23 October 2326
“Psst... Wake up!” Osondu called out to García.
After knocking a few times, the privacy screen slid open and revealed García’s face who looked back at Osondu through half open eyelids.
“Don’t tell me you were sleeping already?” the young man from the West-African Commonwealth asked in a hushed voice.
“I was,” García replied, stifling a yawn, “what’s going on?”
“The girls left.”
“Our girls. Sky and Sparks. They came in and went out again.”
“They... What?” the Cadet from the USNA asked, suddenly wide awake.
“Are you with me or do you need me to throw water in your face?”
“I’m up, I’m up. Where did they go?”
“That’s what I want to find out,” Osondu said, full of determination, “I think we should follow them.”
“Are you crazy? Do you know how much trouble we could get in?”
“What about the trouble they could get in? It’s practically our duty to look after them.”
“Not sure our superiors are going to see it like that, but sure. Let’s go.”
“Hurry up and get dressed or we won’t find them anywhere!”
The two Cadets changed back into their jumpsuits as quickly as possible in the dimmed light of the small cabin and managed to do so without bumping into each other more than once or twice.
They both winced as they left the cabin, because the pneumatic hiss caused by the opening and closing of the door sounded excessively loud at this quiet hour. They stood still for a moment and instinctively held their breath, listening for any sign of unwanted attention.
When they had assured themselves that the air was clean, they walked as fast as possible without making too much noise towards the nearest vertical access shaft. They reasoned that, since there was nothing on this deck but cabins, the girls would have likely moved to a different level.
“Up or down?” García asked as they stood next to the ladder.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Then I’d say... Up?”
“Alright. Up it is,” Osondu replied, and slowly began to climb towards the station’s central cylinder.
They climbed through the narrow shaft in silence, each one trying to imagine what Defour and Lundström could be up to.
“How far up are we going?” García, who was climbing behind Osondu, asked.
“I have a feeling that we should go all the way up.”
The two Cadets kept climbing until they felt the gravity notably decrease. They then slowed their pace and very cautiously entered the central cylinder.
Osondu emerged from the opening and expertly pushed off the edges so that he would float until he came to a halt in the middle of the circular corridor. García followed him shortly afterwards, but was not quite as talented and ended up bumping into his fellow Cadet. They ended up holding on to each other to stabilise themselves.
Once they had stopped their slow tumble, they looked around.
“I can’t see anything. It’s so damn dark down here,” García complained, not as quietly as he could have.
“Keep it down!” Osondu hissed.
“Alright, alright. So where to now?”
Cadet Osondu did not reply right away. Instead, he tried to look deeper into the darkness and listened for anything besides the gentle humming of the station’s power plant that reverberated along the cylinder. He almost strained his neck, trying to move ever so slightly towards that end of the tunnel.
He was just about to reply to García’s question, when a soft but distinct metallic clang interrupted him.
“What was that now?”
“How should I know?” Osondu rolled his eyes, “Let’s go and find out. Maybe it’s our girls.”
“Let’s go then. I’m right behind you.”
“Of course you are.”
Osondu grabbed the handrail that was just within reach and pulled himself towards it, closely followed by García. They made their way towards the origin of the sound slower than necessary. The two Cadets stayed close to each other, drawn together even more by the oppressive darkness that surrounded them.
While being caught out of their cabin after curfew was not a serious issue, they were both repeat offenders, and one more time would see a permanent entry in their records. This would not bode well for their future career as officers of the ISDF. As long as they stayed clear of restricted sections, however, there would be no repercussions beyond said entry.
Eventually, Osondu was able to make out a silhouette that detached itself from the shadowy background. As he approached further, he realised that it was Cadet Defour, who was holding still, one arm hooked into a handrail, only a few metres away from the access to the restricted technical area that lay ahead. She seemed to be observing something across the barrier.
Osondu approached further until he was able to reach out and rest a hand on Defour’s shoulder while whispering, “Hey, Sky.”
This caused the young woman to yelp and jump, which turned into a constricted full-body spasm due to the lack of gravity.
She turned around to face Osondu and García, and silently mouthed, “What the...?”
“Sorry, Sky. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Keep it down,” she whispered, “what are you guys doing here anyway?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing. We came looking for you, since you and Sparks just vanished. Where’s she anyway?”
“She’s up ahead somewhere. No idea why,” Defour shrugged, “She got back up as soon as I had closed my privacy screen and left, so I decided to follow her. I’ve been dying to find out where she disappeared off to all the time.”
“Me too, to be honest. But I didn’t expect her to end up in a restricted area.”
