0185: The Examination
“Señor Ashton!” Rico exclaimed, the bulk of his body moving to intercept the comparatively diminutive engineer. “I am so relieved to see you alive and well!”
“Alive, at any rate,” Lamont quipped dryly.
“Hello, Rico,” Clifford replied furtively.
“What do you mean by that?” Rico asked Lamont.
“Something happened to him while he was here,” Lamont answered, “and I have to say it doesn’t make me feel any better about this setup. I don’t think we should bring anyone else to this tower until Mr. Ashton has been thoroughly debriefed.”
“I’m right here,” Clifford said with a touch of indignance, “and I’m happy to answer any questions you have.”
Just then, Lazarus ambled up to them from the direction of the asteroid pod. “Sorry to butt in on your pow-wow,” he said, tapping his wristwatch, “but we’re on a timetable, and there’s no way for me to communicate delays to Westward.”
“Let’s go, then,” Lamont agreed, grabbing Clifford’s arm and stalking across the opalescent landing bay. “The sooner we get this bloke out of here, the better.”
“He seems jumpy,” Lazarus noted quietly to Rico as they followed behind the newspaperman.
“He seems fine,” Milo Faust concluded, clicking off the pen-sized light that he had been shining intently into Clifford’s eyes. “Physically, at least.”
The elderly doctor’s shallow breathing lended a wheezing quality to his voice, and a shift in his aspect was noticeable. His unruly white hair normally lended him a vital, eccentric appearance, but now he merely looked old and tired. His back hunched more than usual as he leaned over the examination table on which Clifford sat. Nearby, Captain Carter and Chief Santana stood, observing the examination with tense expressions. The difference in height between the two senior staff members was striking when they stood side-by-side, as the top of Amila’s head just barely cleared the height of the lanky captain’s elbows. Francis was leaning forward slightly on his walking stick, both of his large hands draped over its bronze pommel, his long face pale and drawn. The high collar of his uniform jacket was unfastened, exposing a triangle of dark gray turtleneck underneath. Chief Santana, by contrast, stood perfectly straight, her ever-present clipboard held in front of her waist. Her black eyes shone with electric intensity. Lamont, leaning against the cabinets that ran along the side of the medical bay, decided that she presented even more than usual the suggestion of a coiled spring. He wondered to himself whether he would ever be there to witness the chief of operations losing her temper, and resisted an urge to cross himself at the thought.
“What about, er, not physically?” Francis asked.
Doctor Faust’s wide mouth twisted in slight consternation. “What year is it?” he asked Ashton after a moment’s thought.
“Nineteen hundred and ninety-nine,” Clifford answered primly.
“Name and date of birth?”
“My name is Clifford Clark Ashton and I was born on May second, nineteen sixty-seven in Coal City, Pennsylvania.”
“Who is the president of United Space?”
“Actually, it’s his son, Benjamin,” Faust corrected. “Joseph presides over the umbrella corporation.”
“Really?” Clifford asked mildly. “I didn’t know that.”
The old doctor turned toward Carter, his hunched shoulders and bushy white eyebrows lifting simultaneously as if to say, What do you want from me?
“Okay, mate,” Lamont demanded suddenly, standing up straight. “Tell ‘em about the Cloud of Witnesses.”