Crater*

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Chapter Three

On Mars, day eighteen of The Gybe's mission

Emerald raises a leg from the hot water and lets the silky warm froth of bubbles slide down her smooth thigh back to the surface, still echoing with ripples from her movement.

‘Not too hot for you, is it?’

‘No, this is just perfect.’

‘Good, I would hate to think I was neglectful, in any way.’

‘Not at all, Perin, not at all. This is truly perfect.’ Emerald, her survey of her leg complete, lowers it again into the bath and lazily reaches out an arm for the glass of wine Perin proffers and sighs as the water runs up over her flesh again. Perin pours himself another glass, replaces the bottle into the cooler and then lowers his considerable frame into the water beside Emerald. The resulting rise in level causes a small wave to brink the edge of the bath, sending a sheet of water across the floor, upsetting the wine cooler and spilling its contents.

‘Oops, how careless of me.’ Perin leans forward and, gently brushing Emerald’s thigh with his fingertips on the way, presses the controls to set the taps running again. Emerald laughs as the water level rises and the bath starts to overflow, foam slipping over in great icebergs to the mix of wine and water already on the floor.

No automatic water cut-off. It dimly registers in Emerald’s brain through her wine and heat induced torpor, there was no automatic water cut-off. Perin could run as much hot water as he liked, could waste as much as he liked and Emerald laughs out loud again. Perin has power, real power, which means she is getting closer all the time to her goal.

Perin lazily looks at Emerald, at her firm, smooth skin and her wet hair and, removing the glass from her hand, chucks it over the side of the bath, pulling her body onto his and kissing her firm, wet breasts, hands sliding down over her back and under the water. At twenty-eight, Emerald was thirty years his junior and he loved her youth and vigour. Emerald laughs again, this time to herself. Perin was easy and now his power was her power and she was getting closer all the time.

‘The meeting is scheduled for eleven, want to come?’ Perin reaches down and smooths away a lock of hair from her face. Emerald smiles up at him from the bed, she must have fallen asleep at some point during the night.

‘What time is it?’

‘Ten to ten. Time for breakfast if you want it. If you come with me, we can then head off for the rest of day. I have just the best idea for the afternoon…’

‘Oh, Perin, I had made plans. To meet up with some friends…you know the sort of thing, clothes, coffee, gossip…’

Perin smiles indulgently at her, yes he knew the sort of thing. All east H.La. girls were the same. He walks to his dressing table and clicks on the holoscreen, pressing for interactive services. ‘There, I’ve upped your credit rating, I want you to enjoy yourself, you deserve it.’

Emerald closes her eyes and sinks back onto the bed, listening to Perin getting dressed, wondering if she can push him for information about the meeting. But she decides it would be far too obvious. There would be time enough for details later, right now, she needed to strengthen her position and get a safe route of communication organised. That was paramount to all other considerations, because it would also be her escape route. Perin sits down on the bed beside her.

‘Look, I know this is presumptuous but, if you want to, you could move out here with me. Instead of only at weekends. Free to come and go as you please, of course. Well, anyway. Don’t answer now, you think about it and let me know, there’s no rush. Shall we meet tonight at the club at nine?’

‘Yes, yes…nine, ok.’ Emerald watches Perin leave and sighs, she had not expected him to ask so quickly. It was time, well and truly time to get an escape route organised and she knew just who to turn to.

Christophe checks his watch, already late! He yells through to Chip to hurry up and then searches for his holophone. It never did any harm to take it with him, though Chip was at school all day and so far, in all the time he had been visiting Marnie, he had never needed to use it. Not once in six years.

Chip finally emerges from his room with his hair still wet, his back pack slung carelessly over one shoulder and his rollerboard tucked under one arm.

‘You’re not taking that to school are you? I thought they didn’t like you to take them?’ Christophe shakes his head at the sight of the board.

‘It’s OK, as long as we check them in and only use them to get to and from school. Chester says he’s got a new move to show me, can I go over to his block after school? I promise to be back by six?’