“Yeah, me neither,” the young woman sighed softly, “I’ve been stuck here, trying to find the courage to go after her. She disappeared through a small hatch or something further ahead to the left.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” said García, suddenly taking the initiative, “Let’s go after her.”
Cadet García used the handrail he had been holding on to all this time to swing himself past the others towards the barred-off part of the tunnel. He gently collided with the door and held on to it while inspecting the opening mechanism.
“And where do you think you’re going?” a new voice emanated from the darkness, causing the three Cadets to gasp loudly.
Captain Jane Barnaby left the shadows she had been hiding in while observing the scene, and came to a halt next to García. She looked at him and at the two others sternly.
“You three, follow me. You have some explaining to do.”
While Defour, Osondu, and García were being led towards an unknown destination, they could not help uneasy. Defour, especially, was not only worried for herself, but also for the sake of her fellow Cadets, which caused her stomach to turn and her heart to start beating harder.
The longer they sheepishly followed behind Captain Barnaby, the worse they felt. The journey seemed to take forever, as they passed the access points to all of Zeta Station’s habitat rings, only coming to a halt when they reached the shafts that led into Ring One.
“Climb ahead, you three,” Barnaby said, “Ladder Alpha, all the way down.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” they replied in unison and began their descent towards some uncertain punishment.
They climbed down the narrow shaft in silence, one after the other. All of them began to involuntarily slow down as they neared the outermost level of the habitat ring. Eventually, Captain Barnaby had to urge them on, as they had almost come to a halt.
Once they reached the last level, the three of them stood next to the ladder, patiently waiting for the Captain to climb out of the shaft as well. Barnaby then led them along this deck’s central corridor, until they reached a door that looked like any other aboard this station.
Defour paled when she noticed the symbol featured on the door’s intercom. A circled single gold star. They were about to come face to face with the station’s CO.
Just as Barnaby was about to activate the intercom, Defour elbowed Osondu in the side. The young man from the West-African Commonwealth was looking at his feet and shifting his weight from one leg to the other. He reacted to the nudge with a sharp intake of breath, then saw Defour nod in the direction of the intercom.
Osondu gasped softly when he saw the symbol as well. He was about to draw García’s attention towards it, when the door opened, and Colonel Zhou appeared before them.
He looked each of them briefly in the eyes, then turned to Barnaby and asked, “That’s them?”
“Yes Sir. They were lurking around the access point to one of the areas under investigation.”
“Get them in here.”
Captain Barnaby ushered the three Cadets into the Colonel’s office, while Zhou walked back around his desk where he sat down, resting his elbows on the surface and folding his arms in front of him.
Defour, Osondu, and Garía stood in front of their CO, who sat there just glaring at them. All three of them were fidgeting around in minute ways while standing to attention, shifting their weight from one leg to the other.
“So, who is going to be the first to tell me an unbelievable story?” Zhou asked.
Osondu took a deep breath, gathering the courage to speak, when Defour cut him off.
“It’s all on me, Sir,” she said, briefly making eye contact with the Colonel, then turning her gaze back to the front edge of his desk, “Those two have nothing to do with it, they just followed me around because they were worried I would get in trouble.”
“And in trouble you are, Cadet. What made you want to enter the restricted technical section of the tunnel after curfew?”
“I... I had heard some noise coming from there, and was considering whether or not to go see what it was about, Sir.”
“That’s right, Sir. We heard it too,” García quickly came to her aid.
Colonel Zhou Shen raised an eyebrow, “Is that so?”
“Yes Sir,” they all said at the same time.
“Well, I have to give you credit for having each other’s backs at least,” he said calmly, “but tell me this, how were you even in a position to hear this supposed noise? Surely, if you were able to hear it all the way from your cabin, others must have as well.”
Cadet Defour remained silent for a moment. Her eyes travelled up and to her right as she answered, “I was wandering the central cylinder, Sir. I had no intention to cause any sort of trouble.”
“Somehow I feel like that’s only half the truth, Cadet.”
The young woman from the United Caribbean Commonwealth swallowed hard. Defour had tried to avoid involving Lundström, as she did not want to get her friend in trouble. At this point, however, she was unsure how much longer she could hold out. Lying to a superior officer was rarely a good move, even if just by omission.
“There is one more thing I need to ask you,” the Colonel said.
He was staring at Defour with such intensity that her gaze was pulled towards him until they made eye contact. Sweat started to form on her brow despite the rather cool temperature in the room.
“Since you were wandering about the central cylinder, like you said, maybe you came across Cadet Lundström. I would really like to know her whereabouts.”