Lamont wandered past the chief’s empty office to the corner of the deck, where there was a beverage dispenser for the command crew. He retrieved a cup from the stocked compartment and placed it beneath the nozzle of the dispenser. The unit had a keypad that could be used to enter a code for one’s desired beverage—coffee, tea and a variety of juices in addition to water—along with a small plaque engraved with a key for the codes. Lamont entered a code that was not on the key and smiled as, after a moment’s wait, the smell of fresh coffee reached his nostrils from the steaming brew that was dispensed into his cup. It was a closely guarded secret among the command crew that a small pod in the hydroponics bay was dedicated to growing a supply of coffee beans, with a certain rationed amount produced every day for those who knew the code. The code listed on the plaque, on the other hand, would provide the usual instant variety from the ship’s stores. This was one of Lamont’s central motivations for making a routine trip to the command deck in the morning.
After an initial satisfied sip, Lamont took his cup back to the command console, where Captain Carter sat, straight-backed, watching intently through the transparent wall as the planet drifted slowly to one side. Rex had his eyes fixed on a large screen at the center of the console, one which had been projected a diagram of the orbital path accompanied by a long list of numbers. The fingers of his left hand tapped absently on an empty portion of the console while his right hand hovered over a set of rectangular buttons. Every time he selected one and tapped it, Lamont could perceive a very subtle shift beneath his feet as a steering vent on the ship’s exterior nudged them minutely in one direction or another.
“Wouldn’t we just fall into an orbit naturally if we got close enough?” Lamont asked before sipping his coffee.
“Depending on our speed, sure,” Rex answered obligingly, his eyes never moving from the monitor. “But this isn’t just any orbit, it’s a survey orbit.”
“Oh, a survey orbit.” Lamont nodded knowingly. Then he added, “Naturally, one wouldn’t simply fall into a survey orbit. The odds against that would be, well, astronomical, wouldn’t you say?”
Rex shook his head, grinning. “Ever peeled an apple, Monty?”
“I’ve never had the pleasure,” Lamont admitted.
“Well, if you did, you’d start at the top and work your way in a spiral around its circumference,” Rex explained, purposefully tapping a button. “This maneuver is like that. The idea is to give the spectrometers a chance to build a complete map of the surface in about the time it takes the planet to make a single revolution.”
“How long is a revolution?” Lamont asked, setting his cup atop the console to tap some notes into his recorder.
“For this planet, it looks like about 32 hours,” Rex replied.
Bishop added: “Along the way, we’ll also drop a few self-guided satellites to do things like tracking weather patterns and aiding in communication.”
“How long will it take to pick a landing spot?” Lamont asked.
“That depends on the data,” Rex shrugged. “Chief Santana and her scientists are already analyzing the spectros we’ve taken so far and comparing them against the old Martian data. There are a lot of factors—atmosphere, weather, tectonic activity—that need to be considered before she decides it’s safe for us to anchor at all.”
“Not to mention habitation,” Abigail contributed. “We’ll be looking carefully for any clue of existing civilized life that might be disrupted by our presence. Radio signals, structures, controlled fires, that sort of thing.”
Lamont looked at the young woman thoughtfully. “Those Martian records, did they mention anything about that?”
“No,” Abigail allowed, glancing up from her controls. “But a lot can happen in 50 million years.”
“Blimey,” muttered the newspaperman, picking up his coffee.
Captain Carter stood abruptly and straightened his jacket. “We’ll have a landing spot selected within 40 hours,” he said.
Rex and Abigail exchanged a glance before returning studiously to their work.