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Chapter 19

300 days in space. It really hit home with Carter, somehow, perhaps as a result of the 200-hundred day mark being interrupted by his illness. It was a strange and surreal experience. Carter kept telling himself that this was ridiculous, and that he had been in space longer than this before, and that it shouldn’t affect him of all people. But the fact was, none of them, none of humanity in fact, had ever been in space for this length of time and still being transported up and up and up, away from Earth. They had received a communication from Houston the other day, or it could have been last week, informing them that they were the furthest anyone had ever been from Earth, and that they were being penned into the World Records, which was all very nice, and cause for celebration, but really they didn’t need to be told. It was obvious to all of them, obvious that they had strayed that bit too far now, and that they were in the hands of fate. No-one had ever done this. It was totally uncharted territory. This was usually where crew members could falter, start to distrust their equipment, their fellows, even their own bodies. It ravaged the depressed, the isolated, and made them suicidal and emotionless. But Carter was impressed. The group had adapted to the conditions surprisingly well, surviving as a unit, becoming friends, companions, in order to keep social, and to share any bad feelings, keeping the air clear. Even Taylor and Bryant seemed to be conversing again. Carter couldn’t help but feel that some of his earlier misgivings may have possibly been misguided, and he quietly thanked the sarcastic drawl of Valdez saying ‘I told you so’ inside his head.

In all the good feeling around the ship, Carter had also decided to forgive Maintenance for now. After all, he was very important to the success of the mission.

He noticed fewer incidents recently of crew members cracking under the pressure of it all, and he forced himself to commend his fellows on this too. Carter could clearly remember seeing the strain in a number of faces as the routine and monotony had set in, especially that of Akbar, and was surprised, he would admit, that they had now settled well, and were crisp and efficient, even cheery should the occasion require it. It was the training, that’s what it was. NASA simulated an environment that was, while not exactly accurate to space itself, cold and empty enough to create a similar vibe of frustration, helplessness and bad feeling, and the crew had adapted well to this.

If he was to be honest, he would have to admit that his set task, that of the overseer, was not one that had appealed to him much at first. Oh, he had been fine with it, back down on the rock, when everyone was human, everyone was ranked and everyone was, well, individual. But up here, as they had taken off and started this incredible journey, Carter had realised how little interest he had in the other crew members. He had watched as they had morphed into their hard-bitten ‘game-faces’ and gone about their business with all the dignity of machines. It was then that Carter decided that he wasn’t about to follow these caricatures around like some sick dog. He wasn’t about to ask them questions about what they were doing, give them fatherly advice or suggestions. He was a Colonel. He shouldn’t have to speak in order to be respected. The respect should just be there. He just had to be there. He just had to watch.

He was watching Lucia Nikolov now, as she struggled under his grip, white arms flailing like pearl ribbons in the wind. But now, Carter thought, now he could take an interest. He had learned that they were more than just machines. They were the masters of their chosen fields, the finest the world’s great nations had to offer. Just because they had been operated on by NASA, had their souls removed, this didn’t change that fact. So Carter realised that respect was mutual. These were people who were younger than him, the next in line, like he once was, taking the next big steps forward. They were here as a team, a crew, while he clung on to them ungainly like some old, grey parasite. That deserved some respect. He would remain, let them do their jobs, let them know he was watching; the adjudicator, the fountain of knowledge, just in case. He was there just in case. Carter tensed, and the cosmonaut went limp.

Well, that was one less to watch, he guessed. It made his job easier, and if his job was easier, Houston’s job was made easier too. Besides, she was unnecessary; all she had done so far was kick up a stink at every possible convenience. The guys back down on the rock, the control guys, they had been so tense and nervous at the prospect of a Russian accompanying them on this great flight. Well, happy birthday boys. Russia has been represented, and you don’t have to worry anymore about your worst enemy threatening the running of your big project and wasting all your funding. Her death was an accident; an industrial accident, nothing more and nothing less. She would be hailed back in Moscow a hero, and a martyr. Carter almost spat. The girl had been a disgrace; she was no more a cosmonaut than he was a landscape gardener. He himself knew Russians who were young, and who were far more capable, and certainly better motivated than this little noble-blooded bitch. Oh, she represented Russia alright, but only the worst parts of it; its corruption, its ease to bend to the wills of aristocracy, its lack of equality and chiefly its indecisiveness. The cosmonauts that he knew, they would understand, and they would agree that he had done what was best for the mission, even if it wasn’t directly printed in his daily orders.

Carter glanced briefly into the glassed-over eyes; great ponds on a white planet, an orb free of detriment, dirt, debris and desert. A land of milk and honey, a paradise, a mountain of mana. A great shame nonetheless. He went to stuff a piece of paper inside her clothes, but his hand came into contact with her slender breasts, and he stopped. His other hand came round, parted the cosmonauts rubber legs and started in motion, while the hand on the bodies’ chest remained motionless.

He emerged from the dorm a few minutes later, feeling slightly dizzy. Carter ran a hand slowly through his hair, stopping to lean against a wall. What was wrong with him? He couldn’t be ill again, surely. If he was; if he was made to suffer again, then Maintenance would get it. God fucking yes, he would. Some of the fuzziness seemed to pass, and Carter straightened up.

Now, he thought, this needed to be covered up, like all of the US governments other best-laid assassinations. Were the crew to find out what had happened; were one of them to discover the body, it would raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions. He would have to come up with lies, and this was often more difficult than it first seemed. Carter knew he would do better to avoid lying totally, to give greater symmetry to his defence. Therefore, it was imperative that the body was not found. The ship was a big place, with plenty of holes in which he could stuff a corpse. It was also a ship, hurtling through space, and the space itself, the void, was often a good place to hide things. After all, they were seldom seen again afterwards. He would come up with something. Each crew member had been made to familiarise themselves with the simulation and the prototype model back on the rock, and the real Royal Ascender was largely similar, with many features simply enhanced, blown up or adapted. Basically, everything was in the same place. The advantage this gave Carter was that he could pick anywhere from memory to hide the body. The disadvantage was that it would be a place known to the other ten crew members, any one of whom could stumble across it and make the discovery. It ruled that course of action out. The cosmonaut would have to be jettisoned. It was the only way.

Okay, so the absence of Nikolov, and indeed of her body, would take some explaining when they got back down to the ISS, and then Earth. But Carter found that he was becoming increasingly detached from this future event. The fact was, it was too far off to contemplate. At present, as far as he was concerned, this ship, this crew and this mission were his immediate future. It had to be, this was his job. He couldn’t be wistfully anticipating the arrival back at the Space Station, shaking hands with the scientists, while they gaped in awe. The very thought made him cringe.

Carter knew very well what it was he was taking on. He knew all too well that this could just possibly be a job for life, for him at least. It was okay, he had prepared himself well for this eventuality. He had left very little behind back on the rock; a few properties, his ranch, some vehicles, possessions, medals and a blazing trail of imploded relationships. It was as if NASA had known, known that he was the perfect man for such a job as this. It struck him then that they probably did. After all, the National Security Agency was probably watching him half the time, and his life hadn’t exactly been lacking in controversy. The fact was, then, that Carter saw returning to Earth only as a possibility at this stage. It would be a whole other mission, that two year slog, and he was getting too old for that kind of thing.

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