The nexus odyssey, p.3
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.3
 

           Hylton Smith

  Although she had initially found Carvalho attractive and liked his sharp sense of humour, the goldfish bowl effect did not allow any relief from his constant presence, and ‘cheap’ pursuit of her affection so publicly. It had eventually affected Redgrave, and his defence of Natalia was offered with the potential cost of some deterioration in his own friendship with Carvalho. Banjani vociferously belittled Carvalho when she was present to the point that he kept quiet in the First Officer’s orbit. This burgeoning soap opera culminated in Carvalho privately and confidentially asking Dupree for something to calm his nerves and thereby his unpleasantness. Dupree was understandably reluctant to get involved in a second clandestine mission of mercy without first briefing Magnusson. He promised Carvalho he would look into it with some urgency.

  Alex Redgrave’s correlation work with Beijing had been temporarily halted because one of the pieces of analytical equipment had developed a fault. The science lab was part of the Descent module, and to save resources, including energy, during the flight, the temperature and life support facilities were on an automatic cycle. Redgrave had to plan his work to that schedule. Sometimes it was when most of the others were sleeping and as he had to exit the command module after checking the conditions were normal in the science lab, the opening and closing of the pod’s pneumatic doors was not conducive to uninterrupted sleep. He was asked if he could alter the pre-set cycle to a more considerate one for the rest of the crew.

  In discussing this with Magnusson he succeeded in getting the OK for a three week period. The caveat was to involve someone else to ensure secondary checks with the system alteration. This was to comply with safety directives. The candidates most obviously qualified were Veltrano and Carvalho. The former was preferred by Commander Magnusson for two reasons – his higher maths and code structure experience and the chance to draft him into a team project. Initially it went well. Redgrave actually managed to demonstrate that the sporadic fault with the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) equipment was related to the automatic cycle which had been chosen in the first place. The recommendation was for the cycle to be abandoned until the correlation work was completed. Veltrano disagreed, saying that resource economy was critical and the correlation should wait until the science facility was on Mars, where solar power could be used to complete the analytical tie up task. He further argued that there would be a time gap between planet arrival and the drilling phase for samples. This would easily be adequate for a programme which was only included in the flight schedule to keep Redgrave busy. Having considered the alternatives, Magnusson felt that Veltrano was right and suggested that Redgrave could usefully assist with some other duties for the remainder of the flight.

  Redgrave was less than happy but concurred with the logic and agreed, however when this was aired over dinner Carvalho predictably stated the conclusion was invalid. If he had been consulted he would have demonstrated that the Beijing ‘belt and braces’ paranoia over energy conservation was ridiculous. The small nuclear power units to run the habitat, lab, and other ancillary equipment such as the drillbot were well overdesigned. Additionally, in his humble opinion, the fractional increase in consumption of life support facility that Redgrave needed to complete his work would be substantially if not totally recovered by the algae farms they were to construct on Mars. His estimates of growth and oxygen recapture from these expanding farms were persuasive. He felt good about dislodging Veltrano’s dogma. “What if the power units are damaged during descent and landing?” queried the Mexican.

  “That is an Armageddon situation which would kill the entire mission and all of us, so it’s not really a factor in this context.” Magnusson agreed and changed his decision to get the equipment correlation over with quickly, and then they would know the net resource deficit as soon as possible. Veltrano shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of ‘you are the boss’ and displayed a facial expression of defiance. This however would not be the end of the matter. Veltrano reported this detour from agreed protocol with Mission Control, without informing Magnusson, stating that as Commander he should have sought approval to implement this.

  The fact that the ever increasing distance from Earth and the need for pre-recorded messaging was in operation complicated matters. Having real time face-to-face discussion would have been preferable, however the time delay had introduced the wisdom of hindsight and helped justify Veltrano’s fifth column role in the eyes of Beijing Intelligence. This would produce an uneasy situation for Xiang and a Big Brother one on board Copernicus. Veltrano could have handled this better. He however, felt Magnusson should face that accusation. Significantly, so did Mission Intelligence - particularly Wes Allbright, the USA presence in that arm of Beijing.

  Chapter 7

  The discussion between Allbright and Xiang was heated to say the least. The Mission Controller agreed that Magnusson should have discussed any proposed protocol overrides, but criticised Veltrano for his covert reporting of this to Security, by-passing both Magnusson and himself. Xiang told Allbright that morale in such a disparate crew was fragile and needed support, not such divisive behaviour. This met with accusations of naivety with such a sloppy chain of command. In summary the disharmony was now cemented in both locations. Xiang’s dilemma was whether or not to tell Magnusson, and, if he did, whether he could recommend keeping the crew in the dark. By contrast Wes Allbright was only concerned about protecting Veltrano’s actual brief.

  After sleeping on it they compromised on Xiang asking for a full brief of the mission status at the halfway point. This gave Magnusson a chance to report the problem and proposed correction strategy. Allbright was to instruct Veltrano to make future communications of this nature with his commander present. Unknown to Xiang, a subsequent transmission to Veltrano thanked him for his correct view of reporting this incident, when he established that Magnusson had not.

  ********

  The wry smile reinforced Veltrano’s interpretation of his own remit. The procrastination over this relatively minor change had done nothing to address sleep deprivation of the crew and consequently exacerbated Veltrano’s alienation by those affected. Another source of irritation was the duty rosters and available hygiene facility. With five males and two females privacy was not optimally linked to individual duty breaks. Magnusson asked Banjani to look into this latest kindergarten squabble and come up with some revision which ‘did not require Mission Control debate’.

  The new roster separated the hygiene slots by gender to avoid some of the previous embarrassment, and some of the affected routine duties were adjusted to fit. One of the first female sessions found Natalia undressing as Banjani exited the sonic shower. Natalia was taken aback at the First Officer’s apparent indifference to being completely naked while conversing about minor adjustments of orbit insertion creating a disproportionate amount of work for little gain. She was also startled by her colleague’s breathtakingly beautiful body - a slender athletic build and exquisitely proportioned. Natalia did her best to concentrate on Banjani’s words and not allow her gaze to linger on the impressive physique.

  “My neck is aching from just following the simulated trajectories for the last three hours, and these Sonics don’t really relax you like a genuine hot power shower.” Natalia immediately regretted suggesting a neck and back massage, realising she would have to perform such a potentially intimate contact. She stuttered something about part of her medical training involving remedial conditioning. “That sounds like heaven; do we have time before the testosterone brigade reclaims the hygiene territory?”

  “Err, no n-not really,” retreated Natalia.

  “Pity. Would it be an imposition to ask if you could do it after dinner in my quarters – if you are free, of course?” Natalia affirmed that it would be no problem and they agreed a time. She entered the shower having undressed but protected with a robe, not wishing her own rather elegant body to be subject to similar inspection as her friend’s was. When Banjani had left and she was alone again, Natalia simply could no
t erase the vision and had to confess to herself that she was experiencing arousal. This was new and quite disturbing. Sudden panic set in anticipating the actual massage. As she got ready to leave the locker area she noticed something different about her locker content. Not the items, but the way they were stored. This was a similar type of observation which had first pinpointed Banjani’s potassium deficiency. Her photographic memory of order and her own tendency to arrange all things systematically convinced her that someone had been tampering with or inspecting the contents. When she realised her lab coat had the collar next to the door and not adjacent to the rear of the locker, she immediately checked the left side pocket for the memory pod. It was in the other pocket. Why would they transfer it? She found out why when she interfaced it with the system – it was blank. Several uncomfortable minutes passed before she decided it may have been switched with hers to enable copying and then would be re-switched as soon as possible, or possibly she was supposed to believe that she had inadvertently wiped it herself by mistake. It was probably the latter if they had chosen the hygiene scenario to act, as it would be another 24 hours before a similar opportunity arose and she would have accessed the pod frequently before then. So - did they want to lose data rather than gain it?

  Who were ‘they’? Logically, Banjani had the best opportunity as the locker key was left in the lock when Natalia had entered the shower, and she was unsighted inside the cubicle. Banjani was gone when she came out. It was compelling and yet she did not want to believe it. She could remember a considerable amount of the data in terms of trends but not specific numbers. She also knew that the culprit would know this was only a backup pod, so it could imply a similar desire to corrupt the main database. She could not go to anyone with such a preposterous story based solely on hypothesis and no evidence. This had also taken the edge off her anticipation of the forthcoming massage. This brief deliberation was interrupted by someone pressing the entry request to the facility. She was relieved when it was Dupree, avoiding a potential one-on-one with Carvalho. “Scrub up Comrade.”

  “Oui? Merci bien ma Cherie - 15 all - D’accord?” She poked her tongue at her ‘boss’ in a good humoured gesture of insolence and returned to her quarters.

  .

  Chapter 8

  After he had ‘scrubbed up’ Dupree headed for his arranged session with the Commander. Once he had relayed Carvalho’s request for medication to Magnusson he accommodated the long silence from the Swede without concern. Eventually the response came. “Why do you think he came to you?”

  “I thought I had just explained Commander, he wants me to....”

  “No,” interjected Magnusson, “why do you feel he needs to unburden himself like this? He’s always been very confident in his own view of everything, to the point of arrogance, or at least insensitivity”

  “Oh,” said Dupree, feeling caught off guard, “I am not really focussed on psycho-medical analysis; I tend to diagnose, prescribe and treat.” Seeing that the Commander was totally unimpressed with his response he made the compounding error of trying to convey a relaxed demeanour when he actually felt the briefing was descending into an interrogation.

  “I know we are all supposed to be ‘mission proofed’ by our training regime but that is not in any way something which can be guaranteed. I’m rather alarmed that you take such a simplistic view of your role in a situation that none of us have experienced before. I suggest you consider what really made him lower his guard like this. It’s called bedside manner.” Dupree could have done with a tranquiliser himself. Magnusson asked him to stall the medication until more was known about Carvalho’s sudden vulnerability. He also referred to his frequent questioning of Veltrano’s med stats, revealing that this was also to try to fathom the Mexican’s aversion to team ethic; something which should have stood out in the Earth preparation simulations, like a nudist at a funeral.

  Dupree uttered a feeble apology that he had unconsciously blurred the difference between psychoanalysis and bedside manner, probably because he had assumed rock solid personalities were a given in such a mundane journey, more likely that ‘wobbles’ would occur in tense scenarios like landing. Magnusson checkmated this dismissive attitude by referring to Dupree’s misdemeanour with Banjani’s blood pressure. The Commander looked right into his eyes when he declared, “Technically, as I’ve already said, you were in breach of protocol with your initial cover up of this, but you might have otherwise deprived us of the best available First Officer. You were lucky that Natalia found a benign explanation and we were lucky we did not have a last minute re-shuffle of personnel to deal with. Look for explanation, we will re-visit this soon.” The ‘Doc’ felt like a profoundly relieved patient and once again set out to regain the Commander’s confidence. It was time for that Beijing update session, with the time delay making its own mischief out of an already apprehensive atmosphere.

  ********

  Xiang opened the transmission jovially and casually asked if everyone was beginning to enthuse about the upcoming orbit phase. Magnusson affirmed this and reported that the journey had been virtually ‘bug free’ and therefore bordering on monotony in recent ‘days’. Before Xiang could interrupt Magnusson continued. “We have only one malfunction to report…the NMR analyser has been misfiring and we pinpointed the auto-cycling of the Lab conditions as the problem.” He went on to explain the discussions in detail, first going with Veltrano’s recommendation, then being persuaded by Carvalho’s logic, to revise his decision. He further stated that he would appreciate Beijing’s viewpoint, and if they felt it necessary he was happy to have detailed counter logic to revert to the original plan, or even postpone the equipment correlation until touchdown, as Veltrano had originally recommended.

  Roberto Xiang was visibly relieved at this unsolicited report from Commander Magnusson and shot a predatory glance toward Allbright, who was off camera and not visible from Copernicus. He went through many routine details and checkpoints with Magnusson, and concluded by thanking the crew for their patience with all the minor calculations of orbit insertion projection - calculated and compared from both locations. It wasn’t just a drill, but did embrace that aspect if unforeseen factors emerged on approach to the red planet; the time delay at that point may prove critical. It made sense.

  Magnusson was pleased and closed by reminding Xiang of the secure one-on-one session Mission Control had requested, prior to orbit insertion, to bring him up to date with personnel data. He added that he was saying this within earshot of the crew, and the cam panned around to show the Copernicus family waving to Earth reception. “They are smiling now but wait until they see their report.”

  The open way he referred to morale, med stats and teamwork, betrayed no clandestine motive. It had been planned before the mission, everyone knew about it. That was not how it was perceived by Allbright. After the session was concluded he felt Veltrano was vulnerable. His praise of Magnusson seemed a little too enthusiastic to Xiang but he let it pass. Allbright had to figure out if indeed Copernicus and Mission Control did have a designed option of secure contact which eluded his people’s elaborate snooping. He was angry that he did not have detail on whether this had been anticipated.

  Natalia decided to apologise to Banjani, because something had come up. “Can we reschedule?”

  “Of course, just let me know when you are free.” Natalia had been tortured by the thought that the person most qualified to get in and out of the system without leaving log in evidence was Veltrano. She was not convinced that Banjani had sufficient motive for this action. Her synapses were ablaze with patterns of behaviour of the crew and what possible explanations would connect any of this to the pod. When she checked the system herself there was no obvious evidence of tampering but this was a cursory check, a comprehensive trawl would take hours, it had to be done.

  Surely Magnusson was above suspicion? She had to tell him? Tell him what? She would know when the time was right. When Dupree asked her about Carvalho it was innocently di
sguised to determine if her constant rejection of his crude flirting might be part of his reason for requesting medication. She, however, overlaid this with a motive for the pod swap. It only occurred to her later that there was no evidence she could recall on the system which would indicate he had a problem. Dupree’s unconscious prod had forced her to go over the whole motive issue again before comparison with behavioural observation. She was approaching cerebral meltdown so she would sleep on it.

  Chapter 9

  Wes Allbright was checking on pre-agreements with the big four leaders on the limitations of Mission Control on political matters. He asked Karl-Jens Koppelt to remind him of the various situations falling within this umbrella. The German-born Swiss national was concerned that Allbright had not requested this in the context of some possible breach rather than a blanket query.

  As Copernicus was approaching orbit, the first relevant stage for the M.I. people was landing. Once established on Mars there were types of information which the crew may uncover which needed scrutiny by Intelligence, before release of such data to the world at large. Examples quoted were evidence of life, past or present, or a scenario of poor potential of colonisation. There were many more, and therefore the communication protocol would alter after successful landing to include Allbright in every update from the Mars base. The individual channels between crew and family homes would cease, the relatives would be flown to Beijing, and again Allbright would supervise the playbacks and edit out any unsuitable revelations. Similarly he would post-edit the families’ recordings before transmission. The stakes of this project were so high that if the landing was unsuccessful or tragic, this would not be revealed openly. It would have to be managed to avoid any premature alteration of the follow up mission. There was also a requirement to continually monitor any behaviour which might indicate terrorism on Copernicus or in Beijing, or even political/financial advantage accruing to any outside entity. Naturally Xiang and Magnusson were ignorant of these policies. Allbright instructed Koppelt to stay vigilant, and to continually remind the American of the importance of required censorship.

 
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