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Chapter 11

Carter gazed longingly into the abyss, as the Royal Ascender marked its hundredth day in operation by reminding the crew to check on the engine cooling system. This particularly annoying alert had been of Willis’s own devising; the prototype Royal Ascender back at the NASA testing facilities had given certain readings suggesting that its engines could very gradually pick up solar radiation from the vanishing sun behind them, raising the pressure and temperature exertion on the thrusters. There had been several minor blow-outs in training, which Willis had labelled ‘catastrophes,’ and had held back the operation three months to fix. Now a specially-designated intercooler system kept the emission temperatures consistent with inlaid pipes through which cool water was pumped. By way of recycling, the water was then passed through to the dorm bathrooms, and after it was used, it was re-purified for the circulation back through the intercooler system again. As far as Carter was concerned, there was no way to re-purify water. Although they were forbidden to drink anything other than bottled stuff, he had tasted some on his lips after showering, and had noted how stale and sterile it was on his taste buds. It hadn’t been purified. It had been stripped of any character. Even if character meant sediment or germs, it was still character.

Maintenance would see to the intercooler. This wasn’t his job. Or at least, it shouldn’t have been. Carter could tell as Colonel Taylor entered that she was about to get him to oversee it. It was something she liked to do; make sure that he, Carter, was never busy, so that he could overlook what the other members of the crew were doing, even Dr. Kalmar. It was ridiculous, of course. Carter knew the crew, and in particular Kalmar, to be fine operators, and he himself knew little about medicine or mechanics. Perhaps she was trying to make sure that protocol was followed by everyone, although each individual was supposedly the head of their mastered field. They would know the protocol better than he did.

As far as Taylor was concerned, it seemed as if Carter was there solely as a watcher. He didn’t even have to intervene. He just had to watch. If he was watching, the job would be done right. Maybe it had been in her instructions to remind him to do what he was tasked to do anyhow.

“David.” Apparently, they were on first-name terms now. Carter looked away from the window, and up at Colonel Taylor’s hard gaze.

“Colonel Taylor?”

“Could I just get you to oversee Dr. Phillips-Murphy down in the engine rooms, if you don’t mind? I just want to make sure this goes smoothly. You know how much of a grilling we’ll get if those thrusters overheat… Willis is such a fuckwit. It makes absolutely no difference, no difference at all. But if we don’t do it, he’ll start on at us, and I can’t stand his voice anymore.”

Correction, Carter thought, as Taylor lapsed into silence, he’ll start on at you. You are the one ‘in charge’ here, aren’t you? You just want a different sort of fuck because you’re sick to death of Bryant. He had to admit though, she did make a good point about Willis.

“No problem,” Carter got up, stretched, and made off past the Australian into the depths of the ship. He took a moment to once again regard how much of a marvel of engineering the Royal Ascender truly was. The only part he had really come to appreciate so far had been its panoramic windows, and perhaps the Cubicle. This was because remarking on the feats of design and practicality whilst in the core of the ship meant collaborating with the others. But now, with a purpose, a job, a place he needed to be, Carter could stroll briskly through the nodes and corridors and automatic doors and storage holds and think to himself about the beauty and the majesty of the machine mankind had slung together for its most daring exploit to date. Although he did not in point of fact stroll all that briskly. He didn’t really feel very well.

The Royal Ascender could be likened, at a strain of the eyes, to something fuller than a skyscraper; silver and white all over, and black squares where tinted portholes betrayed themselves. The top of the building was tapered at the end, not to a point, but simply to a thinner shape. It was the cockpit, the largest and most technically-advanced ever constructed, with seating, override controls and headset computers for all twelve crew members. Surrounding windows gave the pilot, or pilots, 360 degrees of sight. It was, sadly, one of the least-appreciated features, as the controls were to be locked on auto-pilot for the entire journey there and back. Connected underneath the giant cockpit were several huge storage holds, showing up on the carbon-steel titanium shell as three large bulges, and these contained emergency rations. The reason for this being that the front portion of the Royal Ascender, at the point where it began to taper, a piece many times the size of a large Shuttle, was the fallback; an ingenious emergency escape craft in case everything went wrong, or there was a major malfunction. It could travel faster than anything ever constructed by man; a fact Nobel Prize-winning designer Edward Elton had been keen to stress, and carried enough spare fuel to reach the International Space Station from anywhere between Earth and Jupiter. Carter himself didn’t remember the astronomical figures, but he did recall overhearing one of Willis’s tech-boys gloat that it could have them back in Earth’s embrace inside a month.

