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Chapter Six

Inside Verity Nine's Hub on Mars

The Files on the Memory Stick

Test Subject 011 Variant A

Negative

Test Subject 012 Variant A

Negative

Test Subject 013 Variant A

Negative...

The first few hundred files on the memory stick seem to be test results but without any clue as to what the tests were for or what the test subjects were, they are now just lists of data. Verity is rather disappointed by this lack of any reference point. It was impossible to form any hypothesis as to what the experiments are. But she perseveres and carries on opening and reading the files.

… Test Subject 1332 Variant A

Positive

The word shouts out from the list. From over a thousand tests there is just one positive result. And this seems to be all that is needed for whoever is performing the tests because it is the last result recorded.

The rest of the files seem to be a mix of emails, lab reminders and personal letters. Two files catch her attention. They are encrypted emails. It is a very old encryption code that Verity hasn't seen since the days of Earth abandonment. It takes only a minute or two to type in the cypher code.

'I can confirm we have isolated the genetic marker for susceptibility to the Variant A strain of the virus. New batches of vaccination being scaled up. Please confirm notification and payment as agreed. '

The second email is even more brief.

'Notification confirmed. Payment settled. Vaccination programme on target.'

Vaccination against Variant A? Just what was Variant A? Verity could not recall any mass vaccination programmes for an outbreak of any major disease just prior to or after Earth abandonment. And why payment? Medicine was free. Medical advancements were funded by philanthropic healthcare programmes. Variant A? Verity couldn't even begin to imagine where to start looking for information to answer these questions. One thing was sure, she would have to proceed with extreme caution. The encryption code was an old favourite of the Company's.

Marnie and Cal meet for coffee

'Hey sis, you should have come last night, it was a complete sell out. They had to shut down the tube for half the night it was so congested. Radical night!' Cal sprawls over the chair opposite to Marnie and grins widely at her. Marnie can see the dark shadows under his eyes, the tell-tale signs of a sleepless night. 'You are doing too much, Cal, you'll burn out at this rate, but I'm glad it was a success. As Cal orders a coffee Marnie runs through the events of last night finishing with how Verity thought the memory stick could be of value.

'That crazy old robot? Really Marnie you should be careful, she's obsessed with conspiracies and she hates the company...I know, I know, she has reason to be, the thought of decommissioning is not great but.. I worry about you. The antiques business is meant to be your cover, not another way to spy on the Company! And what are you still doing with Christophe, I thought you were going to finish the affair ages ago.'

'Christophe is... it was just easy I guess. An uncomplicated lover with no strings attached because he already has a wife and kid. Look, don't lecture me on Christophe because... because I'm not sure I'm going to see him again after yesterday afternoon.'

'Really? Why, did you row? I hadn't noticed anything.'

'Like you would anyway! No, it was something else, like a spell being broken. I could see it in his eyes when you arrived. I think meeting you burst the bubble we were inhabiting. Anyhow, I don't think he'll be around for while.'

'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to come between you two, though I 'm not sure exactly how I did..'

'You didn't. Just … maybe...' Marnie struggles to put into words what she was feeling. 'Maybe it had just run its course, you know?'

A comfortable silence descends over the pair, Marnie watching the crowds pass by on the ringway in the front of the coffee bar, Cal sipping slowly on his Slowshie (slow roast, low calorie, frothy, iced coffee).

Christophe and Chip

Christophe watches his son eat his breakfast and shudders with the memory of yesterday afternoon still fresh in his head. How easily his life could all be thrown away, he could lose his son and his wife all for a moment of easy gratification. Already too many people knew and now Cal could put a face and name to his sister's lover. It had been a moment of great clarity yesterday and Noona and Chip deserved better. He ruffles Chip's hair and, in an act of guilty contrition, asks Chip what he wants to do after school.

'Can we go and watch Calvation Nation doing a set at the launch of the new radio station? It's a secret gig but all the kids in school are going?'

Christophe inwardly sighs, his son's obsession with music was not shared by him and an evening spent listening to Calvation's synthesized holobeats at full volume was not his idea of fun. It was bad enough having to listen to that racket through the compartment walls as Chip tuned in to yet another broadcast. It was one of the few areas he was in total agreement with the Company over, the quicker they shut down the illegal network of satellite radio stations around Mars, the better. Why couldn't his son be into Holo-Warriors instead.

