0097: A Symphony of Light

Ziggurat #5

The lights of the command deck had been dimmed so that its occupants could bask in the full effect of the natural wonder, the spectrum of colors playing across the neutral-colored surfaces of walls and consoles, catching strikingly on the polished chrome of toggle switches and the glass of the office walls.

The layout of the command deck was, of course, just as Lamont remembered it: Directly in front of him was the situation table, which was attached to the central control consoles for piloting and navigation. To either side of him were the glass-walled offices of Chief Santana and Captain Carter respectively. The front of the central console formed a padded bench that was frequently occupied by one or more members of the senior staff, and about six feet in front of that was the transparent composite of the command deck’s panoramic viewing wall. This “glass” wall afforded a magnificent view of the ship’s underside, its docked space lift and, when in orbit, the planet below. But the view that met Lamont’s eyes as he entered the deck was not of a planet.

Instead, the whole deck was filled with the warmly radiant glow of a rainbow of colors that filled the space outside the ship. Translucent, overlapping clouds of vibrant orange and green and purple stretched as far as the eye could see, unimaginable in size. At the center of it all was a flickering, pulsing point of vivid red. The lights of the command deck had been dimmed so that its occupants could bask in the full effect of the natural wonder, the spectrum of colors playing across the neutral-colored surfaces of walls and consoles, catching strikingly on the polished chrome of toggle switches and the glass of the office walls. The color pattern was ever-shifting as the ship passed through the cloud at what appeared to be a languid pace, but was in fact likely to be thousands of miles per hour.

Aside from the familiar quiet beeps and ticks of the consoles, the command deck was thickly silent, making the mechanical hiss of the sliding doors conspicuously loud. The two crew members that manned the control consoles, each seated in a tall stool to either side, turned their heads to see who had entered. To the right, at the console for navigation and sensors, the familiar face of Abigail Bishop turned to greet him with a melancholy smile. Her dark brown skin took on a deep purple color in the strange light.

To the left, at the pilot’s console that should have been manned by Rex, was someone unfamiliar to Lamont. He was momentarily jarred because, like Rex, the new pilot was rather tall and lanky. But the shock of hair atop his head was jet black rather than red, and he had a dusky complexion. Apparently taking note of Lamont’s gaping expression, the new pilot said: “Sure is something, isn’t it?”

Lamont nodded, forcing his mouth to close. “It is at that, Mister—”

“Lazarus,” finished the pilot. “You’re the newspaperman, right?”

“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Townsend,” Bishop said, re-donning the headset that she had momentarily dropped at his arrival.

“Thanks, Abigail,” Lamont responded absently. He was momentarily occupied with a quizzical examination of the pilot. Westward had a large crew by spaceship standards, but it was still only about a hundred people, and Lamont could not recall ever having specifically interacted with Lazarus before. He felt disoriented. “Where are we?”

“Roughly three thousand light years from the Solar System,” came the answer, but not from the pilot. He had returned his attention to his console while a tall figure rose from the bench in front of the tall central console, where he had been hidden from view. It was Captain Carter. He rose slowly, stiffly, supporting himself on a cane. An image flashed briefly to Lamont’s mind of the veteran astronaut climbing nimbly over the rock formations on the planet they had visited a month previous, and a feeling of profound sadness came over him. Francis looked a little older and a little smaller now.

The captain stepped liltingly to the side of the console and continued, half-turning to look out the transparent wall, his slender figure silhouetted against the symphony of light. “We’re in the cloud of matter surrounding a red giant in the later stages of its life cycle.”

“Let me guess,” remarked Lamont, stepping around the situation table to join the captain. “When the Martians charted here, it was a cheerful yellow sun. Am I right?”

Next: Old Habits