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Chapter 5

A month passed on the F54 Royal Ascender. The spacecraft had an ingenious system of time and date reminders to keep its crew orientated with the course of life back on Earth. A special fax system would relay the latest current affairs, sports, celebrity and other important news automatically, from secret control units at four major newspaper headquarters around the world. Alarms all around the craft would remind its occupants that it was time to eat, time to sleep, even time to relax. Sometimes, there was television, but it depended entirely on their position in relation to various satellites. After the first year had passed, there would be no television available, so the craft was well-stocked with DVDs and books, which were under a time-lock that would only open after a year had passed, keeping them fresh for the tougher second stint. There was internet, for a given value, but it was hugely restricted. The craft had a modem built in, but it did not of course have the benefit of the World Wide Web. It went relatively unused. The crew instead reverted to more old-fashioned schools of entertainment. These included playing-cards, the occasional drinking game (which had of course been strictly forbidden by NASA), any books from the library currently on offer, billiards (which the more adventurous crew-members played in anti-gravity for added hilarity) and table-tennis (seldom played with gravity).

Nonetheless, after one month, not one of the twelve men and women aboard the Royal Ascender felt fully orientated. It wasn’t possible. Not without the simple concepts of night and day to keep one sane and in order. NASA had created a room on board the craft that was supposed to help simulate this, were any member of the crew to feel particularly out of touch. It used cleverly concealed lights and shadow enhancers to create a sort of ambience that was supposed to resemble different shades of time. They had installed settings for morning, noon, afternoon, evening, dusk and dawn. It didn’t really work. Noon and afternoon were basically the same, as were evening and morning, oddly, as the so-called geniuses who had invented the concept hadn’t taken the obvious step of installing speakers to play the sounds of each individual time over the ambience. Carter had noticed this during their prep, when they had trialled the Royal Ascender functions on board the prototype. He hadn’t pointed it out to the boffins. They would just have sneered and asked him what he knew about the concepts of time that they did not.

Instead, he had taken a Casio sound-recorder up into the hills above his cottage in Montana, as well as a tent and rucksack, and had camped out in the highlands. It was summer, and the place had been predictably beautiful. Insects had hummed amid the long grasses and sedges. Tall pines gave off their scent in dense clouds, and the sun shone down like a distant lighthouse, mixing its heat and light into the proceedings. He had camped out the first night, erecting his tent quickly to get as many hours sleep as possible, in order to be up at four for ‘dawn.’ As soon as the alarm on his mobile had gone off, he had grabbed the sound-recorder from beside his sleeping bag, unzipped the tent, and placed the device outside of the canvas, before pressing Record. He had spent the day there, thinking, reading from the books of poetry that he had brought along, and exercising; all in silence, all while he waited for the recorder to store its precious sound. Any eating, drinking or other activities likely to add noises of some kind, he did in the tent, so that they would not be detectable. He had left the tent unzipped, as he couldn’t risk adding the sound of the zip to his recorder. The device had held twenty-four hours of sound, at which point it clicked and stopped recording. Satisfied, he had taken up the recorder, stowed it in the rucksack along with his disassembled tent, and set off back down through the hills. On the way he had listened to the recording through his headphones. Every time he listened to it now, he was back there, back on the highlands of summer Baybrook. He could taste the scents of the air, feel the slight pull of the breeze and, above all else, see that spot in his mind’s eye. Even after he had long left that place behind, it became fresh again. Even now where he sat, hundreds of thousands of miles up in the abyss, hunched within the compartment that NASA had called the ‘Reorientation Cubicle.’

It helped him think; that was the advantage. Carter was not the sort of man to allow an illusion to veil his eyes from the truth. He always knew where he was. He never forgot that he was countless miles from the place represented by the lights and the sounds he experienced. At no point did he forget that he was an astronaut and not a free man. He was not what he would call a ‘dreamer.’