'Please Dad, it'll be so cool!'

'I would have thought you'd be bored of Calvation Nation by now, you've been listening to them for the best part of a year.'

'It's not a band Dad, it's a person! Calvation is a DJ, that's why he's so cool, he gets all the latest pre-releases and he's really into...'

'OK, OK! You win... Calvation it is. Come on, eat up or you'll be late for school.'

In Verity Nine's Hub

Verity mulls over what she has found so far, which wasn't a great deal. The easiest route to find out exactly what the Variant A tests were would be to try and access the ISELP's mainframe directly but the ship wouldn't even be on its return flight. Too far to reach it at present without defying Company coms-lull. But there might just be a way by piggybacking off one of the illegal radio satellite shows, the ISELP's antiquated mainframe might be vulnerable to an old fashioned bit of spyware programming.

Verity checks the log scans for satellite radio broadcasts on the mainframe hub. There was one scheduled for tonight, a new radio station that, as luck would have it, Marnie's brother Cal was doing a set at. It was just what she was looking for, an uplink with high volume traffic, she would be able to set up the spyware in the satellite network under the cover of the gig.

On board the ISELP, day eighteen of the refit.

Harvey crawls through into the next bulkhead and swears loudly as he trips over a trailing cable and comes up against another dead end. The space suit was unwieldy to work in at the best of times but with the time constraints...

On the holo-schematic he held in his hand, there should be a clear passage right round this section of the hull but someone had put in a heavy duty shield wall section, more suited to an outer hull than an internal bulkhead. It meant he would have to double back to where he started. Harvey clicks on his in-suit comslink. 'Hey, Dougal, I keep coming up on dead ends, there is no way of knowing what's behind these bulkheads, could be open space for all I know. What do you want me to do?'

'If the seal is good and you think it'll hold for the storm leave it and start on the next section up. Where are you?'

'Not a bloody clue! I think I'm near almost at the launch section. This holo-schematic doesn't make sense though!'

'Once you get to the launch section, let me know. Noona is almost there on her side. Let's just get this bitch of ship ready and get out of here!'

In Perin's Office in New Utopia

Perin slams the intercom with his fist then picks up a crystal paperweight from his desk and throws it in rage at the wall. It narrowly misses his favourite painting as it fractures, scattering over the wooden floor. The thought that he had nearly damaged the painting enrages him further and he swears loudly into the office silence.

'Who does he fucking think he is? Does he know what he is dealing with?' The questions are unanswered and largely rhetorical. Perin is pretty certain that Sam Pagan, who had just been on the intercom with the negotiated union demands, had no idea just what he was dealing with.

Perin strokes a hand through his hair and then inhales deeply. Anger would not help. The union had called a strike, effectively shutting down all work in Megalopolis (ML) immediately unless demands for better pay and conditions were met and until such time Herald was being held as an 'insurance policy' that their demands would be met. Perin could not get any sense from Pagan as to whether the Union were planning any other disruption in other cities, in fact it sounded as though their plan was simply to hang on to Herald in ML until they got what they wanted. Serve that stupid idiot Herald right, if the board decided to let him rot out there. The only problem was that Perin would need access to ML soon. Perin was weary of the endless round of fruitless negotiations with the unions and frustrated by the lack of progress on completing Megalopolis. Anyway, a few more weeks and all this would be over, once the ISELP was back, everything would change. Perin rummages through one of the drawers in his desk and pulls out an old, portable holomap. He places it on the marble top of the desk and presses his thumb to the scanning sensor. The holomap flickers into life, creating a 3D image of the pre-built foundations of ML. Perin had not come across the plans by chance. ML was situated over the top of one the first Mars exploration sites. Underneath the foundations, carefully constructed over the top to conceal what was there, was one of the original scientific research stations. Built long before the biohedron technology had been perfected it was a deep suite of interconnecting caves, hewn out of the Martian landscape, lined and air-locked and run as a scientific study station until Earth Abandonment. No one knew about it, it had long been manipulated out of public record by Perin's ancestors. It had occurred to him that a secret hideaway from a general uprising against the company and the board in particular might be a very useful tool. It was the perfect bunker for Perin and Emerald and anyone else he wanted to save and right now in the filthy temper he was in, that wasn't very many people.

