Crater*

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Chapter Seven

Noona and Dougal on board the ISELP

‘Why?’

Dougal continues to meticulously prick out seedlings from their culture into bed trays.

‘I mean, it’s so fucking pointless. We were so close to finishing the refit, so…’ Noona refolds her arms and sighs, ‘Especially so close to finishing. I don’t know Dougal, was it really worth it? All this effort, all this human cost? Losing Noona and Irv… All this effort to bring this piece of…rotting history back to Mars. Was it worth his death, when we don't know what we carry on board the ISELP? I can’t make sense of it, I really can’t, it’s a stupid, bloody senseless life out here.’

Without stopping in his task, Dougal states quietly, ‘I miss him too, Noona, I loved him.’

The baldness of the statement somehow shocks Noona out of her self-absorption and she stares at Dougal. It had never occurred to her that Dougal, for all his reserve and quiet aloof, could feel as deeply as her and her anger is swept away by a hot wave of shame and compassion. Shame because in the intervening days since Harvey’s death, she had poured out her anguish to him without stopping to think about his feelings and compassion because, what was it Harvey had said once? ‘People like me and Dougal, we’re here for the duration, till death us do part.’ Compassion because she was pretty sure Harvey didn’t love Dougal and where would Dougal live now, if it was Harvey he had been living for?

Dougal looks up from his seedlings and returns Noona’s gaze and she is aghast to find him crying.

‘Dougal, I had no idea, I am so sorry…I…’ Somehow Noona finds herself covering the short distance between them and, very gently, taking Dougal into her arms cradles his head on her shoulder as he crumples into seemingly inconsolable weeping.

‘What’s the time?’

‘Time for some food.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘But you should eat.’

‘I’ll have a coffee, it’s getting late. We ought to be running diagnostics.’

‘Fuck the fucking diags., Dougal. They can wait. The whole world can wait!’

Dougal smiles wistfully at Noona’s defiance and sliding out from her arms he stands up from the heap on the floor they had become after he had poured out his heart to her. ‘The whole world is on a collision course with us and whatever is in that laboratory, Noona. It isn’t going to wait for us to stop crying.’

Noona sighs and scrambles to her feet. ‘You sound like Dougal again.’

‘As opposed to sounding like?’

‘Someone who actually gives a damn!’ Noona can feel herself losing her temper. ‘How can you switch like this? One minute you’re practically bleeding your heart out all over me, the next it’s time for diagnostics? Do you know what love is at all Dougal? I loved Harvey, he was a good friend and we were close. We talked, we shared experiences, but what about you? Did you share anything with him? Have you shared anything at all with anyone ever, Dougal?’ Noona manages to stop short of screaming at him, all the bottled rage inside her, all the frustrations of long haul space flight boiling up, magnified and focused by their utter dependency on each other. There was no one else here to help, no one to else to intervene, to console them, to offer comfort, to understand. No Christophe to curl up to and feel safe against. No glitches to diffuse the ticking time-bomb of utter desperation in her head. She feels as if her whole head is going to explode with the terror of it all, the futile waste this journey seems to have been. Noona’s breathing is fast and shallow and in an effort to control her fury she buries her face in her palms, blocking out Dougal with the deep red glow of her flesh through her eyelids, pinpricked with needle rays of anger. Seconds pass and she can feel the rage ebbing and there is no response from Dougal to her outburst. Noona drops her hands limply to her sides and stares blinking momentarily in the bright lights of the greenhouse.

‘Of course I give a damn, Noona. I give a damn about everything, about every bloody thing. It’s all too much, don’t you understand? You think I don’t feel? You’ve never even tried to get to know me. You don’t know me at all. You want to know how I feel?’ Dougal steps closer to Noona and she involuntarily recoils, there is an edge of menace in Dougal’s voice, a brittle, confrontational edge.

‘Dougal…I’m sorry…I’m just tired. I…’ Noona backs down entirely, struggling to look for a way to resolve the stand off. ‘I’m scared, scared of what could happen next…’ Without warning her voice splinters and she is unable to finish, unable to stop herself shaking and unable to look away from Dougal’s eyes. He reaches out a hand and brushes her cheek lightly with his fingers.
‘Only two more days, Noona. We only have only two more days before we are out of coms-lull. We can survive two more days. Don’t give in to it. If we do, then we’ll just pull each other apart.’

‘So, diagnostics then.’

‘Yes, diagnostics.’

‘And then food.’

‘Yes, then food.’

‘I’ll go and get us a couple of coffees, then.’

‘OK, I’ll meet you up in the control pod.’

‘OK’

‘Just chasing the shadow of a dream along the ground’

The line from a Katy Capet song runs through Noona's head as she makes her way through the living quarters of the ISELP to wake Dougal for his shift. Pausing in the hatchway, Noona watches Dougal sleeping. He is sprawled across his bunk, obliviously naked, beautifully naked. It had never occurred to her how beautiful he is, how beautiful. She had never noticed. Well, perhaps you don’t when you’re not looking but she is looking now. Looking at him for the first time as he lies there, carelessly asleep, body lost in dreams, thermowrap thrown to the floor.

Noona stands by the hatchway unable to move, struck by his beauty and the unmistakable quickening in her blood it inspires. Dougal turns in his sleep and mumbles. Tell yourself this is silly, Noona, and wake him up and then leave. Noona ducks through the hatchway and, barely skimming her fingers across his shoulder, says; ‘Dougal its time for your shift,’ but her voice has none of the matter of fact tone she requires, instead it is a whisper, a caress. Dougal opens his eyes, staring up into Noona’s with the unguarded haziness of sleep and she holds his gaze. His eyes clear into awareness, awareness of himself and of her and then recognition and he smiles.

It is all the invite Noona needs and she climbs onto the bunk and into his arms, feeling his desire through the fabric of her suit, the heat of his skin, the taste of his tongue against hers. Feeling the brush of his hair against her breasts as he peels off her suit, the weight of his body and she is laughing and crying and coming far too quickly, his fingers entangled in her hair, his teeth biting into her flesh, his tongue bruising her nipples. She wraps her legs about his body, her hands drawing him up and in and she opens into the absolute rhythm of him, shuddering into bliss as they crash from the bunk to the floor in a heap of limbs and sweat and noise and pleasure.

‘Are you ok?’ Dougal shifts slightly under her.

‘Yes, you?’

‘Yes.’

‘That was very…’ Noona tries to find the right word.

‘Quick.’ Dougal finishes for her.

‘Well, yes. That was very quick.’ And they start to laugh again.

Noona steps into the shower cubicle. Setting the jets to maximum the cubicle fills with needles of spray, stinging across her skin, her back, her neck, her belly and thighs. She leans against the cold wall and allows the steam to engulf her. No guilt. And, somehow, there is no guilt because it is nothing to do with love, nothing to do with Christophe, nothing at all. It is nothing at all.

There is a knock on the shower door and through the steam she can see Dougal. She smiles and opens the door.

‘Mind if I join you?’

‘No, not at all.’

‘I was thinking’

‘About?’

