Renewal, p.1
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       Renewal, p.1

           Hylton Smith
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Renewal
Renewal

  Hylton Smith

  Copyright 2010 by Hylton Smith

  Published by Promethean

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in writing from the copyright holder.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

  The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

  Acknowledgement

  Without the ever present support of Rhys J. Smith and Anne Flint the series would not have been such an enjoyable and rewarding journey. My heartfelt thanks are accorded to them.

  Prologue

  It was forty-three years since they left Mars, and just under two before arriving in 55 Cancri. The Phoenix had travelled well, better in fact than some of the passengers. Despite all medical expertise, anti-ageing gene therapy included, Daniel Carvalho was ailing. He was now one hundred and six years old and was in need of regular maintenance, as if he was a veteran automobile.

  He knew that he was just wearing out, and gene therapy was not a panacea in terms of longevity. Even young people suffered cardiac arrest, strokes and embolisms. He was lucky to be as fit as most Humans half his chronological age, but he was no longer a Human, he was now a Sapient. He could not accept that he was so close to stepping out on Nexus, the home planet of the Axis race, and that he may not make it.

  Stella, his life companion, continually kept his spirits up by reminding him that their ‘children’ would all be well into their forties by the time they arrived, and they had only known life aboard Phoenix.

  When they were young they pleaded with him every night to recount stories of life on Earth and Mars. Although there was video footage, and hundreds of movies to enjoy, they never seemed to infuse the wonder of Daniel’s tales. He admitted that he liked to recount them again. He was considered by both the Axis and Symbiant species as the father figure of that part of the Human race which had transformed Mars. Testament to this affection was the lakeside virtual reality station aboard Phoenix. The Axis had constructed a living version of the inscribed obelisk which was Carvalho’s parting gift to the Martian colony. It was the most popular programme on the VRS, and kept every passenger’s mind on why they had undertaken this pilgrimage. The portrayal of the spirit and factual events mentioned in the inscription were delivered in the context of a play, authored by the younger of his two sons, Rafael. The final scene was a scrolling replica of the actual edifice, which they hoped had inspired the Martians to avoid past mistakes. The scroll was in both Human and Axis language. The great appeal seemed to be the ever-present danger, from those first moments of Copernicus countdown to Mars orbit insertion, all the way to Phoenix leaving orbit decades later. They had not perceived any danger as the Quantum Spatial Distortion craft pulled the galactic content toward them. All three species were relishing the prospect of uncertainty again.

  This Martian history had chronicled some unlikely if not preposterous timelines. The Symbiants were individual members of The Continuance. Over four billion years ago the Cosmos had been seeded with red crystal by Progenitors. These elusive entities apparently designed the crystal to emerge to an amorphous form whenever temperature and data sources were conducive to this metabolic transformation. The amorphous material was enabled to replicate sources of data and identify promising species which may be of interest in the Progenitors great campaign of preserving cosmic balance. The Progenitors’ residence was in dark matter and their nemesis was dark energy.

  The Symbiants’ knowledge of their masters was sketchy. They were aware of other agents of this gravitational alliance, and the struggle to rein in uncontrolled forces of expansion to ensure the contest was never actually decided, as that would be the worst possible outcome.

  The Interference, The Amalgamation, The Elimination and The Subtraction were all registered within the data cell structure of the Symbiants. There had however, been no record of possible contact with these agents in the registry of the Martian source of the Continuance, until now.

  The timeline indicated that they had fleeting interaction with microbes and simple plant species on early Mars over four billion years back. The molten core dynamo was small and therefore did not generate adequate magnetic protection from the solar wind; this had gradually seen the atmosphere disappear and the active amorphous form had responded to the plummeting temperature and data desert by recrystallising, and ‘hibernating’ until Humans decided to colonise the planet in 2033.

  The crystal was concentrated in West Candor Chasm, part of Valles Marineris canyon. The lodes were around five miles down, but discovered by Alex Redgrave – Science Officer of the Copernicus colonisation mission.

  He brought samples to the warm lab and the abundant Human data physiology triggered the awakening. Accidental passage of these unique materials into his bloodstream caused a bizarre replication of Redgrave as predominantly inorganic data cells. The replicant was designated Alex 2. These antimony based distibines, bonded loosely to elemental silicon, were similar in principle to Human computer MRAM memory functions. However the Continuance was much more than this. Their elegant registry and sentinel cell architecture enabled regenerative ability to modify immune systems and the data retrieval capability was one of truly astounding scale. They had been programmed to assist promise of species which they had replicated, or move on. They had been the key to realisation of Human objectives in the rate of terraforming Mars.

  Three million years before Humans landed on Mars, another species had colonised the planet, but strangely had not encountered the Continuance there. The Axis had been forced to leave 55 Cancri because their home planet Nexus was being dragged into oblivion by neighbouring gas giants with unstable orbits. They had created a wormhole and as their four spacecraft had entered, they witnessed a consequent and colossal release of negative energy. The threatened fate of assimilation by gas giants was overtaken by an extinction event of their own making. Ironically, the technology which had enabled the wormhole creation had come as a strand of cooperation with Nexus based members of the Continuance. The horrendous result was predicted by these agents of the Progenitors, but ignored by the Axis scientists.

  The four ships were confronted with multiple choice exits and decided to separate. Epsilon Eridani, Gliese and Sol produced survival exits, but tragically the fourth ship was destroyed in an unstable domain.

  Having made their way from the extremities of the solar system to Mars, the Axis remained there for almost three thousand years. Considerable sophisticated underground infrastructure was built before the species was driven back to Europa by an onslaught of Legionella Pneumophila, for which they had no treatment. Their time on Mars was also a watching brief on primitive Earth evolution and a strict policy of non-interference. These highly intelligent, marsupial-like creatures travelled back to Mars every 555 years to maintain their legacy and wait for Humans to discover it.

  They had erected giant visual display units in Candor Chasm, yet they never analysed the red crystal, presumably considering it unremarkable. The Human pioneers did not recognise the screens as anything other than blue-green crystals. The millions of years between these events had seen erosion of the shape of the VDUs and it had been the replication of Alex Redgrave which kick-started the cooperation with the Continuance, and through these individual Symbiants, the subsequent discovery of the Axis. The odds against the Axis working in close proximity but ignoring the red crystals, and the curiosity
of one Human to prise them from a highly inaccessible mother lode, on his first Martian foray, did not seem to favour future connection.

  The discovery of Quantum Spatial Distortion (QSD) propulsion as a safe means of interstellar travel was made by the three Martian species some thirty years after the first Human landfall on the red planet. A combination of factors led to a desire to return to 55 Cancri. The Axis had never found real purpose after the accidental genocide of millions of their brethren left on Nexus. The species had also suffered mass infertility prior to the cataclysm and could not procreate. Immortality by scientific application was remarkable but did not replace the loss of ‘belonging’. Earth society’s facade of extolling the moral, religious and political high ground was often exposed as hidden diversity, such as crime, greed and parading of Human rights. The threshold was crossed for the Continuance when North Korea detonated a nuclear device, killing countless numbers of their own citizens. This also had the effect of encouraging the Axis to meet with their other colonies back at Nexus. The Continuance re-prioritised their assessment of promise and deleted assistance to Humans, except those on Mars who wanted to join the pilgrimage. This was quite a small band of souls, whose affiliation with the aliens had grown in inverse proportion to their shame with Human duplicity. Most of them had already benefited from hybrid genetic code insertion by the Symbiants. This not only conferred paradigm leaps of understanding, but effectively created a branch in Human evolution. They referred to themselves as the Sapients.

  As Phoenix had engaged QSD on leaving Mars the individual Symbiants had received two discrete data transmissions. The first was a re-configuration of registry, and the second implanted data concerning the Nexus cataclysm. They had figured out from circumstantial evidence, provided via the Axis archive on Mars, that there had been interaction between the species on Nexus. Now they had terabytes of detail. They had decided not to share this until they reached Nexus, because of a discovery by the Gliese based Axis. Their two kilometre ring of advanced telescopes had now shown Nexus to be in a stable orbital relationship with the gas giants, and more importantly, radio wave sources emanated from the planet. The Symbiants did not want to offer more false hope.

  With two years to go at just under light speed, a third transmission was received. The stabilising influence for 55 Cancri was not accidental. A brown dwarf had become a companion star with the secondary sun in what once was a binary system. This celestial harmony was filed under ‘The Interference’. It was the first time that the solar system branch of the Continuance had ever been officially connected in this way. They had always ‘known’ of the other agents but didn’t know exactly how they knew. The message also carried a warning that under no circumstances must the brown dwarf be approached. It was delivered as a message to which there was no reply or further inquiry option.

  Chapter 1

  As leader of the Symbiants, Alex 2 consulted his kin about what this could mean for the mission, and particularly the Axis. The first two transmissions, forty years ago, had afforded the privilege of merely confirming what was already theorised. This had other possible implications for the return of all Axis clans, not just the Martian branch. Alex 2 saw no merit in deflating their new-found energy to restore Nexus, yet he could not assign much weight to the Progenitors employing the Interference, in the form of a brown dwarf, simply to correct the wormhole mishap of three million years ago. He deduced that there must have been some unfavourable chain reaction prognosis between then and now to invoke such action, particularly as it was accompanied by a warning.

  With two years to contemplate the puzzle, the Symbiants elected to annex the detail for now, but initiate comprehensive study of the new orbital paths of the 55 Cancri planetary bodies – all of them. The Earth database could allow calculations to actually reveal the presence of a new gravitational force.

  The radio signals emitted from Nexus should also become a priority for gathering intelligence on what could be expected before arrival. Until now, all individuals aboard Phoenix had assumed the ‘noise’ was attributable to surviving, indigenous Axis groups.

  The Sapients had more appetite for such distraction; the Axis had already engaged countdown mode and said they would rely on their friends to conduct the study. Kipchoge Yamamoto relished this stage. He had been the first Human to accept Symbiant modified genetic code insertion. Pascal 2, first generation replicant of Pascal Dupree – the Copernicus Doctor, had developed this procedure. It marked the first deliberate branch in Human evolution. Yamamoto, Red, (second generation replicant of Alex Redgrave) and Dan (first generation replicant of Daniel Carvalho) would act as the spearhead of the numbers research.

  Carvalho still had a keen sense of detecting signals of clandestine activity and he approached Alex 2. “How about we take a stroll around the lake my friend?” The Symbiant recognised the bogus invitation and knew he couldn’t avoid the question, or more significantly, the answers. “It would be better in my quarters Daniel.”

  “Yes, I thought it might. The body language of some of our fellows betrays concern. Is there a problem?” Alex 2 requested that the discussion should wait until they reached the secure location. When he next spoke, the Symbiant said, “I do not have evidence of a problem, but that does not mean there is no problem. Considering that the Progenitors deemed it necessary to make three transmissions and a warning, we must take it seriously.”

  When he had recounted the detail to Carvalho, he paused. A silence prevailed for several minutes before he continued. “Red, Dan and Pascal 2 are all of the same opinion as I am. This would not have occurred only to remedy a release of negative energy, albeit a devastatingly destructive quantity. Without wishing to insult the Axis it would not have been triggered because several million individuals perished. Probability analysis is not helpful because of lack of hard data. Apart from confirming the brown dwarf conferred the new stable orbits, we may be able to determine when this occurred by extrapolation of Earth observations in our database. The early indications are that it was a considerable time after the wormhole cataclysm and the dissipation of the resultant energy release.”

  Carvalho interjected, “How long after?”

  Alex 2 was untypically evasive. “It may have been half a million years - or even longer.”

  “And this is your concern?”

  Alex 2 spoke slowly. “Of course, if such a period passed before the Progenitors intervened there must have been escalating adverse trends for some time after the Axis exodus. As you know we are uncomfortable with speculation, but if the developing critical point was due to purely cosmic aberrations there may still be ‘residue’ to be dealt with. Alternatively, if the cause was unpromising life forms ‘rocking the boat’- it may have been their radio noise the Gliese Axis reported. I do not need to elaborate on the effect such news would have on our friends aboard this vessel.”

  Carvalho reflected on this momentarily and then nodded in recognition of the utter demoralisation this would inflict on all of the Axis clans.

  Alex 2 was not finished. “I cannot stress too much that the delivery of the third message, some forty-three years after the first two, is part of our concern. It logically suggests that something may have been upgraded in status during that period. We have not ruled out a fourth message.” The uncertainty they craved had been delivered.

