The Nexus Odyssey, p.13Hylton Smith
Ahmed arrived with a heavy looking entourage which was promptly posted in the corridor and stairways. Before he could dispense with the pleasantries, a beep alerted Ahmed that he had been ‘detected’ and was now monitored by his own electronic surveillance device and Koppelt smiled. “No less than I would have expected; so you now know of Redgrave’s double, which means it is your turn.”
For the first time his adversary took off his lenses. A weary rub of the eyes, a polish and refitting of the dark glasses gave a thinking space. “Our position is simple. The Arab world in particular, but also many other Muslims, question the wisdom of the colonisation project. We fear that it takes the brake off many efforts to implement programmes of conservation. We frankly do not believe many of the statistics quoted by the Confederation of Nations, and any challenge to this is met with a wall of silence. We are convinced that the entire world population is being blindsided by Capitalist agenda in a highly irresponsible way.”
“Nothing new there then,” said Koppelt.
“Hear me out,” retorted Ahmed, “we do not seek to destroy, harm or intimidate to get this point across, merely to cast doubt over the risks of crossing this frontier too early and insufficiently prepared. We have no other voice.”
Koppelt was now talking, secure in the knowledge that Darwin was under way. “Mmm, well this kind of issue is outside my remit. However, as a member of the human species I can appreciate that what I have to tell you might actually make your task more difficult. The double you overheard me discussing is a Martian life form.”
Confusion and distrust alternated before the trite response. “You really expect me to tell my people this is the trade?”
“It will be going out to the world media in the next thirty-six hours. When you see the visuals you may not be so sceptical, and remember, we have to deal with this as well.”
Ahmed drew breath. “Mr. Koppelt, you may be in danger if this prank is carried through.”
“Look, if your people do not prepare themselves for this news, they will regret it. Redgrave’s replication by this life form has caused him to re-evaluate his faith in the light of it. It is a huge turning point in our civilisation. For millennia, religion has enjoyed the role of cement between people. Notwithstanding holy wars, religion has been used to control the hopes and fears of ordinary citizens. All religions are now going to face interrogation from the populace. This is not a mollusc or dinosaur we are talking about, rather a species that is in many ways more sophisticated than we are. I don’t mind admitting it has made me question my own rationale in choosing this career path. I don’t think you will want to make this announcement yourselves for obvious reasons, but you may want to prepare. Surviving a tsunami is more likely if you have even a short advance warning.”
Ahmed bristled with fear. “Would you be prepared to stay here until this news does break? I take on board some of what you say, and it is possible some of my representatives will change their mind about meeting you.”
Karl Koppelt was on a high. “I can’t be here when the news breaks; I have to be in Beijing. As I said, we have to deal with this too, but if your colleagues still want to meet subsequently, I can absolutely guarantee their anonymity and safety. I also genuinely believe it could be fruitful in gaining ground toward this voice you feel has been denied. Wait and see the transmission for yourselves.” Ahmed left the room a very nervous man holding the twin babies he had been presented with.
When it broke, the news polarised the written media from the instant ‘in your face variety’. The latter were guilty as usual of asking for encyclopaedic precision in response to woolly conjecture. The authors of more considered enquiry concentrated primarily on ‘the moment you will always remember where you were, when you heard that mankind is not alone’. They also made the point that one of the objectives of the mission was to find evidence of past or present life. Saturation coverage by TV lowered the quality of discussion and predictably hungered for sensationalism with their well-oiled embroidery of facts. It did not materialise as the instant bombshell it threatened to be, mainly because its flavour of unbelievability lingered for longer than anticipated. The unease with the unknown, however, was gradually supplanting novelty. Groups, societies, even governments were forming organised representation on dealing with the discovery of aliens in a better fashion than Roswell.
Now the Experts were under a similar barrage of questions to the one that they had hurled at the replicant. They were fielded with less agility than politicians would have engaged, and thus fuelled a gathering snowball of thickening mistrust. One request they received was from the now infamous replicant himself. He suggested that if one of the foremost physicists in the world was prepared to undergo a completion with amorphous form returning from Mars, it would greatly assist in human understanding of the Progenitors. He explained that although that knowledge was present in him, the limitation of Redgrave’s comprehension of cosmic mechanics inhibited his ability to articulate it in ‘layman’s terms’.
He cited late 20th century views that the expanding universe was expected to run out of steam, whereupon gravity concentrates, creating such phenomena as black holes and dark matter, which were predicted to rein in everything, to culminate in a big crunch – the antithesis to the big bang. Then later research proposed that the force driving the expansion was not simply the initial explosive, unrestricted momentum. It was accompanied by dark energy. This would continue to fuel the outward surge, suggesting two other possible outcomes. The first would occur if the acceleration continues and it would ultimately rip the fabric of space, delivering a violent spreading wave of absolute destruction of everything. The second being the gradual stabilisation of the rate of expansion, and a slow cooling of stars as their nuclear fuel runs out, the universe is ultimately extinguished.
However, he argued there are other factors, two of them being the Progenitors and their counterparts residing in dark energy. This is not a conventional struggle, winning is losing, and if humanity fulfills its promise, this has to be understood and acted upon.
