0098: Old Habits

Ziggurat #6

His finger hovered over the keypad and, in a brief flash of paranoia, he wondered if the secret code to access the ship’s limited store of real coffee had been changed during his absence.

The older man chuckled dryly. “You know more about astronomy than I gave you credit for,” he admitted.

“I flipped through a picture book once,” the newspaperman shrugged.

“To answer your question, assuming it was a serious one: Not actually.” The captain pivoted on his cane to look out at the fantastic scene before them. “50 million years is a significant period of time, even for a star. But this one has a lifespan well into the billions of years. It was a red giant when the Martians marked it on their charts, albeit a younger one.”

Lamont nodded, lifting the multifunctional recorder that was nearly always hung over his shoulders by a leather strap. Roughly six inches long and four deep, this complex mechanical box of black faux leather and chrome combined the functions of a camera, an audio recorder and a miniature stenograph. With practiced ease, Lamont tapped out a few notes on the shorthand keys with his thumbs. “What’s our destination?” He asked.

“While passing through this system,” Carter answered, “The Martians noted a planet that was quite early in its lifecycle. While the star was at its prime, the planet would have been an ice ball, but it was thawed by its sun’s later expansion and was experiencing something not unlike our Cambrian explosion. Our route continues to prioritize planets that are likely to be good for habitation.”

“Strike one,” Lamont frowned, thinking of the first planet they had visited, now informally referred to as Epiphany Rex. It had been habitable, but just barely, thanks to unpredictable weather patterns and high levels of radiation. Without bothering to excuse himself, he turned and made his way to the left side of the command deck. He passed the office of Amila Santana, the operations chief, with its familiar collection of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican decorations. The office was empty, which was not a surprise; Santana spent more than half her time in the control deck, where she could keep an eye on things personally. Lamont stopped at the beverage dispenser, retrieving a mug from the small cabinet and placing it under the machine’s nozzle. His finger hovered over the keypad and, in a brief flash of paranoia, he wondered if the secret code to access the ship’s limited store of real coffee had been changed during his absence. But no; the rich scent that filled his nostrils a moment later eased his fear.

Steaming cup in hand, Lamont returned to the center of the deck and sat on the bench in front of the console. Despite the somber silence that hung in the air without Rex’s frequent chatter, a sense of comfortable familiarity settled over Lamont as he sipped his coffee and watched as the steam seemed to mingle with the multicolored clouds that stretched into the infinite distance. It had been foolish of him, he reflected, to allow the young pilot’s tragic death to keep him from doing this part of his job.

“I’m told there was a betting pool,” commented Francis, who had also returned to sitting on the bench, his hands resting on the cane between his knees. “Regarding how long it would take for your coffee habit to bring you back down here.”

“Yeah?” Lamont asked. “Who’s the lucky winner?”

“Abigail,” Said Lazarus, behind him.

“Nice to see me indeed,” The newspaperman muttered. In the ghostly reflection of the transparent wall, he could see a subtle smile at the edges of the navigator’s lips, but she kept her headset on, pretending to be ignorant of the conversation.

“What have you been doing with your time?” Carter asked absently.

“Getting to know the colonists, mainly,” Lamont replied, sipping his coffee.

“Ah, the colonists,” The captain nodded. Something about the tone of his voice suggested that he had perhaps forgotten about the presence of fifty men, women and children—plus a small menagerie of livestock—on the ship’s upper deck. “How are they?”

Next: The Colonists