‘I don’t want to hear about the two of you tearing up and down the cyclotubes with no supervision, so I need to hear from Chester’s parents that’s it’s ok with them. We can check when we get to school. Now, unless we get a move on, we will have to jog the whole way.’ Christophe ushers Chip out through the door into the vestibule for the magnolift, pressing the button impatiently for the lift to arrive. In seconds the door slides open and they step inside, feeling the slight downward adjustment as the lift re-balances with their weight. There are several other inhabitants from the compartments already in the lift, but no one they know and Chip and Christophe lapse into the silence reserved for routine journeys in the company of strangers. Once on the walkway, it is only a ten-minute walk to Chip’s school, based in the plaza level of a low compartment building. His school, the Company School for Achievement is private and exclusive. It costs a small fortune, or would do if it wasn’t for Noona’s job. As a Space Captain for the Company, one of the many perks they enjoyed and made full use of was subsidised educational fees. The Company were well aware of the kind of investment required at an early age to train up people for their space flight crews. If parents on their existing teams could encourage and nurture their own offspring, well all the better, the next generation of possible crew members would be off to a flying start and loyalty to the Company would be without question.

At the school gates they are soon lost in a familiar crowd of parents and pupils. ‘Hey, Chip! Chip!’ Chip turns at the sound of his friend’s voice and jostles through the gathering to his friend’s side. Christophe follows his son at a slightly politer speed.

‘Chester, look, I’ve bought my wheels. Still on for tonight?’

‘Yep! If it’s OK with your Dad? Hi, Christophe!’

‘Hi Chester, Elaine, nice to see you again. How’s Gavin?’

‘Fine, just out on another flight so…well, anyway, you know. Chip ask you about tonight?’

‘Yes and it’s OK , if it’s OK with you?’

‘Sure, I’ll even feed him for you. Just no deep cyclotubes!’ Elaine raises her voice slightly as the two boys disappear off into the school yard. ‘So, heard from Noona?’

‘Yes, yes, we did last night. I think it’s harder for Chip this time because of all the coverage on the holoscreen, it's a constant reminder.’

‘Well, the boys are good company for each other. Ches really misses his Dad when he’s on long-haul, this is his second trip out to the Saturn Relays. It’s no trouble to have Chip round.’

‘Thanks Elaine, it’s appreciated. Well ,I had better get going. What time do you want me to pick him up?’

‘Well, nine-ish ok with you?’

‘Sounds fine. See you then.’ Christophe waves at Chip and then turns back to the walkways in the direction of their compartment building. But he does not turn off at their plaza point, instead he carries on, along the walkway until he reaches the ringway, then, finding a clear spot on the fast track, starts to jog to the next biohedron.

Marnie opens her door an inch and peers through the gap cautiously. ‘Christophe! It’s you, come in! I wasn’t expecting you at all! Why didn’t you let me know. Come in, come in!’

She flings open her door and practically drags him across the threshold. Christophe laughs at her enthusiasm and sweeps her up in his arms and collapses on the sofa in a heap.

‘You look beautiful today!’

‘You always say that.’

‘Because it’s true.’

‘Why today?’

‘Why not.’

‘What about Chip?’

‘He’s at school and then at a friend’s, I don’t have to pick him up till nine tonight. So we have an entire day.’

‘I may have made plans.’

‘Have you?’

‘Nothing I can’t cancel.’

Christophe strokes her uncontrollable, curling hair away from her face and smiles. Everything was always uncomplicated and with Marnie. No ties, no demands. No one to interfere. Just time alone, together. He settles more comfortably into the sofa and gently kisses her on her forehead, her eyes, her lips.

‘Marnie…’

The ringway is relatively quiet by the time Emerald reaches it. She swiftly walks for the best part of two kilometres in the wrong direction until she happens on a busy intersection, changing to a thoroughfare where she slows down her pace to a sedate amble. Reaching a crowded plaza, she stops, sitting down on an empty bench to change her shoes from the $3000 pumps to a pair of speed-wheels she has in her bag.

