The motion-tracking equipment was stored in a security cabinet on Level 8, just down from the dorms. Carter and Herman crouched beside it; the Norwegian fiddling with the nine-digit keypad on the wall, the Colonel wringing his hands behind her. This wasn’t Carter’s area of expertise, technology. He knew the Royal Ascender, and had a good idea of how it was powered, how they had launched, how it had been put together, and the concept from which it had arisen. But all of the little things, all of the details, they were quite beyond him. It took people like Maintenance to sort them out. Carter just went and did and saw and gave orders.
He knew the orders that he himself had given could be dangerous to his own security on the mission, but he had had no other choice. One of the others, likely Carol Akbar, would have organised this anyway, and it would be better if he was seen to be helpful. It was also important that he stamped his own authority on the crew for the first time. They were just three months from the tear now, and they couldn’t have anything going wrong at this late stage. Everyone was strung-out, everyone was tense, everyone was having delusions of reality, but they would listen to him. It was in their orders.
Still, he doubted General Grasser and Bryant would look in his quarters. They had been in there before, when he had been ill. That much was certain. But they wouldn’t go in there now. Despite everything, they retained every vestige of respect for their Colonel. Bryant had even apologised for his outburst in the Conference Room meeting before he had set out with the German. There was no doubting the authority on these premises. They would not go into his dorm. Even if they did, he doubted they would find Christophe.
“Got it, Colonel,” Herman teased the end off of a length of wire, twisted two metal strands together, and the compartment hissed open, the equipment elevating out to greet them.
“Good work. Now, are there any instructions on how to set this lot up?”
“I think I remember how, Colonel, if I may try. I don’t see a manual…”
“That is even better. Instructions just complicate things. You really remember that stuff? Goes straight out my other ear in those demonstrations.”
“Ha. I had to use it before, Colonel, in a simulated mission for NASA during my flight training. This looks a similar sort of setup. And I paid my fullest attention in the demonstration, and am confident I can get this do-hickey working.”
Carter detected no trace of diplomacy in her last comment, simply a keen intent. And what had she just called the equipment?
“Well, good work, Lieutenant. Well remembered, I guess. Suppose that means I have to carry it all down there then?”
“Ha, yes, Colonel, sir.”
“Jesus, I’m getting too old for this… No, don’t worry, I’ll manage.”
In truth, it wasn’t heavy. Many of the tracking lasers and their pneumatic lifting-arms folded into a single case, along with its control pad, which Carter was easily able to carry down through the decks. They met Carol Akbar and the Jap en route. The pair sidled over, empty-handed.
“Nothing yet, Colonel, sir. We got a report from Major Bryant that said they haven’t found anything either. It’s a puzzler, sir, because now we’ve searched everywhere twice. Even if… even if the unthinkable happened…”
“Yes, lets not think about that now, Officer Akbar. Thank you for your efforts. Please conclude your search, and begin to relay the results to Houston. They should know about this.”
They should know what a fine job of work he was doing, Carter said to the relative safety of his own brain. Carol Akbar saluted smartly.
“Yes, Colonel, sir.” She and Hiawatha turned and started off, and Carter and Herman continued on towards the loading bay and engine room. There was the sound of machinery in the background, familiar and reassuring, more so in the absence of Maintenance. The entire engine system was fully-automated from the start to the finish. In some ways, this disappointed Carter. It meant that NASA had finally lost faith in its pilots, and had put all of its trust in AI-systems and computers. But it was proving useful on this particular outing. Herman pressed a button, and the sliding double-doors hissed open, accompanied by a yellow siren on the wall, which made a tinny noise.
The last time Carter had been in here was when he had watched Maintenance cooling the Engine Management System, all those months back. He could almost see the man, feel his presence in these grubby corners and walls of valves and great lengths of piston. Perhaps Herman could too, because she gave him a look.
“This is the central atrium, Colonel. We will get the best range here.”
As Herman began to unpack the equipment, Carter watched her, thoughtfully. Here it was; that steely, Scandinavian efficiency that he had been waiting for. The girl was finally in her element, doing something she understood, under serious circumstances. She was reaching her true potential, and dropping that silly, little-girl-lost personality that she had developed during the flight.
The intercom on the engine bay activated; the red light on the base flashing on. Carter made his way over. Could they have found something?
“Colonel, this is Akbar. We have made no discoveries on our search, and neither have the others. I repeat, no discoveries. We are just about to relay our message to Houston and request enhancement. Over.”
He hadn’t told her to request any enhancement. That had been the term Taylor had used when she had wanted the tracking equipment they were using now. What further enhancement could NASA possibly offer them now? Was there a secret heartbeat sensor hidden somewhere on board? A lie-detector?
“Very good. Was there anything else? Over.”
“We think we may have found a clue, but it could be nothing, we can’t be sure…”
“Out with it, Carolyn. What have you found?”
“We were in the elevator going down to check the loading bay, and Hiawatha, he spotted something near the ceiling. It looked a bit like a speck of blood. We can’t be sure though. Its out of reach, and might not be blood at all. Sinhala says it is. He’s certain. That’s all we’ve found, sir. Over”
“We will have to test his theory. Incidentally, though, its starting to look like you might have been correct all along in your surmises that we discussed previously. Thank you for your diligence. We are now proceeding with the motion-tracking down here. I want you, and you alone mind, to delegate your daily orders to someone else, and investigate this. Seal off the elevator and disable it, then take a sample of whatever Flight Officer Hiawatha saw. We have the equipment to test it. Do this now. Thank you very much, Carol. Your contribution here will not be forgotten.”
“Received, Colonel. Over and out.”
It most certainly will not, thought Carter, as he made his way back over to Herman, who was on the floor, tapping commands into the tracking computer. As Carter rejoined her, there was a small bleep, and she pressed an ‘Engage’ button.
“It’s configuring, Colonel. This should take about fifteen minutes. Then the subsequent scan might take up to two hours, judging by the size of the craft. I’ve set it to search for electromagnetic changes in air density anywhere on the ship, so we had better tell the crew to get their heads down for a bit or whatever…”
“Yes, indeed. Except, wait, I’m afraid there will be one anomaly. Officer Akbar is under orders from me to be in the elevator shaft. It appears she found something on her search. Something I require her to investigate. Will that be a problem?”
“Not if we factor her into the results, it won’t, Colonel. So wait, the elevator is off then? How are we going to get back up?”
“Ah,” said Carter, scratching his head, “I’d forgotten about that. There’s always the stairway. It’s a bit dirty, but it leads up to Level 8. But hang on, if you’re scanning the ship, then don’t we have to stay where we are. Otherwise, won’t we be damaging the results?”
Herman seemed to give this some thought. There was something playful in her manner as she sat there, sprawled on the floor, dirtying her overalls.
“You’re right, Colonel, we would. I guess we’re stuck down here then.”
Shit, thought Carter. It had just been an inkling, but she really was game for it. It seemed he had hit the jackpot. Hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his overalls, Carter went back to the intercom, and switched on the loudspeaker to make the announcement.
“This is Colonel Carter, and this announcement applies to General Grasser, Officer Hiawatha and Major Bryant. We are about to scan the ship with tracking equipment, searching based on parameters such as movement and the like. It would be helpful to our cause if you could return to your dorms and get some sleep. We will wake you when we have finished this scan. Thank you.”
The three men each relayed messages of compliance. Carter replaced the microphone and returned to where Herman was sitting or, conceivably, posing.
“If we stay within a three-metre radius of the device, Colonel, it won’t pick us up.”
“A good idea, then, I think. That sure looks uncomfortable though.”
“Well, we have four minutes, Colonel. Do you reckon Maintenance had some cushions or something in his quarters down here?”
“I bet I can do better than just cushions. Wait here. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Three-and-a-half minutes later, Carter returned, weighed down under a mattress, two big pillows and a bed sheet. Herman laughed as he dropped them next to her.
“Permission to speak freely, Colonel?”
“What a saviour you are.” Herman crawled onto the mattress, and pulled her legs into a foetal position. She was still smiling that same, coy smile.
“Initiating.” It was an electronic voice, from the scanner. Carter got down on the mattress, just as the machine began to send out its signal. The pneumatic arm hoisted a laser that could be adjusted to point in any direction, allowing them to scan every inch of the ship given enough time. It was all rather smooth, Carter had to remark, although the arm did make a slight buzzing noise.
“That’s it then?” he asked Herman, who just nodded.
“Fine work, Lieutenant. Really. I could never have got that thing going.”
“Yeah, you could! It’s easy!”
“Ha, I’m afraid I’m a bit old-fashioned like that. I don’t really get technology.”
“Even so, easy…”
“For you, maybe!” Carter shook his head, slowly. It had been a long, arduous day.
Herman sat up, slightly, on a slender elbow.
“Can I say something to you, Colonel?”
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to say to a commanding officer, actually.”
“Is that right?”
“And to you in particular.”
Herman swallowed. She had flushed red in her cheeks. One of her hands was between her legs.
“Colonel, you make my pussy really wet.”