0042: Spiders and Guinea Pigs

With What Strange Eyes? #15

Rex O’Neil was one of about a dozen revelers who were grimly determined to keep a party going until the countdown to midnight. You could never tell by looking at him, though. Wandering onto the command deck an hour after the beginning of the first shift, Lamont found the young pilot as bright-eyed as ever. He chattered amicably with Bishop, who stifled the occasional yawn despite having left Rex to his own devices about an hour before the new year. 

Lamont had also stayed up, but he had his uneven sleep schedule to thank for that. He had managed about four hours of fitful sleep before waking suddenly in cold sweats and heading downstairs. Mumbling a greeting as he walked past the central console, he made his way to the drink dispenser and formed something like a prayer that the good coffee hadn’t run out. It availed him nothing. Grimacing at the taste of his first sip, he glanced up at Amila Santana’s office, noticing that to his surprise it was occupied. The Chief of Operations almost never sat down, spending most of her time pacing from one end of the control deck to the other, but today she was at her desk, holding conference with Ed Spratt and Phobos the Martian. The door of the glass-walled office was closed, and Lamont could make out nothing of what was being said. He could, however, clearly see the collection of empty coffee cups scattered across the surface of Santana’s desk.

“Busy beavers,” he sulkily remarked to Captain Carter, who was rising from his seat on the bench in front of the command console.

The planet below was brightly lit from one side, illuminating the long hull of the ship that stretched out beyond the command deck’s transparent wall. White clouds, tinged with violet, were suspended over the surface with surprising visual depth, casting shadows against deep purple seas and the green-flecked topographies of continents. 

“I don’t know about you,” Carter said, tugging at the hem of his uniform jacket, “But I’m getting tired of seeing her from a distance.”

“You’re not planning on accelerating your plans, are you?” Lamont asked.

“No,” the captain said, glancing toward Santana’s office, “But if they’re hoping to delay us, they’ve got something else coming.”

“On that topic, sir,” Rex spoke up from his place at the console, “We’ll be in position in about five minutes.”

“In position for what?” Lamont asked.

“Anchoring,” Rex explained. “We’ll launch the anchor from the bottom of the ship—BAM!—into the surface of the planet.” He mimicked an explosion with his hand over the console buttons.

The captain smiled at his pilot’s enthusiasm. “The anchor will tether us in a geostationary orbit by the guidewires that carry the space elevator down to the surface and back.”

“It’s a little bit like a guinea pig climbing down a spider web.”

That statement came from Ed Spratt, who had emerged from the COO’s office and was stretching his back.

“Sounds safe enough,” Lamont remarked, his tone not entirely genuine.

“It’s another contribution of Martian technology,” Ed explained, tipping his head back toward the office where Amila and Phobos still sat. “Highly conductive, self-assembling carbon filaments. Believe it or not, it’s less risky than shuttling people back and forth in a self-propelled skiff.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Admitted Abigail Bishop, leaning over to switch on the large telescreen in the center of the console. “Every space lift I’ve ever seen has had a guidewire as big around as a tree trunk.”

“We’re a million years beyond that now,” said Spratt with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“You’d think,” Lamont said, rubbing the stubble on his chin as gazed down at the planet, “That in all that time the Martians would have devised a way to move people around without wires or shuttles at all.”

Ed folded his arms, regarding the newspaperman with an inscrutable expression through the thick lenses of his glasses. “How so?”

“Haven’t you ever seen the Captain Radio serials?” Rex asked. “He beams himself from place to place on radio waves!”

The chief technician scoffed. “You can’t ‘beam’ people. Martian technology may be eons ahead of our own, but it’s not magic.”

“Don’t tell the captain that,” Rex chuckled.

Carter pinched the bridge of his nose as the others’ eyes turned toward the pilot quizzically.

“I was pretty nervous before that first Escherspace jump,” Rex explained, sitting back in his chair. “Before we put our visors on, I was babbling to the captain about how crazy it all sounded. And he said to me, ‘Think of it as magic, son. It’s easier that way.’”

Everyone except Francis laughed at Rex’s exaggerated impression of the captain’s New England accent. 

“I was merely encouraging young Mr. O’neil not to overthink it,” Carter explained evenly. “The normalization visors work best if one is relaxed.”

“He was right, too,” Said Rex, smiling at the captain. “Last time I checked, my noggin isn’t as big as Phobos’. We don’t have to understand it to see that it worked.”

Next: Electronic Lobotomy