Packing up her pumps securely and strapping her bag to her back, Emerald removes a pair of gold glare-goggles from their habitual resting place tucked into the front of her t-shirt and puts them on. The bio-receptors in the arms of the goggles instantly up-link and she is on-line and calling up a cyclotube map. Finding the plaza she is in is easy, trying to work out a route to back track to where she wants to be is harder. She can get pretty close if she tracks across a garden. All cyclotube users are required to remove their wheels or refrain from cycling or boarding in the open spaces in the interest of public safety, but the rules were made to be broken and Emerald couldn't afford to lose any more time. She was pretty certain she was not being followed and even if she was, then she’d lose them in the tubes. To have to traverse across a garden by foot would add an extra half-hour. Anyway the fines imposed for traffic violations were never enough to daunt the serious thrill seeker and with her new credit rating she could run to several offences a day. Half the fun of riding the cyclotubes was to break the rules and not be caught.

Reaching the first cyclotube entrance, Emerald blinks off the up-link on her goggles and waits a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to their proper focal point again. In the tubes, you needed all your senses working properly. She listens out for any other users but there is no echo and so, banging the wall three times, the code for a new speed-wheeler in the tube, she launches herself down the twist, gathering speed and looping back over the tube and then off a slight decline faster with every metre passed. Within a couple of minutes she can hear the echoes up ahead of some cyclists. Once you’ve used the tubes a few times, you can pick out the different sound echoes and the important information held therein. Cyclists gave a soft rhythmical echo. Roller-boarders a heavier, more intermittent sound, especially if they were looping or doing tricks and speed-wheelers gave the lightest echo of all, like a skater. Speed-wheeling was the trickiest of all three, the fastest and therefore the most dangerous.

Within seconds Emerald can spy the cyclists ahead, slipping out of sight as they follow the contours of the tube, she bangs the wall three times again as she gains on them, able now to see there are three. They pick up on her signal and pull into a thin line, allowing her to slipstream past them. Emerald is soon long past them and coming up fast on the intersection she needs to take to cut across the garden. From the other converging tube she can hear the unmistakable echo of a roller-board and gauging its closing distance she speeds up slightly, crossing the intersection a second before the roller-boarder does, feeling the pull of boarder’s slipstream on her back as she races on. In the cyclotubes, right of way is given to the speed-wheelers as they are the least efficient at stopping, then the roller-boarders, the cyclists having to give way to all other traffic.

The cyclotube entrance to the garden is up an incline designed to slow you down to a walking pace. But Emerald keeps up her speed and jumps the low barriers at the entrance and free-wheels the few metres to the path she needs to follow to the tube on the far side of the garden.

The garden is empty and, thankfully, experiencing warm, mild weather. The reservoir, large and reflecting silver-green under it’s ply-glass dome, is still and silent, taking up approximately two thirds of the ground space available. The rest of the garden is open grassland, in areas mowed to a lawn like the path Emerald is speed rolling on. The grass, though dry, is slippery under the wheels, causing her to have to break more frequently to maintain control and with no tunnel walls to act as stabilisers the wheels are more lethal than ever. Glancing at her watch, Emerald notices she has clawed back a considerable amount of time she lost in her elaborate detour along the ringway. If she can make a clear crossing through the garden she might well make it to Marnie’s on time.

Within a few minutes she has traversed round one third of the reservoir and can begin to see the entrance to the cyclotube in the distance. But the air is cooling rapidly and beside her, small ripples are beginning to ruck up on the reservoir. Above her, lost high in the ceiling of the dome the weather changes from mild and warm to wet and cold and rain begins to fall, first as a fine mist, then heavier. It turns into veils of grey drizzle, blotting out the water and clamping coldness to her skin as she races on, wheels slithering over the wet path. The cyclotube entrance is beginning to disappear from sight in the rain and the wind is picking up, it is clear this weather programme is going to turn into a full-blown storm. Emerald slows to try and compensate for the loss of traction, her wheels arcing up fine sprays of water behind her. She is soaked through to the skin and her bag is beginning to weigh her down, saturated with rainwater. Above her, lightning is beginning to arc across the roof, and the wind throws up waves on the shoreline, dangerously close to her path. Her chest is beginning to tighten with the wind chill as her wet clothes do little to protect her. Emerald tries to guess how close to the tube entrance she is but she can barely see ten meters in front of her and, the path is now so slippery, to look even a few centimeters away from her feet requires all her concentration. It must be close and Emerald mentally tries to prepare an approach to it.

The path is beginning to take on the appearance of a stream, funnelling water along it in the direction Emerald is heading, to her right, barely a few meters from her, a large fork of lightening cracks into the reservoir, lighting up the air around it with bright static sparks. She can feel the hairs on her neck stand up on end and her skin prickle with the proximity of the electricity and with the feeling comes a very real fear. This storm is dangerous. The reason the garden is empty was now obvious, storms like this are usually only programmed when a garden is closed to the public because of the risk involved. In which case, the cyclotube she had entered the garden through must have been malfunctioning. This thought chills her more than the rain can as there is every possibility the tube she is heading to is closed. This then leaves only two other options, back to the tube she has come from, or shelter from the storm and wait till it passes but shelter where? This was an open grassland garden, there was no shelter, just the reservoir and the increasingly boggy grass.

Emerald looks up and in front of her are the barriers to the cyclotube, she brakes as much as she dares to and leaps over them, crashing into the closed door of the cyclotube. The other tube must have been malfunctioning. She is stuck.

Her shoulder takes most of the force of the impact and she can feel it numbing with dull pain under her wet clothes. At best it will be a bruise, at worst a dislocation. Crouching in close to the tiny overhanging sill afforded by the doors, Emerald watches the air warily for signs of more lightening. All she can do is try and keep low to the ground and pray the storm is short-lived and the doors open up again before she is either struck by lightening or falls prey to hypothermia.

Marnie quietly prises herself out of Christophe's arms and stretching once, heads for the kitchenette and helps herself to a glass of orange juice from the fridge. Christophe carries on sleeping undisturbed. She leans against the fridge door and watches him on the sofa, snoring softly and smiles indulgently to herself. Then, checking her watch for the time, refills her glass and heads through to the den and turns on the holoscreen. Emerald should have been here by now. She scans for any traffic reports on the ringway but there are no major delays. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. So where the hell was she?

Marnie switches to local news channel and starts to search for anything unusual. But again draws a blank. She carefully monitors her time in search mode, trying not to appear more than casually browsing. Nothing. Where are you Emerald?

Marnie sighs, turns off the holoscreen and finishes her glass of juice in one mouthful. Cal would know what to do. Reaching for her holophone she keys in the code for Cal and waits as the ringing tone is reconnected to another line and then another. His familiar holomail is of little comfort and Marnie leaves a short nondescript message.

‘Hi, it’s me, Marnie. Pick up if you’re there… OK, talk to you later.’ Hoping he is there and just not picking up calls. Emerald was too important for them to lose so early in the game.

From the lounge Marnie can hear Christophe rousing and she briefly wonders if she can get rid of him but as he surfaces and heads for the bathroom, the door buzzer sounds. Marnie blows a kiss to Christophe as she passes the doorway and turns on the video intercom. It is Cal.

‘I’ve just tried to get hold of you..’

‘I know, I picked it up, I was en route anyway…can I come in?’

‘Yes, Christophe is here…’ Marnie gestures to the bathroom.

‘Oh, and…?’

‘No, she’s late. And I can’t find a reason why.’

‘Does he know?’

‘No.’

‘Should he know? What do you think?’

‘I think he’s OK. But…’

‘OK. We’ll leave it for now…’

Christophe emerges from the bathroom, dressed in his bathrobe, drying his hair with a towel. He starts momentarily at the sight of Cal. Marnie smiles and walks over to Christophe and loosely wraps her arms around his waist.

‘Christophe, it was time you met him anyway, this is Cal, my baby brother. Cal this is Christophe.’

‘I hate it when you call me baby brother. It’s only by an hour, you know.’ Cal reaches over to shake Christophe’s hand. ‘But she never let’s me forget it. Nice to finally meet you after all these years.’

Christophe takes the proffered hand and shakes it. And suddenly it is over, the illusion, the dream. This very perfect, safe, unconnected place he had created with Marnie, where there was only the two of them, a perfect idyll in which to while away time was changed for ever. She was no longer his Marnie, she was someone’s twin sister, someone's daughter, friend, related to a family, connected to the real world and like him, with a life of her own which stretched out beyond the confines of her compartment. Stretched out way beyond the confines of the hours they spent together.

‘Nice to meet you. Marnie talks about you, often.’

