Of all the stupid questions that Man had asked during his existence, the worst was, for sure, the biggest and most sought after. And it was; ‘what is the meaning of life?’ It was such a pointless statement; such a typical piece of cynicism from the only race on Earth developed enough to question its own being. It was the fact that it was so general and diluted, that was what got to Carter. Shouldn’t the question, if it were even to be considered worth asking, be unfolded to encompass different personas and make them relative to upbringing and environment? The meaning of one life was not comparable to the meaning of another. Should it not also be dependant on a great many other variables; the relative density of local population, the likelihood of conception in a particular woman, the effectiveness and versatility of the male genitals, and the condition of the sperm, as well as the success rate of a healthy pregnancy and birth, the local survival rate for young children, and in turn the number of doctors or general practitioners trained to deal with diseases dangerous to children, not to mention the prevalence of said diseases? And that was just for starters. The reason that particular question could not be answered was that no-one could be bothered to take the time to factor in all the variables and come up with a straight and simple answer. It was just too easy to miss out a crucial arresting factor, or a point about the fragility of life, and the fickle nature of death. A successful answer would go on for pages and pages, and the philosopher-in-chief would still find himself writing. And that would just be for one person! Perhaps there were some questions that did need answers, but perhaps there were also some that it was stupid to even consider.
However, Carter counted himself apart from these fools. For a start, time was something he had in voluminous quantity, and he reckoned he had the kind of mind that could analyse the question in a thorough and fair-minded way. It wasn’t impossible to answer, he reasoned, simply very difficult.
Carter started with conception, and looked to proceed chronologically. The initial meaning for the creation of a foetus in the mother’s womb was, in essence, for the overwhelming pleasure and euphoria that were experienced by the parents in the creation of this foetus. This had always struck him as odd. Why was the act of conception designed to give both man and woman such a sense of pleasure, and then the subsequent act of giving birth designed to bring such discomfort? It seemed to Carter, and indeed to those who read the bible, almost like a punishment for sins. He knew, having been at several births himself. Perhaps the pain could be interpreted as a balance for the pleasure experienced nine months earlier, although largely afflicted upon the woman, who therefore must surely get the most pleasure from the sex. But alternatively, could it not also be argued that the pleasure gleaned in the first place may partly be in the defiance of death and the creation of a legacy, as much as it was the result of certain bodily functions combining, and that the following pain was a sacrifice for this continuation of genes. It made some sort of sense, and had surely been argued by scholars in the past. The meaning of life, was to sustain the life of humankind, as was the meaning of plant and animal lives of any species. You didn’t want to one day wake up and find you were the last one standing; just waiting until the inevitable end where you were picked off by some common predator.
Carter found that he branched too readily into the God-arguments, like so many other questions eventually did. The bible quoted Eve’s pain at childbirth as a punishment for all womankind; a result of our mother and father’s disobedience and subsequent Fall. He too was beginning the descent. Into cliché. And anyway, the theory made no sense, as it did not in any way apply to his own life. Carter hadn’t particularly enjoyed the process of having kids, and he didn’t give a damn about his legacy, though tolerated it while it didn’t bother him and ask for money. Like the original question, his conception theory was just another generalisation. People had sex simply for the pleasurable side of it, for money, for entertainment, for getting back at someone, for power and leverage… sometimes just for getting rid of that horrible urge in the pit of the prostate. Did any of the rock-dwellers have sex with conception in mind anymore, ‘trying’ for a baby, as it were? Surely not. Perhaps then, they were all just sinners. Perhaps God would call on Noah once more to round up pairs of animals on an ark so that he could flood the planet. This story had always confused Carter on a literal level, as he found himself wondering what happened to all the plants God had created. Maybe the sinners had smoked them all.
So Carter moved on to the next big argument. An individual was put upon the Earth with a purpose. The meaning of their life was to make a difference in some ways to the lives of others, and perhaps made the meanings of others’ lives clearer. Those who clarified these meanings would be the so-called heroes, and righteous individuals, and saints, and the martyrs; people whose calling it was to show others the right way. Men such as the Prophet Daniel, John the Baptist, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But to make these men necessary, there had to be an anti-process; men who would eschew from the righteous calling and aim to deviate others from their own paths. Men such as Adolf Hitler, Nicolae Ceausescu and Pol Pot, who engendered prejudice and cruelty and personal desire over their true calling and in their lives did not go down that path where you aided the lives of others.
