The Nexus Odyssey, p.16Hylton Smith
Xiang called Koppelt and said he would have to answer for the ‘strike’, and any resultant loss of morale in Mission Control. “There is no way I am going to pick up the tab for this. You are alone in your adherence to the notion that we have any more saboteurs from Copernicus. Unless you lift the ban now, I shall ask the top brass to authorise me to do it.” For the second time in recent days, Koppelt found himself back peddling. It made him realise he did need to devote all resources to Ahmed and Darwin.
Charles Cameron’s transmission referred to previous discussions on the definitions of life and particularly the difficulty his colleagues had with the replicant’s primarily inorganic structure. His question was related to a detail not reported by Redgrave, but picked up by Ayrton de Santos. He, of course, was the Beijing specialist who ‘trapped’ Redgrave with the fabricated correlation exercise. “Mr. de Santos believes he has picked up a very small trace of another component which Redgrave missed, or chose not to acknowledge.” He asked for the exact scenario which Veltrano had predicted may arise, when discussing with Banjani the dilemma of reporting the death. Both Alex 2 and Red would be required in this exchange to cover for Redgrave’s demise.
The ban on the crew’s personal messages was duly lifted. Koppelt’s bugging and surveillance activity of Xiang’s people had shown the two prime candidates - the Russian Orthodox and one of the Muslims, were in fact good friends. They socialised, liking the same music and restaurants. The Roman Catholic was a recluse, not even making phone calls outside the country. The other Muslim was more promising. He regularly met with the same person in a park. He was constantly on the phone to several people, all in Arabic. Ahmed testified that none of the people he spoke to were family. The tone of these conversations was terse, sometimes threatening, and always about computer security. He was registered with Mission Control as Nehridj Al Mansour, but Ahmed said he responded to the phone contacts as ‘Imhotep’. “It can only be a code name as you must know; this is the name of the architect of an ancient Egyptian pyramid. Wait a minute…they keep referring to pyramid in modern Arabic when they are discussing security. Could that be some sort of name for their virus?”
On checking with Xiang, panic prevailed as he informed them that this was the transcribed code name for their intricate software fortress. Even their suppliers of server equipment didn’t know of this cascade oriented lockdown programme. Mansour should not know either. The encryption access was complex, not beyond his hacking credentials, but it could only be effectively compromised in this way from two stations. One in Xiang’s office vault, which was retina recognition controlled, and the other in a metal walled underground room which was palm print scan-entry protected, and cctv covered. This unit was the only one which had reversal capability. Mansour was not on the very short list of personnel with clearance for either. They decided to try to track down the satellite coordinates and registration details of the phone numbers he had regular contact with.
The second transmission from Cameron introduced Ayrton de Santos and he proceeded to hold up a trace from one of Redgrave’s initial tests on Scarlet O’Hara. He had marked an ‘insignificant’ peak on the chart. “Although this is not the normal magnitude, we would expect the wavelength is precisely correct for the element Osmium. We would be interested to hear if Mr. Redgrave concurs.”
The reply was constructed with Red posing as the now deceased Redgrave, and alongside was Alex 2, who was prepared to comment further on behalf of the Symbiants. “I didn’t even consider that there was any significance to this ‘blip’, I assumed it was a printout aberration. I am still of that opinion but perhaps Alex 2 can comment.”
“I congratulate you Mr. de Santos,” said Alex 2, “a very astute observation. If it had been possible to compare the Solid state NMR traces with the same samples on Confocal Laser Fluorescence Microscopy data, we would have ruled out an instrumentation error. You are also aware that no tests were performed on the amorphous form, following its contact with my colleague here and the subsequent first completion, because of the unknown effects at the time. We can do that now if you wish as I am able to carry that out without risk. Alternatively, I can indicate to you what we will find now, and confirm that with test results later, as you have doubts about my categorisation as a life form.”
The crew were finding it difficult to contain the urge to laugh at the two Symbiants pulling off this charade and particularly the sideswipe at the Experts’ smugness. The return transmission was a little more guarded. It was Cameron who again took up the gauntlet. “Considering your offer, we would like you to tell us what difference you believe testing the amorphous form would have made to the original interpretation we received from Redgrave. Please continue.”
Carvalho became the first astronaut cheerleader, drumming up the others to encourage Alex 2 to put them out of their misery.
“Mr. Cameron, I will send you the actual traces but what they will show is substantial presence of Osmium Z-76 in the amorphous form. The little peak in the crystalline form is somewhat different. Osmium, as you know, is a very dense metallic element, in fact ideal for our hibernation mechanism. In the amorphous form it provides an asymmetric element capable of forming bonds with Silicon and Hydrogen. This enables part of our replication chemistry. However when the environment gets hostile – cold and hot cyclical periods, accompanied by atmospheric change and subsequent radiation threat – its signature mutates when returning to the crystalline form. In effecting this, the Osmium bonding undergoes changes which your instruments are not capable of picking up. It will suffice to say that it provides us with a lockdown structure until conditions become much more favourable again. Proof of its effectiveness was witnessed in the lab when the amorphous form emerged again after billions of years.”
