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Chapter 23

A year in space. One whole year, and only half the journey completed. The flight recorder indicated that the F54 Royal Ascender, though ahead of schedule, still had a good deal more hurtling towards the edge of The Solar System to do before they reached Jupiter. Carter peered through the lens, searching for the great orange blob that they were aiming for. He couldn’t find the coordinates for it. One of the others would know. He wasn’t all that well acquainted with all the astronomy equipment. After all, he was the astronaut, whose job it was to go where others could only gaze.

Christmas had been quite an event. No-one on the ship had noticed, or at least, in the canteen when they were eating breakfast, no-one had said anything, no-one had pulled out Christmas crackers or party poppers or sparkling wine. Carter had looked around in disbelief at the sullen crew, staring into their respective plastic dishes like numskulls. He had shaken his head, got up, taking care to leave his breakfast things where they were, to indicate the lax attitude that was required for the occasion, and made for the kitchen. Preparations for events such as this were made back down on the rock, but it seemed the rest of the crew were too lethargic to recall them. Carter pushed open a metal door, to a hiss of steam, which led into the cool-room, where white and red meats were stored, along with ice. He regarded the shelves for a moment, breath frosting, before pulling out a package labelled ‘Xmas 1#.’ Inside the cellophane was a huge frozen turkey, and other trimmings that could survive the constant cold; parsnips, sausage meat and breadcrumbs. Someone would have to make the stuffing, it seemed. Carter looked closer at the package, and yanked off a red Santa hat, which was frozen and stiff under a layer of frost particles, which fell at his touch. He chuckled to himself. There was only one old man with a beard on this particular ship, so it looked like it would be he handing out the presents.

The reason the crew had forgotten about Christmas? Anybody’s guess. The disappearance of the cosmonaut had not gone unnoticed by the others, despite her seeming uselessness to the objectives. The penny had dropped one morning when Colonel Taylor announced at breakfast that General Nikolov was missing, and had been for an entire week. It was perfectly possible that she was in a dorm somewhere, where there were stashes of snacks, and that she simply wanted to be alone, but that she had no choice but to report her disappearance to Houston. They had left it another day, and when Lucia still had not shown up at mealtimes, they searched her premises, her dorm, her control room, the Cubicle, everywhere, and found nothing. Each crew member present searched their own dorms, and Maintenance combed the engine rooms and still nothing. She had simply gone. Vanished. There were no escape pods other than the large one around the cockpit, and no other way she could have disembarked from the ship. Of course, when Taylor had reported the disappearance the following day, Houston had gone ballistic. A Russian, AWOL, on a NASA spacecraft. Who knows what they could do, or who they could be working for? But the strange thing was, the crew seemed to leave this problem with NASA command to fathom, and returned to their duties wilfully. It seemed no-one gave a fuck. The lethargic attitude had already set in. It wasn’t the disappearance that had deflated the crew.

They had stopped using the entertainment devices, the games, the DVDs, the pinball-machine even. Some of them read, but only briefly, fitfully, glancing up at the slightest disturbance. Either they were very bored of the items, which was understandable, or worse, they no longer felt that they needed them. NASA had instructed them to keep busy, doing something all of the time, to avoid complacency. Even if that something was not constructive, even if it were making paper-chains, or building a card-castle. A psychologist had interviewed them all individually, and had given each crew member advice on what to do if they felt isolated or depressed. But it seemed in time that the crew had forgotten about these basic rules. They preferred to complete their tasks for the day, without speaking or smiling, and return to their dorms to do God knows what. What had they been reduced to? Certainly not humans. Human beings were emotive creatures. Human beings always had a sense of who was around them, and how they felt towards them. Human beings couldn’t just be knocked into neutral like an automatic gearbox. It was uncanny, and fascinating. Carter had taken it upon himself to observe each individual, partly to see what this torpor was like, and partly because it was his job.

The kings of bravado, Bryant and Christophe, had been the most talkative of the crew at the start of the mission, the most eager to talk themselves up and flirt with Marissa Herman, but now they were silent, going about their business with their heads down, not speaking or gesticulating, other than to nod occasionally if they were spoken to. What use they were serving exactly, Carter couldn’t see. The women who hadn’t ‘gone AWOL,’ Herman and Officer Akbar, were probably coping the best, trying to smile when another passed them by, trying to do whatever it was they did with as much enthusiasm as was possible in the current climate, which admittedly wasn’t very much. The Jap had hardly been out of his dorm, and neither had General Grasser, the German. Carter overheard Herman whispering to one of the others one morning that she wondered whether they might have been up to something, something that involved the disappearance of Nikolov. Salem Kalmar hadn’t changed very much; his rather neutral personality was easier to uphold in the general depression, and Maintenance spent most of his time down below, where he belonged, so Carter hadn’t had a chance to properly assess his attitude yet. No-one saw anything of Perez, although perhaps that was understandable. Colonel Taylor was the interesting one though. She had, in Carter’s professional opinion, undergone the most change. Antics with Bryant had left her critical and sharp in the presence of the Englishman, but this was just the start. Her leadership seemed to have taken a massive blow somewhere along the line, and her once concise decision-making skills were now in tatters. When Carter had, experimentally of course, asked her whether it was worth him overseeing another draining of the engine cooling system, she had actually taken ten minutes to come up with an answer. Unacceptable. Carter had considered reporting his findings to NASA, as he had been instructed, as any other Colonel would in his shoes. But he was not just any old Colonel. He was David Carter, and he would do things his way. The situation was not yet beyond his control, and could be rectified without base having extra problems to worry about. This was his job.

So he had roasted the turkey. He had prepared the stuffing mix and potatoes, on a large tray alongside the vegetables and trimmings, and was just sliding the lot into the pre-heated oven when Taylor walked in and stopped dead, clearly surprised. Carter had straightened up, as if confused.

“Good day, Colonel. Did you need something? This won’t be too long now…”

“No… nothing, David, erm, I’d completely forgotten about the Christmas package.”

“Haha, lucky I didn’t then, Colonel. Like I say, it will be ready soon, so you may want to summon the crew. Maybe we can even tempt General Nikolov today?”

“Its like I told you before; I don’t think she will ever come out… she has to have topped herself,” Carter braced himself for something important, “and who could blame her?! Who could actually blame her?! We are all getting strung out here. No contact from Houston! We even forgot Christmas. This is all going wrong. But I can’t just abort can I, David? What would you do? Can I abort?”

He hadn’t expected that. He hadn’t expected Taylor to panic. Maybe he had overestimated her. Carter sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose, and joined her in the doorway.

“It is up to you, of course. I’m not in the position to make that call. What is it that makes you think we should abort?” Taylor’s face, expressionless, paled slightly, when she started to realise that nothing was actually wrong. They were ahead of schedule. The craft was operating at full capacity, without many mechanical issues. Nikolov would turn up, sooner or later. There was no way Houston would accept her wish to abort. She looked back up into Carter’s grey face.

“No. Of course, what am I worrying about? Yes.” She seemed unable to piece sentences together, as if she had somehow contracted a disability in recent weeks. Carter thought for a moment, and leaned in closer conspiratorially.

“My personal opinion, Colonel, if I may voice it, is that we are the only two here who are going to be able to rough this one out. I’m sure you’ve seen how much the crew are struggling. It’s not their fault, it’s Houston’s, we haven’t prepared for this well enough. I suppose that, in a way, there is no way to prepare for this. But us two are the best suited, and maybe Nikolov, and now that she has disappeared even we have to be concerned. Don’t beat yourself up, we’re all in this together. And thanks for asking me, by the way; I’m flattered!” This conciliatory tone was concluded with a winning grin, that caused some colour to return to Taylor’s face.

“Yeah, of course. You’re right,” she answered, smiling embarrassedly. She looked around for something to use as an excuse, and spotted the oven.

“I better go rouse the troops then, if you’re treating us. And David… thanks okay.”

“My job, Colonel.”

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