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Chapter 33

Carter was of the opinion that no matter how hard a son strives in childhood and then adolescence, they could never quite see eye-to-eye with their father. Oh, they might outweigh their father’s achievements in adulthood, they can even be child prodigies in their respective fields, but they will never quite find themselves on that even keel; where you could stand at the same height as your father, look him in the eye, and say, “We are one, and the same. Now I can surpass you.” That just didn’t happen. Even worthless fathers were never around for their offspring to outdo them.

In Carter’s memory, this inferiority manifested itself most distinctly in a camping trip he had taken with his mother and father when he had been in his early teens. As a boy of that age, he had found himself frustrated at the prospect of spending an entire week subject to the whims of his parents; something he later grew out of entirely, but enjoyed the trip on the whole, and came back happy. The one moment though, that had annoyed and peeved him so, had been on the first day when they had arrived at the site in their car and unpacked the tent, the awning and all of the other gear. Eric Carter had had this big, old gazebo which he usually erected in their backyard back in Greenbury Park, but had brought along in the car for this trip so that they would have somewhere to retreat to when it rained. He also planned to cook under it, and, with it being dinner time when they arrived, they had to put it up immediately. The thing that stuck in Carter’s memory like a thorn was the embarrassment of not being able to get the poles that conjoined to form the roof to stay together; he had rammed them and jarred them and pounded the ground with them in teenage frustration and the terrible humiliation, where a simple deep breath would have sufficed. Eric had wandered over from where he was fixing up the awning, told his son to stop shouting, and fitted the poles together. And of course, they stayed fitted. Carter had watched in a red-faced silence as his Dad had built the entire gazebo in front of him, and then went back to finish with the awning.

For a man, and particularly a boy of his age, it was the worst thing his Dad could have done. It just made him feel useless, and unnecessary, more so than he already did. It had made him sweat, made his brows tingle and gave him a sore lump at the base of his throat. Carter had never cried much, even as a small boy, but he nearly had that day. He couldn’t deny it. One small slip, and the tears could have been gushing. But, he supposed, he was all the better for it now. For example, he had never lost his composure like that again. And now, when he fitted things together, he made sure that they were going to remain that way, or if they weren’t, dismissed them entirely as unimportant. Some might call that a learning curve, but Carter perceived it as a case of the damage already being done.

The strange thing was though, there was a role reversal of this case in point on the Royal Ascender. His job was that of an experienced, liaison officer, not there to do anything in particular, other than watch and report, and then to step in with the necessary expertise if it was required. As Eric Carter had done with the gazebo. Now it was the others on the ship, the rest of the crew, who were the inept children, unable to do their job without his dominating presence there to, in essence, do it for them. Which was perhaps a harsh way of looking at it, but also a valid one.

Overseer. It was a job title that he had come to like. It wasn’t the first time that he had performed this role either; back on the rock, he had been as a much a guide in the simulation and scenario training in Nevada as he was now on the mission. And he had worked for a couple of years as an advisor at NASA for younger astronauts. It pleased him to coach others in what he had learned, particularly if he saw what was being taught then being put into action. He could perhaps have been a teacher, in another life. This was also one of the few posts available to someone of his age at NASA these days. This thought made the job seem somewhat less attractive. He would show them. He was showing them! Look at where he was.

Carter felt himself as being somewhat similar to perspective poets, who would narrate their thoughts as a bystander, and give their own account of proceedings; in particular, Philip Larkin, who Carter remembered studying at Edinburgh. A bit of a pessimist perhaps, but a solid writer and a father figure; that is, one who made him look clumsy, in the field of modern literature. But not up here. Up here everything changed. David Carter was the daddy. What a title that was. He wasn’t just a Colonel anymore. This was essentially a promotion. The daddy.

Around him, the crew were panicking. People were running back and forth, shouting names, gesticulating wildly, and causing general havoc about the ship. It seemed that they had all lost control, that any degree of composure had long deserted them. All he could figure was that it was something to do with missing crew members. Maintenance and Christophe were apparently the latest casualties of this continuing theme.

