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Chapter 15

Air. How could they possibly know what was in it?

Okay, so scientists tested the atmosphere. They tested samples of ‘air’ in laboratories, and used all of their various skills and methods to break it down into its component molecules. A load of nitrogen, some oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and numerous other blobs of useless element. The criticism Carter had was that he wasn’t sure what exactly defined ‘air’ or ‘atmosphere.’ Could they take samples from, say, a populated area, a normal residential area, in New York for example? No, they wouldn’t, as the pollutants would screw up the readings. But then, why did that make it a void atmosphere? In a way, it was the dominant atmosphere of the modern world. Okay, so they would extract ‘atmosphere’ from a green area; a wood, or something, a meadow. But this wasn’t fair either, was it? How could the air in one particular place represent the air in other, different places? Which, he supposed, was why atmospheric samples would be taken from higher altitudes, nearer the ozone layer, to obtain the so-called base-elements of air, or in other words, what should be in our air if we hadn’t fucked it up so much down on the rock.

And it was from these readings that they defined air. But why? If the air down where we actually live isn’t likely to be at all similar, then how are these readings helpful exactly? We should know what is in our air, not air that we’re never going to breathe. Why were we undertaking such ambitious feats; this whole mission for instance, when they still couldn’t work out simple shit like this? It took until 2020 to cure the common cold, for Christ’s sake! For Earth’s most intelligent species, we are quite stupid.

Experimentally, Carter inhaled deeply, held for a few seconds, before letting the gas rush out through his nose. But of course, he thought. All of the air on the Royal Ascender wasn’t real air. Everything, the whole atmosphere, the whole system, was sterilised and blank. A fat lot of good that had done him. Something had still managed to spread the contamination that had left him bedridden, although he had a feeling that it was nothing to do with the air itself. So, he wondered, what were the components of the air they were breathing. The subject had piqued his interest. Just what exactly was he taking into his lungs so readily. Could he trust the people who had fitted the life-support systems? Probably. It wasn’t as if they had ever failed before. Oh wait, they had. Oh well. It wasn’t as if he had a lot of choice now anyway.

Elope with an isotope, through the trees;

Keep away now from the stink of cities

Eradicate the raw dope, clear the buzzing air

And maketh the maiden pure and fair.

How was he to find out what was actually in the stuff he was breathing? Could he ask Taylor? She was supposed to be in charge anyhow. Would she have been told what was contained in those sealed and pressurised containers; so deft in that they recycled air from the cultivating rooms? It wasn’t actually contained stuff that they were breathing, technically. They were breathing the shit excreted from the tomatoes, and the other vegetables. Really. That was what they had been left with by God. The freedom to breath in that which was rejected by plants. Plants, that can’t properly move, interact, or make intelligent, intellectual decisions. It wasn’t even as if they could do anything about the tyranny of their plant overlords. Oh, sure, God had given us the power to destroy. We could have those green and brown bastards anytime we wanted. But with just one small catch. They are your own life-support machine. You kill them, and you die. Enjoy.

Savour now the bud, broken at the bloom;

Protect the leaves from the scourge of ruin;

On your knees and appreciate air

That maketh the maiden pure and fair

More air into his lungs. Why was it that God designed air to contain all this other useless tat that our muscles don’t need to respire? What was it there for? It must surely have a purpose. Well, carbon dioxide was there for the plants. Hydrogen, maybe that was a clue; a little footprint which we followed to the promised land of a gas substitute for fossil fuels. Try telling that to the people who designed the Hindenburg airship. Nitrogen, with its uses in fertilisers and other reactions, like keeping potato-chips crisp and all that. But what about stuff like methane. What was that for? To make flatulence amusing? To make Uranus and Neptune blue? It was pretty pointless. Either God got really bored when he was designing the air, or that’s score one for science.

Oh barter for life, the test tubes consume;

Men in white coats and in white rooms;

Handling powder with inordinate care

To maketh the maiden pure and fair.


Carter looked up slowly. His eyes, still slightly bleary from the illness, made out the slim figure of Marissa Herman, the Norwegian astronaut. He tended to get her mixed up with the other pretty blonde girl. This one though, he recalled, was less uppity, less self-conscious and quieter in conversation, tone and just in general. What did she want?

“Yes, lieutenant?”

“We have passed Mars, according to our telemetry. Its alignment means that it is quite visible to us from the port-side of the ship. Just wondered if you wanted to come have a look-see, Colonel.” The girl started to fidget, wringing her slim wrists nervously, her eyes timid. Carter felt slightly guilty; his expression softening like a dumpling.