Even the other board members were unaware of just how far Perin was going with the plan. Of course, to execute it, they were party to some knowledge. They knew building ML was a smokescreen to assuage any public fears about overcrowding and resource shortages. The resources loop had always been finite, worse even than on Earth and life on Mars was precariously balanced inside the biohedrons. If the population was not checked severely then within a few years all life would be unsupportable. A mass extinction. The board had long ago sanctioned the use of the plan. Set in motion centuries ago, a lethal cyanobacteria strain of algae had been developed. Because of potentially catastrophic consequences for life on earth, the strain was developed on a top secret space lab on board the ISELP. The cyanotoxins produced by the cyanobacteria were fatal to human life. The algae, once exposed to the right conditions (a set of oxygen and temperature critical levels) bloomed in great quantities and uniquely released an airborne form of toxin that, once breathed, killed almost instantly. It was a fail safe measure. Mars could not afford to fail as Earth had and population control, however unethical, was one of the controls the company had in its resources loop.

But what the company didn't have information on, was what Perin knew. His family had ruthlessly and deliberately set on a path of control and domination, as an already wealthy biotech pioneering firm they had established their initial global goals and, with Earth Abandonment looming, the family had set about ensuring their survival, at any cost. The labs on the ISELP were bought and work continued on the algae under the cover of medical research. The company had its cyanobateria but Perin's family wanted more. An antidote or a genetic advantage which could spliced into a gene therapy. A golden ticket ensuring their survival on Earth, Mars or wherever the hell the human race ended up. Wealth; and Perin's ancestors were very wealthy, was not a privilege but a weapon in a the fight for survival.

The plan that the company board had sanctioned was the retrieval of the ISELP back to Mars in order to initiate a population downsize in accordance to the remaining resources on Mars under the guise of a recolonisation push to the Neptune Relays and beyond. The design of the self-sealed cities had not been accidental and at their core, the gardens themselves could be set to conditions suitable for cyanobacteria algae to flourish. Losing one or two cities to a terrible accident was not infeasible as a naturally occurring disaster and at that point the Neptune Relays plan would be put 'on hold' indefinitely. But the board had only sanctioned a loss of thirty per cent of the total population and Perin felt this was too modest a number. To live in the style in which he had become accustomed and in a society in which he could rule would require a much more total annihilation of the population. Perin's family had successfully funded a gene therapy against the poison and had made sure their descendants were immune to the cyanotoxin. With careful tracking, Perin knew exactly how many descendants both legitimate and illegitimate had arrived on Mars with the immunity gene, Variant A. At present, the number stood at 276 and that, as far as he was concerned was enough. Of course there would be people he wanted to save, like Emerald and a handful of scientists and engineers to keep Mars running smoothly and that was why the bunker was such a good idea. He switches off the holomap and sighs. If Herald had cocked up the negotiations and was now being held hostage by the unions, there was a very real chance that the company would lose control of the ML biohedron. But it was vital that Perin maintained access to the bunker for his plan to work. It meant he would have to go out there and negotiate for Herald, he was pretty certain the rest of the board wouldn't want to. Already a list of incoming messages were building up on the holoscreen on the wall. Two from Joan, one from Astrid, news was travelling fast among the board members. He would call for an emergency Board meeting in which he will propose to negotiate a release with the unions at ML. With the ISELP on the return journey, he was not having his future dictated by a bunch of wholly expendable union workers.

Perin's eyes fall on the small leather-bound volume on the desk next to where the paperweight had stood. It was slightly askew, he must of knocked it when he grabbed the paperweight. He carefully straightens it, caressing the soft leather with his fingertips, Emerald's skin springing into his mind at the touch. When her holoscreen tracer had flagged up Marionette Nation's compartment, for an ugly few hours he had wondered whether it was Emerald who was the person leaking Board information to the Unions. Marionette was the brother of Calvation Nation, one of the DJ's involved with the illegal radio stations and under surveillance by the Company. But when Emerald had presented him with the book on the night she promised to move in with him, he knew it was just coincidence. Marionette ran Earthly Artefacts, an antiques dealership. The book must have cost a great deal and Emerald had gone to great lengths to find it for him. He was glad he had upgraded her credit level, she had exquisite taste in presents. He opens the book letting it fall open at random and starts to read

'Just chasing the shadow of a dream along the ground...'

At the secret radio gig

The garden is packed. The garden chosen for the secret gig is a small amphitheatre, a bowl of sloping, grassy banks leading down to a small pond in it's centre. Around the edge of this bowl was a high hedge of juniper, box, yew and pine, grown not only for their wood and resins but also for use in dyes, medicines, poisons and food additives. It forms a natural barrier behind the glass to the rest of the biohedron beyond the garden. The temperature is cool, temperate and Verity guessed, once artificial darkness fell, it would get cold. A good place for a gig, secluded, no chance of excessive heat spikes from the crowd and a great theatre. Moored on the pond is a pontoon where Cal has set up his holosynth mixgrid. Verity picks her way through the throng looking for a good place to set up the uplink without attracting too much attention. On one of the highest slopes, just far enough way from the hedge not to be lost in its shadow, she finds what she is looking for. A rowdy group of kids and parents. People's attention would be naturally drawn to the group rather than to her, sitting quietly nearby, looking as though she is watching the whole gig on her portable holoscreen.

Down on the pontoon Cal queues up the lights and the music, hacking into the garden's main controls is not a problem for the radio hams working alongside him and Cal's whole show would go out over the orbital satellite network. It is an ingenious way to broadcast illegally. The light show is so much more than just some special effects but most of the crowd would think nothing more of the laser beams than that it is good entertainment. For this show the radio hams, perhaps egged on by the strikes up at MGL, perhaps restless at the constant run-ins with the company, had managed to hack into the remote SDSWA.

'Good evening Mars! This is Calvation Nation live and beaming down to you on all frequencies. Uh Oh, don't let the Company know!' A large cheer erupts from the crowd. 'Because we are on Company time, Company property and Company radio space! Lets get with the holobeat!' The crowd leaps to its feet with a roar as the first song of the set rips out across the garden from the garden and for a minute or two Verity is lost in a sea of light and sound.

The premise was very simple for radio hams. Hacking into the Satellite Dust Storm Warning Array (SDSWA) is ingenious. The array is in a fixed rotation above Mars, a net of satellites that look for dust storms across the planet. As such, they are simple pieces of engineering but each one contains a radio transmitter to link with each other and then relay the information to listening sub-stations on the surface. Hacking radio broadcasts onto the back of those regular weather updates which could then be wired into the holoscreen network software from the sub-stations took a bit of ingenuity but is a great way to circumvent company control and censorship.

The satellites are targeted with a group of laser beams, a burst of high precise light which, when refracted together through the roof of the garden to target the biohedron, became amplified and split into a wider range of frequencies, through which a radio signal could travel. This signal is picked up by the radio transmitters and then piggybacked all the way back down to the sub-stations and the holo-network.

Verity's spyware is simple indeed, so old tech that it would pass unnoticed by everyone on Mars, no one used this kind of manual spybot programming anymore. But the ISELP, well that had the added advantage of being built when people still programmed in binary languages instead of holographic imaging algorithms and nanoquantbots. It's computing system would have firewalls actively looking out for little bits of spy code like this. All she had to do was attach a slightly more complex holo-hack selfbuild nanoquantbot programme which the ISELP's systems wouldn't detect and she should be able to access it when it came in range of the radio transmission. The spybot would broadcast itself every ten hours from the SDSWA, all Verity had to do is press send.

With her hand poised mid send over the holoscreen, Verity becomes aware of someone looking over her shoulder, someone small.

'Hey, cool, is that transmission to do with the show?' Chip asks, intrigued by an address line of code he is familiar with clearly visible on the holoscreen. 'Isn't that the protocol line for the ISELP my Mum's...' But the rest of his sentence is lost as Christophe grabs him from behind and play-wrestles him away from Verity's shoulders. 'Hey, you, leave the lady alone! I'm sorry, he's just a complete technofreak, as you can tell by us being here...' Christophe gestures apologetically to the rest of their group, now a little way down the hill. Verity smiles back at Christophe.

'He seems very smart. Do you write programmes?..My name is Verity Nine.'

'Chip, my name's Chip and this is my Dad Christophe and my Mum is on the mission to retrieve the ISELP, I write programmes to send to her and...' Chip falters, feeling that instead of glazing over as most people do once he starts talking about the ISELP mission, this woman is taking a real interest.

Christophe watches the interaction between the two and sensing Chip's slight unease he joins in the conversation, hoping that the lady isn't a company official spying on the radio gig.

'She's the Captain of the mission. We are both very proud of her. Now Chip, that's enough, come on let's get back to your friends, or we are going to miss the best bit!' Christophe smiles at Verity and carefully guides Chip away from her. Over the music she can just hear Chip complaining, 'Oh, but Dad! She was sending a message to the ISELP, I'm sure of it.. no I didn't see, well maybe not... I guess not...'

Verity glances around, she is alone now in the lengthening shadow of the hedge, all eyes are on the pontoon. She sends the spybot and shakes her head. A chance meeting like that, with one of the crew member's family, the kid could have exposed her whole plan. The company families could be the worst, every little thing reported back. Chip had struck her as smart. She'd keep an eye out for him on the holoscreens. By giving him her name, if he did any research on her, one of her programmes would pick it up.

On the return journey to Mars

On board the ISELP, Harvey enters the laboratories.

Noona, Harvey and Dougal stand in front of the missing bulkhead. What should have been a solid wall is a double airlock set into a wall of plexiglass. Through the glass they could see into a series of what looked like laboratories.

'I just came through there, Harvey gestures behind him to the small floorspace they had crawled through, 'Expected to find another bulkhead and found this.'

'They are not on the company plans.' Noona inspects the hatch. 'It's not locked either.'

'This is a section that is not on any plans. I have gone over everything I can find on the ISELP. This lab does not exist according to Company records. I don't know, I have a gut feeling about all this. There is something bigger about all this we are not seeing...' Dougal is almost talking to himself, searching rationally through his mind for connections, the glitches, the rogue programming, the GEM-bird, the loss of the Gybe, the sun storms, the plans...

His thoughts are cut across by the sound of the airlock and before he can grab him and pull him back, Harvey steps inside and the doors close shut behind.

'NO! No, get him out of there!' Dougal yells.

Noona startles at his voice and tries to open the airlock but it sealed tight, red lights flashing. 'I can't get it open, it must have time delay. There's no intercom either!' She pounds on the door but it is too thick and Harvey, with his back to them, presses the second door lock and steps inside the first of the labs.

'We need to get him out Noona, I have no idea what is in there and he is in real danger, please let there by no air supply in there! Is there an external alarm?'

Noona is still hammering on the glass, 'There's nothing. What do you mean by danger?'

'Secret labs that even the Company doesn't know about? Chemical weapons,biological... I don't know, for a long time before abandonment, Earth was not a happy place. Who knows what could still be stored in there.' Through the thick glass, Noona and Dougal can only watch in horror as Harvey makes his way around the labs.

Once through the airlock, Harvey's space suit starts to pick up breathable atmosphere levels. Whatever these labs were, they are sealed tighter than a crate. He stops and surveys the lab. A row of empty benches, a couple of fume cupboards, some desks and chairs, an old computer, it looked like a scene out of his childhood history lessons. The place is completely empty of any other equipment. He walks towards the second lab. His suit is registering normal atmosphere. The labs must be programmed to flood with air once the door lock is opened. He reaches the second lab and pauses to take off his helmet. He pushes through the interconnecting plastic door and, for a second, he breathes in a lungful of old Earth air and then the cytotoxin kicks in and he falls to his knees, unable to get any more oxygen into his lungs.

Outside the labs, Noona and Dougal watch as Harvey staggers and falls to his knees inside the second lab. His hands are grabbing at his throat and then he crumples to the floor. The lights on the outer door lock change from red to green but it is too late, Harvey is dead before he hits the ground.

It takes all Dougal's strength to restrain Noona to stop her from rushing in to help Harvey.

It takes all Noona's strength to finally listen to what Dougal is saying, over and over.

'He's dead Noona, we can't go in, we don't know what it is that's killed him, if you go in after him I will have to seal you in there too. You'll be dead. Please stop, it's too late...he's dead, Noona.'

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