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Chapter 41

Carter found that the whereabouts of the German general Pieter Grasser had not been of a high priority among his thoughts in the recent months following the disappearances, but now they had attained new significance. He watched as the three other crewmen talked and argued and pointed out obvious details. The one thing they were all stalling over was making for Grasser’s quarters and telling him what they now knew; that Carolyn Akbar was the psycho maniac and that she was loose. The question was, as Herman put it, what if she had got to him first, or worse, apparently, what if he was in a league with her.

Carter personally found this latter point difficult to believe. His contact with the German on the mission so far had been minimal, and he found that, looking back, he had spent more time with the guy on the rock than he had so far on the flight. Grasser seemed an astute enough individual; he ate his meals regularly with the rest of the crew, he went about his duties, such as they were, and he used the Cubicle and the washrooms as often as any other. But to be honest, he was a mystery to Carter. He had no idea of his duties, of any Special Orders he may have been given, or what his purpose would be when they reached their destination. As the most experienced astronaut aboard, presumably he would be going out into the void for a closer look at the tear. Dismissing any dark thoughts to the back of his mind, Carter turned his attentions back to the three in a huddle before him.

“Who cares,” said Bryant, in response to Herman’s fears, “Pieter is one of the most reliable operators in the world. He’s worked with near enough every Space Organisation on the planet; even the Russians! Why would he be involved in a conspiracy?”

“Well, I don’t know…” Herman seemed to quail under pressure, although just what pressure Carter wasn’t sure. Who was there left for her to compete with? Again, perhaps, a sign that she was unfit to serve on this ship, at least with him at the helm.

“We go to him, and we go now. There’s no more time. Right, Colonel?” Bryant looked at Carter, expectantly. Amused, silently and secretly, he decided to let this one play itself out.

“Sure thing, Major. Lead the way.”

It was as they were marching up to the dorms on the Upper Deck that Carter began to have dark thoughts again. Yes, he had read the personnel file on General Pieter Grasser, and yes, a lot of the information on the file was unconfirmed, and lots was missing. Too much, thought Carter. How could NASA send someone on such a precious mission whom they knew so little about? Answer; they wouldn’t. It didn’t fit. The only solution, Carter surmised, was that they did know about Grasser. Their true personnel file on him must just be classified. And perhaps, perhaps that little mention in the brackets of links with Neo-Nazi groups and the like, perhaps that was simply there to pique Carter’s interest, to get him to watch this guy.

Grasser’s dorm was at the end of the corridor of nodes, nearest the washrooms and shuttle elevator. Bryant strode ahead. Carter vaguely remembered that it had been him and the German who had carried him on the stretcher, when he had been ill the year before. Did the Englishman perhaps know more about the German than he was letting on? The irony of it was mind-blowing.

Bryant held down the buzzer, while motioning for the Jap to watch the corridor for any sign of Akbar approaching.

“General Grasser, sir? Could we have a minute of your time?” He followed this with a sharp knock on the door, which then slid open.

Carter had to admit, he was impressed. The German must have moved so fast he would have blurred, as he was suddenly on his feet in front of the door. There had been two loud cracks, two almost identical sprays of crimson into the artificial air, a shrill wail from Herman, who had already taken flight, before Bryant and the Jap both slid to the floor dead. Each had identical wounds, already cauterised at the edges, gaping in their chests. Carter couldn’t help but stare into the eyes of Hiawatha, which were plate-glass already, but he couldn’t see Bryant’s, for the Englishman had somehow rolled onto his side and faced away. Dignified, it seemed, even at the last.

Grasser holstered a high-tech pistol; not one Carter recognised, and stepped forward. His eyes were slightly apologetic, as if he was embarrassed to have killed two astronauts in front of his superior. Carter looked for the first time at the German, who stood to attention.

“Your Special Order please, General?”

“I am not at liberty to disclose that with you, Colonel. You or anyone else. I am sorry.”

“That’s quite alright, Pieter, I think I can guess what it says.” Carter pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t much like the use of firearms, and on a spacecraft it was deplorable. Grasser stepped back, inviting Carter into his dorm with a hand. The door slid shut behind him.

“Can I offer you coffee, Colonel? Or something stronger?”

“Coffee’s great.”

Grasser sharply stepped back and began fiddling with a cafetiere on a unit where, Carter supposed, if it were his room, he would simply have piled more pads and notebooks of poetry. He watched as the dark liquid began to bubble at the edges of the glass container. Grasser poured it out generously, though he did not offer cream.

“I guess I have some explaining to do, Colonel. I expect you want to know why I am here.”

The words amused Carter, more than anything else he had heard that day. Here they were, nearly two years into an operation, and here was his most silent operative telling him at last his purpose. It took a special kind of man to function in that way. One after his own heart.

“That is something I would indeed like to know, General, if protocol will allow it.”

“I am allowed to say to you at this point, and only at this point, that my orders on this flight have nothing whatsoever to do with the tear, or the cataloguing of evidence, or sampling. I am allowed to say that I received a Special Order on my call-up to this mission, which instructed me otherwise. I am authorised to, as you have just seen, take severe punitive action against anyone standing in my line of duty.” Grasser had chosen his words carefully. He now sat back and watched Carter digest them, worried perhaps that he had let more slip than he had intended.

“That is all very interesting, General. Very interesting indeed.” Carter looked around him. The room was bland and nondescript. Nothing that could be picked up and moved was anywhere near him. On a small cabinet beside his bed, Grasser had a small clock and, in one of the half-open draws, Carter could see books. All his clothes were stacked neatly opposite, and there was no wastepaper basket as there was in Carter’s room. A small panel suggested that it may have been built cunningly into the wall. The man, he could tell from the room, was meticulous and patient and anxious.

Grasser smiled briefly, as if he felt he had passed muster under Carter’s inspection. Carter waited, expectantly.

“So,” he asked, with a dash of suggestion, “what is your duty on this mission?”

“To ensure that Primary-Tertiary mission objectives are completed soundly. To ensure that Spacecraft F54 Royal Ascender Prototype completes its mission and returns safely to NASA for further testing. To ensure no crew members interfere with the payload and flight-trajectory of this craft, for the duration of the flight. Those are my objectives, Colonel.”

It made sense, thought Carter, mulling over what the German had said. Though the design was British, and payload American, many of the modules and other components had been built in Germany, probably with this guy on the team as a reference. Which of course explained his compatability to represent Germany on the flight, and NASA’s care in hiding his details from general viewing. They didn’t want him for examining the tear. He was here as the insurance that their huge investment in the Royal Ascender Craft would not be wasted. This man had been willing to give four years and take lives to ensure this for the American Government. It also explained why he had killed the Jap. Carter remembered Hiawatha messing about with the Royal Ascender controls, showing off with the cockpit’s manual override. He must have killed Bryant in the knowledge that the Brit would react unfavourably to the killing of a young crewman right in front of him. Herman, though, had been allowed to escape. A sign of weakness, perhaps? And why offer to carry Carter when he was sick? Was he here to protect him too?

“You’re here to protect the ship?”

“That’s right, Colonel. And I suppose I owe you a debt of thanks for making my job that much easier.”

Carter tensed, only slightly, before saying, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Grasser gave another twitchy smile, placing his coffee cup on the table before him.

“Its you. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius. You’re the only one who has all-round unlimited access to any crew-member and any part of the ship you desire. You can go anywhere, and now that you’re in charge, do anything. I didn’t see your Special Order of course, but I gather it had something to do with, as you say, keeping folk in line?”

He was sharp this one, Carter thought. No wonder he has been granted such power, such authority, by NASA. Once again, Carter looked around the room.

“That’s right, General. You’ve got it all figured out. I guess I should expect nothing less. The so-called missing crew-members are those I have deemed unfit to serve on this ship and have therefore rendered them indisposed.” Carter too decided to choose words carefully, for the fun of it. “I can confirm that these include Colonel Taylor, Airman Christophe and Lieutenant Perez.”

“And the rest,” Grasser cut in, with another smile, “Colonel,” he quickly added.

“I will not divulge. The information is too sensitive. I cannot allow my position to be compromised. Is that clear?” Carter’s voice came down like a cold hammer, and he was glad to see Grasser’s smile vanish for good. He motioned towards the door, as Grasser had done before.

“Look, General, it is time for dinner. It looks like we’ve been thrown together rather, here, don’t it? Looks like we’re two ducks in the same pond. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement whereby I will not tamper with the ship and you will not disobey protocol. Lets get some chow, and have a talk. There are points here to work out.”

“Of course, Colonel. However, first I must locate Lieutenant Herman and detain her. She must know now that…” He cleared his throat. “that I’m not all I seem. And the same about you. It is in our best interests that she no longer roams on this ship.”

“There is that, General, its true,” Carter answered, nodding, “Although she is susceptible to gullibility, Lieutenant Herman, in my opinion. She’ll more likely believe me taken hostage by you, and attempt a rescue mission.” The very thought of this nearly made him laugh, but he kept his face level.

“Yes, Colonel. That sounds likely.”

“Well, come on then, lets get some food in us, and have a little talk. I’m sure Herman won’t be anywhere around there. And if she is, well, you know what to do.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

Both men stood simultaneously, and made for the door, moving quickly. Grasser reached out to press the door release, and then felt the sharp tug about his torso. Crying out, he spun as quickly as he could and tried to lash out with an elbow. But Carter had ducked, and before the German could right himself, a fist crashed into his left kidney, and an arm slid around his neck like a boa constrictor. The result of all this was that Carter ended up with his back to the door, Grasser in a headlock, with the German gasping for breathe, and Grasser’s gun in Carter’s other hand.

“I’m afraid, General,” he spoke into the struggling man’s ear, “that you are going to fail in your little mission, for the sake of my own.” He paused, as Grasser purpled in the face. The man’s eyes were rolling with fury and fear. “No guns on this ship.”

Carter pulled the trigger, and the contents of Grasser’s head ejected themselves onto the floor, the rest of the man’s body toppling like a lopsided tree in a bloody heap. Without checking or hiding the body, Carter crossed the room to examine the spot where the round had creased the wall. There was minimal damage. Before he left, he opened the wastepaper container from the wall and dropped the gun into it with a clang.

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