Unlike the first completion Dupree’s was not attended by a spellbound audience. Vigilance was kept in turn by the crew, the exception being that security dictated Redgrave had to be accompanied. For him it was almost a religious event. It followed exactly the same pattern and the new Pascal 2 was quick to notice Alex 2, and after greeting one another they conversed in complete silence. It was assumed to be telepathic; it wasn’t. The explanation was too difficult to convey from replicant to human. Dupree monopolised Pascal 2’s time for hours, having his own knowledge accredited or updated.
Banjani and Natalia were making notes on the outside plant experiments with soil from different depths. There was a repetitive pattern showing the deepest samples yielding stronger growth. “We should do soil analysis to find out why,” said Natalia. Banjani scoffed, “Yes, if Alex can tear himself away from the Beijing programme, and his hoard of new blue/green crystals. Do you think we’ll still get the returning hero’s reception we anticipated when we first discovered Alex 2?”
“No, it has all soured a bit, but there will be vultures circling to get any carrion from us for their grubby public post-mortem.”
“Natalia, do you wish you were home now? I’m not looking forward to telling Mali I just want to move on. I will have to leave my country to make sure this happens, so I guess I could have done with some hero status to land a good job.” Natalia had a lump in her throat. “Where will you go?”
“Don’t know,” confessed Indira, “maybe California. I also need a break from my native culture.”
“I have always wanted to go there myself but never got around to it, I have spent so much time preparing for this mission. Maybe I will go there someday.”
“Just do it,” quipped Indira, “let’s both just take a leap into the unknown.”
“I – I don’t know, it’s a big decision, my grandpare
Indira stopped the sermon. “Think of reasons you should, not those why you should not, and if it doesn’t appeal, then sure, rule it out. Forget about going there together, if that’s the problem; just fulfill your original wish to go there. It doesn’t have to be forever.”
“No, that’s not a problem, you are right, it’s just that I’m not used to subordinating all considerations to my gut feelings. Maybe it’s time I did.” Indira shrieked, “Fantastic, now we can begin to plan stuff in our heads, I’m really excited again.” Natalia was introspective. She wasn’t being completely honest to her friend and yet dared not. However, she decided to take Indira’s advice and just go for it, the other would wait.
Since Koppelt had heard nothing from Ahmed he attempted contact via the original route. The response was simple – he had disappeared.
The issues surrounding Alex 2’s proposed completion of an eminent physicist were manifold. And that was before the disclosure of Pascal 2. Now the theory uppermost in the prudence column was that somehow the aliens had mind control over the crew and this could be imported to Earth. The Trojan horse (or virus) reared its head again. The objectivity column was suffering deserters by the day. There seemed to be little feeling for how this would impact the crew or the replicants, who truly had a Copernicus view of the Earth right now.
Magnusson communicated this to Xiang and Koppelt. “We’re beginning to feel as if we are awaiting sentence and the trial has yet to be scheduled. We anticipated some hysteria but you people look pretty stupid from here. Alex 2 is unemotional, almost logic bound, and he is struggling to evaluate our hierarchy/anarchy membrane. Gentlemen, we must recover our clarity of mission, and although I understand what you are dealing with there, the net result is that we are sabotaging the project much more effectively than Redgrave ever could have done.”
Koppelt shocked Xiang by his accord with Magnusson. “We are intensifying our efforts on Redgrave’s connections Commander. I’ll talk with the Executive and hopefully get some assurance that we can swat some of the rising, uninformed, conspiracy nuts that are fuelling the mob. We need a coherent programme here in order for your remit to be achieved. I’ll get back to you on this.”
“Thanks,” said Magnusson, “that reminds me - Carvalho passed something on to me after a heated verbal exchange. Redgrave had blurted out that the force behind his agenda was not religious per say, but related to unease at the position the perpetrators find themselves in at this threshold of colonisation, kind of missing out on this ‘last frontier’.”
“Well, that’s very interesting Commander, and very helpful.” This made much more sense to Koppelt than Xiang. Karl Koppelt really did need to find Ahmed if that was possible.
It seemed unusual that the replicants didn’t spend more time together. They didn’t need to. They could communicate when they were apart. Knowledge through this electronic banter would be stored in the respective second tier banks. A common conclusion they came to was suggesting the benefit of modification of some Nanotech projects, to repair, replace or even circumvent the need for certain human organs. Magnusson knew how this would be received on Terra, but declined to do anything other than agree with the inorganic duo. He was surprised when his question of whether they could apply this sort of thinking to plants was floated. Instead of a derisive reply they simply nodded in affirmation and began their now familiar silent cooperation, and disappeared outside into the Martian sun.
The call was completely unexpected. Koppelt said, “Where are you?”
“That is not something I can divulge, are you able to offer me a sanctuary?”
“Why do you need cover?” was Koppelt’s rejoinder.
“That is also something I cannot speak about by phone, but you must have some idea because you have been looking for me.”
“Yes, you went missing.”
“Yes or no?”
Koppelt was thinking on his feet. “It’s always possible. I assume you want unofficial status. That’s risky. What do I get out of it, apart from an early pension?”
