Already the Sky Bar was like a huge glowing jewel, its glass dome slowly fading from blue, to purple, to red against the darkening Martian sky beyond. It was perched twelve storeys up, on the very top of the Nevsky Grand Hotel, and there wasn’t another tall building to spoil the view for several blocks in any direction. On another occasion, Stefan Granski would have been more than happy to go and sit up there for a while, enjoying a drink or two and staring out at the stars, or at the lights of the city sprawling away beneath him, but not tonight. Tonight he wanted to keep a low profile and he wished that his contact had suggested somewhere less obvious for their meeting—one of the underground bars perhaps, where people could come and go without attracting quite so much attention.
He crossed the roadway and waited nervously at the back of a group of people queueing to use the hotel’s airlocks. He felt exposed, out here in the open with no shadows to hide in, and his eyes darted from side to side, constantly checking the surrounding buildings, the passing transpods and the other pedestrians for any signs that he was being followed. Nothing. Even so, he reached down to the large bag hanging by his side, drew it up to his chest and wrapped his arms tightly around it, just in case.
Once through the airlock he was immediately approached by one of the hotel’s famous Meet-and-Greets, an enthusiastic young man with a smart uniform and a broad smile.
“Good evening, Sir” the young man said. ‘And welcome to the Nevsky Grand. May I take that for you?” He reached for the bag and Granski pulled back defensively. “I can manage,” he replied, curtly. “I just need to know how to get up to the Sky Bar.”
“Of course,” the Meet-and-Greet replied, looking him up and down. “I can show you to the wash facilities if you’d like to freshen up first. And if you want to leave your E-suit with us, we can have it cleaned and refilled for you while you enjoy your time at the bar.”
“It’s fine. I don’t plan on staying long. Just show me the way up.”
“As you wish, Sir,” the young man said, pointing across the busy lobby. “Last elevator on the left will take you directly up.”
There was a burly, angry-looking security guard standing beside the airlocks watching him, so Granski hurried over and joined a group of smartly dressed party- goers also waiting to go up. He pushed his way to the back of the lift as soon as it arrived.
Even this early in the evening the Sky Bar was buzzing with activity and Granski had to try several times before he could attract the attention of one of the bar staff.
“I’m looking for someone,” he shouted over the din. “Captain Lockley. He said to ask for him here.”
The woman reached up, took an empty glass from the shelf above her head and handed it to him. “In the back,” she said, motioning over her shoulder before turning away to serve the next customer.
Granski took his glass and went through a set of glass doors into a much quieter, more dimly lit section of the bar. A series of small booths, all occupied, were set against the wall and Granski’s attention was immediately drawn to the central booth, where a single figure was seated in the shadows behind a large circular table. There were several bottles—mostly empty— lined up along one side of the table.
As Granski stood watching, the figure sat forward so that his face was picked out by the overhead light and a brief smile appeared as he took hold of the nearest bottle and motioned for Granski to come and join him. The man was young, much younger than Granski had imagined, considering he claimed to be a fully certified Merchant Captain. But then sometimes Mars was like that, especially these days with the blockade in force. Now what mattered was having the right connections. It didn’t matter if you were the skipper of a battered up old tug, or a forty-year-old shuttle, or even just one of the surface-to-station barges, as you could find someone to issue you with an off-world licence. Then you were a somebody.
And the word was that Captain Lockley was a somebody. For the right price, it was said he would happily take you out to one of the Belt stations, or even arrange a discreet ship-to-ship, to put you onto something heading back to Earth. Stefan Granski hoped that what he had to offer was ‘the right price’.
As he approached the table, Granski was surprised to see that Lockley wasn’t alone after all. Draped along the sofa beside him was a young woman, pretty, and with the long, slender limbs of a Martian-born. She was dressed in a tight, revealing dress and was presumably some sort of paid escort the captain had bought himself for the evening. She raised herself slowly up onto one arm as Granski sat down on the far side of the table, gazing at him with a faraway look in her eyes before sinking back down again. Lockley ignored her and filled both his own and Granski’s glass.
“You’re late,” he said, but there was no anger in his voice.
“I got held up,” was all Granski said in reply. He took a cautious sip of his drink and then drained the glass in one gulp. Lockley refilled it.
“So,” he announced. “Let’s start with introductions. I’m Angus Lockley. Captain Angus Lockley. But call me Lock.”
