The Nexus Odyssey, p.20Hylton Smith
The one place free of intrigue at this time was Mars. It was not free of progress. The wheel of forestation was complete. The repetitive prune and replication combined with the Symbiant’s green-fingered nutrient experiments had produced a remarkable rate of propagation. An estimated five years of growth had been achieved in a tenth of that period. The major efficiency came from manipulating ‘gene’ replication to virtually no seasonal dormancy. The local maximum oxygen daily level had now increased to 0.4%. The benefits and trade-offs were being evaluated for further forestation versus a large dome as the next priority.
The complication in Lebanon would in theory assist Koppelt’s plan. There was long-standing threat of civil war. The pro-government Sunnis and Shiite Hezbollah were constantly in and out of street conflict with one another. Adding in the Druze, PSP and multiple anti-Syrian factions improved the camouflage. Some of these anti-Syrian groups had operated for years under the guise of private security companies to avoid annoying the bigger players. One more of these groups would almost go unnoticed, until the identity of the target spread from local to national exposure. It was also more manageable in terms of organisation and personnel required. The apparent contradiction struck Koppelt as bizarre. Presumably the same people who drove through the ‘accord’ for the formation of the USAr were those sponsoring street militia, and thus fuelling the perceived instability. His gut told him that it must somehow fit some master plan. Straddling the gorge until the time was right – probably related to oil reserves, and the wealth being even more unevenly distributed than the capitalist world. Power was always to be found somewhere in the grand design. The region was constituted by disparate nations, albeit with common denominators of oil and Islam. The immensely wealthy had much to lose by religion being overtaken by technological progress too quickly. Although this was impossible to prevent in the long term, as was the case with the Soviet Union, it had to be managed. Having many warring factions with just causes was a useful distraction. The bigger picture involved a gradual steering of the capitalist world’s oil reserves. They would predictably run out, and this required careful orchestration from the USAr. Conflicts like the second Gulf war had to be avoided. A subtle - oil for technology policy -towards the West in particular, would keep an even keel while it was still possible to internally extol the virtue of fundamental values of Islam. Managing this intersection would be very precarious, but the high stakes justified the pain.
Karl was rather pleased with his analysis. He would bounce this off Rabinowitz, or would he? He might have to broaden the concern to the ‘incidental’ demise of Israel as fallout from the primary objective. Rabinowitz would, in all probability, see it the other way around. If the USAr ascended to status rivalling the big four, it was only a matter of time before Israel became a bargaining chip. As he needed Rabinowitz’s people to carry out his ‘snatch’ in Lebanon, the philosophical stuff would wait.
The new sedation routine for the entire crew was giving a worthwhile gain in water conservation and perhaps just as important, a better social atmosphere. As Dupree was now included, the supper table was the focus for all questions and concerns. One constant scenario provoked difficult questions for Alex 2. It was the probability of reaching the ‘dry point’ and the subsequent decision to accept further sedation. This could mean farewell and the emotional need to write or record last thoughts or simply remain conscious. Alex 2 responded with one consistent but unconvincing reply. “Beijing is working all hours available on a rescue plan. We should not make decisions on possible outcomes until there is no alternative.”
The cold was the one and only incentive for embracing another timeout. It was difficult to resist keeping warmer, even though they knew it was necessary. Magnusson kept saying they should imagine they were in the trenches of the Somme for months at a time in freezing, wet conditions and taking enemy fire constantly. He was often met with the response that it would be easier if they had no means of addressing the cold, but in reality the flick of a switch would end their discomfort. For once he was seen as unsympathetic when he insisted it was merely a test of mental tenacity. “Some have it, some don’t. I faced this in my polar campaigns and believe me it was worse than this.”
Carvalho and Natalia both accepted this as a nudge to get back on track. Conversely Dupree and Banjani accused him of showboating how relevant his macho side had been in being selected as Commander. Alex 2 and Trois tried to calm the mutinous tendency by basically repeating ad-nauseum that there really was no alternative. Banjani glared at them. “That’s ok for you to say, you have no way of experiencing cold.”
Carvalho piped up. “Alex 2, maybe you could set us some homework to occupy our thoughts instead of thinking continuously about the problem. It would be difficult for us to arrive at your estimate of the dry point without the use of a powerful database. Anyone up for it?”
It was a galvanising suggestion. Because their minds were sluggish they decided to work in teams of two with one of them as a ‘referee’.
When Koppelt rang Rabinowitz after almost a week, the Israeli was still playing for time. However Karl turned up the heat by admitting that he could not be associated with having important information and doing nothing with it. “Look Eyal, I was lucky that Xiang pulled a rabbit out of the hat on the virus. I’m not going to tolerate an encore. If you can’t genuinely help that’s OK, but either way I have to file a report on my next steps, with all other options, even the ones which I could not pursue.”
“Mmm, I’ll contact my homeland. I am in a position here where my impartiality has to be transparent. If something went wrong it would be preferable if the old enemy were blamed, guilty or not, rather than hand these people the ammunition of exposing corruption here, which is exactly what they want. Go ahead and draw up your scheme, with only the personnel to fill in.”
It was less than three weeks to Xiang’s escapade. The plug and play communication rig was almost ready for grafting, and one of the pods had been ‘scheduled’ as ready for a facelift in control software. He informed Alex 2 of the status quo and the Symbiant took the opportunity to question the wisdom of holding out on the crew. When he related the schism which had developed because they felt they were on death row, Xiang relented - on condition that they all agreed to be sedated while the transfer was executed.
Alex 2 assembled the crew to give them their maths homework. They were all confused by the small Earthside object of limited velocity and range. What was the point? The normal calculation was beyond them anyway. The explanation just irritated them until he spilled the beans. There were as many lumps in throats as for Javier’s funeral but these were accompanied by tears of joy.
The Israelis were less than deliriously happy at the request, but Rabinowitz had convinced them of the longer term benefit. Not since the audacious raid on Amin’s regime in Entebbe had they needed to call on their crack special extraction forces. Documents, false ID cards and uniforms were supplied and the timing set for family socialising following Sunday prayers. The insertion Magda helicopter was decked in Lebanese Army livery. Designed to carry personnel on high risk missions, it was heavily armed and very manoeuvrable, as a camouflaged landing site was critical for this kind of operation. The chosen site was in the western foothills of the great central mountain range between Beirut and Zahl. Rabinowitz’ Lebanese contacts would pick up the twelve elite ‘Lebanese – Syrian Security Militia’. The uniforms were convincing but accepted under some sufferance from the wearers. It didn’t feel right laying one’s life on the line in a foreign battledress. Advance preparation work in designing and predating membership of a website for the LSSM would help authenticity in the aftermath. They also needed to be seen and hopefully caught on security cameras. The truck in which they were to be driven to the snatch point in Beirut was totally neutral. It was considered too risky, even i
It was over five years since Xiang had been to the Moon, so he was a little rusty, but at least the pod was a simple little craft. He had mixed emotions – piloting again was appealing – apprehension centred on the literal possibility of passing like ships in the night. The mental anaesthetic was the confidence he had in this life form he had never met. His greatest wrench was going to be telling his wife of his intent. The children were too young to be involved and she would have to bear the uncertainty alone. He was able to blank all the other aspects, but not this one. It was made a little less onerous by his almost telepathic assurance that she would understand.
All of a sudden Koppelt was feeling nervous. The plan had been innovative and exciting to construct. It was becoming utterly dominant in his everyday activity. Elements never considered in the blueprint were haunting him – what if the truck had a tyre blow out leaving Beirut? What if Suliman was ill and did not follow his observed Sunday routine? Most recently – What if failure impacts Xiang’s request for his cover?
Copernicus was harmonious again, despite the abject failure of either team to get within 5% of the correct space/time coordinates of Alex 2’s dry point. They were actually making plans again. Dupree was going to take up a long standing offer in the Sudan, assisting reconstruction by overseeing better health programmes. Carvalho had much clearer ideas on how to help further the cause of the Symbiants, related to the gospel of Artificial Intelligence. The lakes in the north of Sweden were beckoning Magnusson and his family, maybe a really swish houseboat. The two females were well into the details of a period property renovation project.
Forty minutes before the Helicopter set down, the coded message of its arrival time was accurately flashed off to the waiting truck, which had already eased its way out of Beirut at a leisurely pace, attracting little or no attention. Pickup achieved. Weaving through the suburbs to the target ‘garage’ location was also uneventful. Entry into the property provided the first opportunity for curiosity by the locals. Discharging the bodyguards was swift and noisy courtesy of a cacophony of AK-47’s. The sentinel group stretched from the house to the truck, and they were all happy to brandish their pride in their regalia. Uninhibited screaming permeated the burst of gunfire. Suliman’s mouth was taped; his hands shackled and he was inserted head first into a large, dirty sack. Onlookers cowered behind walls and vehicles, but some had the presence to flash cameras from roof terraces. The truck screeched out of its cover and the ‘LSSM’ loyalists boarded, then it was gone in a flash of ammunition discharged to the sky.
The local Lebanese driver cut through the suburbs with clinical knowledge and the tension began to subside, then out of nowhere a refuse collection truck reversed into their path. The driver was already immune to verbal abuse and threats after years in the job. He was more respectful of the two militiamen and their persuasive armoury. This round of public identification was not welcome and the driver decided to skip to a different exit route. It would add some estimated eight minutes before they could join the highway parallel to the mountains and then swing on to the rough road to meet the Magda. Those eight minutes were enough for the bush telegraph to respond.
