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Chapter 27

“Commander Taylor? Do you read me? This is Houston 1. You are to make contact immediately, Commander Taylor, or risk breaching protocol. This is your last warning. You have one minute to respond.”

There was a short buzz from the radio and then an expectant silence. Carter stared at his fist thoughtfully, as he sat in Taylor’s chair in the cockpit. He hadn’t moved from the vicinity since the day before, knowing that the sight of him dragging the colonel towards an exit chute would more than likely prompt a reaction from the crew. Of course, the state some of them were in, it was perfectly possible that there would only be muted and perhaps even hesitant protests. The mission, after all, was in bad shape, and needed a new leader, which was what Carter automatically became in this scenario. But he doubted this somehow, and besides, he hadn’t done this simply to take command of the mission. He had done it to save the mission from failure.

However, if Taylor didn’t respond, then a breach from protocol would be recorded, and this would entail the rest of the crew having to enter their own unique codes to verify their presence, and Carter only knew Hiawatha’s code, besides his own and Taylor’s. The missing codes, those of Perez or Nikolov, would confirm their disappearances, and it wouldn’t take a genius to discover the culprit, when he was discovered here in the same compartment as Taylor’s body. Carter toyed with the microphone on the headset. Thirty seconds of the minute had elapsed. Would they accept the code, even if it was him speaking it? Surely the technology would be voice-sensitive. What if he put on an Australian accent? No, then he would just sound ridiculous. But he had to do something. Ten seconds.

Carter engaged the headset and blurted out the code, tensing slightly as the last digit passed his lips. There was a pause as this was received, a short click, and then the sound of the human override.

“There you are, Colonel, we were starting to worry…”

But Carter then replaced the headset. He need not speak. Protocol had been followed. The code had been delivered. This would at least buy him some time, but not much. The fact was, he couldn’t keep coming back in here every day, entering the code, and then not say anything. Firstly, this was uncharacteristic of Taylor, and would be remarked upon by Houston control, who quite probably were unaware of his Special Order. Secondly, the rest of the crew would surely notice him coming back here every day, and doing what Colonel Taylor was supposed to be doing, and twig sooner rather than later that something had gone down. He had no choice; he had to dispose of the woman’s body now, and let things lie. Hopefully, the news would filter through to Harvey, who would instantly understand, and continue to instruct Willis to dampen any panic and play down the significance of the disappearances. Yes, it was out of his hands, but he no longer had a choice. This was the game he had been asked to play.

Carter stood and stretched, before looking over the body where it was slumped next to him. In death, Colonel Taylor seemed smaller than she had done, as if she had been full of hot air, and subsequently deflated. Her head lolled downwards; her hair spilling slightly askew as her tight ponytail began to come loose. She had, as of ten hours ago, gone cold.

Getting her to a chute was going to be even harder than he had envisaged. There were no containers or anything similar in this part of the ship that he could use to conceal the body as he carried it. To get to the chutes, which were at the bottom end of the ship, he would have to pass through all nine decks, including the dorms, canteen, medical bay and washrooms, and then the storage holds and the engine bays. In all of them he was likely to run into someone. Using the chutes would be unwise.

It was an hour later, as he sat on his bunk with his ring-binders, that Kalmar knocked. Carter had not requested anyone come see him, and almost jumped at the sound. Mentally, he shook himself. Something must have happened somewhere else, that was nothing to do with him, and some idiot crew member didn’t know what to do. He thought this right up until Kalmar spoke.

“Just thought I’d check and see how you feeling, Colonel?” the medical officer stated, not advancing further than the doorway. Carter looked around, as if embarrassed, caught out.

“Oh, Salem, its just you. Yes, thank you, I’m… I’m feeling right as rain, now that I think about it. Is this sort of recovery ordinary in malaria cases?”

“Well, Colonel, it is not usually the case, as most malaria sufferers are stuck with third-world medication whereas we have been entrusted with the very latest drug treatments, and your immune system has been strengthened by the vaccinations. I would say it is not a surprise, all things considered.”

“How about that?” Carter said, with a smile. Dr. Kalmar was well known for his attitude towards the availability of medicine in the third-world. Carter could take it or leave it. “So were the drugs all tested thoroughly? Like, they aren’t experimental or anything right?”

“No, Colonel. I’m sure NASA wouldn’t allow that sort of thing. The treatments have all been tested in secure environments.”

“Well, that’s a relief, and no mistake.” Kalmar had not been to check on Carter’s health for weeks, since his illness. Whatever the reason, that was not why he was here now.

“Been a while since I’ve seen you about, doctor. How are you keeping?” Kalmar looked, for a second, thrown by the question, but he quickly regained his composure. Carter, with a concealed hand, felt the edges of the nearest ring-binder. It was surprisingly sharp.

“I am well, thank you, Colonel. You too have been keeping to yourself, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Way I was made, Salem, way I was made. Born loner. And of course you may say so; it is your job to make these observations. I would expect no less.”

“Indeed, Commander.”

Carter tilted his head, carefully fixing his eyes on the doctor, who, he noticed, was eyeing him shrewdly.

“That is not my rank, doctor.”

“But it is now, am I correct?”

“What makes you think this?”

Kalmar stopped, looking away at the wall and away from Carter’s gaze. He was clearly torn.

“I can perhaps understand the Latino,” he said, carefully, “he gets in the way, and he is a cheat; an adulterer. And it has been clear to all of us for some time that Miss. Taylor, though an influential figure, has been cracking under the strain. But why the girl, David? She is a Russian; it is dangerous…”

“Christ, Salem, you had me scared for a second then. I thought you’d worked out what my Special Order was!” Kalmar looked around in shock, his eyes and mouth gaping holes, realising in that second that his assumption hadn‘t taken in the full scale of the situation, and that he was in more danger than he ever had been.

“Special Order…” he had time to mutter, before recoiling desperately. But Carter had already leapt forwards and slashed sideways with the edge of the folder, sending the doctor’s head back against the wall. There was a loud crash as he collapsed to the floor.

Carter cursed and slammed a hand against the door button, and it hissed shut. The bottom edge of the door was obstructed by Kalmar’s foot, and the Indian cringed as the heavy jamb came down on his heel. He was half-conscious following the blow.

“You do, of course, understand why I have to do this, Salem. If it is any consolation, you are entirely competent in this environment, and in your capacity not a danger to this mission. But with what you now know, you have become a danger. My position cannot be compromised. I hope I have made this clear.”

There was a murmur from Kalmar’s mouth, which Carter had to lean in to hear.

“This is wrong, David… this is not you. You are not this kind of person.”

“I am exactly this person, or I would not be here! If you are implying that what I am doing is a crime, murder, then you are correct in that surmise. Unfortunately, murder is a consequence of my orders. My superiors require me to rot in hell, and so rot I must.”

“But their families… when you get back.”

“There is no going back, Salem. You’ve been tricked. You and all the rest of them. But what Mr. Harvey doesn’t know is that I have no intention of fulfilling his little objectives. I have no intention of bringing his precious Royal Ascender back to him, back to his mantelpiece. Think about it, my friend. You will go down in history, and Harvey will go down the drain. And me? I’m going for the stars. I think you understand.”

Kalmar, to Carter’s surprise, managed to rise up on his elbows. His eyes were glistening slightly, but only for a second.

“In that case, I wish you the best of luck, Colonel. You might just need it.”

“Luck, Salem, is just a figment. Luck is just consequence. What is going to happen, my friend, is I am going to touch heaven, and you can let Him know I’m coming.”

Carter pressed down with his boot on the medical officer’s throat and in seconds the man stopped moving altogether. It were as if he had gone to sleep. He had even closed his eyes. Carter stared down from where he stood for some time. The man hadn’t deserved this. An injustice, it seemed, in the line of duty; a fine crew-member, prematurely dismissed of his position.

“I regret it,” he said shortly, before hoisting the body up onto his bunk, where he covered the doctor’s body with his sheet.

It was about time he checked on Maintenance again.

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