The Nexus Odyssey, p.18Hylton Smith
This relaxed everyone, not because Rabinowitz was right or he was unduly influential, but sadly because he had clearly offered himself as a scapegoat, if required. Quid pro quo.
The courageous decision to allow Alex 2 to come to Earth was an ego-massaging event. Xiang was a little disappointed that the import was limited to one, but reconciled this with the trade off in Pascal 2 being available to Commander Rebrov. He might not be so philosophical about the ruse of Red when Alex Redgrave’s body turned up.
The mood was tinged with sadness when Magnusson’s crew received the transmission. The Symbiants considered the decision to be quite logical because it maintained the status of promise.
Darwin personnel were pretty familiar with the chores by now and it was time for goodbyes. There were genuine tears when the Copernicus crew had to witness the Symbiants being split up. They exchanged what was for them, a reasonably long winded silent dialogue. Alex 2 revealed afterwards it had to do with constructing domes.
The ascent to rejoin the orbiting Copernicus was exemplary, a joint effort between Banjani, Carvalho and the calmness of Alex 2. Beijing was able to listen in this time to the contribution of detail from the Symbiant; theirs was a ‘supervisory’ balcony perspective.
Docking was just as sweet and once through airlock drill, the sequence of heating and life support were brought on line. Artificial gravity would be next, after achieving orbit exit. The two crews gazed in each other’s direction with differing emotions. The Copernicus view lived up to its connotation. The progress they had made echoed Neil Armstrong’s famous quotation all those years ago. For Darwin it was the independence to take care of expansion.
The entire crew felt the loss of the two Symbiants who were left behind. None more so than Dupree, who was having difficulty coping with the situation. “Natalia, I am edgy and irritable. The choice should have been theirs. My dream to help humanity through this mission feels so devalued by this decision. When I was in my early twenties, all my four siblings lived at or close to my parents’ home. I came back infrequently and at the time I didn’t realise I was seen as the prodigal son. My clamour for independence was a convenient blind spot. The readiness of Pascal 2 to accept this dreadful edict has given me the role of the ‘tortured parent’. I hope it will pass.”
Natalia empathised. “Look forward – what will you do when we get home? You must make a new life. You can’t let this bring you down; you have too much to offer.”
“I know all that but it doesn’t seem to help. I do have a long standing offer which was made before we were selected for the mission. I’ll think about that, as I should probably have taken it in the first place.”
Magnusson was explaining the quarantine process to Alex 2 after docking at the space elevator. “We’ll all have to be decontaminated, then reside in clean room quarters until they’re satisfied we are risk free.”
“What is the decontaminant?” Magnusson confessed that he had forgotten but would ask.
Meanwhile Pykonnen, Red and Pascal 2 combined their efforts to locate the lost drillbot control panel in the chasm. After much searching with Darwin’s control panel and the two drillbot cameras they finally got close up shots. It was some four miles down and in pretty bad shape. It was not worth the herculean effort to recover it; they would have to make do with one controller. “It might be better use of our time to concentrate on protective domes,” said Red.
The discussion moved to Rebrov’s quarters. “You already know something of our regenerative, predominantly inorganic chemistry. You have seen it in action with the forestation. The present regeneration of the plants damaged in the dust storm includes adaptation to improve resistance to such force. Our concept is to take transplants from these ‘immune’ growths, and arrange them in a large circle which can accommodate our vulnerable units. As the plants grow, we prune and taper them to begin a dome shape. By the time we have completed the dome we must have accumulated sufficient amorphous form to sprinkle over the entire surface. Replication will begin and the surface density will increase. By repeating the selective pruning and sprinkling, the amorphous form will experience an information plateau. As you know this will, in a short time begin to revert to crystal. It will be patchy at first but will rapidly fill in. We can use your lasers to cut an arch entrance. When this is removed we construct a pad there, sunk below the surface with guide recesses also built from crystal. This will allow entry of the units and ability of those units to open and close the door from outside or inside. This gives many advantages. Firstly, the crystals have survived billions of years of erosion and radiation, giving a very robust protection for equipment and humans. Secondly, as it is a continuous shell except for the door, it will have its own atmosphere generated by the internal plant growth. This of course depends on the precision of the angled laser cuts to make the door wedge shaped. When it is working, its oxygen can be siphoned off in a controlled way for collection and still maintain a breathable atmosphere inside. If you like it, we can then consider building really big ones. The only real limitation is crystal deposit, but the canyon is almost two thousand miles long and the chasm five miles deep in places. Our estimation shows this to be adequate.”
The astonishment shown by Rebrov and Pykonnen was twofold. There was the elegant simplicity coupled with the unshakable confidence that it would work. The proposal was not yet complete. Red continued, “You must forgive me for using simplistic terms like chemistry, but it is what you understand. You define some changes as chemical reactions, either spontaneous or catalysed. Other changes can be encouraged. You have already developed many new materials using only focussed electron beam energy. This is promising. You also have made the first steps in nanotechnology. You have these good basic tools to investigate our ‘chemistry’ much further.”