The question was, did this theory still apply when he related it to someone who was not a stand-out hero or villain; someone who was just average, and had lived an ordinary life. The nearest person to hand was Maintenance, so Carter thought about what his calling would have been, and found that the positive and negative elements clashed. On the one hand, Dr. Abu Phillips-Murphy was an accomplished and skilled mechanical systems engineer. He had a useful degree and PHD, that he had had to study hard for, all with the intention of one day fixing things for other people, helping them out, and perhaps making them work that little bit better, to improve general running capacity and efficiency in the lives of those he helped. The factors of employment and payment were not relevant, as he would need these in return to sustain this process. What was relevant were his habits; particularly the love of mosquitoes sucking his blood, and the fact that his blood was a known carrier of a deadly disease, a combination that, Carter knew, would have been the end for him had it not been for Kalmar. Had Maintenance not been so careless, so cavalier, then Carter’s life may not have been put at such risk. It was, in turn, Carter’s calling now to ensure that such a thing would not happen again, to him or anyone. The man had followed his calling in life, but had been negatively influenced by the antics of others, and so in turn started to tar others with that same brush. For instance, he had forced Carter to bring about his untimely death.
Too easy was it to stray from the path of righteousness, Carter decided. They were too weak. Oh, so there may have been prophets, martyrs and the like, who were willing to walk the path God chose for them, with no deviations, ready to die at any moment to stay on that path, in the knowledge that they were doing the right thing. But the modern world was by far a more complicated place. There was strict protocol, the wealthy, heavily-armed and well-articulated to bow down to, and a readily available stream of pornographic images at the touch of a button. At the same time, the kids had become lily-livered, to recall a phrase. There was too much time sitting around, being influenced by computer-games and magazines and movies and fast food additives. They would seldom get around to perusing the meaning of their lives. Completing Metal Gear Solid was a far more pressing concern. It had never been truer to say that times had changed. Carter had himself meant to be a writer; to write for the benefit of others, to make them see the world in a new and fascinating way, and perhaps teach them a little too. But even he had failed to achieve his target. Here he was, floating millions of miles above the typewriter that should have continuously occupied his life.
The only meaning now of life was its end. That was where the striving to adhere to life’s meaning ended, and you became oblivious, as someone new would take over the mantle, and leave you to rot in peace. And so the cycle would then continue. And if God’s goals could no longer be reached by the common man, then the man had every right to try and enjoy his life while he still could, and get some good memories out of it, rather than breaking the bank to achieve the impossible. Then when that life ended, it all became invalid, neutralised, recycled, and it just didn’t matter any more. The only meaning of life was death.
Take Maintenance again for example. Carter looked at the man’s body on the floor of the loading bay. In life, he had been a cog, a simple component part, of this mission. But he had put his, Carter’s, life in peril, making him a threat to the mission itself. He was a self-destructive element. After all, Carter was at the head of the venture, that much was clear. And Maintenance had essentially made to assassinate him. But now, it didn’t matter anymore. He was in a place where there could be no more judgement, as the ideal that would be judged, his life, had been ended for him. He was, to recall another phrase, at peace. Nothing more could harm him now, ever again. All those childhood years of being forced to carry an AK-47 and intimidate innocent farmers and fishermen in Sierra Leone; that had been muted. So had all his secret bodily urges and lascivious desires that Carter knew would be in untold quantities. It was like a misbehaving student finishing his finals exams, in a way. It wasn’t like his tutors could then continue to criticise his behaviour, because it became none of their business.
God was the same. He would have to allow us to rot in peace. Rotting was getting to be something that His finest creation was good at.
Carter shook himself briefly, then hoisted Maintenance’s body up onto his shoulders in a fireman’s-lift, and sidled towards the exit chutes on this level. Up here, he could at least do the man’s body the favour of forgoing the rotting process in a physical sense, by suspending it in the eternal ice of Deep Space. In a way, perhaps, that was even worse. He would become just another piece of space junk. Maybe one day, one of NASA’s precious craft would venture up here again, and the crew would be shocked when a frozen black man in a prostrate position crashed into their cockpit window, eyes wide and rimmed with frost and particles of space dust. That would give someone a scare, Carter mused, a faint smile appearing on his mouth.
As he was loading the body into the exit chute, a sudden flash of realisation hit him. The man was black wasn’t he, and in a state of rigor-mortis. There was something he had always been curious about. When he had zipped the corpse’s overalls back up again, he pushed Maintenance into the chute, removing his boots to streamline the process. With a hiss, the chute sealed, and there was a familiar sucking sound as the mass of bone and flesh and penis was extricated from the pipe and flung into the black depths, which Carter could just see through a panel above the chute. Soon, it was gone.
Giving a commanding officer malaria, indirectly or otherwise, was an offence punishable by dishonourable discharge. And where would they be without discipline?
It was as Carter turned to leave that Lieutenant Jacques Christophe stepped out of the elevator onto the loading bay, and stared at him for a few seconds across the stone platform. He did not appear shocked, as such, perhaps because he too had found bliss in his ignorance. The Frenchman looked around, confused.
“Colonel, sir.” he said, saluting. Carter nodded, and the man approached. Carter too started forwards and met the man halfway across the bay floor. They were about twenty feet from the elevator Christophe had just stepped out of.
“I am to report to Dr. Phillips-Murphy at 11:00, sir. Is he here?’