  This however, had to be viewed against the backdrop of a burgeoning period of recovery in procreative potential during the voyage. The first Martian born Axis – Renewal, had been a ‘test tube’ success, albeit with Pascal 2 genetic enhancements and super stem cell grafts. Since then many offspring had survived with reduced laboratory intervention. ‘Rene’, as the Sapients referred to her, was good friends with the Carvalho children in their early years, as she was the only Axis juvenile to survive at that time. The friendship had endured long after the increase in Axis adolescents.

  Daniel Carvalho was beginning to wish he had never asked the question. Apart from the hopes of the Axis being dashed y
et again, if Alex 2’s first scenario proved correct, his own family was hurtling toward a potentially uninhabitable domain. This gave him the extra nudge, to suggest to Alex 2 that everyone should be informed of the situation, as a precautionary measure, and plans would only be adapted if new incoming observations warranted action.

  “I realise I no longer have authority, and I can’t even speak for all Sapients, but my gut tells me that being prepared is of value – even if it carries emotional burden. Something you may not fully recognise, my friend, is that the Axis now have something extremely valuable to protect – their children. The Sapients have that too. That just leaves the Symbiants, and you already know.”

  “You have always managed to confuse me Daniel. When we first worked together I would have communicated this out of logical necessity. Having got to know Humans and Axis, I began to feel I had gravitated to a more sensitive level of compassion – something not conferred to us by our masters. Now you confront me with another layer of emotional complexity. I am relieved to have got it wrong again.”

  They looked at one another and needed no words of mutual respect. They departed to inform the Axis leader. As anticipated Fav was initially dumbfounded and as angry as either of them had ever witnessed. Slowly, he acknowledged they all faced the same fate and echoed Carvalho’s galvanic declaration around the children.

  The sombre mood around the vessel persisted for several weeks. A scheduled drop out of QSD to normal propulsion coincided with an opportunity to ‘clean up’ incoming radio noise and the decoding marathon eventually yielded absolute verification of Axis symbols.

  Hours of analysis revealed two important points. Firstly the language was considerably different to classical Axis at the time of the exodus. These survivors had been dwellers on the fringes of society, and living in deep caves had been their salvation. The second, more sobering revelation was that they were no longer the top evolutionary species. They had never been the dominant species; even the Martian Axis admitted that. That honour had fallen to the Ebexx. They were remembered as barely sentient, but very powerful carnivores. They used to fear the Axis technology which could more than compensate for physical deficiency. They used to avoid confrontation. They were likened to polar bears, but twice as big and with very short fur. They had apparently acquired sentience via a parasitic mechanism. A virus which had altered its metabolism and consequent relationship with hosts, to control them rather than kill them, was the real enemy. The virus had prospered through very efficient species jumping. It hadn’t been successful with the Axis on the planet because of natural immunity, but this may not last. In settling for the Ebexx, the virus had endowed them with sufficient cerebral stimulus to farm the Axis. As they were dealing with the outlying remnants of post-apocalypse individuals, there was no real resistance in the beginning. Gradually, escapees banded together and built fortresses in the mountain caves. The Ebexx didn’t have sufficient flexibility in cerebral physiology to defeat their defences, despite the enhancement of the virus, which was known as ‘Avezzc Kaschh’. This term was not known to the Axis aboard Phoenix. The predicament of being either livestock or cave-dwellers had seriously restricted the evolutionary development since the apocalypse, yet they had done remarkably well. There was no information as to the origin of the virus, so it could mean that it had come from impact fallout from the ‘good shepherd’ brown dwarf.

  This was a lot to digest, but it was regarded as if it could have been a lot worse. At least they knew the planet was habitable and the atmosphere supported life. QSD was resumed.

  The timeline for the transmission was not completely clear but it appeared to be between groups of Axis ‘commandos’. The natural immunity of the indigenous Axis did not imply that any of the species on Phoenix would carry such defence.

  Chapter 2

  The Axis had often apologised during the voyage for their frequent and elaborate references to how Nexus used to be. The others had come to believe there would be no surprises, but this news changed everything. Instead of daydreaming of red mountains and burnt orange evening clouds, they suddenly realised that such scenes were theatres of war. It now seemed less important that there were no oceans, only rivers and lakes. High, snow covered peaks and prodigious waterfalls were now perceived as hideouts and sanctuaries rather than natural wonders.

  The patience to see the journey through had been tested many times, now it gnawed at the cohesive force between the three species. The almost sacred Axis belief in never employing lethal force to sentient beings was at the heart of the squabbles. There were no weapons on board to fuel the dispute, but the radio messages which had been intercepted indicated that the hunted were developing a new retaliatory device. Constant refusal to discuss this nurtured an ulcer in everyday communal activities. Being a tiny minority the Sapients began to bypass the issue except in discussion with the Symbiants. Alex 2 and his cohorts saw the situation as simply one of survival and proposed a typically pragmatic solution. If they could isolate, capture and replicate one of the Ebexx, the problem would take care of itself. Carvalho asked Alex 2 to sketch in some detail to support this ‘bloodless campaign’.

  “If we are interpreting the intercepted data correctly, then the weakness of these aggressors is their interdependence with the virus. Replication does carry the risk of infecting the replicant, but if we can control this by disabling specific sentinel cells we can lure the virus to that decoy point of weakness. Subsequent amputation in the region will regenerate adapted cells and we then have one of their own to instruct in their midst. Study of the amputated part will give us the time to develop genetic code to insert immunity for all of us who may be at risk. If the replicant is not infected we have an even better scenario to dilute the effectiveness of the virus. This way the Sapients have their aggressive nature satiated and the Axis do not have to betray their cornerstone philosophy of turning the other cheek.”

  Carvalho and Fav said in unison, “Who are ‘we’?”

  “Initial exploration should be done by Symbiants who are replicated from Axis. This will produce less visual concern for the indigenous Axis and should still attract curiosity from the Ebexx. We need to know as soon as possible if there is an infection issue for the rest of our passengers. The Axis commandos do not need to know they are being assisted by the Continuance at the outset.” It was agreed.

  In the remaining time to Nexus orbit insertion, the ruffled feathers were gradually smoothed. Rene had resumed her regular evening activities with Anna-Severine - Carvalho’s daughter. Both carried some conference of Pascal 2’s genetic code. Rene had direct insertion and Anna-Severine, unlike her two brothers, had been conceived after Carvalho himself had undergone the procedure. The two females had discussed the conferred features of their code and now brought up the question of how it may help in ‘outwitting’ the Ebexx. It was a valid point and it was encouraged by the Symbiants. Only a few Sapients had not yet opted for the procedure but there were hundreds of Axis who remained unconvinced.

  The Sapients registered immediately, the Axis postponed their decision until they had more concrete information on the infection risk, and surprisingly, how their return would be perceived by their commando hosts.

  The programme also spawned another discussion. Alex 2 took his turn to ask Carvalho if he would accompany him on a walk around the lake. The invitation was accepted. “I wanted to ask you to allow a final replication of yourself.”

  “Why the hell would I want to do that?”

  “I think it would be helpful.”

  Carvalho laughed out loud. “I don’t know what you have brewing in that registry of yours, but Stella and the family would be horrified at such a bizarre proposal. I don’t want to discuss this any further unless you are completely open with me. First of all you rarely make suggestions, choosing ‘assisting promise’ mode. When you do make overtures they are invariably on very important issues. You have just made one with respect to the Ebexx; don’t you need a recovery period?”

&nb
sp; Alex 2 ignored the sarcasm and replied, “I am almost certain I will receive another message. You notice the use of the personal pronoun?”

  “Go on.”

  “I have new first tier registry space of very significant capacity, and it is different. I have cautiously and indirectly determined that the other Symbiants have not been affected in this way. I do not know why I did not ask about this openly, I just did what seemed appropriate. It concerns me that I acted this way and even more that I am now discussing it with you, yet that also feels right. Could you think about my request, and keep this between the two of us for now?” A worried Carvalho nodded affirmation.

  It was Red who reminded everyone that a brown dwarf had been registered by Earth astronomers in the Gliese system. He suggested asking the Axis from that settlement about any observations they had made which could be useful. Alex 2 was unresponsive at first, quoting the warning, but acknowledged that this was not the ‘special’ brown dwarf. The sub-space message was sent and the reply was expected within weeks as the three pilgrim ships were on a convergent course.

  The reunion with uncertainty and danger had passed into stage two, one of more communal recreation, and it seemed everyone had a theory or counter-theory. It was good for morale and the illusion of time passing quicker was welcome.

  The eldest Carvalho son, Fernando, was normally much more placid than his brother and sister, but this had given him a platform. Although his mother and father had accepted the Pascal 2 insertion code, they had wanted the children to make their own decision on this when they were old enough to appreciate the implications of the choice. Fernando was the one who went ahead with the procedure in his early twenties. His siblings wanted to wait until they were nearer Nexus, and were now scheduled with the rest of the Sapients.

  Fernando’s decision had been heavily influenced by Kipchoge Yamamoto, not directly, but by listening to explanations about cosmic phenomena he could not figure out by himself. His placid nature had been reinforced by the code. Yamamoto was always challenging the Symbiants, and Fernando craved the respect they reciprocated to his friend. He was now amongst the ‘elite’ speakers when things like brown dwarfs were discussed. His siblings pestered him for his opinions for the first time in his life.

  “A brown dwarf is a sub-stellar object with mass between that of the lowest for stars and the highest for planets. Some refer to them as failed stars – ones where no hydrogen fusion has occurred and the primary fuel, deuterium has been exhausted. Sometimes they exist as wandering bodies, but they are commonly companions of small stars at separation of 4AU or more.”

  Anna-Severine intruded, “Why does that make them off-limits according to these Progenitors?”

  Fernando chuckled. “Patience please, that comes later. It has been proposed that as these bodies are self-heating, and do not rely only on true solar radiation, this should be a promising scenario for life on planets which orbit them.” This was the blue touch paper. Rafael’s artistic vision could see a science fiction book or play falling into his lap. His sister was not so content. “Does that mean there will be life on the brown dwarf in 55 Cancri?”

  “Anni, if you’re going to talk all of the time you’ll learn nothing.”

  “I’m not just talking; I’m asking questions – which you never answer.”

  Fernando smiled and said, “We can’t know all of the answers at this point, but they will emerge. Now, the brown dwarf in the Gliese system orbits the red dwarf star Gliese 229. It’s between twenty and fifty times the mass of Jupiter, but with a similar diameter. It has an observable atmosphere – particulates – which are neither ice nor silicates. They are probably organic. The distance to the companion star can have a strong bearing on life potential of orbiting planets. The Axis travelling from that region settled on a planet which had already produced life, so we need to know everything they have observed in the last three million years; it could give us clues on what we can expect from the ‘special’ brown dwarf, which appeared about half a million years after the exodus. Maybe that’s what the warning is about, in other words, not to disturb the ecosystem.”

  Anna-Severine was a very talented artist, and like Rafael, began to see potential sculptures on the horizon. They were both hooked and for the first time in their lives getting less time than Fernando with their father. It was disorienting and it was left to Stella to fill the space.

  Yamamoto had returned to work with Ari Nielsen (Chief Science Officer of the Sapients) and Karel Sevicek (Ex-Earth Propulsion Theorist). There was general disappointment at the apparent intellectual level of the indigenous Axis, but the warning had almost the opposite effect – it was like a lure. They accepted that the Symbiants didn’t have the means or the arrogance to challenge the Progenitors, but they felt that they themselves had the right to challenge the Symbiants. Furthermore, Alex 2 had declared on many occasions, that these overlords wouldn’t get involved in trivial actions. They decided they hadn’t been given all the information received and would tackle him about it.

  Chapter 3

  The Gliese Axis replied promptly. The devil was in the detail. The brown dwarf itself did not seem to merit much of a mention, confirming much of recent Earth data. The Gliese planet Nexus however, may have received a mixed inheritance from this intruder. The general conditions for life were so positive that the food chain was continually changing. Many evolutionary dead ends occurred in comparison to either Earth or Nexus. Newcomers to this scramble for a foothold had to adapt in extremely short order. If they did survive it was usually by courtesy of taking advantage of an already established species in some way. Amongst the most successful were viral strains, which had somehow managed to trick the immune system of the host into a ‘pseudo symbiotic’ relationship. This ultimately became one of dominance. Some of the Axis there had been infected and turned against their own species. It was eventually discovered that there was only a small percentage at risk, because of a peculiar genetic aberration. It was the converse of a minority surviving plagues with ‘natural’ immunity. The reception of this matter of fact report differed considerably amongst the population aboard Phoenix.

