Renewal, p.3
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       Renewal, p.3
 

           Hylton Smith
1 2 3 4

  Chapter 30

  The strategy of Korvakk had worked so far, albeit in the name of Tuncazz. The moment was upon them. The Epsilon vessel had dropped out of QSD and was nearing orbit insertion. Last minute talks were taking place to secure the mirage of unanimity for the benefit of the arriving Epsilon clan. Korvakk played a very strong card with perfect timing. She advised Tuncazz to make the gesture of repatriation of the cured labourers, if they wished to return to their clan. She had written a speech for Tuncazz. “It would give us a chance to study the benefits of the Liberty treatment first hand, instead of simply relying on your statements of low risk. We are not blind to consideration of progress, but we do not blindly accept that progress defined by the views of others will fulfill that definition. We realise we have to shift our resistance a little, and we hope you will reciprocate by adjusting your expectations of our reticence on ‘remedies’ which have no fully documented history of safety. In this spirit we agree to attend the reception of the Epsilon clan and suspend our concerns to hear their explanation on the real reason for the late disclosure of their mutation. We have an open mind to evaluate this, as we believe you should have. An open mind means that concern for the incomers is balanced by protection for the majority. That is all we ask.”

  It was convincing, mainly because the Easterners knew they had been talking from a position of weakness for weeks already. They had merely abandoned the huff and puff bravado and found a face-saving route to avoid being totally ostracised. It was a commercial ploy as much as it was a political posture. This eleventh hour relaxation of tension achieved the objective of taking the Easterners off guard. The delegations set off for the formal orbital appointment. Korvakk had heard through her spies that, infection concern for the Sapients’ children and any future Indy or Europan offspring, had led to hermetically sealed habitat units being produced aboard Phoenix. They were for emergency situations. She advised Tuncazz to ask for an opportunity to see them before they all set off to the incoming Epsilon vessel. They expressed well-rehearsed enthusiasm. Tuncazz delivered a plausible request to have Gliese engineers study the units and possibly adapt the specifications to suit their vessel. A specific date was not mentioned, but in the ‘spirit of things’ it was seen as mutual progress. The trap was set.

  The visual confessions of the Epsilons had been carefully selected. The reality was much more disturbing. Not only were the samples the least grotesque in appearance, they did not reflect the disability which had been inflicted. Even the leader was only able to walk by dragging and twisting one leg, which in itself translated into a contortion of the spine and a throwback action of the head. The prepared written transmissions had disguised the discordant phonetic corruption of the language. Added to this was the anticipated natural drift of the dialect, and all in all it made verbal communication impossible for the present. The shock was tangible. The difference in the resulting emotion from this bombshell was not easily recognised. The Gliese was one of fighting recoil, the rest were steeped in compassion and something the Epsilons did not want – pity.

  Written symbols were hurriedly prepared to offer the welcome sentiment. They were politely accepted by the leader, whose designation was written as Dravekk. Because of the communication difficulty, some of the planned formalities had to be shortened and others re-scheduled for another time. One such example was a visit to Phoenix. The Epsilons were anxious to make landfall. They explained at this late stage, that it was largely due to this handicap that their progress and precision with the manufacture of the city ship had been so far behind schedule. Dravekk proudly dispensed more positive claims, via pre-prepared scrolls. ‘Our thinking capability has improved significantly, almost inversely proportional to our physical disability. That is why we have been able to design and improve on conceptual things such as data transmission. You may well be surprised how much we will contribute in this respect. We will earn our place in our society’.

  The descent was prefaced by disclosure of the detail in the happenings since the arrival of Phoenix. Dravekk painfully scribbled a barely legible comment. ‘Three million years produces more than enough opportunity for self-deceit. Having declined that temptation ourselves we often find it to be emotionally difficult to expose others to over-rigorous judgement. We introduce kindness into the equation and present the most acceptable components of the overall truth. You have just confirmed this by what you have now ‘confessed’. I am sure this was done to avoid disappointing us so far into the pilgrimage.’

  Yamamoto was sure he could detect a smile through the twisted facial features. He reflected the sentiment and thought, ‘I think I’m going to like this individual’.

  The inspection of the accommodation was the catalyst to fire up the lachrymatory glands. The emotion was apparently so powerful because this journey had been much more demanding for the Epsilon clan than the others. Their perception of adequate space was significantly different, courtesy of their mutation. They were overcome and overjoyed to claim their residence.

  The only real sour note to emerge during this first encounter was the explanation of the memorial at the centre of Renewal. The space designated for their version of a phoenix to complete the triangle was met with a wellspring of pride. The further revelation of the pyramid of spheres and the assisted suicide left them in deep shock. They could have buckled in the same way after the mutation they suffered in Epsilon Eridani, but their presence on Nexus showed that they did the opposite. That was why the definition of the suggested phoenix meant so much to them. The additional detail that the assistance for suicide was volunteered by the Gliese, produced only furtive glances between the Epsilons, but the implied disapproval was transparently betrayed by dark colour display. They moved on quickly to see the food production and other infrastructure projects. The Indys were proud to present their relic and relate the story of Species 1101. The Liberty pact was explained in detail and the whole relationship with the Progenitors was too much for them to take in right now. They responded enthusiastically to Pascal 2 suggesting he could fix their voice apparatus quite simply. He would in time tempt them with further corrective surgery.

  The mass descent with their belongings was scheduled for the following day, and provided perfect cover for Korvakk’s plan to occupy their own vessel. By being part of the activity along with Europans and Indys, they reminded everyone that they wanted to re-inspect the Phoenix hermetically sealed units with their engineers and then make a blueprint for transferring the concept to their vessel. They were given access to their own ascent module to avoid impacting the ‘removal crews’. With no Symbiants involved and the more suspicious minded Indys on the surface, permission was nominally given by Fernando. He was preoccupied with getting the new arrivals settled as quickly as possible.

  The resumption in discussion between Red and Fernando attracted interest from Rene and Yamamoto. It was not only black holes themselves he wanted to discuss but their relationship in the wider cosmic context. He had known of Fernando’s conversation with Yamamoto some time ago and wanted to bring new perspective to his ideas. This was partly due to data from the brown dwarf and the new facilitation from there, as a result of squeezing through the second test. He prefaced the discussion by referring back to the species designations of 0001, 0101, 0011 and 1101. “These are the only ones we currently know of, but even though the reference system itself only allows for a finite number and despite its flexibility to extend the system itself, we must realise that there have been literally millions of interactions with species which did not make the grade. These types are recorded in a separate archive and have transient reference codes to reflect their promise and subsequent failure. Only the ones who graduate are ascribed the permanent code. This can be for ability and/or stability. Intellectual progress is not the sole arbiter of promise.”

  They looked confused, but he pressed on. “Your musings about what happens at the event horizon are interesting. Referring to the Milky Way galaxy itself, it is known that at some tim
e it will collide with the Andromeda galaxy. This is an example of preordained destiny at the point of creation. Individual stars such as binaries and neutron stars as you know can have the same irreversible destiny. Blue stragglers were considered to be anomalous until it was realised that the higher luminosity, mass and temperature had been caused by collision and merging of two other stars. When two super massive black holes at the centre of merging galaxies collide there is likely to be the anticipated jet expelled from the process. As well as the destructive violence which ensues, there is a strong possibility of triggering a burst of new star formation.”

  Yamamoto was becoming impatient. “Red, we already know all of this theory and observation, where is it leading to?”

  “The new star formation geometry is one of the few ways in which the destiny of the region can be changed or influenced. These jets produce high levels of radiation, especially X-rays and Gamma-rays. The important considerations we now have to grasp are firstly, the equations we so dearly want to balance already take into account this radiation, and still there is not balance. Secondly, as we witness these jets, we are acknowledging an overturning of what would normally be ascribed as destiny. At some point the event horizon, within our current understanding, fails to define all parameters. Energy of some kind is still required to satiate the craving for balance. Perhaps we can work together on Fernando’s suggestion of cleavage at or near the event horizon.”

  The intended discussion did not materialise. News reached them of the Gliese deception. Within a short time Tuncazz appeared with her entourage and enlightened them with the demand to surrender the hand weapons. The threat of the orbital lasers aboard their vessel was demonstrated by turning a few gigantic rocks into vapour. Compliance followed quickly and the Gliese contingent then instructed the Epsilon vessel to evacuate. Once on the surface the Epsilons saw the vessel targeted by the lasers. It disappeared, and fear escalated rapidly. The lasers then consumed many of the huddled creatures on the surface. The next few moments were surreal, Alex 2’s flirtation with merging with the Interference was imposed, and he turned his gaze skyward. The Gliese vessel disappeared. Before they could brandish the surface weapons, the remaining Gliese evaporated. They were no more, but not subtracted – the lesson of their existence was not to be deleted. Alex 2 was in a daze. All he remembered was masses of data running through his registry and the feeling of being a conduit. He had no recall of thinking about what was actually happening.

