22 October 2326
Colonel Zhou had convened another meeting in his office after hours. He was pacing up and down the room while waiting for the other participants to arrive. He had been unable to sleep the previous night, and it looked like the night to come would not be better.
Everything aboard Zeta Station was strictly routine, but that was precisely what worried him. Had there been any sign of enemy activity, he would have something to go on about, some lead to follow. Right now, however, they only assumed that something would happen based on some irregular signal that they could not explain.
Zhou had always been known as a patient man, but that only applied when he knew what he was waiting for. He was not enjoying the current version of the waiting game at all, and that was slowly getting to him.
It felt to the Colonel like a part of him was longing for something to happen, no matter how bad. Anything would be better than just sitting around, waiting and hoping for the handful of people who were aware of the situation to achieve some sort of breakthrough.
When the panel next to his door lit up, indicating that someone was waiting outside, it came as a relief. At least he would not be left alone with his thoughts any longer.
Colonel Zhou marched to the door and opened it, to find himself face to face with everyone he had been waiting for. He ushered them in quickly and without any formalities before returning to his desk.
“Good. Looks like everyone’s here,” he said, “did anyone find anything?”
“No Sir,” Major Demir replied, speaking for everyone present.
“Nothing at all? This is a damned academy with a bunch of students running around at all times. You can’t tell me that there was nothing that was even slightly suspicious, even if it has nothing to do with our situation!”
The Colonel had started shouting so suddenly that Major Demir took a step back out of reflex. He had never experienced Zhou to lose his temper like that.
“There was the odd encounter with students in the central cylinder, but nothing that would lead us to believe that they were up to no good. Some even swore to that.”
“Of course they did,” Zhou buried his face in his hands.
He then looked at Chief Sergeant Lorenz, “What about you, Sergeant? Anything suspicious with the mast?”
“No Sir,” Lorenz replied. She had become slightly more comfortable around the CO, but was still nervous about speaking directly to him, “Everything was normal. I went around with a hand-held scanner, and there were no abnormal readings whatsoever. I ran a systems check as well, power usage was nominal and all systems were operating within parameters.”
“If that’s the case, then I fear that we will have to widen the search,” Colonel Zhou said, “of course, that’ll mean bring in more people and attract more attention.”
Lorenz gathered all her courage and spoke again, “Sir, if I may?”
“Yes, Sergeant, what is it?”
“There is somewhere we haven’t looked yet.”
“Really? Where would that be?”
“The mast itself, Sir. From the outside,” Lorenz paused, waiting for any kind of reaction. When none came, she continued, “it may be unlikely, but in theory someone could have sneaked out and attached something while wearing a vac-suit.”
Colonel Zhou said nothing. He folded his hands together and sat behind his desk, quiently contemplating what Sergeant Lorenz had just said.
Meanwhile, the technical Sergeant shifted from one foot to the other and squeezed her own hand behind her back.
After a minute that seemed like an hour, Zhou spoke again.
“Unlikely it may be, but we can’t leave anything out,” he then looked straight into Lorenz’ eyes and added, “suit up, Sergeant. You’re going on a field trip.”
Two hours later, Lieutenant Olchevski was helping Chief Sergeant Lorenz into one of the vacuum-suits that lined the wall in maintenance airlock forty-two.
This airlock was located right between Ring Four and the mast that Lorenz would be inspecting, allowing her direct access to her worksite.
While she had completed her spacewalk training, the Sergeant only had limited experience with the vac-suit beyond that. She may enjoy microgravity on her downtime and within the confines of a secure environment, but dressing yourself in one of those narrow suits and leaving the safety of the station was a whole different matter altogether.
Once her entire body, except for her head, was covered with protective gear, Lieutenant Olchevski spoke to her.
“Looks like you’re all set, Sarge. Let me hand you your helmet and we can perform the comm and pressurisation checks.”
He grabbed a spare helmet from the rack behind them and carefully lifted it above Lorenz’ head. As he slowly brought it down over her, he took notice of the pearls of sweat that had begun to form on her forehead as well as the barely noticeable trembling of her lower jaw.
“Are you alright there, Sergeant?” he asked.
“Yessir!” she replied, briefly and instantly.
“Don’t worry. It only seems like you’re alone in there. I’ll be with you over the comm all the way.”
He smiled and gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze once the helmet had been locked and secured. Though she could barely feel it through the suit, the unusual gesture was welcomed in this situation.
Monika Lorenz was not claustrophobic as such, which would have disqualified her from serving aboard what was essentially a self-contained metal canister floating in space. She was, however, prone to moments of anxiety under certain circumstances, and it just so happened that going EVA was one of these triggers.
As soon as she was completely locked inside the suit, she closed her eyes and breathed in and out deeply, focusing on the barely audible hiss of the influx of pure oxygen from the life support and air filtration system she carried around in her backpack.
