0091: Epiphany Rex

With What Strange Eyes? #64

Glancing to his right, he saw that the serving bar had a single occupant: Captain Carter, sitting alone in the dark…

Lamont awoke from a frenzied dream in which he was running toward the space lift while skeletal hands emerged from the ground and tried to drag him down. His mouth was dry, and his head throbbed with the dull ache that he recognized as caffeine withdrawal. He was still sitting at his desk. Rubbing his eyes, he delicately extracted his microfilm from the viewing machine, returned it to its metal capsule, and re-rolled it in paper. Opening his cigarette case, he placed the small cylinder at the end of the neat row of cigarettes, where it blended in perfectly. He pulled a real cigarette from the other end of the case and tucked it between his lips, mechanically lighting it and drawing a deep breath. He stood up, wincing from a pain in his back that reminded him of the physical exertion he had endured on the surface of the planet. As he was about to turn toward the door, the dull glimmer of the medallion still lying on the desk caught his eye. There was a moment of indecision. Should he bring it to Francis? To Phobos? Demand an explanation? He shook his head. Not enough data. He had tipped his hand once and the gamble had paid off, but he wasn’t in a corner now—he could afford to see how things played out a while longer. He picked up the pendant and glanced around. Previously, he had tucked it into his cigarette case, which had the advantage of being lined with lead to deflect x-rays. That was too conspicuous for the medallion, though. He finally stood up and pulled from his wall the framed newspaper page that hung above his desk. He draped the thong that held the medallion over the hangar and then returned the picture to its place. Sometime soon, he would need to bring a dosimeter to his cabin and determine whether the object was dangerously radioactive.

Outside his suite, the lights were dimmed for ship-night. Lamont checked his wristwatch and saw that it was shortly after 2:00. He had been in his room longer than he’d realized. He walked down the hall, his footsteps silent on the carpet, no sound except the dull hum of Westward’s machinery. He walked through the corridor of the crew cabins, where the better part of the ship’s crew would be sleeping now. Descending a few steps, he made his way past the airlock to the hydroponics bay and into the cafeteria. Normally, he would have gone in the opposite direction, toward the aft of the ship and the command deck, in hopes of getting a better cup of coffee, but he didn’t feel up to it now. He couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Rex’s chair at the pilot console. Not quite yet.

Apparently, he was not the only one. Glancing to his right, he saw that the serving bar had a single occupant: Captain Carter, sitting alone in the dark, his back hunched away from the pale glow of the planet that shone through the large observation windows at the fore of the ship.  He was staring, red-eyed, down at a small, empty glass. He looked up at the scuffle of Lamont’s feet.

“Want a drink?” The captain asked.

Lamont tipped his head in the opposite direction, toward the coffee dispenser. “I need something stronger than a club soda,” he remarked.

Carter smiled humorlessly, lifting the small glass. “So do I. Have a seat.”

The newspaperman shrugged and joined him at the bar, forcing himself to ignore the throbbing in his head. He sat down as the captain got up and began to hobble around to the other side of the bar, using the stools as a support.

“I can do it,” Lamont offered.

Carter waved his hand dismissively. “I’m fine. Sit down.”

Lamont extinguished his cigarette in an ashtray. “What’s the prognosis?”

“Nerve damage,” Francis said wearily as he emerged on the other side of the bar. “Milo doesn’t think there’s anything he can do for it.”

“Blimey,” Lamont muttered.

Francis leaned against the bar with his left hand and, with the other, produced a series of objects one-by-one: A second small glass, an ornate slotted spoon made of silver, and a slender green bottle.

“Absinthe,” Lamont remarked, his brows raising.

“From my private reserve,” The captain explained. “A perk of the position.” He poured a small amount of the spirit into Lamont’s glass, then his own. The two men were silent as Francis went through the ritual of preparing the drinks. Retrieving two sugar cubes from a tin, he balanced the spoon over Lamont’s glass, placed a sugar cube atop it, and slowly dissolved it into the green liquid. Repeating the process for his own drink, he carefully returned the spoon and bottle to their cabinet beneath the bar and slowly made his way back to the stool beside Lamont.

Nodding to the captain, Lamont lifted his glass. His eyes felt hot. “To Rex O’Neil,” he toasted, his voice thick.

“To Epiphany,” Francis responded, raising his glass to the ghostly glow of the planet before taking a sip.

Lamont looked at him quizzically. “Is that what we’re calling it, then?”

Carter’s eyes glistened in the starlight. “It’s not entirely up to me. But it fits. Epiphany Rex. A valuable lesson, learned at too high a cost.”

Lamont didn’t ask what the lesson was. He took a drink, closing his eyes as it burned down his throat. They would all learn soon enough.

Next: With What Strange Eyes?

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