0034: A Matter of Concern

With What Strange Eyes? #7

The captain stiffened, his eyes locked darkly on Santana, who returned the stare unflinchingly. Without looking away, Carter asked: “Does the science department concur?”

“Not necessarily,” Phobos replied.

“Then you’ve got a case to make, Miss Santana,” Carter said.

“Naturally,” Agreed the operations chief, finally breaking the captain’s gaze as she turned her dark eyes downward toward her papers. As she did so, she pushed the striking silver bang that had dislodged from her otherwise black hair behind her ear. “As indicated by the Martian records, Exoplanet 652-10-Iota is remarkably Earthlike in many respects. It is roughly half again the size of Earth, orbiting a blue giant at 2.66 AU. Its rotation produces a day-night cycle of 34 hours, and it completes an orbit around the star every 960.3 days by our reckoning.”

She glanced up momentarily. The rest of the senior staff was watching her with bored hawkishness. Clearing her throat, she continued: “Because it has no moon, seasons are likely to be barely noticeable, with essentially static climate zones determined primarily by latitude and altitude. Temperatures at the equator and poles are more extreme than on Earth. Significant weather patterns are created by the circulation of heated and cooled water in the oceans, which appear to be lower in salt content but higher in other elements than those of Earth. A thick band of cloud obscures the greater part of the equatorial region, punctuated by frequent electrical storms.”

“What sort of clouds?” Ed asked, pulling his pipe from his mouth.

“Water vapor,” Santana answered. “The atmosphere is similar to that of Earth’s, with breathable oxygen levels but a higher concentration of ozone.”

“Phobos,” Captain Carter said, looking up at the science chief, “What do we know about life on the planet’s surface?”

“We’ve detected an abundance of flora, as can be plainly seen,” Phobos answered. “Many regions of the planet appear to be thickly forested. Animal life is unfortunately much harder to detect from orbit, but the spectrometers have observed discrete heat sources consistent with signatures from warm-blooded animals.”

Carter took two paces toward the panoramic view of the planet. “After six month’s travel, we’ve arrived at a planet that has a breathable atmosphere, tolerable temperatures, predictable weather patterns and a thriving ecosystem.” He turned to look at Santana pointedly. “And yet my Chief of Operations has taken it for granted that we will simply move on without taking a closer look. Why?”

Amila took a deep breath, leaning around Ed Spratt to switch on the large televiewer in the center of the operations console. Reaching around Ben, who made little effort to give her room, she made a few deft adjustments to the controls until the image on the screen resolved into the recognizable contrast of continental landmasses against water. “Do you know what these are, captain?” She asked, her index finger hovering over one of several patches that appeared to be globs of static on the screen.

Carter, who had returned to the console and was now standing in a cloud of smoke between Arthur and Lamont, frowned. “Clouds,” He suggested.

“There are no clouds in this area,” Amila corrected him. “These are patches of spectrographic scatter consistent with high levels of radiation.”

This caught Doctor Faust’s interest. He stepped around the table to stand close to Amila, squinting his eyes at the televiewer. “What sort of radiation?”

“It’s difficult to tell with the instruments we can utilize from orbit, Milo,” Phobos said. “But the energy signatures suggest widely scattered and in some cases mobile patches of radioactivity or exotic particle activity.  If the former, the areas of white indicate 600 or more rems.”

“Very deadly,” Faust clucked, frowning.

Now Arthur spoke up. “What would be the cause of radiation levels that high? Is it natural?”

Chief Santana stood up straight and put her hands on her hips. She answered Covington’s question, but her eyes were fixed on the captain. “Possibly, but such a thing has never been observed as a natural phenomena.”

“Then when has it been observed?” Lamont asked, although he was quite sure he already knew the answer.

Carter lifted a slender hand to pinch the bridge of his nose between his eyes. “The aftermath of a nuclear bombardment,” He answered gravely. “Or, at a larger scale, the Epiphany event.”