  The Sapients were even more convinced that the warning was related to viral import from the special brown dwarf. The Axis were now insistent on delaying any Pascal 2 code insertions, and felt the best option was to remain in orbit until the Gliese vessel arrived to make genetic comparisons with the two Axis clans before interfering with the pecking order on Nexus. This was based on the hope that the virus controlling the Ebexx was remotely similar to the Gliese variety. The policy of non-interference was the same in some ways to that which they had displayed when moving to Europa instead of claiming Earth. The Symbiants pointed out that although they did not concur with this ‘plan’, Sapients should temper their derision of the current Axis disposition with their Martian decision to allow Humanity to flourish.

  “Ok,” said Yamamoto, “but this is their own species being bred for dinner. If there was merit in them standing off Earth while we emerged, they can surely understand that our view is a consequence of their decision. It’s a convoluted logic, but I feel it vindicates our support of your plan to replicate a captive Ebexx and give us the means of protecting our own families. We can’t just go along with their ‘lottery’ attitude that most of them may survive.”

  Alex 2 looked troubled. “I agree, but now there is an additional complication. Apart from how long we may have to wait for the Gliese genetic data to be compiled, the Axis who are with us now do not want any existing replicants of theirs to participate in the Ebexx plan, and they have refused new replications. So we must re-think the detail.”

  Yamamoto seized upon this impasse as the time to confront the Symbiant. “Some of us are of the opinion that you may be withholding some of the content of the third message from the Progenitors. To put it bluntly, we only have your word that they exist, and therefore whatever instruction you receive. I’m not saying we don’t believe you, but we need to know a hell
of a lot more than they are supposed to have communicated so far. We have committed a significant part of our lifetimes to this mission, on the basis that you remind us of the need to be on the same team. We’re not the ones lacking promise now – that accolade has been usurped by the Axis on board. We need leadership that we can identify with; we have no time to even consider the Progenitors right now. There is a conflict to be decided – not balanced.” These provocative sentiments found support from the small Sapient contingent. Carvalho found himself torn.

  Tension was on the rise again. Alex 2 pressed Carvalho for further consideration of undergoing replication. “My request is related to my increasing feeling that I may not exist in my present form for much longer. I find it impossible to discuss this with my kin for exactly the same reason. There is an external influence involved with both sensations. You are the only individual with whom I can trust this concern. That is also tied into the overlay – I am expected to believe your replicant would fill in the real need for this. It sounds totally illogical, I know, and that in itself is disorienting for any member of the Continuance. It is almost as if a witness to some transformation is required before it occurs, and who is not quite a Symbiant.”

  Carvalho’s uncooperative stance was giving way to concern. “I trust you unconditionally as Alex 2, you know that. I have difficulty in grasping the purpose of what you’re saying, and I’m not sure this transformation hasn’t commenced already. Can you pinpoint any event which started this sensation which is haunting you?”

  “Not precisely the initiation, but there have been spikes since then, for example, Yamamoto’s outburst. On the one hand I accept his criticism, and so do the rest of the Symbiants – I can feel this. On the other hand they are unable to detect my ‘fear’ at his intentions. None of this should be happening but it is. Please think about what I have said and if you decline maybe I will experience another sensation.”

  Rene was not enjoying the popularity with the Axis she had grown accustomed to since birth. This was largely down to her leanings to the Sapients’ position with regard to the viral threat. She was one of the few of her species with the Pascal 2 code and this was seen as being primarily responsible for the ‘deviant’ philosophy. It didn’t help that she spent so much time at the Carvalho quarters, mostly with Anna-Severine, but increasingly with Daniel and Fernando. Fav tried to diffuse some of the feelings, by reminding his citizens that it was precisely the genius of Pascal 2, which resulted in Rene being the first Axis offspring to have survived since they first left Nexus. He challenged many of the detractors by asking why they celebrated the event for over three days. He also demanded she was shown the same respect as they had for the troublesome ‘virus driven’ Ebexx. “Anything less would be total hypocrisy.”

  Carvalho had decided he could not consider Alex 2’s request any further without discussing the implications for his entire family, particularly Stella. He made a different proposal to Alex 2. “We already have Dan, and although he looks exactly how I did in my late twenties, he still carries my memories albeit in a Symbiant architecture. Surely he could be your witness.”

  “I am afraid that is not what is required; he will have to remain as he is. You may recall that the first trials with the QSD unit were with Dan as the control interface. In order to achieve this he had to vacate data storage space to enable response time. Amongst the deleted content was recollection of some of your memory, seemingly unnecessary detail. Unfortunately there was an incident which is now important, but he deleted it. Anyway a new entity seems to be required partly from you as ‘Humanoid’ and partly from me as ‘Continuance’. If the physical appearance is the worry, because it would cause emotional difficulty for Stella, particularly after your death, this may be an alterable parameter. In fact I am now certain that would be the case.”

  The frown on Carvalho’s face was the only form of reply. As he walked back to his home his mind was ablaze with conflict. Here was a friend, who had always been up front about personal matters, yet now he seemed to be agitated about not being able to deliver sufficient data about his proposal. This was more akin to his non-proactive mode of technical assistance, but in this case he was selling the need to act very quickly. Carvalho wondered what would happen if he had already died. Would there be some other suitable candidate? This whole situation had moved from one he felt he needed to share with Stella, to one where he could legitimately be thought to be on mind-expanding substances. His gut just kept on telling him that it was seriously important.

  As he passed a lakeside cafe, he saw Yamamoto holding court. The gathering was predominantly Sapients, but Red and Dan were in the background and a handful of Axis had been drawn into the rather one-sided discussion. “I’m a dedicated scientist – proof is an essential part of my leaning on whether to believe or not. Whilst I don’t concur with the Axis posture on allowing these virally controlled Ebexx to breed their species for the abattoir, this may not be the most pressing problem. Like many others, I’ve made good friends and enjoyed working with the Symbiants. If I was a conspiracy theorist rather than a scientist I would view the situation as a farce. Think about it. The Human race lands on Mars and within days Alex Redgrave is replicated. We are told of the Progenitors, and are impressed with the benign nature, prodigious intellect and desire to assist us, according to the Continuance. They then discover the Axis, who conveniently colonised Mars millions of years before, and acted like remote carers for Humans. When they return to see the fruits of their vigil we invite them to stay. We all undergo further replication and more significantly, some of the Humans agree to genetic code modification. We even restore the supposed infertile Axis procreative capability. Why stop there? We work together to develop safe QSD propulsion. Then lo and behold, we find out from another Axis outpost that Nexus has not been annihilated by the neighbouring gas giants – it has stabilised. So all of the Axis clans want to come home, and the Symbiants make out a good case for joining them, persuading many Sapients in the process. When we almost get there we’re told that the Progenitors actually fixed the gas giants, but we don’t need to know more and we must not investigate this ‘failed star’, which was the means of restoring balance. Now that we are back to 55 Cancri, the Axis propose the ‘abandonment’ of the very souls they came forty-plus light years to meet, and thus ignite some kind of spiritual renewal. The lynchpin of all this is the Progenitors. My question is, are they a clever illusory deception? We can never have proof; that is what we are told. So we’re confronted with delivering faith without proof, does that sound familiar? I make no apologies to Red and Dan, who I see are in attendance, they have become my closest friends – I think! The time has come for us to know more. I see we also have Axis individuals with us. I’m not criticising your hard-wired passive philosophy, and I accept that Human society used to be no better than the Ebexx, prior to synthetic food production. We also had battery farms to feed our increasing numbers. But, is it wrong to protect your own species from barbaric predators? All I know is that I can’t sit by idly and not think about these decisions. I instinctively and compassionately feel I must help the kin of our Axis friends, and leverage more transparency from the Continuance.”

  Carvalho was struck by the vocal support for Yamamoto’s views and this extended to the Axis members who were present. The Symbiants were expressionless. Daniel Carvalho could have done without this fermenting revolutionary talk. He wanted to see his family settled on the new world, and take his chance with cheating death after that. He knew however, that the probability of life unfolding the way we desperately wanted it to, was very low. He decided to sleep on it as he recalled Alex 2 saying a refusal may spark another message or sensation.

  Chapter 4

  A week had passed and although many gatherings had taken place in restaurants, libraries and social meeting points, the opinion polls had not altered significantly. The great surprise for Carvalho was that Alex 2 had not mentioned his anxiety again. He was spending time with Ari Nielsen and the
y were discussing the striated rocks he had brought from Mars. Alex 2 had fastened on to Nielsen’s passionate belief that if the Symbiants, who had constructed the road bridge over a fissure on the way to Utopia Planitia had detoured to collect them, they must be of interest. All chemical analysis had failed to indicate why. Alex 2 asked which Symbiants had been responsible, but Nielsen didn’t know. It was therefore left for Alex 2 to question each member of the Continuance aboard the vessel. Carvalho couldn’t see a connection between this discussion and Alex 2’s request for him to agree to a new replication, but he decided to ask about it in a circuitous way. “I’ve thought long and hard about your request and I still can’t see the point. It might help if you could explain what would be the situation if I’d passed away when I was ‘only’ ninety or so.”

  The response was instant. “I would be pursuing the course I am currently on. Your reluctance to proceed was interpreted as being the same as refusing.”

  “Has that direction got anything to do with Nielsen?”

  Alex 2 nodded. “Indirectly, but this does not mean it is too late for you to agree to replication. The deadline will be precise as we enter Nexus orbit, unless the Nielsen route leads us there first.”

  The Epsilon Eridani vessel had suffered enforced QSD dropout. The message was some weeks old and asked for help. Fav tried to engage Alex 2, who politely referred him to Red and Dan. They in turn said they would prefer direct discussion to go through the Sapients who were members of the think-tank group – Yamamoto, Nielsen and Sevicek. Fav knew he could expect a frosty reception from Kipchoge Yamamoto, but made the request for him to renew his working relationship with Rose, the Axis propulsion technologist who had opted for the genetic code enhancement back on Mars. Surprisingly Yamamoto agreed, on one condition. He wanted Fernando Carvalho to be included to allow Nielsen and Sevicek to plough on with their frustrating test schedule on the striated rocks.

  Alex 2 had run to ground the three Symbiants who had collected those rocks. They didn’t offer much clarification. They did reveal that they ‘instinctively’ chose those samples. It had to do with the rocks’ previous interaction with the Continuance over four billion years ago. Although this added to Nielsen’s frustration, he suggested to Alex 2 that the significance may not be as simple as chemical analyses. “There are multiple permutations of atomic and molecular arrangements, none of which are remotely interesting.”

  Alex 2 turned away, and then checked. “If interaction took place all those millennia ago, maybe the signatures will be different now.”

  “Yes but.....”

  “Wait,” said the Symbiant, “they could have been absorbed, transformed, evaporated or consumed...that is the most likely reason – consumed. Quite possibly the interaction is the clue and the answer. Mr. Nielsen, let us look at maximum magnification rather than elemental analysis.”

  They hurriedly placed samples under the most powerful electron microscope on board. Nielsen peered at the output. “Well it looks exactly like our old enemy Legionella.”

  Alex 2 declared, “Not exactly Mr. Nielsen, look at the interconnections, they are not individual organisms. These clusters are different.” Higher magnification confirmed this and partially identified the conduit material, provoking a further comment from the Symbiant. “We need to speak again with the Axis.”

  “Why is that?” asked Nielsen.

  “Because the transmissions from the surface of Nexus claimed the organisms controlling the Ebexx were viruses.”

  “Yes I know,” sneered Nielsen, “but these Legionella are er... bacteria.”

  “Precisely,” countered Alex 2, “but the connecting tissue is a mutated virus we have encountered before on Mars. Don’t you see? The Axis on the surface may or may not know the difference, but we believe they have adapted to take control rather than kill the host. Think about it Mr. Nielsen, viruses are useful in genetic engineering but can’t multiply by themselves. Bacteria can be beneficial and are capable of dividing to multiply. A mutation of each can confer a benefit for both. Viruses have been used to target tumours and ‘good’ bacteria are accepted by some organic immune systems. I think you call it ‘the wooden horse of Troy’. The interaction we see here from Mars must have died out because of poor host candidates. The one on Nexus, if my prognosis is correct, does not suffer so badly. We must see if the Axis can glean anything more from these transmissions.”

  Carvalho was apprised of this latest theory and asked Alex 2 if it was more speculation than science. The Symbiant confessed it was, but sent a shiver down his friend’s spine when he explained more about the speculation. “I correlate the sensations I have with certain events. If you recall, the return of the first Copernicus mission from Mars involved Legionella, and all Humans who survived the assault which killed Javier Veltrano, have now passed away. You and I are the only remaining witnesses. It also links Legionella to the sensation that I must talk to Nielsen. Dr. Balinsky administered the antibiotics to the others. I can’t make the connection to you.”

  “I can,” admitted Carvalho, “when we were separating and I headed for Portugal, I remarked to Balinsky that I had mild symptoms similar to those who had actually gone down with the infection. She wrote the name of both types of medication she had used and recommended that I get some before departing.”

  “And did you?”

  “I intended to but the symptoms eased off.”

  Alex 2 was processing data furiously. “There is another possibility; we both witnessed Pascal Dupree descending into the same kind of coma which afflicted Veltrano. He asked for and received permission for replication as a last resort. You and I were there when that replicant - Trois, who we later lost in an accident, explained something to Dupree.”

  Carvalho drew breath, “You’re right, he said that unfortunately the replication had not conferred immunity to Dupree, but he was aware that the unusually long process had distracted the infecting species by having to deal with two totally different immune systems at once. It gave Dupree’s the respite to renew the resistance.”

  Alex 2 smiled. “Yes, and that must be the connection, why I am continually sensing you and I are supposed to re-enact the Dupree replication, with myself becoming part of your replication. That must be what is required.”

  Carvalho nodded but raised an inconsistency in the theory. “Dan became my replicant after that episode.”

  “That is true, but he deleted that knowledge when he became the Q.S.D. interface. This protection we are being advised of requires infection of a Humanoid, interference via replicant immunity and the transference of my immunity to you during the process. This last step did not occur with the Pascal Dupree situation on Copernicus. It is the insurance for your survival and your new replicant will consume the rest of me so that the entire knowledge is preserved. It is being designated as an essential defence against anticipated onslaught in the future. We will refer to this threat as Virubact. Your new immune structure will be copied and pasted into Sapient genetic code for the rest of your kin.” Just then Alex 2 received the expected fourth transmission; it clarified the warning about the special brown dwarf, or rather a solid body which was orbiting it.

  Alex 2 spoke as the transmission passed into his storage structure. “The tiny moon is the potential problem. When the dwarf star was trying to form from stellar dust, as anticipated, it accreted a lot of solid matter and collisions occurred. Debris from such splintering bodies contained more types of virus/bacterial hybrids. Many of these are not troublesome, but a few are much more advanced than the one currently affecting the Ebexx. Now the final part – you have natural immunity to the Nexus hybrid because of your flirtation with the similar Martian variety brought aboard Copernicus. However, none of us individually would be able to defeat some which may come our way in the near future. There is a lot of information about how viruses are the secondary foe of the Progenitors. It is too detailed for now. I am expected to become the new tertiary replicant, replacing my current form. You would not hav
e to worry about me resembling you in appearance, and without this procedure all passengers on Phoenix may perish.”

  Carvalho realised the difficulty of explaining this to his family and the rest of the Sapients. Apparently the other Symbiants would receive the upgraded data after replication. “Let’s do it while I’m still confused.”

  Alex 2 suggested Pascal 2 should administer the amorphous form of the red crystals intravenously, to quicken the process and therefore the immune transfer. He suggested he could also monitor the situation and take correctional steps if problems were encountered. However there was the small matter of freeing and ‘reviving’ the Virubacts in Nielsen’s rocks and then securing them again.

  “I would like to make one, but hopefully not last request,” said Carvalho.

  “Go ahead.”

  “Can we make the new entity look like you? It will cause less confusion when we try to explain the reasons for all this hybridisation, especially as you implied you would ‘disappear’.”

  “Very well, but you do realise I will not be exactly the same as before the event, I will be permanently ‘contaminated’ with your characteristics – good and bad.”

  Carvalho managed a grin.

  Chapter 5

  The Epsilon Eridani contingent faced a serious problem. If they could not restore QSD propulsion, the snail’s pace alternative thrust could see them effectively drifting for hundreds of years.

  Yamamoto recalled the problems the Martian coalition had, when the pilot tests were carried out, and how they were overcome by thinner, more accurate Seaborgium Oxy-chloride deposition, together with more precision in field generator design. If the former was responsible it would have been a recurring problem. If it was the latter the gradient control could be altered to some degree from within the vessel. Rose was worried that the pentagonal interlocks of the individual component thirty metre QSD units may have shifted. If this was the case, an EVA would involve adjusting radioactive panels in Hazmat suits. Red and Dan reminded both of them that they needed to compile a list of questions for the Axis on the vessel, and make them aware of the critical need for accuracy in their reply. Fernando was getting a real buzz from just listening to these exchanges. He felt important, and knew his family would be hungry for details.

  Alex 2 and Pascal 2 conferred on the retained knowledge of the Martian Virubacts. The optimum temperature for replication was 28.7 degrees Celsius and they preferred a humid atmosphere as well as slight acidity – ph of around 6.5.They insisted on carrying out the procedure without Sapients present as a precaution against accidental contamination. The culture took some days to show definite activity; this was restricted by a designed nutrient. They were ready.

  Carvalho had elected to explain all of this to Stella after he was discharged. He gave her the excuse that Pascal 2 was hospitalising him for a few days to conduct tests with the objective of further prolonging his life. “I don’t want to be disturbed during this invasive marathon Stella; it’ll be unpleasant enough without upsetting the family routine. Pascal 2 will keep you up to date. See you in a few days. I bet you are glad of a break from me anyway.” He winked at her and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

  Pascal 2 had been brought up to date with the rationale for this procedure and agreed it should remain between the three of them until success was achieved. He had no doubt about the outcome.

  The infection level was set at a dosage between that of a typical flu jab, and one of full blown contagion strength. Even after specimen analysis showed Virubact advance, Carvalho did not perceive symptoms. It was put down to resistance conferred by his brush with Legionella. As soon as the Virubacts overwhelmed this initial defence, the amorphous form was delivered and within two hours the replication was overtaking the march of the infection. Alex 2 was linked to Carvalho via more amorphous form and as yet did not seem to be interacting. Carvalho was drifting in and out of consciousness and during a lucid spell he was informed by Alex 2 that he was now ‘in the traffic’. The next half hour was bizarre, even for the medical Symbiant. Carvalho was very still. Then he displayed uncharacteristic symptoms of panic as he watched and felt Alex 2 begin to coalesce into the contact conduit between them. Unlike a ‘standard’ replication he was also conscious at the moment of development of the expected lump appearing on his temple. He was calmed to some extent by Pascal 2 declaring that the Virubacts were no longer making progress in their campaign to control nerve tissue. The metabolic shifts saw Alex 2 ‘disconnected’ in terms of cogent verbal contribution and his physical form was no longer recognisable. He was entering faster than ‘he’ was emerging. Carvalho knew he was experiencing sadness but could not make sense of why it was so intense – he had known this was going to happen. It was no longer possible to decipher facial expression of his former friend and the swelling on his temple was now transforming into a Humanoid outline according to Pascal 2. The eventual disappearance of Alex 2 was accompanied by a brief cerebral timeout for Carvalho, and when his perception returned Pascal 2 was busy with readouts and his attention was focussed on a mini-revival of the ‘pincered’ Virubacts. The emergent entity was now beginning to resemble the absorbed one when another departure from regular replication surfaced. Pascal 2 said he was able to converse with Alex 2 again in their renowned silent technobabble. The gist of his statement was that there was no cause for concern about the Virubact defiance. It was merely an internal Continuance architecture, allowing contamination to re-educate the regeneration process on a cellular level, and total immunity would follow. That was exactly what happened. At separation, the new entity was quicker than normal in adjusting vocal tones to match the host. This was an unforeseen error. The replicant looked like a twin of Alex 2 but spoke like Carvalho. This could and would be altered in due course. The new Alex 2 declared that he was immune to the Virubact mechanism of control, and Pascal 2 confirmed that Daniel Carvalho was recovering well from this attack.

  Alex 2 suggested that it would be prudent to advise everyone at the same time on these events and he could disclose more about this secondary enemy of the Progenitors.

  At the Carvalho residence Fernando was explaining the dire circumstances of the stranded Axis. Some of the technical aspects were not fully appreciated but the emotional plight hit home and his siblings realised this could happen to them. They were also proud that their brother was a part of the team trying to rescue kin of their friend Rene.

  Fernando milked the attention and switched subjects to demonstrate his wider influence. “You also need to know more about this danger we face from the virus controlling the Ebexx. We must be prepared.” He slipped into lecture mode, and unknowingly said something which would earn him even more status when Alex 2 revealed all. “You need to know the differences between viruses and bacteria to fully appreciate the concern. Viruses are smaller, ranging from 20-400 nanometres diameter, whereas bacteria are around 1000 nanometres. Viruses are particularly adept at attaching themselves to unprotected tissue such as the lungs. They need to do this to replicate, and this can give them a head start on the immune system. It appears from the Nexus broadcasts, that the Ebexx intruders have developed this one stage further to control some of the nerve tissues. Imagine the problem being intensified by viruses acquiring the ability to self-replicate.”

  Stella, Rafael, Anna-Severine and Rene were spellbound, but their clamour for more information was interrupted by a Symbiant messenger requesting everyone to assemble at the lakeside forum.

  Alex 2 prefaced his revelations by saying that he hoped what was to follow would offer a full explanation of recent events and the stepwise acquisition of knowledge which some individuals had demanded earlier, but he did not have sufficient clarity at that particular moment. This was not exactly a sideswipe at Yamamoto, but it appealed for understanding in similar circumstances in the future.

  He went on. “The message which provided details of the stabilising force in 55 Cancri was received at about the same time as the radio noise on Nexus was verified
as Axis, and it also revealed the viral infection of the Ebexx. The warning which accompanied the brown dwarf disclosure was in retrospect, to avoid further possible assault by similar virus strains from the region of this sub-stellar body. The proof of this has only just been verified by corroborating evidence, and a further communication of data from the source of the first three messages. By being reminded of similar viral activity back on Mars over four billion years ago, I investigated rocks which fortuitously came with us, and were in Ari Nielsen’s possession. The visual enhancement results proved that bacterial and viral interaction had already occurred. This symbiotic pact gave a new dimension to their evolution. That is how they have controlled the Ebexx. Although the Axis on Phoenix have probably got similar immunity to this specific threat, the warning was to declare that there will be many other types to which none of us have adequate individual protection. Daniel Carvalho has some natural resistance to the Martian type from his first stay on the planet, and I had a different immune approach. We have performed a replication of Daniel and myself in order to confer comprehensive resistance. This has been verified by the absence of need for further messages or guidance. Pascal 2 will be offering genetic code insertions which will give the combined immune structure to everyone. The next piece of information is surprising for me, and yet it completes the logic of what has been transmitted to us in serial parts. The advance of viruses in a cosmic context is significant enough to register concern with the Progenitors. They are a species which appeared to have phenomenal potential a long time ago. The paradigm jump in capability which we face currently is not only considered as no longer promising, but a direct threat to those species which are promising. We might see their ability to control certain species as novel, but they have been at this point for much longer than either the Axis or Sapients took to emerge from primordial soup. The Virubacts, as they will be known, detract from the overall progress against dark energy by stalling evolutionary development in general. They are apparently winning control, and then causing stagnation in progression, as they still cannot find a route to more complexity for their own metabolism. There are sectors of the Cosmos where they abound and render the region ‘infertile’. The Progenitors rely heavily on species making the transition to understanding all of the forces in cosmic struggles, and consequently, the essential need for balance. It may take some time for this information to be fully digested. We suggest re-convening here tomorrow to answer your questions.”

  The silence persisted as the gathering broke into groups. Daniel Carvalho could see he was in for a hard time as he re-joined Stella and the family.

  Alex 2 had deliberately left out the fact that he was now different. This was not a focus for the Axis or Sapients, but he now had to face the rest of the Symbiants who needed to know more.

  Stella’s tirade would have to wait, as Fernando was subjected to a hail of accusatory questions. Anna-Severine was first. “How long have you known about these Virubacts?”

  “I didn’t.....”

  Rafael hurled another barbed statement, intonated as a question. “I thought you and this team was working solely on helping the stranded Axis vessel.”

