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Chapter 49

“Stasis Interrupted. Stasis Interrupted. Report to Flight Deck Immediately. Repeat. Stasis Interrupted. Atmosphere Unstable. Report to Flight Deck Immediately.”

Carter tilted his head back where he was sitting in the dark embrace of the Cubicle, and smiled faintly. The screen had winked into darkness. A red warning light flashed on. The colour stained the rims of his eyebrows above his closed eyes. He got up in a single movement and made for the door, which had hissed open. That was when the Royal Ascender rocked, more violently than it had ever done before, and Carter was thrown off his feet. He flew through the doorway into the node and crashed against the wall, but didn’t cry out.

Something was wrong. The Life Support systems had been damaged. There was no way he should have flown so far. It could only mean one thing. The artificial gravity core of the craft had malfunctioned, as a result of the rotation of the ship being disrupted by some force. It was beginning. The tear was sucking them in.

Slowly, Carter picked himself up, taking care not to make any sudden movements. The impact against the wall had been severe, and as he made to take a step, his arm dropped limply at his side. It hung at a funny angle, and felt somehow as if detached from the rest of his body, a limb that had taken it upon itself to react in protest to what he was doing. He rolled up his sleeve and felt a splintering feeling in his humerus, and a sea of numbness. The arm had broken.

It was one of the greatest warnings to all astronauts. Artificial gravity was fine, but once it stopped working, then movement and thinking became much more difficult. Moving in micro or anti-gravity wasn’t like swimming; it was impossible to propel yourself without the help of a sturdy object to push away from, and a hand-hold to stop yourself. If you started moving, you had to stop yourself, and smoothly too, or you could sustain horrible injuries. Though Carter hadn’t travelled particularly fast towards the wall, his impact had been maximised. He would have to strap the arm with something, or it would just float about and get in his way. Carter thought this, all the while becoming aware that he was sweating profusely and his heart was thumping. As he passed a screen, he saw in his reflection that his face was flushed red.

Touching the floor lightly, he passed through the nodes towards his dorm, watching the red lights flash ceaselessly. What could have caused the damage? The computer readout indicated that they were still a day from the tear. It also calculated that the craft’s engine functions had slowed, and that the speed they would travel at had been decreased. Carter reached the dorm, carefully opened his first aid box, and slowly strapped his arm to his chest. He felt slightly embarrassed. It hadn’t been the way he had wanted to bow out. Pulling out the monitor built into his bedside, he tapped a panel and checked the craft’s true airspeed. He laughed out loud, harshly, and pushed the screen back.

They hadn’t slowed down. They were speeding up. The engines were burning less fuel on a lower setting, but the engines were not propelling them anymore. The tractor beam that was the tear was drawing the Royal Ascender in, faster and faster. The closer they got, the bigger it became, and the greater its gravitational force would be. Carter was no scientist, but he figured after he had met his fate, the hole would throw the entire solar system off balance as the pull continued to increase. It was just a thought, but it still made him laugh.

As Carter made his way to the Flight Deck, any last remnant of gravity seemed to cut out, and he found he had to pull himself through rooms and nodes, ducking beneath door-frames. When he got to the cockpit, he used a railing to pull himself down to the keypad, entered his code and floated through. As soon as he passed over the threshold, he crashed into the ground hard and had to sit still for a minute, in case he threw up. The cockpit had a separate gravity core, rotating in the opposite direction, and life support system, in case it was used as an escape craft, and so was not connected to that which provided for the rest of the ship. When his head had cleared, Carter pulled himself into the Flight Commander Console, and flicked a switch to open the shades. As they retracted, the purest, white glow of the tear flooded in, bathing the cockpit in brilliant light, cutting into Carter’s eyes until they streamed from the effort. He flicked more switches, and the inner-angle of the windows changed and also tinted, to refract much of the light. But it was still the most fascinating and beautiful thing he had ever seen. It was a star, up close and personal, inviting him with a beckoning forefinger, helping him from this terrible existence into one that was fine and had purpose, where the true meaning of existence was realised and understood and detailed in great depth. It was waiting for him. He was ready.

“Computer; emergency override 2884-DC. Engine power to maximum. Channel power to Life Support systems and Artificial Gravity Core. All further damage reports; negate. All further atmosphere warnings; negate. All further instructions; negate. Computer; relay to Houston. This is Colonel Carter, David Kieran, of Greenbury Park, Michigan, born October 12th 1972. Code: 14927 3300. Final Report of Spacecraft Royal Ascender F54 Prototype, Second Officer reporting. I have reached the tear after two years of observation and patience and discipline, and am preparing to make the jump into the unknown for the good of mankind. This has been my goal, my personal goal, for the entirety of this mission, and it is with some regret therefore that I must offer my resignation from NASA and US Government Service, to fulfill a pledge a friend promised me to make long ago, thereby breaking protocol. To do what I have to do, to be what I am. Up until this point, I have followed NASA protocol, and also my Special Order, in addition to dealing with attempts to compromise my position. By the time you will have received this message, myself and this ship will be beyond your reach. I enclose a file of literary works which I feel justifies my decision to take such measures, and I hope you will agree. On a personal note, I do not request any mention of my name in accordance with the failure of this mission, which of course is illegal and violates protocol, but which has happened in the past. Efforts to control the craft from Houston are now futile. The pull of the tear is all-powerful. It will not stop until everything is gone. I hope this message finds you all well. This is Colonel Carter, Second Class, of Greenbury Park and the United States of America, signing off. Over and out.”

There was no lump in his throat. He felt no regret, no feeling that he had acted harshly or without due guidance. None of the deaths of the crew had given him any qualms, and he had not mentioned them in any report. It would be up to Houston to decide how that news was leaked. After all, it was their fault they were dead. It was their orders. He was just a cog. Or at least, he had been.

“Message relayed, Colonel Carter.”

The message would be entirely sent from the flight recorder in a few minutes, to the nearest satellite in the chain, and so the entirety of his poems would make it back to Earth. It gave him some comfort to imagine that a small part of him would remain, perhaps as a slight reminder, one day, long in the future.

There were other things too. The house in Greenbury Park where he had grown up; that his parents had left to him. He had entered it in an estate auction before he had left. The ranch in Texas he had signed over to the chief cultivator Valdez, who was now the legal owner. His house in Montana would become derelict, his few possessions mouldering away in the attic, until one day it was knocked down or renovated and someone, some unsuspecting person, would come across them. There were his four children, who barely knew him, who never spoke with him, but were nonetheless his flesh and blood. Would they perhaps retain any of the values, the intellect or the characteristics that had made him the way that he was? He would have to look in and see, some time, if he could be bothered. Everything else, his locker at Nevada and in the Michigan Flight Academy, would doubtless be broken into and raided for any evidence that he had intended to carry out his little break from protocol, in secret plans and blueprints.

Who would be waiting for him? Carter continued to wonder, gazing into the brilliance as it grew, his good arm cradling the other. His mother and father. His Uncle Brian. Jasmine. His cousin Oliver, and friends Armand McGellert and Bradley Candle. There would be Major Alexander and Colonel Roberts, and his old sergeants and flight commanders from Michigan. His old Squadron Leader Alan Johnson. There would be Nikolov, and Perez, and Taylor, and Kalmar, and Maintenance, and Christophe, and Akbar, and Bryant, and the Jap, and Grasser and Herman. Could they forgive him? Would they be able to understand what he had done? Salem Kalmar had, but had he approved? He would have to find out.

They were close. Rocks and particles of debris were hurtling towards the light around them. Smudges were beginning to appear on the edges of the windows as the white light burnt from blue to orange to black and back again. Shapes started fluttering before Carter’s eyes as sweat poured off his forehead, and his overalls burnt away against his seat as the heat pummelled the cockpit of the Royal Ascender. The shaking began again, violently. Carter managed somehow to strap on his harness and clamp it down before it threw him forwards. There was, from nowhere, a roar, as of the approach of a great waterfall or tidal surge. Strange memories floated across the backs of Carter’s eyelids.

A bolt of white light across a dark night sky. Standing against his mom’s bureau watching her walk-in closet. Embracing the guys at Danton. Waking up next to Jasmine at Harvard. Laughing with Brian and Oliver in an Edinburgh pub. Touching a dead man as he convulsed on his desk. Firing wildly into a sandy haze of sun and dust. Taking off and shuddering as Mars 2 broke the atmosphere. A man mangled in a cultivator axle. Observing General Nikolov’s stagnant beauty. Herman in his arms. And the tear.

Carter opened his eyes, wide and wild. The heat and light had overtaken everything. There were the sounds behind him of shearing metal and screaming components being torn apart by the power of the tear. He could see nothing that wasn’t the light. It burned into him, even through the protective glass. Carter was struck blind in an instant. Blackness just slid down from nowhere like a blanket. All he felt was heat and sweat as the Royal Ascender, designed only to ferry humans to the tear, began to rip itself into so many particles, each racing to be the first to the light. The heat reached such a maximum that Carter found he could not move. He was dying. His skin was melting. His hair was melting. He could see nothing. He could feel everything. Tears or sweat drenched his cheeks. It was over.

Colonel David Carter smiled as his craft separated and he was sucked into the vacuum like a bug into a jar, vanishing in an instant, the huge weight of the Royal Ascender following close behind. But as the sheets of metal; carbon-fibre, then Perspex and plastic and fire, as all these elements tore through the hole, there was a downward shift in the pulling motion, as if some force that had been upset had suddenly been righted. The huge thrusters of the ship disappeared into the shrinking abyss. In an instant they had vanished, and a moment later, the light of the tear closed and was gone for good.

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