ever been to an orbital hotel you’ve probably seen some variation of the design. Most of the station is dedicated to warehousing stores for military vessels, but there is so much space in the habitat rings that sections are often rented out for non-military purposes. At any given time, there might be as many as two hundred people living and working aboard Venus Station.

It’s size made emergency recall of Kitty Hawk personnel an exercise in controlled chaos. Lieutenant Colonel Kelly had been quick to return aboard with Marine Team Two because they were running calisthenic drills in the cargo hold just adjacent to our docking berth. Godderson and her medics were asleep in their bunks when the alert went out, and had reported from quarters within moments. It was better than ten minutes from the recall before Captain Wright stormed up the ladder and onto the bridge – a not inconsiderable feat given his mass and the acrobatics involved, null-g and magnetics or not.

“Report!” he bellowed. Kelly was the only one else on the bridge, and her gentile stoicism from halfway across the arch was all I needed to know that I was on the hook.

I stood and stepped forward, straining my neck from the awkward angle required to address the captain from where I stood. “Sir, orders from Admiral Thompson came through marked urgent.” I hesitated.

“Spit it out, lieutenant. You ordered an emergency recall, so they’d better have been end of the fucking world orders!” He was being loud, but I suddenly felt certain that his demeanor was little more than an affectation. Was he-?

JSS Himeji is missing and presumed lost in Ceres sector, sir.” I watched Captain Wright’s face for another clue of what I’d just glimpsed beneath his surface expression, but all I saw was calculation while he shuffled to the command station.

He started reading from his console as soon as he sat down, and only looked up long enough to see that I was still waiting for more questions from him. “Is there something else, lieutenant?”

I glanced back at my station’s display to confirm, and said, “Miss Lowell and PFC Smith haven’t reported in yet. The rest of the board is full, sir.”

The captain waved his hand vaguely and continued studying his display. Kelly, as if on cue from her tactical station, coughed mildly. “Perhaps you should go make certain that they return to the ship in a timely manner, Miss Nocona.”

Something seemed contrived about the order, as though the grown-ups wanted to wait for me to leave so they could have a conversation without kids around, but didn’t want me to know it. I couldn’t help but feel flustered by the dismissal.

“Quickly, lieutenant.” The captain said without looking up. “We’ll be departing at 0600 with or without any tardy crewmen.”

A glance at the chronometer showed it was 0543. I scrambled over my magnetics to the ladder, and managed half of a “right away sir” before running into Estevez, the pilot, as he came up. He looked crosswise at me, and I mumbled an apology as I ducked down the ladder-way towards the docking port.

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