Crater*

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Chapter Four

In Marnie's Compartment

Marnie, Cal and Emerald sit around the dinette bar in Marnie's compartment. Emerald hugs her cup of tea close to her chest and watches as Marnie opens a file full of identity cards and credit sticks.

'You'll have to change your appearance to match your new identity as soon as possible, if you have to use it, that is.' Marnie sorts through the cards till she finds one with a holopic similar to Emerald. 'Here, this should do it. This is quite a good match for you, all you'd have to do is dye your hair. Leander is her name, she's twenty-four. A few years younger but you'd pass as her.' Marnie hands the identity card to Emerald who looks at the face in the holopic. Marnie was right, it could be her.

But, before you use the card or activate the credit sticks, you must get a message to us to say you are about to use it as we must get the identity donor into safe hiding before you take on her identity. Leander lives and works in New Eden so you will have to modulate your accent as well. So, any questions about how the system works?'

'How do I contact you?'

'However you can, we agree a message that seems innocuous to anyone overhearing or intercepting it. We have a message in return that will tell you either it's safe to use the identity or not.'

'Or not?' Emerald asks, suddenly alarmed.

Cal, seeing the look of panic on her face tries to reassure Emerald, 'Don't worry, we've never had any problems before. Donor identities are keen to help out and we make it worth their while. It's one of Marnie's safety protocols, that's all.'

Emerald nods at Cal's explanation but in the back of her mind the thought of failure lurks.

'What if I can get no useful information about the project and then still need to use the identity?'

Marnie glances at Emerald, she can see the fear in her eyes and knows that what they are asking of her is a lot. 'That's OK too, we know how much danger you are putting yourself in Emerald. Obviously anything you can tell us about Megalopolis will help our client but whatever you do, don't needlessly endanger yourself. May I ask why you've decided you need an escape route?'

'Perin has asked me to move in with him. He had an urgent meeting today about Megalopolis with the other board members. Something is going on. I'm going to move in with him but I need to make sure I have an escape route planned.'

'Good. Then Leander it is. When or if you assume her identity, you will be given access to her compartment and will be given a new job placement. You can resume your old identity whenever you like or indeed, keep the new one.' Marnie sorts out three credit sticks. 'I'm afraid her credit rating is nothing like yours probably is but that's usually a good thing, you'll have to keep a low profile for the first few months.'

Emerald takes the three sticks and adds them to the identity card, making a little pile in front of her. It did not look like much and certainly not like a new life should she need it.

'Does your client know who I am?'

Marnie shakes her head. 'No, part of our success is in keeping the information route secret. All they know is that it is from a certified but completely anonymous source. Now, you have to store that card and credit sticks somewhere you can get to easily but without arousing suspicion. I'm a fan of the maxim, hidden in plain view... a purse is as good a place as any, that way you can keep it with you.'

'And the message I'm to use?'

'Do you have a nickname that only friends know you by?'

'Well, close friends call me Em, not very imaginative I know.'

'Don't worry it'll do. So, should you need the Leander identity you simply contact me with the message, 'Hi, it's Em, have you heard from Leander recently?''

Emerald repeats back the phrase.

'Hopefully, if it's intercepted, it will pass as a query about a mutual friend. You can contact me by holophone, vidlink or in person. Now, if you've recovered enough from the storm, I think it's time you left. What time did you say you were meeting up with Perin?'

Emerald glances at the time. It was getting late and it would take her a while to get back and get ready for the evening. 'At nine, I had better go, if I get any info I'll send it to you as normal.'

'Great but don't push too hard Emerald, there's plenty of time and I don't want you putting yourself in any more danger today.' Marnie adds.

As Cal and Marnie see Emerald to the door, she pauses and turns to Cal. 'Thank you again for rescuing me. '

'No problem, just make sure you use the ringway back...'

'Oh! Before you go..' Marnie darts back into the compartment and returns with a small, battered leather-bound book. 'It's a final edition of the collected songs of Katy Capet, I did some research on Perin and it seems he's a bit of an art collector. Your alibi for today, should you need one was collecting this from me. My day job, I'm an antiques dealer.'

Emerald smiles her thanks and takes the small volume. The leather feels soft and warm to the touch. It was exactly the sort of old book that Perin likes. She tucks it inside her jacket and heads for the hololift. Now all she had to do was get to the club in time.

