It seemed like an eternity since Funath disappeared through the door that led into maintenance airlock forty-two’s stand-by room.
Cadet Defour was still hanging on to the hand rail next to the door. She had not moved for the past five minutes, even though the door was now permanently locked and sealed. This meant that the hatch to the airlock had finally given way, and that the compartment was now vented to outer space.
Osondu rested a hand on her shoulder as gently as possible while wearing vacuum-suits and said, “Come on, Sky. We have to get moving.”
After a short pause, he spoke again, “There’s nothing more you can do from here. I’m sure she got to the other helmet in time. She’s obviously even tougher than we thought, so she’ll make it to another airlock.”
He tried to convince his friend as much as himself. Eventually, the young woman let go off the handrail and slowly began drifting away. She still maintained her gaze on the barred-off door.
Osondu and García each held out a hand for her, while holding on to the overhead handrail with their other. After a short moment, Defour blinked rapidly in order to refocus. She reached out to her friends and grabbed their outstretched arms.
The two men pulled her up until she could reach the handrail by herself. They then turned towards the other end of the station and began moving, once again looking for a way off of what appeared to become more like a death trap by the minute.
Their progress was much slower as their vac-suits restricted their movement somewhat. Osondu and García fell back into their usual EVA-rhythm soon. Defour, however, was a lot less experienced in handling the suit and lagged behind, requiring her two friends to slow down.
Her breathing soon became laboured, and the voice-activated helmet-comm transmitted her discomfort to the two other Cadets.
“Where are we headed?” García asked after a few minutes.
“Ring... Three...” Defour answered, barely able to speak.
As they passed the transfer section to Ring Four, they saw two maintenance crews working tirelessly to restore power to the habitat ring. They did not pay attention to the three Cadets at all. The crews were too busy trying to bypass the ring’s uplink with a makeshift connection they ran through one of the access shafts.
“Maybe they’ll get the pods in Ring Four working again?” García wondered aloud.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Osondu replied.
They had to speak up to hear each other over Defour’s huffing. The two men did not complain, however. They knew how intense moving with a vac-suit could be for someone who was not used to it.
Osondu continued, “Even if they get power back up and running, the pods might have been damaged. At the very least, they’ll need rebooting and the launch rails will need recalibrating as well. It’ll be faster to find pods that are operational.”
“Got it. Makes sense.”
“How are you doing back there, Sky?”
“I’m fine... Let’s keep... moving...”
They continued through the poorly lit main tunnel of Zeta Station’s central cylinder. The impacts from the enemy bombardment were fewer and only resonated through the station from a distance.
Defour, Osondu, and García silently wished that they had more advanced vacuum-suits at their disposal. They were already taking a huge risk, having put on these suits without pre-breathing pure oxygen in a controlled environment. Better suits would have allowed them to open their visors and save up their precious O2.
They stopped talking and focused on moving forward as fast as possible. Their bodies were on autopilot. Especially Defour’s, who had tried to shut off her mind as much as possible in order to push through the pain and exhaustion that was building up in her limbs.
Every once in a while, her mind circled back to Funath. Her eyes began to water, and tears mixed in with the droplets of sweat that covered her face. She desperately needed to wipe her eyes, but all she could do was blink furiously. The ball of tears then clung to her cheek and would be stuck to her face until she was no longer in microgravity.
She pushed onwards despite the discomfort, as did her two fellow Cadets.
The raid on Zeta Station had entered the next stage.
Seeing how the station had been crippled, the Tarhinan commander gave the order to land troops on it.
The two troop carriers began to send out a multitude of space-assault ships. The small and agile crafts raced towards the station, intending to bridge the gap as fast as possible. They were designed to latch on to the outside of any larger ship or station, enabling their occupants to either force open an airlock or cut their way through the hull directly.
The Tarhinan pilots headed straight for their targets, since the station did not seem to have any offensive capabilities. Once they were within twenty kilometres of their destination, Zeta Station’s defences sprang to life.
Due to its remote location, the ISDF had only mounted a small number of rail-guns on the station. These were more than enough, however. Thanks to their fast rate of fire and high muzzle velocity of almost 0,10c or 30000 kilometres per second, the projectiles reached their targets in the blink of an eye, long before the pilots could react.
One by one, the incoming space-assault ships were taken out.
Rail-gun rounds punched through cockpit viewports, taking out the pilots and venting the inside to space. Some engine pods were struck, tearing the engine clean off, causing the ships to veer out of control due to the now asymmetrical thrust.
Others received direct hits to their generators or hydrogen tanks. These ships were instantly vaporised and disappeared in a rapidly expanding ball of plasma and debris.
The firefight lasted for less than a minute. The entire incoming flotilla of small ships had been neutralised, and the crafts had either been destroyed, or were disabled and drifting away at the whim of Newtonian physics.
