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Chapter 7

It was as he looked upon a calendar, noted that they had been ‘ascending’ now for seventy days, and that he would turn sixty in a week, that Carter recognised the miracle that was sight. It was one of those phenomena so complicated and so intricately balanced that, he often reckoned, it gave a lot of credence to those who argued that God must exist. He was not one of them, but he would be forced to admit to those who did that the beauty and perfection of the human anatomy was less to do with nature and evolution and more to do with design; this unique design, seldom flawed, and so often, time after time, perfect.

He stared at the numbers on the digital readout of the calendar and wondered how he was able to do it. So light from all around, from the screen, from the light fittings in this compartment, from lights from the adjacent node, and maybe even lights from the void of space, shone into his eyes after reflecting instantaneously off of the surface of the object at which his head was pointing. The light was then sent to his brain by the optic nerves, and translated, all in the tiniest fraction of a second, into data. This data in turn would trigger his memory; he would recall seeing an object that he recognised, in this case, the calendar. He had been looking at it the week before. And so his body saw the calendar and recognised it for him.

It was just too brilliant to be an accident; to be a side-effect of rising from the primordial ooze. Something had to have created the process by hand; piecing together a prototype pipeline of nerves, receptors and, at its end, the eyeball with all its ingenious sections, very much in the same way NASA had pieced together the Royal Ascender. With unattainable care and precision. How could the eyes have evolved? If organisms were blind before they developed eyes, how would they know that there was anything around them to see, or indeed, how the hell would they know that there was light to reflect off of the stuff around them? Somehow, along the line, it had to have been created.

But that would mean, wouldn’t it, that along the line somewhere, there was indeed a supreme being, or a supreme force, to formulate the complex design. And if this was to be a being, they would have to by definition be everlasting. What if organisms needed to develop yet another sense? Who would design it should the original creator die? Therefore, that being, or force as it were, must still be there somewhere, unless of course they were already perfect. But the existence of such a being in all things, a God, was a paradox in itself. Where was it? Could it live in a separate dimension; able to see in, without being seen from the outside, as if through the blackened glass of a limousine? But in that reality, the God would need to have at least some influence over creation, and so would require the ability to step into the human dimension to intervene.

And, strangely, that added up. There had been sightings of prophets after all, where God had been present in a human, and lent them supernatural power, and of course you had the coming of Christ. Many of the cults back on earth still maintained that the tear to which they were travelling was a sign of a second coming. Did they perhaps have a point? Could the tear be a break, a gateway perhaps, between the dimension in which God sat and the dimension in which humans reigned? It was certainly no more far-fetched than some of the other theories compiled about the tear. And this extreme journey, that he himself was taking part in, this could be the test. This was God’s challenge to his finest creation. See if you can reach me here. See if you can touch heaven.

Carter would even back up the religions against those who whined that there could not be a God while there was still evil in the world. Well, that was a foolish argument. How could the concept of ‘good’ possibly exist without some vestige of the concept of ‘evil?’ The supreme force, God, had certainly known his stuff. He had known that there would be good-doers and that there would be wrongdoers. And he had surrendered all liability by still given his children free will. It was the argument that crucified most atheistic arguments. Free will. It was there in the oldest texts as it was in the newest; an everlasting gift from the creator. It meant that Man could pillage. Man could plunder. And Man could most certainly go into space.

Carter found that he could make quite a good argument for the existence of God, but did he personally believe in it, like so many of the crew? No. Why? Because he was human, and could choose a reality.

“Er-hem.” The tone of the interruption was clipped; the accent precise. Carter knew at once that he was about to be patronised. It was an instinct.

“General,” he nodded to the cosmonaut Lucia Nikolov. God, she was an attractive one, he had thought when he had first laid his eyes on her. And doesn’t she know it. He had, once upon a time, been certain that her nose must have been under the knife of a dodgy surgeon, and had subsequently realised that the snobby woman was turning it up at everyone. Something of a big-shot back down in the Russian Space Centre in Moscow, it seemed. But they were all the same up here, weren’t they? This isn’t Russia, sweetheart. This is the fucking void. Still, she sure was a looker. It was always useful to have good-looking women aboard. It helped NASA’s image.

“I was hoping to get past…?”

“Of course.”

The exchange was brief, unnecessary. In an instant, Nikolov had passed, the smell of her quickly fading from Carter’s nostrils. He just glimpsed the woman’s long blonde hair, tied back, swish in the air as she rounded a corner at the end of the node and made towards Operations. He just stood there. He did not make to follow.

She had beautiful eyes; Russian baby-blue. Carter had thought it was just a myth that Russian women had the most wonderful eyes of any. But then, he had grown up in Cold War America. Many qualities that had once been admired in the Russians; solidarity, strong-willedness and valour, had long been strangled by doubt. America had feared the Russians. Something had snapped after the Second World War. The two great nations would never truly be allies again. They were still scared of them now, almost a century later; the guy from the State Department had almost pissed his pants when he was told that Nikolov would be part of the crew. It was pathetic, and the prejudice disgusted Carter. After all, he was a professional at what he did, and, having worked with the Russians, knew that they were not what American stereotypes suggested, and that they were still intelligent, still solid and still unbelievably brave and reliable. That was why they were the best astronauts. They didn’t muck about; they got the job done, whatever the circumstances. Whatever they could get out of something, they got. It was efficiency at its very finest. It was strange then that Russia itself was so gargantuan and disjointed a nation, with too many miles and different peoples to ever effectively manage.

Carter often wondered what the other members of the crew thought about him. He had seen a look in those baby-blue eyes of Nikolov that suggested that he scared her a little, despite the uppity persona. He saw it whenever he looked at the others too. It didn’t surprise him much. They had all looked at him the same way back on the rock too. Oddly though, the men and the women looked at him differently. With the men aboard the ship; gallants like Bryant and Perez and Christophe, their eyes revealed a worry that suggested: “Oh no, here we go, another ‘better-in-my-day’ old-timer, only here to slow us down, only here to have a rant and tell us that we’re whippersnappers.” Alternatively, the women on board, including Colonel Taylor, they seemed to say: “Oh my gosh, he knows more than all of us, how can we possibly compare, how should we behave around him, what if he asks us to do something we don’t know how to do…” He did, of course, prefer the female interpretation. Carter had no time for these macho dick-heads who thought that they were better than him. On the other hand, he didn’t want the female members of the crew to freeze like rabbits in the headlamps when he gave orders.

Women were too emotional. Many of them, and Lucia Nikolov was a good example of one, tried their utmost to give the impression that they weren’t, but the truth was glaring. It wasn’t a bad trait, necessarily, but Carter had seen too many instances of where it had been a definite disadvantage. Was this the place for women then? Was it right that the opposite sex be given representation on this most prestigious of journeys? Amusingly, even before the dossier for the mission had been drawn up, several women’s rights activists had got in contact with the government through a member of the President’s cabinet, and threatened to spark mass rebellion if women were not represented in Operation Angel Light. Carter was inclined to agree that women deserved their place on this crew. It was certainly better than a total sausage-fest of butch, over-blown, adrenaline-junkie men. Always nice to have a change.

The fact was though, they were still scared of him. Carter had wondered why, amused. If two or three of them ganged up, they could probably overpower him. After all, they had new-age training and stuff that he never had, that should disable his tired, old reflexes. They all seemed smart, masters of their respective fields, in the same way that he was. That was why they had been chosen. But even if they hadn’t been, they were all equals up here anyway. This was deep space. It didn’t do to order folk around up here, unless it was strictly necessary or a situation demand it; after all, it only caused disharmony and mutinous thinking after a while, among the men. Let them go their own way, that was the ticket. We’re all human up here. Only difference; I’m a colonel, and you are not.

Perhaps it was the way he acted. He was seldom around the others, and when he was, he rarely saw fit to speak or contribute to conversation, unless asked in due course. He would most commonly be seen alone, sitting or indeed standing, and staring out at the abyss. Never did he look back at Earth. Always he looked forwards. And he never appeared to stop concentrating, never seemed to stop thinking, summing up, working things out. That was probably the most scary thing. Potentially, he could know everything about something, or perhaps something about everything. He shaved irregularly; a small chink in the armour perhaps, but he washed, cleaned and obeyed the rota in silent order. He tidied up after himself. He was neat, aside from the hair and beard. And he was grey. The greyness often seemed to speak for him. He looked like a man who had been there, and seen this, and done that, and could remember it all. That was why he was here. A bank of experience, to be withdrawn from at will. That was his purpose in Operation Angel Light. Or so they thought. If asked a question, Carter would consider before answering. A routine five seconds, no more. The exactness of the five seconds was probably quite scary in itself. It wasn’t as if he was answering on autopilot, nothing so robotic as that. He just liked that amount of time to collect himself and form the words on his tongue. And did he like being this… recluse, this hermit, almost, who composed prose and poetry to himself, stared out of the window, and seldom spoke? It was certainly better than interaction. That had driven him up the wall last time.

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