Mike Scantlebury - Science Fiction
 
   

"Alien Incursions"

O N E

I suppose I took the asteroids assignment for sex. That's the truth of it.

It was a challenge too, of course, and the possibility of a big story, but there was no need to travel far for one of those, even these days; I'd made my name on Mars, mostly out of the successive sand gemstones scandals, and I was sure there were still enough dark corners unexamined on my planet to keep me busy for the rest of my career.

No, the attraction of a trip to the Asteroid Belt was that I'd heard the shipping families out there ran the biggest sin-traps in the solar system, and I wanted to see them for myself - see them and sample the delights that were rumoured to be there. Rumours, that all it was then, for no evidence had ever come out at that time. The Families acted as custodians of morals to the Old Worlds, and couldn't be seen to be putting on the slightest indiscretion. But everybody knew. Nobody could stop the spacers talking, and most viewers, even though we managed to keep it off the video news, had heard some of the talk.

But sex - I suppose that's why I got into the video business in the first place, forcing my way up through the biggest station on Mars; when you're born in a hell-hole like the Phobos base, like I was, with nothing but the stinking rabbit warrens to run around in, and the evil red sands of Mars floating over your head, then you're bound to grow up dreaming of something better. Dreaming of the glories we saw on the videos, maybe; why, nobody on the screens ever looked as filthy as my true father did after a shift on the surface, and no one ever looked as old and worn out as my mother did, fighting to bring up three kids during the starvation years of the Alien Incursion. It was all glamour on the videos: well-bred, well-fed people living out their inconsequential lives in the pursuit of ease and luxury. Of course, even us kids realised that life ahead wasn't as good as that to look forward to - at least, not in the Inner Worlds. On the asteroids, though.... Well, maybe. The spacers came back with stories. They said the Families along the Belt had to provide as much entertainment as any man could want, because of the bad and dangerous lives the workers out there suffered - the miners, the tug boat drivers, and the spaceship crews. Yes, but hell, life was short and deadly on my home base too. The difference was that our main businesses never made enough money to finance profligacy and waste. The Families of the Belt did. They were so rich that sin and sex were a small price to pay for their workers' acquiescence.

The only problem was that they wouldn't admit it. They preferred the publicised Earthside virtues of hard work and thrift, and, no matter what the reality of their piece of space, stuck to the story rigidly and devotedly in public. Nobody had ever been able to get a video camera out there to check if it was true.

Till now.

I was called in to see my boss, Bette Stanley, Vice-President of Features, and the smirk on her pretty pink face told me she had the same thoughts as I did.

"It's the Stattenoutenlou clan," she told me. "The rumour is that the old man is going to retire before next year and hand the whole business over to young Conrad. Whatever the reason, they want someone to go out there and interview the kid. He's never been seen on the videos before."

I nodded. "I get it. Get his face known before the changeover. Make him acceptable to the Old World families."

"He's a big patron of the Arts," she said. We were being overheard, it was a small office, so she had to watch what she said: outright criticism of our sponsors, and that included all of the Families, wasn't allowed. But the smile she couldn't get off her face told me she was being sarcastic.

"Rumour is that he's planning a couple of real big musical spectaculars. Should make him famous on the air waves. It's news. The old man wants you to go and speak to him; find out all you can." Mainly, I thought to myself, be nice to the guy so that him and his friends continue handing their business to our channel. That made sense.

"I'm editing the ground transport investigation now," I told her. "My team are anxious for something new. When do we leave?" I asked it slowly, not too enthusiastically, but thinking of the sex spots all the same. Now she stopped smiling. "You leave tomorrow," she said. "You. No one else. They don't want a full crew."

I cursed inwardly. Camera work wasn't my strong point, and I got lonely and morose on solitary missions. Still, I knew the clan would set the terms and we wouldn't be able to disagree. It was the only chance we'd have: we'd have to say yes.

Bette winked carefully, and added: "I'll need to talk to you later."

Perhaps our affair was no secret, but you had to play the game, and as she told me many times, her promotion prospects were better if she pretended to the boys above her that she was single and unattached. So I cleared my desk, saw the equipment packed, and left the office as usual, took the tube train and let myself into her apartment with the key she'd given me two months before. As it happened, I had to eat alone: she was delayed at a meeting. But at last she arrived and we shared a drink and cuddled by the window, looking out on the red sands and watching out for my old home, that hopeless chunk of rock called Phobos, as it swung clear of the horizon and hurtled across the sky.

"This is your big chance, Peter," she said smoothly in my ear, running her fingers through my hair and cradling my head against her small breasts. "We need to know what's happening up there."

"So it's not just Conrad," I muttered.

"You'll be the first reporter to hit the Belt for a decade, since long before the War," she said. "It's a major opportunity: don't waste it."

"Will the station back me?"