Lorenz had been pre-breathing pure oxygen for the last hour to prepare herself for her ‘field trip’ as Colonel Zhou had called it. This was done to eliminate most traces of nitrogen from her system, which could otherwise lead to complications once she entered the pure oxygen environment of the vac-suit.
“Too bad we don’t have any combat vacuum suits aboard,” the Lieutenant said, trying to make small talk, “that would’ve made the whole thing a lot easier for you.”
“Not to worry,” Lorenz replied, deciding to fight anxiety with sarcasm, “I just love sitting around, breathing through a mask for an hour.”
“That’s the spirit,” the Lieutenant chuckled, “also, I guess we have hereby tested your comm. Switch over to backup for me, will you, Sarge?”
Chief Sergeant Lorenz turned on her backup communications system and made sure it was operational by exchanging some more pleasantries with the Lieutenant.
“That seems to be working. Now for the pressure test.”
Olchevski stepped out of the airlock where he had helped Lorenz suit up. Once outside, he closed and secured the inner hatch and strapped himself into the chair by the controls.
“Can you hear me, Sarge?”
“Alright. I’m beginning with the depressurisation.”
The Lieutenant manipulated the controls so that the atmosphere would slowly be pumped out of the airlock. This took another thirty minutes, during which he helped keep Lorenz calm by talking to her about anything but the situation at hand.
Meanwhile, the pressure within Lorenz’ vac-suit would drop at the same rate, until it reached 0,5 atmospheres. At that point, the suit’s pressure stabilised, while the air kept getting thinner in the airlock.
“Pressure test looks good,” Olchevski said, monitoring the data coming from Lorenz’ suit.
Eventually, the airlock was empty. Chief Sergeant Lorenz got up and moved to the outer hatch.
“I’m good to go, Lieutenant,” she said.
“Copy that, Sergeant.”
He then unlocked the outer hatch, which Lorenz now only needed to pull open. First, however, she made sure that she was properly tethered to the emergency winch that could pull her back into the airlock.
Once that was taken care of, she opened the hatch and pulled herself out of the station, until she was floating a few metres above the central cylinder.
“How does it look, Sergeant?” Olchevski enquired via comm.
“Dark, Sir. But otherwise okay.”
“I see your sense of humour has returned.”
“Affirm. Beginning with the inspection of the mast.”
“Proceed carefully, Sarge. I will remain on standby.”
Lorenz pulled on her tether until she made contact with the outer hull of Zeta Station. She then took aim and firmly pushed off with both feet, propelling herself towards the first external maintenance platform, which was fifty metres away from her along the mast.
These maintenance platforms were scattered at irregular intervals about the length of the mast, which extended 750 metres out into space. Every one of them presented multiple possibilities for hidden equipment to be stowed away, so Chief Sergeant Lorenz had to inspect them all.
She made contact with the platform’s railing harder than expected, but the sturdy suit allowed her to withstand the impact unharmed.
Lorenz activated the vac-suit’s external lighting, allowing her to see into even the darkest corner.
“Lieutenant, I’m at the first platform. Beginning inspection.”
“Copy that, Sarge.”
She activated her boots’ magnetic anchor, firmly tethering her to the platform. Once the Sergeant had ensured that she was safely in place, she grabbed her omnitool from her utility belt and began unscrewing the anti-meteoroid shield that protected the sensitive equipment hidden away behind it.
Chief Sergeant Lorenz removed the heavy shield with ease, due to the lack of gravity, and placed it in the rack destined for this purpose.
At first sight, nothing seemed out of place or out of the ordinary. She wanted to be sure, however, so she took her multiscanner and worked her way through the mass of cables and connections, analysing every single one of them. This way, she could be sure that no additional device had been installed in close proximity that was not part of the station’s original design or its upgrades.
After about twenty minutes of very focused work, during which she remained completely silent, Lorenz concluded that there was nothing to be found.
“I’m moving on to the next platform, Lieutenant. This one is clear,” she informed Lieutenant Olchevski while putting the anti-meteoroid shield back in place.
She then deactivated her magnetic soles and pulled herself along the handrail up towards the next platform. On her way there, she kept her eyes open, scanning for anything that seemed like it did not belong, but nothing stood out to her.
Lorenz moved along at a steady pace, taking her time and making sure that she gripped the handrail safely so as to not slip off and drift away. Every ten metres, she secured her tethering cable in a hook, ensuring that she would not drift too far away from the mast should she lose her grip nonetheless.
She hummed softly to help pass the time, as the next platform was over two hundred metres away from the first one. This maintenance platform featured not one, but two shielded compartments, which were much more complex in nature than the previous one. The first elements of the station’s massive main communications array were located here, along with a large variety of electric and electronic components.
Just as she reached the platform, Chief Sergeant Monika Lorenz encountered an additional challenge, one she had hoped to avoid.
“Damn it! Now my nose is itchy!” she swore under hear breath.