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Chapter 39

Carter felt rather than thought the words flowing underneath his hand, as he scrawled across the page of one of his notepads, one of those he stored discreetly beneath his bunk. His dorm on the Royal Ascender was pretty much devoted to the storage of notepads and stationery and files containing his works, as well as one or two other things that it didn’t pay to think about. The pen he was using was a black fountain pen; a Parker. There were seven more like it left, as well as numerous packets of biros and pencils. He also had cases of spare ink cartridges for fountain pens. And there was always the digital keypad and hard-drive which folded out of the wall beside his bunk. Strictly, it was for communicating messages with the crew, and checking operating functions below. But it held enough drive space to store a pretty significant amount of writing.

When he wasn’t performing his duties; his main duty being, of course, the observation of the rest of the crew, or as he had learnt at university, people-watching; that was what writers called it, aside from the few other bits of nitty-gritty tasks, such as paper-work and dockets and systems checks, the time was his for writing and thinking. And when he was sat, alone and undisturbed, his thinking was mostly of writing. There was nothing really left for him back on Earth, but he had often thought that it would be fitting for him to leave something behind. Ultimately, he planned to scan the best of what he wrote onto the mainframe and relay it back. What the NASA boffos thought would be incoming data from the tear, would in fact be precious literature, signed Carter, David K.

It never occurred to him what they would actually do with the stuff, because it would certainly never see the light of day, and so never win any prizes or commendations, except perhaps for the most obscure information relay in the history of space travel. There was no-one else who he could send it too, no-one at NASA either who appreciated what he would send, no-one who understood him or what he would write and had already written. It would be deleted at the annual service check of Houston’s mainframe and never seen again. But that was better than not sending it. It was some consolation to Carter that the one individual who got the most satisfaction out of his writing was always likely to be himself. It was he who could read back a novel or poem or drama and smile and recall what he had been thinking about when he had written it. He could be happy that what he was in fact reading and enjoying was a genuine work of David Carter; the writer who never was. Perhaps that made him the most exclusive writer ever. He had only one target audience to contend with; only one who could fully comprehend what it was he was saying. No doubt critics on viewing would tear most of his stuff to pieces. But it was, in his opinion, too precious for their ink-filled eyes. Never mind that it wasn’t totally unique, grammatically sound, perfectly laid out and accurately set. It was probably the only remnant of heart and soul he had left.

Carter had taken it upon himself to write a play. It was about two boys, on a camping holiday with their parents, who are absent for the entirety of the three acts as the boys contemplate their whereabouts. They begin by joking about where the two parents could have got to, and what could have happened to them. Its as they sit there, outside the tent, keeping to the same spot, that fear and doubt and anxiety set in, and the jokes turn to more serious worries, the pitch of their voices changes, and suddenly they are raving like lunatics. At this point, Carter was unsure whether to introduce the parents, and thus prove the boys had made fools of themselves, or to leave it on a knife-edge, and the point where the boys express their deepest and darkest fear. He settled for the latter, and left the phantom parents in limbo. It was only after finishing this that Carter realised that he had slightly ripped-off Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot,’ and worriedly scanned the entire play for any similarities with Beckett’s piece and tried to alter them. But the same theme still rang true, and Carter considered the play as being of a lot less worth than he had anticipated, perhaps even defunct.

There came a knock on the door of Carter’s dorm. He looked up, slowly. It was now two and a half months until they would reach the tear, and for their part, the crew were starting to settle once more down into the same torpor that had engulfed them towards the end of the first year. At least that meant there was no more talk of conspiracies, and no more bare-faced accusations.

“Yes,” he said. It didn’t surprise him when the door hissed open to reveal Carolyn Akbar. She was the one officer on board who had been changed in attitude since the disappearances. There was a sense that she was more confident, even more willing to share her ideas than before, and particularly with Carter. Up until that point, she had hardly spoken with him, even back on the rock.

“Just me, Colonel, sir.” Akbar stepped beneath the door and waited until it slid shut before advancing further. She had retained that edge of discipline in her actions that so marked her as a former employee of the British Secret Service.

“Yes, Carol,” Carter repeated.

“I found today that the computer had stopped running that DNA program, sir. You know, for the blood samples we took a fortnight ago? The result are, as I feared, pretty inconclusive. The nearest match the machine could get were several strands that line up with the stored data for Airman Jacques Christophe.”

They had met the day after Akbar had entered the sample into the mainframe, but the computer at the time had come up with no matches. He had hoped that that would be an end to it. Carter pushed the notepad onto the bed, and swung his legs round so that he faced Akbar. His hands he placed on either side, for balance. He didn’t stand.

