The Nexus Odyssey, p.17Hylton Smith
The smiles returned to the faces of the crew. Carvalho was first with a wisecrack. “You guys should run for government back home, the competition is seriously weak.” Magnusson chipped in. “The question was to provoke exactly this kind of discussion because I believe we would meet resistance right now if we proposed to take you back. I think we should have a coordinated effort to use transmissions to familiarise Beijing more with sessions like Alex 2 had with Cameron. That produced a profound change of thinking in itself.”
This idea met with support from all sides and became part of the routine, even with Darwin. Jussi Pykonnen in particular struck up a meaningful rapport with Alex 2 and Red, although at this stage he still believed Red was the original Alex Redgrave.
As the ‘patched’ three way communications continued, the Darwin crew were helpful in making the Beijing personnel more comfortable with the Symbiants. Things were going so well there was no real surprise when Alex 2 reported to the Commander the certainty of an impending dust storm. Magnusson’s immediate reaction was to recall everyone to base. “Yes Commander, please hurry. Pascal 2, Red and I are all agreed that retrieval data indicates elemental activity leading to a massive storm. You have not witnessed anything like this. We need to secure everything as well as we can, including this habitat. It will last for several hours.”
Major damage was sustained by the ‘plantations’, although they would regenerate. The control mechanism for the drillbot had been swept into the chasm. The buffeting took its toll on the robots as there had only been time to get the Rover into storage. The power supply cable had been yanked out of connecting sockets which were distorted in the process. This last item not only left them without power to work, but also heating and life support delivery. Any repair schedule had to be swift as there was serious threat to life for the crew, which would then be followed by hibernation for the Symbiants.
It was urgent to achieve restoration of power to enable tools and ideas for a solid fix. The Symbiants concurred, and used their immense strength and precision to return the sockets to a close match of their original configuration. This enabled them to accept and hold the male ends of the cables with the cores correctly aligned. Power was restored and they suggested building a locking cage to prevent a repeat of the problem.
Carvalho said he could do this with some spare parts from the robots and his small electronic welder. Red gave him some grey sample from the lab and said it would be stronger than the flux he was proposing to use. Daniel did not even question his judgement and proceeded. The saving of lives would do the Symbiants’ cause no harm. Repairing the robots was only slightly trickier. The three of them worked as a unit. One untwisted the arms and the other two gripped the pivot point to prevent collateral damage. It was awesome to watch the application of brute force so patiently and elegantly.
The big moment was almost upon Darwin, and this triggered the incarceration of Mansour. He was apprehended at his apartment and taken to a security cell for interrogation the night before Darwin separation and subsequent orbit insertion. Koppelt and Ahmed confronted him with recordings of his phone calls to Suliman and references to ‘pyramid’. He refused to comment other than to request a lawyer. When he was addressed in Arabic by Ahmed he was startled, but did not abandon his silence. When he was told that this was not a civil case, but a matter of global security, he frowned and shook his head.
“You can shake your head all you like - you are not entitled to a lawyer at this stage. You have not been charged but you are subject to employment conditions you signed when you took this post. These conditions specifically cover confidentiality, and your telephone conversation with a person in Lebanon, who is not entitled to information which you have disclosed, breaches this contract. This is information which you do not have clearance for, and therefore should not possess.”
His defiance continued. “Then charge me. I have done nothing wrong. This ‘pyramid’ thing you refer to was with my brother and it is a local expression for a district in Lebanon. It is a very dangerous area, and I was advising my brother that it was too risky to move there with his family. I have talked to him many times by phone about this, telling him that it - the pyramid - should be destroyed by whatever means. There is no other recipe but to divide and re-settle the people to break the ring of violence.”
“Can we meet your brother to confirm all this?” said Koppelt, “without you making further contact with him.” Koppelt was thrown by his agreement. “Of course, go and see him. See the pyramid for yourself if you dare.”
Koppelt looked at Ahmed, who shrugged his shoulders. They left Mansour in the room, and over a coffee Ahmed said he could not say if there was such a district, but it could easily be checked. If Mansour gave up the address where his brother could be contacted personally, he could arrange via trusted Lebanese affiliates, an investigative test of the veracity of the detainee’s claim. When Koppelt introduced the ticking clock constraint, Ahmed replied that while Mansour was in custody he was neutralised. However, if it turned out that he was genuine they had a big problem and no time to solve it. “Mmm, Xiang may have been right after all…we could have confronted him earlier,” confessed Koppelt.
The shock of the dust storm had left its mark. When asked about the frequency, Alex 2 stated that parameters indicated this severity was not common or predictable. The cause was intense ionisation passing close to the planet. Without his warning there would have been loss of life; even so, that warning was dangerously inadequate. Therefore he recommended that until the atmosphere was generated via forestation and the greenhouse situation started to flourish, it would be prudent to consider large protective domes to cover Habitats, Power Supply Units and Vehicles. “No doubt you have a plan in mind,” said Magnusson.
