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The nexus odyssey, p.14
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.14

           Hylton Smith
 

  “There may be diplomatic complications which I will have to clear, however in principle we have a starting point. Please begin.”

  Ahmed frowned. “How do I know you will keep your word?”

  “You don’t,” admitted Koppelt, “but you don’t have much room for manoeuvre either. I also don’t know the value of what you are prepared to tell me. You begin and if it seems worthwhile to continue I’ll get clearance and schedule your surgery.”

  “Very well,” sighed Ahmed, “the colonisation project came too early for the USAr. Two major stumbling blocks exist. The first is the religious and cultural perception which has to be managed. Capitalism is seen as a western disease, but as China and India are gradually forging a different kind of commercialism and rise to power, we need that time to shift expectation. Transition will be fragile. The second and crucial concern is that whenever a new frontier is breached it is always those in the most powerful position at the time who strengthen their stranglehold. We need to be in the big five. That is the strategy. Details will be furnished when I am no longer Ahmed.”

  Karl winced. “I can get you safe residence and make the plans for your facelift, but you’re going to have to start filling in the details once that has been arranged.”

  “Very well,” said a jittery Ahmed, “please let us make the arrangements immediately.”

  The pledges were initiated and the disappearing act was first. He was flown under guard via a chartered German Intelligence aircraft to Munich. He was to reside in a Bavarian castle, then travel by helicopter a few days later to the Zurich clinic for surgery and further disclosures to Koppelt, who was to arrive earlier.

  Chapter 29

  Dupree’s injury had been competently treated by Pascal 2. His written request to Magnusson was refused. It was in writing as he could not yet speak because his jaw was wired. He had asked for no charges to be brought against Carvalho, he could see in hindsight why he was so upset.

  “You will both be disciplined when we return to Earth, and I’m afraid it may affect your future more than you think. I’ve run out of sympathy with both of you. I don’t want to discuss the matter again.” Dupree accepted his judgement and left to tell Banjani and Natalia in note form of the Commander’s directive to the two replicants to spearhead the up-scaling of the planting success, and come up with additional recommendations to accelerate the steps to forestation. The two women were a little unhappy at the sloppy way they had been informed and went to ask Magnusson whether he had intended the replicants to run the programme or take direction from them. They were even more uncomfortable when he indicated the former. They sarcastically asked what chores he would like them to tackle in light of their relative redundancy.

  Magnusson regretted his ham-fisted way of dealing with a routine chain of command situation and said that he would get back to them. He knew his judgement was being affected by the multiple problems the mission was facing, and Darwin was months away. He desperately needed a break. He decided to involve himself in further exploration of Valles Marineris as a distraction. He asked Veltrano to join him. Banjani was to act as Commander in his absence, particularly in handling any Beijing communications.

  Redgrave was running out of amorphous form due to the continual use with the plants. Alex 2 and Pascal 2 had used the knowledge of the microbe potential given to them by Natalia to excavate in another location. There was retained information from their first sentient period on Mars of a microorganism colony towards one end of the chasm. They subsequently found these entities in abundance and harnessed their metabolism to re-grade the soil in which the plants were now being set out. Together with the existing replication improvements this gave the cultivation a new order of growth cycle somewhat independent of photosynthesis.

  ********

  With his first surgical appointment concluded, Ahmed was invited to flesh out his claims. “I give you this document showing key investments in the last decade and the ones planned for the next period. You can verify this easily. Individually they seem quite normal. However the trend is there to be extracted. They are centred on essential services to European economies which have seen their best days. Energy, Water, Urban Regeneration, Transport, even Sport, and of course Oil. The same pattern is there on a much more aggressive scale in South America and in its infancy in Oceania. China has been omitted because of their inflexibility, but India has offered joint ventures of this nature. By nurturing these dependency projects we would achieve two things. Gradual isolation and eventual strangulation of Israel, but more important, we will acquire maximum influence in the World Game. The slowdown of the colonisation is important in the overall timescale. To that end you have witnessed some minor disruption. There was a plan to delay launch of the Darwin but also a backup to impact its rendezvous with Copernicus.”

  ********

  Carvalho was feeling isolated, although he was ‘assisting’ Redgrave at Pandora’s Rift during daylight, he found no rapport in the evening. He was still disgusted with Dupree. Magnusson and Veltrano talked about nothing but their jaunts of non-discovery. The replicants were polite, no more. Natalia and Banjani were inseparable and had no time for him now that he had reverted to norm.

  He was becoming more agitated by the day and was verging on paranoia about the safe arrival of Darwin. The one professionally trained person who could have recognised the approaching breakdown was Magnusson, but he was on ‘vacation’.

  With the others out and about, Natalia and Indira were able to spend even more time planning their move to California. Only the recuperating Dupree invaded their privacy, and as he was still unable to talk, he buried himself in his medical database. The incoming transmission was from Xiang. It was for Magnusson and designated - ‘Eyes Only’. Banjani hailed the Commander and he seemed distracted as he told her to view it and report back. She knew this was totally out of character for Magnusson but complied. Xiang’s tone was sombre and his body language distinctly uncomfortable. “Karl Koppelt has unearthed evidence that some attempt will be made to compromise the handover between Copernicus and Darwin. We are awaiting further detail but we will have to review the situation constantly and take decisions on that basis prior to orbit insertion. We also have pulled out the link between yourselves and Commander Rebrov for now. Please keep this on a need to know basis.”

  Banjani sat in stunned silence. It had been one of those days, typified by the well-worn anecdote – ‘Cheer up. Things could be worse, so you cheer up and sure enough they got worse’. She hailed Magnusson again and said he really must return. It was a serious situation. Magnusson asked, “Terra? Or here on Mars?”

  “Both Commander, forgive me for pointing out the obvious but it’s considerably more urgent than your current activity.”

  “Well you’re enjoying your temporary command aren’t you my dear. We’ll just finish up marking these samples and return. Magnusson out.”

  Banjani mentally replayed ‘Magnusson out’ – what the hell is wrong here? She went to Dupree and asked if he had given the boss any medication. He wrote down some bullshit about confidentiality. She was surprised at the anger in her own riposte. “Dupree, in case you’ve forgotten, I’m acting Commander and I need an answer from you now.” Another scribble indicated a negative. She was still concerned and went to find Natalia. “Can you suit up and ask Pascal 2 to report to me please, it’s urgent.”

  The transmission from Xiang needed at least acknowledgement from Mars and she was not sure that Magnusson was in the right frame of mind to deal with this at present. Pascal 2 arrived and confirmed that Magnusson had asked him to prescribe a calming medication as he was feeling tense. Pascal 2 did not know why he had bypassed Dupree but Magnusson had informed the replicant that in this instance there was no need for the prescription to be logged. They went to his quarters and found the container, and after calculating the deviation from the recommended dosage as a factor of four, they knew he was in a serious mental state. Banjani hailed Veltrano and pleaded with him
to get Magnusson back to the medical bay urgently. When he tried to convince the Commander to leave the remaining samples until tomorrow he found resistance – verbal, then physical. Veltrano knew of Magnusson’s special operations commando-style training and decided that force was not an option in suits. He called Banjani and convinced her that she should reply to the transmission, informing Xiang that Magnusson was sick and under temporary quarantine. She had been acting Commander and would comply with their request. Veltrano would coax Magnusson to make haste labelling the samples and get back as soon as possible.

  She agreed with avoiding a physical confrontation and left that with Veltrano. She was not sure, however, that Magnusson’s quarantine and her knowledge of the Darwin’s predicament would steady the nerves back home and decided to wait a few hours before return contact. Natalia had guessed there was a problem and did her own digging in the med stats. There was some worrying data on Magnusson recently, which Dupree had not passed on. His excuse was, of course, his recent altercation with Carvalho. He had intended tackling the Commander about it and would do so at the first opportunity. She added the bluff of Banjani’s need to speak to Pascal 2 and only then did his theories begin to surface via scribbles. It was obviously not something trivial or she would have been told the reason when she had been despatched to find the medical replicant. She would wait for now.

  Once everyone was back, Banjani and Veltrano discussed the next move. They felt that they had to let the Commander see the transmission to determine whether this would temporarily shake him out of his ‘chilled out’ mode. They had also confiscated his fix. If the recording did not meet with any responsible suggestion from him, Magnusson would need to be treated and would probably resist, so sedation would be required. Discussing this with Pascal 2 raised the problem of restraint. The replicant said that would not be a concern, he was infinitely stronger than Magnusson, and would perform the sedation unassisted. The crew were entitled to know what was happening as far as the boss was concerned, but nothing else until Banjani had responded to Xiang.

  Chapter 30

  Koppelt was spending a lot of time with Ahmed, who was now claiming he was not privy to the details of the interference with the communication rendezvous of the Darwin from Mars orbit with Copernicus’ crew. Koppelt was not sure whether this was a delaying tactic or the truth. “We can’t proceed further with the surgery until you have come through the recovery period. This will give you a chance to think of a way to find out what you claim you don’t know.”

  Ahmed responded aggressively. “How do you propose I do that?”

  “I don’t. You were the broker for the USAr, you must have connections that can still help you, and we can assist in any way you feel appropriate.”

  Ahmed realised the veiled threat. “I cannot meet with anyone now that the surgery has started, that would defeat the objective.”

  Koppelt was losing patience. “And we can’t just sit guessing how this interference will manifest itself. It’s a tough world, my friend. You are helping us now and that means every conceivable avenue must be explored. You have ten days before more surgery is scheduled or cancelled.”

  ********

  The reaction of Magnusson to the transmission was, as feared, detached at best. He suggested we just talk Darwin down when the time came and criticised Xiang for being so jumpy. His suggestion that he would tell the Mission Controller to ‘leave everything to us’, was not seen as an option, so the sedation was triggered. It was quite uneventful. Pascal 2 positioned one hand around the Commander’s neck and effectively paralysed him. It was not a nerve related hold, merely the exact application of force to discourage resistance. He reached the hypodermic with his other hand and delivered the injection. Magnusson’s contorted facial expression was gradually replaced with serenity as the shot kicked in. Pascal 2 carried him with one hand to his bed and laid him down. Natalia said, “We’ll take it from here.”

  The rest of the crew were confused despite Banjani’s warning that this may be necessary. She explained that the Commander had been under stress for some time and the medication required some adjustments, this wass the first. He would soon be himself again. It was not convincing.

  The whole episode did little to arrest Carvalho’s feeling of loss of control. He was convinced that his father’s fate was beckoning him, and he wasn’t going to make it back home. In fulfilling his father’s dream, he was destined to ensure his own exit. His acceptance of this was affecting his mood and judgement, and the spiral was worsening.

  The news of Magnusson’s temporary ‘bug’ was not contested by Xiang but he was quite nervous about asking the First Officer to carry out the news blackout of the crew, when she was one of them just a matter of hours ago. She assured him that this sort of thing had been covered in her training and he needn’t worry. He seemed as if he wanted to say more about Darwin but never quite got there. He asked if she would keep him apprised of the Commander’s condition on a four hourly basis. This was confirmatory in Banjani’s mind that there was more news on the Darwin plot.

  Alex 2 and Pascal 2 had made fantastic progress with the forestation project. They had planted hedges outward from Marineris Central like spokes of a wheel. They were extending each spoke daily. The repetitive replication and programmed resistance to the cold had given them confidence to dispense with the protection for the next extension of the spoke growing toward Pandora’s Rift. They had to resource the appropriate soil themselves as Redgrave was occupied full time on supplying them with Scarlet O’Hara. Alex 2 asked Carvalho for permission to modify one of the two robot’s arms to enable mass soil preparation. Carvalho said he would have to do it himself and he needed to be with Redgrave anyway. “Commander’s orders I’m afraid.”

  Alex 2 said they could do it much faster and follow his instructions. He refused. The replicants said they would ask the acting Commander to review that decision. Banjani agreed that Carvalho should take the robot to the replicant’s ‘quarry’ and instruct them on modification. Redgrave was to suspend drilling until he returned. Carvalho was not happy to put it mildly, but did as ordered.

