Lamont did return to bed, but not before six hours had passed. When he woke from his mercifully dreamless sleep, he looked at his wristwatch and uttered an oath, quickly rolling from his cot and fishing around for clothes.
He caught Rex in the hall. The young pilot was arm-in-arm with Abigail Bishop, engaged in cheerful conversation. They were headed in the direction of the crew quarters and, farther on, the cafeteria, from which the sound of lively jazz music was already beginning to trickle. The pair looked startled at the sudden appearance of the disheveled newspaperman.
“Has the meeting started yet?” Lamont asked, foregoing a greeting.
Rex and Abigail exchanged puzzled glances. Rex shook his head. “We didn’t see any meeting. Unless you’re talking about the party.”
“No, no—the senior staff,” Lamont clarified. “They met before on the command deck. That was 24 hours ago.”
“You might try the conference room,” Bishop suggested.
Lamont responded monosyllabically and changed his course. As he turned the corner, his keen ears picked up Rex’s whispered quip: “He might try a shower and a shave.”
“Hush,” Abigail giggled.
Lamont burst through the conference room door to find twelve pairs of eyes looking up at him with expressions ranging from startled to amused. The room was just large enough for a roughly boomerang-shaped conference table, ten chairs and a beverage dispenser. The wall closest to the table’s indent was occupied by a large televiewer and a computer interface console, before which Amila Santana stood with her usual overstuffed clipboard. On the televiewer was a topographic map with various areas marked by differentiated outlines.
With a mumbled apology, Lamont took a seat in the cloud of smoke that was being generated by Ed and Arthur’s pipes. On his left, the security officer blustered inarticulately. Westward being a corporate venture, its uniforms were intentionally non-militaristic, but Arthur nevertheless appeared to press his outfit into perfectly starched submission every morning. Ed, meanwhile, was slouched in his chair with his feet occupying a vacant one. “Morning, sunshine,” He greeted Lamont, straight-faced.
Santana cleared her throat. “As I was saying,” She resumed, pointing toward an area at the center of the map that had been marked with a star, “We propose to anchor here. It is a rocky valley, mostly walled in by mountains. That, and its location roughly halfway between the polar and equatorial regions, appear to protect it from the most extreme weather.” She paused to look pointedly at Captain Carter, who was seated opposite her at the head of the table. “However, we have not been tracking weather patterns long enough to make any really accurate predictions.”
The captain nodded, giving a subtle wave of his hand to indicate that she should continue.
“There are some radioactive hot spots that are drifting along the outside of the mountain range, but the valley itself seems to be fairly well shielded from those as well. Our spectrometers are reading radiation levels that are higher than Earth normal, but safe for limited periods of exposure. Say, six hours. That is assuming, of course, that this is normal radioactivity and not the presence of exotic particles, the effects of which are far less predictable. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible for us to tell the difference from orbit.”
“All the more reason to take a closer look,” Carter noted.
“Given the potential risks, we are recommending an expedition party of the smallest possible size. Specifically, ten crew members, half of which will remain stationed inside the space lift. The other half will explore the surrounding terrain.”
“Five people for six hours,” Doctor Faust said from the far end of the table. “They won’t be able to cover much ground.”
“It will be enough to take better radiation readings, collect ecological samples, and perhaps determine the extent to which further expeditions are warranted.” That point was made by Phobos, who towered next to Carter, folded awkwardly in his chair like a discarded marionette.
“Agreed,” Francis said gruffly.
Amila continued: “The exploration party will wear protective suits and will carry supplemental oxygen supplies and radiometers. The suits will be fitted with patches that change color if dangerous levels of radiation are present. Since the party will stay within three hundred meters of the lift at all times, that should ensure that they are able to quickly return in the event of unexpected exposure. It also eliminates the need for additional bulky radio equipment.”
“All very sensible,” The captain said, although his tone sounded almost bored. “Do you have a recommendation for the expedition members?”
“Right here,” Santana replied, plucking a sheet from the middle of her clipboard without so much as a glance and handing it across the table to Francis. “Wells, Estavez, Overland, White and Ashton will make up the exploration party. Ed will support the technical group in the lift.”
Spratt sat up, tugging his pipe from his mouth. “I didn’t agree to that,” He objected.
“We’ll need to prepare six exploration kits,” Carter said, pushing the sheet of paper back across the table.
“Why?” Amila asked.
“Because you forgot to add me to the list,” The captain answered simply.
“But, sir, protocol clearly states that for an initial expedition…”
“You’re suggesting that the first human being to set foot on an extrasolar planet be—who? Rico Estevez?”
Amila regarded the captain with speechless incredulity. Francis met her gaze fixedly. “Six kits,” He said. “And everything else stands.”
The chief of operations made a gesture of resignation. “Madre. Six kits.”
Lamont cleared his throat, lifting a hand from his portable recorder and raising his pointer finger. “Seven, if you please,” He said.
Next: A Question of Time