  “If you will just....”

  His sister regained the momentum. “You must have known about Father too, when were you going to let us in on that?”

  The inquisition was relentless until Carvalho stepped in. “You are both being very unfair to Fernando. You haven’t even given him a chance to answer your empty allegations, when I would’ve thought you had sufficient trust in him to know he wouldn’t have kept you or your Mother in the dark about this. Now I can tell you that only three individuals had any knowledge of these events, and I am the only Sapient who was trusted with the information, purely because I had the required immune level. Now I think you owe your brother an apology and I owe all of you mine, mostly you Stella.”

  Fernando leapt to his father’s defence before anyone could continue with the negative take. “We should be celebrating what Father has done for all of us, not just the family, but Rene here and the rest of the Axis. Even the ‘impregnable’ Symbiants will benefit. You need to know more about these Virubacts before we start criticising anyone.”

  Stella found her anger at Daniel being choked and replaced by pride in her eldest son seeing the bigger picture, and she had to admit to herself that she would have tried to talk him out of the replication. She asked Fernando to continue.

  He was happy to do so. “Considering viruses alone is important. They are the borderline between living and non-living things. They can be dormant for very long periods of time, and are stimulated by conditions which suit them, in a host. This is not all that different from the way the red crystal exits hibernation and proceeds to replicate a host. They are thought to be complex molecules of protein and nucleic acids; that is why some scientists refer to them as ‘bits of genetic code’. They show no lifelike activity until introduced to a living cell. They cannot be ‘grown’ in the lab with simple nutrients as bacteria can. These ones Alex 2 talked about from Mars were inactive because the bacterial content in the hybrid was basically in stasis. The nutrient used was to control the proliferation of the bacteria and therefore the virus. When a normal virus enters the host cell, it changes the chemistry of that cell to produce toxins harmful to the host. So the two main disadvantages they had have been eliminated when they teamed up with bacteria. They can sneak into a host by being temporarily invisible to the immune system and they can alter the cell chemistry to control the information flow at that cellular level. This is surely why the Progenitors are taking the threat so seriously. It’s also logical that they seek to protect the mechanism of the Continuance, like viruses, seeded throughout the Cosmos, just waiting for a host. They are competitors for sentience.”

  Carvalho struggled to prevent a wry smile; nobody had made this connection, not even Alex 2. Fernando finished with a worrying comment. “Although we know what viruses are, there are some diseases we have failed to eradicate, such as HIV, because we don’t know how they were ‘born’. Anyway, I need to get back to Yamamoto and Rose; I think they have more data transmission from the Epsilon Eridani vessel.”

  Rene was more determined than ever to shake her kin out of their apathy, and there were growing numbers of Axis in agreement with this sentiment after Alex 2’s briefing. The imminent session for questions could not come soon enough.

  Chapter 6

  They were scanning the new data, including telemetry. Rose was happy that the interlocks did not show movement which would have caused the problem. Yamamoto had picked out marginal and sporadic aberrations in the field generator switching synchronisation, but Dan and Red didn’t feel they were the root cause. As Rose was doing most of the translation of a morass of log entries over the decades of the journey, it was understandable that she missed the significance of the rare reports of ion storms, especially as the reports concluded with – ‘no damage reported’.

  In his ‘apprentice’ capacity of dredging through stuff which had already been examined by Rose and Yamamoto, Fernando queried the possibility of a cumulative effect on the closed-loop interface management. The two Symbiants hadn’t got into this detail, preferring to spend time discussing the theories of Yamamoto, urging him to move to other areas of investigation than his obsession with the field generator. These arguments became quite heated and when Fernando quietly asked if they could use their prodigious data processing power to run simulations of the possible ion storm effects, it silenced the debate.

  Within a couple of hours and millions of calculations they both agreed that this was a more likely cause than anything considered so far. On checking the logs for Phoenix, there were only three such recorded events. However, when trawling through the plethora of data around the specific dates they found a trend. There was a minute shift in the synchronisation each time, but the values were still within operational tolerance specification. More importantly, there was a very gradual return to the original position befo
re the storm. It appeared that there was a gentle self-correction discharge curve of the effect. By contrast the Epsilon Eridani vessel had never quite regained neutrality before being confronted by another storm. Once the interface reached a particular level of phase separation, the effect took progressively longer to self-correct. It was a cycle which could only be broken by less frequent storms and therefore longer ‘recovery’ times. The easiest solution was to do nothing until the discharge reached a specific threshold. The bad news was that it could take over a year for this to occur. The project team had now shifted focus – on how to purge the interface management without causing other problems.

  Red and Dan left the group and made their way to see Alex 2. The rest of the Symbiants were gathered and a mass technobabble session began. Unlike the other two species there was no debate or views which were at variance with what was to happen next. All individuals underwent updates in registry and data assembly. This was to the outsider an impressive demonstration of cohesiveness, except for one ‘desire’ for further detail. If the three Symbiants on Mars had instinctively collected the rocks containing Virubacts, why had there been no discussion about this until now? This gradually attracted more technobabble traffic, and the semantic notion of instinct equating to urging by the Progenitors, came under scrutiny. There were still gaps. Ari Nielsen could easily have discovered the Virubacts on his own. It troubled many of them that if they were meant to collect the samples it may have also been an early warning not to build Phoenix and travel to a proverbial haven for these agents. A haven which, to a great degree, was sculptured by the formation of the brown dwarf, and that was supposedly to engage Interference with a capital ‘I’. The logic routines of some but not all attendees were in danger of causing a crash in their operating system. Alex 2 asked those with this malfunction to temporarily delete the data which he had just transferred to them until the reason for the divergence could be researched. Red was one of them, Dan was not. It struck Alex 2 that as he and Red had come from the same replication source, that he really was different now.

  When the gathering dispersed Pascal 2 indicated he was, like Dan, unaffected by the conflicting logic presented by one of the finders of the rocks in question. That Symbiant was Finn. He had detoured from his work at Candor Chasm to the bridge construction at the fissure and asked two others to assist in collecting ‘representative’ samples. The other two had merely agreed, but all three had been aware that they had to select the pieces by employing their vision apparatus at maximum resolution. This was a unilateral act by Finn. They had not questioned this at the time, and Finn had been re-deployed to begin the task of drilling boreholes at the base of Candor Chasm, believed to be for relieving volcanic pressure. The same boreholes had flushed out chunks of carbon in the form of diamonds. What else had they flushed out? After all this time Finn revealed that he had felt a ‘need’ to investigate more samples than just the diamonds, but the Humans feared consequences of the discovery of the sparklers, so he had to hide them and his curiosity was bypassed. Now he felt there could be some connection with the Virubacts, which he had obviously been despatched to find, and return to the analytical expertise of Ari Nielsen and Jussi Pykonnen. The subsequent accident, resulting in Pykonnen’s death, became the sole focus for days, and relegated the Virubact rocks to storage and future investigation. If he had known then what he knew now, the results would have been available prior to Mars departure. The other two Symbiants felt similar unease. Finn felt they should warn the Humans left on Mars.

  Alex 2, Pascal 2, and Dan responded by suggesting it could be a fruitless gesture, quoting the time elapsed. They argued that if there were Virubacts in the chasm, they would have reactivated by now. To their surprise Red supported Finn’s request. “We can at least inform them of the tertiary replication you performed, they have crystal.”

  This mild-mannered disagreement was troubling the Symbiants as a group, it was new territory. As the Axis also showed cleavage over the Ebexx issue, the Sapients were the most harmonious clique aboard.

  The most worrying element of this ‘insubordination’ was that they all had the same data, yet Alex 2 had explained how he was now different. “I have not confused the other species with this information, as I do not understand its meaning at present. We must prevent further individualistic development within our ranks.” He conceded to comply with Finn’s warning to Mars in order to help foster a return to unanimity.

  Carvalho reflected on Fernando’s diligence in being instrumental in the identification of the Epsilon Eridani stranded vessel. His elder son had been the most reticent of the children to embrace centre stage, even in his late twenties. The others were only too happy to attract attention to their own offerings in the arts. He knew his body was failing, but this added to his desperation to build a home on Nexus and see his family settled. Fernando had given him new pride to aid his struggle.

  All of the Sapients had the immune code now and those remaining few who didn’t have the cerebral code enhancement realised it was key to their survival and went ahead.

  The Axis had seen a huge shift in shedding the initial apathy regarding the Ebexx question. Less than twenty percent stubbornly retained inflexibility. That minority also declined the cerebral code and the immune protection. This was, in the opinion of the Symbiants, a recipe for disaster. In exercising their rights, they could seriously compromise the strategy – the Symbiants were all agreed on this. The Axis said their position would not be reviewed again until their brethren from Gliese arrived, and they would remain aboard Phoenix for that duration. Yamamoto, having regretted his earlier criticism of Alex 2, now genuinely felt part of a more promising species.

  One of the least likely Axis converts was leading the rest. His translated name approximated to ‘Tradition Keeper’. The abbreviated Sapient designation was ‘Trader’. He had accepted the code and immune procedures, and astonished the Symbiants by volunteering to be replicated, to capture an Ebexx. He said that his change of heart was purely to assist his ‘traditional’ cave dwelling brethren on the planet, to re-establish safe existence, followed by freedom for those in captivity. “If we do not at least try to achieve this, why did we return? The matter of having partially recovered procreative potency would also be an empty achievement. I do not wish harm upon the Ebexx, simply to free them from this plague of Virubacts.” Whenever he spoke publicly on the matter he held hands with Renewal and her mother Peri.

  Having undergone a partial, tertiary replication with Alex 2 and the amorphous form, to confer maximum immunity, he intensified his efforts to persuade the remaining entrenched minority of the justness of the cause. A few more defected, but Fav still held sway over some of the more senior officials, and they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

  The replicant’s name was chosen by Rene, it was apparently a designation without translation. Keer would be ready when landfall beckoned.

  Phoenix was at the outskirts of 55 Cancri, and it was prudent to drop out of QSD to re-calculate the safest path to Nexus, assisted by the newer information on the orbiting planetary bodies.

  Chapter 7

  Nexus was not precisely as the Axis remembered. Its orbit took it closer to the gas giants in turn. This was part of the stabilisation, albeit resulting in an eccentric path through the traffic. The increased gravitational influence of the huge neighbours caused frictional internal, almost tectonic movement. It was not violent but did generate additional heat, which in turn thickened the atmosphere by producing greenhouse effects and more contrasting seasonal variation. It was a predominantly red mineral world, but with thriving diversity of flora, in oases, which produced a tapestry of green and yellow. There was more water, and as it was still shallow in places, the solubilising minerals created a kaleidoscope of corals. The urge of the majority of Axis to descend, was powerful and it did break the resistance of all but a few of the rest.

  The plan was for Keer and Alex 2 to descend as close as possible to high altitude caves with cle
arly strengthened gates. They hoped to meet the inhabitants and Keer would relate the Phoenix crew’s improbable story, making them comfortable with the Symbiant. All they expected to achieve initially was to convince them of their intent to rescue their kin. The wider objective of purging the Ebexx would wait. The vision of Phoenix should go some way to underpin the feasibility of the mission.

  The orbital position allowed more clarity in the radio emanation from the surface. It also allowed much higher resolution pictures of the tiny moon referred to in the warning. It appeared to be devoid of atmosphere and the entire surface looked frozen. The warning had conveyed the distinct probability of impacts which was now evident and upgraded as extremely high. The rearrangement of the gas giants and the appearance of the special brown dwarf had engineered a sea change in the paths of all manner of wandering celestial bodies. The dwarf itself was still gorging regularly on these relatively morsel-sized objects, though many were bigger than the little moon which contained legions of foes. This new precision regarding the threat warranted some further discussion on the overall campaign. The Ebexx may prove to be the least of their worries, but it was considered prudent to progress the encounter with maximum expediency.

  The descent was conducted with the usual Symbiant precision and they made landfall at the base of a huge, almost vertical cliff. It had obviously been chosen for its inaccessibility and ease of defence. Precarious ledges were the only detectable means of access to a large gated structure, about two thirds of the way up.

  Keer had a bright yellow colour display radiating from his eyes, indicating good news. “The Ebexx, even with Virubact controllers could not make use of these handholds, they are too heavy and cumbersome, or at least they were.”

  “What about your kin?”

  “They may have used an ancient cave dweller’s technique. Ascending to the peak, lowering via an umbilical, and then chiselling away any holds above or below the entrance. If this is what they have done we should look for evidence of rope marks on the cliff face. They would have some kind of roll out ladder for exit and then pull it up until a signal alerts them to identify who or what is at the bottom of the cliff.”

  Another observation by Keer related to the gravity on the planet. “I am getting data that suggests the Sapients will find themselves out of breath quite quickly here, and not just at altitude.”

  Alex 2 remarked that the atmosphere contained 16.7% oxygen at this location and presumably a bit higher in the lowlands. “However, I agree – there is a significantly higher gravitational force on Nexus compared to Mars. The Sapients may indeed have some difficulty with the combination of these factors. I will transmit this to Pascal 2.”

  There was evidence of dye or some staining leading to the entrance. A series of yellowish green lines were punctuated by small circular loops every couple of metres. Keer remarked that this was the historical way in which such caves were accessed. The loops were way too small for the Ebexx to secure their feet while climbing. This meant that both of their arms would be needed to scale the cliff by dragging their considerable weight upwards. “If my memory is correct our ancestors would then redirect cave waterfalls to hose them to the ground. Maybe they have something more effective now.”

  They searched the base area for over an hour, seeking some means of alerting the inhabitants to their presence. Then suddenly the rumble of activity from above attracted their gaze. One individual appeared and eyed them for a time before beckoning others. There ensued a frantic communication in Axis click language which was difficult for Keer to comprehend. He picked out muffled references to the object in the sky and himself, but could not decipher the comments regarding Alex 2. There were two factors – the language itself and the gibbering by all of them at once.

  He called out, “Citizens of Nexus, I am of your distant kin. You must know of the exodus from our planet, referred to as the Kressniss, I am from that time.”

  The mass-clicking subsided into silent disbelief. Keer continued. “I know this must be difficult for you to accept, and you are respectfully requested to ask us any questions which may help convince you that we have returned. You can see our vessel in the sky. We have other friends with us who wish to help in solving your difficult situation with the Ebexx. I have some difficulty with your spoken language after all this time; the same may be true for you. I suggest we offer you some literature in symbols so that we can begin to make progress.” He could not be sure how much of this they could comprehend. He had prepared for this and used one of the Nielsen’s lasers to display the verbal message he had just delivered, on to the rock face opposite the cave. The agitated clicking re-commenced and their colour displays flashed all manner of combinations, from encouraging bright yellow to a threatening grey. Keer was not too disturbed as there was no sign of solid black.

  This spectral exchange continued for some time amid bursts of clicking; the gradual shift from diversity in hue and intensity was a sight to behold. The reds, blues and indigo softened to islands of yellow in a receding sea of orange and green. A stalemate of sorts was reached. The islands were now orange and swathes of yellow ochre had nuclei of radiating gold. It stopped. Some decision was imminent.

  Keer was acutely aware of the need at this stage to befriend these Axis groups, and he suggested to Alex 2 that they should begin to differentiate the present and expected clans. He suggested the ones currently indigenous to the planet could be referred to as the Indys. The Gliese and Epsilon tags would suffice, and those aboard Phoenix should be known as the Europans. As Alex 2 began to process this terminology, one of the cave dwellers surprised them by starting to descend.

  “Another thing,” said Keer, “we must not complicate their thinking by revealing the Symbiant presence yet, particularly as I am one of them.”

  “Yes, of course,” replied Alex 2, “this was all agreed prior to your arrival. Please proceed as the spokesperson for now.”

  The courageous individual reached the ground and cautiously walked around the two visitors before delivering a garbled message, punctuated by what sounded like tut-tut and a short break. Keer was having some success with what were actually questions about Axis ancestry and history. It was just as well he had replicated Tradition Keeper, and his abundance of inherited knowledge received the right colour displays. However the inevitable exodus cropped up and the deepest black was evident for the first time. Keer reverted to symbols to make sure there was no insensitivity due to dialect. It went well enough for the ‘ambassador’ to retreat and explain to the gallery that the visitors did not appear to be a threat. This was apparently questioned further because of the physical differences conveyed by three million years of distinctly different evolution. The Indys were much bigger, muscular and possessed more accentuated features. The jaws and teeth were very prominent and the scaly exterior was not in evidence, they were furry. Considering all of this it was remarkable that they were invited to ascend.

  They did so slowly, and when both of them had set foot inside the cave, a dozen or more of the hosts surrounded Alex 2 and intimidated him with a mix of clicking, hissing and snarling.

  Keer shouted as loud as he could for them to stop, while his fellow Symbiant feigned weakness and fear. With an almighty leap he entered the circle and left no room for doubt that he was going to defend his friend. The barracking abated only long enough for them to be impressed with Keer’s athletic prowess, then upon resumption they found out how different their distant kinsman was. One of the more vociferous in the chorus was prodded by Keer and was despatched backwards with effortless force. More of the onlookers joined in to help their awestruck colleagues. This was halted abruptly when Alex 2 shouted to Keer. He had taken advantage of the simmering brawl to relocate to the entrance. The closure was a giant rock which had been patiently sculptured to an almost airtight fit with the aperture. There was a mechanism for rotating this boulder back and forth, but Alex 2 chose to move it himself. The stunned gathering dispersed into every available nook and cranny, to
the accompaniment of a threat by Alex 2 to allow the Ebexx entry.

  This was a highly unusual gesture from Alex 2, and Keer regained centre stage. “We only demonstrate our abilities to convince you that we can free your brothers, sisters and children from captivity. We mean you no harm but you must show us that we can also trust you.”

  Slowly a huddle developed and the same leading individual apologised for the unruly incident. They wanted to hear more.

  Keer suggested a break. “We will return to our vessel. We are proposing to capture an Ebexx and influence it in a way which will allow us to begin to free those of your relatives who are on the farms. We would like you to think about this and decide if you want our help. We have intercepted some of your radio signals. We know you are developing a new weapon to fight the Ebexx. I am leaving you a communication device which is far superior to your radio technology and you may give us your decision via this remote sender/receiver. I will instruct one of you in the use of simple commands before we leave. If your response is positive we will invite up to three members of your race to come to the vessel to see how we will subdue the Ebexx. Please consult your other groups to discuss our proposal before transmitting your response. We are intending to live on Nexus even if you do not want to enlist our help. We will now prepare to leave.”

  Having returned to the base of the cliff, Keer turned to Alex 2, and remarked how surprised he was at the boulder stunt coupled with the threat of inviting the enemy into their midst.

  “Yes, I was quite surprised myself, but it did get their attention. I appear to have inherited a little more Humanoid character than simple immune sharing.”

  The Indys lost no time in contacting other groups. Their crude radio transmission system was similar in principle to the crystal sets used on Earth in the early part of the twentieth century. Each abode at altitude had a camouflaged receiver and transmission device. The Indys had made progress in other respects. It was modest, yet remarkable, considering they were hunted continually, and just surviving was an achievement.

  Their management of water, light and air circulation did not improve their chances of a quiet life, but kept them safe and healthy. The array of heat and air pumps delivered protective warmth against the often savage winters at these heights. Selective and variable light intensity through mirrored tubes enabled focus, and the array of plant species they managed to grow in the caves was nothing short of astonishing. The caves themselves had comfortable, decorated areas for socialising and sleeping. It was easy to see the potential these creatures could achieve if they were able to roam their environment without fear.

  As it was a grave risk for even small numbers to meet in the open, the transmission invited delegates from other outposts to their abode. None of them declined. The lead figures would not risk the journey themselves; deputies would suffice for the initial session. Gsarr, leader of the ‘first contact’ group would be the only one of decision making rank in attendance, so the discussion would be followed by radio updates to the outposts.

  Meanwhile, on return to Phoenix, Keer’s report was the final frictional straw that broke Fav’s leadership support. The Axis only accommodated changes at the top because of death or ‘serious wrongdoing’. The plight of the Indys was so graphic that even some of the few loyalists the leader retained agreed to his removal from office. Keer was to act as figurehead until the procedural requirements for an election could be met, and this was a priority before they attempted to settle on Nexus. The Europan era was over; turning the other cheek could not rescue the Indys from their living hell, and although they had never intended to inflict direct harm on the Ebexx, this was about to change. The die was cast.

  Chapter 8

  There had been no communication to Phoenix from Gsarr about the invitation to come aboard. Keer wondered whether he had misunderstood the instruction for the remote device or the other group leaders had refused. Over two weeks was a long time if the communicator was in order. What Keer did not really grasp was the distance over which some of the deputy group leaders had to travel to discuss the matter. It was danger all the way and there was no facility such as organised transport. Also they had to schedule their departure and arrival times so as not to alert the foe. It was a considerable undertaking.

  Another week passed and preparations for the election of the new Europan Axis leader were nearing completion. This had been the only distraction which prevented a return trip to the surface. Keer decided he needed to speak with his replication subject, Trader. He was after all a Symbiant, and he wanted to ensure that he had a better understanding of the emotional aspects facing the Indys; data access alone would not suffice.

  The reply from Mars contained chilling information. The warning had been too late. In the intervening forty-five years the warmer climate had facilitated the revival of several Virubact strains and almost the entire colony had been infected by one or another. It had become a battleground in many respects. Firstly, there were types which had not developed full control ability, so they simply and efficiently terminated the host or left them with severe brain disorders, or moral dysfunction or both. Other, more advanced strains did establish control and were extremely dangerous with the full array of intellectual capacity of Humans at their disposal. There were sub-strains which competed for the abundance of hosts, and created polarisation of those occupied, into ‘tribes’ - with ever changing alliances being forged.

  All this was against the backdrop of Earth withdrawing from the colonisation programme and banning any contact with Mars of any kind. Unmanned stealth craft continually sent the voyeuristic footage back to the home planet. There had been risk at the outset that the pandemic would be imported from travellers, but they had been ruthlessly quarantined for observation and they had conveniently died.

  This bizarre attitude had its own Earthly context to deal with, as a ratchet effect on climate change had caused a mini-ice age. People were dying anyway, so there was little discussion about a few imprisoned, infected Martians. There was rapidly increasing population density now in the few temperate areas which were left, but unlike the weather, the global financial structure had suffered meltdown. Police states had come into effect, but scarcity of real necessities of life drove a wedge between those who governed and those who refused to be governed.

  This scenario was described by a few Humans and their recent replicants surviving on Mars, with strongholds in the Echus region, which still had sub-space data systems operating. Replicant ‘ownership’ had become the most valuable commodity on the tortured planet. This commodity was even more coveted on Earth. The replicants who constructed and managed the commercial space elevators had been redeployed since the travel embargo. Their very rich and powerful employers were planning an invasion of Mars. The logic was crude – it would be easier to tame the Humans, replicants and Virubacts on Mars than taming the ice age on Earth. Stage one was to set up a weapons delivery system to the various protagonists and let them fight it out, to soften up the resistance to invasion. A group of replicants on Earth had been instructed to study means of subduing the Virubact threat in advance. This disturbed Alex 2, ironically because it could be seen by the Progenitors as a promising development against the secondary enemy.

  This news had blighted the already tense atmosphere on Phoenix. It did however drive the point home, that the Virubact presence in 55 Cancri was not going to be any more sympathetic than the Martian one, and it was likely to be more advanced. Alex 2 reflected on the time correlation of the warning about approaching the brown dwarf, two years before arrival, and the Martian pandemic. They occurred at pretty much the same time.

  The election was one of pragmatic simplicity. Trader was the overwhelming choice, and Keer’s short tenure had ensured a smooth transference of authority. It also allowed him to plan a return to the surface. His discussion with Alex 2 was interrupted by the contact from Gsarr. The protracted logistics and subsequent talks had been concluded. They wished to accept the offer to come aboard and
learn more about the plan to deal with the Ebexx.

  The descent coordinates were supplied by the Indys, apparently a much safer location. It was a small barren island, centrally located in a very shallow lake. The island rose out of the water with sheer cliffs and the Ebexx had not mastered the art of sailing or rock climbing yet. The touchdown would be tricky, but possible. They set off.

  The descent module caused mild panic amongst the waiting Indys, it must have taken on the mantle of a giant flying reptile. A bigger problem was the thrusters and their effect on scattering the frightened but curious passengers. They were tumbled over and over by the landing and took quite some persuading to approach the transit vessel, even though they saw the Symbiants emerge from it unharmed. The two deputies expected became three, as they insisted all of their people had to be represented. Gsarr introduced the others as Rstapp, Frnik and Phlygex. It took over an hour before they approached the now silent monster with the angry breath. Gsarr showed his leadership qualities by displaying bravado and his matter of fact embarkation was accompanied by a flickering yellow colour display. Nervously the others followed and they all stared wide-eyed at surrounding consoles and screens. Alex 2 secured himself in the cockpit, and Keer motioned for them to follow suit. Fiddling and clicking reached fever pitch, so Keer obliged by assisting them individually. The ascent caused a sharp intake of breath, but this time it was wonder. They had never experienced anything remotely like the receding view of their planet. This time the yellow was not interrupted by flicker and they gibbered to one another, creating a deafening chorus.

  Passing through the airlocks was disorienting for them but they had adapted to being surprised as opposed to scared. When they entered the ‘village’ and saw all three species living together the jibber-jabber went into overdrive. They were offered food and drink but declined. The lakeside VRS had been programmed to give a potted history of the Axis exiles in the last three million years. It provoked a little confusion when the arrival estimates of the Gliese and Epsilon were highlighted. They could not really believe they could not arrive together with the Europans. The concept of a ‘distant’ world had only the inhabited region of Nexus to draw upon.

  When the show was over the Indys were keen to progress the plans for deposing the Ebexx. So eager in fact, that they announced that they were about to launch their own strategy. They had delayed this because of Alex 2’s demonstration of displacing the cave entrance boulder with impunity. Gsarr requested a second episode to convince the deputies of the other tribes. Keer explained that such force was only employed in self-defence. The Indys felt cheated. They wanted to see more ‘miracles’ from the High People. If the Ebexx were not to be despatched by force, and quickly, they would revert to their own device.

  Trader appeared from the crowd to stand alongside Keer. He felt it was best for them to know of the source of the astonishing attributes. The identical appearance of Trader and his Symbiant was explained patiently, over and over again. It was easy to overlook some aspects of the recipients’ understanding when they had shown admirable progress in such difficult circumstances. Gsarr would not let go of his assertion that it was not possible for Trader to be millions of years old and Keer to be only a few weeks old. The Phoenix-dwellers had thought the Indys would have trouble comprehending - and therefore accepting the replication process story. It was the opposite – they simply nodded when the ‘Gods’ mentioned that Keer’s strength had come from this procedure. And they simply shook their heads when told it had only happened recently. The decision was taken to have a break, in order to review this void which separated each party’s perspective. Trader asked if they could hear the Indys’ own plan. The response was immediate and all of them proudly flashed yellow. Gsarr delivered the detail.

  “During our plant research many cycles ago, we produced an energy-giving species by growing two others together. The new one was very popular but we noticed after consuming it for a long period some of us were losing our ability to recall familiar things – names, and where we lived. This was dangerous and we stopped growing it. One of our best ‘idea makers’ made us think about it in another way. He said if it had such effects on us it would probably do the same to the Ebexx. So we started to try to make it stronger, but we had no success for a long time. We almost gave up when one of our elders said he had been trying to tell his group leader repeatedly that there were much bigger specimens of one of the contributing species over the great divide, where his family had originated. They were growing in shallow water. No one was prepared to risk this journey for generations because of the stories of the beasts which inhabit these wetlands.

  “The elder said it would be his contribution to lead us there even if he did not survive. This made many feel inadequate, and at last volunteers came forward. They were successful in retrieving multiple examples of this plant type. The elder was too frail to climb to safety when they were pursued by Fasnshluur. He perished, but his life gave us the pure Amzyss. That was his name, and he will live on as long as we have it. It is so strong that a small piece can make us forget who we are and what we are doing, for several cycles. It seems to react with our thinking controls and our body has to fight it until we are clean again. The Ebexx have a drinking station at all of their farms, and we are going to put the Amzyss extract in their water sources which are always some way from the farm.”

  Keer and Trader approached Alex 2 and said this idea not only had merit in itself but if they assisted with the plan via an Ebexx replicant as scheduled, it would surely be more in keeping with the Europan Axis general principle of compassion for all sentient species. Keer said, “After all, if we were not here they would be doing this anyway. Our part could then be to protect them while they carried out their plan. They would get much more self-esteem from turning the tables on their ancient foe. An amnesiac in the water supply is a neat idea, and could buy us a little time to research these Virubacts, if we can take blood samples from the temporarily disadvantaged Ebexx.”

  The others nodded their approval. They now had to convey this layered strategy to the Indys – emphasising the guarantee of absolute protection for their kinsmen during their operation. No more words were needed, the colour said it all.

  Chapter 9

  The Epsilons reported that liaison with the Gliese had been fruitful. They were going to try an EVA sweep of the entire vessel and its system hardware to neutralise the cumulative effect of the ion storms. It was considered to be a better alternative to drifting for months. The Europans were worried that they had not factored in all the risks of such a complex project, however they got some encouragement from Red and Dan that it had merit. This endorsement of course, was only with respect to the principle and not the detailed implementation procedure, for which they had no data. The Europans sent their sincere hopes for a speedy resumption of their journey.

  The locations of the amnesiac delivery points were charted and Keer was joined by two more Symbiants, both from Europan subjects. They chose to ‘infect’ the water supply closest to the largest Ebexx farm first. The logic was to impress as many adversaries as possible in one encounter.

  It was not necessary for more than one Indy to be involved in the pollution exercise, and the party of four should attract enough, but not too much attention. They assembled at the water source before the red dawn. The utterly still morning worked in their favour; no scent was carried prematurely down wind. Nexus displayed its contradictory aspects. It was, at the same moment serene and wondrous in the breaking shafts of stretched light. Then it became broody with myriads of hidden cliff recesses, and finally spectacular, under the clear detail of the early morning sky, with its arriving sun gradually ousting the dance of the brown dwarf and its companion.

  The tense atmosphere on Nexus was relayed back to Phoenix; the gallery was transfixed, there was a whiff of excitement sprinkled with apprehension. While Gsarr began to dribble the extract into the water feed, the first stirrings of the Ebexx were reported by Styliar, the Symbi
ant acting as sentry. It would take at least an hour for any significant quantity of Amzyss to diffuse into the drinking pool; the early awakening of the Ebexx was not welcomed. In trying to accelerate the process, Gsarr unknowingly allowed the pouring height to increase and the splashing alerted the extra sensitive hearing of the yawning Ebexx. They always camped outside the large ring of boulders which encircled the domesticated Indys. They fed their livestock by pushing one stone just far enough out of position for harvested vegetable matter to be hurled into the arena. Arena was an apt description as the feeding ritual was infrequent enough for the starving Indys to compete for the limited quantity. The most vulnerable were isolated at the longest radius, and made easy pickings for their masters. The kill was not seen, as the Ebexx covered the mouth and dragged the snared individual outside. Repositioning of the stone created the background noise which muffled the execution – the massive paws crushed the delicate Indy skull with relatively little force and virtually no noise. The kill was immediately divided and shared. There was a surreal nature about large carnivores going about this feeding routine in such an orderly fashion and without squabbling. Keer asked Gsarr how often they needed to kill; he was sickened by what he had witnessed. “They only feed on our species once per orbit of the big gas giant around the main sun, which is twenty-six times the cycle of our planet. The rest of their food comes from the lakes, roots - and berries from certain plants. We are considered a special delicacy.”

  The yawning Ebexx had made others aware of the presence of new stock. Some were too lazy to respond, but a dozen joined up to corral the Indys which had been ‘gifted’ to them. They knew their prey could not outrun them and ambled nonchalantly toward the group. They appeared confused that the targets seemed afraid but did not panic, as expected, and scurry off in different directions. As they came closer one of the party advanced toward them. Keer rendered the nearest Ebexx unconscious with a backhanded swipe to the side of the head. Two others closed in and Keer leapt into the air and delivered simultaneous kicks, which stopped them in their tracks. It produced a temporary hiatus in the advance. The remaining pack conferred and suddenly all rushed at Keer. He dropped his head and ploughed through their ranks – another four were wounded or discouraged. The remainder took further stock of the situation and split up again, this time attacking from a rough pentagon shape. While Keer despatched the one directly ahead, the one on his right flank grabbed and pulled his arm with such ferocity that it separated from the rest of him. Another joined this prize winner to share the spoils, and the remaining three, encouraged by this success, closed in. Keer was too quick for them, and a lightning pirouette with his lone flailing arm took them out of the reckoning. The two with his detached limb exercised discretion over valour and retreated to the outskirts of the stone circle, gesturing a victory while ten of their number in horizontal repose, testified to the contrary. The first one struck by Keer had been bound tightly by Styliar and the third Symbiant ensured that the other prostrate individuals remained inactive. Gsarr was awestruck by the contradictory elements of violence and ballet to which the Ebexx had been subjected. He was however concerned that Keer had not been assisted by the other two Symbiants and lost an arm.

  The ascent module landed less than fifty metres away, so that the Ebexx could see from whence these ‘new’ Axis had come. Once aboard Keer explained to Gsarr that it was necessary for only one Symbiant to defeat the Ebexx, as a demonstration of what could follow. “My arm will regenerate quickly – look it has begun already.”

  The ascent vessel dropped Gsarr back at the island so he could relate the events to his colleagues, and then proceeded with the trussed Ebexx to Phoenix. Pascal 2 would confirm that Keer had been infected through the socket exposed by the missing arm contacting subsequent assailants and harvesting Virubact laden Ebexx DNA. This was not how it was planned; amputation was not an option now, so a rapid assessment of the specific mechanism of this infection was a race against time, rather than a controlled experiment.

  The curiosity amongst all Phoenix dwellers regarding the captured Ebexx was at fever pitch. It had the potential to be the solution or the problem, depending on how successful Pascal 2 would be in identifying the Virubact’s weakest point. When they were told of Keer’s mishap, the curiosity melted away and having seen the captive, albeit sedated, they retired to their quarters. It was Alex 2’s suggestion that a curfew should be observed until Pascal 2 had more data.

  By contrast the Indys were euphoric, the effects of their amnesiac would soon be known, and the protection offered by the Symbiants would guarantee safety for the campaign. It never occurred to them that these god-like creatures could be susceptible to the Virubacts – when they themselves were not.

  After several days the curfew was still in place and the restlessness spilled over. Everyone craved some kind of update. This eventually resulted in the less compliant individuals breaking ranks. As expected Yamamoto was amongst them. Alex 2 stated that Keer was stable, not showing any signs of symptoms or disabling of his data processing routines. “It is puzzling however, that Pascal 2’s monitoring of the Virubact replication shows no reduction or increase – they appear to be dormant. It is for this reason that we ask for your patience. I will give a twice daily update from now, but please stay as isolated as possible until we have something concrete to report. We must discover why Keer’s remaining sentinel cells are not active in destroying this threat, and the regeneration of his arm is paused, as if the next move is being considered or held back. It is most curious.” This worrisome revelation did subdue the challenge to the curfew and at the same time increased the tension.

  Two incoming messages were received. The first on the remote – it was from Gsarr. The Indys were hungry for a repeat performance, and they displayed a sense of humour. Gsarr related observations about the Ebexx behaviour. “When nothing seemed to be happening we were concerned that they were not affected by the Amzyss. One of our neighbouring groups said we should be happy, as the alternative explanation was that they had forgotten where the drinking station was. They were right. Instead of drinking when they felt like it, they were now relying on instinct to drive them to water when they were dehydrated. We want to see if they still try to capture us, and we request your protection again. If we are not pursued we can rapidly complete the Amzyss programme. Please reply.”

  The second message was only received by Alex 2. It was unsettling because new data merely indicated that behaviour may be unpredictable and illogical. He thought he knew the behaviour referred to was that of the Virubact. At least it partly explained the current standoff with Keer’s sentinel cells. When he enlightened Pascal 2, the response was measured. “I cannot be sure how this is supposed to help, but if we assume that the data you have received means the situation is about to change, then become constant, rather than change again, extremely intense vigilance will be required.”

  Alex 2 agreed. Some forty hours later Keer’s arm had resumed regeneration, but he told Pascal 2 that he was disoriented; it did not feel right. Closer examination confirmed that the reconstructed part of the limb was hosting Virubact replication. Alex 2 squirmed as more data was downloaded. He shouted to Pascal 2, “You must amputate the regenerated part of his arm now.”