The reply from Lebanon confirmed Mansour’s account. He was released with the proviso he took a few days leave to avoid concern back at Mission Control. Koppelt informed Xiang and accepted the tirade of criticism. Profuse apologies did nothing to mitigate the hovering threat, so while Koppelt and Ahmed shifted their forlorn investigation back to the other three suspects, Xiang took his own action.
His transmission to Magnusson requested a discussion with Alex 2. The gist of his plan was to prepare for ‘pyramid’ compromise. His query to Alex 2 was his ability to corroborate and advise Darwin directly if Beijing went down. The answer was what he wanted to hear. “I would be able to advise separation times, attitudes and velocities to achieve more accurate landing than your own equipment. You may find that difficult to accept, asking how something can be more correct, if it is already correct. The difference lies in local conditions – I can take better account of them than you can.”
“Ok Magnusson, we have a security issue here and I’m going to pull the link between Beijing and the two crews. Your direct link with Darwin will enable your confident friend to get them safely down. Following this message you need not deactivate the incoming reception, the uplink from here will be down for as long as we need to clean up our system - hopefully not more than five days. When we are sure the bugs are purged we will restore the link and confirm this with a message. Do not attempt to make contact before this. I’ll be giving the same instruction to Commander Rebrov. Good luck, Xiang out.”
With less than two hours to separation Ahmed made a call in Arabic. “We have success Suliman…the Beijing server system has collapsed, and they are out of contact with their Martian crews. They bought the elaborate plea for asylum and the Mansour diversion. He has returned to Lebanon. Atarda infected the system without suspicion. Working at night, he convinced the personnel monitoring the cctv with his theatrical disguise. The beautiful part however was the silane polymer palm impression he took from Xiang when they ‘enthusiastically’ shook hands at the recruitment party all those months ago. It has been a nervous wait because we could not risk checking it in case of
Joachim Atarda, one of the four original suspects, from Andalucía, was an apparent convert from Islam to Catholicism. This was not an uncommon practice in the last stronghold of Muslim culture in the Iberian Peninsula; the trend had ebbed and flowed for centuries. Atarda had gone through the screening process smoothly.
Koppelt was under attack for both embarrassing events. The loss of the servers was bad enough but the crowning naivety was the ‘sting’ by the USAr, which the Confederation of Nations did not want to publicise. What they could not know was that the USAr did not want that publicity either. The slow realisation of this did nothing to prevent Koppelt’s humiliation at now being demoted, and now became subordinate to Xiang. Firing him would have begged the question – why? And as Xiang’s swift action prevented a potential disaster the P.R. damage was limited slightly. So, the USAr accomplished the aim of undermining confidence in general, and the Confederation of Nations avoided complete collapse of support. Ahmed was, however, not as welcome as he expected in Damascus, as he ‘should have covered this possibility’ in his strategy. His faked kidnap mutated into a real one, together with Mansour and Atarda. As Ahmed’s body was recovered from a car crash alongside the others, with the new passport identity and face to match, it did not raise any eyebrows.
Alex 2 made the process of assisting Darwin pretty routine, with his usual aplomb. The new Habitat was close to the edge of the forest spoke heading for Pandora’s Rift, about halfway between the chasm and Marineris Central. The Power and Vehicle units in the Lander were remarkably close to the Habitat module, worryingly close to the onlookers before touchdown. The remaining task of getting the Descent vehicle with the Lab in the optimal position caused a bit of a stir when Alex 2 asked, “Would the space between the Habitat and Lander be suitable?” His improving sense of humour was well disguised. Pykonnen had asked for it to be as close as possible to the Rift without the ‘excitement’ of the Lander episode. His wish was granted.
The meeting between the two crews was a very emotional and uplifting one. It was a celebration which needed no champagne. Fascination with the Symbiants was expected, but there was a brief moment of sadness when the revelation of Redgrave’s fate was accompanied by the location of his body being marked on the map. Darwin’s crew were informed of his sabotage agenda and orchestrated ‘murder’. They all accepted the rationale for keeping this from Beijing for the time being. Magnusson suggested that Rebrov think about whether he wanted the body to return with Copernicus or the option of continuing the ‘deception’. The existence of Red offered a ‘timeout’ if he was to remain on Mars. Rebrov nodded and wanted to talk privately with his crew.
It was also time to face the question of all three Symbiants and their future. It had not escaped the Darwin crew that the Dupree template could be replicated again whereas the Alex types were no longer possible. There was plenty to think about on their first day.
Magnusson gathered both crews to watch the initial transmission after the restoration of the uplink. “This was one hell of a virus. It has taught us lessons we didn’t think we needed. The security aspects of personnel screening are being beefed up and the protection of the fortress stations have to be designed with less obvious technology. The firewalls are undergoing additional encryption features. Anyway, we sincerely hope this is being watched by the new arrivals. Please update us on your status.”