Rebrov unhesitatingly said, “Let’s give this priority, Red. I’ll brief the rest of the crew. You, Pascal 2 and Pykonnen organise the tasks into groups.”
Barely a week later, the first ‘dome’ had been planted and already the pruning arc was visible. Rebrov could not resist contacting Magnusson to express his amazement at the way the modest, humble approach of the Symbiants had fitted with his crew like an old pair of slippers. “Some of my people seem to forget that these guys don’t get tired or need sleep, but it doesn’t stop them working their breaks. Anyway I don’t intend claiming success with Beijing until the dome is complete.”
Magnusson gave the good news to Alex 2 and informed him that his recall of the decontamination process awaiting them was a two-stage cold plasma sweep. The first was to take care of the suits and the second a modified and gentler version of the individuals. A sonic scrub would be allowed on exiting quarantine.
“I am afraid that will be a problem, Commander. It may at least destabilise my data flow system. It will not cause loss of data, rather a safe mode of access and retrieval. However, depending on the intensity and exposure it could trigger reversion to crystal. That would mean another cycle of amorphous form, then completion with another subject, if you want to avail of my existing database.”
Magnusson just knew this was going to cause a furore, and he was not optimistic about the outcome. It would be better to engage in this war of words now, rather than creating a ‘headless chicken’ scenario by springing it on them upon arrival.
Koppelt was smarting from the Ahmed episode. He could not understand what benefit the surgery would be if the kidnap was genuine. If the surgery had achieved its objective why did they take him? Did he really insist on the painful procedure just to convince Koppelt that he was defecting? He decided to start again with Suliman, who was obviously not Mansour’s brother. Again he sought the help of Rabinowitz to covertly try to find out more in Lebanon. At least they had a location to begin the search.
The long trip home afforded time for Banjani and Natalia
“Yes, and not just the view, walking and swimming. Maybe we need to think a lot more about what we will do career-wise too.”
“Well, I don’t know about you but I feel like a complete chill-out for a couple of months. I don’t want to rush at something right away, and we have our social ‘careers’ to progress.”
This did not sound like good news to Natalia. “Social careers? What are they?”
“We have both had unhappy relationships recently. This is a new beginning with a blank canvas, and we’ll have a certain celebrity status. Let it wash over us.”
Natalia kept pushing the feelings of attraction back, but like the ocean, its relentless waves kept breaking on the shore. There was a series of modest flutters then the crashing reminder of a gut-wrenching explosion of emotion. “I think I’d like to start a little business using my medical experience. Perhaps as a comprehensive personal healthy living consultant – appointment only – limited number of clients. I would offer supplemental prescription, lifestyle exercise and de-stressing body relaxation therapy. I would be able to manage it all on my own.”
“Could I enrol now?” pleaded Indira.
“You’re my first client. I can promise you ma’am that my new salon in San Francisco, with its ocean view, will be more to your liking than this Spartan mobile home.”
“San Francisco, eh? Sounds good to me. They say if it doesn’t happen in ‘Frisco, then it doesn’t happen. It apparently has a very cosmopolitan feel. Let’s check it out. Now please attend to the needs of my aching body.”
‘If only you knew,’ mused Natalia.
After days of raging argument the red tape was finally circumvented sufficiently to allow Alex 2 to have his own quarantine room where he would be attended for seven days by a suited medical team. They would conduct a laborious but extremely rigorous investigative programme, and pending a ‘clean bill of health’ he would be directed to join the rest of the crew.
Back on Mars, the dome was beginning to sparkle with the first dots of Scarlet O’Hara. The forestation had slowed with the effort to prise crystal from the chasm and shape the dome. More time could now be devoted to that project if the acquisition of crystal could be increased. The additional vehicles from Darwin made the task a little more efficient. Getting crystal from the seam in greater quantities had relied upon the Symbiants’ acrobatic abilities. Pykonnen used the drillbots to produce lines of fracture and large slabs were extracted by Red and Pascal 2. Having got them to the surface, they had to be stored in the lab to begin powdering. As it was not ‘safe’ for the humans to collect the powder, that task also had to be performed by the Symbiants. The rate-determining step was simply their number. Pykonnen put it to the Commander that it would be almost impossible to construct large domes if this was not addressed. “We can’t do this without authorisation, Jussi.”
The pragmatic reply from the Finn was, “Well, let’s make it an accidental contact while building this dome. By then we’ll know if it gives us what we want and you will have informed Beijing. I’ll volunteer of course.”
The pragmatism was not reciprocated by his commanding officer, so he discussed the completion process with Red and Pascal 2. They said they had experienced division of opinion before. It was a characteristic which puzzled them, but they would help as always. When Jussi felt ill he informed Rebrov, who was livid, but agreed to allow the crew to observe the completion with Pascal 2 in attendance. The experience went exactly as they had been told it would and yet they marvelled at the new arrival communicating with them so quickly.
Rebrov was now as insubordinate as Magnusson had become. It didn’t feel all that bad. Knowledge of the event would stay on Mars for now. He also knew his next completion request would not be long in arriving. The first Darwin Symbiant was, like Red, accorded the choice of his own name. He chose Finn.
The additional ‘body’ truly demonstrated why the others were keen to follow Pykonnen’s example. Rebrov was genuinely torn between endorsing a programme which would not only reduce workload but add protection value for his crew, or simply adhere to instruction from people who only worked to rule.
Suliman was obviously yet another code name as there was no lead whatsoever via Rabinowitz’ contacts. It would therefore be necessary to change approach. The revelation to the world of the impending extraterrestrial arrival had created fantastic interest and positive curiosity. This appealed to Koppelt as a conversational tool to profile anti-Symbiant sentiment in Lebanon.
As each day passed, Rebrov moved closer to disclosure of the ‘accident’. His hope was that it would pave the way for more sympathetic discussion on extending the recruitment of more Symbiants. The progress on the dome was reinforcing the pressure from the crew. The unbroken red hemisphere was gradually thickening. Red had calculated it would resist stronger dust storms than the previous monster at a thickness of ten centimetres. However as an additional margin of security he suggested a mild manufactured storm to initiate regeneration of adapted crystal. The frequent naturally occurring mini-storms would propagate this trend to optimum shell durability. They would soon be ready to cut out the door.
Pykonnen was still in the novelty phase of ‘talking to himself’. He was fascinated by the Symbiant’s superior interpretation of his own knowledge. Jussi’s theories on silicate replication potential turned out to be rather conservative. However, there was too much concentration on the central role of Silicon, and its perceived limitations. More focus was required on data handling potential and less regression to accommodation of organic considerations. Finn characteristically would not specifically advise direction for Jussi, merely hinting at general promise or cautioning biological obsession.
The world’s interest in the arrival of Alex 2 was not mirrored in the USAr. This was partly because it was discouraged by officialdom, but also because it was a challenge to faith. This was quite logical as Islam was more central to life in the Middle East than other religions were in their respective regions. However there was an undercurrent of objectivity flourishing in the cafes and bars. This is where Rabinowitz’ agents, under Koppelt’s orders, joined in the debate. These agents were Lebanese, not Israeli. Every cold war scenario in history has thrown up people who are prepared to betray the hand which feeds them for personal gain, masquerading as idealism. Eventually names were being associated with challenging the ruling doctrine. Fear was also expressed that they would face grave risk. Teasing out why and specifically who, was met with reticence, but perseverance did begin to pay off. Apparently there was an uncomfortable presence of Iranian undercover personnel in Lebanon and other USAr member states. There were certain means to recognise these shadowy figures but interaction was considered very dangerous. A number of vociferous reformers had disappeared inexplicably, and even their families did not offer more than token protest. The local populace knew that those families had also been threatened. Further investigation was going to cost a lot more.
Veltrano asked Dupree if he had anything for a dry cough, he had almost lost his voice. Dupree nodded and joked that his broken jaw had accounted for the longest period of his life without speaking. He gave Veltrano some soothing medication and the Mexican resumed his duties. When he was absent for supper the doctor looked in on him and found he had worsened. Dupree downloaded his bio data and discovered evidence of severe respiratory restriction. Veltrano was also sweating heavily and thought he had a heavy bout of flu. The Doctor gave him some standard antibiotics and told him to rest for a couple of days. He reported this to the crew and suggested they give Veltrano’s quarters a wide berth. The next morning Dupree did not feel so good himself. He was alternating chills with the sweats and he soon had diarrhoea. He informed the Commander and asked Natalia to stand in for him.
“But where could this have come from?” asked Magnusson.
“Sir,” said Carvalho, “up to 80% of drinking water can be recycled through the unit from time to time. Although it has not reached that level very often it was shut down while Copernicus orbited Mars, then restarted when we returned.”
“Could be,” admitted Natalia, “the most common source of infection known is from water reservoirs and cooling units.”
Alex 2 accessed the database and interrupted. “It is described as spreading by breathing in infected droplets, and there is no evidence of it being passed person to person in the way of an airborne bacterial transmission. It also states that symptoms for diagnosis usually appear in 7 days after initial infection then worsen after a further 4 days.”
The worst fears were confirmed when Veltrano had blood in his sputum. Magnusson had a fever. The remaining crew decided to don their space suits and breathe more reliably from the backpack supply. They also started to use what was left of the bottled water supply, and switched off the recycling system.
Alex 2 mentioned the specialised antibiotics which had been developed for this condition. Natalia found two such types in the dispensary – Ciprofloxacin and Erythromycin. Had someone actually guessed this could happen? The bad news was that the supply was limited. Also the database did not recommend which type should be used with the different symptoms.
Dupree was too ill to make a judgement. They contacted Pascal 2 again to ask if Dupree’s own experience included treatment of this rare condition. The answer was negative. The first three to go down were getting worse. Magnusson was not yet deteriorating and could have even improved in the suit. They had already checked this with Earth simultaneously but no reply had yet arrived. Time was of the essence. Veltrano’s respiration, even with oxygen assistance, was audibly painful and Dupree had worsened, with blood being coughed up. Banjani’s fever was not as acute but she now had chest pain.
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