Later, they were in the Conference Room; an area none of them had set foot in to this point. It was a large, bland space, with a long metal table and chairs for each crew-member, and it was the empty chairs that were the subject of conversation, Carter mused. He watched Bryant yelling a retort at Hiawatha. No-one seemed to have the slightest clue what could have happened to the men and women who should have been occupying them. Was there some virus on board; something that was striking down its victims suddenly and silently, and then quickly decomposing their bodies? Come to think of that, where was the medical officer? Shouldn’t he be here too, shouldn’t he have some input? Or were the missing crew members all part of a conspiracy, one that involved sabotaging the mission and its objectives, and they were hiding out somewhere, plotting and planning corruption. Even Colonel Taylor. There had always been something funny about her, as Marissa Herman so eloquently put it. Despite Carter’s authority, despite the fact that he was seated at the head of the table, the debate raged without him. It hadn’t even been he who had organised it. No-one really seemed to expect so much of him. He was old, after all, just there as insurance.

However, he was starting to get a headache. This nonsense was beginning to compromise the mission. The next person to stir any such rumour up would have to be severely disciplined. But for now, he needed the mob on his side.

“Settle down,” said Carter. He didn’t say it loudly, but the crew member to his left heard and ceased jabbering, and the silence continued like a Mexican-wave around the table until it reigned supreme. Carter then stood.

“It seems that this matter is becoming far more serious than I originally thought it could. I admit that I thought Perez and General Nikolov and all the others would have come out from where they are hiding by now. I simply surmised that perhaps they needed a bit of a sabbatical, you know? But we have been into their dorms, into their quarters, the canteen, the Cubicle, and found nothing of them. Therefore, I apologise for my negligence.

“It is my understanding that Colonel Taylor was planning to use the motion tracking equipment in the stores to scan the ship for any sign of our missing crewmen. I was checking the flight recorder the other day, and it seems Section Commander Willis passed on information to her concerning this months ago. We have been in disarray in the time since. I don’t mind saying, and I’m sure you will not mind me saying it. This mission is a mess. But I believe that possibly, just possibly, it is conceivable that we might still salvage some worth from it. Look at it like this. We came up here to push the edge of the envelope. All we’ve done so far is push one another’s patience. I want to see cooperation, now more than ever. Lets get that equipment, and scan the ship, and come up with our theories when we have a firm understanding of the situation.”

Bryant raised a somewhat tentative hand. Carter faced him.

“Major Bryant?”

“Sir, if you’ll excuse me, when exactly did you check the flight recorder?”

A dangerous question. One that was going to get this smarmy Brit into trouble.

“I will excuse you, Major. I checked the recorder this morning, as part of my duties. It is imperative that the commanding officer on board any spacecraft studies the data on the flight recorder to find any relevant transmissions, in particular those that relate to current events.”

“And were there, sir?”

“Aside from the request from the Colonel, about the tracking equipment, there are none. NASA are claiming no liability for these incidents. It appears we are on our own. Look around you, ladies and gentlemen. Humans have never been more alone than they are up here. NASA have very little control of the Royal Ascender functions at this range; any command might take days to be initiated. This they are aware of. That is the undertaking of which we are a part, and it is why we must look after ourselves. In essence, there are no orders up here. No protocol, as such. If you lot want to gallivant off, as you argued, with the others, you are more than welcome. Oh, there will be all hell to pay back on the rock, but that’s a long way away, right. And you can always land somewhere nice and discreet and set up an ant farm and do odd jobs for the elderly…” Carter tailed off with a smile, “Or we can finish the job we came here to do. We fly to this thing. We take snaps of Jupiter. We turn around and go back. It sounds simple doesn’t it. Why should it not be so? Its in my orders. I know its in yours.”

Carter examined the faces of those around him. They were looking up at him in silence, slightly awestruck, or at least, he hoped they were. That speech had taken a lot of effort to improvise.

“But in the mean time, lets get that equipment and have a snoop around. It can’t hurt, and who knows, we may find someone. Lieutenant Herman, with me. We’ll need to bypass the store’s security system, unless anyone wants to wait a week for Houston to respond to us asking politely for the code. Major Bryant, General Grasser, take the upper five levels, and Miss. Akbar, Lieutenant Hiawatha, the bottom four and the loading bay. We will set up the equipment in the engine bay. Are there any questions?”

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