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Chapter 17

The canteen at 9 a.m. The time and place specially designated by NASA for breakfast, and so a time and place of particular importance to Carter. He was always there, early usually, sipping orange juice or water, some item of reading material on the table in front of him, when anyone else chanced to rise for the first meal of the day. This had become a regular thing over the months spent hurtling through the void.

The enforced eating structure was yet another attempt by NASA’s technicians to keep the crew orientated, to keep them in an ordinary environment, to ensure that they were comfortable, and able to operate safely. Again, though, like so many of the other measures introduced, it was ineffective. All of the crew seemed to arise at different times, and so would, therefore, take breakfast at different times to one another. Some, in particular Perez and Nikolov, he had noticed, did not appear usually until after ten, sometimes later. Carter considered himself to be not all that great with mornings, but he made an effort to be up at eight every day, to enforce some discipline on his existence. It seemed to be doing him good, as his recovery was what Kalmar had called ‘complete.’ There was colour again in his cheeks that had been deathly pale, and he had regained full strength and capacity in his joints and muscles. Much of his appetite had returned, and he was starting to wean off the meds that Kalmar had prescribed. But most importantly, in his opinion anyway, he was starting to think properly again, much of his earlier delirium and insomnia had quickly passed, and he was finding sleep and peace much easier to embrace.

Usually, Colonel Taylor would be the first into the food-hall after Carter. He knew, because he looked up every morning as each individual crew-member passed into the node from wherever it was they had bedded down. Over the course of a week, he charted that on four occasions, Taylor had been the first to enter, usually followed by Grasser or Hiawatha. On two occasions, the German general had been the first. He was usually cordial, nodding politely to Carter, who would nod back, taking up his tray and sitting at a vacant table to eat in silence. On the only other occasion, the first through the door had been an anomaly; Marissa Herman, the Norwegian-cum-Texan pilot and astronaut. Interested at this change of routine, Carter had made a rare comment:

“You’re up early, Lieutenant,” he had stated, as the girl had greeted him. She seemed surprised by the remark, which was to be expected; Carter’s greetings in the morning not usually advancing into verbal form.

“Yeah, well…”

“Any particular occasion?”

“My birthday, actually.” Her face reddened, embarrassed.

“Oh, well, there you are then. Happy birthday.” Carter had smiled, kindly, an expression quite alien to his face, or so Herman’s reaction suggested.

“And you seem in a good mood, Colonel, if you don’t mind me saying…” Herman had begun, but seemed to stop herself, as if realising that she had said something wrong. Carter had raised his eyebrows, only for the girl to laugh and go fetch her breakfast things. She hadn’t spoken to him again throughout the meal; her face retaining the reddish tinge of her original flush. She hadn’t been up first, ahead of the rest, on any morning since, to Carter’s knowledge.

Was that how she saw him? Was that seriously why she thought that he didn’t converse with the other crew-members all that much? Because he was grumpy. Where was the logic in that? Plenty of people were quiet, or withdrawn, and it didn’t make them grumpy. Grasser was silent half the time, but no-one questioned his mood, because he was German, and Germans are just ‘like that.’ What then was it that made him so different? Maybe he was part-German. How could she possibly know?

Okay, so he wasn’t exactly one to judge on first impressions, he admitted to himself, the face of Valdez appearing in his skull, but on the other hand, this was a whole different ball game; he was Herman’s superior and should therefore be treated with respect by her and by all of the others for that matter.

Despite his earlier annoyance at being assigned the task, Carter couldn’t help but feel slightly impressed with himself and his work so far on the mission. He had always been analytical; as an astronaut, it was often exceptionally helpful during flights and training programs. But he felt that on this particular experience, he, Carter, was plumbing new depths, excelling, perhaps, in the field of detecting compromise in the others. They had only been going now for 200 odd days, only around an eighth of their travelling, and already Carter felt he had sufficient knowledge and understanding of each crew member to compile a detailed report.

Only, that wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen because firstly, he wasn’t that stupid. These people weren’t just fools, or deadbeats, being assessed like so many children in an exam hall. They were astronauts, and simply to earn that title, you had to be intelligent, you had to be intuitive and most importantly, you had to be aware of what was going on around you. If you were detached, if you weren’t following general protocol, then there was no hope for you; you had no future. So were he to write or indeed type up reports on each of them, and they were discovered, say, by just one of the others, then Carter’s entire position as a watcher and an analyst would be compromised. He would lose their respect, and then they would no longer succumb to him, and everything he had learned so far would be wasted, and the journey would soon sink into monotony. The second reason why he wouldn’t be compiling reports to NASA was that what he was doing was probably illegal in many justifiable and dangerous ways, to NASA itself, and also to the US government. This entire exercise to them was just a big old camping trip to a far off land with a few of their old buddies, to remind them, wholeheartedly, that they were all still the best of pals, and that nothing had changed over the many years of economic strife, conflict in the East and oil-tapping. If any of the other nations represented on this mission were to get wind that one of the crew members, the American, had official seniority, to the point where he could point out the flaws in the others and, as it were, suggest disciplinary action, then there would be an almighty stink kicked up, and America once more would be questioned, criticised and demoralised by the waiting hyenas in the UN. It was ironic then, that they had given Carter such superiority, taken such a risk, in order to keep everything in check, to keep the world safe, to keep the crew in line. The acquisition of Taylor was the perfect cover for that.

NASA had put a lot of faith in him, perhaps too much on this occasion. They thought of him as their rock, the one person on this flight that they could always rely on, and trust to the do the right thing when the time came. So, it was evident to Carter that, clearly, America did not trust the other nations represented, not even the Brits, not even the French and not even the bloody Scandinavian! Simply because they were not American. This was all very characteristic; their own brand of typified ‘freedom,’ intertwined with the hypocritical mollycoddling of a nation that thinks it’s the only one that can handle the situation, that thinks that anywhere else is part of the Third World, and, oh, they should be represented, oh yes, they should be hailed for their contributions to this program and to others. But they shouldn’t be trusted, or respected. Because they were not American, and America called the shots.

It gave Carter some satisfaction, as the other crew members started to file into the canteen for their breakfast, to note that America was not in charge here. Not really. He was the one in charge, he called the shots around here. If he made a decision; decided to take a course of action, it would be followed, perhaps reluctantly, possibly mutinously, but always followed. This was his world.

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