The rest of the ship, onto which the emergency-rocket-cockpit thing clung like a parasite, although strangely one that pointed the way ahead, was indeed a glistening, multi-storey column of excellence; a supreme ruler of all machines ever to rust before or be polished after. It was the paramour of steel, its finest metallic components expressed as one huge, gleaming structure. From the Earth, it was but a star. There was no way of telling it apart from one. Carter knew that if anything were to malfunction, he would gladly go to his grave with it. Just looking at the thing back on Earth had told him that much. But in space, with no parched, bastard earth beneath its mighty legs; suspended as it was like a winged angel, Carter reckoned that there would be no better way to die, than in the midst of its embrace.

On the inside, the vast space had been divided into storeys, nine of them in total, including the loading bay and engine rooms at the base. Each floor was devoted in some way to storage, and it was commonplace to see high-tech compartments and cabinets, many sealed with time-locks, concealing the many thousands of goods and materials that they would need on this greatest of journeys. The floors and walls were, like the outside of the ship, black, white or grey, all gleaming, all with not a speck of dust upon them. Lights were built into the walls and floors, so as to cast light in the most practical direction, meaning none was wasted. Some of the windows even had curtains, and some dorms had carpets and rugs. The interior decor reminded Carter of a mental hospital a little, albeit a shiny, metallic one.

And it was their job to ensure that it arrived safely at the tear with no mishaps or malfunctions and, quite possibly, returned to Earth in the same fashion. This was, despite Carter’s earlier misgivings, quite a privilege.

The engine-cooling systems bay was towards the back of the main engine facility, where their unique hydrogen fuelling system pumped away at the gas with enormous pistons weighing several tons each. A complicated array of pipes and filters sprayed liquidated fuel into the gullet of the thrusters, where it was ignited for maximum speed. The whole thing seemed remarkably like the engine of an old automobile to Carter, who never had much to do with the technical side of spacecraft. The only clear difference he could see was with the wastage system; the absence of a manifold or exhaust gas flue of any kind, that told it apart. Maintenance emerged through the cooling room doors jauntily, dark oil on his blue overalls, a customary rag clenched in the right hand it presumably cleaned. The sight was such a cliché. The big, friendly, helpful mechanic with his grubby overalls, cheery demeanour and oily rag. Carter had an awful urge to leave.

“Colonel.” Maintenance saluted smartly, and Carter returned the greeting casually with his left hand. The man looked nonplussed at Carter’s arrival, and he couldn’t really blame him. What the hell was he doing here? There was certainly no need for him to be here. What was all this, some sort of social experiment?

“My orders are to oversee the testing and filtering of the engine-cooling system. I trust you are ready, Doctor, to begin the procedure.”

“Of course, Colonel. If you’ll step this way…”

Carter stepped past Maintenance into the much smaller bay beyond the main engine room, where the Mechanical Systems Engineer had clearly been doing his prep. The space was, of course, far more cramped than the main engine room, and rather grimier also. The huge cylindrical masses running parallel to each other through the centre of the room betrayed the beginnings of the main thrusters. It was clear that Maintenance had been at work, by the scuff marks where he had trodden, the various open manuals scattered on the bay’s few surfaces and the lukewarm mug on a tray. Maintenance entered behind Carter, closing the door behind him. With a nervous grin, the man set to work, his movements precise and sharp. Carter settled himself for what was probably going to be an hour of utter boredom, grime, clunking and backache, but his steely expression gave nothing away to Abu Phillips-Murphy, who became tentative under his gaze.

There was little for Carter to do as Maintenance cranked and jimmied, tapped instructions into miniature keyboards, teaching the machines, telling them what to do themselves. He often wondered how much the man actually did himself. Was there any job now, on this ship, the definition of the supreme modernisation undertaken since the turn of the century, where a black guy in overalls was required to get down and dirty? It was all a cheap trick; an illusion. Oh, he would tighten the occasional nut, polish the chrome and aluminium, twist and turn various cogs of metal so that they would perform an alternative and altogether superior task to that which they had done before, but it was all computers in there. All the man had to have was a vague knowledge of Space Invaders. And of course, he had to don the overalls, with their carefully spilt oil stains and scuffs. Therefore, Carter spent the next hour scratching a red mark on his ankle, improvising verse form in his craggy mind, staring at the man’s pronounced backside and wondering if it would be professional if he went and vomited.

He didn’t, although he still didn’t feel all that well.

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