“Christophe?” Carter mused, looking down between his knees for a second, “And can you confirm, is he one of the individuals considered missing? Has anyone seen him in the past fortnight?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, we might be getting somewhere here. Good work, officer,” Carter stood in one movement, causing Akbar to start back slightly, before steadying herself. It was a small movement, but Carter noticed it. This, he realised, this could cause a few problems. Could she possibly suspect him? More likely she was just wary of superior officers. More so than Herman had been.

“Yes, it would seem so. I will show you the results of course, and then I was going to make contact with…”

“Indeed, show me. Then I will contact Houston with what you’ve found, and they can make a decision when they receive.” Carter started forwards, causing the Arab officer to spin on the spot, on a sixpence, before showing him to the med-lab. Funny, thought Carter, how she feels the need to escort me, when I, the commanding officer on this ship, do actually know the way. And funny also, how she feels the need to think of everything. I thought that was my job now. That sort of behaviour was best defined as rash.

So as he had a couple of weeks ago, Carter followed Akbar to the med-lab computers. While walking, he studied the woman’s movements; her gait, the way she held her arms, the length of her strides, and he also regarded, swiftly, the size of her upper arms. They were thick, although smaller than the late Commander Taylor’s. She was still strong, though, and jumpy. Not an easy target for anyone, and for a pensioner like him, it was probably worse.

“Here, Colonel,” Akbar motioned with her hand at the screen of the computer, and then clicked on an icon. The strands of DNA that matched those of Christophe, which appeared beside the sample on the screen, flashed red in colour. Once more, Carter noticed, the woman had stepped back away from the screen, away from him. He made to turn, surprised.

“Are you going somewhere, Carol?” he asked, suddenly, finding Akbar off-balance. She seemed to blush briefly, before responding.

“No… I’m not, Colonel.”

“Sorry, my mistake. You seem to have something on your mind, or perhaps some previous engagement?”

“I do have orders, sir, with Major Bryant…”

“I was of the opinion, call me crazy, that you sought me out to see these results. Do you not consider them more important than your orders?”

“Of course, Colonel, they are paramount.” Akbar seemed to make the tiniest movement forwards. It wasn’t enough. Carter made a snap decision, and collapsed in a chair before the bank of computers, moving his hands discreetly to his forehead.

“No, you’re right, of course you’re right. Yes. I said it myself, I suppose, protocol above all else. You had better go, I suppose.” But before the Communications Officer could make for the med-lab exit, Carter continued speaking. In truth, she hadn’t even looked away.

“Its hard this, isn’t it, Carol? These flights. I won’t pretend; I think they are starting to get to me a little. A quick blast up to the moon, a nice whoosh up to the ISS; that’s what I like in a space mission. But this monotony, Officer Akbar, this nothingness. I mean, I haven’t got much back on Earth.” Carter said this, knowing that Akbar will have seen his entry in the personnel file, “I haven’t a real family. Well, I have kids, but they don’t want to know me. All I own is material. And yet, I still miss it. All of it. Its strange really.” He paused, and unleashed a killer, “You got any kids, Carol?”

She did. Carter knew before she had even answered. The way her jaw trembled slightly, her eyelids fluttered insurmountably, and her feet took her further towards where he sat. He hadn’t seen her file. He just knew from her expression that there was someone dear to her back on Earth whom she missed and would like to see again soon. Perhaps sooner than she thought.

“Um, yes, sir, I do.”

“Two kids? Three?”

“I have two, Colonel. Two little boys.”

“And you miss them greatly?”

Akbar seemed to hesitate again. Perhaps some part of her sensed that Carter’s tone had changed oddly, unnecessarily. Perhaps some small compartment designed by NASA in her mind to keep her wary had started off alarm bells ringing. But her state of mind, and indeed that of the whole crew, meant that they were just as ready to ignore these warnings as they were to heed them. Abruptly, she sat beside Carter.

“I miss them greatly.” She was staring forwards, all thoughts of Carter and the mission gone from her head. Gone too, were all thoughts of the images glowering on the screen, which, Carter now saw, was actually an interactive touchpad balanced against a supporting arm, to which it was not attached.

“I bet you do,” Carter said tenderly, “They started school?”

“Not quite yet.”

“That young, huh. Just think, it must be confusing for them, too. To lose their mother for so long, and at such an age.”

“I almost didn’t come, because of that,” Akbar blurted, suddenly, “I almost quit before we’d even begun. Part of me wishes I had. But this was the chance of a lifetime…”

Carter paused, counting in his head, while all the time pretending to share Akbar’s wistful look. Then he said, “Perhaps you shouldn’t’ve.”