“That’s considerate of you. Thanks. I will be along in a second…” Carter rose, quickly, a big, grey hand shuffling his papers, and pushing them into a ring-binder. Herman blushed and smiled, turning and walking away back through the adjoining node. Carter watched her go, considering. She walked, and indeed sounded, very much like an American girl. From her file, he knew that she had only been born in Norway, and was a European citizen, but did indeed live in Texas, where her wings were. Also, he knew that she had been part of the Operation for a while before its fruition, working with NASA in Washington and Nevada, at the top-secret facilities anyone could find with a sense of direction and an up-to-date phone and map Application. Carter was still surprised though, that the girl had picked up the mannerisms of a sheepish American girl. Most Europeans, like the Russians, were more stolid, and stony-faced, tending to walk straight-backed, and to sit the same way. They did not slouch, complain or, generally, get into arguments. Unless they were Lieutenant Christophe, that was. Carter had thought Marissa Herman like this too. She had been around, been involved, been integral throughout so far, without ever quite standing out from the crowd. She seemed to like to leave that to Bryant and the Jap and Colonel Taylor, and, in a more negative sense, Perez. But from that brief meeting, Carter realised that he had misjudged the girl. She acted young, younger than she probably really was, and thought of herself as charming and shy. Both traits appealed to him, but at the same time, Carter got the impression that there was something falsified about them in Herman. They weren’t quite her. Yes, she was cute, and fragile, and smiled a lot. But there was some steel, Scandinavian steel, hidden in that body somewhere, and Carter found himself wanting to see that at some point too. It would be a shame for it to go to waste.

Carter tucked the ring binder away under his bed, where it joined about a dozen others, each covered haphazardly in scribbled notes, diagrams, and indeed verse. Most were crammed with paper, the sheets barely white beneath the widespread scribbles, the blotches of age and spilt coffee, and the yellowing of edges. Some sheets hadn’t even been white to begin with, but only where Carter had been unable to lay his hands on white paper. What purpose exactly did coloured paper serve? What was wrong with white? He would have to ask Maintenance. Getting to his feet proved difficult; he had been sat in the same position, with one leg tucked beneath the other, on his bed, and the limb had become numb. Shaking to force some life into it, Carter pulled on a grey jacket, adorned at the breast and on the back with the Operation Angel Light logo, and made after Herman.

Some of the others had gathered too, either with similar summons from Herman, or just from curiosity, in the Day Room; a space designed for relaxation on the port-side of the Third Main Deck. Many times had Carter selected it for his idle exercises, his mental challenges that he set himself, his quiet time to appreciate what there was to be appreciated around him, and indeed what was far away from him, such as the heavenly bodies floating past the panes of the panoramic windows, tinted in such a way as to allow absorption of excess light, and yet make the endless night as clear as water, as if one were looking up at the sky back on earth. Another marvel of engineering brilliance, for which they had the British to thank as was so often the case. Indeed, Bryant was staring through the panes now, apparently lost in thought, although Carter had his doubts. He doubted Bryant would have the capacity to become lost in his mind. Perez, too, reclined on the soft chairs, alongside Kalmar and Herman, who had clearly sat just a moment before. Colonel Taylor was the only figure to stand, alone, on the other side of the room, arms joined behind her back, head tilted upwards slightly, her posture rigid, unmoving. All the time Carter was in the room with the other members of the crew, she did not once look Bryant in the eye. Slightly amused, and yet at the same time rather sympathetically, he joined the other Colonel at the window.

“It’s coming into view,” she announced, not looking around, her voice deep with authority, and without emotion. The three men, and Herman, they all stood at this point, still talking quietly among themselves, and joined the two commanding officers, and were then joined by the Jap, Hiawatha, and finally Miss. Akbar and Maintenance, all silent, as if keeping with a vigil. No other members of the crew arrived. Christophe was presumably sulking again, somewhere in one of the empty dorms where he usually hung out, likely smoking too. Carter couldn’t understand chain-smokers. He was not averse to the occasional cigar or roll-up, like most, but he did not relate to the appeal of chugging away, one stick of nicotine, tar and paper, then another, and another, until the need came to get another carton of the things. It was wasteful, and pointless. Very much the epitome of man. Grasser may have been with him, although the German astronaut did seem to spend a lot of time alone, in his quarters; something Carter supposed he shared with the guy. As for Lucia Nikolov, the beautiful eyes were probably best suited for looking at herself in the mirror, plucking the perfect eyelashes and brows, primping the already primped-up features to their primping-point-of-no-return. They did not appreciate this, in summary, which was fair enough.

And all of a sudden there it was. The Red Planet. It were as if a black curtain of dark matter moved back to reveal the hanging orb in the endless night. It was, at least from this viewpoint, not especially red; more a dusty, dry orange, like the desertified Amazon, when seen from the sky. In theory, and indeed now most likely, their future home, when they were done with Earth. Some boffins predicted that there would come a time when Mars and the Earth would be swapped in appearance; with Mars becoming the beautiful glowing sphere of incandescence, and Earth reduced to a bowl of sand and dust, heavy clouds of the darkest grey, and eternal polluted dusk. Could it ever be recovered? Carter figured that it was all over-exaggerated, really, by fundamentalists with nothing better to do with their time. They were scaring people, blowing the situation out of proportion, and putting too much pressure on NASA to begin preparations for an exodus of Earth. They wanted Mars, and they wanted it now. Carter knew. He was one of the ones they had sent to prep it.

And he looked upon the Red Planet now, as it passed them by in slow motion, its great canyons, tumuli and mountainous landscapes shrouded as ever in orange dust, its craters vast sand-bowls, dwellings of imaginary antlions. He was glad to see it pass. It was a place he never wanted to return to.

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