The morale of the watching crew soared to a level not experienced since leaving Earth orbit. The reply was quick, short and accusatory. “As a Symbiant with all the abilities you claim, why have you not alerted us to this before now?” Alex 2’s riposte scored a maximum in this fencing finale. “I have repeated many times that the way of the Progenitors is to assist promise. This can be by exchange of information but mostly by confirmation of discovery. This is to endorse curiosity and thus further progress and promise. That is why I offered this explanation to your question. Now it can be confirmed. You will also need to progress your analytical techniques soon. There are the rudiments of that in your evolution. We reflect the design of the Progenitors’ objectives. Has it ever occurred to you that your acceptance or doubt over our attributes is paradoxical when you have never disputed their existence? I submit this is a peculiar characteristic of humanity; it is more comfortable with what cannot possibly be proven compared with that which you think should be verifiable. It is even more illogical, then, that you are curious about the Progenitors because I told you. And you still have doubts about me.
“Finally, have you considered that as your planet was seeded in the same way as Mars, your own evolution, together with other terran species, may have already been replicated? It is possible that surface and mined contact has been made in the past with either crystals or powder frequently enough to have exhausted the surface supply. The burial of the remainder by volcanic and tectonic action cannot exclude marine life having benefited from such events.
“In anticipating your next question, ‘wouldn’t they still exist?’ I cannot give you a precise prediction, but remember that if the original replication is followed by data stagnation, in a short time the reversion to the crystalline form would occur. Thus many such reversions would have occurred in early prehistoric times. The answer may lie in how much Osmium exists in the Earth’s crust. Intriguing, don’t you think?”
This time there was a long interval before a response arrived and it was also more conciliatory. “Thank you for your patience with us. We are all now of one disposition. The information about your hibernation mechanism and
Alex 2 pointed them to their own knowledge as a starting point. “You have already classified Osmium as the densest element known on Earth. It has oxidation states from 0 to +8. Osmium tetroxide, as you also know, reacts with alkaline compounds to form red coloured osmates, therefore not standing out visually from the background hues of our own Martian crystals. These non-volatile osmates provide a gateway for many organic oxidation reactions. Once more you are aware of the seven naturally occurring isotopes of Osmium, six of which are stable, and Osmium 186 undergoes alpha-decay with an enormously long half-life, over ten to the power fifteen years. This property you have already harnessed. When combined with Rhenium, it will date terrestrial and meteorite rocks accurately. Your planet only has three known sources of any significance of Osmium, indicating rarity and supporting what I said about the lack of common surface presence. The purest find is in South Africa, and is the result of crustal intrusions from below and impact craters, the Osmium residing in igneous rock. The other finds in Russia and Canada are in combination with copper and nickel. I would predict the African source may be most useful. The ratio of Earth’s inert Osmium to Osmates could be interesting. That is all I can say at the present, I hope it is useful.”
It silenced the incoming transmissions.
Dupree was relieved that the culture tests indicated there was no harmful effect to humans from this particular microbe. He had, however, uploaded Pascal 2’s immune proposal into the database. It consisted of an extract from one of the plant replicant species which was dealing with the microbe continually, and had developed even better resistance than the Symbiants. Red would follow his fellow Symbiants by deliberately infecting himself then amputate a finger to allow regeneration and immunity.
Red had taken over the duty of Redgrave seamlessly; he and Carvalho were making good progress on gathering samples and analysing them. Daniel Carvalho was a new man. He was punctual, diligent and polite. Most important he was content in himself.
Magnusson was just about ready to come back to duty and as the crew assembled, Alex 2 asked, “How do you all feel about what I said to Mr. Cameron - in particular, the possibility that human evolution may have already incorporated some interaction with the Continuance?”
The question had been circulating since the Cameron transmission. To some of the crew it seemed quite logical, in view of the Mars experience. To others it could help explain ‘miracles’ such as the technology required to build the pyramids with mind-boggling precision. To Carvalho, it was pivotal in his contemplation of his own future within that of his species. He became the epitome of the convert being a stronger believer than the original disciple. “I think it has to have occurred, to explain how our species became so much more intelligent than any other Earth inhabitant. I’m also getting the message that future interaction is an important process for humanity, in the steps leading up to escaping the prison of exclusively organic metabolism. If we are to survive events such as the previous mass extinctions, we must transcend this disadvantage. I want to be part of the way forward and to that end I request a completion. Please don’t think I’m going to do this on Mars and impact our clearance to return home. I’ll volunteer when we’re on Earth and campaign for this to become a controlled programme of development. I know you will point out problems with the God people, and even the difficulty of integration. However, we have come to really appreciate these guys. We just need time and good management.”
Dupree smiled and blatantly feigned affected pronunciation. “I with you had pelt thith way bepore you brope my daw”. They all laughed but realised that the feel-good factor would be severely tested when the time came.
