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The nexus odyssey, p.15
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.15

           Hylton Smith
 

  There was an atmosphere of fear at Marineris Central. Fear of what next? Fear of suicide or murder? Fear of suspicion. Fear of repercussion in Beijing.

  It was necessary to establish a timeline. Carvalho was uneasy as he was the last known person to see Redgrave alive. They had argued fiercely in public. Carvalho had also assaulted Dupree. Everyone else could account for their whereabouts. Once more the replicants offered help. “Remember we told you we could not reincarnate fossils but we could recover information from them? It would be a simple matter to extract data from the fresh corpse which would probably be more useful than a post mortem, but we would have to do this now.”

  Veltrano said, “This would involve a completion with Redgrave’s body. What happens to that replicant afterwards?”

  Alex 2 said it was really up to them, a very familiar statement. “You may do nothing or dispose of myself or the new copy.”

  Bizarre as this sounded, it gave more objectivity in pinning down the last moments of Redgrave’s life. It was agreed and the process was supervised by Pascal 2. The data extracted was conclusive. Redgrave had taken the opportunity of being alone to sever his breathing tube with a set of cutting pliers. Standing on the chasm edge he tumbled into the Rift. It should be possible to recover the pliers if deemed necessary. He had not changed his mind about staging his own suicide as murder. It was a tactic to allow him such an opportunity. Carvalho broke down in tears and hugged the new replicant who was not fully prepared for such a gesture. He also thanked Natalia and Javier, for their public belief before the completion, that he was innocent. He scowled at the others and left the group. However there was all-round relief that the sinister alternative had been ruled out. Banjani declared that it would be reported as an accidental fall, until they were back on Earth. This was almost met with unanimity. The decision on the fate of the latest replicant was deferred.

  Magnusson was improving slowly but Dupree wanted to discuss with Pascal 2 his now encyclopaedic medical knowledge acquired from the database. There was a plethora of similar cases cited. Narrowing the field produced a lot of drug related ‘cures’, however therapeutic recommendations were preferred and Dupree thanked Pascal 2, explaining he could execute these despite his slowly recovering speech.

  Natalia offered to help, reminding Dupree of his blind spot with bedside manner and the consequent risk of his literal interpretation rather than tailoring the counselling to the Commander. ‘Point taken, let’s get started tomorrow’, he wrote.

  Chapter 31

  Veltrano had not spoken out but challenged Banjani in private about reporting Redgrave’s death as an accident. “It’s not necessary to do this. It will fuel more speculation and nervousness in Beijing. Remember, they know he was intending to commit suicide, to look like murder; he then apparently underwent some inner transformation, deciding to live and remain on Mars. Suspicion would now centre on exactly what has happened. My advice is to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. We have two lookalikes, and if Beijing, for any reason, wishes to see Redgrave and his replicant together on transmissions, I’m sure we can pull that off.”

  “Don’t you think Koppelt would be happy if he could report an accident publicly? If the sponsors of Redgrave’s ‘murder’ have to refute the accident, Koppelt would surely have a better idea who they are.”

  Veltrano said he didn’t think this would help reveal the sponsors as they would merely ‘sponsor’ some other organisation to refute the official statement. The risk of unsettling things further in Beijing was real. Banjani wished she could counsel Magnusson. Veltrano insisted that even if it had been an accident and there was no sabotage agenda, they would be submerged by questions of safety protocol breaches and consequent elaboration into a blame culture. The fact that there was a sabotage plot would cause paranoia. He pleaded with her to reconsider, especially as it was a one way street once it had been reported. “Please, sleep on it.” She agreed.

  ********

  Koppelt was still pressing Ahmed on specifics. Eventually the fear of being abandoned produced a minor breakthrough. Ahmed recalled some meeting, to which he was not invited, about creation of complex computer viruses and their delivery systems. This could be the method of severing communications between Beijing and Darwin at Mars orbit insertion. As they discussed this with Xiang, Ahmed did not believe the execution of anything like that would be via a crew member. That would be too risky. Focus was then turned on Mission Control staff. Xiang was not happy about a blanket investigation, but at the same time recognised the knock-on effect of such a virus could be the intended effect on the spacecraft’s instrumentation. The three of them decided to analyse all relevant personnel details together as a first step.

  ********

  Magnusson chatted quietly with Dupree and Natalia. Having withdrawn his medication, some of his anxiety had returned but he could not articulate why he reached the decision to approach Pascal 2 in the first place. Natalia said, “We have all been a little on edge since the personal messages to our loved ones were suspended and I think it’s time we got that facility restored. I’m sure you must be missing your family Commander.”

  “You’re absolutely right Balinsky; I must get that corrected immediately.”

  “Well,” muttered Dupree, learning from Natalia, and in his distorted voice, “Beijing thinks you have a Martian flu, and Banjani is holding the fort admirably until you are fully recovered.”

  “I’ll ask her to bring this up with Mission Control Sir, if you think it appropriate,” offered Natalia with a smile.

  “See to it right away Balinsky.”

  Dupree explained that the excessive dosage taken had caused him to have a mixture of symptoms – sometimes indifference to problems – other instances bordering on hallucinatory distraction. Now that this had been corrected and some supplemental recommendations from Natalia initiated, it should only be a matter of days before he would be back to normal.

  Banjani did not sleep well at all. She had however concluded that on balance, Veltrano’s way carried less overall risk to their return schedule. At breakfast she asked Natalia about a massage in the evening, “Mental tiredness is just as draining as messing about with those plants.”

  The request was overheard by Carvalho, who chirped, “Can anyone register for these luxuries or is it a privilege of rank?”

  Natalia detected a mischievous smile from Daniel. “No it’s nothing to do with rank. You can book a session if you really feel tense. It’s a full body massage, so bring a towel and be prepared to strip off to your birthday suit. That’s important for maximum therapeutic benefit.” Banjani looked crestfallen and hurried through breakfast to check on Magnusson’s condition. Carvalho could not resist, “You mean the acting Commander will be naked for her appointment tonight?” The picture in his mind was immensely stimulating.

  “Of course, there are no concessions to gender. Well do you want to reserve a space?”

  “I, er, I’ll think about it Natalia and get back to you.” She was sure he would think about it a lot.

  The three replicants were engaged in a silent triangle of concerned communication. When it was concluded, Alex 2 sought out Banjani and requested a meeting urgently. Alex 2 showed her his fingers and pointed with one of seven he had left, to Pascal 2’s forearm. “We are all agreed, the microbes we have employed with great success on the renewal of designer soil nutrients are attacking our own regeneration mechanism. It is a temporary problem for us. As you can see, the regeneration of Pascal 2’s severed arm from the chasm fall has adjusted to the microbial effect. The regeneration of already contaminated cells has adapted to the invasive action. In my case, as no regeneration was triggered by a trauma, if left alone it would consume me completely. So now, Pascal 2 will laser-cut off my hand to kick start my new regeneration with its data adjustment.” It was a grisly scene for Banjani; the others were apparently enjoying the ‘miracle’.

  “I am showing you this, because it illustrates the two of us are no longer at risk but
he,” - indicating the latest Redgrave – “and the humans may be. We need a name for him. Pascal 2 and Dr. Dupree need to do some research to protect the crew. Pascal 2 believes he already knows how to counteract the microbes if they strike humans, but Dupree should authorise or reject this theory.”

  Banjani’s immediate thought was inclined to the pathetic phobia that the Earth contingent had toward these sentient beings. They had risked their own oblivion trying to rescue Redgrave and were now spearheading an immune strategy to a problem the crew might not have known of until it was too late. “I see,” she said, “let’s find Dupree. I’m going to suggest you choose your own name for our new friend. After all, it was you who came up with Alex 2.”

  ********

  The trawl of Mission Control personnel who would be in a position to infect the servers with a virus was a difficult task in terms of applying criteria. Citizenship, religion, expertise, access, CV history, friendships in and outside Beijing, and not least, behavioural patterns during leisure time - were all considered. Some were known, some had to be investigated. Koppelt even brought up the bias Xiang might have. After all, they were his employees, and he may have predisposed views which would cloud the issues. “That is utterly preposterous…you can’t be serious. Anyway, some of the information would be unavailable to you, except by accessing it from my subordinates, and that would set the klaxons ringing. I suggest that would be even more likely to prejudice the investigation than any bias I may have.”

  Koppelt, untypically, found himself backing off. The first cut threw up only four people, and even these were highlighted on speculative or intuitive grounds. “So much for your concerns about me Koppelt; this list could have been picked with a pin.” Two of the four were of Islamic faith – Koppelt was hot on this. The others were Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox. The two with the strongest computer code structure knowledge were a Muslim and the Orthodox from Kiev. They all had similar access to critical tasks. Koppelt decided to eavesdrop on all of them. Bugging their apartments was the easy part. Tracking their leisure computer activity was a little more difficult, with their expertise and potential for constructing firewalls and surveillance detection of their own brand. Tailing them was probably safer at first.

  Chapter 32

  Evening came, and with it the announcement from Banjani that she had taken further advice from Veltrano on the reporting of the fatality. His experience in matters of security had persuaded her of the ‘danger of distance’ in Beijing’s interpretation. There was no objection. The second proclamation was that the name chosen for their latest ally was ‘Red’. He had come from red crystal and became Redgrave. Was this the first betrayal of a sense of humour from the logic boys? They still had to discuss whether all three replicants were to remain, or if there was a case for an alternative. Every crew member expressed in the strongest possible manner that it would be an unthinkable act of inhumanity to do anything other than protect these fantastic beings. Some went as far as saying they should all accompany them back to Earth if they wanted to go with Copernicus, or stay and help Darwin’s crew if that was their choice.

  With the meeting over, Banjani whispered to Natalia, “Am I first up?” Natalia smiled coyly and shrugged her shoulders. “Which do you prefer?” Privately she would like to have thought there was a hint of jealousy.

  “Well that depends on where your hands would wander to with Daniel. If there is a choice I will go for the safe option…first please.”

  Natalia revealed her jousting with Daniel was to scare him off and it had worked. “He’s obviously less comfortable with being naked in front of a woman than you are. Maybe he was worried about getting aroused during a ‘medical’ appointment.” Indira looked directly into her eyes and said, “Maybe he didn’t know you demand a reciprocal treatment, in naked allure. By the way I don’t think of my massage as medical attention, it’s a pleasurable, erotic and highly personal experience. I don’t let just anyone heal my tired naked body. After all, I am the Commander. I have to set an example.”

  “Yes ma’am, just let me know when I am required.”

  When the replicants were informed of their esteem amongst the crew their reaction was humbling for the humans. They said the Progenitors would be proud of the Continuance if they had the capacity for such compassion displayed by humans. “Of course they have other concerns of great magnitude to attend to, but we three all concur that our data revision processes indicate we have never felt ‘an association’ with previous species. It is a little strange for us you see. It made all of us feel temporarily unwell, like data loss, but that passed and we can only describe the current state as rewarding.”

  This served as a prompt for Banjani to inform Beijing that it was necessary to restore full contact for the crew with their families. It was expressed as an order, not a request. It made her feel good. Presumably Natalia was about to make her feel just as good.

  “I know I’m biased, Commander, but I think you are doing a hell of a job in Magnusson’s absence,” Natalia murmured as her probing fingers released tension from her friend’s shoulders.

  “Don’t address me as Commander during my therapy. That’s an order.” Natalia provoked a curious response when she said it was lucky for everyone that the replicant cleared Daniel’s name and prevented a possible injustice. “He was very low before that with circumstantial evidence pointing to him. I’ll never forget his deep appreciation when I told him I knew he was not capable of something like that.” Banjani stiffened a little and muttered, “Did you also feel sorry for him when he was belittling you with his crude flattery?”

  “No I didn’t, but he more than any of us is ‘claustrophobic’ in this mission. This whole thing with his father has straitjacketed him. He doesn’t really want to be here. He has tried very hard to fit in. It brought a lump to my throat when he instinctively hugged the replicant. I think that is the genuine Daniel. It doesn’t excuse his tantrums but there is another side to him. And he’s now one of your chicks, mother hen.”

  “Point taken, Natalia. Now can we progress our mutual stimulation, without the distractions? I want to float over my responsibilities for a while. This is the only thing I look forward to in this hostile environment.”

  “Of course.” Natalia had just realised the chit-chat had only delayed her arousal. The silence was eventually broken. “Time to turn over Indira.”

  “What, already? I was in another world.”

  Natalia’s soothing fingers had helped her reflect on the bigotry of Earthly institutions. Politicians, Religious Leaders, Corporate Chieftains – they were all weaving a web of invisibility around their true agenda. “These people are disciples of self-serving propaganda which is moulded to hypnotise their clientele, making it simpler to milk their morality. I was brought up in a religious family, well off, and with connections into government. I was always reminded of right and wrong, their right and wrong. This serendipity of meeting the Continuance has really made me question everything I was indoctrinated with. My grandmother married a colonial Englishman, hence my lighter skin, and although this intermarriage was unusual it provided entry into many privileged one way streets. It feels cheap right now. I have always paid lip service to my family’s religion. The entry price of faith before evidence grates with my scientific training, and anyway, what kind of God takes credit for everything good, but goes into hiding to countenance atrocity? These replicants at least have a presence and a pathway to something like an omnipotent creator with the semblance of purpose. Also, I wonder where we would find these other abstract Gods if the Progenitors fail in their struggle to preserve the Cosmos.”

  “Wow, your grey cells have been busy,” declared Natalia.

  “I’m not finished either. I want to change the name by which we refer to our new colleagues. Both species have benefitted from finding one another...it is called symbiosis. I think ‘Symbiant’ is more respectful; they are much more than replicas of us. What do you think?”

  Natalia’s eye
s misted and she said, “That’s how I feel about you and me, I feel lucky to have found you.” They held each other for almost a minute before Banjani reclined and closed her eyes. Natalia took one more risky step. The frontal massage was reduced in intensity to a light touch of sensual motion. Indira seemed totally oblivious to the subtle change. The role reversal brought that into question as it was conducted with the same feather-light contact.

  The new nomenclature of Symbiant was celebrated amongst the crew and even Magnusson congratulated Banjani on her thoughtfulness. “I know now that I can take a few more days off, the store is in good hands.”

  ********

  Koppelt had refused to lift the personal communication ban just yet. ‘They were at a delicate stage of investigation’. Banjani’s return transmission said she was sorry to hear that, but the crew was also at a delicate stage of surviving on another planet. “So we will abandon all projects on Mars until such time as the ban is lifted. It’s about time you people acquired some perspective. There are only nine of us and yet the inexhaustible parochial garbage is entirely from terran origin.” She allowed the other eight to watch a rerun, to their delight.

 
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