“Exactly. And you’re Granski?”
“Yes.” There was a long pause. Lockley was clearly waiting for more, but
Granski was reluctant to continue. He looked across at the young woman. “Couldn’t we have this conversation in private?”
Lockley waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about Nuying. As far as I can tell she doesn’t speak much English. And even if she did, she’s in no state to remember anything she hears. She’s more of an ornament than anything else.”
“Couldn’t you at least have picked a less obvious place to meet?”
Lockley spread his arms wide. “Why? I have nothing to hide. I’m a fully licensed Merchant Captain. I can do business wherever I please.” He leaned in closer. “And that, my friend, is why you need my services, yes?” Granski nodded. “So, why don’t you tell me your story, and I’ll see whether we can come to some sort of arrangement. Something that will be to both our benefit.”
“Fine.” Granski took another swig of his drink. “Stefan Granski, journalist. Or former journalist, I should say. I used to run an online newsfeed called The Martian Chronicle. Maybe you’ve heard of it?” Lockley shook his head. “Well, it wasn’t one of the Majors, but it did okay. Had a reasonable following.”
“Until our wonderful new government decided that freedom of the press wasn’t anything like as important as I thought it was. I guess I said the wrong thing once too often and so they decided to shut me down.”
“You got the midnight call?”
“Yep, the works. The beating, the threats, the gun in the face. They smashed anything they couldn’t take with them, whether it had anything to do with the business or not, and they gave me a single day to clear out and disappear for good.”
“Yeah,” Lockley said, showing little interest for the story. “That’s New Mars for you. Crazy place. Crazy. Still, it works for some people.” He smiled. “If you know how to play the game.”
“Well, I don’t. And I don’t want to either. I just want to get the hell out of here as fast as I can.”
“And so here you are.”
“I was told you’re the man to come to if you’re looking to get off planet.” “And you were not misinformed. I am the man to come to. Yes, indeed. But
tell me…” he leaned forward again and made a show of looking serious for a moment. “How do you intend to pay? My services don’t come cheap, and something tells me you’re a little short on funds right now. Am I right?”
“You’re right, I can’t pay. Not with credit anyway. They froze all my accounts when they shut me down.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought. So?”
“I have information.”
Lockley let out a loud laugh and rocked back on the sofa, disturbing the
woman beside him. She looked up, shrugged and rearranged herself slightly away from him. “Information?” he asked, still laughing. “And what am I supposed to do with that? I can’t fuel my ship with information.”
“You can with this sort of information. It’s valuable. And I mean really valuable. You find the right person and I guarantee it’ll earn you more credit than you’d get from half a dozen other refugees like me.”
“I doubt that.”
Lockley gave a shrug. “So convince me. If this information really is as
valuable as you claim, I’d be a fool not to take you anywhere you want to go. And in style, too. But I’ll be the one to decide. If I think you’ve got nothing, then you’re back on the street. Deal?”
“Excellent.” Lockley emptied the contents of the bottle into the two glasses and sat back, idly running his fingers through the Martian woman’s hair.
After a moment, Granski began. “I take it you’ve heard of the Phoenician Conspiracy?”
“Oh, come on,” Lockley laughed. “That’s you’re information? That the government is covering up evidence of aliens? You’ll have to do a lot better than that, my friend. That’s an old story, and it was garbage even when it was new.”
Granski unzipped his bag and took out a small rectangular object which he placed on the table. “It’s true. Every last word of it.”
“And so this would be, what?” Lockley asked, leaning forward to examine the object. “An alien artefact?” The thing was dark and smooth and appeared to have been made out of a single piece of some vaguely metallic material. On each of the object’s sides was a small, oddly shaped hole, but that was all. There were no other markings of any sort.
“Not an artefact,” Granski continued. “A computer. I have no idea what it does or how to work it, but if you take it to someone who knows about these things they’ll almost certainly be able to get it to spit out something or other. And they’d also be able to confirm that it wasn’t built by us. Take it to the government, on the other hand, and they wouldn’t even be surprised by it.”
“Okay, I’m now mildly curious. Tell me more.”
