The nexus odyssey, p.26
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.26

           Hylton Smith
 

  ********

  Alex 2 delivered another surprise by releasing a statement to the media referring to the abrupt end to the broadcast with Nilson Mendoza. He regretted that there had been no time for him to agree with the spiritual leader’s proposal to allow people to simply opt out of the race against time to prepare for leaving the solar system. In fact he went further by declaring only a small percentage of the species were required to achieve this. He felt that this was a similar situation to one in which certain groups sought to outlaw medical breakthrough if it offended their beliefs. He was sure that Mr. Mendoza could appreciate, because of his adherence to ‘the sanctity of life’, that it would be unfair to expect all others to be dragooned into being compliant with a death sentence imposed by self-righteous views. Alex 2 was sure leaders like Mr. Mendoza could accept that people already born and suffering were somewhat indifferent to the all-embracing dogma of interfering with embryos. To deny such individuals an opt-out which he had called for in the broadcast would be hypocritical. He hoped this would make a difference to the campaigning by people of many faiths against the advance of medicine for these compassionate causes.

  ********

  The Newton had reached the halfway point without any of the drama enacted on Copernicus. There was a genuine camaraderie present and even Radmanov was relaxed and apparently easy going. Dan had reported no deviation from expectation of the new propulsion system and there were no sniffs and coughs to report. Carvalho had asked Dan to keep in touch with Red to double check orbit insertion trajectory data from Beijing and be prepared for the landing sequence plans. The landing locations were now quite a distance apart. The nuclear power units had to be spaced along intended exploration lines to ensure charging facility for the robots. The analytical stuff was to be as close as made sense to the existing facility. The supplies for humans were to be close to the habitat giant dome in Marineris Central. All of this needed split second timing of the release of the Lander and the Ascent/Descent modules respectively. Carvalho trusted the Symbiants accuracy implicitly in these matters, doubly so when Dan would be communicating with one of his own.

  ********

  The search on Mars for more evidence of the Rabo was disappointing. Red entertained the idea that they had chosen Pandora’s Rift (the chasm) for the screens because of the relative protection it offered from the harsh planetary conditions. If this was true, he proposed that any settlement or other evidence of their stay may be well away from the present search area. It was therefore decided to abandon the activity and restore full manpower on the continuing forestation of the planet until the new laser arrived.

  ********

  Everything had gone so smoothly with Newton’s journey that it made the bad news seem even worse. Elke Eisentrager had been diving in the Red Sea when she noticed a warning of failure of air supply. She had surfaced a little too quickly because of acute symptoms of asphyxiation and was admitted to hospital. Some brain damage was diagnosed but she had come out of a coma. She was not able to speak correctly and exhibited other afflictions associated with a stroke. She was transported to Munich for further tests and therapy. Xiang had first passed this information to Carvalho to ascertain if it was better to hold off telling her sister until they were on Mars. Commander Carvalho had his first really tough decision to contemplate. His instinctive reaction was not to mull this over. It was a family matter and her second family aboard Newton was there to help her through this. His reply to Xiang was short and decisive. “I will inform Beth that she can expect an incoming transmission from her family. It is our job to get her through this.”

  Xiang was grateful for the time delay in the communication as it loaned belief that Carvalho had really thought deeply about the alternatives. Had he been in command he felt pretty sure he would have preferred a landing without distraction. It was a concern but he decided to reply positively. “Good, this kind of adversity can foster stronger relationships in the longer term. I will alert the Eisentrager family that you have requested they have first contact in such a personal matter. They should be able to transmit within the hour as they can upload from Munich to Beijing for onward routing. I will be back in touch with preliminary orbit insertion calculations soon Commander.”

  Chapter 5

  Michael Park was confident he had located a very promising cave. It was earmarked on the official grid as containing some of the oldest rocks in the continent of North America. It was very deep and recommendations stressed the need for accompaniment by experienced personnel in cave exploration. He ignored this because of explicit instructions from Escobar’s enforcers. He decided to stock up with rations for several days, and trail markers to conduct his first foray into the darkness.

  His optimism was based on the variety of recorded finds in both age and composition. Unusual items had been discovered side by side, including a kaleidoscope of crystals within a period of volcanic upheaval. The subsequent mountain formation had managed to leave this very deep cave at a considerable altitude. He took samples of crystals encased in rock as well as isolated deposits. He had confirmed from the Scarlet database that the amorphous form would revert to crystal when subjected to an unchanging data condition such as rock imprisonment, and the crystal form would remain as such in the same environment. The free lodes of crystals would indicate presence or absence of antimony, a key clue. He headed back to the analytical facility provided by Escobar.

  ********

  Beth was distraught at the plight of her twin and asked Commander Carvalho if she could be excused some of her duties and exercise regimes.

  “Of course, and please understand that we want to help, but we also want to give you time on your own. We want you to have our communication slots until you get a better handle on Elke’s prognosis.”

  Radmanov took it upon himself to ask Carvalho to request more time to communicate with Earth on this as the operational aspects were well under control. The Commander agreed and reflected on the contrast with his first altercations with Veltrano on Copernicus, and how they subsequently became such close friends, before Javier fell to Legionella Pneumophila. “Good thinking,” he said to Radmanov.