Marnie punches in the code into the vidlink. For a second or two the holoscreen is a mass of flickering dots then an image slowly resolves into fluid shapes, combining finally into a disembodied face.

'Valles Marineres Construction, Good afternoon... Earthly Artefacts... how may I help you?' The voice-synth is as cheerily false as the holographic face and the pause for Marnie's electronic company name-tag to be inserted is too long; a cheap system. 'Chief Engineer Pagan, tell him it's urgent.'

Sam Pagan looks exhausted as his face appears on the hololink.

'Marnie! This had better be good news babe, I'm up to my eyeballs in it right now. Those Company bastards are sweating us to death out here on ML.'

'It might be Sam, there was an emergency board meeting called today, I don't know the details yet but as soon as I do I'll let you know. I can only think it's about ML'

' I thought the company were quiet today! Look babe, I'm going to have to go...anything you can find to help the Unions, they'll pay big money to fight the Company.'

' I know Sam, I've already had a credit edit remember! OK, so talk to you soon.'

The hololink flickers and goes blank and Marnie turns back to where Cal is still sitting at the dinette bar.

'Well, that's that done for today. Want to come down to the shop with me. I'll open for the rest of the evening, quite often get passing trade.'

'No, it's OK sis. Plans of my own. GenieDrink is opening up a new juicebar up on walkway 12 and they've asked if I'd DJ a set later, gotta go and get my holobeats in sync with their infoblurbs.'

'How many juicebars does this city need? Go on then, I've got a crate to go through anyway.'

Earthly Artefacts is situated in a quiet corner of the plaza. The front of the store opens directly out onto the plaza and instead of the usual holodisplay cases with their orderpoints for credit sticks, Marnie has an antique refrigerated supermarket shelving unit, stacked with the flotsam and jetsam of life on Mars. A lot of it is little more than space bric-a-brac, discarded over the centuries of space exploration around Earth but every now and then she'd find a real antique, like that book she had given Emerald, among the crates she haggled for down at the spacemarts. The back of the shop housed her virtual office pod and a curved sofamat with a drinks dispenser. Behind this was a holowall, the usual shop-standard maxi-cashscreen, endlessly replaying the latest credit deals. Beyond the wall was the storage room, a small interior space, little more than a broom cupboard. It was here that Marnie unpacked the crates bought at the spacemarts.

Marnie ran her hand over the surface of the moulded styroplastic crate. It's grey, uniform surface gave no hint as to it's contents. The lock is opened with a credit keycode and Marnie punches in the twelve digit code from memory. There is a soft click and slight hiss as the pressure inside the box equalises. She lifts the lid and looks inside. There is a mixture of old clothes and shoes, jumbled together. She pulls them out, one by one. An old jacket made of some kind of synthetic leather, cracked and flaking, a pair of red plastic shoes with enormous pointed heels and thick, thick soles, a pair of sunglasses with one of the lenses missing. A grey and crumpled coat, like something a lab technician would wear, rolled up into a ball. A couple of old dresses in some sort of nylon fabric, static making them cling together and a pair of sports shoes with worn knobbly soles.

Marnie shakes out the lab coat to it's full size. It is of a heavy cotton and still in good condition. Real cotton always made a lot on the auctions, she'd easily recoup the cost of the crate with the sale of the coat. As the coat unfurls, a small box falls from it, clattering to the floor and bursting open. Marnie curses inwardly to herself. She should have been more careful, despite company regulations, the crates were rarely checked for contaminates or biohazards before shipping to the spacemarts and who knew what had been in that plastic box. Crouching down gingerly, Marnie nudges the box with the sunglasses but there is no glass or liquid, just an old-fashioned memory stick, the precursor to the credit sticks and holographic technology. She picks it up carefully and inspects it. It is in excellent condition and the small label on the side reads, '250gb flash memory'. On the other side is a company logo. For a moment Marnie just stares at the all-too familiar stars in cupped hands logo with the letters ISELP in capitals underneath it. It was from the ISELP? But how did it end up in her crate? Her mind works quickly running through all the ways a memory stick from the ISELP could end up in a crate of space junk. Most probable was that the coat had returned to earth with it's owner after a shift rotation and had then been space-junked at some later date without anyone realising that there was a memory stick inside. Marnie could feel excitement rise inside her. She might well hold a genuine piece of ISELP technology in her hand. The interest in the ISELP was huge at the moment and there would be real demand from collectors for such an item. Not to mention what information could still be on the memory stick. Marnie picks up the small box and replaces the stick inside. The lid slides back on easily and she places it carefully in her own pocket before looking again at the lab coat. This time she checks for identifying marks and labels but there are none. Nothing to identify it with the ISELP. Marnie sighs, at least it still had it's cotton value.