“So, after my little visit from the thug squad, I had to get out of town fast. I wandered around for a while, begging whatever I could from those friends I still had who weren’t too scared to even talk to me, and eventually I got put in touch with someone who could give me a place to stay. It was…well, it was like a safe house, only bigger. There were dozens of people there. Some of them were like me, just ordinary folk who’d ended up getting on the wrong side of the new government and had nowhere else to go. Others were out and out criminals; smugglers, petty pirates, profiteers. And then there were the rest. We called them the Resistance. Some of them were soldiers, others secret agents or spies of some sort. They kept pretty much to themselves, but it was clear they were well organized and well equipped. They had vehicles, guns, explosives. And a lot of hi-tech computer stuff as well—stuff they were always doing secret experiments with. I know a bit about computers myself and I offered to help them out with their work, but they weren’t interested. No thank you.
“So anyway. All these people. Rumours start flying around about who they really are and what they’re actually doing, and soon enough the truth gets out.” Now it was Granski’s turn to lean in close across the table. He looked round to make sure there was no one close and then lowered his voice. “It’s the Westgates. You know, those scientists, mother and son, who are currently top of the government’s most wanted list. Well, that’s where they’re hiding out. And you want to know why the government want to get their hands on them so badly? It’s because of this.” He picked up the strange object from the table and looked at it admiringly. “Alien technology. They have a whole load of them and they’re trying to work out how to get them to work with human computers. And succeeding, as far as I can tell. Now you tell me, is that the kind of information that will buy me a place on your ship, or not?”
“So what? You’re saying the Phoenician thing is all true? That the government is covering up contact with aliens?”
“It was just a bunch of computers. I didn’t see any little green men. Buy yeah, I reckon it’s all true.”
“Then why not turn them in yourself? I seem to remember it’s a pretty damn big reward.”
“You think I’d ever be allowed to claim it? Me? No, I’m taking my chances off planet. You get me there, the reward’s all yours.”
“And where is this so-called safe house?”
Granski smiled and shook his head. “That’s enough for now. I’ll leave you the computer as a deposit, but you don’t get the location of the base until I’m safely on an Earth-bound ship. And I guarantee you’ll never find it on your own. It’s well hidden.”
Lockley took the computer, thought for a while and then the smile returned. “Okay, Mr Granski. I think we can make this work. I’ll pass this on to someone who can verify it really is what you say it is and then claim my nice fat reward and become a public hero while you do whatever it is you want to do back on Earth.” He took out a plastic call-card from his jacket pocket and handed it across to Granski. “We shuttle- up at midday tomorrow. This will give you all the information you need. Be at the dock no later than nine. If you’re late, you’ll miss the flight.”
“Just like that?”
Lockley smiled. “Just like that.”
Granski took the card and tucked it safely away inside his environment suit.
“I’ll be there, nice and early.” For a moment he sat, unsure what to do next, but it was clear the meeting was over. Lockley turned his attention back to the woman at his side and left Granski to get awkwardly to his feet, mumble a goodbye and make his way back through the bar’s purple gloom towards the entrance.
“He’s gone,” Lockley said after a moment. His companion sat up, suddenly alert. “So what do you think?”
“I think it’s a start,” she replied. It would have been better if you’d managed to get the location of the base from him up front. But no matter. We can trace his movements back over the past few weeks. We’ll find it soon enough.”
“And what about this,” Lockley asked, holding up the strange device. “You don’t believe this is really some sort of alien computer, do you?”
The woman took it from him and examined it for herself. “Who knows? Perhaps.”
“Oh come on. Aliens?”
“Why not? They’re out there somewhere.”
“Exactly. Out there somewhere, not down here somewhere.”
“What do you care? You’ll be paid for your part in this either way.”
“And if it really is who he says it is?”
“Then you’ll be paid even more.”
“Once you actually get hold of them?”
“Don’t worry, we will. And soon.”
“Why not just wait and let Granski give me the location once he’s safely on
his ship back to Earth?”
“He’s never going to give you the location,” the woman replied with a sneer.
“Any fool can see that.”
“So what am I supposed to do with him then?”
“Get him off planet then throw him out the airlock.” She stood up to leave. “Hey, wait up,” Lockley said, his sly smile creeping back as he let his eyes
wander over the various areas of pleasantly exposed flesh in front of him. “What’s the hurry there, my lovely Nuying? The night is still young.”
She looked down at him, more disappointed than angry. “Don’t be such a pig, Lockley. Go home and sober up.” She held up the artifact. “I have work to do. But even if I didn’t…” She shook her head and left her words hanging in the air behind her.