Lamont cursed under his breath and surveyed the scattered papers that had fallen to the floor when he had knocked into his card table. He glanced at his wristwatch and cursed again. He was overdue to call the office. The papers would have to wait. He grabbed his overcoat and hat from the stand beside the door and looked back into the apartment. He mentally verified that the lamp was on, despite the fact that the room was currently flooded in bands of white artificial daylight from the window. Satisfied, he stepped out into the hall, locking the door behind him.
As usual, Lamont walked. He had a mental map of locations throughout the district where payphones could be used in relative privacy. He was running late, so he selected one that was closer than usual to his apartment, ten minute’s walk. Pulling his cap over his eyes, he thrust his hands into his coat pockets and proceeded east down Underpass Avenue.
Traffic was heavier during the day. Broad boulevards were shared by a patchwork of pedestrians walking this way and that on various errands, with personal scooters weaving between them at alarmingly high speeds, not uncommonly eliciting brief exchanges of shouted unpleasantries. Occasionally a full-sized passenger car or cargo truck would pass through the center, parting the crowd like a shark breaking into a school of fish. The streets were rarely level, following the inscrutable contours of eons-old Martian architecture. Whether out of a certain awed self-consciousness or sheer expedience, demolition and excavation was nearly unheard of within the human occupation of the planet’s interior. Man made structures were built around and on top of what was already there—what had probably been there long before man himself existed as such. The particular street that Lamont followed, true to its name, sloped downward into what would have been some kind of giant trench or half-pipe, the span of which was about five city blocks. Buildings were placed on brick steps following the curve of the trench, with streets spaced crossways along its length. Overhead was a bridge-like structure, supported by massive brass-colored columns that split organically into a trellis at their tops, creating the effect of metal vines. Spaced evenly between these were constructs that looked something like giant inverted vacuum tubes, green-tinted, with jagged filaments inside them that would sometimes flicker in an obscurely orchestrated lightshow.
Lamont descended into the center of the trench and turned right on 82nd Street to follow its length in the direction of the district’s south entrance. His destination was far short of this, though, in an area of the central trench that was home mainly to restaurants and nightclubs. During the day, it was relatively quiet, the only occupants being vagrants, through-passers and sometimes a tightly-squeezed delivery truck. Things had a way of settling at the bottom of the trench; a thin mist clung to the floor here when it had been dispelled by the daylights higher up, carrying with it an inextricable complexity of contrasting scents. Lamont’s destination was a phone booth nestled in the alley behind a jazz club called the Oblivion. The perpetual shadow was at seemingly random intervals cut through with the green glow from a filament fifty feet overhead. Glancing about the alley to ensure that he was alone, Lamont picked up the payphone’s receiver.
“Operator,” came the predictable response as the line was opened. “What destination, please?”
“Long distance collect to Earth,” Lamont answered. “London, Liberty five-five-three.”
There was a pause while the operator made the necessary calculation. “Turnaround time is currently fourteen minutes, ten seconds. Is that acceptable, sir?”
“Fine,” Lamont said. There wasn’t much anyone could do about the orbits. “Audio only,” he added.
“Very well,” replied the operator. “The connection has been prepared. Remember that it will only be delivered if the collect call is accepted by the recipient. Please dictate your introduction at the tone and press the Transmit button when ready.”
Lamont took a deep breath and organized his thoughts. After a moment, a tone sounded in the earpiece.
“Hello, Henry,” he said evenly. “On Thursday I obtained a second interview with Source Seventeen. Relevant details were transmitted via telegram later that day. I recommend The Collected Essays of L.A. Straub, first edition, page 45. No follow-up scheduled; he seemed uneasy. He made a reference that he wouldn’t repeat—it sounded to me like ‘Escherspace.’ I couldn’t make a connection here, but perhaps something will turn up in the paper’s library. I have that, and a list of names that I intend to research tomorrow in Hellas District 12.” He paused for a moment. “Look, have you seen Elizabeth lately? I haven’t heard anything for weeks. Please check in on her when you can.”
Inhaling deeply, he hovered his fingertip over the button labeled Transmit next to the phone’s small display screen. “Cheers, mate,” he muttered, and pressed it.
Next: Seeing Ghosts