  Veltrano had abandoned Magnusson’s exploration plan and was working on modifying signal distribution bands to create an independent link to Darwin when she was close enough. This would be audio only and poor quality, but better than nothing. Dupree suggested to Banjani that having regained basic speech capability, it might be better if he took over Magnusson’s medication from Natalia, thus freeing Natalia to take the second robot to pick up Redgrave. The modifications of the first robot were taking longer than expected, partly because of Carvalho’s pedantic attitude and his checking of the manuals at every stage. Natalia arrived at the Rift and there was no sign of Redgrave. She hailed him with no response. She went as close to the edge of the chasm as she dared but could not make much out in the fading light. The drillbot was not at the surface so he must not have called it a day. When she informed Banjani, a degree of panic struck the acting Commander. The Rover and robot one were with the replicants and Carvalho. The other robot was at the rift and now Natalia was alone. She contacted Carvalho and explained the situation. He was asked to take the Rover and the two replicants to the Rift and search for Redgrave as darkness was approaching. Carvalho said he would go immediately in a ‘told you so’ tone.

  “The best way to explore the chasm is the camera on the drillbot,” screamed Carvalho as he approached the site. Alex 2 agreed but was thinking ahead. “If he has fallen the problem of rescuing him in this light and a possible depth of five miles would be virtually impossible. His oxygen supply would run out and thermal maintenance would expire.”

  He suggested that he and Pascal 2 should descend and search, as the drillbot could only cover a small viewing area with its lens. “As long as we can return in less than five days there should be no hibernation risk. As the chasm is about 1860 miles long, we would have to climb out. We must take extra oxygen supply for Redgrave. We must hope that he did not go all the
way to the bottom. We do not need illumination. Fortunately we have modified the vision capability we replicated in order to work through the night on the forestation.”

  Natalia intervened, “What if he is not in the chasm?”

  “I can fit the drillbot to the robot and use the remote control to search the surface from here,” enthused Carvalho, “we don’t need it for the chasm if these two have night vision.”

  They informed Banjani, who felt helpless, but agreed the plan. She asked Dupree to stay with Magnusson while she suggested to Veltrano that they should somehow join the search. He disagreed, pointing out the risk of someone else getting detached in the darkness. He believed Alex 2 and Pascal 2 were far better equipped than a search party of fifty humans and their biological limitations.

  The two replicants decided to leap to a shelf they could see about one hundred metres down. Their ability to precisely calculate descent velocity and landing force in low gravity enabled them to quantify risk to some degree. They also benefitted from the ability to regenerate any physical damage, provided sufficient data cells remained to carry the instruction. They informed Carvalho and left him to begin the surface search with the drillbot. Alex 2 went first and sent minimal correction trajectory to Pascal 2 while he moved to an adjacent ledge. When Pascal 2 joined him, they split up to cover a greater area. The second leap for each of them was close to 150 metres, and because Pascal 2 misinterpreted an outcrop’s coordinates fractionally he snagged his right arm. It was partially severed so he waited for regeneration to commence. On looking across and up at his fellow life form, after his next jump, Alex 2 saw the silhouette of a space helmet against the slightly brighter background of the sky compared to the chasm. His electronic babble was acknowledged by Pascal 2, who agreed to wait until his partner had reached the location, to check if there was more than just the helmet there. The find was reported to Natalia to abort the topside search. Alex 2 could leap a prodigious distance against the low gravity and gripped a ‘handhold’ less than fifteen metres from the helmet. This vantage point revealed the rest of the human form. The next gentle jump took Alex 2 to the sloping shelf on which the corpse was precariously resting. Examination left no doubt that the breathing tube was severed by a very clean cut. The inside of the helmet was a crimson spatter of instantly frozen blood. The news was relayed to Natalia and followed by the now familiar technobabble to Pascal 2. They agreed to perform a ‘passing the parcel’ exercise with the corpse. Pascal 2’s arm was already fixed and he took a position twenty metres above Alex 2. This leap frog was observed via the now available drillbot as both Natalia and Carvalho watched in amazement at the precision of the operation. When the ascent was achieved, the horror really registered and the bad news was sent ahead to Banjani.

 
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