Koppelt’s patience paid off and his people had managed to triangulate his suspect’s most regular caller to a district in Lebanon. The name, whether true or false was Suliman. It was probably false, as he never referred to Mansour by his name, choosing the rather obvious alias of Winston Old Boy. Ahmed was certain from the Arabic conversations that this was their man. He made a good point when he suggested that further efforts to tie Suliman back to the ‘Invisibles’ carried a risk of exposure, and anyway, the main objective was to prevent the sabotage. Everything else could wait.
The discussion moved on to when to apprehend Mansour. Koppelt and Ahmed were in favour of taking him out the day before orbit insertion correlation. Xiang was nervous about running so close to that deadline. The counter-argument from the other two was that it gave no time for execution of any back-up plan by the saboteurs. Without being totally convinced, Xiang gave way on the understanding that Mansour would have ‘called in sick,’ and certification would be filed for at least ten days. He wanted no distractions until landfall was established and the two crews reported that handover procedures were underway. He was still troubled by this known saboteur being countenanced in the ranks for such a long period.
Alex 2 and Pascal 2 resumed their astonishing programme of forestation at the ever-widening spoke heading towards Pandora’s Rift. Having started at Marineris Central at a single metre in width, the thick end of the wedge exceeded forty metres. The two Symbiants had calculated that by the time it had reached seventy-five metres it was to assume a parallel sided shape, to allow access ways between its two neighbouring wedges. The other spokes would take the same shape. In Marineris Central, weekly ‘local atmospheric’ readings were taken to show composition values. There was to be a cause for celebration this evening because for the first time there was a miniscule local increase in the median oxygen level. The regular 0.2% was now 0.23%. This gain reverted to normal by early morning each day, but it was a beginning. It was also good to be reporting positive news to Beijing.
Redgrave’s body had been stored in the coldest spot they could find which was out of sight, and not in the way of normal daily activities, one which never experienced the direct rays of the sun. It was hoped that this would preserve the remains until the return journey. However, the microbes which did not seriously trouble the human immune system in a living being were not deterred by a corpse. Their normal behaviour was to stay underground, so this departure was to be studied. It became necessary to attempt the construction of an impenetrable container of some kind, to preserve what was left.
Alex 2 had an idea. If they could repair the tears in Redgrave’s suit caused by the fall into the chasm, it should work. The challenge was to find some kind of seal which would have integrity at minus 70 degrees. They did not want to use a spare suit which could be needed in the future. “There is a material on the cargo register for this purpose.”
“Oh yes,” said Carvalho, “I remember it was Redgrave’s responsibility as a chemist to check it on board, but I think it might be in the orbiting Copernicus.”
“No, it is in one of Habitat airlock spare suit lockers. It was put there because it had to be wherever the suits were. In fact I believe a can is supposed to be carried on the Rover in case of accidental compromise of the suits.”
They all felt embarrassed at the lapse in procedure. Alex 2 could not resist a gentle jibe. “That is one disadvantage of poorly structured data retrieval in the brain. A preferable alternative could be one in which every ‘cell’ was designed to store and retrieve such data as a collaborative effort, minimising forgetfulness. What do you think?”
The material worked perfectly. A mix of branched and straight chain co-polyesters would normally be cured by artificial ultra-violet light and chemical photo-initiators to effect crosslinking, however the high indigenous radiation level was able to do a better job by slower cure resulting in more low temperature flexibility. It glistened in the Martian sunset so they nicknamed it Diamond Film.
With each week that passed, the communication time delay with Darwin became shorter with Veltrano’s audio link. The incoming crew were eager to hear regular status rep
Banjani was pleased to relinquish her command after her brief spell in charge. Dupree had just about recovered his normal diction but even the Symbiants could not grasp everything he uttered. Carvalho and Red had amassed a truly impressive pile of aquamarine rocks, some of which were layered in a similar way to sedimentary terran rocks. With the progress made by Alex 2 and Pascal 2, Natalia and Banjani were now keen to contribute. Veltrano worked feverishly on preventing dust from affecting any of the electronics, especially the communications equipment.
At supper one evening Magnusson asked the Symbiants to join them, despite having no calorific requirement. “If you were presented with a choice would you prefer to stay here or return to Earth with us?” The sudden enquiry surprised everyone. So much so, that the Symbiants began a silent consultation. The crew sat patiently and eventually Alex 2 resumed in audio. “This is a very difficult decision. As our own metabolism benefits from constantly evolving data interaction, Earth would appear to be very attractive. On the other hand, our responsibility dictates that we are positioned to encourage promising species, and there is much more we can assist with here. The third consideration is how the promising species view the options. After all, that species may not be so promising if they take an ultimately less rewarding route. One final aspect which we cannot predict is the division of opinion your species will have on the risk/benefit analysis. We have not until now interacted with any species in which individuals may behave differently from one another. We are unsure whether this is promising or not in the long term.”
The Nexus Odyssey by Hylton Smith / Science Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes