0001: A Message from Mars

Hollow World #1

Was it really nighttime? Lamont Townsend wondered, as he often did.

Outside the phone booth, lights played across a deep canvas of mist in alternating flashes of lurid pink and sullen red. Together with the condensation that dripped down the grimy transparent side of the booth, it conspired to hide everything outside from view save a thick wire conduit, a brick wall, and the vague outlines of the advertisements that were the strongest source of light outside the booth. Was it really nighttime? Lamont Townsend wondered, as he often did. Mars, he knew, had a day/night cycle not so different from that of earth, and so it made sense that the artificial lights beneath its surface would be programmed to follow that. This was common knowledge. Nevertheless, Lamont would not have put it past United Space to set the cycle by some other standard that better suited the company’s purposes.

The repeating buzz to which he had been listening to in one ear as these thoughts passed through the back of his mind stopped abruptly. It was replaced by the even, feminine voice of the operator, unaccompanied by any kind of visage on the small video screen.

“I’m sorry, sir, but no one picked up. Would you like to leave a message in the central system?”

Lamont hesitated briefly, reflecting that while he was not at his present home, he was also not far from it. His wife’s phone would of course be tapped, and a long distance call of this kind could be easily traced back to its source. Then again, who cared? I’m not paranoid, he silently insisted to a memory in the neon emptiness.

“Sir?” Repeated the operator.

“Yeah,” Lamont breathed into the mouthpiece. “Yes, I’ll leave a message.”

“Very well,” said the operator. “Please deposit three Munits and speak after the tone.”

Lamont fished three coins from his pocket and pushed them into the cash slot beside the card reader on the telephone. He took a deep breath.

“Elizabeth,” he said, “It’s me. I haven’t heard from you in some time. I don’t have a phone, but you can reach me through the editorial office. Just let me know if you’re well. I miss you, love.”

Setting his stubbled jaw, Lamont returned the headset to its hook and listened to the coins as they fell into the depths of the machine.