0028: A Portrait of Prophecy

With What Strange Eyes? #1

This was the first time that anyone outside a small department within United Space would set eyes on Phobos, the only known living Martian.

On the wall above Lamont Townsend’s desk was the framed front page of the Atlantic Free Press, dated the 2nd of January, 1998. He had not placed the picture there himself; it had been waiting for him when he first entered the cabin. The headline, set in the largest typeface the paper could manage, read: A NEW AGE OF EXPANSION FOR MANKIND. The monochrome photograph beneath the headline, spanned the width of the page so that its center was at the fold of the newspaper. It was a portrait of two figures; on the left were the familiar features of Francis Carter, astronaut. The wrinkles that three decades had added to his long, sober face since his last moment in the popular spotlight were all but lost in the imperfections of newsprint. The figure to his right was also slender and lanky, but the similarities between the two were far outweighed by his more striking qualities. Beneath a gaunt and perfectly human face, his bald head was a great globe, twice the size of a normal human cranium. The heavy ridge of his brow plunged his eyes into shadow in all but the most direct light, and the lamps used for the portrait had been carefully arranged to compensate. After all, this was the first time that anyone outside a small department within United Space would set eyes on Phobos, the only known living Martian.

Beneath the fold of the paper, one could see another careful element of staging: Francis stood, while Phobos sat on a short stool, his slender fingers folded primly over bony knees. This was done so that their heads would be at roughly the same height, though the top of the Martian’s cranium was still above that of Carter, who stood an inch over six feet.

In his hands, Carter held a large model, spanning about five feet from end-to-end. Tilted with its top toward the camera, it depicted a spaceship of unique and unprecedented design. There were no gravity rings, no exposed rockets, no long stretches of metal lattice. It was a single, elegantly constructed craft, essentially arrow-shaped, with visible windows arranged along its length. The diminutive size of the windows indicated the fantastic length of the vessel represented by the model. It was perhaps true that longer spacecraft had been built in the past—notably those used in the initial colonization of Mars—but those were mostly unused space, with long shielded corridors separating the tight habitable areas from the powerful rings of the fusion rockets. This, on the other hand, was a unified mass, not unlike an atmospheric passenger jet, but on a much grander scale.

Beneath the photograph was a caption that read: Captain Francis Carter and the Martian Phobos. Carter holds a scale model of the United Space Ship Westward.

The remaining space on the page was hardy enough for two columns of text, amounting to little over a paragraph of Lamont’s initial copy for the lengthy article. The picture alone was sufficient. That edition of the paper had broken all previous records for sales.

It was hard to believe, Lamont reflected as he looked up at the framed page and stamped out the stub of his cigarette, that nearly a year had passed since that publication.

Next: An Historic Arrival