0005: The Martian Mystery

Hollow World #5

Ten months earlier, Henry Rowan had met Lamont’s eyes as he offered the newspaperman a cigarette from the case on his desk. “How is Eliza?” He had asked.

He now occupied a handsome office in the upper story of the Atlantic Free Press building, commanding a view of the glistening silver towers of Central London. He and a few others had built the newspaper up from the rubble in the 1960’s, and though he was an editor by title, he was also the keenest journalist Lamont knew. His eyes were unflinching; he never asked a question casually.

Self-conscious, Lamont answered the question while lowering his head to light the cigarette, using the gesture to avoid meeting his boss’ gaze directly. 

“Fine,” He had answered, keeping his tone bright and conversational. “Just fine. The countryside has been very good for her work.”

“How do you like it?” Henry asked, placing his hands in his pockets and turning toward the panoramic window behind his desk, his eyes turning toward the view like merciful hands releasing a terrified rabbit.

“I struggle to appreciate the abstract,” Lamont admitted.

“I meant the country. How do you like the new house?”

“Oh, it’s lovely,” Lamont exhaled slowly, perching on the edge of the large desk and tracing the paths of personal helicopters as they dipped up and down from the floor of fog like mayflies. “We’ve started a nice garden—an outside garden! The views are . . . well, now that the skies are clear, you know. It’s . . . it’s very quiet.”

“After what you’ve been through, you’ve earned some quiet.” Henry said.

Lamont nodded in agreement. So why did he feel as if he was asking for help?

Henry picked up a thick book from the edge of his desk. Its yellow cover bore the titles, “Behind the Curtain: A Year in the Scientific Society.”

“It’s selling well,” He said. “It’s selling very well.”

Lamont nodded again.

“You know,” Henry continued, his tone exploratory, “You can take all the time you need. Enjoy the air. Maybe think about another book.”

“I don’t want to,” Lamont blurted, more forcefully than he had intended. He had nearly bit through his cigarette. He tugged it from his mouth, cradling it between two fingers as he brushed bits of tobacco from his teeth with his thumb. “I’m not broken, Henry.”

The editor scrutinized Lamont carefully. If he had been surprised by the outburst, it didn’t show. “I didn’t say that,” he explained evenly.

“But it’s what--”

Lamont inhaled deeply, smashing the cigarette into an ashtray and folding his arms. He restarted. “I’m a newspaperman.”

“Good,” Henry answered simply. “Good.” With a stiff nod, he set the book down, slapped the desk with his palm, and walked to the side of the office.  On the canvas-papered wall hung framed copies of Atlantic Free Press front pages from years past. He passed a fingertip over the frame containing its first edition. The frame slid aside to reveal a safe tucked in the wall, which Henry unlocked with the swiftness of old habit. From it he retrieved a folder of papers, which he set on the desk beside Lamont with deliberate force.

Suddenly alert, Lamont opened the folder and began to sift through the contents. It was mostly carbon copies of typewritten documents, sealed with the United Space logo and dated from the early 1970’s—nearly three decades ago. There were also some technical drawings and . . .

Lamont pulled a photograph from the thin stack and examined it closely. It was a battered instant photograph, monochrome, depicting the familiar features of Francis Carter, the pioneering astronaut. He was in a spacesuit, his eyes wide, his long face bearing an expression of earnest excitement. In his arms was cradled a bundle, wrapped in a metallic sheet, of strongly suggestive proportions.

Lamont looked up at Henry intensely. “Is this a hoax?”

“The lab doesn’t think so,” Henry said. “If you look through the documents we’ve obtained so far—equipment requisitions, internal communications—it’s careful, it’s circumspect, but it paints a credible picture.” He snapped his fingers. “Monty, it’s just bloody possible that they’ve got themselves a Martian.”

Next: Dust