At Perin's Club

Perin congratulates himself on his impeccable taste as he watches Emerald walk up to the main bar in the club. Hidden from her view in a low, winged, armchair near the LikeFireVent he could take his time in appraising her. She orders a Martini and, turning to glance around the club house, catches sight of Perin, smiles and walks over. She is wearing a new mini-shimmy with a crystal-beaded halter-neck top and he can see she has had her hair, skin and nails done. Coiling down one arm from the shoulder to the wrist is an intricate angel synthskin. No wonder it was now nine thirty.

Perin stands up and takes her drink from her, kissing her lightly on her cheek. 'My darling you are beautiful, what is this?' he runs finger lightly along the soft flesh from the crook of her elbow to her collarbone.

Emerald smiles and slips away from his reach sinking into a nearby chair. 'Do you like it? It's the latest synthskin. Lasts for up to a week, see how her wings flutter. I thought it might be fun to try. How did your meeting go this morning?'

For a moment a shadow of anger flits across Perin's face but no sooner had he thought of the meeting than he dismisses it from his mind and replies evenly. 'Oh, let's not talk about my work tonight, I want to know if you've thought about my offer?'

Emerald could see there would be no talk of anything until the matter of her moving in was resolved. Perin was a man who expected to get his own way. She sips her Martini slowly, feeling Perin watch her intently for any clues as to what her answer might be.

'I have thought about it Perin and, I want you to know that it means so much to me...well, what I want to say is...yes!'

'Yes?' Perin leans towards her.

'Yes!'

'Fantastic! Let's celebrate, I've ordered champagne!'

For a second Emerald shivers, Perin had already ordered the champagne, had already known there was no other outcome but her accepting. Already he considered her his property. Thinking of Leander's identity card tucked away in her purse steadies her nerve and she relaxes into the seat and accepts the champagne flute Perin offers.

'Here's to us!' and she raises her glass as Perin, laughing, downs his champagne in one.

In Christophe's Compartment, late that night.

Christophe pauses at the doorway, watching his son sleep for a moment or two before heading off to his own room. The bed had never felt so empty as tonight. Noona was too far away and his mind played out the fathomless, endless space stretching between them, a space he had created between them with his affair with Marnie. Sleep washes over him in waves of deep, troubled remorse. Tomorrow he would change. Make changes. Start again. Tomorrow would be different.

In Earthly Artefacts

Later that evening Marnie remembers a name she has stored in the holodex. She flicks her way through it until she finds it, Verity Nine, and a holomail address, Marni quickly records a message and presses send, hoping the address is still valid, she hadn't talked to Verity for ages but every now and then, their paths crossed and Verity was a very useful person to know.

Almost immediately the holomail flashes up a reply. 'I can be with you in half an hour.'

Verity is very old, not that you'd know it, she had the looks and body of a thirty-five year old. But and it was only a best guess, Marnie figured she must be at least a few hundred years, maybe even older. She was Earth technology, one of the small army of supercomputer androids built to help with early Mars colonisation. Ten series were built. Most were decommissioned years ago but somehow Verity Nine had slipped by, unnoticed, disappearing into a new life. Given her field of expertise, it was not hard to imagine she had simply wiped herself out of system.

'So what's the antique you're so fired up about?' Verity sits down on the sofamat with a languorous fluidity that hides her hydraulic suspension system superbly, almost catlike in smoothness of movement. Marnie smiles at Verity and holds out the small plastic box. Verity carefully opens the box and gasps. 'I haven't seen one of these for years! Where did you get it?'

Marnie briefly explains and then asks Verity if she is able to find out what is on it. Verity turns the memory stick over and over in her hand, examining it in great detail before answering Marnie's question with a question.

'Marnie, did you try and use this with any of your interfaces?'

'No! No... I thought it might corrupt it if I did. The closest thing I've got to it is an antique phone, you know, pre-holoware but...'

'Good. Good, you see I know for a fact that there is a ranger programme in the holo-network that actively seeks out all information to do with the ISELP, this would have been flagged up immediately if you had tried to use it.'

'Well, if that's because of the ISELP mission that was my point really, this will be valuable because it's from the ISELP, right?'

Verity stares at Marnie. 'Wrong, the programme is not to do with this ISELP mission. I wrote the programme when I helped to set up the holo-network on Mars over ninety years ago. There were company orders right from the start, that all information about the ISELP was tightly controlled. It was one of many ranger programmes, mainly designed to pick up on security threats to the system, the company and to the Mars colony. I often wondered why so much of the ISELP's work was off limits but back then, I was a companybot, you did as you were told or you were decommissioned.'

'The ISELP's work? But surely it was just the launch platform base for Earth Abandonment?'

'So they wanted you all to believe. Look Marnie, I can find out what is on this but you have to understand it could be bigger than just a well-timed antique. If this has come from a lab on board the ISELP..'

'Laboratories? Wait a minute... I found it in this lab coat. There were laboratories on the ISELP? Wow, this coat could be worth way more.. '

'Marnie you're not listening. The labs on the ISELP were top secret. Run by the Company for the Company, they constructed elaborate cover stories about renting the ISELP out as a storage facility but they just kept the labs running instead. For the best part of two centuries those labs were kept secret and functioning. About eighty years ago, it all went quiet. I know because I inserted a few of my own ranger programmes into the holosystem. Then suddenly new cities are being built and there's this push to deep space, which makes no sense...' Verity trails off, her eyes distant and unseeing.

'Verity?' Marnie leans forward, not sure what to make of what she was being told.

'They want the ISELP bought to Mars, not for the DSELP but for whatever is on those labs!' Verity jumps to her feet in one springlike motion. 'This, this could be really important Marnie. I know you are working for the unions, running covert intelligence operations for them, but this could be bigger, much bigger...'

'It's a memory stick, Verity, it's probably got someone's shopping list on it, or a few songs or photos or... or like all the other space crap I peddle, just more useless junk that's floating around out there from a dead planet that once upon a time humans lived on. I really don't think that information from secret company labs would end up being thrown away in a crate full of old shoes!'

Verity smiles, 'OK, I was maybe getting a little carried away. But I know you, you deal on the free market, this will have no value if the company find out you have it because it will be seized, I can tell you that right now. They'll say it's contraband or a biohazard or a security risk but you will not get a chance to sell it if it is detected as being from ISELP. Please, let me read it, see what's on it and then, you can sell it on the free.'

'Well, that was why I called you here, to see if you could read it for me!' Marnie smiles at the circular route it has taken Verity to arrive at the crux of the matter. Perhaps her circuits were deteriorating after all that time. Nevertheless, if anyone could read that memory stick, it would be Verity.

Half an hour later Verity is back on the ringway, heading for the nearest cyclotube. The tubes are busy tonight and she finds she has to weave through the slower cycling traffic, keeping a receptor open for the approach of speed-wheelers, slip-streaming behind cyclists as other roller-boarders overtake. In her memory Verity has a complete map of the system and soon she leaves the traffic behind her and is boarding through narrower, emptier tubes. At a t-junction she turns right, then another right, then left and stops at a hatchway in the floor in front of her. She opens it with a pass key and drops into the tunnel below. The hatch seals behind her and she is immersed in the soft orange glow of the emergency lighting.

There were all kinds of systems that Verity was responsible for when Mars was first colonised, one of the most important, and most overlooked, being the network of maintenance and access tubes to all the systems in the biohedrons. It was easy to add in a few extra tunnels in the building schedules and then erase the records from the Company mainframe. Home sweet home. As the other Verity androids were decommissioned, Verity Nine decided that drastic action was to be taken and had quietly removed herself from the records, building a new life beyond the reach of the Company but still maintaining a watchful eye on them. Home sweet home was a series of interconnecting wide tunnel sections, like the spokes on a wheel, she had nicknamed the Hub. Here was her laboratory, her mainframe hub, her parts stores and her recharge station. The fifth spoke of her home housed a small leather armchair, a holovid wall and a bookshelf stacked with real books.

Verity checks all her perimeter sensors but no one has been near the hub in her absence. She quickly boots up the mainframe hub and retrieves the memory stick from her pocket. After rummaging around in the parts store for a few minutes, she finds what she is looking for, an ancient touch screen with a memory stick drive. Within a few minutes she has wired it into her holoscreen and inserted the memory stick. For a second or two there is nothing, then a soft whirr as the storage drive fires up and a small menu box flashes up on the holoscreen. There are over five hundred files on the drive. It will take a while to read them all.


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