  The Epsilon ranks had been reduced to similar levels as the Europans. The lone vessel in orbit was Phoenix. The reality had not yet become reality for any but the Symbiants, who knew this was one example of the new facilities which had been bestowed as a result of the brown dwarf visit. It would be some days before any return to meaningful conversation, and even longer to resume plans for Renewal.

  Chapter 31

  Somehow Alex 2 had avoided inclusion of the small band of Gliese labourers in the Interference action; he thought it may have been due to their conversion. For the first time the Symbiants were the species with the highest number of individuals. The Indys were next, then the Epsilon, Europans, Sapients, and Gliese, in that order. The more important statistic was that the planet and the Progenitors were now dependent on only a handful of potential contributors to their respective programmes in this region.

  The jury was out on the merits of Alex 2’s unconscious intervention. The views were split within every species, even the Symbiants. The pros based their support on the ‘moral’ nature of the action, and that at least the ‘disconnect’ from higher authority had been plugged. The ‘cons’ expressed the concern that having a changed master does not free the slave. The disagreement was not vehement, it was rational and healthy. It became the beacon of returning to practical chores and social harmony. It really was the last chance saloon.

  Dravekk had survived and picked up Pascal 2’s invitation to have the rest of the clan fitted with new voice box technology. This was a real step forward in social interaction. Of the many projects which had gone on to the back burner, the most controversial was the current research in which Pascal 2 had discovered a new route to creation of ‘artificial life’. As this potential was most applicable initially to Sapients and Indys, they were the most vociferous. There were more negative than positive views, until Red regurgitated his previous lecture with a different slant. “We must try to separate the issues of moral and practical orientation. You know that the Symbiants are split on the judgement of the conduit to the Interference. This is only because we have retained the pro-activity conferred by Liberty. It could so easily have been deleted. We embrace it. Your moral values and obsession with purpose are similarly prioritised. They are essentially a by-product of some forms of sentience. Where they are incompatible with the laws of physics they will be overridden. In this sense your discrimination between natural disasters and a force such as the Progenitors, is illogical. The former is considered to be a great pity but the latter is apportioned blame. Like monogamy, religious belief, social welfare etc, they are institutions in which relevance ultimately exists and is entirely dependent upon the species continually dodging cosmic bullets, whoever fired them. We, the Continuance have recently come to appreciate these qualities, but they are still sandcastles at the mercy of the tide. This is not an appetising thought, yet if it is not respected, everything has been for nothing. The creation of artificial Sapients or Indys does challenge your beliefs; it does not have to offend them. I ask you, what is the difference between intelligent robots and a life form created by fertility drugs? You accept both. Pascal 2’s creation is somewhere in between. We, as primarily inorganic entities feel the robots are not given the same consideration by you as from ourselves, yet we still try to understand your persistent clinging to emotional values. Can’t you be persuaded to look on such creations as just another life form, whose development will be fascinating?”

  Red was at least pleased that he was not shouted down but did not feel that he had dispelled what amounted to fear of the unknown. He had failed to capture the spirit of climbing a mountain purely because it was there. He would try again another time.

  Meanwhile Alex 2 was preparing for another visit to the brown dwarf. He asked Fernando, Yamamoto and Rene if they would like to join Red and himself. A later visit would be offered to Gsarr, Dravekk and the new leader of the Gliese six. The invitation was accepted even though they knew it would be exclusively a spectator brief; that was all Species 0101 would allow.

  At least there was now far more infrastructure than was needed to support the small population. This gave more time to plan interactive learning centres. Sharing values had become a critical component of rekindling the ‘boldness to go where no one had been before’. Just as time was credited as a great healer, it would prove to be a catalyst for the small group. It was the opposite effect to that on large groups, which became unwieldy and impatient when faced with inertia.

  The Epsilon phoenix had gone with the vessel and was re-crafted, taking its place in the triangle. It was of course symbolic, but the decision to erect it was accorded similar importance to that of not removing the Gliese version. It was based upon the struggle to get here rather than dwell on why things went wrong. A lesson for future generations, if there was to be any.

