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Chapter 1

Carter believed, and was right to believe, that he was the only one on the ship who still found himself floating in mid-air and marvelling at the wonder that he was, for lack of a better word, flying. It was a childish notion, he always told himself. He was being silly. He was being immature. Every other man or woman, at least those with his experience under their belts, would float from node to node, from control room to engine, from flight deck to dorm, without giving anti-gravity a moment’s thought. That was, his inner-child complained, because they were all the heartless, emotionally-modified bi-products of NASA’s hundreds of test programmes. They were little more than the machines they controlled, little more than the looming rocks they visited. While you, David Carter, they couldn’t get you, could they? They couldn’t strangle the feeling from your soul, squeeze the jelly from your Twinkie. It was you, and you alone, who could say back on Earth: ‘I am a real man, and I have seen things you could not imagine.’ Carter selected a number of words and phrases from his mental dictionary, planning at some point to compose a poem on the true wonders of anti-gravity. It didn’t look all that easy. When pen and paper were at the ready, he thought, he would find a way to cross that bridge. Hell, it had always worked before.

He reached out a hand and expertly wound a Velcro strap around his wrist, bringing his brief flight to an abrupt end. Perhaps he was being harsh, he mused, and was basing his suspicions merely on his previous outings into the sky. He still called it the sky! His fellow American astronauts, fine men and women though they were, were indeed too reliable, too ready to follow the commands of Houston, too… robotic. It just wasn’t right, in his view. Oh, they had been superb operators, his memory chided, laying the facts bare-faced across his eyes, and some of them had been a barrel of laughs back on the rock. But once they were up here, once they were sealed in that steel penis with its nose and boosters and blinking lights, any emotion, even the ability to smile, seemed to have been left back in their locker in the hangar. From this point, it would be all protocol, all procedure, all fucking heave-ho all the way.

Presented with situations such as these, Carter wondered whether it would be worth perhaps mentioning something, and he would plan ways to try and make the other astronauts’ emotion betray itself, like wild game to the shotgun. The trouble was, he despised jokes, and didn’t know any good ones anyway, bar those in the works of Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, and they didn’t really work as icebreakers in conversation. He had instead trialled a few other methods; what they called ‘banter,’ for example, which was something he found he was quite good at. So good, in fact, that he had left one technician in tears, and was forced to admit that, although he had achieved his goal, he hadn’t uncovered the kind of emotion he was looking for. Taking a new tact, he had attempted to cause a stir by pinching the backside of a busty female astronaut, Lola something, her name had been, and it seemed to have worked initially, only Lola had got the wrong idea, and had married him when they touched down a week later. Disheartened, Carter had lowered his expectations, offering a simple high-five to one of his fellows after the Second Mars Mission. The guy had looked at him as if he was being shown the middle-finger. At first, Carter had wondered whether he had caused offence; the guy looked Tunisian or something, and in some cultures the displaying of a palm was a rude gesture, but no. When they had stood in line at the ceremony not two days later, the dick-head got a couple of guys together, with him in plain sight, and had raised his hand, attempting a goofy impression of his gesture, to much general amusement. Carter could have shot him then and there, but there were people.

This current crew though, these guys were a different kettle of fish, and he was hoping that they would share in some of his simple emotion in this, the longest flight through space ever undertaken by a manned craft. It was too long not to smile, to gesticulate, to throw your head back and laugh. There are some things humans have to do, or they are no longer human. Perhaps these guys would partake. Carter’s crewmates were of different nationalities, rather than the usual mix of American and American immigrant, and this had excited him from the moment he had met them. They brought with them new approaches, new methods and they just got the job done, using more informal terms and a less serious manner of speaking, and above all, they brought new anecdotes to tell. The trouble was, they would not have been selected for this trip by NASA if they didn’t also possess a dual personality; the second half of which was totally hard-assed and intent on completing the job in hand with a top score. That was not so much a problem in Carter’s eyes as he had one of these himself. It was what had got him through the USAF and his NASA flight training. He just hoped that, in removing much of their feeling and soul, NASA hadn’t accidentally on purpose destroyed everything other than bone and flesh.

His first inclination was that he hadn’t been wrong. These guys were surely in a league of their own. One of the crew members, who was from Africa, had been chewed out by the Assistant Flight Commander for asking to bring a container of mosquitoes onto the craft with him as though it were hand-luggage. There had been all sorts of problems. The insects could screw up the ventilation, could get into the instruments and wreak havoc, could give the crew blood-poisoning, or worse. On the other hand, the guy had refused to commit to the program if he was prevented from bringing his ugly friends along with him. Finally, after the designing of a secure array of mosquito nets, protective panels and metres of welding and toughened wires, the mosquitoes were allowed aboard. They were confined to the guy’s dorm and could not be moved anywhere else without passing through a cleansing steam-room, which in fact did the opposite and killed them. Carter had roared with laughter at the installations, unlike the other crew members, and had made sure to strike up conversation with the African. His name was Abu, and he claimed the horrible insects reminded him of his homeland, and that he wouldn’t be able to sleep without the damn things buzzing around. Carter had nodded. He understood. Here was a man ready to cause controversy by forcing all of these changes to the ship’s inner integrity; all for his love of the comforts of home. A man after his own heart. Or so he had thought.

Abu had put on his ‘game-face’ now; Carter hated the term, and now he never spoke of the comforts of home, or anything trivial for that matter, and especially not whilst in Carter‘s company. He was maintenance. That was all he was now. A single word, the only description that could be made of him. Maintenance. It made Carter sick. Aside from the occasional red mark on his face, there was no sign at all that this was the man who had made the ludicrous decision to bring mosquitoes onto a spacecraft. It was crazy. The man should have been a legend. But no; just another hard-ass, just another certifiable, mechanical-minded freak. He seldom spoke to Abu now, unless he needed to.

Besides, one of the damn bugs had still managed to get out the other night and bite him.

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