By the time the meeting concluded, the festivities were in full swing. The senior staff emerged from the conference room to the sound of dance music drifting clear across the length of the crew deck. Doctor Faust’s gnomish features brightened as he stepped into the hall with Lamont.
“Are you joining the party?” The elderly doctor asked.
“That’s where the action is,” Lamont said, tapping his recorder. “I think I’d better clean up a bit first. What about you?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Faust grinned. “Somebody has got to keep an eye on those kids.”
Lamont arrived at the cafeteria about half an hour later; showered, shaved, and dressed more presentably in a turtleneck and jacket. The ship always felt a bit crowded, but seeing most of the travelers packed together in one space gave him a certain impression of fragility. To think that the whole of humanity, aside from this gathered few, was confined to a handful of spinning globes hundreds of light years away. That the music that piped through the speakers at the corners of the room was, as far as anyone knew, the only such thing to be heard in all the profound silence that stretched between ten billion stars. Somehow, the gathered crowd produced for Lamont a deep feeling of isolation.
A small space had been loosely cleared in the center of the room for dancing, and the rest of the celebrants were packed tightly along the edges of the space, especially near the bar. Normally, drinks were dispensed from the machines on the other side of the room, but tonight a member of the cafeteria staff was playing bartender with soda water and a variety of flavored syrups. Judging by the cups in many celebrant’s hands, the crew seemed happy enough to play along, determined to make the best of the occasion.
Lamont was surprised to see the slender shoulders of Phobos rising above the cluster of heads at the outside edge of the bar. He weaved his way through the colorful swarm of suits and dresses to stand next to the Martian, whose eyes were thoughtfully observing the crowd from beneath his heavy brows.
“Hello, Lamont,” Phobos greeted, his high voice effortlessly piercing the rumble of chatter around them.
“I confess I’m surprised to find you here,” Said the newspaperman, leaning against the bar.
“I talked him into it,” Confessed a woman who stood nearby, sparkling glass in hand. “You can’t spend all your time in the engine room.” Lamont recognized her by her thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He scanned his memory for a name.
“Miss—Lane, is it?” He ventured, extending his hand.
“Penny,” She smiled, shaking it gently.
“I was just asking Penelope,” Phobos interjected, “Whether she thinks this ‘New Year’ tradition would continue for future generations.”
“Why wouldn’t it?” Lamont asked.
“If everything goes as planned, mankind is about to spread all over space,” Penny explained. “I hear they still celebrate the New Year on Mars, but what about when a population has been orbiting another star for two or three generations? The 365-day year is bound not to work for everyone.”
Lamont frowned thoughtfully. “Every planet can’t have its own exclusive calendar. That would be madness. After all, we have Greenwich mean time.”
Penny nodded. “Besides, it’s comforting to know that even though we’re hundreds of light years away, my family back home is celebrating the same new year.”
“Are they?” Phobos asked. “If I were to point out Sol among the stars, the light that would be reaching our eyes would be reaching us from over five centuries in the past.”
Penny licked her lips uncomfortably. “Yes, but that’s just the speed of light. We’ve broken that barrier, so—”
They were interrupted by a commotion that was happening a short distance away. Two men who were dressed in the utilitarian clothing favored by the colonists had entered the cafeteria some moments before, scanned the room, and made their way purposefully toward a young woman who was engaged in lively conversation with Rico Estevez.
“I’m not doing anything wrong!” The girl protested in a tone that brought the other chatter in the room to an abrupt stop. “I don’t want to go!”
Next: Shrinking Violets