When all personnel were aboard, the chopper lifted from its cover and headed back. The response had gathered some degree of coordination and a genuine Lebanese Army helicopter loomed someway ahead of them. It attempted to make radio contact and the on-air silence brought them closer. With the extra personnel on the return leg the pilot informed the leader of the squad that he could not outrun this threat. The decision was instantaneous, an RPG was fired wide of the approaching chopper. It caused them to veer erratically and temporarily retreat. The leader had to shake off this nuisance without them figuring out they were headed back to Israel. He instructed the pilot to alter course to the East and the general direction of Syria. For some reason this action provoked the chasing helicopter to open fire with a machine gun. There unfortunately was no choice - the Magda swung around and the expertise of the co-pilot delivered the second RPG resulting in a fireball which would be seen for miles around. Unknown to them the Lebanese pilot’s last words had reported the ‘stolen army’ unit heading for Syria. The Magda returned to the original course to the south. The whole episode had found its way on to radio stations quicker than anticipated. As the helicopter raced over the border it was tracked by both Lebanese and Israeli sweeps. The foresight of the latter had no fewer than nine gunships from the Golan patrol force to chase down the ‘LSSM’ runaway. Once the Magda touched down well inside the border and the target was whisked away in a security car, the helicopter was destroyed by rockets. This was reported to the Lebanese authorities with well-rehearsed anger, and they were invited to come and take some of the wreckage away. They were also asked to keep their house in order, not export this chaos to an already sensitive hot spot. The Lebanese were somewhat puzzled by no evidence of human remains. The Israelis simply shrugged shoulders and asked how many people were in the Magda, and who they were. When the reply was noncommittal, they revealed that on refusal to submit, close to landing, the occupants were hit with at least four RPG’s. It may have been overkill but the gunships could not take chances, the Magda was heavily armed and the pilot was acting like a crazy man. He was probably completely incinerated as the heat had completely melted parts of the rotor. The pseudo affront was bought by the Lebanese and they departed with some of the wreckage for further analysis.
Koppelt received the message ‘Rook to Queen six; checkmate’. This was what he had prayed for; it signified Suliman was awaiting air transport to Beijing. There was some irony in this as the Lebanese media were broadcasting unconfirmed reports of his possible death following his kidnap by dissident militia.
The last two days to Xiang’s launch were passing painfully slowly. His wife had asked him several times about his edginess and he had replied that it was the helplessness he felt at the plight of his friends on Copernicus. It was a feeling shared by most of the world’s population, who were by now aware of the unbridgeable gap of water requirement. One of the hardest aspects to accept for the man in the street was that the astonishing catalogue of dangers already averted was to be neutralised by such a mundane cause. It was bad press except for the Circle of Restoration. As often happens with such forlorn by intransigence - a sick, voyeuristic media obsession develops and is disguised by manufactured poignancy and false tears.
His departure did not exactly go unnoticed yet it was a curiously long time before anyone officially reported the incident. Even then there was confusion. Many had assumed this was the refurbished pod going through the refit checklist, and paid little attention to the fact it had not returned. The hiatus prevailed until Xiang’s wife received the call he had told her to expect. “He is at his office as usual, is there something wrong?”
The answer was reassuringly untrue, there was no problem. The hurriedly arranged but disorganised search gave the requisite time for him to set in course and achieve the modest maximum velocity capability of the pod.
By the time all other personnel had been accounted for, including sickness and time off, there was only one conclusion. That conclusion was corroborated by the unaltered heading of the pod. As Xiang had blocked Beijing’s connection to himself for now, they contacted Copernicus. Alex 2 received the news and replied with his usual stoic ‘matter of fact’ poise. “I see. Can you give me his course projection?”
It came through and Alex 2 thanked them, indicating he would be doing his own calculations to verify a meeting point or otherwise. Beijing appreciated this a
Suliman had been transferred to an underground detention facility in Beijing and was visibly terrified. Meanwhile the post-mortem raged in Lebanon and the bush fire had inevitably spread to other USAr members. Syria was deflecting blame. Saudi Arabia asked what agents of fear like Suliman were doing in Lebanon. Iraq made the point that Iran was worryingly silent considering the loss of a prominent citizen. When his house in Lebanon was searched, the family seemed very nervous about the imminent discovery of certain official documents. The official source of these papers was unknown to the Lebanese security forces.
The interrogation began in a low key fashion, asking Suliman for help in tracing two of their employees who had disappeared after leaving their posts in Beijing. “We know they ended up in the Middle East and we know you were involved. Please listen to these recorded phone calls to yourself from Mansour. The actual names are not too important as it seems everyone in the USAr has multiple identities. Take a look at the photo please.” The prisoner shook his head.
“Would you like someone to speak to you in Arabic?” He nodded his head vigorously. “Very well, but don’t forget we know that you speak English. We will return tomorrow with an interpreter.”
Xiang came through to Copernicus and the first thing he suggested was that they put up with the diminishing time delay rather than ‘send’ transmission. Alex 2 greeted him, agreed the proposal and delivered way points from which he would adjust Xiang’s heading. He also made him aware of Mission Control’s contact and their wish to be kept in the loop. Xiang had no objection but refused direct contact, he needed no distraction from his focus on the transfer.
The Nexus Odyssey by Hylton Smith / Science Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes