The door to the Cubicle had been opened. Carter could tell as soon as he passed by; the light in the door panel was flashing red, instead of the usual white. The system worked very much in the same way as ‘vacant’ and ‘engaged’ signs worked on lavatories. He watched the lights blinking for a moment, before pressing his hand against the panel. There was a buzz and an electronic voice.
Slowly, almost agonisingly, the door slid open and Carter ducked in, stepping from perpetual light into shadow. She was in here. He could sense it. There was that presence in the air; that sensation one human had when they were alone in a confined space with another.
The Cubicle was a large room, about half the size of a movie theatre, with a convex screen on the far wall that displayed images during sessions. On the screen was white-out; no program had been initiated by the user. Carter kept his back to the wall, the white LED lights burning into his eyes. She wouldn’t be able to see him. She had to be hiding near the front of the rows of seats. Were she to stick her head up, Carter knew he would spot her. But she would have heard the door.
Carter took a moment to think over what he was doing. There was no doubt in his mind that his position had been compromised. The only safe way for the mission to proceed was if it was him alone on the Royal Ascender. Anyone else could sabotage his equipment. He, the senior officer, had to take the ultimate step to secure success.
But it was more than that now. In his own mind, Carter had already decided a while back to forgo the hassle of returning the ship to Earth. What was the point? It was two more years of his life. By the time he arrived back on Earth, and had to account for his actions, he would be sixty-two. If anything got out about what had happened on the flight, then NASA would use him as a scapegoat and he would be put on death row. So what was the point? No-one had ever done anything like this before. He was a pioneer, just as he had always known he was. No-one had ever scaled such a height. Well now it was time for him to pioneer something else too. He was going to be the first human to step out of the void. He was going.
There was a creak somewhere up ahead. Carter edged round the wall, certain he could hear panicked breathing. Dropping to a crouch, he stepped into the rows of seats. Herman was nowhere to be seen. She must have been in a row nearer the front.
“Carter?” came the voice. It was high, tensile, like wire caught between two vices. It carried a question mark that did not want to be the bearer of an answer.
“What are you going to do, David? Why has all this happened? Was it Grasser? Tell me he did this. Tell me it was him, and you fucking killed him and ripped his fucking head off. Please!” It was difficult to tell where she was. Could she possibly still think he was hiding from Grasser, and that the German was the one with the Special Order? She would be mad not to have suspicions.
“General Grasser won’t be giving me any more trouble, Lieutenant. You don’t have to worry.”
“Oh thank God…” Herman seemed to stall on the last word, and shrieked as Carter grabbed her from behind. Her reaction sent an elbow hurtling in his direction, and though he managed to dodge the worst of it, her arm still cuffed him on the side of the head. Carter fell back against the seat, unbalanced. Wondering if his age had finally caught up with him, he jumped to his feet. Herman had fled between the seats and was making once more for the door. Carter lifted his leg and vaulted the seats, just as the door began to slide open. Screaming again, Herman got down on her knees to crawl through. Leaping, with incredible agility, Carter made a grab for her ankles, but still fell short. He crashed into the step as Herman tottered off again towards the dorms. Not stopping to think, Carter was once again after her, blood rippling on the surface of his skin to his pulse. The edge of the step had cut his forehead.
Another scream betrayed her location. She had run into the dorm furthest from the Atrium. His own.
Carter was able to watch as she opened his closet and Colonel Taylor’s stiff corpse fell face-first in front of her. Watch as she peered under his bunk to where Salem Kalmar rested. Watch as she discovered Perez’s head leering out of the overhead storage. She turned, and found her way blocked in the doorway by the man responsible.
“So this is it?!” she insisted, “Huh?! How could you? You looked me in the eye. All those times! You said it was Carol… then Grasser! All this time, it was you…”
“And at last you see the light,” Carter said, sweeping blood from his forehead with a hand, “At last all the alternatives drop away to leave me, pale and unashamed. You know what must happen, Lieutenant Herman. You must guess what my job on this mission was. Special Order 2091: Colonel Carter, David K. is given absolute authority on all premises and may judge weakness and corruption in fellow crew members and eliminate it.” Carter rapped out the words, as the senior NASA officials did back on the rock when they were giving orders. Herman tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go.
“No…” she gasped, “I don’t believe it. They wouldn’t. Not NASA. That’s insane! There is no way that can be true. You’re just a murderer!”
“And who sent the murderer? Who gave the murderer command? Who employed Grasser as an agent to ensure the Royal Ascender returned safely to Earth?”
“That can’t have been your order, David! It just can’t have been…” Again, Herman paused, “Grasser? That was his job all along. That’s it isn’t it. You’re the quality control, and he was there to regulate.” Then her rage seemed to peak again, “But he failed! And you’ve killed them all!”
“No,” Carter said, simply, “I killed General Lucia Nikolov and Flight Lieutenant Perez. The others I deemed fit to serve aboard this ship at the time, but my position was compromised. I am non-expendable. My position cannot be compromised. So I took the required action to prevent this happening. It was for the safety of the mission.”
“Its murder! Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. I’m never going to see them again. Never again…” Herman seemed to forget about Carter and peer out of his window into the void for a moment. The tear was visible; a bright star in the night sky. They were two weeks from it.
“You were tricked, Lieutenant. This ship was never going back. NASA may want it back, but the idea is that it gets there. I know what their plans are. Well, screw their plans! This is my ship. And I am going down with it. Why do you claim to miss the Earth that we have done so much to destroy? Think back a moment on your life, and try to remember just one decent, moral thing that you saw another do or say that in every way benefitted the planet. Just one thing. However big, however small. You can’t. Its Noah’s Ark all over again, Lieutenant Herman. God wants two of every animal to survive and start again. We’re the only two. You and I.”
Herman had sat, perched on the edge of Carter’s bunk. She would not look up into Carter’s eyes. Tears arced down her cheeks, slowly, steadily. Carter did not move.
“I don’t understand,” she said, finally.
“Well, I do. And do you know what I understand, Lieutenant? I understand that no matter what God or anyone does, we are a tainted people. We are a tainted race of creatures. We are a vile, immoral and savage bunch of filthy, twisted animals. And no matter how many times God floods the Earth, or sends His Son to save us, we will always be the same, because that’s just what we are. We can learn from our mistakes, but who’s to say we should stop making them? What I’m saying, Lieutenant, is that when God looked on his finest creation and said it was good, he was wrong. Dead wrong.”
“You’re insane!” Herman screamed, “And to think I let you…”
“Yes? You let me what, Lieutenant? You fool. How can you be such a hypocrite? But of course, it all comes down to what it is I’m saying. We breed denial to save us from our mistakes, the mistakes that make this world uninhabitable. And it is uninhabitable. Why else would we be here, huh? What are you crying about? What is there back down there that you are going to miss?”
“Its not that,” Herman said, shortly, “I’ve been out here so long, I’ve forgotten everything else. It’s me. A part of me. A part of me.”
“You’re not serious…” Carter stuttered. It was the first time his voice had dropped in the whole conversation. His eyes bore into Herman with such intensity that the woman flinched and screwed hers shut.
“You are not serious!” Carter bellowed, aiming a vicious swipe at Herman. His fist crashed against her shoulder and she rolled sideways onto the floor. She was sobbing once more, and, as she tried to right herself, Carter saw that she was cradling her stomach as if to protect it. He kicked out and she fell back, blood pouring out of her eye. Her screams raked across Carter’s ear-drums and he was forced to press a hand over her throat. Still, though, Herman retained consciousness.
“I am,” she hissed, “and it can only be yours.”
“Its true. Care to take back what you just said, huh. Colonel?” Herman spat, somehow breaking his hold, and Carter grimaced as bloody saliva ran down his face. Inside his head, he was starting to realise that Herman was another of the crew who he may well have underestimated. But it was only a passing thought. His focus was entirely on what he had just discovered, and what it meant to his mission.
“It only justifies it,” he reasoned, holding her down again, “I have a choice, now, Lieutenant Herman, Marissa. We can be Adam and Eve, and you can bear me children, and we can start off again. But ask yourself, seriously, where that is going to lead. A race of murderers and whores? A race of Carters? It is an endless cycle of hate and betrayal and lust. It is an endless whirl of war and massacre and sadism. It is an endless tide of pestilence, exploitation and terrible greed. Justify to me now, Marissa. For both of you, and me. Justify to me now, why humankind deserves another chance.”
“Go to hell!”
“On the contrary…” Carter whipped his hand round on Herman’s face and this time she lay still. He checked her pulse and found it kicking, weak and weary. Sitting back, he brushed away more blood from his head with his knuckles. This was it. The final step, in the final reckoning.
Carter stood, eyes set with purpose and devoid of anxiety. He pressed down on Herman’s windpipe with his boot. All of a sudden, she seemed to come to slightly, and convulsed briefly as the last of her life sapped away. But there were no more words. He increased the pressure, and she became still. One hand still sat upon her stomach, where the unborn had just been denied its entrance into the world, and was being shown instead to Hell.