Accompanied by Doctor Faust, Lamont returned to a command deck that felt rather more grave than it had been that morning. In the corridor, they had passed Rex and Abigail, who hardly stopped exchanging whispers to greet them. Rex’s seat at the central console was empty, while Abigail’s was occupied by Ed Spratt, the Chief Technician, who had turned the chair around to face the small tabletop that was built into the central portion of the console. As usual, Ed projected an attitude of casual indifference, his arms crossed, the blinking lights of the console reflecting in his large glasses in a way that obscured his eyes.
Standing beside him at the table was Amila Santana, Chief Operations Officer. Santana’s diminutive stature was belied by her natural air of authority; at least a head shorter than most other crew members, she carried herself with her chin tilted up so that she could nevertheless look down her nose at them. Her usual overstuffed clipboard had been traded for an equally overstuffed folder which waited on the table beneath her palms.
Across the table from her was Arthur Covington, a broad-chested military veteran with grey mutton chops from which emerged, as usual, a black bent pipe. Covington’s role was Chief of Readiness, which included oversight of both security and supplies. The aromatic scent of his pipe’s smoke reminded Lamont of gunpowder and mahogany.
Captain Carter stood apart, near the front of the console, his back partially turned to them with his hands folded behind. He was watching the horizon of the planet that passed beneath the wide curving transparent wall of the deck, bathing the room in its ghostly reflected light.
All eyes turned toward the pair as they entered, and before the automatic doors could slide closed behind them, Santana asked: “Who invited him?” She was looking pointedly at Lamont.
“I did,” Milo said, taking a place beside Arthur.
Lamont appreciated the spirit of the doctor’s gesture, since he had really invited himself, but he didn’t want to weaken his position. “I operate autonomously,” he reminded the operations chief. “Unless the captain has an objection.” He pulled his cigarette case from his back pocket.
“No objection,” Francis answered absently.
“Medical and Inquiring Minds divisions are duly represented,” Ed said, producing a pipe of his own from his jacket. “That leaves Science.”
As if on cue, the doors slid open again. “Speak of the devil,” Arthur muttered in his Scottish brogue.
The appearance of Phobos never failed to be startling, even after half a year of regular if infrequent appearances. Alarmingly tall and slender, the Martian ducked his head to clear the doorway. Though most of the ceilings on the ship were built high enough to just accommodate him, he typically kept his back somewhat stooped to avoid hitting his large cranium on an unnoticed bulkhead. The position, with his slender fingers habitually steepled in front of him, reminded Lamont unsettlingly of a praying mantis. From their deep-set sockets, his eyes surveyed the senior staff members in turn. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” he said. His voice was surprisingly high, but not sharp, and each word was precisely articulated.
“Not at all,” Amila answered before anyone else could offer a more frank remark. It was common knowledge that Amila and Phobos had worked together for years while Westward was in development. She seemed to have uncharacteristic patience for his eccentricities, which included his being consistently early or late for appointments, but almost never on time. Phobos seemed to operate on his own internal schedule that had nothing to do with that observed by the rest of the crew.
Phobos nodded warmly down at Santana and took his place beside the captain.
Ed lit his pipe and Lamont lit his cigarette. A cloud of smoke began to form above the console, looming above Amila’s head and somewhat obscuring that of Phobos.
“Now that we’re all comfortable,” Captain Carter said, stepping closer to the table and waving a hand in front of his prominent nose, “We’ll begin by going over the data gathered today. Chief Santana?”
Amila cleared her throat and opened the folder before her, spreading a few of the pages out on the softly self-illuminated tabletop. They consisted, unsurprisingly, of a dizzying collection of charts and graphs.
“We have here,” she announced tersely, “Reports from every analytical department on board. Spectrographic, meteorological, chemical and radiological to name a few. Without jumping to any inordinate conclusions, I think it is safe to say…” She lifted her eyes to meet those of the others around the table, making sure that she had their full attention. “...That any kind of surface expedition is likely to be out of the question.”
There was an uncomfortable shifting of feet as an air of tension descended upon the group.
Next: A Matter of Concern