‘About the Board.’

‘The Board?’

‘Yes, we know too much to survive on our own, we need to find allies.'

'Woa, hold on, we know too much? What exactly do we know.'

For a second Dougal stares at Noona, could she really not piece it together? He squeezes a quantity of aloe-soap into his hands and starts to methodically massage Noona’s back.

'Well, we are sent out to retrieve the ISELP. We are given a booby-trapped ship to do this in. The Board either knows about the labs or not. I have to assume they know, they want the contents, why kill us off if the mission was simply to bring back a huge piece of space junk? And they nearly did kill us all off, by rigging the Gybe to self-destruct. I don’t think they planned on as many of us surviving. But as soon as we arrive at Mars, you can guarantee we die. We know too much. In fact, we are probably already dead, since there has been no effort to contact us but they must know we are this close. We are dead already, Noona and we need allies. Does this make sense to you?’ He pauses massaging.

‘Yes, yes it does. Once we make contact we effectively sign our own death warrant.’ Noona turns to him,

‘Any ideas on what we do next?’

‘No, I was hoping you’d have it covered.’

‘Oh.’

‘Pass the soap.’

‘Hmm?

‘The soap, I’ll do your back.’

‘Oh, thanks.’

On board the Rubicon

'Hey, what' that?' Irv notices a small blip on one of the monitors. And taps the screen to see if it is just another false-reading blip, but the spot does not flicker and maintains its slow course across the monitor.

Addie sighs, it seems not an hour goes by without Irv finding something else that needs urgent attention. The Rubicon is old, fast but old and in constant need of attention, maintenance and care.

'What now?'

'That!'

Addie peers at the screen. 'Asteroid?'

'No, there's a warning system, we'd have alarms ringing by now.'

'It's on the same trajectory as we are....we are closing in on it. We should get visual soon.'

Irv pauses for a moment before replying as casually as he can.

'Could it be the ISELP?'

'Do you think they could have got her ready in time, with just the three of them?' Addie tries very hard to stop the flutter of excitement in the pit of her stomach at the thought of ISELP.

'I don't know but who else would be out here? You know this ship is fast and the ISELP would be slow. How long till we have a visual?'

'A couple of hours, listen, what's that?'

From somewhere inside the capsule a faint beeping can be heard.

Irv listens for a second or two, counting the number of beeps in the cycle. 'You don't want to know what that is.' He announces, pulling himself out from the chair and gently manoeuvring back to the hatch.

'What do you mean, I don't want to know?'

'It's the vacuum seal on the toilet outlet. Keeps playing up. If I can't get it fixed we are going to have to cross our legs and hope for the best.'

'Shit!'

'Well, let's hope not!' Irv grins at her and ducks out of sight.

Addie glances back at the blip on the screen, could it really be they had caught up with the ISELP? Had the rest of the crew managed to get her flight ready in time to miss the sunspot storm?' Watching the blip move reminded her of a song that Noona used to sing, how did it go?'

‘ Once I was young and the world was still to be found
Just chasing the shadow of a dream along the ground '

Addie and Irv stare at the shape on the camera monitor. There was no doubt about the silhouette despite it only being a centimetre long, it was the ISELP.

'We can land.'

'What?'

'We can land Addie, the ISELP has space docking facilities, we can land on it!'

'We cannot just roll up and land on it mid flight...'

'Yes we can and we are. This ship is falling apart and the ISELP is right there. We can use the landing rockets to boost us to them.'

'This just sounds crazy. What if it doesn't work?'

'What if it does?'

'How do we let the ISELP know that's what we are planning to do?'

'Way ahead of you, remember that radio?'

'But no one will be looking for a radio signal...'

'I'm going to use a mayday, the ISELP is old enough to pick it up automatically.'

'A what?'

'Read about it in the alternate history of Earth. Mayday, an internationally recognized radio distress signal, from the original French m'aidez , it means 'help me'.'

'Help me?'

'It'll work you'll see.'

On board the ISELP.

Dougal calls for Noona to join him in the control pod immediately.

'You'll want to hear this. The radio in here has just picked up a signal.'

Noona listens to the faint crackly voice repeating itself, 'Mayday, mayday, if anybody can hear us on the ISELP please reply ..mayday, mayday...'

'Its an old distress signal, mayday is even older than SOS and blipinterrupt. How do they know we are out here, is it from Mars?'

'I don't know, answer it, you're the Captain.' Dougal hands Noona the antique microphone. Noona thinks for a moment, then replies. 'This is the Captain of the Company ship ISELP, please identify yourself.'

There is a pause and a crackle of static, then the faint reply.

'This the Earth ship Rubicon, we are planning to dock, repeat we are planning to dock with you ISELP, please hold current course.'

The radio falls silent again. Dougal and Noona stare at each other in disbelief, after a moment or two, Noona asks.

'Did that just happen? Did they say they were from Earth and that they are going to dock with us?'

'Yes.'

At that precise moment the radio kicks in again and the sharp static makes them both jump.

'And make sure you have a decent cup of coffee waiting for Addie and me, we've had nothing but freeze dried tea for four long, long weeks!'

'I can't believe it, people on Earth?' Noona keeps shaking her head as Addie and Irv repeat for the third time what happened to them and how they landed on Earth, describing the people that had saved them, the ship and the flight back. From the pod window next to the docking bays, Noona stares out at the Rubicon. Irv had executed a text book landing and the ship was locked in securely on it's moorings.

'So that is our side of the story, what about you all and where's Harvey?' Addie glances round the pod, surprised he hasn't arrived yet.

Noona and Dougal exchange glances and then Noona nods at Dougal for him explain what had happened in their absence.

' … and so we had to seal the labs, he's... his body is still there. What else could we do. We just got the ISELP away in time and now here we all are...'

Addie and Irv are silent.

'I'm sorry, there really was no time to save him.' Dougal stops unable to think what to say.

For some inexplicable reason, Addie finds the rest of that song has finally popped into her head, like a talisman repeating over and over, protecting her against Dougal's words.

‘Once I was young and the world was still to be found
Just chasing the shadow of a dream along the ground
Now older, wiser and no longer free
I know that the shadow was really just me. '


Verity Nine hacks into the ISELP.

The holo-hack self-build nanoquantbot programme easily manages to hack into the ISELP's computer systems and, rather disappointingly, finds nothing out of the ordinary. Verity stares at the rows of code wishing there is something more than diagnostic and maintenance data. The ISELP's systems are not complex, most of it is 21st century computer technology, old hard memory and little in the way of nano-technology. It is only on the third of the holo-hack's broadcasts that Verity notices it. The addition of a holographic layout scheme of a new section of the ISELP. It does not correspond with the existing diagnostic schematics in the ISELP's computer, who ever had uploaded it must have recently found what looks a whole mid-section on board the ISELP.

The new plans outline the area this new section occupies but there is no access via the diagnostics software, the whole section is sealed off and separate to any of the ISELP's computer maintenance or power systems. Verity is puzzled. Clearly that section must be the laboratory that the memory stick in the lab coat came from. The other labs on the ISELP are rudimentary, little more than for testing and growing food material in space. Whatever this midsection is, it is secret, even from the Company, as none of the Company computer circuitry goes into it. It is both intriguing and frustrating to be presented with this sealed box that she could not hack into. It iwas the first time that had ever happened and, at any other time, that might have been something to marvel at but the ISELP is getting close to Mars and she has monitored no communications between the ship and the Company.

Her mind stops and runs back over her thoughts.. sealed box.. airtight, yes, that is the weak point. There must be a ventilation system somewhere for that section. She runs back through the schematics for the air conditioning system and eventually finds what she is looking for. The sealed mid-section and the rest of the ship share an external venting tank for exhaust emissions. Not a great starting point for gaining remote entry with a nano holo-hack but it is a start.

Dougal notices the Nano Holo-Hack

Dougal's fingers pause over the computer keypad. Had he just seen what he thought he had seen? He rapidly types in the diagnostic codes for the ship again. He had decided that every shift he would run a full diagnostics to make sure the ISELP is holding together. He could have sworn he just saw, not a line of old code, but a set of nano-bits embedded in the system.

There it was again, jumping through the air conditioning system codes. They have been nano-hacked but by who? He presses the intercom button on the ISELP's tannoy.

'I need to speak to you all now, in the control pod.'

'They might have had holo-hack technology but I didn't see it. Why would they anyway? They didn't want contact with Mars. They wanted to be left alone on Earth to.. to.. it was like a big experiment that they could observe first hand, they were living in the midst of this extraordinary rebirth of the flora and fauna of the planet. They really weren't interested in Mars and, if anything, couldn't wait to get rid of us.' Addie shook her head at Dougal's suggestion the spybot had been sent from Earth on board the Rubicon.

'Not completely ambivalent to Mars.' Irv adds, suddenly remembering the meeting with the mysterious Verity Nine. 'There was someone, what was her name... Verity Nine, who wanted me to get a message to someone on Mars, it seemed all very random, at that party. Here, this is it, she gave me this, but I swear I have not put that chip into any computer system either on board the Rubicon or the ISELP. ' he retrieves the small plastic box from his breast pocket of his uniform, he had forgotten all about it until just now.

Dougal takes it and examines it, it was so old tech it was defunct.

'No, that isn't it.' He throws it back to Irv, 'It's too old to use in these systems. OK, so if not Earth, then the company but how did it get here, as far as I know, we've had no contact with them?'

His accusation hung in the air between them. He knew no one had, he'd checked the logs but Dougal just wanted to read their faces, just to be doubly sure.

'Dougal, this is getting us nowhere. If it's not us, it must be from Mars, I don't know how, I don't care. Deal with it. I've got air leaking from the Meld-all all over the bloody place, Irv come on, this is a waste of time, we've got work to do!' Noona scowls at Dougal as she leaves. There just isn't time for Dougal's cloak and dagger inquisitions every time he found a new bit of computer code. Just before she leaves, Noona swings back round on her heels. 'In fact Dougal, contact Mars. We know the company wants what is in those labs, we just don't know why. Well bloody contact them and find out what this is all about. I have had enough, I've lost a ship, a crew member and stand to lose my family if we bring a deadly virus back to Mars. I'm not waiting for comms-lull. If all they ever wanted is the virus or whatever the hell it is, they can bloody come and get it but it will be over my dead body. I want answers, not this endless silence and I will not let this ship just sail in close enough to Mars waiting to hear from them and risk letting them rig this ship to fall on Mars carrying a deadly cargo like they rigged the Gybe!... That's an order!'

Dougal can tell from the tone of Noona's voice that there would be no arguing with her. 'Yes, Mam, Order received.' But Noona has already left the Control pod, closely followed by Irv.

Dougal turns to the Doctor, 'So, you are a company person Doctor, think I should contact the company after what they did to you and knowing what is on this ship?'

'We don't really know what is on this ship, except that it's lethal. And since you refuse to let me in the labs to try and work out what it is... But I think Noona is right, we shouldn't just fly back blindly to Mars. We have another forty days to go before we arrive at Mars, we need to know what is going on. Any chance that the Company doesn't know what is going on?' Addie guesses from the look of irritation that flits quickly across Dougal's face that that was a stupid question. She gets up to go back to her sleeping quarters but something occurs to her as she is about to leave the pod.

'Dougal, how would anyone on Earth know anyone on Mars, what was that name...Verity Nine? Who and how could she possibly know anyone on Mars?'

'Who indeed.' Dougal smiles and turns back to the computer keypad. The doctor's occasional moments of clarity always impressed him, who and how indeed.

It took him only a few hours to find the radio broadcast frequency of the holo-hack and to jack it for his own purposes, a company-free route to access the holoscreen system on Mars is just what he needed and, without really knowing why, he types in the name. VERITY NINE.

Out at Megalopolis

Sam Pagan swears softly to himself under his breath. Perin Sybaris is on his way out to Megalopolis.Sam had hoped to find a solution without having to ramp it up to civil disobedience but it looked like that isn't going to happen now. Herald had been worse than useless as a negotiator anyway. Goodness knows what had possessed his teams to keep the Board member from returning to New Utopia until their demands were met. Perin is calling it a hostage situation, threatening to cut the fuel tank supplies to the new city. It is a precarious time. The new biohedron is not up and running yet and they relied on those supplies coming in. The whole thing is escalating too quickly.

Sam wasn't sure why Perin is involved at all, if it was anyone, it should be Joan from the Board, she was the one who had negotiated the deals with Valles Marinieres Construction. She had set the timetables. But it is always the same on Mars, what with the dust storms, the unpredictable ground rock, machinery failure, delays are inevitable. And they never understood. Never allowed for the reality of trying to build on Mars, always penalising on final payments and overtime. But this time it is the Company's fault. The plans supplied for the original foundation works are wrong. Whatever surveys they'd used were incorrect and the new biohedron had to be radically altered, meaning more time, more engineering and, as far as the Union is concerned, overtime rates. It is this overtime issue that is the nub of the matter. Double shifts for the re-engineering were demanded to try and meet some spurious deadline that the company had come up with for ML to be ready by. All to do with the arrival of the ISELP and their bloody push for the Saturn Relays. It never ceased to cause Sam to wonder at the pointlessness of what is clearly a vanity project on behalf of the company. What people on Mars needed is more space, better living quarters, more control over resources and not some resource-draining space mission that very few of them would probably see completed in their lifetime.

From somewhere outside his office an alarm is sounding. They are trying to blast the location points for a new section of compartments. Perin would arrive shortly. Sam grabs his breathing equipment and jams his hard hat on. He would have to go and collect Perin and take him to see Herald to prove they hadn't harmed him. Then the Union would have two board members in their care.

Perin climbs down from the caterpillar-train and onto the terminal platform at ML. All around are workers climbing on the train, shift-change. The journey out from NU had been grim. At the moment the train is the only way to reach ML, a slow, overcrowded, old utilitarian piece of equipment. Like being sealed into a tin with a hundred sweaty bodies and then baked and frozen repeatedly in its broken air conditioning system as it jolted its way through a series of tunnels. Perin is in a foul mood from his journey and now he had finally arrived there is no sign of the Chief Engineer to meet him on the platform.

Beyond the makeshift bubble station that the train had pulled out of the tunnel into is the huge expanse of one of the ML biohedrons. The space is extraordinary. Once the cities and gardens, walkways and tubes were finished it would look crowded, busy and bustling but for now, the space is cathedral-like, cavernous, soaring. A series of explosions shakes the ground as Perin checks in the small terminal building for Pagan, grit and gravel scattering over the glass roof above him in a hail of red. Through the dust cloud billowing up outside a figure emerges as behind him on the platform, an alarm punctuates the train leaving, lumbering back down into its tunnel. The breathing apparatus Sam is using stops the red dust from filling his lungs as he shakes hands with Perin then gestures to the corner of the terminal building where a rack of similar apparatus is housed on a row of clips. Perin unclips one and straps the mask to his face, already the swirl of dust that had accompanied Sam as he entered the building is making the back of Perin's throat tickle. He adjusts the tank over his shoulder then follows Sam back out into the biohedron. Another alarm is ringing and further off another set of explosions fill the air with plumes of dust and grit.

The offices where Herald is being held are a slab of compartments that, instead of being stacked one on top of each other, have been laid out in a small square, an interconnecting one-storey villa around a small courtyard. Perin's temper is not helped by the sight of Herald, unshaven and weary, looking more like a shift-worker than a board member, stuck in the back of a small office with several Union workers watching him.

'Herald will be returning immediately on the next train, I'll be handling negotiations from now on.' Perin demands as soon as they have removed their masks inside the offices.

'Well, the next train isn't till tomorrow now, that train you arrived on was the last shift change of the night, I thought you must have known that, since you all insisted on double-time shifts last month.' Sam pours them a mug of tea each.

'Now I'll leave you to get comfortable after your journey and give you a chance to catch up with Herald and then we'll talk later.' With that Sam nods to the Union members who usher Perin into the small office with Herald. Sam had a man to see about a train tunnel.

Perin scrutinises Herald contemptuously as Herald explains the events of the last few weeks.

'They are planning to halt all work in the next few days if we don't give in to their demands. They have the biohedron up and sealed but they are a long way behind on the build schedule....'

Perin leans in close to him and whispers, 'Shut up, you idiot. It barely matters what stage they are at. The ISELP will be arriving in a few weeks and the problem will be solved. In fact, it is better they do strike, they'll lose public sympathy fast enough. Now, you are to return tomorrow to New Utopia and I am to take your place in the negotiations.'

Relief floods across Herald's face. 'Well, I hope you can make a better job of it than I could..'

'Herald, it would hard to make a worse job of it. All you had to do was employ some delaying tactics. The Board is not happy with you. But, I am sure in a day or two I will have this all sorted.'

Sam pauses for a moment and wonders if what he is about to do is really in the Union's best interest. The moment he had come face to face with Perin Sybaris he could see there would be no deal. The man was as slippery as oiled glass. He could see it in his eyes, there would just be another round of delaying tactics. Herald was bad enough but Perin was something more; more opaque, more devious, more...' he could think of an adjective that did his gut feeling justice. Sam reaches the train terminal and radios in a request for two trains in the morning. He'd get all the work teams out of ML long before Perin realises what's going on. Then he'd blow the tunnel, if they set the charges properly it would look like an accident. The Biohdron would stay intact but whoever is left inside would be staying put until until the tunnel is excavated, which would take as long as the negotiations took. It would help to focus the Board's mind on how important it is to keep the Union on their side, to keep the all the biohedrons maintained on Mars properly, to not cut corners or costs because lives are always at stake. The Company liked to think it had the resources loop sewn up tight and in their control but it was so much more complicated than that. Everything was a resource on Mars, even flesh and blood and sweat and toil and, in that aspect, the Union is resource-rich in comparison to the Company.

Emerald makes the call

In the weeks since the night Perin asked her to move in with him Emerald has been practising her accent. Born and raised in east High Shangri-La, Emerald's natural voice was full of the nasal consonants and flattened vowels all HLa inhabitants had. New Eden accents are more Martian. Less nasal, more in the throat. At first it felt like a movie role, immersing herself in NE, deliberately practising the accent when she was shopping out there, familiarising herself with the city. But every day now the Leander character seemed to become more real. Emerald was slipping away.

Every day she conceals a little more of this new identity she is building from Perin. At first he had seemed so impossibly glamorous, a Board member who had taken a fancy to her, plying her with a heady mix of expensive restaurants and gifts of extraordinary luxury. But there was a price to pay, the constant danger of being usurped, of losing favour. The understanding that you are a bought commodity, with no opinion or self-determination. A chattel. For a while, in those early weeks it had seemed as though she had hit the jackpot. But Emerald is bright. Bright enough to see there is no future in the relationship and at some point she would be discarded, a broken toy. So she had set about securing a nest egg of her own. Of finding a way out of her life that Perin did not know about. As a Board member consort, she is not allowed to work and there were few options open as she is constantly monitored. When Marnie had contacted her about joining her network of informants, it had seemed almost a relief. A pin to burst the artificial bubble she is living in. And she justified it by knowing it is only a matter of time before Perin moved on to someone new and then where would she be?

But more than all of that is the growing feeling of unease. Of a larger play unfolding around her. The central characters had not changed but there is the sense of some action just out of view, about to engulf her. Perin was becoming more and more agitated, distracted, distant. More angry. Everything seems to be building to a head, to some undefined point when whatever this unseen thing is, it would be too late.

And then there is the trip. Perin had told her to pack a few cases ready to take a trip at a moment's notice, as though he is going to take her on some special holiday. A treat? Or a trick. Was it his way of making sure he could get rid of her at a moment's notice? And now he is travelling out to ML and had joked about her going with him. But it hadn't felt like a joke. Why would he take her out to a Union building site of all places? It is the kind of place where accidents happened.

So Emerald had packed a couple of cases for a trip in plain view of Perin and stacked them neatly in her walk-in wardrobe and this new Leander had secretly packed a backpack for a new life and hidden it in a U-credit locker in New Eden.

Her thoughts are cut through by a call on holophone. It is Perin.

'My dear, I'm just calling to say that I'm missing you already.' Perin's insincere smile grates across her every nerve. 'You know it is quite incredible out here and, well, I think I shall be a quite some time so, what I was thinking was, I am always promising to take you on a little trip. Why don't you hop on the next train and come out here. They are much further forward with the build than the holoscreen news would have you believe. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.'

Of course it is not a request, it is a command. Emerald smiles back at him and replies as airily as she can. 'Really? Oh Perin, how exciting and you know my bags are already packed! I shall sort out a train in the morning.'

'Darling why wait? Come now, I insist.' Perin blows her a kiss and then terminates the holoconnection.

And that's that, in that last kiss any feelings she once had for Perin dissolve into nothing. Knowing he would be monitoring her movements for the next few hours, Emerald goes through the motions of organising a runner to take her cases to the train terminal. Then she buys a ticket to ML in his name and leaves the apartment for the last time.

On route to the train station she makes several calls to her friends to say she is going on a trip, but it is only the last call that matters.

'Hi, it's Em, have you heard from Leander recently?''

Marnie curses silently under her breath, it's Emerald, needing her new identity already.

'No, sorry, can I take a message for her?'

'Yes, tell her I'm going on a trip will you, I'll be out of touch for a few days?'

'Of course, I'll pass it on if I see her. But you could try her old number, it's 3571.'

'Thanks, I will.'

Verity Nine

That her name is flagged up by one of her search programs is no surprise to Verity, she had been expecting it ever since the gig in the garden, it is where the search request has come from that shocks her to her core processors. The ISELP. Someone had hacked her holo-hack and is in the system, searching for her. How on Mars did they have her name? She scans through the logs again but no one has contacted the ISELP. The Company is maintaining comms-lull.

This is outside the parameters of ordinary. As is the fact that whoever it is, is circumventing all Company channels and regulations in an effort to find out about her. Which would lead to only one possible reason. The Union must have someone working for them on board who had hold of her name, maybe through Marnie?

'Hi, Marnie, It's Verity... are you in contact with anyone on board the ISELP?'

'What?'

'The ISELP. Are you in contact with anyone?'

'...No.'

'You paused. Who is it?'

Damn, Verity was good, her facial and vocal pattern recognition software had picked up the slightest hesitation by Marnie and now she would have to be honest with her. 'Look, Verity, it's none of your business really, but I was having an affair with one of the crew member's partners. But it was nothing and it's over and well... I thought maybe it was something but I'm not in contact with him any more and have never been in contact with the ISELP. Why?'

'Was it to do with getting information about the ISELP?'

'NO! No... well, maybe the initial contact was but...no. It was about the sex, OK?'

'OK. So you haven't passed on my name to anyone on board the ISELP?'

'No Verity, I haven't. Why the third degree? Is this to do with the memory drive I gave you? Have you got any further with that?'

'You know, Marnie, I might just well have. I'll catch up with you later.'

Not Marnie. Not the union. Not the Company. But someone on board the ISELP has independently found my name and is looking for me. Verity watches the search request on the holoscreen and then decides to give whoever it is on board the ISELP the answer they are looking for. She hacks into the ISELP's maincom and starts to type.

'My name is Verity Nine, how can I help you?'

Dougal stares at the screen. This person had hacked straight through all the firewalls and protocols he had set up around the ISELP's maincom in an effort to protect it from the Company spying on them without their knowledge. Extraordinary.

'How did you manage to get past my programming?'

'I wrote the language you are using. I am the system. You cannot lock me out.'

'Like the proverbial ghost in the machine?'

'Something like that. What is in the laboratories on the ISELP that the Board want?'

'You know about the labs?'

'An item from the labs has come into my possession. What do you know about Variant A?'

'Nothing, we accessed the labs, they were sealed, we lost a crew member to some kind of airborne toxin. We can't go back in as we don't know what we are dealing with.'

'My holo-hack has just about accessed the monitoring systems, I will process the information and then get back to you. Are you... Dougal?' Verity scans the crew biogs she had accessed on the crew of the Gybe.

'Yes.'

The transmission ends and Dougal stares for a moment at his name on the screen.

Extraordinary indeed.

The closed circuit security camera system in the laboratories yields little information for Verity. The storage information disks are so corroded that there is no surviving footage, the only thing readable is the electronic tag name of the company the disks had been registered too.

'Global Sybaritic Synergies'

Emerald reaches Leander's compartment building and climbs the stairs to the right door. She keys 3571 into the lock and sighs as the latch releases and door opens, as she steps over the threshold she mentally says goodbye to her old life and her old name and it is as though a weight has been lifted from her. However small, however Spartan the compartment it is freedom.

Leander opens her eyes as the alarm insistently beeps. It is another day. She rolls over almost half expecting the somnolent hulk of Perin's body to be there but it isn't. Neither is his snoring. She is alone in the small bunk of her new compartment.

'Awake, off!' The alarm stops at her command and Leander inspects the ceiling above her for a moment. Its flat extruded stone surface is a far cry from the opulent ceiling murals of Perin's bedroom. She stretches and sits up, wrapping her arms around her knees and starts thinking about the day ahead.

After a shower and a quick breakfast of Hydroponic Bran Yams, Leander heads out to the local mall where her new job will be. In order to avoid identity confusion, each donor quits their job and after relocation the recipient takes a new job. Leander is in search of work and knew of a place that is looking for someone.

SuperCredit Running sits in the middle of the mall, flanked on either side by juice bars. The shop is busy, its display walls flicking through image after image of the latest speed wheelers, pumps and running vests. Leander picks her way through the gaggles of teenagers discussing the latest designs to the credit desk at the back.

The shop keeper looks Leander up and down. She looked the part, very presentable and her references check out but could she sell. 'See those kids over there, see how many pairs of pumps you can sell to them.' He would be surprised if she sold any. Five pairs of pumps, a set of speedwheels and a glowgel wheel groovifiyer later, Leander lands herself the job.

Marnie stands, a little distracted, in front of the holoscreen in her compartment. On the screen the news headlines are scrolling out. 'Huge explosion rocks talks at Megalopolis. Following a swift walk-out last night by the union workers at Megalopolis, a huge explosion blocked the only train tunnel into ML. While there are no reported fatalities, several key Union negotiators and at least two Company Board Members are still believed to be trapped inside the biohedron. Before the explosion, there was talk that not only had the protracted negotiations, now in their eighth month, fallen through but that the Board members were being held in a hostage situation...'

Sam watches as the dust starts to settle after the explosion inside the tunnel. Next to him Herald clings like a child to his over-jacket, shocked and cowed by the noise and dust. 'Where's Perin?' is all Herald can whimper. Sam beckons the two other remaining Union workers to usher Herald back into the offices. Just where had Perin run off to? In an effort to try and look as though he is trying to return Herald, Sam had dragged him to the station, timing it just right so the explosions would appear accidental rather than planned. In the following confusion and dust, Herald had disappeared but where to? ML is little more than deserted building site. There is nowhere for him to hide.

In her hub, Verity monitors the news.

'… And this just announced by the Board. The Company will be securing all train terminals across Mars and closing traffic between biohedrons as fears of more explosions are starting to cause widespread panic in the cities. It is not yet known whether the explosion was accidental or a deliberate attack by more militant Union workers in protest at alleged poor working conditions out at ML. The Board has convened a closed session in order to coordinate their response and as yet there is still no word about survivors, or hostages, from inside the biohedron although it is believed the two Board members are Herald Tan and Perin Sybaris trapped with Chief Engineer and Union negotiator, Sam Pagan...'

Verity almost leaps at the name on the newsflash. Perin Sybaris. Global Sybaritic Synergies. It is too much of a coincidence.

Marnie jolts at the mention of Sam's name. There was never any mention of hostages or explosions. Everything seemed to be unravelling too fast. What is Sam doing? Why is he now trapped? Why is Perin now out there? Was that why Emerald had decided to jump ship? She reaches for her holophone.

'Cal, Cal are seeing this news?'

'Hi Marnie, yes, I'm watching it right now. Where are you sis?'

'I'm at home.'

'Good, stay there don't come out, it's getting pretty crazy out here. I'm going to head over to you, they're closing all the trains and ringways, I reckon the tubes'll be next.'

'OK, I'll wait here.'

'Marnie, are you OK?' Cal is shocked by the wave of grey tiredness washing over Marnie's face as they watch the holoscreen in her compartment.

'Yes, yes,' she pats his hand, 'Just a bit of a week. Do you remember Emerald?'

'Hard to forget her!'

'Well, she called in earlier to say she wanted out. I've had to spend the last few days organising Leander's new life; and then Verity Nine called, there's something odd going on with her, I ended up telling her about Christophe but it's over, you know, and now she seems to be in contact with the ISELP and now this...which is probably why Emerald wanted out.' she gestures to the holoscreen. 'And I can't help feeling it's all connected but I don't know how.'

Apart from the name, there is little to connect Perin Sybaris to Global Sybaritic Synergies. If it once had been a family company, any records had long since been erased. In fact, Verity would have reached a complete dead end if it hadn't been for one thing. Mars, in comparison to the billions which once lived on Earth, had a small gene pool. There had been a great deal of work done to make sure the population's genealogy had been mapped effectively. If there was one thing Mars had a wealth of information on, it was family trees. And someone had paid a lot of money to map out the descendants of a very particular tree, one with a genetic tracer which is shared with Perin Sybaris. The Master of Lineage at the Bureau of Family Recording had been very accommodating once Verity updated his credit rating.

There were 276 people on Mars with Variant A and only one of them was a Board member, Perin Sybaris who commissioned the study in the first place. And this genetic marker had only appeared in the population after Global Sybaritic Synergies had closed down. And how could such a rare trait survive the shift from Earth to Mars and still be present among the population now if it had not been engineered in some way? A what, a gene therapy? Against what? Against what was on board the ISELP. If what was on board was a biological weapon, was Variant A an immunity? Verity could feel the questions and answers swirling away from her. She scans the list of 276 names in front of her and another one leaps out at her. Perhaps she could get answers after all.

Verity arrives at Marnie's Compartment

Cal answers the door and scowls at the sight of Verity Nine.

'What do you want?'

'To come in.' Verity gently moves Cal to one side, sensing his annoyance.

'Verity!' Marnie jumps up at the sight of her. 'Have you seen all this?' She gestures to the chaotic scenes on the holoscreen.

'Yes... and no, not all of it.' Verity looks at the near riot playing out in front of them. 'But it's irrelevant at the moment. Look, the Unions are wasting their time, the Board is not going to give into their demands, they are little more than a diversion. The Board is bringing back the ISELP because it contains secret laboratories that contain a deadly toxin. The Company was never planning to build more biohedrons and cities, there is no push to the Saturn Relays, they are planning to cull the population numbers... I know this sounds insane but you must get this information through to the Union, it is the only way to stop what is about to happen...'

'OK, that's enough!' Cal can feel his temper rising. 'Marnie has enough to deal with without your mad accusations about Company plots as well!'

'Cal, leave it!' Marnie pushes the two apart. 'What are you talking about Verity?'

'I'm talking about this!' Verity holds out the memory drive to Marnie. 'Remember this? This is where it all started. On this drive are tests, not for a biological weapon as I thought but for a specific gene therapy, Variant A. There are two hundred and seventy six people on Mars with this particular genetic marker and one of them is Perin Sybaris, the secret laboratory this came from is on board the ISELP which was once owned by the ancestors of his. It's no coincidence. The Company crew members found the lab on board the ISELP, one of them went inside, he was exposed to a toxin in the air and died, within minutes...'

'And you know this because?' Cal finds it hard to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, Verity had clearly gone quite mad.

'Because I am in contact with the ISELP. I used your satellite show the other month to set up a link with them. They are very close to Mars, Marnie, closer than the Company realises, with a deadly toxin which, when released into our biohedrons, will wipe out everyone who isn't on this list.'

'What list?'

Verity hands the printout of the list from the Master of Lineage to Marnie who reads it quickly. At the top is the official stamp of the Bureau of Family Recording and the name the request for the research was made by, Perin Sybaris. Out of a few hundred, another name leaps out at her. 'Sam Pagan?'

'We need to get hold of him and find just what exactly is going on, Marnie, and as soon as possible.'

The Board of the Company in Closed Session

'I think it is time to bring in the ISELP. Within twenty-four hours all the biohedrons will be locked down and we can start with the next phase of the plan.'

'And what do we do with the crew?'

'They are returning heroes. We will fete them, it will give a diversion to the situation out at ML. Sweeten the pill.'

'What about Perin and Herald?'

'I am sure they will be fine where they are. It will take a few weeks to rebuild that tunnel, so, for now, they are effectively out of the decision making loop.'

'And what of us?'

'I am sure we will all be fine here in Five NU, don't forget we can seal this biohedron off very effectively, but you can always seek refuge up in the Spacetel if you'd rather.'

'The ISELP will dock at the Company Spaceport as expected in roughly twelve days time. We should vote on who meets the crew up there.'

'And the package it is carrying?'

'Will be sealed in a secret laboratory.'

'And then Phase Two can begin.'

'And the riots?'

'The confusion will work in our favour, we can justify turning the holo-network off. By the time the news networks are running again in a fortnight's time it will be too late, thirty percent losses will have occurred. A great tragedy will unfold on Mars.'

'The ISELP autopilot docking programme?'

'Yes, we have the override protocol all ready, the ISELP will be close enough in to activate it, we just need a unanimous vote. All those in favour of full retrieval of the ISELP, vote now.'

The news flashes on the holoscreens in Marnie's apartment.

...following the explosions out at ML, now believed to be an act of terrorism to coincide with the retrieval of the ISELP from Earth, the Board have unanimously voted for a complete lockdown of the biohedrons in all cities across Mars, this lockdown will commence from 06.00hrs tomorrow morning. This is on top of the transport curfew in place between the cities and reports are coming in of many biohedrons already cut off and in a state of emergency lock-down. There has been no further contact with anyone from inside ML and no news on either the two Board members Herald Tan and Perin Sybaris, trapped out there alongside Chief Engineer and Union negotiator, Sam Pagan...'

'...Several Board Members have arrived at the Spacetel in order to provide a welcoming committee for the returning crew of the Gybe as they tow the ISELP into the Company Spaceport. Despite the Marswide lockdown, the planned celebrations will go ahead but as of yet no film crews or reporters are being allowed access to either the spacetel or the spaceport amid heightened security...'

'...Reports are coming in of a planned closure of the holo-network, as yet no details have been confirmed but it is likely that a complete network shutdown could be imminent. Some unsubstantiated reports claim that the explosions out at ML damaged the network substructures...'

'...Reports are reaching us of riots inside Five NU as an entire biohedron has been sealed off, ten hours before the official lockdown is due. It comes as no suprise that this biohedron contains the homes of the Board members and other Company elite, the official line is that it is simply an extra security measure appropriate after the recent events out at ML. As the deadline for the lockdown approaches, plans for emergency food rationing and water reclamation orders are being drawn up...'

'...All medical and other essential services personnel are being recalled to their centres before the lockdown deadline, now only hours away...'

The holoscreen flashes a few times, its signal dimming and then the image fades to nothing, the transmission had been cut but there is no one in the compartment to worry about it, the lights are on but Marnie is not at home.

In Verity Nine's Hub

Cal, Marnie and Verity crowd around the mainframe hub but there is no response on any of the signal frequencies Verity tries. Holoscreen and computer links are all useless, no one is responding and reaching Sam Pagan is impossible. It is a dead end.

'We should try and contact the ISELP, get them to destroy what is on board...'

'They can't, the lab is flooded with whatever this toxin is and they can't destroy it without knowing what it is.'

'I can't believe Sam has anything to do with this, it must be coincidence. He's always been a Union man, he was born into a Union family. It makes no sense and why would he take hostages? The rumours were that the Board would settle a deal once the ISELP was back..'

'Hey, are you two listening to this? Half the Board have removed themselves to the Spacetel while the other half have sealed themselves in their biohedron, hours before the lockdown is due. They know, they know for sure about what is on board the ISELP!' Cal turns up the volume on the holoscreen news bulletin.

'But they don't know about the list! That's it, the Board think they will escape whatever they are planning but they won't, only those on the list will. Perin has rigged this so that he will be safe out at ML which is now sealed off from the rest of the cities and.. I haven't worked it all out yet...' Marnie is cut short by the sudden ending of the holo-network broadcasts.

'They've cut the news.' Cal sinks down onto a nearby chair. 'What now?'

'The ISELP, can you reach it from here?' Marnie grabs Verity's arm, 'We need to destroy the ISELP before it ever reaches Mars.'

'But what about the crew?'

But Marnie does not answer her brother's question, waiting instead for Verity to understand what she means. If Verity could hack into the ship's systems she could cause a catastrophic event on board and stop the ship ever reaching Mars with its deadly cargo. It is the only option left.

Verity sighs, sometimes her most basic programming to protect human life got the better of her. Marnie of course, wis right, they would destroy the ISELP before it docked. She should have thought of that hours ago instead of chasing after answers to what was in the lab. The crew were expendable, they always were, the Company had known that all along.

On Board the ISELP, twenty-four hours before reaching the Spaceport.

'What is going on with this heap of rotting metal! I've got no navigational control, Irv, check the gyros...Dougal, DOUGAL, this piece of crap is not responding to anything, I can't steer her...damn you”!' Noona slams a fist down on the bank of old-fashioned dials in front of her. The ISELP is not responding to any of the protocols she is trying.

'Nor will you be able to, she's running under an autopilot command, it's overridden the control pod, I'm afraid. Probably a failsafe in case of an Earth re-entry... a clever system, the Company must have known about it. I'm sorry, Noona, we've lost the chance to stop the ISELP, she's going to dock at the spaceport whether we like it or not.' Dougal joins the others in the control pod.

'You are kidding me? After all this way... could you not have told us about this sooner?'

'Here to tell you about it now, Noona!'

'Has the Company responded to any of our messages yet?'

'No, complete silence they are not responding to anything. As far as I can tell, there's some kind of commslink shutdown, they are not even receiving our message. I've left the commslink open but..it's like there's no one down there although to be fair, we are twelve days ahead of the original schedule.'

'Crap! Ok, ok.. let's think this through. We can either just sit back and let the ISELP dock and have whatever is on board those labs fall into Company hands..'

'Not a good idea.' interrupts Addie, 'I doubt they thought any of us would make it back and probably didn't expect us to work out what was in those labs. Don't forget in all our briefings, in all the plans and schematics, those labs don't exist. And we wouldn't know what was in there if it hadn't been for...' Addie stops short of saying Harvey's name. 'I don't think the Company will be giving us a hero's welcome on our return.'

'Addie's right.' Irv stops working on the bank of wires he has exposed under one of the control pod's switch panels. 'This is futile, I can't hotwire this hulk in the short time we have left! The lifepod's rigged the same as the ISELP, whoever did this is making sure we can't use Company property to get back... but...I can fly the Rubicon.'

'The Rubicon?'

'Yes, there's enough fuel from this distance out to reach Mars. I think I could land her on the surface. We have enough equipment on board to make it to a city, the spacesuits are all functioning.'

'Do you really think you could land her?' Noona can suddenly see a ray of hope in their situation.

'Well, I landed her on the ISELP. I don't see we have a choice.'

'Would we beat the ISELP back to MARS?' Addie's brain steps up a gear. 'If we can beat it back and make people aware what is on board before the Company get their hands on it...'

'Is she even flight ready?'

'She's as ready as she'll ever be, the boosters and rotational rockets are all that are left and from this close, the gravity should work on our side. All we have to do is suit up and pressurise her, as lifeboats go, she's pretty solid.'

For a moment Noona stares out the small porthole in the control pod. Outside the deep arc of space had never looked so empty. 'What about Harvey?' But she already knows the answer. His body would have to stay where it is.

'OK, you know, this is a good a plan as we have but if anyone wants to stay on board the ISELP and wait it out back to spaceport... and as Captain I have a duty to stay if anyone else wants to...'

'Look!' Irv points to the porthole where the red glow from a brooding shoulder of Mars has swung into view. Just visible in the glow is the dark frame of the spaceport and it's spacetels.

In the hub, two hours before the ISELP reaches the Spaceport.

Verity searches the schematics of the ISELP one more time, there is something she is missing... something in the back of her solenoids is nagging away at her. Wiring. Of course, the ISELP is head to tail in good old-fashioned metal wiring! Like one big electrical circuit.

Like the conduit for an impulse of electro-magnetic power from the generators, she just needed to modify the Meld-all to make it super conductive and the IELP and anything on board would fry. It is, as coding went, pretty simple.

'I have a way to destroy it.'

Marnie pats Verity's shoulder. 'Good. How soon can you do it.'

'Now, if the satellite link is still up.'

On board the ISELP, one hour and fifty five minutes before reaching the spaceport.

Dougal pauses for a second from his programming onboard the Rubicon. Verity Nine. 'What do I do about Verity Nine?' He asks Addie as she meticulously packs away her medical supplies into the cramped living space directly below him.

'Did she get back to you? I doubt she knows any more than we do. But, if we make it back to Mars in one piece, you could always look her up, Irv is going to, too much of a coincidence to have the same name, he thinks it's the person Earth Verity wanted him to give the chip to.'

'Hey! When we make it back in one piece, Addie, not if!' Irv pushes past her into the navcom. 'Anyway you two are out of time, let go of the Verity subject for now, you both need to suit up. What's not on board now, isn't going to be on board. According to your calcs Dougal we now have only fifteen minutes and counting to get off the ISELP in order to reach Mars first.'

The Rubicon lifts off

The booster rockets ignite and the ship shudders into life as the Rubicon slowly breaks free of its docking and pulls away from the launch platform of the ISELP. Irv navigates along the length of the ship in a final unspoken salute to Harvey and then dives away towards the red bulk of Mars, leaving the ISELP to pull ever closer in to the spaceport.

On board the ISELP

Verity's code works. The ISELP's generators take exactly thirty three minutes to reach critical overload and create a large enough electromagnetic charge for Verity to use. The Meld-all, while not complete over the hull, is enough to turn it into a superconductor. The charge, once released causes massive electrical damage across the entire superstructure, internal fires ignite the oxygen tanks and a fireball sweeps through the ISELP, melting, twisting and destroying all in its path. Harvey's body is incinerated as the labs implode from the force and, as the ISELP slowly slides into the Spaceport, the residual electrical impulse acts like a solar flare and knocks out the power in the dock and the spacetel, leaving the spaceport dead in space, without power, communications or control.

Perin's Bunker

The tunnel, worn smooth with the passing of hands, leads down to a network of interconnecting rooms hewn from the bedrock. In one room Perin has stockpiled a year's supply of food, in another a water and waste filtration system. There is a sleeping area and a makeshift office, complete with a remote holo-network access port. Beyond these basic quarters more rooms stretch on into the martian rock, once laboratories and mine exploration tunnels from early Mars reconnaisance trips. Way before Earth Abandonment, way before anyone really knew what would happen on Earth. One or two people maybe, caught a glimpse of the way the world was turning. Thought Mars might be the answer. Perin had no idea how far the mining tunnels stretched out under Megalopis and into the Plains of Noah. He didn't really care. They were secure, secret and there was only one way in from Megalopis, far from the reach of the toxin. He checks the time again, he still hadn't heard back from Emerald and yet her train should have arrived by now. It occurs to him that she is not coming. Stupid woman. He could do no more to save her. Perin knew he would need to lie low while the toxin spread effectively throughout the Mars cities.

The holonetwork port is critical to his plan. Through it, with his Board clearance, he could reset the climate in the biohedrons. By turning up the heat and humidity, it would speed up the natural decay of the dead bodies, clearing a way for recolonisation of the cities within a year. He also needed the holonetwork to control the other 275 people with immunity and make sure that the right scientists and doctors were kept secure and safe from the toxin. He could evacuate them to the bunker once the ISELP docks safely.

Far above, out on the Plains of Noah at the terminus of the tunnel network, fully a mile from where Perin is organising his future, the old metal emergency exit hatch is suddenly ripped from its Crater on the surface of Mars. There is no double airlock, it was built for a quick escape, when the miners worked long hard hours in bulky pressurised suits, hacking out the tunnels underground. It doesn't appear on any plans as the miners dug the long tunnel for it and installed it for themselves as an extra safety precaution. There is a rushing sound through the tunnels as the trapped air suddenly finds an exit, an exhalation of exhaust and oxygen and then a sucking in of the thin, poisonous Martian atmosphere, ninety-five percent carbon dioxide, a dash of argon a splash of methane, a deadly cocktail.

For a moment or two Perin could have sworn he felt something, like a breeze, a sirocco, over his skin. The word pops into his mind. Where had he heard that before? He rubs his arm and is surprised to find a thin layer of dust on it. He makes a mental note to check the filters on the air pumps later. Within a minute Perin slumps to the floor as the carbon dioxide renders him unconscious and his last thoughts are lost in the chill summer wind working its way through the tunnels from the Plains of Noah.

The Landing

'What the fuck!' Noona watches the spaceport as the ISELP rams into it, buckling and crippling the docking arm. For a moment it looks as thought the whole geostationary orbit is going to be kicked out but the port shudders, then holds it position as the ISELP buckles out of recognition, reshaping into part of the station itself.

'Can you see this?' Noona asks the others but, strapped into their seats, they can't see the view from her porthole. The lights flicker and then the spaceport is plunged into darkness. 'She looks dead in the water, what the hell happened on the ISELP? It should have auto-docked.'

'No time to worry about the ISELP. Hang on to your hats, here we go!' Irv warns cheerfully as the Rubicon's trajectory changes for a steep descent to the red planet below.

'There isn't enough atmosphere to slow us once we are low enough to land, I'm going to have to rely on the lower gravitational pull to glide the ship to a standstill, sort of surf her in! This was built to dock on a spaceport. See if you can find any INS gyros and stabilise our height relative to the planet!'

'Gyros are stabilising... but the fuel is critical.. we are not going to land in time...' Addie taps the fuel gauges in front of her in a futile gesture.

'Shit, she handles like a brick..I can't get the nose up..Noona!'

'On it! Addie, adjust the INS up by 3 degrees...another 3...'

'That's better, I've got her now!'

'But you're exposing the heat shielding to the rockets...' Dougal is interrupted by a set of alarms ringing. 'That's the heat shielding alarm.'

'Well bloody turn it off! there's nothing I can do!'

'Ten thousand feet!'

'Damn that's close, where are we, Dougal, where are we landing!' Noona can see planet's surface looming up towards them.

'I plotted a course onto the Plains of Noah, near enough to ML to reach it by foot with the oxygen packs. The Union workers out there won't be doing the Board any favours...Irv! We are going to plough right into the surface...!'

'..You want to fly this heap of shit tin can you go right ahead Dougal, otherwise SHUT THAT bloody alarm OFF!'

'We are going to plough right into ML!' Noona yells as the large silvery dome of ML rears into view.

'Fuel's gone!' Addie stops tapping the dials.

'I've got no way of slowing her without the rockets, can we use the INS to slow her down?'

'No! She'll flip over and we definitely won't survive a death roll landing, you're going to have to steer her as best you can!'

'OK, you might all want to brace yourselves for this!'

The Rubicon skims onto the dusty red soil and starts to surf along the ground, throwing a fountain of red dust and gravel up into the atmosphere. It hangs there, a long, low pall billowing out behind the ship at is runs on, slowly grinding the outer hull into the bedrock below. For a mile or so it continues, the shimmering biohedron of ML getting closer and closer as it rips up rocks from the surface until the friction wears away its hull and speed, causing it to finally halt, feet from edge of the dome.

Addie, Noona, Dougal and Irv emerge from the wreckage of the Rubicon encased in their pressurised suits, each carrying an extra portable air tank. The ship lies half submerged in the shallow trench it has carved across the plain, its nose almost touching the curving arc of the ML biohedron.

Irv surveys the ship's outer hull, alarmed out how much has been scoured off by their ride across the surface of the planet. 'She's never going to fly again. Look, what on Mars is that!' He points to a large, circular piece of rusted metal, wedged into the side of the ship. But the others are not listening to him and are moving away towards the dome. Addie looks back at him, 'Come on! We've got to find a service portal into the dome before our oxygen runs out.'

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