The imminent danger for Zeta Station was not over. Some of the space-assault ships were now on a collision course, and the rail-guns kept firing in an attempt to minimise the damage.
Most of the incoming debris bounced harmlessly off the outer hull. A few larger chunks, however, impacted with enough force to cause serious damage, dislodging armoured plating and punching through viewports.
One ship had been left mostly intact, and hit Ring One at transfer velocity. The derelict tore right through the ring, severing it in two, and then narrowly missed the central cylinder. The station protected itself by closing a multitude of blast doors. The ring’s rotation was automatically stopped and it came to a halt soon after, leaving its occupants without artificial gravity.
Many aboard were lost, trapped in the sectioned-off compartments that rapidly vented out to space, but the rest of the station remained pressurised.
Enraged by this, the commander of the Tarhinan strike force ordered his ships to open fire on what was left of the station.
Colonel Zhou’s mouth stood agape as he witnessed how the main viewscreen lit up with signals of incoming missiles and rail-gun rounds.
“Everybody out!” he shouted.
Zeta Station’s CO pulled himself along the handrails until he reached the door. He opened it and held it in that position as everyone else in the station’s command post was scrambling to get away from their terminals.
Meanwhile, a multitude of missiles was racing towards the station. The point-defence lasers began neutralising the threat, but they were too many.
Zhou had just pushed Captain Ndiaye through the door when the first missile struck the station’s bow. The door automatically shut itself, trapping the Colonel as well as a few other operators together with an expanding ball of flaming death.
Their vacuum-suits protected them to a point. But when the second missile detonated within the command post, the room was all but wiped clean of its interior as well as any remaining traces of life.
The three Cadets reached the transfer section that would allow them to access Ring Three.
They allowed themselves a few minutes to catch their breath and calm down. They were pushing themselves beyond anything they had ever experienced during training, but the urge to get off the station kept them going.
The initial panic had ebbed away, however, and Defour, Osondu, and García were back to being their focused, professional selves.
The young West-African was the first one to move. He got hold of one of the slowly moving rungs of the ladders that led down into the habitat ring. He then pulled himself towards it and gracefully rotated mid-air in order to climb down the ladder properly.
After he disappeared through the opening, García followed him and executed the same acrobatic manoeuvre.
Last but not least, it was Defour’s turn. The young woman attempted to swing herself around the same way as her two friends had done before, but she was too exhausted from having to drag the vacuum-suit around. She tried a few times, but was never able to coordinate her motions properly.
Eventually, she gave up. Defour got hold of the rung and pulled herself towards it, diving headfirst into the access shaft.
This meant that she would end up emerging from the habitat ring’s ceiling headfirst, but she decided to deal with that situation when it arose.
A few minutes later, she had caught up with García. He stared at her in confusion, not expecting to see her face coming towards him.
“Sky, you realise that you’re...” he began, but she cut him off.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I couldn’t be bothered.”
“Alright then. It’ll be entertaining when we reach.”
“Don’t you dare laugh.”
They both grinned at each other and continued to descend towards the habitat ring.
Climbing down the narrow ladder was more cumbersome than usual. The vac-suits restricted their movements and gave the whole experience an even more claustrophobic feeling. On top of that, the shaft seemed to sway ever so slightly and the three Cadets perceived a slight creaking once in a while.
“I’m out,” Osondu said via helmet-comm. “Let’s just check this level for escape pods first. They shouldn’t be too far.”
García was halfway out of the vertical access shaft when an ear-splitting noise echoed through it.
The shaft they had just climbed through was gone. It had turned into a rapidly expanding cloud of debris and small particles. Defour could not see what was going on behind her, but she saw the look in García’s face and stared back at him, eyes wide open.
In the same moment, she felt how she was being dragged away from him as air rushed past her like a storm. García tried to get hold of her, but she could barely reach out for his hand before Osondu grabbed him by the waist and pulled him down into the habitat ring itself.
Not a moment too soon, because the safety hatch sprang shut, triggered by the sudden depressurisation.
García was catching his breath, still under shock. He reached towards the hatch above him and yelled, “Sky!”
“She can’t hear you,” Osondu said. “Even if she was right outside, the ring is shielded for EMP. Our comms aren’t powerful enough to reach through that.”
García’s arms flailed around until he reached for his abdomen, now realising what almost happened to him.
“Thanks for pulling me in,” he said eventually, after having calmed down somewhat.
Suddenly, a low rumbling caught their attention. The floor seemed to buck and they felt a sinister vibration spread across the corridor. In some places, the wall panelling began to pop out of its frame.
Osondu and García both got to their feet and instinctively started moving away from the deformation. They soon broke into a run in an attempt to get away from the part of the ring that had been destabilised.