Magnusson and Rebrov delivered the good news together and then the Darwin Commander left. Magnusson said to Xiang that he urgently wanted to discuss the Symbiants position, and although he knew this could be complicated by all kinds of influence, it still had to be addressed. Xiang said he knew the question was coming. He had already had positive pressure from Cameron and his gang. Everyone else had carefully avoided the subject. “Leave it with me Magnusson; it also has the deadline of your departure so I’ll act with that urgency as a lever.”
The Darwin crew had seen the benefits conferred by the Symbiants first hand. They joined in the debate about continuing the ‘alliance’. They wanted to retain Red and agreed to go along with the plan to allow Earth sources to believe that he was Alex Redgrave until the body returned with Copernicus. Rebrov was, to his surprise, confronted by three of his crew volunteering for a completion. “We must wait until Commander Magnusson’s discussions with Beijing are concluded, and then we can review your request.”
One decision which had been cleared was the sample collection to be returned with Copernicus. It contained substantial amounts of Scarlet O’Hara. It was to be kept in crystal form by oscillating cold storage in the unheated lab. The Experts wanted to study the mechanism of the change to the amorphous form under safe conditions.
Xiang instructed Koppelt to attend the session with the Confederation Executive and reminded him of the part played by the Symbiants in saving what was left of his neck. “You would have already departed if I hadn’t availed of a means of protecting the link between the two crews when we failed to stop the infiltration. The Symbiants deserve a chance to come here and present their own case, especially in the light of the threat being here in the first place.”
Koppelt was surprisingly supportive. He felt there was unfinished business with Suliman, and the Symbiants may be able to help. He desperately wanted to restore his standing. The predictable resistance, however, reared its head. The God Squad were first to introduce the destabilising potential of bringing supreme extraterrestrial intelligence on board the ‘Earthship Delusion’. The argument was countered by the Experts – who indicated one of the objectives enshrined in the charter of the mission was to search for life. Why was this not debated then? The question of control was aired by several of the Executive members. This ability to just produce life with this capability would become a very desirable and possibly dangerous commodity, not unlike the first nations to have nuclear power. There would have to be an accord on this. As Xiang, who had been silent until now had anticipated, they were already rushing headlong down the alley of bureaucracy. “Excuse me for drawing your attention to the timescales. We have a few days before Copernicus embarks on the return. The next opportunity to study these Symbiants who have assisted Commander Magnusson’s crew in many ways, including saving their lives, is when Darwin begins her return voyage. That one year, I submit, is nowhere near enough for our human propensity to dot ‘i’s and cross ‘t’s, at every point of contention. After that, who knows when the next Mars mission will get the green light? Our new friends continue our work on Mars at an incredible pace while we can’t get off our backsides and decide. The initial rationale for the colonisation effort was to create a survival route for our species if the conservation programmes failed, or did not kick in until it was too late. Were these just empty political gestures? The religious issue will always be there, it always has been. Reliance upon any ‘almighty’ has never solved any such errant behaviour by our species, yet it has often been used as justification for war. It is time to subordinate agendas which threaten the species to those which offer hope, otherwise Mars missions should be seen for what they are – propaganda. Finally, I believe Mr. Koppelt has derived benefit with the Symbiant’s involvement in security investigations, but I’ll leave him to flesh out the detail. I need a decision today as Commander Magnusson has been told to bring at least one Symbiant if there is procrastination here. Preparations for departure are underway. Preparations for my own departure will follow if you people renege on your high and mighty promises.”
There never has been anything like the pressure of having to make a decision with an imminent deadline, for persuading to politicians come up with reasons to move the deadline. This was no different. The pathetic paper shuffling and retreat from the firing line was looming. Fortunately, Rabinowitz had another pressing matter to consider. His country was already becoming more vulnera
Karl Koppelt prefaced his account by declaring the respect the Executive must have for the ongoing investigations. “What you are about to hear must be kept within these walls. Even then, I am uneasy at sharing this with anyone. It is one of the basic tenets of Intelligence work, that you never freely divulge anything which can weaken your position. In this case we have so much to gain from working with the Symbiants that the risk is justified.” The melodrama was embroidered further by Rabinowitz after Koppelt had spilled the detail. “The news that this intricate sabotage is being orchestrated by the USAr is bad; however, the good news is that my country has many networks of intelligence in the region to underpin our survival. Together with Koppelt’s people and the Symbiant assistance we could expose the leaders of this renegade action against a backdrop of a world accord to preserve our planet. It is too dangerous to allow this sabotage to ferment. The other concerns expressed today quite frankly are minimal by comparison.”
The Nexus Odyssey by Hylton Smith / Science Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes