As the last tendrils of smoke drifted inevitably toward an overhead air vent, Lamont heard the shuffle of feet outside the thin door to his cabin. Without looking at his wristwatch, he knew that it was 0800, and the daytime crew was tramping from the cafeteria in the fore of the vessel to trade places with the smaller night shift. It was, of course, an arbitrary distinction, there being no natural day or night in space, and the ship’s clocks were synchronized with those of Tomorrow, in Central America. As to the question of whether, having slipped hundreds of light years through space by means of a cosmic parlor trick, the ship’s schedule was still synchronous with that of the West’s capital city, Lamont had never received a satisfactory answer.
It was Lamont’s habit to wait an hour or so until the daytime shift had settled into their stations before emerging from his own cabin to make his rounds. He had adopted his own eccentric schedule, sleeping for three or four hours in the evening before rising in the dead of night to wander the ship while it was comparatively quiet. He would then sleep for another two or three hours, and would normally be in his bunk now, but today he was feeling restless. All the better, he supposed, because when his doorbell chimed, he was dressed and ready to answer it.
Rising from his desk, he took one pace to pull the door open.
Rex O’Neil crinkled his freckled nose at the thick smell of stale cigarette smoke that clung to the newspaperman’s cabin despite all the best efforts of the ship’s filtration system. A fresh-faced lad in his early twenties, Rex had neatly-cropped red hair and green eyes that were perpetually bright with enthusiasm. Today was no exception. “Morning, Mr. Townsend. I thought you might want to accompany me to the command deck today.”
“Yeah?” Lamont asked. “Why is that?”
“We’re establishing an orbit!” Rex gushed. “Should be the first really interesting maneuver since we left the dock at Luna.”
Lamont nodded, passing a hand over the stubble on his chin. “Alright. How long before you get started?”
“Don’t know,” Rex shrugged. “I’m just on my way to the comdeck now.”
“Fine, fine,” Lamont said, beginning to close the door. “You go ahead. I’ll be there shortly.”
“Don’t forget your camera!” Rex reminded him brightly as the door clicked shut.
Lamont rubbed his eyes and made his way through the screen divider that separated the two halves of his cabin. On the other side was his bunk and a personal shower and toilet, the sliding door of which doubled as a mirror. Those, along with a small bureau, took up all the available space on that side of the screen, but his cabin was large compared to those used by most of the crew. He checked himself in the mirror. His typical outfit of slacks, suspenders and a button-down shirt looked passably unwrinkled. He could use a shave as usual, but he decided that, despite Rex’s irritating ebullience, it was not worth risking the time. He settled for smoothing his auburn hair with a palm.
Returning to his desk, he picked up his portable recorder and checked it over. This was a clever all-in-one device that he had obtained at the beginning of his assignment to Westward. About the size of a thick book, it included a microfilm camera and a microphone connected to a built-in tape recorder on the back. On the front was a twelve-key mechanical pad that could be used for single-handed stenography. Lamont was particularly fond of this, since it was neater than a pad and pencil, and it kept his hands occupied. The device was encased in black synthetic leather and secured to his person with a thin black strap. He checked the paper roll and tested it with a few preliminary taps, checking the small viewing window for clarity. He typed: 30 DEC 1998.
There was a palpable buzz of excitement among the neatly uniformed crewmembers that he passed in the corridor after leaving his cabin. Near the aft of the vessel, the cabin was situated quite close to the command deck. Lamont had merely to turn a corner, step into the lift, and ride it one level down to the corridor that separated command and control. Within moments, the automatic doors of the command deck were sliding open to reveal a panoramic view of space, with the tapering hull of the ship stretching overhead. Normally, that view would have been one of countless bright points of light, but today it was dominated by a single feature: The shining crescent of a planet, close enough beneath them that one could easily make out the pattern of white clouds swirling over patches of green and glittering blue. After six months of travel, they had arrived at their first destination, and at first glance it looked achingly similar to Earth. It was four days before Epiphany.