“Doesn’t look like it, Lieutenant. I’m after him too. He neglected to filter the engine cooling system last week, and we’ve been having problems with some of the boosters.” Carter pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration, “I swear the man can be a total liability sometimes. Couldn’t NASA have found someone more reliable?”
“I wouldn’t care to comment, sir. You don’t think…” Christophe seemed to hesitate, and dismiss whatever he was thinking. Carter knew what it was. The man was beginning to twig. Maintenance was always down here. It was his duty. And so the Frenchman too became a threat that could compromise his position. Carter motioned towards the elevator.
“I think he may have gone for some chow. It is nearly lunchtime,” Carter suggested, pointing to the face of his watch. Christophe nodded slowly, and followed Carter into the elevator. Carter pressed a button, closing the doors, and they were whisked up and away from the loading bay. There was a few seconds of silence in the small cubicle. Then Christophe started coughing, holding up a fist in front of his mouth. Carter knew a forced cough when he heard one. He also knew a combat stance. This was going to be tricky. Carter sighed, inwardly. He truly was getting too old for this.
“Colonel,” Christophe said, visibly tense, “why have you pressed the button for the ninth level? The cafeteria is on Seven.” The man half-flinched, expecting a blow. But it didn’t come, and he seemed to loosen somewhat in shock.
“So it is. I must have hit the wrong one. Apologies.” Christophe remained dumbstruck, and Carter smiled encouragingly, “Well, you’re nearer.” When the Frenchman still didn’t move, Carter tutted and reached past him to press the button for the seventh level.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Lieutenant ball his other hand into a fist, and lashed sideways with an elbow. Christophe recoiled backwards, bent double, the base of his spine crashing into the metal panel of the elevator door. In an instant, Carter’s knee came up and crashed into the Frenchman’s face, and he went over like a tree. Out cold. A purple bruise was already starting to form around the bag under his left eye. As Carter made to frisk Christophe, a tooth fell from his mouth and he picked it up. Maybe he still had it after all. What a pathetic waste of an astronaut that was.
He had chosen the ninth level because the dorms would be empty, except perhaps Grasser’s, and he could dispose of Christophe discreetly. There was a slight shudder as the elevator came to a halt, and the doors opened. The node was deserted. Carter waited a few seconds before hoisting the Frenchman onto his shoulders and making for his dorm. As he passed General Grasser’s quarters, there came the faint sound of classical music. It was slightly restrained, as if it were being played through headphones. Grasser would be unable to hear him. Carter passed by quickly, and then passed his own quarters.
There was nowhere left in his dorm to hide another body. Things were getting out of hand, and some housekeeping was needed. One day, he needed to dispose of the bodies of Perez and Taylor and Kalmar before someone took it upon themselves to have a root through his belongings. Carter carried on towards the med-lab. It would be cool and empty and he could endeavour to solve his problem.
Christophe started to come to as Carter locked the med-lab doors and pulled a pair of latex gloves on. There were some hospital gowns in a cupboard, and he unfolded one and slung it on over his overalls, for when things started to get messy. He became aware that Christophe was scanning the room with his eyes, while still remaining motionless on the table where Carter had lain him.
“Flight Lieutenant Commander Jacques Christophe.” The man finally moved, trying to sit up, but then Carter came from his blindside and jabbed down with a hypodermic syringe.
“What the fuck? What are you doing, Colonel?! Have you gone insane? What is the meaning…”
“Only my orders, Lieutenant. You have yours, and I have mine. Is it my fault that they have clashed so horrendously?” Carter looked down at the man as he stared up angrily, and yet helpless. The pilot had only half-regained his consciousness, and was now also having to fight the sedative that Carter had pumped into his blood. Gradually, his expression neutralised and his fists unclenched.
“I know that you can still hear me, Jacques,” Carter went on, “And I’m sure that if you knew my orders, you’d understand why I have to do this, and do it against your will. The fact is, I can’t be compromising the mission by dragging you all the way back down to the loading bay and getting spotted. Its just been too much unnecessary risk for one day. For me, anyway. You would likely object, if you could, hmm? Monsieur? I bet you like a bit of risk don’t you?”
Christophe’s eyelids had drooped, so that only the whites of his eyes were visible. Despite the sedative, the man continued to sweat, and his chest moved up and down like a bellows.
“And so I’m afraid, I will have to keep you here on board, all snug and warm with a few of the others who I couldn’t get rid of quite so easily. Only, I have a bit of a problem. See, this spacecraft; it’s pretty big and everything, but you know, I can only really hide the compromised crew members in my quarters, otherwise they’re bound to be discovered by someone, right? And, here’s the thing, there’s actually no more room in my dorm for you. So what can I do?”
The man was almost in a state of torpor as Carter spoke to him, so it was difficult to know if he was listening or not. Carter didn’t much care.
“I am going to have to make you quite a bit easier to store. There’s lots of little cubby-holes where I can hide part of you, but never the whole body. Well, its high time I started making use of micro-storage. Now stay still there, Lieutenant. You shouldn’t feel a thing.”