She laughed, and took a long drink, swirling the glass round in her long, delicate, painted fingers. "Oh, not just the station," she said, and fixed me with a stare. "All the Inner Worlds want to know what's happening on the asteroids."

I sighed. "Couldn't they send a spy?" I said grimly.

"Haven't they?" she asked.

It was a plush apartment, on the edge of the city, against the outer wall of the dome; there was no need to dim the windows as she slipped out of her clothes and under the covers of the large bed. I put my drink aside and climbed in beside her, heavily, and reached out to coil her into my arms as she spared a hand to turn off the lights, as she always did.

We made love noiselessly, dispassionately, me on top of her like a leaden weight, because that was the way she liked it: she was short and fragile looking, and played on it mercilessly to advance her career, but at night she wanted to be taken, pressed into submission, worn out by a superior force. It was a little psychological game we played, me on top now, because by day I was under her. It gave her a lot of satisfaction. She ground her body relentlessly against mine, and took her pleasure rather than accepting any I had to offer. I held on to her thin shoulders as she climaxed with a sigh, and wondered who was humiliating who.

Bette drifted into a quiet, sodden sleep and I got up again, walked over to the window, retrieved my drink and sat on the thick cushions looking out. My stars, I felt like death. I was nearly thirty, and I still wasn't in control of anything, let alone my own life.

I looked out at the thin atmosphere from the safety of my boss's apartment, and wondered what the hell I was doing. Somehow I hadn't planned things to happen this way. I looked up into the northern sky, where I knew the asteroids to be, though they weren't visible among the other stars. I stared.

Right, you bastards, I thought to myself: I'm ready for you.

The clan declined to send a ship for me, so I had to take passage on one of our own Mars freighters. It was old, cramped, smelly and noisy. I was assigned a small cabin over the Engineering section, packed in with all my luggage and equipment, and couldn't sleep for the hammering of the generators. Nobody came to see me and I wasn't invited to the Flight Deck. I spent the three days trying to collect my thoughts and plan my first interview, but nothing would come. The bottled rations were old and tasteless, and I lay on my bunk for hours at a time, doing nothing. I might as well have been going nowhere. When the intercom buzzed to say we were about to dock, I strapped myself in with a sense of relief.

We arrived, and the vibration ceased. After an hour, there was a knock on the door and an engineer let the Customs Officer in. He was immaculately dressed in a clean blue uniform, gold buckles shining on his wrists. A similar man, presumably an assistant, hovered behind him.

"This won't take long," the Officer assured me, and got the engineer to pull my cases to pieces while he checked over all the gear. Most of it was standard video recording equipment. No problem.

"What's this?" he asked.

It was a case for standard video recording crystals. Playback time one hour each. I told him so.

"Why is it empty?" he wanted to know.

I looked. He was right.

"Why should your company spend all that money to ferry you this far with an empty case?" I didn't know.

"It doesn't make sense." He was right: it didn't. I looked again. Yep, standard case. Empty. There was another one, full, so I wouldn't be short of crystals. And one empty one. Why? I'd checked all the gear personally, drawn up the dockets myself; this empty one was an extra, not planned by me, but there on the docket the Customs man had in his hand. Someone had planted it on me. But why?

The officer turned and addressed the engineer. "Tell your Captain we want this gentleman and his equipment off first. Your cargo won't be touched till that is done." He turned to me. "The Lord Conrad will see you now."

"Now?" I exploded. "I've just arrived. I haven't unpacked. I haven't slept properly in three days."

He turned and went to the door.

"Now," he said firmly.

Somehow we got the stuff through the air-lock, and a ground trolley came and ran in through the corridors for me. We went through innumerable doors and up several levels and came to rest in a plush, marbled hall; it was many stories high, with columns on two sides and huge windows at the end. It was the most luxurious place I had ever seen.

A side door opened and Conrad Stattenoutenlou breezed in, followed by a dozen aides. He waved my bow aside, and I was ordered to hurry with setting up the equipment. I stumbled over myself to plug everything in. Then, abruptly, the camera was rolling and we had been left alone.

"No, speak into the microphone," I said, bringing him closer and pulling him into the centre of the room. I reached behind him, moving the camera over a little on the tripod and tipping it up a fraction. The monitor beside it showed me I was getting a better picture, framing us clearly against the background of the window, the lights muted and at an angle. I sighed: the technical side was always time-consuming and tedious, but made more frustrating by the lack of a proper camera crew. I began to feel a little lonely. It was easy to remember that I was a hundred million miles away from home.

"I have quite forgotten what I was going to say," Conrad Stattenoutenlou murmured primly, pushing the scented tissue hard under his nose and nervously twitching the bow on his sleeve. He was medium height, but very overweight.

"You were saying how your family made its fortune," I prompted. It was easy to dislike his affected little mannerisms and patronising ways. In a matter of minutes he had begun to annoy me, and it wasn't just the effects of my journey. He was so, so sure of himself. Perhaps, I thought sadly, that's how inheriting ten billion credits affects you. Tends to make you superior, all right.

"Our family," he said, recalling the general drift, if not the actual words he had used earlier, "has been in shipping as far back as we can remember. Our ancestors were some of the first to come out here and mine the asteroids. Transport has always been the lifeblood of our way of life... Yes, whether amongst ourselves, along the Belt, or back to the ferry stations above the major planets, my family has been there all the time, involved in every aspect of it."

I remembered the briefing docments Bette had slipped into my case, and which kept me occupied for the first day on the flight in; no one knew how many ships they ran, since old man Stattenoutenlou used the time-honoured ploy of registering them all over the solar system and in the names of dozens of firms and private individuals acting as his 'fronts', but our best sources gave them about four hundred. That didn't include any of the tugs or small prospecting ships they actually used out here, among the chunks of rock, for most of the clan's assets were interplanetay jobs, big brutes, and a fair proportion were the new, fast Adaptables, that could handle any type of cargo. That put the Stattenoutenlou family at about fifth in the top league of ship owners.

Conrad showed it. He grinned a lot, stupidly but confidently, and began to lose himself in the sound of his own voice. He spread his hands and confided to the camera: "We have built the business up slowly. Always it is the same: we lose a lot in war, but rebuild during peace. The last one, the Alien Incursion, was the worst of course, but most of our small spacers were saved, and after the re-establishment of mining and trade, transport was the foremost requirement, as it always is. Luckily, we could meet the demand."

More than that, my documents had said to me: they filled every gap, and then created a few of their own in order to plug them. Well, trade has never been better, as the videos keep telling us, and as the Government Assembly says: we won the war, so now let's 'win the peace'. Conrad and his family were taking them seriously, it seemed, but that could be because a branch of the clan was more than fairly represented in its ranks. You needed money to be in politics these days, and no doubt the politicians found ways of directing money back to members of the family. That made it a neat, tidy circle. 'Good for business, good for government'. Hell, that was a useful motto.

"I understand you have other interests," I prompted, as he began to waver. He leapt straight in.

"Music is my first love," he crooned, letting the words slide off his tongue like honey. "I believe all the Arts need our fullest support. I am proud that music, song and the dance have all been most successfully transferred out here to our frontier of civilisation. Perhaps you know...." he offered.

I knew. I knew THAT personally: all that dirt, sweat and grime that made the money for the family was frittered away on singing and dancing extravaganzas, beamed throughout the system to keep the mindless masses happy. My uncle had written lyrics for their tuneless offerings, dying a rich man; he was happy too, when the Families of the Belt piled him with honours and called him a poet. He left his wealth to sick animals, as they would have liked, and I had to work double shifts to support his estranged wife, my true mother, and put myself through Literature School, after College. On the way, I learned what 'poet' really meant, and it sure as space didn't include anyone in our neck of the woods. I wrote many a scathing essay on the theme, and it made me friends among the literary elite on the Old Worlds and sailed me through all my exams. It also bought me a meal ticket with the video companies, though only on the production side, at first. I made my mark in front of the camera, later.

"It is so vulgar," Conrad went on, a nice edge of boredom creeping into his voice, "to talk about money and Art in the same breath." But they always did, his people. As I had been told in video company meetings, the families always paid the bills, so why shouldn't they decide what was 'Art', and what was not? They could, and they did.

"We try not to," he simpered, "just as we prefer not to talk about business in polite company." Is that why they were so secretive? The top Family members were never known to attend parties, or waste THEIR time with flippancies. That was strictly for the underlings. Though they often put in an appearence at artistic events in the Inner System, they usually stood in the background, giving precedence to the families of the old planets. It was a game, I suppose, and they could afford it, as an indulgence. They paid for everything, of course: all the money these days was out in space, and most of it gravitated around the Belt. Here.

He moved closer to the window, obviously aiming for the dramatic effect, but it meant more trouble for me;

I adjusted the focussing quickly.

"This is our home," he said, waving a hand grandly at the speckled void, lit by a million points of light, the stars, and darkened here and there by the jagged shadows of a thousand hunks of odd-shaped rocks, the asteroids, spinning wildly this way and that. One came flying in rather close, but the gravity beam caught it in time and it spun off again into the night. Collisions were always a problem up here, but the families made sure their bases were well protected, safe and secure.

"I'm bored," Conrad said, suddenly listless and more petulant than before. "We can finish for today now, can't we?" I smiled obligingly, not in a position to argue. "Let me know what you've got," he said hopefully.

I bowed as he went to the door, but it opened before he reached it and the retinue came rushing in again. How had they known he was finished? Had they been watching? Had they heard everything that was said? As if in answer, an assistant in a purple cloak came sidling up. He bowed formally, but his expression was as solid as the rocks of the Belt. "Let ME know what you've got," he said. "The Lord Conrad is SO obliging. Poor child, he can be indiscreet. You understand?" I nodded. I understood all right: he was the censor. I'd expected it, but not this soon.

He turned and waved up a heavy-set man in red. Ah, my bodyguard, I thought. Or jailer.

"My man will show you to your rooms," the one in purple said. "We will contact you later."

I'd no doubt they would. When they needed me.

The rest of the ensemble crowded round Conrad and hustled him out, so that I was left in the hall to pack up, with only the man in red for company. He settled himself at a distance and made no effort to help. He was a big thug, surprisingly quite old, but wore his one-piece suit as though his muscles would burst out of it at any moment. He didn't do more than grunt as we shuffled along the corridors, and steadfastly ignored any possibility that he might help me carry any of the bags. He didn't smile either.

It wasn't far, and I began to get a feel for the layout of the place. We were on one of the bigger rocks, though I wasn't sure at that stage that it had a name. The hall had been near the surface, but around from the Space Port; both had long walkways leading away from them. All these streets led into the centre of the asteroid, and then down, by sloping ramps, to lower levels. Radial streets joined these main thoroughfares. We set off along one of these, and came out into a square of single storey habitations. My guide led me to one of the nearest, passed his palm over a plate on the door, and stood aside for me to enter as the sheet slid back. The lights snapped on.

It was a nice little suite, but a long way from the space-port: perhaps that was thoughtful, so I could work in peace, but I guessed it was more because they didn't want any chance of me running off with any uncensored tapes. Why not? If they knew anything at all about me personally, they'd know I had a reputation for illicit recording of unrehearsed conversations. I thought, at that time, that was the reason my bosses had chosen me for the assignment....

The Guard seemed very interested in what I might do, so I made a great show of setting up the tapers on my desk and adjusting the screens, and when it looked as though I was settling down to a long editing session, he at last seemed satisfied, made his excuses and left. I flipped off all the switches, gratefully, and tumbled onto my bed, intending to drowse a little, at least till the bars opened. The families ran some of the biggest sin-traps on all the known worlds, but they ran them to a strict timetable: they regulated their businesses precisely. The clock over the door said that the 'day' shift wasn't over yet, and since I'd arrived then, my documents would show me one of them, and I wouldn't be able to buy liquor with a full wallet or a heavy blaster. Later, it would be different. That was what I was waiting for.

There was a control box by the bed and I put the lights on to a slow dim. As they faded, I felt sleep creep over me. It was quiet, nothing but the low hum of the air conditioning unit in the ceiling, and I let all my worries slip away, as I lay back and practised some of the relaxation techniques they taught us in college. Well, the first interview was in the can; it hadn't gone well, but then, nobody had complained, so I was on my way. No problem.

I snapped awake. The room was in complete darkness. But I could hear something: quiet but steady breathing. I wasn't alone. I tried to raise myself off the bed, slowly, but it creaked.

"So you're awake."

The voice was low and husky, but female. No doubt about that.

"Don't touch the light," she cautioned. I froze. "Don't worry," she said, adding a throaty chuckle, "I'm on your side. You might say, we all are."

I didn't get it. "Who?" I growled. Did she have a gun? "Who are you?"

"I've been sent to tell you that we know you've arrived and we're keeping an eye on you."

I shifted my weight and tried to edge toward the control box. She moved forward: I could hear the steps. Could she see? I decided she must be wearing infra-glasses. She had the advantage of me: I couldn't see a damn thing. The only light in the room was the small bulb on the ventilator panel that said it was running, but it was too high up to cast any glow on the girl or the rest of the room.

"Don't touch it," she snapped. "Don't be silly. When it's time for you to know who I am..." She stopped and chuckled again. "Why, I'll introduce myself."

"Yes, but who the hell -"

"Roll over."

It was an order. I reluctantly obeyed. I heard her come over and then there was the sound of drawers scraping. Well, I'd beaten her there: I hadn't had time to unpack, and all my gear was still in my bags. She wouldn't find anything in the cabinet beside the bed. I heard her mutter something to herself, as though she'd found that out, then there was the heavy prod of a gun in my back. It had a large snout. I guessed it was a blaster.

"Stay there," she said.

I smiled. Why not, I thought to myself; it seemed the best policy at the moment.

What next? She must have been satisfied, because there was the rush of feet and then the door slid open and closed again as she dashed out. I rolled over, but she was too fast, and I didn't even get a glimpse. Besides, the glare of light from the corridor temporarily blinded me, and all I could see was a blur.

I sat up, found the box and set the wall lights to slowly growing brightness. I lay back again and relaxed as my eyes adjusted.

Well, I thought; that's enough for one day.


T W O

Extract from Mike Hamer's "Alien Incursions"

Morfarch cover

 
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