The Phoenician Conspiracy

PROLOGUE

It was night. And on Luna, the night lasted for fifteen days.

On the far side, away from the prying eyes of Earth, the temperature had dropped to minus 150 degrees Centigrade and the four figures bounding their way across the regolith-dusted craters of the Korolev Highlands were already beginning to feel the cold creeping in around the edges of their environment suits. The suits were thin, flexible, designed for short-duration work, and although they possessed their own heating systems, another hour would see the air tanks and power cells begin to run dry, and at that point, their journey would quickly become a lot less pleasant.

But there was no need for worry. At the lip of the next crater their destination came into view, nestled in the centre of the depression and no more than half a kilometre ahead. The group paused and their leader scanned the distant structures. It was a standard-construct field camp, with a pair of expanded kevlar domes linked together at its centre. A small rover and a larger transport were backed up against the airlock of one of the domes, and off to one side was a third, smaller dome linked to a communications array. Two plasmalights, set on masts at either side of the site, bathed the whole area in a ghostly blue-white glow.

The four figures continued down the slope, taking long, bounding strides which allowed them to cover the open crater in less than a minute. At the edge of the camp the leader indicated for one of his men to search the communications dome. The man drew a pistol from his holster, but the leader clamped a hand around the weapon and shook his head.

Meanwhile, one of the others set about opening the outer airlock door, overriding the electronic locking mechanism with the microputer attached to the back of his glove. The three men squeezed themselves into the compartment, resealed the outer door, and waited while clean air was pumped in. When the process was complete and the inner door opened, they stepped cautiously through into the first of the linked domes.

It was smaller on the inside, the metallic skeleton creating a room no more than three metres wide and six or seven metres long, which appeared to be part research lab and part repair shop. A makeshift table in the centre was strewn with twisted pieces of metal and broken down electronic components. The rest of the space was taken up with tiny workstations, each crammed with stacks of equipment, monitor screens and endless trailing wires and cables.

Only one workstation was occupied. A young woman was staring intently at a monitor as column after column of numbers scrolled slowly down the screen. With her back to the airlock, she was oblivious to the intruders until one of them stepped up and shoved her on the shoulder. She turned, saw the looming figure standing beside her and screamed, stumbling away and tugging out the ear buds which had prevented her from hearing the airlock activation alarm.

“Sam!” she yelled, edging back towards the end wall. “Sam! Get in here, quick!”

The far door slid open and a young man rushed through, rubbing his eyes sleepily. When he saw the black-clad newcomers and their clearly visible weapons he hesitated, then rushed forward to try and protect the terrified woman. She grabbed his arm, squeezed herself in behind him and tried to drag him back towards the door, but already another of the intruders had cut off their escape.

“Who the bloody hell are you? the young man stammered.

The group’s leader stepped forward. He was a giant of a man, broad and muscular, but without the awkwardness which often comes with such a build. He moved easily, even in the low Lunar gravity, and towered over the two frightened figures, gazing at them from behind his dark visor.

“Who…” the young man began again, but the tall figure raised his hand and cut him off. Slowly, he reached up, unlocked his helmet and removed it.

“Where is the Professor?” he asked. For such a large man his voice was strangely quiet. Quiet, but not soft. It was a harsh, grating whisper, more like the growl of a hungry beast than the voice of a man, and the reason for it was clear—a thick scar, which began somewhere behind the dark glasses he wore even inside his helmet, and continued down his right cheek before twisting awkwardly across his throat and disappearing beneath his collar.

“Where is the Professor?” he asked again.

“She’s right here,” came a new voice from the doorway as a woman came storming into the room. She pushed her way past the others and placed herself directly in front of the giant, hands defiantly on her hips and a scowl on her face. He recognised her from the files he’d studied; an unremarkable woman, early fifties, medium height, brown hair, turning grey.

“How dare you come barging in here like this, terrifying my staff and dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night? Who are you, and what the hell are you doing here?”

She was a thin woman, her features drawn, the skin tight across her cheeks. But she was not frail. It was anger the man could see in her eyes, not weakness, not fear. He would have to change that.

“Who are they?” he asked, indicating the people behind her. “Students?”

“My research assistants,” she snapped back. “Now I’ll ask you again. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“I am Mr Bilal. I am here to collect you.”

“Collect me? What the hell are you talking about, collect me? The plan is for us to be out here for six more weeks, not pack up and come home now. I haven’t had time to do anything like the amount of research I have planned yet, and I have absolutely no intention of going anywhere, with you, or with anyone else for that matter, until I’m good and ready to go.”

Mr Bilal drew a huge knife from a sheath attached to the back of his suit. One edge was smooth and sharp, the other, cut into jagged teeth like a saw. He held it casually down by his side. “It is not a request.”

The Professor took an involuntary step backwards, but then took a deep breath and forced herself to stare up at the man, not down at the huge glinting blade. Slowly she shook her head. “If you’re here to collect me, then it’s because you want me to do something for you, yes? You have something particular in mind. So I don’t think you have any intention of actually using that knife, do you? It’s just there for intimidation. And I am not easily intimidated, Mr Bilal. So why not put it away and we can talk about this like civilised people. I’m assuming here that you are actually a civilised man, Mr Bilal?”

Mr Bilal grunted. “Nice speech. Now listen to mine.” He stepped forward and leant down so his face was directly above the Professor’s. “Yes,” he hissed. “I need you for something. And you are right, I will not be using the knife on you.” He brought the weapon up and let the sharp point hover between them, no more than an inch or so from the woman’s face. “But I am not so concerned for your…” he glanced behind her briefly, “…research assistants. They will accompany us. And the first time you refuse to do exactly what I tell you to do, I will take one of them, I will slice them open from throat to groin and I will gut them like some helpless animal. And I will make you watch as they bleed slowly and painfully to death in front of you. Because no, Professor. I am not a civilised man. Do you understand?”

The woman nodded quickly, and Mr Bilal was pleased to see that the fear was now firmly in control. “Good,” he continued. “So go and put on your E-suit. You work for me now, Professor Westgate.”