  Pascal 2 reacted quickly and Keer said he felt normal again. The three of them were discussing the episode and failed to notice that the amputated part continued to grow – and in two directions, toward the hand and simultaneously to the torso. Unknown to them the Virubact had managed to ‘create’ a sentinel cell in the amputated portion. What they did know was that Keer started to feel strange again. As Alex 2 realised it was possibly a recurring pattern, Keer pointed to the adjacent bench. The severed arm was complete and the rest of the body was rapidly taking shape. Alex 2 asked Pascal 2 to amputate again, this time at an earlier stage, while he used protective gloves to pick up the growing Virubact form and hurried to the airlock. He managed to eject the half-formed Keer 2 into orbit. Upon returning to
the theatre he found another growing arm on the bench and Keer was still feeling unwell. Alex 2 motioned for Pascal 2 to cease activity. “It must have been a warning that our behaviour would become erratic and illogical. It is clear now. We need to rethink the approach.” Pascal 2 nodded and suggested the sentinel cells were the key, as the Virubacts had still not multiplied further into Keer’s geometry. “We temporarily forgot that they are seeking control, not simple occupation. I propose we let the third arm regenerate completely without amputation and observe.” Alex 2 repeated his trip to the airlock and sent a second pre-forming Keer 3 spinning on its way.

  When the newest arm was complete another stalemate ensued. Pascal 2 said, “That is what I hoped would happen, I believe we may have some time to consider the next step.”

  Keer was still feeling strange. The next suggestion from Pascal 2 would require precise coordination and extremely swift execution. The sentinel cells in the new arm were to be disabled at the same time as the arm plus a hefty part of the torso were removed as one piece. The cut had to ensure that the dormant Virubacts in the original shoulder infection went with the arm. Pascal 2 was to destroy the sentinel cells at the extremity of the arm by pinning it to the bench to stop movement and setting up multiple lasers to continue the disabling sequence while the joint was hacked off. In order to avoid slip ups, Red was asked to assist by restraining Keer, who was now afflicted by involuntary twitching. The procedure was conducted with reassuring calm. Keer shed his spasms; Pascal 2 was immediately focussed on detection of any further evidence of Virubact presence in his ‘healthy’ proportion, and Alex 2 watched the amputated fraction for activity.

  All was well; Keer’s regeneration was infection free and the severed part could not grow without cloned sentinel cells.

  Alex 2 incinerated the unwanted piece and the entire theatre was sterilised. A disaster had been averted for now, but the prevailing fear was that the brand new immune system was nowhere near adequate enough to deal with this Virubact. The immediate consideration was to study the Indy physiology, while contemplating ability of other strains which may be encountered.

  The other species aboard Phoenix would have to be informed and the request to return to the surface delayed. It was a role reversal; they needed help from the Indys.

  Chapter 10

  The Indys pressed on with the water tampering and were now wandering around freely amongst the drugged Ebexx. Their relatives in captivity had been rescued and taken back to safe havens to address their malnutrition. Unfortunately the dosage of Amzyss proved fatal for some of the Ebexx young, and the Indys were genuinely sad, especially when they did not bury their dead – choosing to eat them.

  Having completed their objective, Gsarr signalled that he was ready to come to Phoenix. He was duly collected, accompanied by another group leader, apparently the overall chieftain. Gsarr noted that the tension was tangible and asked Keer to explain. He asked to address the ship’s population with a translator for the Sapients. He made the listeners more at ease by recounting the number of times they had faced what seemed like certain extinction. “We never lost belief in our ability to outwit the foe, even though it was operating from within another historical enemy. We had to separate to survive long enough to improve the chance of ‘thinking being able to out-manoeuvre raw power’. You have many advantages which you may not realise – ours was being inert to the virus. It gave us time. You have much more intelligence and technology at your disposal, and you have us as allies. Together we can restore this beautiful world – welcome to your new home.”

  They were mere words, but not empty words, and they were quickly followed by action. The Chieftain had not come because of rank, his family had the most robust immunity, of all Indys, to the Virubacts, and he wanted to thank the newcomers for carrying out the initial Amzyss foray. “That was the turning point, you gave us that extra belief – so I am here to give you the same in return.”

  They followed Pascal 2 to the medical facility and Axzrann was enlightened as to the procedure he was about to undergo. He listened to Keer’s reassuring monologue for less than a minute, and then waved his hand in a gesture to get on with it. “We have some arrangements to make; we have not had all of our clans together in my lifetime.”

  When Pascal 2 was left alone to study the genetic extracts, he immediately contacted Stella and Daniel Carvalho, to ask if she would assist in the analytical approach on behalf of the Sapient contingent. Decision time was upon the Phoenix inhabitants. They had to wrestle with the reality of whether or not to undergo further genetic code procedures, to set foot on Nexus, and to defy the considerable increase in gravity.

  The gravity effect was most severe for Sapients, and once again Fernando came up with an elegant suggestion. He convinced Rene to help him recruit Axis precision ‘design and build’ personnel. His brainwave was to make personalised helium jackets, tailored for individual weight, and with automatic controls to reflect gain or loss. The algorithm was devised courtesy of Dan. The concept was intended to help acclimatise rather than be a permanent feature. It had been concern over his father which sparked the idea into action, though he never admitted it.

  The location of any settlement was to be advised by the Indys, and the small matter of the kind of residence had to be agreed, as the newcomers were not prepared to live in caves. There was still the question of the long term situation of the Ebexx – it did not seem acceptable to keep them ‘on medication’. They would have to determine whether the Virubacts had been affected by the Amzyss.

  The captured Ebexx would be of benefit in this respect, exclusively in its own biological form, as the previously proposed replication was now felt to be risky, following Keer’s trauma. The new genetic immune boost from the Indy chieftain Axzrann would be delayed until the captive had been subjected to Amzyss, and then exhaustively evaluated.

  The Epsilon vessel had been swept without mishap and they felt that although they could not risk engaging QSD yet, the process had pinpointed areas where they could accelerate the ion storm effect discharge sequentially, leading to a resumption of the journey in a matter of weeks.

  The news from Mars and Earth was not so encouraging. Those few outposts unaffected by Virubacts feared this could be their final transmission. One of the infected alliances controlled by the ‘plague’ had wiped out all of those disfigured or simply mutated by the microorganisms. They knew that as soon as pockets of competitive controlled groups had been eradicated, they themselves would be next.

  They also reported that there were indications that the wealthy elite now running Earth, with unlimited Symbiant access were planning to take over and purge Mars, leaving the remaining Terran population to the lottery of the encroaching ice. The space elevators were to be destroyed, effectively cutting off the possibility of mass Human transit to Mars.

  The Echus survivors had been ‘assured’ the Martian purge did not include non-infected individuals, but this was not a particularly appealing future, even if the invaders got there in time.

  The bad news got worse. The Ebexx inebriated with Amzyss showed clearly that the Virubacts had benefitted from the treatment. It had somehow managed to intersperse itself with the primitive, confused cellular brain matter and initiate much more efficient neural processing. When Pascal 2 revealed this to Alex 2, a reminder message was received regarding erratic and illogical behaviour. Alex 2 needed no further hint that this was their behaviour, not the Ebexx. He did something which indelibly confirmed that he was different. He terminated the Ebexx, to the astonishment of Pascal 2. The technobabble concluded with the acknowledgement that Alex 2 was traversing the boundary between the Continuance and the Interference.

  The import of this was the evolvement of a potentially schizophrenic society. On the one hand they were bound by a desire to overcome the Virubacts, but on the other, attitude to ethics and morals may have to be ‘cleansed’. The two of them agreed to avoid the complexity this would overlay on the focus of survival, and the reason fo
r the Ebexx termination would therefore remain undisclosed.

  The descent was to be in to be in the order of Sapients, Symbiants and finally Axis. The Sapients were only fifty-six strong, including births and deaths on the journey. The Symbiants felt Humanoids were the most vulnerable of the three species and needed protection. They would be temporarily accommodated in the Indys’ caves, and the Symbiants would offer translation facility for those who had not mastered even rudimentary Indy symbols. The Axis would be left to exorcise their lingering disharmony in private, and when they were ready, a small detachment of Symbiants would return to maintain the vessel’s systems and monitor incoming transmissions. There were no plans as yet to land Phoenix.

  The caves were a shock to the Sapients after the relative luxury of the journey. A few wanted to try to walk around without the helium jackets, and quickly conceded that they needed them. The language was a problem but they knew it was temporary.

  The Europan Axis eventually found accord due somewhat to the sympathetic treatment of the Ebexx, even though they were told that the captured individual had an allergic reaction to the Amzyss and subsequently died. They began their descent. The Sapients and Symbiants observed this emotional reunion of the two Axis branches, and declared it would not be complete until the Gliese and Epsilon clans arrived.

  The Symbiants were indifferent to various settlement locations at first. The Sapients favoured somewhere outside the established radius of Indy territory, to avoid issues with previous heritage. They also liked the idea of a totally new beginning. The Indys were quick to point out that the outlands were dangerous places. Even the Ebexx avoided them. The diversity of species was phenomenal and that included predatory plants. What lay beyond was unknown, as recent generations had never traversed the outland region. Gsarr remarked that the survival campaign they had endured with the Ebexx was the most benign option, even though it was touch and go for hundreds of years. Good news had been in short supply since arriving in ‘Nirvana orbit’. The Europans confessed that they knew nothing of this plethora of life-threatening flora and fauna at the time of their exodus. The Indys explained that the explosion in their evolution was triggered by the warmer climate since the brown dwarf had appeared. This was historically recorded by their ancestors at the time.

  After several weeks the Ebexx fatalities began to rise. It was claimed to be further cases of severe allergic reaction to the Amzyss-laden water. The Europans challenged the Indys about terminating the pollution. Pascal 2 reported to Alex 2 that every corpse showed the same pattern as the captive which he had eliminated. The brain cells had been invaded and modified by the Virubacts. The construction of dwelling space was halted by the increasing frequency of the deaths and resulting debates. The Europans argued that since they all had the benefit of Axzrann’s super immunity now, the spread of infection was minimal. Pascal 2 had to come clean about the concentration of the virus influence in the Ebexx brain tissue. The Europans became uncharacteristically angry. Trader said, “My election to leadership came about because we were divided over the Ebexx. We reconciled those differences because of the survival of the Indys and the future for the entire Phoenix community. Now we are presiding over the extinction of a species we shared the planet with over three million years ago. We have not returned with new friends and reunited with our distant brethren to begin ‘cleansing’ this world of any form of life which simply gets in our way. We have to find a solution which respects the entire ecosystem.”

  The Indys were sympathetic to a degree. The Sapients were scared and felt like guests who were becoming a burden. The Symbiants were typically ‘disinterested’. Kipchoge Yamamoto could always be relied upon to rattle cages. He suggested that the recent enlistment of Stella to assist Pascal 2 should be broadened by Axis medical expertise leading the investigation into halting the Virubact mutation. “It strikes me as an obvious thing to do. They will soon be joined by further branches of their species; they have lived on a planet with this type of scourge for millions of years, and must have some immune contribution. They will be the vast majority of ‘our’ community when they are all reunited, so they should surely be able to exercise their combined philosophy. I was one who criticised the apathy of some Europans toward helping the Indys, and I don’t regret that. There was the small matter of all of us surviving. We now owe it to them to find a way to help the Ebexx. It’s clearer than ever that the real pest is the virus. Everyone, including the bloody Progenitors, is agreed on that.”

  Yamamoto did not know that until now Stella had only been assisting Pascal 2 in copying and pasting code. She had not examined any Ebexx corpse because of Alex 2’s declaration that the contagion level was too risky. His new proposal would inadvertently challenge that. Alex 2 was pensive, Pascal 2 was unperturbed. There was overwhelming support for the Yamamoto proclamation and it was officially endorsed.

  The construction programme resumed and the Europan medical experts were selected. The thorny problem for Alex 2 was now acute. The Axzrann protection had not yet been fully tested in any of the species brought to Nexus by Phoenix. Alex 2 was faced with hoping for the best and revealing nothing, or underlining the danger he and Pascal 2 had discovered, and be accused of suppressing vital information. He decided on the former, as the alternative would ultimately require explanation of his ‘alter ego’.

  The clean water had begun to restore memory functions for the Ebexx, and they seemed confused that their livestock had evaporated. Stella had queried Pascal 2 as to why he only answered specific questions on the Ebexx post-mortems rather than demonstrating aspects with the retained corpses. He confessed that they had incinerated them to avoid any possibility of infection. The Europan medical duo accepted this at face value but both of them were keen to be directly involved in any further pathology.

 
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