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Chapter 9

Day seventy aboard the F54 Royal Ascender. It was on this day that Houston was supposed to make contact, and any queries, problems or anything unsettling the crew in any way was to be addressed. By ‘addressed,’ they meant ‘you will come home.’ Carter had been around Mission Control Houston long enough now to know that if any of the technicians, any of the computer geeks got the slightest inkling that something was 0.0001% wrong, they would advise Section Commander Willis that the mission was compromised and should be aborted at the soonest convenience. Carter disliked Willis, a man who put far too much faith in his tech-boys and hardly any in his astronauts; his real men. For that reason, admittedly, it was probably Willis who had recommended Carter for this very mission, so that he could handle the real-life stuff first-hand, and leave the delightful background details to his beloved tech-team.

Even if this did mean mean that Willis was responsible for his inclusion in possibly mankind’s most daring venture to date, Carter still had little respect for him. To Willis, he was just a word on paper. There were tons of other guys with Carter’s experience and expertise who could just as well have represented America and the so-called ‘old-school’ of astronauts, whom Willis would just as easily have chosen. There were others with his commendations, clean record and bill of health. Others with his ability and charisma and solid mentality; men that, Carter knew, were the ones you entrusted your life too. So why him? Because his surname began with a C, putting him at the top, or very near the top of the list Willis would have glanced at. That was when his fate had been decided, his summer break interrupted by that most cherished of phone-calls, asking you, pleading with you to come back and take that one huge step for mankind. That was it. When a squinting, overweight pussy of a man picked your name at random off US government-issue paper, over all the other saps, that was when. There was no pride, or dignity. Just chance; chance that it would be your name that jumped off the page and onto the Section Commander’s tongue.

The call from Houston, co-ordinated by Willis, came through at 8:00 AM precisely, when only Carter, Colonel Taylor and the French guy, Jacques Christophe, had been awake. Taylor was berating Christophe for not doing the washing up when asked the night before, and Carter watched on in an amused silence. He never slept for more than a few hours at a time. There would be plenty of time for sleep and rest on the journey to come. Right now, if there was a fight, he needed a few laughs, although he never laughed aloud. He may have in his youth, but never when amused. Carter found that when he was really, truly entertained by a person or scenario, that he would simply smile, and thinly at that. Some would say that he kept a cap on his emotions, but that wasn’t true. The best way to explain it was that he wasn’t very expressive.

“Royal Ascender, this is Houston. Repeat, this is Houston, do you copy?”

The Royal Ascender had been equipped with an ingenious interlinked system of communications stations, which allowed the crew to receive voice-calls from headquarters at different parts of the ship, rather than just from the cockpit. There were receivers in the canteen, many of the dorms, the engine-cooling system and from intervals at each floor of the ship’s stairways. What this really meant was that none of the crew were ever really that far away from those disembodied voices relayed from Earth. Carter guessed that this was some sort of personable feature; useful perhaps in emergency for rallying the crew, but also quite misleading to the ‘dreamers’ and the homesick. Still, even he would admit that it was convenient. Only the Jap spent any real time in the cockpit.

Taylor had, perhaps to remind Christophe of her superior authority, grabbed the mike from the comms unit on the wall, and replied sharply to acknowledge the call from Houston. Christophe had smirked. This guy was the stuck-up kind, and he had a cheek too. No-one else, even Carter, had seen fit at any conflict or crossroads so far experienced to argue with Colonel Abigail Taylor. She had put up with it for a while, but now, 8:06 AM, was clearly not the moment for what she would call insubordination. That was a funny old word, ‘insubordination.’ It reminded Carter very vividly of pirates and crew mutinies back on the high seas. There was a strange irony in that, he supposed. That said, even Carter was liable to have a few misgivings about dealing with Taylor. She carried that weight of experience, that look which told you she knew more than she would let on, or would have led you to expect, which was impressive when Carter considered that she was only about half his age. She had some muscles on her too and something, probably in her aboriginal genes, made them elevate her and made her attractive, pushing her chest up and out, lengthening her legs. On another mission, he may have been inclined to let the girl have free reign, and not interfere, just to see if he was right about her, but this was not another mission. This was Operation Angel Light.

Christophe looked in Carter’s direction and rolled his eyes very obviously, so that Taylor would notice. Carter stared stonily back. He knew that he would have to be patient with the younger generations aboard the Royal Ascender; they had different attitudes to authority and, it seemed, to washing up. But it was his understanding that if you were ordered to do something by a superior, you did it, and then possibly displayed some negative feedback at a later convenience. This guy though, the way he looked at him and Taylor, as if he had seen it all. There was no question of him just doing what he was asked. That made his life too simple. He was one of those people who had to complicate things and who, very much like Perez, displayed a great deal too much more male bravado than was necessary. And this really was complicating things too. Carter couldn’t exactly see the problem. The ship had been fitted with high-tech new dishwashing units that did all the cleaning. All the Frenchman had to do was stack the plates in the tray. But no, this was too demeaning a task to give a man of his calibre.

“We’re fine, Houston, all systems functioning well, all crew healthy and accounted for. Slight issue here though; Monsieur Christophe is refusing to stack some dirty plates. Please advise. Over.”

There was a sudden movement as the French airman-cum-astronaut crossed the catering node, stacked the plates and dumped them in the dishwashing tray, before pushing it nonchalantly into the machine and pressing a button. Carter wasn’t even sure if he looked to check which button he had pressed. He was gone in a flash. Taylor had watched him go while listening to the commands being relayed through the radio. After a few minutes, she passed it to Carter.

According to Houston, each member of the crew, the twelve outstanding individuals from twelve great nations, representing every major proportion of the Earth’s finest enterprise, were to be given fifteen minutes radio-time. They were to speak to NASA psycho-analysts about anything that might be troubling them, anything that they were finding it difficult to adjust to, and any unfamiliar physical and mental sensations they were having aboard the Royal Ascender, or when in the company of the other eleven individuals. The way Carter saw it, it was like a phone-call to mommy. It was a fifteen-minute pamper session, and there would be more of them while they were in full, real-time radio contact with Houston. Something, Carter realised, horrified, that the crew members would ‘look forward to.’ Houston offered to let Carter go first, but he handed the radio-mike back to Taylor, who shrugged and started talking into it somewhat aimlessly.

Carter had the decency to let his Colonel relay her thoughts and fears in private, but was secretly quite disappointed in her. He expected better than whole-hearted acceptance of the psychological program that Willis had forced on the entire crew. It had been a similar story back on the rock, during testing. If Carter had a penny for each time a slight man in glasses had asked him if there was anything, anything at all, that was troubling him, he would have been crushed beneath the weight of them. This was the same thing. They were being mollycoddled from millions of miles away. He later declined his turn, after the rest of the crew had undergone their private moments with NASA’s psycho-analysts. Instead, he returned to his usual niche by the window.

It wasn’t that he was afraid of how the NASA boneheads would react to his issues. Carter knew that if he had undergone his fifteen minutes with the mike, he would have very little to say; perhaps that the behaviour of Christophe was annoying, that the self-superiority of Nikolov was bugging him, but these weren’t really psychological issues, were they? If he had deeper concerns, ingrained fears and doubts, then Carter knew that a psychiatrist would be of little use to him. This was because he did not like to open up. It was one of the reasons that all three of his marriages had collapsed. Carter was his own man, and knew that if he encountered problems, anything at all, then it was nothing that he himself couldn’t deal with. He was a colonel, after all. It came with the reputation.

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