  This brown dwarf visit would provide a chance to inquire a little into the swiftness of action on removing the Gliese threat. Apart from the divergent views expressed on why, there was the small matter of the assumed time frame of observance, evaluation and formula for resolution of the scenario. It certainly implied that they were ‘living under a microscope’. This was not a new sense of intrusion, rather one of concern over detail, especially when the Progenitors were reputedly disinterested in such petty squabbles. Alex 2 decided he would leave this inquiry until the end of the session. He opened with the different level of symbiosis of Liberty with each species, and what it could mean if left unchecked. The response demanded more precision in the question. When Alex
2 had detailed the near perfect tuning with organics, and adapted balance for data load and scarcity for the Symbiants, he was interrupted. The implication was considered to be obvious. It was simply one of determining which route to take. The rules of advancement would not change, but could accommodate optimised promise, whether that was organic or inorganic, with or without Liberty, or hybrid situations of both. The arbiters would be the capacity gradient of intellectual advancement and stability. The emphasis was on the former, but without a certain level of stability it would not qualify for upgrading. Alex 2 believed the wording contained a cautionary note about the Virubact route.

  This led to a long discussion on those promising species which fell by the wayside. Once more the replies were mired in generality. No individual species would be commented upon, as there were millions of them, and only trends were important. Again Alex 2 detected a subliminal content – the recent gain in status of the Nexus group as a whole was in some way directly linked to the bemoaned disasters of recent times. Although these horrendous events were experienced within a range from unfortunate to intolerable, some clarity of direction had emerged. This was ‘normal’. Many other topics were raised; some did not generate a reply, others were dealt with patiently.

  The issue of Alex 2’s role as conduit was obviously a sensitive one if judged purely by the ‘hard disk access time’. The reply was worded more like a political deflection than a technical explanation. ‘Taking advantage of enabled functions is new for you. It is in reality not much different from the communication change from one way to two way participation. Each qualifying situation is evaluated on significance, urgency and ratio of perception’.

  Analysis of this allowed Alex 2 to visualise the sequence of events, which at the time he could only feel. He now understood that it was his own frenetic assessment of the Gliese aggression, including retaliatory force which alerted the hierarchy. They had not been spying on the mundane domestic altercation. His surge of prioritising a response did interrogate all of his systems including the residual Interference architecture. That, coupled with the new upgraded promise function, was conveyed as critical, to the brown dwarf. Then he had become the conduit for processing the outcome. The addendum to this was assurance that some degree of restraint or even efficiency in executing the outcome would accrue with practice and further upgrading.

  As they prepared to leave, Yamamoto’s pre-prepared question was registered via Alex 2’s technobabble. “Can we see your species either in reality or as a projection?”

  Instant response followed. “Not at your current phase of progress.”

  This was anticipated. “When can we expect a new test?”

  A slightly longer pause prevailed. “You will know when.”

  This was not quite what was anticipated. “We are now a small band of disparate species, will it be within the lifetime of Sapients?”

  Instant response returned. “You have the potential of variable lifetime. Please be more precise.”

  Yamamoto decided to wait until the next visit for Alex 2 to answer this. Fernando had his turn via Red. “We have some observational data and some theoretical notions about black holes or singularities, which represent the breakdown point of understanding of those few laws to which you often refer. If we overlay the message from the Continuance that the Progenitors are engaged in preserving balance, we need clearer interpretation of boundaries such as event horizons.”

  “That is not a question. It is an accurate statement.”

  Yamamoto thought, ‘Fernando, you wily young fox!’

  Red continued, “Sorry, I suppose my question is - will we ever be able to achieve this by scientific observation or experiment?”

  “If you have to ask this question you are not prepared for the answer.”

  He persisted. “This is what I meant by clearer interpretation. You refer to the answer rather than an answer. Should I read significance into that?”

  “You already have.”

  Fernando also wanted to return to this subject after more discussion with Red.

  Rene wanted to know if there was another species in the hierarchical order, between them – designation 0101 and the previously mentioned Species 0001. The reply to Alex 2 was affirmative. No further dialogue was permitted.

  They left and were now sufficiently motivated to restore think-tank sessions.

