0007: Help from Neptune

Hollow World #7

He nearly toppled over the nearby card table as he leapt from his chair, instinctively raising his fists, street-boxing style, at the intruder that had a moment ago been touching his shoulder.

The stranger lifted both hands, palms out, taking a step back.

“Easy, easy there, fella,” She said, in precisely the same tone one might use to calm a horse. “I just came in to see if you needed help.”

It was, in fact, a she. Lamont had not been certain at first; her short-cropped silver hair and baggy overalls were not at all feminine. The voice—and now, Lamont could see—the delicate bone structure beneath the leathery skin of her face, were definitely female.

“How did you get in here?” He demanded, standing up straight.

“Door was open.”

Lamont felt his brow furrow. Had he forgotten to lock it behind him? An image of his hand, powdered in white, flashed unbidden to mind. “Why would I need help?”

The intruder glanced around, as if looking for the corroboration of a hidden witness. “You were screaming.”

Lamont took a deep breath, running his hand over the stubble of a reddening cheek. “Was I? I was asleep.”

“Shell shock.” The stranger’s diagnosis was matter-of-fact, but not without a note of sympathy. “Reckon I know it when I see it.”

“Yeah?” Lamont asked. A newspaperman’s habit—when otherwise at a loss for words, he asked a question. “Why’s that?”

“Eleven years out to Neptune and back on an old fission job. You see things. Lose things.” The woman stuffed one hand in an oversized pocket and extended the other tentatively. Strong and wiry, it appeared comically small in relation to the sleeve. “Madison Burk. I live at the other end of the hall.”

“Townsend. Lamont Townsend.” He took the extended hand without shaking it as he would a man’s. The gesture appeared to surprise Madison. She withdrew the hand, looking flushed.

“I know. I read your book a couple months ago.”

“Did you?” It was phrased as a question, but came out sounding more like an accusation. An image came to Lamont’s mind of his portrait in the yellow dust sleeve of the hardback. Lamont wasn’t undercover on Mars, but several million miles between him and home had given him the assumption of anonymity. He now realized the foolishness of it.

Apparently sensing that he had become upset again, Madison turned awkwardly toward the open door. “I’ll be going,” She said.

“Miss Burk—” Lamont ventured contritely, “Thanks.”

Pausing in the doorway, she turned to look at him. “If you haven’t talked to someone, you should. No good keeping it to yourself.”

“I wrote a book,” Lamont offered glumly.

“Ain’t the same,” Madison said, and closed the door.

Next: Fourteen Minutes to London