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Chapter 25

Colonel Taylor had finally made the call; a fortnight into the new year, to report the continued disappearance of Nikolov and Perez as a reason for low crew morale, and requested ‘psychological enhancement,’ whatever the hell that meant. Carter leaned casually against the wall of the control deck as he watched Taylor speak to Houston through the headset. Each crew member had to give a specific code before they were verified to contact base, as per standard NASA protocol, even if it was Houston making the call. Anyone who didn’t give their code would not be allowed to speak to Willis or whoever was running the operation whilst Willis had gone for coffee and donuts. Carter had memorised the codes of Taylor and also of the Jap, Hiawatha, with whom he had been spending time recently.

The guy really was a marvel. He was, alongside Taylor, the main flight officer, and in every sense lived up to that billing. To show off to Carter, Hiawatha had deftly eased the craft into his control with a manual override, before performing elaborate circles, zigzags and a single barrell roll, that caused much displeasure through the headset. Carter had found himself roaring with laughter, unconcerned. The kid was only young; still in his twenties, but he controlled the huge craft like a paper aeroplane. He could not have had very much practice, and Carter could only put the Jap’s skill down to natural talent.

Hiawatha was somewhat in awe too, it seemed. It had been nice to show off to someone to break the continual monotony of the flight, and Carter was a highly influential colonel who could really help his career out if he got on his good side. He had grinned widely at the amusement of his superior, and wanted to keep doing manoeuvres, but Colonel Taylor had come in and told him to stop messing around. Reluctantly, he had switched back to auto-pilot on the touch-console, and Carter, still smiling, had bid him good day.

Now Taylor sat where the Jap had been, having adjusted the seat a little, and was talking seriously into the headset. The Aussie seemed to have regained some of her former steel, and when a lackey of Willis’ answered her relayed message instead of the man himself, she chewed his ear off something nasty. Even Carter felt like cringing.

“Who the fuck are you?!” she exclaimed at the nasal voice that had answered, “Get me Commander Willis this minute, or I’ll fucking…”

“Colonel Taylor.” It was Carter who had spoken, behind her. She snapped her head round to give him a piercing look, but it met a granite stare and failed to find its way through. Taylor seemed to deflate a little.

“Just get me Commander Willis will you. Please?” She removed the headset and ran her hands through her jet-black hair, powerful fingers pressing against her scalp. Carter watched this, shrewdly. It seemed the good Colonel had gone into meltdown. Something to do with rebellious crew members, not following her rota, and neglecting to interact with other crew members. He knew Taylor was watching him through her hands, and Carter pulled a notepad out of his pocket, and scribbled on it with a pencil.

“Colonel Taylor, what is it, over? I have very important business…”

“Commander, we need to get a few things straight here. Okay? Lucia and Juliano haven’t been seen now by anyone on board for days, hell, no-ones seen the cosmo for weeks! We’re not stupid; we know you’re checking the flight recorder. But you’re down there, and we’re up here. We can find out what has happened to them a whole lot better than you can. So when you tell me that its all ’okay’ and ’not to worry about it,’ I can’t accept that. I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do, alright? We’re going to use the motion-tracking and heat-seeking equipment on the ship, and we’re going to find them. Because frankly, I’d rather not be in charge of a ship where the crew are just allowed to ‘disappear.’ I really hope you’ve notified their families, or relatives, or something, because you have no idea whats its like up here. And, to be honest with you Commander, I think they’ve topped themselves. I really do. It is that bad. Do you copy this…”

“We copy. Just sit tight, Colonel. We’re doing everything we can to try and deal with the problems you’re currently experiencing. You don’t have to worry so much. By all means, have a snoop around with the tracking kit; after all, that’s what its there for. The authorisation code is TS435. Now is that all? I really do have to get back…” There was a click as Willis’ transmission ended, and an automated voice telling Taylor what she already knew. Carter whistled slowly, pulling his gloves from his pocket. Taylor smacked the base of her palm against the console.

“Bastard,” she muttered, slightly regaining herself, “he has no idea… no idea at all.” After a few minutes of angry muttering and scratching the back of her neck, Taylor began to replace the headset and shut down the console. When she got up to leave, she found Carter was still in the doorway.

“David…” she said, as if she had forgotten he was there, “could I get past, possibly?”

“I just wanted a word, if I may, Colonel?” Carter thought about flashing her a smile, then decided that it would look cheesy, and kept his face level.

“Tch… can it wait, please, I want to go get that equipment unpacked. We could have done this ages ago if Willis didn’t keep withholding the information I need to do my job.” Taylor’s head moved slightly, and Carter saw her eyes flash across the notepad where it poked out of his top pocket. “And now you’re stopping me too. David, I know you’ve been watching me. I know you’ve been watching everyone. I suppose that’s your job too, in a way, and I’m not suggesting we break from protocol or anything, but I don’t like… I don’t…”

“Is there a problem, Colonel?”

Taylor looked for a second as if she was short of breath, before she answered, “No… no, not really. The only problem I have, that is, that we have, is Perez and Nikolov, just now, and I want to get that sorted as soon as possible.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do. We can’t have it upsetting crew morale. I totally understand. Now, shall I go get that equipment while you notify the rest of the crew?”

“Thanks… yes, that’s great, I’ll just… I’ll just get on the intercom to the… yes. The code is TS435, y’know, for the container.” Carter nodded and made for the doorway. Satisfied, Colonel Taylor picked up her headset again and strode over to the intercom link in the wall. It was strange really. She knew that Willis had been ordered by Harvey to make the most senior officer on the ship an American of his choosing, and knowing Willis as she did, she had fully expected a nosy, uncooperative piece of dirt, all smarmy medals, attitude and readiness to force his underlings to get him drinks and whatnot. And it would be a ‘him,’ too. That was the kind of person Willis would choose. But no. That wasn’t what Carter was at all. He seemed more modest, and thoughtful. Very quiet, yes, and a bit of a loner, but then who wouldn’t be after spending so much time hurtling through the void. He was…

Taylor stopped mid-thought, trying desperately to replay the conversation. Her normally sharp focus had been off recently, and she had missed something. Something glaringly obvious. What was it?

“David… you said you wanted to talk about something…” The headset clattered noisily to the floor as an arm clamped itself across her windpipe, shutting out the rest of the sentence, paling her lips and clouding her eyes in red. In the minute she managed to struggle, under the grey, metal vice of the grip, her buzzing brain just had time to identify the colour of the sleeve and the scar on the back of the hand.

“David… Yes… yes…”

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