‘All good I hope?’

‘Don’t answer that, Christophe. His ego is easily bruised.’

‘Ouch! Well, whatever she’s said I’ve done wrong, I didn’t do it, honest!’

‘Now there’s a guilt complex if ever I heard one!’

Christophe smiles at the easy banter between the two of them, noticing how Marnie is suddenly changing, moving away from the woman he knows into the child-world inhabited by siblings. The easy conversation following a pattern thrown up by growing up together and how close were these two, as twins? What was he feeling, was it jealousy? For here was the other man in her life, not her lover, but her brother who had been with her from the moment of her birth, before her birth. And Cal was the one who shared her real life with her, not the few, sweet hours Christophe snatched every now and then with her.

‘…Are you OK?’

Christophe’s mind is bought sharply back into focus by Marnie’s question.

‘Yes, I’m sorry, you know I’ve just remembered something I was meant to do for tomorrow’s meeting. I’m really sorry Marnie, I know I said we had the whole day, but…’ it sounded particularly lame.

‘Oh, well…OK. I’ll make you some coffee before you go?’

‘Great, I’d better finish getting dressed.’ Christophe closes the bathroom door and leans against it, what was he doing? There was no bloody meeting. This was guilt, and for the first time Christophe felt guilt at his affair because…because Cal made it real, made Marnie’s life real. Made him acknowledge his life, his family. Made him think of Noona and Noona didn’t belong here, in this compartment with him and Marnie, Noona belongs to the real world… but there is no excuse, there is no justification because Marnie belongs to the real world too. The same world, with just as many connections as his own family. What had he been thinking? How had he managed to get away with it for so long? This mind-trick? This safe little dream-fantasy of the two of them? And who was he hurting the most, Noona or Marnie in playing out this little affair?

Marnie looks at Cal, hoping to catch some reaction in his face to Christophe’s appalling excuse. But Cal just smiles and waits till the bathroom door is shut and then adds, ‘Good, we can get on with finding Emerald.’ He had long ago stopped trying to advise Marnie over her affairs.

As soon as Christophe leaves Cal asks, ‘She was definitely coming to see you this afternoon?’

‘Yes, she felt she’d established herself well enough to require an escape route. We were going to set up the codes and signals. We need her, she’s got really close with Perin and…and now…well, she’s now two hours late.’

‘OK, don’t look so worried, we’ll find her. Have you scanned the news?’

‘Yes, Nothing obvious. But she won’t have taken any particular route. We can only guess at what she might have done.’

‘OK, I’ll call up a map. The best we can do is work out the most likely routes for her and then check them. You’ll have to stay here and I’ll go out and scout. We can’t afford to call in anyone else yet, so, if we’ve lost her, we’ve lost her. It’s the risk, OK?’

‘Yeah, I know.’ Marnie sighs and runs a finger over the holo-screen as Cal downloads the local area maps and starts to work out possible routes.

‘Was she on foot?’

‘I don’t know. Actually, I really hadn’t thought about it. It’s quite a distance, she might have used the tubes. More anonymous.’

‘Did you check them?’

‘No, I’ll call them up now.’ Marnie scans through the listings for the tubes, there are no accident reports or closure delays. ‘Can we plot out a route from her location?’

‘Her compartment is here, in this sector, but how much back-tracking would she consider? You know, she might not even have been at her compartment, she could have been anywhere. This is like looking for a needle in a haystack.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Mmm, oh that’s the garden weather report. They always tag it to the tube-news, because you can cross some of them…’

‘I know what it is Marnie, look, what is that alert?’

‘I don’t know, some kind of storm warning…the tubes are closed, actually this one has a malfunction. This tube is open and…you know if she had back-tracked from Perin’s apartment, this route would be a possibility…’

‘Looks like a needle to me. OK, I’m going to get down into that tube and see if she’s caught in the storm. What level is it?’

‘Ten.’ Marnie pronounces grimly.

‘OK. If she’s entered the garden there,’ Cal traces a finger over the map, ‘…There, her exit point would have been that tube. I’m going to try and get to that exit, see if I can hot-wire the doors. Keep a link open, I’ll call.’ Without waiting for Marnie’s answer Cal turns heads for the door, picking up his small backpack on the way. Marnie stares at the screen, willing the storm warning to change to all-clear.

Cal reaches the entrance to the cyclotube and looks round for a bike. Nearby on a stand are a couple of u-rides, he picks the least battered and slams a ten dollar coin into the slot. The u-ride releases and he wheels it over to the entrance, trying to gauge it’s capabilities. Banging once on the tube, he listens, but there are no echoes and so launches himself round the twist and down. Already starting to count away at the time in his mind to the far exit.

The tube is empty, as would be expected, it leads only to the garden which is closed and at intervals, ‘no exit’ signs wink from LCD panels sunk into the floor and ceiling. It takes Cal seven minutes to reach the far exit. The door is closed. He throws the bike to the floor and leaning up against the metal panels, bangs three times on the glass porthole windows. Outside water streams down the glass, and the sound of thunder and lightening can be dimly heard.

On the other side of the door, Emerald sits shivering, hunched up to try and retain as much body heat as possible. Cal, hearing no reply, tries again and this time, Emerald picks up the sound above the storm. It sounded like the code for a speed-wheeler. Was someone in the tube? She struggles to her feet and starts to pound at the door, hoping she can be heard above the storm.

Grabbing a small electrical pulse meter from his backpack, Cal runs it around the door frame, usually the doors were so well insulated you couldn’t pick up were the main cabling went in, but if he was lucky, he might get a reading. The meter picks up nothing. He tries again, this time thirty to fifty centimeters away from the door. Again nothing. He moves further back in the tunnel and tries again. This time he picks up a faint pulse running horizontally just above the floor line. Dropping to his hands and knees, he feels along it’s path for any signs of channelling in the smooth floor of the tunnel, a sure sign of wiring conduits being repaired or replaced. About three meters back from the doors, he finds what he is looking for, a weak spot. At some point since the tunnel was first built the cabling had been pulled up to be repaired or replaced and although to the casual observer there was no sign of any repairs, under his fingertips he could feel the ridged channel of an in-fill. Cal pulls out a small battery-powered hot-air gun from his pack and gently starts to heat the in-fill. Within a few seconds it starts to melt, exposing the cabling. There are three main trunks, one for the signage in the tunnel, one for the lights, one for the doors. Which was which? Cal pauses for a second or two, then decides it doesn’t matter and retrieving a pair of fine wire cutters, chops through the first cable. The signs on the floor blink, then fade. With the second cable there is the soft hiss of hydraulics and then the door start to whirr open. For some particular quirk of design when suffering a power failure, the doors to the tubes automatically open.

Emerald falls through the opening doors and into the arms of Cal while all around the storm tries to rip off the doors, clutching at Cal’s abandoned bike and whistling up through the tube. Cal half drags Emerald farther up the tunnel, out of the storm’s reach, all the while feeling her body ratcheting with cold underneath his hands. He pulls off her wet clothes and strips off his jersey, pulling it over her damp skin with difficulty.

‘My name is Cal.’

‘Marnie’s Cal?’

‘Yes, I’ll take you back to hers, OK?’

Emerald nods and watches Cal as he tries to close the doors against the storm, but it is too fierce and he gives up, realising he is only succeeding in getting himself soaked as well. He retrieves his bike instead and, helping her onto the seat, he stands on the pedals and sets off back down the cyclotube.

The journey back to Marnie’s compartment is uneventful. By the time they reach the exit Emerald is composed enough to make Cal stop so she can check her appearance. She smoothes out her wet hair and, checking in her small compact, reapplies her make-up. There is little she can do about her clothes. Cal returns the u-ride to its stand and, trying to look as natural as possible, Emerald slips her arm about Cal’s waist as they join the walkway and, to the casual observer, they look like a couple who’ve may be just back from a work out at the compartment gym or maybe a swim at the lido.

Marnie opens the door to find Cal and Emerald arm in arm.

‘You had both better come in.’

‘Marnie, I’m really sorry, I was taking a short cut and this storm just blew up out of nowhere…’

‘We guessed as much, there was a malfunction on one of the cyclotubes.’

‘I don’t think anyone saw me, though.’