“I believe you have already figured that out.”
‘Encouraging,’ thought Karl, “Ok, you know my office address. When you are within two miles walking distance, phone me. Get rid of that mobile and the new one after you call me in Beijing.”
Veltrano and Carvalho took turns to lecture Dupree on how his stupid unilateral action had virtually sentenced them all to an indefinite Earth quarantine. He protested that his action would ultimately be beneficial to humanity if they could only see it. “That’s the whole damned point,” shouted Veltrano, “we could have told you they wouldn’t see it. If we had argued the case it may have been frustrating but there was a good chance we would win through.”
Carvalho joined the tirade. “Why the hell did you not think of talking it through with Magnusson? At least he would have made you consider the rest of us. You couldn’t blame us for wishing you and Redgrave were out of it and we would then make do with your reproductions. They have more common sense in one data cell than you two put together. You make me sick. You aren’t even sorry Dupree, you pathetic, selfish bastard!”
Veltrano twisted the knife. “Dupree, you must admit that in any unforeseen loss of supply, such as life support, you’ve really made yourselves vulnerable. Your Mk. 2 versions are better than you two at what you do, and they are resource neutral. You are disposable.”
Visibly shaken by the vitriolic attack, Dupree tried to leave and muttered something about seeing the Commander. Carvalho lost it and smashed a fist into his jaw. The slight holding force of the small magnets in his boots gave way and Dupree hurtled toward the Medical computer, knocking it into the inner skin of the wall, resulting in a puncture and a defunct database. Dupree wasn’t any luckier, his jaw was dislocated if not broken, and he quickly became unconscious.
“You were always a hothead Daniel, but this is insane. Verbal was enough; we should have let him go to Magnusson, and he would’ve been marginalised like Redgrave.”
“Sorry Javier, I have a low tolerance threshold for people who put themselves before the ‘regiment’. I have trouble containing the red mist if they don’t get the point of the dialogue. I guess I’d better go and report this alone to keep you out of it.”
“No, you’re still not thinking straight. Go for Pascal 2, I’ll give Magnusson a calm version of events.”
The Commander was livid, and this was becoming a habit. Looking after his brood, directing the replicants, and reminding Mission Control of Mars realities drained his psychology skills. He was more disturbed by the growing fragmentation of the crew than the other issues, yet he had no obvious means of addressing the fermenting rifts. Even if Redgrave and Dupree made it back to Earth they would face very serious charges. This produced a trust dilemma. Now Carvalho should also be heavily disciplined. The females were involved in a separate activity, and the replicants chatted away about God knows what to one another. It ought to have been a psychologist’s Nirvana.
The call came and Koppelt had arranged to have his contact collected. He asked Ahmed where he was, via a Beijing landmark. He looked at the map grid and told him to proceed to the nearest underground station then take the southbound line for five stops. At this main interchange he should proceed to the street level. The large cylindrical building directly opposite the east exit had an expensive coffee lounge on the ground floor. He was to take a coffee and doughnuts and wait until a Chinese lady wearing a dark green trouser suit and carrying a laptop sat down with coffee and worked on her computer. He was to ask her if she had internet connection. The lady would say yes and turn the screen toward him. The webcam would allow Koppelt to verify his identity and he would then send her an email message to get Ahmed to follow her out at about twenty metr
The only solid support for Alex 2’s proposal to have an eminent physicist complete with the amorphous form came from Charles Cameron. Even the other so-called experts distanced themselves from his view. Cameron had produced a long list of checkpoints to be adhered to prior to the actual event. These included stringent tests to ensure the members of the returning crew had not been compromised in any way by Scarlet O’Hara. He even offered to submit himself to be the first Earth replication as a barometer of confidence. He was not winning much support. Xiang was the only high ranking big hitter who believed that a controlled risk like this might actually benefit the human race. Out of the blue there was an enquiry which demonstrated clearly that there had been a leak. Maric had spoken off the record to a colleague in Frankfurt about this ludicrous request, and the upshot was that an anonymous offer had been made to volunteer for this ‘duplicity’. Maric was summarily booted off the Committee.
Redgrave had found time to carry out some preliminary analysis of the more beneficial deep soil samples. The deeper ones contained clues of possible evidence of microbes in the form of methane, water vapour and higher nitrogen content. This would have been a massive story in its own right but for its eclipse by the replicants. It was decided to drill further down in a search for microbes, at several sites.
When he arrived, Ahmed was politely asked to undergo similar search tests as he had insisted Koppelt underwent on his plane. Having cleared all protocols he thanked Koppelt profusely for this accord and probably his life. He explained that the people for whom he had acted previously had responded to his disclosure about the Martian discoveries very badly. He had been summoned to begin a programme of disinformation to head off any disruption to their agenda, and particularly, a religious backlash from more militant groups. He saw this as a perfect scenario for failure, and these people didn’t do failure. “I had to get out quickly, but they would ultimately have found me in the US of Arabia. I am still in danger here and that is why I need to trade my last high card with you. I need new documents, safe residence and surgery to alter my appearance. In return I am able to give you details of their agenda. Do we have a starting point?”
The Nexus Odyssey by Hylton Smith / Science Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes