It often bugged Carter that, when faced with a tricky situation, every person present and entrenched to whatever degree in that problem, would instantly believe that they knew what the best course of action to be, and had the right intentions at heart as opposed to, say, everybody else. It was amazing that so many people could be right and, at the same time, be wrong. It was particularly amazing when they were all in the same room, speaking at the same time. Carter watched the ensuing melee of words for as long as he could stand it, before he raised a hand, as a barrier between warring nations.
“These are all good theories,” he said, as evenly as he could, “but it is impossible for any one of them to be backed by significant evidence. NASA have said they’ll investigate. I suggest we leave the matter with them. We have our orders, and our mission. This should always remain the focal point here.”
“Forgive me, Colonel, but those others had their orders too. Colonel Taylor. The lot of them.” It was Carolyn Akbar speaking, but only Carter was looking at her, “Some of our orders overlap; they compliment each other. One person does a job that helps another, and so does that person, and so on. Does this scenario not entail the mission being compromised? Should we not request new orders?” At this, Major Bryant looked around. His face seemed to have frozen in a permanent grimace.
“And what about the motion tracking scan?” added Herman from across the table, “It detected no moving organic matter, besides the crew in their dorms where they should be, Carol in the elevator shaft, and the greenhouses below, which we’ve searched with fine tooth combs. Wherever they are on the ship, they must be dead or in some form of cryo-stasis, and yet we have located no bodies. They have vanished. The only solution is that they have jettisoned themselves and…”
“That will do, Lieutenant.” Carter pinched the bridge of his nose. He had hoped the subject might have changed by now. It was starting to get to him.
“I apologise, Colonel, but I think it must be said. The only likely explanation, you all must agree, is that they have taken their own lives. This may be shocking, but stranger things have happened. Often, I have heard, it is the people who seem the most normal who are the most distressed…”
“And we don’t want to cause any more distress now, do we?” Bryant piped up. Carter had been wondering when the representative from Britain would chime in. He had been unusually quiet today.
“What do you mean, Major?”
“What I mean, Marissa, is that these were people like you and me. They were part of this crew. They weren’t suicide nuts, pain-junkies. They were experienced, skilled and well-trained astronauts. Not only were they tops physically, but in their heads too. Mentally. Emotionally. I understand what you’re saying, but I think its far more likely someone or something has done them and stashed the bodies, I really do. This is way too suspicious. Its too much of a coincidence to be suicide.” Bryant’s words appeared to change the mood around the table. There was a slight feel that one or two heads turned towards General Grasser, who remained impassive, either not noticing this or hiding the fact that he had.
“A murderer.” It was Carter who spoke the word. Bryant, his face feverish, whipped his head round.
“I’m just saying…”
“You are suggesting, are you not Major, that one out of us lot here, there being theoretically no-one besides us on this ship, has murdered the persons presumed dead?”
“You do of course realise the seriousness of this allegation?”
Bryant seemed to find himself. “I do, Colonel.”
“Very well. Kindly suggest what you think we should do. Please feel free to ask me to leave if you consider me to be the murderer.”
The Englishman faltered, now visibly sweating. He began to stammer.
“No… I meant… It is just another idea, is all. I’m not accusing anyone. I have… There is no proof, is there?” His spirit was lost.
“I think that’s right, yes.”
“Yes, well then…” Bryant had spoken his piece, and bowed his head. No-one looked likely to follow in his footsteps, lest the embarrassment fall upon them.
“Now that that debate is over for now,” Carter concluded, folding his hands, “I must once more stress the need not to panic, or feel the need to deviate from the regular scheme of things. We are here to do a job. We can impress our superiors far more by carrying on strong than by…” He glanced briefly at Bryant, “making any sort of theory or accusation. Though you may think otherwise, I am of the opinion that we here do not have the qualification to deal with matters outside of protocol. I want that to be clear. Protocol first, anything else is secondary. And if it really bugs you, come see me and we’ll talk. Any more questions?”
There was a silence heavy with words unspoken. Bryant had by now descended back into his shell. Carolyn Akbar and Marissa Herman both looked unsure of themselves. Grasser’s expression hadn’t changed, while the Jap was picking his fingernails. Frankly, he didn’t look all that interested.
“Good.” Carter stood, breaking the sensation of pressure on the room’s inhabitants, who stood as well. There was a suggestion that the walls that had been bending under the tension sprung back out again. Everything was under control. Everything had been taken care of. What was there to worry about?
“I’ve, ah, finished my work on the elevator shaft now, Colonel,” Officer Akbar stated, speaking into Carter’s ear, as if he was suddenly hard of hearing, “I wondered if you would like to see what you make of my findings?”
“I would very much like that, Miss Akbar.” Carter looked back to the rest of the crew. They were lingering, unsure of themselves, torn between curiosity and anxiety.
“Myself and Officer Akbar will be studying some evidence in the med-lab if there are further queries. Do not hesitate to contact me. That will be all.” There was a general murmured response and a slow race for the doorway, led by General Grasser, who obviously had very important orders in his quarters that needed his attention. Marissa Herman was the last to leave. She kept looking over her shoulder at Carter and Akbar, as if concerned by something, but then seemed to dismiss whatever it was and tailed after Bryant and Hiawatha.
There was the distant sound of a door hissing open, and then sealing. They were alone.
“Sorry about that. Its just I don’t want whatever we’ve found to cause further discomfort to the crew. Now tell me what you discovered.”
“Well,” she began, leaning back against the metal table, “the red substance that Sinhala spotted in the elevator itself, just on the edge of one of the panels, is indeed a trace of blood. I’ve run the DNA scan on the sample taken, but I doubt it will be sufficient enough to get a definite match. There’s simply not enough of it. But the program is running now anyway, and it might give us some idea.”
“Really?” answered Carter, leaning too, “Can we do that? I thought that was what crime scene investigators and all that lot did.”
“But NASA developed a lot of the technology, Colonel. As they so often do. It’s remarkable just what we are fully capable of doing up here. I still don’t quite acknowledge it myself.”
Goodness, Carter mused, we have a smarmy one here. Would it be best to remove her here and now? The metal chairs were attached to the floor, and quite immovable, along with the table. He would have to use a punch to knock the woman out before he could finish her off, and she was standing too far away.
“I can imagine. Was there anything else you discovered?”
“After further investigation, other traces of a red substance, theoretically blood, were present on the elevator floor and also on the door, but they were even less substantial, like droplets. The stain Sinhala spotted is the largest in there. The most noticeable. But I cannot sample the other traces; they are too small. You’d need a proper scientist or technician for that. I only have the base level skills.”
“I see. It doesn’t matter too much, Carol, at least we have something. You have set up the computer in the med-lab?”
“The program is running, Colonel, yes, in the med-lab.”
Carter followed Akbar across the ship, keeping up with her brisk, straight-backed stride by accelerating his own. The way she walked interested Carter. Even though she was an astronaut now and not a soldier, it was almost as if she was marching in tandem to something, some musical beat that only she could hear. Maybe it was the years of discipline in the British Secret Service that moulded you this way. If so, Carter regretted somewhat that he hadn’t pursued such a career. He could have been James Bond, the martial artist, gunslinger, assassin and all-round good guy, rolled into one individual. When Carter saw the films back in the nineties, he had wondered how it was possible for one guy to have so many talents, skills that any ordinary person would find impossible to take on board, unless they practised every day and thereby replaced other skills. There was always that sense that Bond was somehow the best, even though he was only 007, and there were agents with other numbers just as qualified as he was. Their only role in the films though was to be killed, so that Bond could take their place, with the possible exception of Goldeneye, but then that wasn’t really a Bond film. Ian Fleming would never have authorised such a switch from the norm, or for M to be a woman, or for Pierce Brosnan to be cast. It stood to reason that the first and best Bond, Sean Connery, was the epitome of the character. Suave, grim-faced, gritty, and with the correct accent. Many modern Bond fans forgot that the original character in the books had a Scottish father. It just showed what tatty, modern adaptations do to genuine classics of their time.
“Here is the sample.” Akbar pointed. On the screen of one of the med-lab computers was an enhanced image of the red substance she had taken from the elevator. It was a deep scarlet; the unmistakable shade of blood. Carter began to wonder what the chances were that Akbar could determine the droplet she had found had come from Christophe’s mouth when he had struck the guy in the face. He leant closer.
“When will we have a DNA fix?”
“I would say a DNA fix is unlikely, all things considered, sir. The sample is, like I said, too small and not fresh enough. But what the computer will do is match certain patterns that do present in the blood to the DNA sequences stored on the system. It will show us the closest blood type and identity out of a select group.”
“So, us?” Carter stated.
“That’s right. I doubt that the substance has been there since we were back on the rock. Someone would have noticed it.”
“I guess so.” Carter tried to take stock, while pretending to focus on the screen. Again, the situation was not ideal. The woman was taking care to keep a good few metres between herself and her colonel, perhaps out of respect for his personal space. Had she been more receptive, like Herman, then Carter reckoned he could well have nipped this little snippet of doubt in the bud by now. But he would have to bide, if it was possible to name the act of stalling thus after such a long journey, his time, and wait until her guard had dropped and she was, at least for a short moment, in her comfort zone. Until then, he would wait and watch.
“The DNA sequencer takes a while to work, especially with such an insubstantial sample. It won’t come up with any real results until the morning.” It was only Akbar’s reference to the morning that made Carter realise that it was late. He stretched idly and checked his watch. If he lost track of time in this place, with these people, then he doubted that he would be able to find it again. It was strange, like travelling to a different time zone, or working nights. His body-clock was having to constantly adjust to whatever he needed the time to be. There was no night and day. Even Carter would admit that that was starting to get to him.
“Weird, isn’t it, Carol,” Carter mused, as they made their way out of the med-lab, “Weird how the time passes, but there is no natural indication that anything has changed. No sunrise, or sunset. No blue skies, or clouds. No long shadows, and no chill breezes. Nothing whatsoever. Just numbers on a clock. Don’t you find it strange?”
“It takes some getting used to, Colonel, yes.”
“Indeed it does. I’ll admit its starting to get to me. I think I need a session or two in the Cubicle. So I’ll bid you goodnight, and we’ll meet here at seven o’clock sharp for those results.”
Akbar bowed her head slightly, and made off in the opposite direction to Carter. She was heading below deck, away from the dorms. Maybe she had duties to fulfill before she could turn in. Maybe she was returning to the elevator for one last snoop. Maybe she just wanted to be on her own for a while, somewhere neutral and quiet.
Carter meanwhile made for the Cubicle. His tape of sounds was still in his dorm somewhere, but he could do without it now. He almost had the sounds memorised.