‘But I did have to cut open the door and couldn’t get it shut again. As soon as the fault is picked up and the doors checked it will be obvious it was sabotage.’ Cal starts stripping off his clothes as he speaks, ‘Does Christophe keep any clothes here? I’m soaked.’

Marnie gestures to her bedroom and says ‘Help yourself, in my wardrobe, just make sure you return them before I see him again. Emerald, you had better get out of your wet things and I’ll dry them for you, there’s a robe in the bathroom.’

At the doorway to the bathroom, Emerald pauses, ‘Thank you, thank you both for looking for me. I could have died out there and you didn’t have to do this.’

Marnie just smiles and waves her away, collecting up the wet clothes and putting them into the wash-dry.

Perin pauses momentarily outside the meeting room doors to adjust his tie and smooth his right eyebrow into place with his forefinger in the reflective camera plate as his retina scan is taken. Knowing full well this little foible of his vanity is being broadcast inside the room to those already present, he finishes off with a wink and enters the room.

‘Perin, last as usual. Well, sit down and we will get on with business.’

The room is large and airy, almost taking up a whole floor of the compartment block. The furnishings are of the bland, corporate kind which cause no distraction and the holowall is tuned to a cyberart soother. The centre of the room is taken up with a horseshoe shaped meeting lounger, already occupied by six other people. Perin is the seventh Company board member and indeed the last to take his place on the lounger, just past centre left. He pours himself a drink from the decanter on the low table in front of him and slowly sips from the crystal glass.

Seated to his left on the short arm of the horseshoe are Helene, Astrid and Mark. To his right are Herald, Louis and Joan. It was Joan who had greeted him and it is clear it is Joan who has called the meeting. She smiles at Perin and then punches the keypad at her side. The lights dim and the holowall changes to show a representational plan of Megalopis.

‘I called you all here today because we have a problem with the proposed scheduling of ML. We are already falling behind and the biohedrons are throwing up huge structural engineering problems. Although on paper, their construction was feasible, in trying to create the largest hedron size so far, we are falling short of critical safety tolerances. This is partly due to the foundation build. The bed rock in that quadrant was thoroughly surveyed but the company responsible, based their data on calculations for existing hedron sizes. This surveying was commissioned almost twenty years ago, but no one bothered to recalculate for a larger size. As you know the foundations were laid well in advance of the redesign we commissioned last year and so we now have to back-track and delays are inevitable. All this means dissension amongst the work force, as they are under the most inhospitable conditions out there, especially with winter coming on. Three deaths this week alone. This could very well turn into a public relations nightmare for us. While I am generally keeping a lid on the whole situation, soon someone is going to talk and we will have a big PR problem. We have to remember there has actually been quite a bit of negative public feedback to the building of new cities, whether they are necessary etc. Now, at the moment all eyes are on the Earth ISELP mission, which is good. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep deflecting attention away from ML.’

'This will all be a moot point in a few months time.' Herald replies.

'That's not helpful, Herald and you know it. The Union's want compensation and danger pay and are threatening riots. We can't have that kind of chaos spreading through the cities now. Any mass destabilisation of the population would jeopardise the effectiveness of the plan.'

'All right Joan, we get the picture. Organise a series of negotiations with Unions,' Herald pauses and turns to Perin. 'How long till the ISELP is back?'

'About six months.'

'Well then, make the negotiations last for six months, we'll let the Unions have a small victory over pay and compensation and get them all back to work just in time.'

'I can tell you now, that the Unions will not tolerate six months of deals but I can probably get a few months worth of delay out of them.'

'Well that will have to do for now then.' Herald settles back in his seat. 'Who's going to head up the negotiations?'

Perin smiles to himself at Herald's self-assuredneress. 'Perhaps you should Herald, you seem to have a clear grasp on what is required.' Perin leans forward and pushes a button on the keypad next to him, giving Herald no chance to find a way out of his proposal. 'All those in favour vote now.'

The vote is carried unanimously and Joan catches Perin's eye and smiles gratefully. Herald was not a well-liked person on the Board and six months in negotiations with the Unions would keep him busy and out of the way of the other Board members. Perin did not allow himself to gloat over this small victory, he could see Herald was seething and he would be a dangerous enemy if Perin was not careful.


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