Akbar sat, still, all of five seconds, until this seemed to register. But as she span her head round, Carter was already swinging the touchpad, which crashed loudly against her head. The woman crumpled instantly to the floor, where she lay and didn’t move. The attack had been loud, enough for someone to have heard it.

Carter leapt on top of the woman where she lay, and cupped his hand over her mouth, tipping her head back once, twice, three times, until her glazed eyes froze solid and her limbs petrified into lifeless rods. Not checking a pulse and trusting his instinct, Carter dragged Akbar’s body across the floor and pushed it into a knee-high storage cupboard, currently empty, and slammed it shut. He could hear them now. A voice on the intercom on the wall, three feet from him.

“Hello, this is Lieutenant Herman calling med-lab. We detected a disturbance. Med-lab, please respond, over.”

Struck with an idea, Carter jumped for the intercom, before Herman could move on. He crashed a hand against the side of it, before speaking into the microphone.

“Help me…”

There was a curse at the other end, and Carter turned and made for the shattered touchpad. Steeling himself, Carter grabbed a large shard of broken Perspex and drove a cut into his forehead. He could hear footsteps approaching. Kicking the piece of plastic under a unit, he collapsed to his knees, holding onto the unit for support, as the door crashed open and three crewmen walked in.

Carter looked up from the unit, with a feigned gasp. One hand he had to his forehead, where blood from the cut seeped down towards the rise of his cheek. The crewmen, who consisted of Herman herself, along with Bryant and the Jap, rushed over; the Jap arriving quickest to help Carter to his feet.

“Colonel, sir,” Bryant said, not out of breath, “What happened here? Where is Officer Akbar?”

So Bryant had known that they were both here together. That could be problematic, in time. But for now, Carter regarded the Englishman with his regular neutral eye, beneath the blood.

“Gone, Major, she’s gone. Where, I don’t know. Ah…” He had made to get up, only to be held back by the Jap, who motioned for him to remain still. Slightly annoyed though he was by this, Carter tried not to resist.

“Why did we not see her…” Bryant started, but then he stopped, as his eyes were drawn to the other door leading out of the med-lab. Carter had never been through, but knew it to contain several storage nodes and a freight elevator to the loading bay at the base of the ship. The Brit nodded his head towards the door, and Herman nodded back. Together they made for it; Bryant feeling around for a weapon, and finding none, taking up a combat stance. But there was, of course, no-one behind the door. It swung teasingly as Bryant straightened again and, shrugging, made his way on through the nodes.

“One of us must go with you. She might be armed with something…” Herman reached out a hand, but Bryant had already gone. She turned instead to Carter.

“Was she carrying anything, Colonel? A weapon?”

“Not sure,” Carter muttered, now propping himself up against the unit, with the help of Hiawatha, “She got me with the screen thing. There was something. A commando knife perhaps. Something small, concealed…”

“Don’t worry about that now. Major? Major?!” Herman’s cry became shrill as Bryant failed to respond. Hiawatha cursed and made to go after him, but Bryant returned before the Jap reached the door. He was empty-handed.

“No sign of her. No trace. She’s gone,” he said, his words slightly strangled.

“So it was her…” Herman said the words while suggesting in her tone that she did not believe them. The threesome looked at one another. Carter looked up at them again.

“Now, lets not jump to any conclusions…”

“Colonel, there’s no doubt anymore!” Hiawatha’s words surprised Carter slightly. He hadn’t known the Jap to speak so loudly in their entire time on the mission. Perhaps it was loyalty to his superior officer, perhaps it was fear for himself. He would have liked to have known.

“Sinhala is right. It has to be her. Who else could have taken out the others, and attacked the Colonel? Her orders allowed her to intermingle with all of us. It all fits…”

Carter watched, silently and secretly amused, while the three crewmen convinced each other how much sense it made that Carolyn Akbar, the ships Communications Officer, was also its bad penny, its unstable element. The reasoning piled on reasoning, and soon, any doubt that might have been brewing was totally drained from their minds. She had been the one in the elevator, controlling the one piece of evidence to come from the disappearances. She had been operating on the communications, and so knew where every other crew member was likely to be at any given time. She was the least experienced astronaut of the crew, and the easiest to crack under any kind of pressure. It was her. It always had been, and of course, each one of them claimed to have had some sneaking suspicion of this fact before it came to light in the above period of realisation. And yet, thought Carter, in the comfort and safety of his own brain, they’re still wrong. More wrong than they could possibly imagine. And totally unfit to serve on this ship, at that.

Mainly, he was already thinking how he could move and then ditch the body of Carolyn Akbar, from where it lay in the cupboard not six feet away, while the remaining crew were so on edge.

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