  Sophia Scillacci kept a watchful eye on her bio readings and asked if she needed any help sleeping via medication. “No thanks, but I appreciate the offer Sophia. I just need to get used to the fact that whatever happens to Elke, I won’t see her for a long time. Our scheduled stay on Mars has to take priority.” Scillacci mentioned this to the Commander and he thought about any scenario in which they could cover for her. He considered whether they could profit from overlap of disciplines with Nielsen (science) and Pykonnen (geology). Ari Nielsen had pretty advanced computing ability and Radmanov could take on her other remit of Communication. He then remembered that Pykonnen had undergone replication when the Darwin’s crew was on Mars. His name was Finn and Jussi Pykonnen had no doubts that if his replicant could be freed from his Mars duties he could easily cover the geological input, allowing him, Pykonnen, more time to assist Nielsen.

  Beth was moved that they were all prepared to make sacrifices in their own disciplines to help her adjust, or even return on the Newton. “I can’t ask for or accept such a gesture, Jussi. I want to see how the next few weeks unfold for Elke and respond accordingly. Isn’t everyone forgetting that if I was to return with Newton, the best person to replace me is Beth Eisentrager, or more accurately a replicant of me? I won’t decide whether I would like to return until I have helped set up the Mars programme with the rest of you.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek and smiled through the tears.

  ********

  When Alex 2 heard of the Eisentrager tragedy he asked Xiang to consider putting them in touch with Dr. Isaakson. If this was approved, he volunteered to make the introductions. His thinking was to include Elke in the proposed study of using technology external to the brain for repair of lost function. When they met, the Eisentrager family was a little overawed at first but this was supplanted by hope when Alex 2 outline
d the entire context of the study. He also prepared them for a time when they may be asked for their consent to treat Elke with such pioneering equipment. They asked if they could communicate with their other daughter about this and get back to him. Dr. Isaakson responded to Alex 2’s affirmative by suggesting they immediately upload Elke’s medical history to familiarise themselves with any areas of concern. “It would make sense to do this in advance even if your decision to proceed was negative. Confidentiality would be assured.” It was agreed and when Beth learned of this she knew her sister couldn’t be in better hands. It relaxed her and more significantly made her feel a little less guilty for them being apart.

  ********

  When Michael Park sorted his haul into groups he decided to perform elemental analysis first. None of the first batch of free crystals indicated the presence of antimony. The pattern was repeated throughout. When he started on the crystals enclosed by rocks it looked like a similar picture then suddenly he punched the air. However repeating the test produced a negative result. It was some time before he realised that the trace of antimony was in the rock casing and not the crystal. He quickly consulted his sample extraction chart and set off again to expose more of that section of the cave. By the time he had made his way back to the exact location he realised he was going to have to spend the night there. A couple of hours into this round of rock splitting he felt really tired. His mobile was switched on but there was no signal. While he slept he was completely unaware of the efforts of Escobar’s men trying to contact him. They thought he had gone AWOL and began a manhunt. The disarray he had left at his lab facility hardened their belief that he may have discovered something and evaporated. After a restless night he resumed collecting rocks but decided to leave the splitting until he got back to the lab. It had been burned to the ground. He was perplexed at first, but when he recalled that his exit from the cave was greeted with dozens of missed calls on his mobile, he rechecked the list. They were all from the same number, which he did not recognise. The rule was that they contacted him. He tried ring back and got a reply saying ‘number not recognised’. His instinct then told him to head off to somewhere safe until he could make sense of this.

  ********

  Carvalho had been looking forward to observing Dan orchestrate the despatch of the Lander. Having agreed marginal adjustments with Beijing the Symbiant was now close enough to the red planet to have conversation with Pascal 2 and Red, but without time lag. The calmness was a joy to behold and had a knock on effect to the crew, particularly those on their maiden mission. The Lander employed the hypercone and thrusters with such precision that Dan made it look like a parachutist landing on a cross in a football stadium. It was right where Red wanted it to be – five miles north of Valles Marineris – the beginning of the unexplored territory. Without pausing or self-congratulation Dan then executed the orbit insertion routine while simultaneously keeping the crew updated on what to expect. Carvalho experienced a lot of indirect pride. “Who said males weren’t capable of multitasking?” Before the ensuing ripple of laughter, Dan interjected, “Strictly speaking Commander, I am neither male nor female.”

  The crew enjoyed a moment of muted mirth. Dan informed Beijing that Mars capture had been achieved and started the separation of the Descent/Ascent module. The mission controllers back on Earth felt relatively redundant but still showed palpable relief when the module touched down scarcely thirty metres from the Dome containing the habitat units. To the other side there was a slightly wider margin of fifty metres or so to the forestation border.

  The meeting of the crew with the Symbiants was surreal, as many of the new arrivals knew some of the human counterparts back on Earth, who had wished them well on departure, and yet here they were on Mars.

  With their typical lack of fuss or ceremony the Symbiants wasted no time showing the Newton crew to the breathable dome and the comfort of the habitat. They then disappeared saying they would take care of the unloading of cargo and lab equipment, suggesting the humans relax and freshen up before being fully updated on the various Mars projects. Jussi Pykonnen remarked, “This whole landing sequence was like a gondola ride compared to the Darwin equivalent in terms of stress.” He put that down to having a Symbiant at both ends of the operation – Darwin had merely been ‘talked down’ by a Symbiant.

  ********

  Mendoza had known that Alex 2 had a prodigious intellect but he had not anticipated the political acumen, especially when it did not come across as such. He had been pestered by the media to respond to the Symbiant’s concession, including the philosophical barb, framed as a question. Mendoza knew full well he would have to re-engage with the subject but instinctively played for more time. To this end he put out feelers for support from other major religions without much response. Islamic leaders did not want to enter the moral quicksand and the Protestant fraternity simply ignored the request. Hindus and Buddhists sidestepped the issue by declaring the specific points under dispute were largely related to western culture. All of this was in very sharp contrast to the accord they offered when Mendoza had concentrated on the unique relationship between God and the children of his creation. The faith leaders had been handling gradual slippage of religion down the pecking order of life’s priorities, in the face of ever-increasing strains, for decades, and they were comfortable with managing its slow demise. Branching out into the bargaining arena was seen as somewhat demeaning, and had the potential to accelerate their loosening grip on power over people’s dreams. Power was at the fountain head of all of humanity’s organised schemes to sell hope to the masses. Mendoza diffused the media pressure by declaring he was trying to fix a private meeting with Alex 2.

  Chapter 6

  Red asked Pykonnen and Nielsen if they would like to accompany him to the Rift with his new laser. They didn’t need a second invitation. They would, however, only be able to observe from the drillbot camera as the screens were too deep in the chasm for safe human descent. The Symbiant’s acrobatic prowess and ability to regenerate damaged cells meant it was not much of a challenge.

  The fifth screen was now ablaze with data. Red informed Nielsen and Pykonnen that some of these symbols were different to the ones he had decoded so far. The two humans activated the zoom on the camera and took many pictures. Red also stated the familiar symbols directed him to screen 55 for location details. It took him some time to leap from shelves and outcrops to return to the surface, then they all travelled to the last screen together. This time there were diagrams and coordinates which Red could interpret. At coordinates 49.7 degrees North and 118.0 degrees East, they would apparently discover the abode of the Rabo. It would not be a surface habitat and there was a code referred to for entry, but it was embedded in the new symbols. This was a jaw-dropping first day for Nielsen and Pykonnen. More pictures were recorded and they made their way back to the habitat dome. On checking human astronomy records they confirmed Red’s database coordinates, which put this location in the Northern Lowlands and close to an area known as Utopia Planitia, which apparently, was Latin for ‘nowhere plain’. The excitement surged throughout the entire Mars contingent despite the realisation that reaching this distant point would be a serious challenge.

  ********

  Michael Park had not received any payoff other than expenses for equipment, so he did not have much choice. He found a rundown motel some eighty miles from the cave. Giving a false name would not be an effective cover with his Korean ancestry standing out against the local population.

  He showered and began to contemplate his next steps. He had to find a safe haven for his rocks and himself; not necessarily in the same place. He also needed to know if the rocks were actually worth anything, including their indirect potential to terminate his life. He considered that the Beijing authorities would value any information he may reveal if Scarlet O’Hara’s possible presence was confirmed. Getting the rocks tested was going to be tricky. He raided his sample case and selected a few from different strata, took his t
oolkit and went for a walk in the local woods. When he was convinced that he had not been followed, he laid out his array of coloured minerals in a clearing and commenced the careful splitting procedure. Few contained locked-up crystal but two from different locations in the cave had similar strata and linear striations. His pocket magnification device showed these to be red-orange. They were so thin that it was difficult to be certain as to whether they were crystalline, metallic or even light reflecting materials.

  Returning to the motel, he needed to sleep for a couple of hours. He awakened and decided that he must risk finding access to analytical equipment. He checked out and started to hitchhike back to his old university. His ethnicity had always helped him get rides, and once again, his luck was in. Several days of travelling and sleeping rough had provided him the opportunity to plan his contact with Beijing. However events would overtake his intentions.

  ********

  Alex 2 gave Isaakson the good news. “I am the bearer of resources for our project Dr. Isaakson, the detail of which you will receive by mail. Suffice it to say you will be able to recruit your own staff and the various specialised facilities have been alerted to your requirement of their time. This will be the case until dedicated state-of-the-art neurosciences labs are scheduled for production here in Beijing, and they are designated ‘urgent’ classification.”

  The reply was laced with humility. “I regret burdening you with my initial doubts. I can assure you of my absolute concentration on this to the exclusion of everything else. I won’t let you down.” Alex 2 told Isaakson to feel free to contact him at any time if required and to furnish him with regular updates. “Getting an ‘engineering’ design for a brain thrashed out would be a significant step. Please note I refer to ‘a’ brain not ‘the’ brain. It needs to be different and I can be of assistance if you wish.”

 
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