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Chapter 32

The single most vulnerable position that a human being could be put in was to become totally dependant on the quality of service another human being gave. Any time where you could not have at least some measure of control, you were at perpetual risk of embarrassment, and in serious circumstances, humiliation and social death. But you can forget trusting those bank clerks with your hard-earned money, and forget watching as the spotty teen puts your meal together behind the counter at McDonalds. Imagine if you were relying on somebody in an environment that was not controlled by Man, to which, if there were any screw-ups, you would have to give your very life.

Compassion, Carter felt, after the Second Mars Mission had run its course, was something that was scant among the human race. You looked at the natural world, and you saw kangaroos with their young in their pouches, largely inhibiting their agility and speed which so characterised them, and yet they were traits willingly sacrificed for the safety of the infant. It was similar with chimpanzees, and even ants. Their sole focus was procreation, as it should be, to ensure the continued survival of their species. But the human race had by this time worked such a groove into the universe that simple extinction was going to take quite a meteor. In that way, they were like weeds. Impossible to get rid of, unless you went back and dug until you found the root and killed that. For this reason, a focus on procreation was rather unnecessary. You could focus instead on being the best, gaining prestige and solidifying your position in the memory of the electorate, and take other such selfish measures. Which was why it was so intimidating to have another perform a service for you. That other was trying to make his or her own way. Who gave a fuck about you?

He knew Houston didn’t. He was pretty sure Commander Roberts didn’t. And he was damn sure those over-glorified sons of bitches who last touched down on the Red Planet hadn’t given a second thought to what they had left behind, and who would be following them here. They had just left all the mess, hastily scrambled back to the landing craft, licking their greasy chops in anticipation of the medals and the television interviews and the shaking of hands with the president. They were repulsive. Carter had thought as much when he had seen the crew appear on Letterman, one night on the ranch when no better entertainment had presented itself. He had been in awe at first; these men had done what he wanted to do and pushed the edge of the envelope, and they had done it in the interests of science. But as he had watched, as he had witnessed those overblown and now distinctly overweight astronauts spouting their garbage and feigning bravery and neglecting the contributions of others, even NASA, he felt the bile rise in his throat, and he had vowed then and there that he would outdo these scum, if it was the last thing that he did.

It had taken them an age to get into the main Mars 1 compound building. The door had been firmly sealed against intrusion, as it was designed to be, and it had taken Williams and Bradshaw three straight hours of tinkering in the now decimated Control Shed to unlock it, using up time and oxygen. In the mean time, Major Alexander and Carter were forced by necessity to go litter-picking. They had carefully made their way around the shed, collecting the twisted metal and shards of plastic that had resulted from the explosion, and bagging them, so that they presented no risk to spacesuits or their oxygen lines. It was a demeaning task. Carter had thought, as he was bending to wrench a panel of sheet metal out of the dirt, that it was very strange that the second team, Yellow Squad, hadn’t arrived yet. Bradshaw had said that they had touched down safely, and were on their way. But they had not appeared yet, and it should have taken them fifteen minutes to walk here, at most. There were no hills, or clear obstructions, on the route. Perhaps they had landed manually and that idiot in charge had steered them into the canyon. Or more likely, they were lounging around, doing nothing, and waiting for the cleanup work to end so that they could go inside and put their feet up some more.

Carter grunted. The metal had been sharp. He had felt it against his hand, but it had not pierced his suit.

“Something wrong, Lieutenant?’ Alexander had worked his way around, and was behind Carter.

“Why are we doing this, sir? We should be getting started with the objectives. It’s not as if we have time for stuff like this. Why can’t the Commander and her cronies clear this shit up?”

“Christ, careful Carter!” Alexander grabbed his arm, “What if they’re listening through their headsets?”

“Sir, if I may be so bold, I don’t think there is any chance of them taking notice of what I say. It might disturb their afternoon nap.”

“Still…” Alexander muttered, bagging more sheet metal. Carter knew that Alexander was after Roberts’ post, when the old bitch finally accepted her retirement fund, and that this mission would see him achieve it. The trouble was, the retirement fund so far offered to Colonel Henrietta Roberts was ‘not enough,’ in her view, and that therefore she deserved a heftier pay-off for her ‘years of service.’ Carter had had a good chortle at this, when he had heard, and he knew Alexander felt the same way. The actual service that old creature had given over the years to anyone other than herself could be measured on a micrometer. He dropped it then, though. Major Alexander was one of the few men at NASA at the time who Carter felt was suitable for commanding these missions in future. He still had a good ten years left in him, at least, and he had thought him intelligent and dependable.

Finally, there was that most beautiful of sounds; life, or rather, a wail of tortured and dusty metal bearings, as the doors of the compound building slid open, and the four astronauts made their way inside. Williams must have worked a minor miracle in the Control Shed, because all of the lights and electronic equipment on the ground-floor had been reactivated, and they could begin to oxygenate the premises. It would be a long process. They had enough oxygen in their suits to last them another 24 hours, and it would be a close run thing if the other team didn’t show up soon. However, predictably, once they had got into the compound, and started to access the communications mainframe on the central console, Yellow Squad appeared in the doorway, Roberts in the lead.

“Ma’am.” Williams and Bradshaw stood quickly and saluted, followed none too closely by Carter. Major Alexander made his way over to her and stood to attention. Commander Roberts nodded sharply, and motioned her squad into the building. There were six of them; young men and women who specialised mainly in computers and communications, and yet who looked totally in their element in spacesuits and headsets, as if they were bred for the job. Carter wouldn’t have been surprised. They were some of the most emotionless and cold operatives that he had seen in his time at NASA which, he presumed, was why they were assigned to Roberts’ squad. He had thanked his lucky stars when he had seen that he would be in the first squad, with Alexander. Even Williams and Bradshaw had personalities, of a sort. Carter knew he would have gone mad in the other squad, without a smile or a laugh or indeed anything articulated beyond a nod to get you through the flight simulation, the objectives and the moments of boredom between drops.

There was a kind of eerie silence as the tech-squad mixed with the cleanup-in-aisle-four squad. These were men and women with nothing to say to one another. Carter could already feel the tension.

The doors were sealed, and Yellow Squad set about oxygenating the compound, something which Williams had already done, but that they had to claim the credit for. Alexander and Roberts, who conversed in hushed tones, sat at the mainframe, with one member of Yellow Squad, an attractive girl in her late-twenties. There was no expression on her face whatsoever. Carter had been to Madame Tussauds in London, and saw a striking resemblance with the works on display there.

Carter, Williams and Bradshaw were left to their own devices, sitting at the table in the centre of the Ground Floor Compound. There were no orders from Roberts, or Alexander, who were visible from where they sat. They were to establish contact with the technician on the drop-ship, who would relay them through to Houston. Their message would take a day to reach Earth. But they hadn’t even started sending yet.

“We can take our headsets off now,” Carter said, with a shrug. He pressed a button on the side of his helmet, and the microphone and earpiece retracted, and the other two followed suit. There was no actual reason for them to remove the contraptions, but Carter wanted to talk with the other two without Roberts overhearing. Their helmets would ensure that they could not be heard twenty yards away at the mainframe computer, but were audible at close range.

“Jesus,” Williams replied, leaning forwards across the table, “I didn’t expect a ‘Thank you’ or ‘Well done,’ but they could at least acknowledge us. What side of bed do those guys get out of?”

“Right!” Bradshaw piped up, “I mean, we’ve done all the work. Perhaps they are just shy?”

“Don’t think shy has got anything to do with it, Kit. I think they’re some of the subjects from that special facility in the Nevada desert that removes their identity, and any kind of feeling. The government probably uses them for all kinds of experiments. Being an astronaut is probably one of the least dangerous!”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Carter, but he smiled encouragingly so that Williams would continue.

“I swear, it exists. Friend of mine knew a county sheriff in the desert who stumbled across the compound in the dunes. Never seen again, apparently.”

“Ben, stop it!” Bradshaw cried, striking his arm, “They can’t be all bad. Maybe if we try speaking to them…”

“Hey, Dave, I’d like to try speaking to that one with Red 6 and Gold Leader. Blonde No. 1 over there. Reckon that’s her codename.”

“I’ll say,” agreed Carter.

Bradshaw tutted. “You men are all the same really, aren’t you. You can show off your ranks and medals and act all macho when you’re on the job. But as soon as you see a young, blonde girl in a spacesuit, you just become the same man!”

Carter and Williams looked at each other.

“That’s a valid psychological analysis there, Blue 23,” Carter said, “Where did that come from?”

“Shut up, Carter!”

“She’s right though, Dave, end of the day we’re just the same aren’t we? Hey, those little tech-boy don’t have a chance with a girl like that, but I bet I can get her before you do. Ranks aside?”

Carter shrugged. He had nothing better to do, he was good at winning and badly needed to get his freak on. It had been nearly a year since he had last had sex, which nonetheless generally seemed to bother him less since his marriage to Katy.

“You’re on,” he replied, shaking Williams’ hand.

“Honestly!” Bradshaw sighed. But even she was smiling. Their conversation continued unheeded, until Carter raised a hand to silence them. He had heard raised voices. Pressing the button on the side of his helmet, his headset replaced itself. It was Alexander, and he was gesticulating frantically as he spoke. They could see it from where they sat.

“But that isn’t right, if you’ll excuse my saying so, Gold Leader,” the Major insisted, “We have to send a message of readiness to Houston and then get confirmation of its transmission from the drop-ship before we can proceed. It says quite clearly in the mission dossier…”

“I have read the dossier, thank you, Red 6,” Roberts answered. She was of average height and build, with light yellow hair that was buoyant and worn tied back under her helmet. Carter knew she was nearly sixty, but aside from sagging on her neck and below, it would have been impossible to tell her face from a thirty-year-olds. It was stern and pale, except where her cheeks reddened at their respective peaks. She wore little makeup or jewellery, but then few astronauts did under spacesuits.

“Nevertheless,” she continued, her voice slightly nasal, “my orders are clear. We are to proceed with the construction of the wind turbines and prepare for a number of experiments in the forthcoming week. We will not be waiting for a response to any message to Houston which, as you know, will take at least two days. You must remember that we are here at great expense, and must make the most of our time on this planet. My orders state that we are to proceed as instructed otherwise in the dossier immediately.”

“But with the greatest respect, Commander, this violates protocol,” Alexander was beginning to lose his patience with Roberts’ authority. Carter could tell just by looking. The man’s stance had changed; he was slacker, and was beginning to fidget with annoyance and nervousness. Carter heard Williams and Bradshaw muttering behind him, but didn’t tune in.

“Red 6, need I remind you that I am the superior officer on this mission, and you will keep any protest you may have to my orders to yourself, at least for now, and when we get back to Earth you can request a hearing. Get your team together and start to unpack the equipment from our pod.”

“Of course, Gold Leader,” Alexander now stood, but didn’t make for his team, “But I must remind you that I follow NASA protocol first and your orders second. That is my duty. And unless you can present an official signed document or recording with the appropriate coding that justifies your orders, then I am afraid that myself and my team will not be able to comply.”

There was a sticky silence, that lasted all of five seconds. Roberts rotated on her chair slowly to face the standing Major. She was about to reply, when two of her tech-team appeared behind Alexander, and saluted the superior officers smartly.

“Oxygenation complete, ma’am. Compound oxygen levels at 96% and rising. We are ten per cent inside the safe zone, and the premises are entirely secure. Helmets may now be safely removed.”

“Thank you, Yellow 1. Please proceed to unpack the equipment from the pod, and put together the turbines.” Roberts returned the salute, which was again returned by her team, with even more vigour than before.

It was as Yellow 1 and his companion started to leave that Alexander shouted, “If you obey that order, Yellow 1, then you will be breaking NASA Primary Protocol, Clause 18, and I will be forced to report you to my superiors…”

“I am your superior, in case you have forgotten, Major Alexander, “ Roberts interrupted, without raising her voice, “Do you wish to report Harrison to me?”

“No, ma’am, and with respect, I would much prefer to report him, were he to carry out your orders, to the Houston Section Commander.”

“Is that so?” Roberts replied, a slight smile appearing on her pale lips, “I have a bit of a problem with what you are saying, Red 6. If all you wanted to do was bitch and moan, why didn’t you just stay at home? We have come here to do a job, have we not? It is a fascinating opportunity for us all, and yet you are losing sleep over a mere technicality. Does that really make me a monster?”

Something seemed to snap in Alexander in that moment. Carter saw it, and Yellow 1 must have seen it too, as he stepped between him and Roberts.

“No, you only came here for money, so you can settle down to your retirement, knowing that you have more money put away than most countries do,” Alexander said, pointing an accusing finger, “You keep saying how this is a fascinating opportunity. But it’s a big responsibility, too big for someone who has just come here for the pay. This is the chance to do something worthy of remembering. But all you care about is getting back to your palace for a back-rub!”

The shock settled on the rest of the astronauts, who watched open-mouthed. Even the tech-boys had started; the one who had stepped between Roberts and Alexander had now retreated. Never had such an outburst occurred on a NASA mission. Only Roberts looked unsurprised, as one who has witnessed a cat pouncing on a bird after watching it stalk the thing for half an hour.

“As of now, Red 6, you are relieved of your duties relative to the mission objectives for the coming week. I will contact Houston with a report of why I have taken this action, so that a disciplinary hearing may be organised when we return to Earth. You are stripped of your authority, and will return to the drop ship at the soonest convenience, with Lieutenant Carter taking over your role as leader of Blue Squad. I think that will be all, Red 6. A team will escort you to the landing zone.”

Roberts turned back to the console, as if she had been fleetingly interrupted by a fly coming in through an open window. It was like Alexander had fallen into the ground and vanished. She simply acknowledged him no longer.

Fortunately for Roberts, Yellow 1 continued to regard Alexander, as he went for the Commander in anger, shouting words that Carter could make no sense of. Two tech-boys had got ahold of his shoulders and were dragging Red 6 away and into another room, where he was presumably sedated. They did not then see him again for some time, when they were back on the drop-ship heading back to Earth, and Alexander, or at least a pale imitation that looked a little like him, hadn’t even acknowledged them, even when they said his name. It was like he had been hollowed out, and made into a waxwork.

Carter didn’t worry about this too much. The mission may have been a fuck-up, but the promotion would further his own career, and that was what mattered. He did, of course, win the bet with Williams, after pinching Lola’s backside on the journey home, and the astronaut paid up, still chortling along with Kalmar, who had suggested the pinch. The whole getting married part that followed when they got back down to Earth though was not meant to happen, and even now Carter still wondered exactly how it did. Maybe he had fallen in love again. Or some shit.

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