The Nexus Odyssey, p.21Hylton Smith
Despite the interpreter and the time to reflect Suliman continued to deny any involvement, only more eloquently in his mother tongue. Koppelt dispensed with the Arabic and calmly advised Suliman that he had a choice of two courses of action. “You can tell us what we want to know or you will be subjected to replication by these Martian life forms when they arrive. Apparently the process is very unpleasant, the new body arising out of your brain, which is stripped of its content. If we need to do this we’ll have everything you know and we’ll then drop you back in Iran for you to take your chance. Please yourself, just let the guard know when you decide.”
Alex 2 had given the pod two minor course corrections and told Xiang that the relative attitude between the two vessels was important for establishing the umbilical correctly. He said it would be easier to adjust the pod than Copernicus, and he would talk Xiang through any last minute twirls at the time. Preparations were in hand for hand-held mini-thrusters and rehearsals would be completed in the next two days. Alex 2 kept Beijing informed and managed to convince them that this rescue attempt had a reasonable probability of success as predicted by his statistical modelling.
Suliman called Koppelt’s bluff by playing for time. He opted for the replication. Koppelt switched tactics by telling him quite a bit of what they already could pin on him, he just needed a few more items. This would be his last chance to bargain for his life. “One way or another we get what we want.” The brinkmanship continued by three days of silence. On the fourth day, Suliman asked for Koppelt.
Rebrov, having heard of the bold attempt that Xiang was spearheading, decided it would be a good time to inform Beijing of Finn’s accidental appearance, as they would be too focussed on the unfolding drama to object. The simple acknowledgement confirmed his prediction. In turn, it increased the demand from his crew to have their individual Symbiants. He agreed to put this to Mission Control after the rescue attempt and the completion of phase two forestation, which was going really well with Red, Pascal 2 and Finn working almost around the clock.
Koppelt was confident now that Suliman was ready to confess. It therefore came as quite a surprise when he steadfastly opted for the completion. “Even if I was able to tell you what you want there is no way you could help me. If I am replicated my people will know I have no control over my eventual destiny, so there is no advantage to falsely implicating myself in something which would place me in danger.”
“Fair enough,” said Koppelt, “it won’t be too much longer before we can implement the replication. I guess it gives your controller a little extra time to search for you. Unless of course word reaches Lebanon that you have defected to us from the Circle of Restoration.” Suliman’s eyes widened at the mention of the cult. They knew more than they had told him. This did make a difference. He needed more time.
The transfer rehearsals went well and it was time for the final sedation. There were last minute misgivings about going under and then waking to find they were still on death row. Everyone felt they might be able to help, they just did not know exactly how. Alex 2 reiterated that it was a complex procedure and Xiang did not think the extra pressure of a performing hero was helpful. It was a one-chance attempt, absolute focus was imperative. Of course they knew Xiang could not enforce this directive but he had also risked his life by coming this far, and they owed it to him to comply.
As Alex 2 had predicted, a final pirouette was needed. Xiang was arriving on the wrong side of Copernicus for the water case to be accessed in a direct sight line. Contemplation of taking it over the top of the pod was a ‘no-no’. Also trying to employ fancy braking and turning so close to Copernicus could cause a collision. Both vessels were at rest and the distance was within the length of the umbilical. The very gentle turn was achieved in several minute steps until the optimum attitude was achieved. Both Symbiants were in the open airlock. One end of the cord was attached to the airlock floor. The other was given to Trois. He was to use the thrusters to attempt a straight line connection. However it was felt prudent to restrict the length of cord let out, in order to maintain a taut line the whole time. The silent communication between the two was helpful in alternating thrust and available cord. The procedure seemed to take an eternity amongst Xiang’s already busy mental traffic. Trois at last passed the cord through the water case grip and a loop in the pod floor and headed back from whence he came. This was just as slow as the outgoing leg. The water case had a locking clip which was to secure it on the cord. Xiang then had to clip himself in the same way. It was made a little easier by the lack of gravity. Shuffling his way along the cord was more strenuous than he expected. It was however the only stage of the operation where it really hit him – he was the most ludicrous delivery man in history. The backdrop of Earth broke the spell and he shunted the case into the waiting hands of Alex 2. Once he was aboard himself, his thoughts strayed to the non-human life forms. They were not emotional about the situation; they merely acknowledged his safe arrival. Not a single ‘yee-hah’. He was quite underwhelmed. So much so that he temporarily forgot the tie had to be severed to release the pod. Trois leapt up to usher him out of the way as Alex 2 untied the Copernicus end of the cord. The act of concern meant that nobody was controlling the rate at which the tether left the airlock. It all happened in a flash. The cord accelerated and caught Trois’ leg, upending him and spinning him out of the airlock with considerable momentum. Xiang was frenzied, completely incoherent, in demanding Alex 2 did something to correct his own stupidity in stepping over the tether while it was released. Alex 2 quickly computed the options; there were none. Trois was already out of sight, he was part of the vast blackness. How could they track him without compromising the new water supply? He would become a red crystal in a few days. It was difficult for Xiang to comprehend Alex 2’s detachment at his colleague’s ‘demise’. “He was in crystalline form for four billion years, another chance may arise.”
No amount of distress on the part of Xiang would ever trigger any culpability in the mind of Alex 2. Xiang’s problem was derived primarily from the incredible precision of the Symbiant’s handling of the project, compared to the naive distraction he had shown, believing the EVA danger had passed.
The airlock door was closed and the two of them entered the breathable zone. Out of his suit he still felt incredibly flat. Alex 2 said it would be a while before the crew were revived and it might be a good idea if he contacted Beijing. Xiang refused to do that until the crew were aware of the recent events. The Symbiant was now confused.
Suliman couldn’t know that the information Koppelt had on the Circle of Restoration had come in the first instance from Alex Redgrave’s initial replicant, Alex 2. He had to guess if there was more and if so where it could have come from. What he did know was that if this Symbiant could unlock his brain and he was then dumped in the Middle East he was a dead man. It wouldn’t matter that he hadn’t actually willingly betrayed the cult himself; it would be a necessary execution. He had lived by and played by the rules. If he chose to tell all himself, he was still a dead man unless he could negotiate an absolute guarantee of protection, but his family would be butchered. If he could somehow give some information in exchange for televising the replication live, that might get enough public support in his homeland to achieve a window of time for the Confederation to bring down the cult. As he could not escape and there was no acceptable means of suicide, it was the only option. At first Koppelt didn’t want to know. Having thought it through more he believed he had nothing to lose, but he was not certain he would get the enforced replication past the human rights fanatics. He preferred a secret replication. On the other hand, being prepared to show the harmless procedure could be a counter-argument for replication in the long term. “Very well you have your wish depending on the value of what you are able to disclose now. Yo
As the drowsiness wore off it was replaced by extreme sadness. The loss was felt just as badly as it had been for Veltrano. Xiang cut a lonely figure until Magnusson punctuated the gloom. “Roberto, we fully understand and appreciate the risk you took in coming here. You must therefore accept that the risk had to be shared. We have to move on or your effort was for nothing. We will still grieve, as I’m sure Alex 2 will, in his own way. Let’s get Copernicus underway as I have something else to show you.”
Inertia switched to action and the burn was carefully implemented by Alex 2 and Banjani, to achieve maximum velocity relative to braking capability, for precise docking with the Space Elevator. They were fractionally under eleven days to arrival, illustrating the achievement of Xiang and the little pod.
Banjani marvelled at the detail which Alex 2 could access instantaneously while talking. He had sent the calculations to Beijing and only now received their confirmation that he was correct - not that he needed it as they were already settled on course. “We all think of you as our friends you know. Trois, Red, Pascal 2 and of course yourself, we have come through so much with your help. Do you understand our sadness?”
“Not completely; I am unable to totally experience some of the emotions I have observed. The information is there but I sense your reaction rather than feel it. I can feel the objectives of the Progenitors, which are designed into my architecture. I can only conclude that there is some explanation to be found in the haphazard data handling in an organic brain. Your culture has examples of animal species performing tasks they have not yet learned – you call it instinct. Maybe I will get the chance to research this more when we reach Earth. It challenges my prime rationale that the species is everything and the individual is expendable. I find this intriguing. Please remember that I am really saying the Continuance and not ‘me’.”
As yet, Banjani did not know about Finn, but as she didn’t know Jussi Pykonnen, she would not have been able to feel quite the same bond as with the others. Xiang was shocked to see the partly decayed corpse of Alex Redgrave. When the full situation was explained to him there was no doubt in his mind, even though he was likely to lose his own position, that Koppelt would need this evidence of the sabotage plan. The USAr would have to explain the real name and origin of the body and wouldn’t be able to dismiss the DNA results.
Supper that evening was the forum for celebrating their awakening and they could once again make their plans for the future. Xiang was the exception; his future was not in his hands. The crew pledged their support but knew the faceless ones would decide, and they would be focussed on his unilateral behaviour. He was philosophical about it. He was to be re-united with his family, rescuing his friends felt right and basically these were the only crucial issues for him. It was Carvalho who was thinking outside the consequences and turned to the opportunity. “You’ll be an absolute hero to most people. You’ll be in demand from all networks and you can probably write your own destiny and the cheques to go with it. The worst thing they can do is ask you to continue in your post.” This caused such sustained laughter that Alex 2’s wonder at these strange creatures clicked up to an all-time high.
The next morning Xiang was contacted by Beijing and was pleased to find that all of his team was assembled. The reception was very humbling. The TV people were there despite the hierarchy pressure to close ranks. They knew they had to allow it. Carvalho was right.
Suliman explained that the cult was founded to reinstate Islamic culture at the head of human endeavour. Its charter, which was only known to an elite group of senior members, was accompanied by a solid gold artefact bearing the five guiding principles of its inception. These inscriptions were formed into an elaborate circle, inside of which was the stylised head of Cyrus. He was the founder of the Persian Empire. It was argued that since the vision of this great man, through Darius, to the expansion of Muslim culture as far as the Iberian Peninsula, the Islamic world had become sterile in all but its religious zeal. Renewal of the position of literature, engineering, architecture and technology was crucial. It was to be accompanied by tolerance of diversity but also mediation of toxic policy adversely affecting the world and its people. Suliman said it was recognised that being there and getting there were two distinct morally divergent phases. The omelette and egg analogy was used. The USAr had to get there and quickly. Once there, the rollout of ideology would have most impact. The programmes carried out so far obviously followed on from the inauguration of the USAr. They were devised to check the rate of unsavoury developments by means other than terrorism towards other states. Martyrdom within the USAr was justified on a voluntary basis. The disclosure of any of this was punishable by death, as it was considered to be treason. The charter could not be openly revealed to the masses and therefore to the rest of the world simply because that would ensure failure. There is no rigid timescale, but as was already known, the cult had tried to slow down colonisation efforts. There was dual purpose here; they needed to be much more draconian in protecting our planet, and the USAr had to be a major player in the new world – Mars - when that became a society beyond the definition of a colony. Although he was one of the senior members, he could not reveal the others because of his holy vow. Breaking that trust was worse than accepting the ultimate sacrifice. He made no apology for the sabotage attempts of the Copernicus or Darwin missions, stressing that adverse publicity was the objective. He would not admit to any disruption to the return flights. He acknowledged that this new life form had made their position much more difficult.
Koppelt retired to consider this but he already felt that the politics were going to overshadow the security aspects. By now he knew of the returning corpse and could guess how it was to be manipulated. At least it gave him more ammunition for the public replication of Suliman.
By now there was little to do in the way of duties on Copernicus and Alex 2 had been granted the freedom of the database. He was able to join in more discussions, even speak French to Dupree. During some of the projections on how he would be received on Earth, he surprised the rest with his instant access to historical information. The crew felt he would hold his own to the point of raising a few eyebrows in various governments by challenging their entrenched doctrines.
Carvalho discussed his desire to be at the forefront of whatever the Symbiants were asked or allowed to do. Xiang said that he would see to it if he was retained himself. Carvalho had aspired all his life to his father’s dreams, and this was the very first time he had experienced a calling of his own. The journey back from Mars had provided more than enough time for the interest to fade. The reverse had happened and he now realised that these selfless entities were going to need protection from the darker side of human nature.
Dupree had refined his plan a little since the loss of Trois. He had a personal supply of the amorphous form which he would take to Africa and utilise responsibly. The others would be parting company with the Symbiants, but would stay in touch.
The Beijing reception was a big event and Koppelt was uneasy because Suliman’s admissions were incomplete. His greatest immediate worry was the docking. There were many ways in which this could be compromised and just as many personnel involved with the space elevator from all over the planet who could be in on it. When he recounted the attempts to interfere with the two missions he did get a sense that Suliman’s claim of discrediting rather than harming was true. He presented his case for the replication without prior briefing of Rabinowitz. As he expected, it was torpedoed. When he revealed all about the Islamic agenda he was asked for the proof. He informed them that Alex 2 would provide that which involved Redgrave. The corpse and its identity would be verified by DNA and the crew. Both the crew and Alex 2 would confirm his death was suicide as originally planned. The information from Redgrave had eventually led to Suliman who had acknowledged the Dreadno
“We owe it to the civilised world to halt this agenda and this is the only way to achieve it quickly.” Rabinowitz had been quite surprised by how much Suliman had apparently surrendered to save his skin. When Koppelt had concluded the official presentation and finally got to his feet he dropped the request of the Iranian into the confusion. “Suliman has volunteered for this procedure, provided everyone in the world is allowed to monitor it from their home. He is not being forced to do this, and it is the only way to avoid interpretive propaganda. The succeeding interviews of the replicant will be in the presence of Suliman, once again for authenticity.”
Rabinowitz immediately grasped the significance that this would have for Israel and nodded in accord with Koppelt. Several hours later and without further campaigning from Koppelt the proposal was approved in principle, with the caveat that it was only activated following the decontamination and initial media exposure to Alex 2.
The anticipation of this in the media had all but eclipsed focus on the returning crew. Xiang’s heroic intervention had restored a modicum of balance. The corpse would shift the epicentre, especially as it looked vaguely like Alex 2. It was not surprising then that the biggest event in human history was being embroidered into a soap opera.
From the perspective of the Circle of Restoration, this was particularly unhelpful. Their interventions had been consigned to the recycling bin. The progress on Mars, with the aid of these replicants had filled people with hope. They were temporarily wrong-footed with the abduction of Suliman and the attendant risk of exposure. On top of this, the revelation that we are not alone was corroding the cement of religious faith. Even though this was more contagious in other faiths, there were rumblings within Islamic communities. The relentless hype of counting the days to docking fanned the flames.
The Nexus Odyssey by Hylton Smith / Science Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes