Crater*

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Chapter Nine

Six months later.

Home

Noona slips out from under the sleep-heavy arm of Christophe and sits up. The compartment is warm and quiet with just the sound of Christophe's breathing beside her. She watches him for a second or two, reveling in the easy familiarity of his sleeping. The patterns they fall into, his arm around her, her toes on his shins, the familiar warmth of sharing a bed together all these years. And yet.

Noona quietly gets up and pulls on a dressing gown and creeps out into the hall. She checks in on Chip but he is sound asleep, arms careless and hair wild. She straightens his covers and turns off the small reading light he must have turned on at some point during the night.

In the kitchenette, Noona makes herself a cup of coffee and checks the time. Three thirty. Too early to be up, too late to go back to sleep. That's the trouble with space flight, it makes you oblivious to time, to the regular punctuation of a stable orbit. Time becomes linear, in segments. So many hours to your destination. Not cyclical, not a procession of seasons but a march to a destination.

The coffee is too weak and Noona adds more, smiling wryly at how quickly she had become used to Addie's onboard blend. How distant those first days seemed now. The Gybe was gone, the ISELP and the Rubicon. If it had been a ship-wrecking expedition then they had passed with flying colours. In a few hours time she would be back at the Academy to find out what next. They would more than likely retire her, as Captains go, getting through three ships on one trip was pretty much a no-no. And yet.

Even after these few months home, after the hero's welcome, the Academy debriefings, their medals for being Valorous Defenders of Mars, the investigations into the Board, the upcoming elections, the time alone with Chip and Christophe. Even now, with her coffee mug warming her hands, Noona could feel the pull of space. The need for freedom. Not in this small box she calls home. Not under the shields of the biohedrons. Not in the book of songs she is getting published. Not in all these things. Noona can feel the impatience settling into her bones. Would a desk or training job at the Academy be enough for her? Perhaps now, what she is feeling, this keen pain, was a goodbye to that part of her life, knowing that her time with space was coming to an end. Could she be happy with this? This compartment bliss? Or had Harvey got it wrong. Is she just a Crater sailing space-junkie too.

Noona waits impatiently outside the door to the Admiral's office. She readjusts her uniform one more time, checking the position of her medal in the reflecting surfaces of the door. From somewhere inside the room a voice says 'Come in!' and the door glides open silently. Noona enters and salutes the woman behind the desk.

'At ease Captain. Noona, you don't mind if I call you Noona? Sit, sit, I'll be honest with you, this is not an easy decision. Over the last few months with all that has been happening. You pose a problem. Do we send you back out on another Crater or do we let you rot in a desk job like me.'

The Admiral raises her eyebrows at Noona's look of surprise. 'You think I haven't estimated how long it's going to be before you're after my job, Noona? If I put you behind a desk, you're too ambitious, too driven, the same mettle that bought you and most of your crew back to Mars is going to catapult you right up the office ladder and have you knocking at my door and I'm not sure I'm ready to retire just yet.

The fallout from Perin's addled plans to destroy the ISELP and most of Mars stops at the Company's door. Be very clear on that Noona. The Academy is on your side. I know the rest of your crew have made other choices, their lives leading them away from the Craters but not you. In some ways it would have been easier if you had found some other project. You could have retired, basked in the profitable glory of your exploits, but I'm guessing that isn't your style is it?'

Noona shakes her head in reply.

'You're not really teaching material either. No offense but, well, a good Crater Captain relies on instinct, not regulations. The Training Academy is not for you. Which leaves the Saturn Relays, the Neptune Relay Station and DSELP missions. DSELP, as you can imagine, is a bit of PR nightmare for now but the Neptune Relay Station mission needs to get up and running.'

It occurs to Noona that her heart is beating faster at the thought of a new ship.

'We have several Craters running the Saturn Relay routes out to Neptune already but we need to take the next phase out there, to get the station ready to be manned. And your work on the ISELP makes you ideal to head up that mission. It would be a year mission and, yes, I know you are just back on Mars, I'm going to have to wait till afer elections to get this off the ground, so you have some downtime with your family till then. I can't promise you a new ship but, would you consider another Crater captaincy?'

'Yes Mam!' Noona surprises herself at the speed of her decision. It is almost a relief to have a new ship. 'Do you have a Crater in mind?'

'Officially no. Unofficially, The Leeward. So, that's it. You have home leave till the mission is up and running. Dismissed!'

'Thank you, Mam.' Noona salutes and leaves, her heart pounding under her uniform. How the hell would she explain it to Christophe and Chip? She knew they both wanted her to retire, or take a desk job. And yet, they'd understand. Noona knew they would instinctively, Christophe had fallen in love with her, Noona, the Crater jockey long ago. He'd understand as long as she promised to return.

The Leeward. The Leeward! The sister ship to the Gybe. Home from home. Noona can't help grinning as she leaves the Academy. She is finally home.

Verity Nine

Irv turns the small plastic box over and over in his hand as he distractedly stares at the holoscreen waiting for some kind of reaction to the name he has just typed in.

Verity Nine.

The cursor blinks steadily with no reply.

He shakes his head, feeling the weight of the chip fall and turn in the box in his hand. A soothing rhythm in time with the cursor.

After five minutes with still no reply Irv sighs and stretches, places the little box in his pocket and switches off the holoscreen. Since the whole Earth/Mars trip, their return, the riots, the publication of his book 'Earth History: A Planet In Crisis', things were finally beginning to settle down. He and Addie had plans. Not just for their wedding but since the publication of the book they had big plans. Earth had become an inspiration. Admittedly there were times when he wished they could be honest about where exactly the book had come from. But buying precious time for the inhabitants of Earth seemed the best they could do in the circumstances. It was inevitable that at some point, Martians would try and return and Dougal had his Ark project beginning to take shape to do just that. An exploratory scientific return to Earth. It was Addie who had suggested the project and a few more as well. In fact the project Irv now heads up is one of a raft of desert projects on Mars funded by the book profits, in the hope to kick-start the regeneration of the planet's surface. This new scientific freedom had been suddenly afforded by the ending of the Board's stranglehold on the Company. With the exposure of the spurious DSELP project as a cover to hide Perin Sybaris' plans, public sympathy had turned tide against outer space exploration and there was a move towards consolidation and improvement on Mars spearheaded by a rejuvenated Academy.

Irv could do with a run. He checks the traffic forecast and plots a route out in his mind, finishing up at the Academy buildings where Addie would be. It would only take forty-five minutes to get there if he was quick.

The ringway is busy as Irv joins it, feeling the sprung surface respond to the feet of those all around him. He settles into the steady pace and is soon lost in the northbound stream heading on to the next biohedron. On the intersection holoscreens he catches glimpses of the dig out at ML. Every day there seemed to be some new find or twist in the story. Today they were screening a virtual tour of the Sybaris Bunker, a huge underground network of tunnels discovered beneath the old labs. There seemed to be no end to the lengths Perin's family went to. Checking the time, Irv speeds up slightly, pulling out into the fast lane. He could feel his muscles stretching out, his shoulders loosening. Ahead the ringway is emptying, opening up and soon he is running in an empty lane.

Verity traces her name back to the compartment holoscreen. Now she knew who had typed it into the system she just had to find out why. Verity runs a FaceRecog bot through the holoscreen system and waits. If he is out and about in the biohedron he would be picked up. It takes the intersection holoscreen network only a few minutes to recognise Irv's face in the crowd on the ringway. Perfect! Verity calculates his speed and direction and plots a course to intercept him on the ringway near the interchange to the next biohedron, always a quiet spot. The cyclotubes are quiet and she is soon speed-wheeling to the intersection of her choice.

Verity waits patiently for Irv to run past. She has taken her speed-wheels off and stashed them in a small backpack and now stands at the last intersection as though waiting for a friend to catch up. Irv slows as he approaches the intersection, looking for any cross traffic that could be a problem but the ringway is empty save for a woman waiting at the junction. As he runs closer he glances at her and stumbles in recognition, not believing what his eyes are showing him. It was the woman from Earth, Verity Nine. How the fuck was she on Mars?

Verity is surprised at his tell-tale missed step, somehow he recognises her. She waves to him, as though he is the person she has been waiting for. Irv jogs over to her and just stares. Apart from the clothes she is an exact replica of the Earth woman. Verity observes Irv just standing there staring at her and then a thought occurs to her.

'You've met me before haven't you?'

Before Irv can stop himself he blurts out 'Yes, you were on Earth!'

And then Verity knows for certain how Irv recognises her and for the first time in a very long time she is filled with what can only be described as hope.

'It's a long time since I was on Earth, Irv, may I call you Irv? You met another version of me there.' Verity pauses for a moment, another thought occurs to her. 'That's where your book came from isn't it...and the rocket?'

Under their feet is the tell-tale humming of the approach of feet and Verity scans round realising that a group of joggers is approaching them.

'Come, let's find a place we can talk...' In one sinuous movement she guides Irv over to a nearby secluded ringway restby. The place is deserted. They sit on one of the benches in the cool down zone and resume their conversation. Verity Nine explains exactly what she is to Irv.

'Wow, kind of not expecting that as an answer! She..you, well, you both seem very... human.' Irv reaches into his pocket. 'Oh, wait! She gave me this to give to you. I've been carrying the thing round with me for so long now it seems strange to be actually handing it over to you.'

Verity takes the small plastic box and stares at the chip inside as Irv recounts his version of events on Earth. It is more than she could ever have hoped for. Not only is there another fully functioning Verity Nine on Earth, there are humans, a chance that ecosystems are beginning to regenerate and here is a spare central processor chip.

'I don't know what use it will be though, the chip I mean. Dougal said it was obsolete technology. '

Verity nine laughs at Irv's observation. 'He thinks I'm obsolete? Perhaps I should meet Dougal and put him straight on a few things.'

'You know what, I think you should too. He's planning a mission back to Earth. Look, why don't you come with me Verity. The world is changing and I think the people of Mars should get to know who you are. Hear your story. You are a living record of our real history on Mars. Not the Company version of it. I'm on my way to meet Addie, come with me!'

For a moment Verity remains perfectly still, calculating all the possibilities and risks involved in exposing her existence. Then she stares at the chip. This human had transported what he thought was an obsolete piece of tech back from Earth and kept it with him in the hope he might meet her and pass on the message entrusted to him. And there is was again. That word hope. Statistically that is, well.. hopeful. Perhaps it is time for her to return to the real world.

'OK, OK! I'll meet Addie. But for now, just Addie.. and maybe Dougal.'

Addie stares at the tall attractive woman Irv ushers into her laboratory at the Academy. She looks familiar but Addie can't place her. Irv drops a kiss on Addie's forehead and says, as casually as he can.

'Addie, meet Verity Nine. Verity meet my Dr. Addelia.'

'Verity Nine? Dougal's Verity Nine? Your Verity Nine... the woman on Earth, hang on, that's who you look like, that woman at the party! But, how did you get here?.. Irv what is going on?'

Irv relishes Addie's obvious confusion at the sudden appearance of the woman from Earth. 'This is Dougal's Verity Nine, my version, apparently is still back on Earth.'

'You mean you're a clone?'

'Not quite, Doctor. I'm a supercomputer android..'

'And there was I thinking you were just a ghost in the machine!' The three of them turn at the sound of Dougal's voice, they hadn't noticed him entering the room after them. 'So the central processor was for you. Isn't it a bit of a step back as far as technology goes?'

'It's OK, I back up my files regularly!'

'On what?'

'Like you said, the ghost in the machine. There is a complete digital copy of me downloaded throughout the systems running through the biohedrons. But, I'd prefer if that was just kept between me and you three. In light of what happened to the other supercomputers, I take my personal security very seriously. Now, Irv said you are planning to return to Earth.'

'Yes, my office for the mission is just down the corridor. You might well be able to help with my trajectory forecasts...'

Irv catches Addie's eye and winks at her as Verity and Dougal head off to his office deep in discussion.

'Wow, I think they were really happening on some level together, did you see that!'

'Oh, Irv, she's an android! I don't even want to know what's going on in your mind right now.'

'Hmm, well. You wait and see. Stranger things have happened at sea.'

'What!?'

'Nothing... Earth saying.'

'I so wish you'd never read that bloody book!'

'Hey, that's no way to talk about your project meal ticket. Talking of which, fancy an early lunch?'

'Will it involve food this time?'

Tiara's Horse

Tiara pauses for a second, to check that the security guard posted outside Perin's mansion complex is still sitting on the porch swing, engrossed in his lunch, then quietly punches in the security code into the houseloc and lets herself in. Getting clearance to enter Five NU had been tricky but it is amazing how many cleaning posts regularly come up. She drops the cleaning equipment she is carrying onto the marble floor and swiftly moves from room to room till she finds what she is looking for. Perin's desk. The room itself is quiet and heavy with an expectant weight of return. Through the french windows, out of the corner of her eye Tiara can see the broad sweep of a lake and golf course. Under her feet the soft wool carpet with its rich patterns swallow up the soles of her shoes. The marble surface of the desk is cold to the touch of her fingers gliding over it, looking for a panel or a switch. There is a quiet click and from the centre of the desk a holoconsole lights up. Inbuilt technology. Normally Tiara would want to find out exactly how it worked but not now. Time is too precious. She types in the list of codes she has and the holographic files start to pile up on the desktop. She pulls up the address she had been given on the holo-network and routes the files to it and then systematically wipes the memory of her filelifts from the system. She closes down the holoconsole and takes a breath. That had been easier than she thought.

Behind her, on the wall, there is a beautiful painting of a chestnut horse. Tiara stares at it for a moment and then can't resist it. She retrieves a small pocket laser knife from her backpack and cuts the painting out of the frame, rolling it carefully and wrapping it in one of the cloths in the cleaning kit. Then she leaves the mansion complex via the services exit and heads off down the road to the mansion she is supposed to be cleaning. The security guard doesn't even look up from his lunch as she wanders past.

Back at her studio, she carefully unrolls the canvas and stares at the horse. It is stunning. Suddenly she knows what her next project is going to be and she carefully runs a finger over the back of the horse. 'I know exactly which garden I shall create you for.'

A quick bit of research reveals the horse genome was one of those that never made it to Mars. It meant that all her work would have to be based on texts and description rather than biological certainty. As fabulous beasts went, this one is extraordinary. Soon Tiara is engrossed in her work, so engrossed she misses the first virtual tour of the Sybaris Bunker on the holoscreens in the studio.

The sysnthskin technology would only take her so far, to build a scale replica of a horse would require some bio-engineering on a massive scale that was simply not available to her. A simpler route would be to produce a free-standing hologam with a holographic synthskin. It would need to move fast and so a lightweight projection unit with an engine would be required. Tiara works on into the night, the project pushing all other considerations out of her mind. For now, her work for the organisation is completed, Cal is busy with the elections and the horse painting has inspired her.

In her mind she is already in the garden in High Shangri-La, with its wooded slopes and stony brooks. The horse is resting under the spreading boughs of an ancient tree, gently grazing on the scrubby tussocks of field grass. A change in the direction of the breeze makes it pause and prick its ears, stamping softly on the ground with its hoof and whinnying. Then, it is off, cantering over the slopes and away. Lost in the distant wooded hills that edge the garden.

Verity Nine visits Marnie and Sam

Marnie glances up as someone enters the shop. She and Sam had been discussing the recent events from their own perspectives, weaving together a much richer tapestry of what was happening on Mars. Dovetailing their experiences into a solid piece of memory.

Verity Nine watches them for a second, sitting together on the curved sofamat, so very much already a couple until Marnie looks up and then she waves and smiles, 'Hello, thought I might find you two here.'

'Verity! This is Sam Pagan. Sam, this is Verity...' Before Marnie can finish the introduction Verity interrupts her, 'We need to discuss this.' and she places the list of names on the sofamat between them. Sam picks up the list and scans through the names.

'What is this? Hey! My name's on this? What is this Marnie?'

'It's a list of names. Look, Sam, I'm not sure this is the right time to tell you.' Marnie glares at Verity. 'And, I don't think Verity has really thought this through. It's the whole ISELP plot. There's a bit we didn't reveal to the Company or to anyone. Another piece to Perin's plan.'

'Another piece? Beyond killing us all off?'

'Not all of us. He had a long family history as you know, with the ISELP and the production of the bioweapon etc. But there is more. Which isn't so great. In creating a genetic vaccine against the weapon, he then had to keep track of all the descendants of his forefather who possesed immunity. The names of those descendants are on that list.'

'We know that none of you knew, that the genetic connection and plan had never been revealed to anyone else. We felt if we released this knowledge then there could be a backlash.'

'I'm related to Perin?' Sam feels slightly weird, a prickle of fear at the nape of his neck.

'Distantly but more importantly you carry the gene that provides immunity.'

'I'm not sure where you are going with this...'

'Neither am I. What are you trying to do Verity?'

'Sam needs to know, because Sam is going to run against the Company in the elections and they will do whatever they can to derail that process. And if I could find this, they can. For all you know, one or two of the remaining Board members might have known about Perin's plot. Who knows who he confided in. You're on a huge wave of public support at the moment, you should just surf in to power but you have to understand that Perin and his mad scheme is going to be nothing in comparison to the Company wanting to keep power. They'll be happy to elect a new Board but they'll want Company people, not you, not the Unions. And they will play dirty to get what they want. So, I want you to be very clear about just what is out there for them to use against you.'

'OK, I'll take that on board. And these others? On the list?'

'What list?' Verity smiles at Sam.

'This list! This...oh!'

'There is no list OK? What you now know you don't know. It's the only way you can play it. I'm sorry, the power game isn't much fun Sam. You're used to tough negotiations, now you are going to have to get used to a whole new world of insinuation and doublespeak.'

'And what if Perin reappears from whatever hole he's hiding in. What then?' Marnie takes the list from Sam and hands it back to Verity.

'You know, I don't think he's going to reappear any time soon. I'll dispose of this, I just needed you both to know, as far as I'm concerned, there never was a list, I never set fire to the ISELP and we never knew what Perin was up to. The Crater team are the heroes in this one, they take full credit for uncovering the plot. OK?'

'OK, anything else you wanted to tell us?' Marnie asks, annoyed she is being written out of the hero stakes.

'Yes, just one thing. Good luck with the elections. I'm joining the team on The Ark. I shall be returning to Earth. So, I hope it all works out for you both.'

'You're going to Earth? Leaving Mars? Are you sure Verity?' Marnie is staggered by the news. 'I thought you considered yourself a part of Mars.'

'I am a part of Mars, but this part of me, this physical body you see in front of you, is going to Earth. Keep in touch.' And with that, Verity turns on her heel and slips quietly back out into the mall. 'Did she say she was returning to Earth?' But Sam's question is unanswered as a couple of late night shoppers inquire about a pair of old trainers Marnie has for sale.


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