That was just him though. Carter was sure that some of his crewmates, many of whom had praised his ingenuity at recording the sounds of time himself and had even pleaded to use his recording themselves when they had their turn in the Cubicle, he reckoned that they were less connected with reality, and liked to dream a little. From experience, and of this he had plenty, Carter reckoned dreamers were always the first to lose it. Two of his ex-wives had been dreamers and they most certainly had. Katy, his second wife, had always wanted to be a dancer, rather than a clerk with American Express. Sure, she always had the figure and the looks, but never any talent. Carter was sure he would never again see anything akin to Katy’s practice sessions in their living room. A mad kid with a shopping-cart would have done less damage. The first wife, Jasmine, had been obsessed with flower arranging; a habit that had annoyed the hell out of Carter. She had had the crazy ambition of winning the New York Flower Show, and packing in her highly-respectable position as a secretary in the office of Senator Williams. Carter had never stamped his wives down on their dreams; he simply watched as their hopeless hobbies tore them apart. Both had lost their jobs, and very acceptable and well-paid jobs they had been too, as a result of their ambitions. Katy now worked in a club somewhere, to provide for her daughters Sara and… Carter forgot the name of the other one. She wasn’t his anyway. Jasmine had married a drug-addict, and sunk all her remaining wealth into trying to clean him up. She ended up becoming as addicted to meth as her husband. Sometimes, Carter felt slightly guilty that he had never tried to quash these fruitless dreams, but he reflected that neither wife had ever listened to his views and opinions that much anyway, and would have been unlikely to bail just because he recommended it.

The girl they had on Communications, Carolyn Akbar, Carter reckoned she was a bit of a dreamer. She was certainly the least experienced of the crew; not something that really bothered Carter in itself, as experience was always second to intuition in his mind, but her attitude had most definitely changed after a few weeks aboard the F54 Royal Ascender. Much of her enthusiasm that had earned her so much credit during prep seemed to have dissipated, to be replaced with a look of anxiety, of fear and often of impatience. When this expelled out of her in the form of frustrated comments, which had only happened once, to her credit, Colonel Taylor had had to quickly put her in her place. She asked Akbar what she had signed up for, at which point the Arabic officer had quickly regained herself and apologised. But Carter could still see the same anxiety, the same weakness in her eyes, and he had expressed as much to Taylor, who had hopefully taken it on board. She was only young herself, Carter had reflected, at the time.

Back at NASA Headquarters, he had expressed no complaint about the crew dossier. He still remembered what Valdez had taught him about first impressions. But now he was starting to see that, perhaps, a few of the crew could well be dreamers. And if they were dreamers, they should never have been chosen for this most prestigious of missions. There was so much that could go wrong. In a way, NASA had been hopelessly out of their depth with this one. Both of the Mars Missions had relied on chance themselves; Carter knew, he had been there. There had been dreamers and ‘gallants’ on his team during the Second Mars Mission, and whenever something had gone wrong, and plenty had indeed gone wrong, Carter always saw that it was these hapless duds who were at fault. And he could see the same issues originating already, just a month and a bit in. With more than twenty-two months remaining of stasis, and that just one-way, it was obvious that all was not well. And he had his orders. This mission was unique, in that it was the first NASA flight to involve two Colonels in command. In point of fact, Taylor was in charge, and Carter knew this. It didn’t bother him in any way; he had seen Taylor in action, and she seemed perfectly capable. Carter had every respect for her, and had every intention of obeying her orders. Only he knew that she wasn’t really in command. Not really.

The folded piece of paper, the documented legislation of the US Government, was in charge of this mission. And it currently sat in Carter’s back pocket. Not one of the other crew members knew about it. Not even Colonel Taylor knew. She had been told by Harvey that she was in full command. It was not the first time he had lied. It would not be the last.

Special Order 2091, Carter remembered, back in his dorm, allowed Col. D. Carter the freedom of detecting compromise in any other member of the crew during Operation Angel Light, and eliminating it.

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