15 months had passed aboard the F54 Royal Ascender, and so far as NASA were concerned, Colonel Taylor had failed to account for the whereabouts of the crew for the past week. NASA Control Houston, while careful not to let slip their many fears concerning the ship and its crew, were starting to chew on their fingernails. The Australian Space Centre, among others across the globe, were constantly asking after their representatives; checking on their well being, some even inquiring about communicating with them. Of course, this was impossible. It was all in writing. This operation was led by the US Government and NASA, and only they would be able to contact and receive communications from the crew, only they were the animals more equal than the others. However, this didn’t stop the feeling among many of the technicians in the Control Room that something was wrong.
The orders from upstairs had been that everything was normal, that the signals were everything that NASA’s greatest minds had anticipated, and that any doubt, other than the ordinary ’space-being-the-harshest-environment-known-to-man‘ anxiety, was totally unnecessary. These were the best of the best. Sometimes that was forgotten by the tech-boys, who thought that they were the important ones, who made all the calls. The astronauts were the ones who went, and did, and saw first-hand. More was expected of them than to simply fly a prototype ship further than anyone had ever flown. They were to look after themselves. That was what they had been trained for, in life, and then again by NASA’s intense simulation.
Carter had received a communication of his own that was of some significance, just the day before. He had been amused to find, as he had lain on his bunk, that his call-button was flashing on the dorm’s intercom. The flight recorder had a message on standby for him, which would have been sent a couple of days before by Houston. Or at least, that was what he had expected. In fact, the message had been rather more exclusive than that. The voice on the other end, disembodied and electronified though it was, to scramble any voice-tracking and recognition software, was that of Sam Harvey Jr., the US Government official who ran the country’s Space and Flight Programmes. In other words, he was being contacted by the top dog, the man at the very peak of their chosen profession, who was so exclusive that he had only ever spoken to him over the phone and from behind screens. Although he had seen pictures, Carter had little idea what Harvey actually looked like in person. It was thought that this secrecy was cover and a personal choice on Harvey’s part, rather than just protocol, which generally allowed some public viewing.
“Colonel Carter, I hope you are receiving this. If so, it means that our readings down here are correct, and the ship is fully functioning at operating capacity. We are happy to report that you are set to reach your target three and a half weeks, that is, 24 days, before the expected arrival date, and that you should begin preparations for the Primary and Secondary Mission Objectives that you have been assigned. We expect a transmission from the Royal Ascender a week after this date, leaving you around three days to complete the objectives. The report is to inform us of the degree of completion of each objective handed to you and the rest of the crew. Once you have compiled this report, proceed to load your samples onto the probes and launch them. No further programming is necessary. You have been briefed on this process. Good luck, and thank you for your hard-work, perseverance and personal contribution to this stage. This message is not to be shared with any other member of the crew, or replied to. End of transmission.”
There hadn’t been a lot to it, in the end. Carter had expected as much. He got the impression that a man like Harvey could not afford to be very personable, or speak for any length of time without having to retreat behind hired muscle. However, he had smiled as the little references, however slight, to Special Order 2091 appeared as if by magic in the message. For example, the separation of his and the crew’s mission objectives, and the mentioning of his ‘personal contribution.’ It struck him as a strange way of saying ‘secret assassinations.’ If no-one else was going to see the transmission, why couldn’t the man just say things as they were, instead of talking like a computer? Carter tried to imagine Harvey sitting down in his plush office to yap out the message, and found that he couldn’t. They just weren’t the words that a human would say, especially to someone who was part of mankind’s most daring escapade.
With this on his mind, Carter went for dinner, a hand hooked in the pocket of his overalls. He found Marissa Herman and Carolyn Akbar there, speaking quietly at first, but gradually becoming silent, like a song fading out at the end. Carter ignored them and looked over the trays of pre-prepared meals. Their stock was slightly up, what with a number of the crew not taking their meals in recent weeks, and he could see that, should he decide to complete the mission objectives and then embark on the lengthy journey back to Earth’s atmosphere, he should at least have plenty of chow. He picked a tray at random. Whichever way you chewed and swallowed, each one more or less tasted the same at this stage. Food up here had once more become a necessity over a privilege, much like the hydrogen fuel was to the Royal Ascender. It was odd that in that way, in this most modern of environments, they were still nearer the Stone Age than they were the delights of 21st century cuisine. The food was ready in ten minutes and Carter drummed his fingers on the sideboard, as he always did, until it was ejected. He selected cutlery and sat across from the two women.
“Something wrong?” Carter inquired, acting puzzled at their newfound silence. Akbar didn’t even look up as he spoke. As a colonel, and indeed her commanding officer at this stage, he could have her reprimanded. As it was, he just scowled, causing Herman to nudge her companion with an elbow.
“Sorry, sir. No… nothing’s wrong, we’re alright. Fine, sir.” Akbar forced her eyes up to meet Carter’s. Herman had quailed and was trying to disguise this fact by peering out of the panoramic window, gazing at the nothing that they saw every day.
“It’s good to hear,” Carter answered, “I’ve been getting reports of several crew-members complaining of stress and frustration. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that some of our number have jumped ship. It’s good to hear that someone still has their heart set on this.”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.” Herman opened her mouth to interject, and stopped herself as Akbar gave her a look. Carter instantly spotted it.
“Or am I missing something? Lieutenant?” Herman’s slender hand came up and touched her lips briefly. Carter could have applauded. He had seen that action in just about every horror flick he had ever went to see as a teenager, where the dopey American adolescent is surprised by the creepy monster, or murderer, or practical joker. The Scandinavian pilot had the expression down to a tee. But now that he thought it, he remembered that the girl always had seemed to maintain an Americanised façade.
“Its just…” Herman paused again as Akbar continued to stare. Carter cocked his head to the left.
“It is okay. You are free to speak.”
“What has actually happened to Colonel Taylor, sir? We know her reports were still regular, at least until recently, so she must still have been about somewhere. But suddenly she’s up and vanished, and hell, she hasn’t actually been seen by me or Carol or Adrian or Jacques for months! We suspected…” She paused, as if troubled by what it was she was suspecting, “we suspected that the General, Grasser, might have something to do with it. I mean, what has he actually been doing? I know he’s the big spaceman and everything, but we all were assigned special roles on board. He seems to sit in his dorm and do… I don’t know what! And actually…”
“What exactly is it that you are suggesting, lieutenant?” said an amused Carter
“We think Grasser’s done her in. Along with some of the others. Juliano…” Now it was Carolyn Akbar speaking, in her British-accented English. At least she had cut to the chase, even if she was being daft.
“Yes, and Lucia, we haven’t seen her in absolutely ages. Sir. And Colonel Taylor. He never seems to come out though, or I’d have asked him some questions…” Akbar paused, as if remembering her place, “if that were to be the wisest course of action.”
“Let me get this straight,” Carter said, hating himself instantly for using such a cliché phrase, “you’re saying General Grasser, who was invited on this mission as a representative of the German Space Organisation, and due to his experience, has been in some way involved with the...” He hesitated, recalling the term, “’doing in’ of certain crew members. That is an extremely serious allegation, and you understand, I have to ask you on what grounds you are making it?”
“I’m sorry, sir?” Akbar had paled significantly.
“You say he is somehow responsible, and you appear to have based that theory on his reclusive nature. Could it not also be possible that he too has vanished?” Carter could see that his initial amusement may well have been misguided, and that the territory he was entering was very dangerous. Woolly though the pair of them might be, they were part of Operation Angel Light, and would twig on any slip-up he made in the conversation, even if they didn’t realise it at first.
“Um, I did actually see him. Briefly, sir. On the eighth deck, near the Cubicle. Think he had a session in there. Haven’t seen much else of him though. That’s why we’re suspicious. There’s no other reason, really.” Herman had taken over again. She seemed to have regained some composure, and Carter knew he would have to be wary of her.
“General Grasser is an efficient and well-endowed member of this crew. I don’t think you can make such allegations without significant hard evidence.” Carter shrugged, noncommittally, “Those are the rules.”
“Of course, Colonel. You are right.” That appeared to be the end of it for now. Carter sat back, relaxing slightly.
“So while we’re not being official, tell me, why Grasser?” Carter asked, smiling at the corners of his mouth, “What you chicks got against us recluses?”
Herman instantly blushed scarlet, and Akbar looked down and smiled. It was as if a weight had somehow been lifted from her conscious.
“Nothing, sir. If you don’t mind me saying…”
“I said we were not being official, so go ahead.”
“Thanks. If you don’t mind me saying, you are sort of just there. I mean, we can always tell you aren’t hiding away. We know you’ve got a job to do, and we’ve got our jobs to do. Its just I don’t remember seeing Grasser’s on-board role, that’s all.” Carter sucked his cheeks in briefly, and then shrugged again.
“Hey, you may have a point. Now you mention it, not sure I remember Nikolov’s too precisely either. If she ever turns up again, we should probably ask her.”
“You genuinely think she is still on board then. With the other two?” Akbar looked slightly incredulous, and Carter was shocked at her sudden hauteur. It was probably his fault for letting them speak freely. This was only in the back of his mind though. The front was concentrating firmly on the fact that the only useful member of the crew who had gone missing had apparently not even been noticed by these two, even though he was the one responsible for their welfare. Or maybe ignorance was bliss. They must suspect more than they let on.
“Oh, come now Miss Akbar. This is an enormous vessel; the largest we’ve ever had. It would be impossible to find someone if they wanted to hide. On the contrary, I find it difficult to believe that you suspect one of our number, all of whom had good intentions for this flight, has taken protocol into their own hands and committed heinous crimes punishable by dishonourable discharge and possibly death, with apparently unclear motives. We should remember not to jump to any conclusions. After all, that’s why we’re going to the tear, isn’t it? So that we can make sure that what we think we know is correct. Why think when you can know, hmm?”
“Indeed, Colonel, sir.” Akbar’s expression was unreadable. Carter was starting to see that he had underestimated the former-MI6 operative. She was behind much of the routine planning and mission control; in essence, she was the link between the crew and the outside world, that is, the world back on Earth. This operation had been the centre of their focus for more than three years now, but she had been working behind the scenes on it for five, possibly longer than that. However, she still did not, it seemed, know anything of Carter’s true authority, or the whereabouts of the missing crew members.
“Then we shall save such allegations for such a time when you two have come up with some hard evidence. I know Colonel Taylor won’t want us to be causing disharmony while she’s going through… whatever it is she’s going through. Carry on, then, officers. I’m sure you have duties.”