The river around which Moreau Town was being built, had been named the Tigris. It ran with fresh water toward the south and then cascaded down a waterfall into a larger river – the Euphrates. Both had been named after rivers back on Earth. The Euphrates ran out into the ocean. It was salty and tidal, and much wider than the Tigris. Neal Spearwood was making his way along the banks of the Euphrates toward the beach, where Aria Bekhit had told him he could expect to find Doctor Laura Banks. Laura was his boss, but also a very old friend.
The sea air felt great in Neal’s lungs. He had lived near a beach in California as a child. He missed the sand and the waves. He found Laura sitting on a director’s chair on the sand. She was reading a novel – and was wearing a bikini. Neal found himself quite distracted by the site for a second, but shook it off.
She turned. “What’s up?”
“I just came looking for you. You been swimming?”
She screwed up her nose at him. “That’s a dumb question isn’t it? Do you think I put this on just for show?” She pointed at her swimsuit.
Neal felt his face warm with embarrassment. “Oh no, I didn’t mean that. I was just,” He hesitated, looking for words.
Laura gave him an infuriating look that was clearly designed to extend his feelings of embarrassment for as long as possile. Then she offered “making conversation?”
“Yes. That’s it exactly. Making conversation.”
Laura grinned and turned back to her book. A few moments of uncomfortable silence ensued – at least they were uncomfortable for Neal.
“So, um, it looks like you’re enjoying your time off?”
“Actually, I’m bored out my brain. All I want to do is go out and study this planet. There’s a whole world waiting to be discovered, but Bell insists that I take a few days rest before launching our expedition. It’s absurd.”
“I know what you mean. I’m in the same boat. I thought you’d feel the same way as me.”
“Yeah well, there isn’t much we can do about it.”
“So why don’t we go off on a little expedition of our own – strictly for recreational purposes of course.”
Laura turned and looked at him. He had her full attention. “What did you have in mind?”
“We could follow the Euphrates up river, see where it leads. If nothing else we’ll get a little new scenery.”
Laura bit her lip, thoughtful for a moment. “You think Bell will go for it?”
“It’s none of his business. We’re not slaves in Moreau Town are we? We’re just going for a walk.”
Laura stood and began to fold up her chair. “It’s a date. Give me a little time to get dressed and put a few things in a backpack and I’m all yours Mate. I’ll carry a tent and you can carry supplies. We have several days so we might as well make it an overnight trip and see how far we can get.”
“Great.” They began walking back into town. Neal smiled inwardly. As uncomfortable as being alone with Laura Banks could be sometimes, there was nobody he would rather spend his day with.
* * *
The bridge crew snapped to attention as Bell walked through the door.
“Captain on the bridge,” said an eager young Ensign.
Commander Lin turned from her position near the operations station. Although her job at ops had been officially handed on to another officer, she appeared to be having a hard time letting go of it.
“As you were everybody,” Bell said. He strolled to the wide window at the front of the bridge. Xinju floated below them – a glowing mixture of greens and blues, highlighted by the wisps of white clouds. There was nothing quite like the site of a planet from orbit.
After indulging himself on the view he turned to address his officers. “Commander Lin, Lieutenant Kerensky, would you join me in my office please?” They followed him.
Rather than sitting in his desk chair, Bell chose to stand.
“It’s high time we found out what happened to the Phoenix, don’t you agree?”
Kerensky nodded. “Absolutely Captain. If the log that Earth sent us during our transit is correct then they should have arrived here centuries ago. If they did then there should be other humans alive on the planet.”
“I’m sure it concerns you both as much as it concerns me, that we haven’t found any evidence of inhabitants yet.”
“Actually Captain, that doesn’t mean as much as you might think,” Kerensky said. “We’re a long way from being able to say that we’ve mapped out the entire surface of the planet. We conducted some sensor sweeps when we first arrived here, but once we decided on the location for our settlement, we stopped looking.”
“It does worry me that they haven’t tried to contact us though,” Lin said. “If they’re on this planet then surely they’ve noticed our arrival.”
“Very true Commander. We’ve been understandably busy with other things until now, but the time has come to get back to this mystery. What will it take Lieutenant?”
“We can launch a couple of probes into orbit to function as satellites. Those, plus the Endeavour itself, can all conduct scans of the surface, and take some visual imagery. If there is civilisation down there we’ll find it. It’s only a matter of time.”
“That’s what I like to hear. Make this a priority Commander Lin.”
Bell began to walk toward the door of his office, which led back to the bridge. He stopped mid-stride and turned back to his officers. “Oh, one other thing. It’s possible that the Phoenix may have explored the rest of this solar system. There might be something out there that could give us a clue to their fate. Send out some fighters to survey the system. I know we’ve done some preliminary flybys of most planets, but it can’t hurt to be thorough. I’m sure Colonel Millwood will welcome the chance to get back in the cockpit. ”
Kerensky and Lin both nodded their agreement.