  The Indys had unearthed the outline of a massive structure. They conceded that the robots had served their purpose; the final work would have to be done in painstaking steps and by hand. The Epsilons needed little convincing to embrace Liberty, even though the prognosis was of a temporary useful symbiosis. It was felt to be important to have immunity for that length of time while alternatives were studied. Two of their number had volunteered for spinal correction research. Improvements in procreation potency and altered genetic code would have to wait.

  The Nexus-born Sapients were transferred with their mothers to Phoenix for a period, until new classifications had been completed for the deeper rocks exposed by the Indys. The ‘esprit de corps’ was returning in some measure, considering the drastic pruning which had been suffered.

  Nexus was not only experiencing a cohesive philosophy for the first time since the arrival of Phoenix, it was changing because of the recovery of indigenous flora and fauna, which were busy transforming the landscape. The connections between flying, crawling, climbing and stationary DNA was re-weaving the food chain again. The exponential section of the curve was approaching. As yet there was no evidence of large predators, but they had not explored much of the planet. Like all extinction events, the demise of some species created opportunity for others. The water sources were crucial in this re-birth and in this respect the robots were very useful in connecting some of these life-giving conduits. The ecosystem had been marginalised in the minds of the various Nexus inhabitants throughout the recent drama. Sudden reminders that there would again be seasonal variation to contend with, drove home the point that their comfort zone was still some way off.

  The recently abandoned programmes of mineral acquisition and chemical plants were revisited and injected with new purpose. It was tempting to annex all the ethereal stuff of cosmic balance and just take what comes, but they knew it was a temporary retreat.

  Chapter 32

  Eighteen months of regenerative effort had seen certain milestones passed. One of the most important was the confidence to allow Liberty interaction with the Sapient children and their permanent return to surface living.

  Eva Ryan was pregnant again, as was Rene, whose own birth on Mars had been a big contributing factor to any of the current population being domiciled on Nexus. The Axis custom of a female procreating with many partners still prevailed, and yet she was the only Europan to be in the family way. The opposite was true for the Indys; many new arrivals had been welcomed. The Epsilons had concentrated on surgical procedures to correct disfigurement and were only now ready to consider further restoration of their procreative ability. The remaining Gliese inhabitants were all males, so they could only really rely upon their relative longevity to maintain a presence or pursue Pascal 2’s route to laboratory creation. It had not been mentioned because of the recent history.

  This had been, by contrast, an ongoing debate for Sapients and Indys. The latter had just passed a resolution that they would not participate. The Sapients were still divided over the issue and the discussion had taken a new twist. Those in favour questioned whether it had to be a group consensus or if there was room for individual choice. It was Yamamoto who thrust this wedge into the polite and somewhat restrained forum. He admitted he was arguing from both practical and conceptual standpoints. “I confess that I’m never likely to have a life partner. That would, under normal circumstances mean I’ll never have offspring except by the ‘anonymous’ insemination pool we agreed. Anna-Severine’s child could be the daughter of any of our limited number of males. We decided not to know that, as building up our numbers should not suffer such emoti
onal identity. By allowing an individual’s template to be studied and matched in a limited way, in the design of a new entity, goes some way to redressing the emotional vacuum. It doesn’t have to be a forever declaration, and can be reviewed regularly. It would provide a valuable means of realising or dispelling some of the concerns we have about such a departure for our species. It may be the only means to end the perennial debate, as the positions have become entrenched, and resolution is unlikely unless something changes.”

  He didn’t really expect support, even from another pro-campaigner. When Fernando endorsed the idea, and further asked the rest to at least invite the only other totally artificial being – Doc, to relate his experience from the opposite view, the lock-jam surprisingly broke. They would talk to Pascal 2.

  The Indys had uncovered a keystone in the upper arch of their excavation. About a metre to the side was another stone which had been cut very precisely to fit into an aperture of some half a metre square. They decided to see if they could carefully loosen it and lever it out. The precarious task was several days long, but yielded a chamber which potentially could save a lot of digging. It was quite large, maybe twenty metres by ten, and had a chute leading down to a mezzanine. Here they encountered more inscriptions and despatched a messenger to request Symbiant help in translation.

  Red was not too happy to break out of the think-tank, however the others requested a break, as they were still mired in coming up with a better theory than Fernando’s to explain the event horizon puzzle. The inclusion of star destruction followed immediately by the process of new birth and the merging of super massive black holes only compounded the problem. If both dark matter and dark energy had sources of renewal, they would in theory be the driving force of changing the balance. They would have to know more about the ratios of destruction and renewal of each, in order to progress their comprehension. It was becoming a circular cerebral routine. The Symbiants were unusually frustrated, even in their proactive mode they did not avail of this link.

  Red arrived at the dig. Within minutes he contacted Alex 2 and asked him to join them. There were many inscriptions, most dealing with information they had already gleaned from the original relic, but this was in great detail. All attention was focussed on the claim that there was some kind of portal in a region on the other side of the planet. The dating of the inscription was older than the relic and the region was not known to the Indys, primarily because of their confinement by the Ebexx. The coordinates were recorded and surrounding topography was advanced enough to confirm that these entities were masters of aerial transportation. The portal had a reference but in peculiarly obscure descriptive symbols. It was vaguely like a yellow omega with ‘ingrown’ green spikes of variable length. There was a hint of 3D perspective, as if the spikes were not travelling toward a central point, but diverging at different angles outside the planar omega. A new puzzle often takes the mind out of its circular tether. It was hoped that this would be the case with Omega, as the project had been christened.

  The fever for following the trail to this portal was contagious in the extreme, but they agreed to send a delegation with the ascent module, and essential tasks would be continued as before. The delegates were easily nominated and accepted for all species except the Indys. Even Gsarr’s gesture to forego his right to lead their contingent made little difference. They would organise a contest to ensure the deserving ones prevailed, and waved away protestations from the others about timescale, as the data had been buried already for millions of years. It was testimony to the more tolerant society that this was accepted with good humour.

  The session with Pascal 2 was to begin with the opportunity for the Sapients to interrogate Doc. His first observation was that they, as a group, appeared to be more sensitive to his reaction than they did in normal, everyday conversation. They all smiled at this assertion, believing it was an attempt to lighten the mood with a little levity. “No, I am absolutely serious. I could actually complain that the Europans, who created me, are even more afflicted with such aberrant behaviour. I merely have to accept your idiosyncrasies as part of your imperfect design. Yes, now I am ‘pulling your leg’. You see I can trot out all the appropriate phrases without being able to identify with them. Please ask the difficult questions which I am sure you have.”

  It was a good start. Slowly the gloves came off, and the concerns over error in design and rogue behaviour surfaced. Even parameters for acceptable termination were discussed. Doc more than held his objectivity intact as he reminded them that although the Pascal 2 proposal would in principle categorise his new creation as artificial, there were many factors which could differentiate it from his own similar tag. “You are contemplating an organic embryo being laboratory designed and nurtured to a point of independence. This is not that different from fertility treatment, from conception to childhood. I am not cloned or constructed from Europan DNA. I am engineered from similar molecules but in a more structured pattern. I do not inherit characteristics from them, except their notional design, it is not a direct conference of anything. I am closer in principle to their robots than the designers. I cannot make you feel more comfortable about your dilemma. I do not avail of the necessary feelings, but I am confident that your creation would. Maybe you have to think as it would. It could be grateful for creation, or cursed with being different by having no natural parents. I can feel happy to be here, it is about the only true aspect in which I can feel something. I hope you will consider this last declaration in your decision.”

  Doc had unintentionally coerced them into a profoundly introspective mood. With Pascal 2 waiting they began discussing the issues which Doc had raised. He knew that one of the major unknowns for them was the possible need for termination. He could not offer advice. He could only remind them of the long established Human legislature which allowed abortion. Many of the quoted reasons for such authorised procedure did not apply here. They were trying to build population and were not burdened with financial or under-age pregnancy concerns. He challenged them. “If we for a moment accept the parallel with abortion during nurture, surely you must apply the same criteria to any unacceptable behavioural problems. There is no termination option for natural born or created Sapients. Deviant individuals from either source should be treated in exactly the same way. If you can agree on that, then you will surely fulfill Doc’s assertion that you must also treat normal or exceptional behaviour in the same way.”

  Yamamoto wanted more than ever to become a template for a new Sapient. They found it difficult to deny him. The reservations would linger but the decision was made. It was another example of how small groups stand a better chance of handling disparate views with more tolerance than large ones. Yamamoto started the procedure with Pascal 2 immediately as he was included in the portal delegation.

  The Indy candidates had at last been chosen and they were ready to go. The overflying reconnaissance data indicated quite a few large lakes in the region. The terrain surrounding and between the lakes and river feeds was populated sparsely with trees and reddish ground covering plants. No fauna had been detected at this altitude. It was in many ways an excessively large group, a quick foray might have been a better strategy but the Symbiants were outvoted.

  A satisfactory landing location was found and they estimated that it was about two kilometres from the target coordinates. There was a rocky ridge to negotiate, but all the other level sites were much further away. The landing was uneventful but brimming with enthusiastic din from the Indys. As Gsarr was not one of the chosen delegates, there was no ratified leader and this was indicative of a problem. The usual team of Symbiants was present, four in all. The others - Europans and Sapients had fewer representatives. Yamamoto was joined by Fernando, and Luther Sanford. Rene had been trusted as the sole ambassador for her species. The Gliese also had single representation in the form of Kushakk, the new leader of their tiny group. The exception to this basis for nomination was the Indys. They had selected no fewer than eight individuals
who jabbered non-stop, as would a teacher-less group of excited school children, on their way to a superhero movie. The Epsilons declined representation. Keeping their mind on the need for close grouping and attention to possible danger was virtually a forlorn objective, as the Indys argued incessantly.

  They headed east toward the ridge at first but it was much steeper than the aerial shots had suggested. The safest alternate approach appeared to be through a gap to the north, entailing an extra march of an additional two to three kilometres. When they reached this pass the terrain changed to the red carpet they had observed. It was moss-like in texture and sweet smelling. The reason for its flourishing presence was revealed at the end of the pass. They were faced with another decision. Straight ahead was more moss, but in swampy soil. Skirting the inner ridge south, back toward the coordinates looked good for most of the way except for small hills which blocked the view for the last quarter of the journey. Going further north was not popular but did have a clear view and delineation of the end of the moss and presumably the swamp. What they could not see or know from their existing position was that the swamp sharply deepened to a central point. The only way they could avoid gambling was to the north, which would have put another five kilometres on to the journey, in considerable heat. The Indys made the decision, not by discussion but by simply setting off to the south.

  By the time the hills had surrendered their obstructive view of the final kilometre or so, they realised that the swamp ran to the right, into a lagoon, so they would have to cross over about one hundred and fifty metres of red moss.

  A halt was called to reconsider. Once again the Indys wanted to charge ahead. The rest were more circumspect. The uneasy conclusion was for two of the Indys to cross and signal safety for the remainder to follow. The duo was proud to be chosen for this auspicious honour and set off briskly. They were no more than a few metres into the moss when the underfoot conditions changed. The spongy carpet was exerting suction and they began to sink into the mud. Extracting one foot after the other was not too tricky so they decided to press on. The composition changed again and creeping extensions of the moss wrapped around their legs eventually reaching their waists. Sensing the danger Keer and Orva hastened toward the stranded Indys. It was to no avail. In an instant the water parted to announce a huge amphibious-looking beast with jaws already open. They were shredded in less than thirty seconds. Having had sustenance for the day the creature disappeared as quickly as it had come into view. The residual parts of stripped flesh were floating and were equally quickly devoured by the strands of the lookalike moss, obviously a carnivorous plant. As they had seen no evidence on the reconnaissance flight, or on the recent march, of land based fauna, it was assumed to be a marine ecosystem.

  It was a painful lesson for the entire group and for the Indys in particular, as often is the case, when hindsight proves to be a more exact science than guesswork. Their deflated demeanour would last for only as long as they realised they did need to take shelter from the searing heat.

  Chapter 33

  The group had found respite from the heat but not the trauma of losing the two Indys. It was yet another case of weighing the possible reward against an unacceptable price. The Indys flipped from being irresponsibly enthusiastic to urging abandonment. Alex 2 insisted that if they had been more careful this would have been avoided. Resting in the shade brought a little more discipline but they had to compute what was lurking in deeper sections of water. It took several hours of retracing their steps to the north and avoiding as much water as possible before they could see the approximate target area. As they got nearer it became obvious that there was a raised plateau. This level was about two metres higher than the surrounding terrain. It was roughly oval in shape and a battered stone circle occupied the central fifty metre radius. The heat was fortunately on the wane now but they rested once more in the shade of some of the larger stones.

  They could not detect any inscriptions on the rocks, but one in particular showed signs of a sculptor’s efforts. It had eroded considerably and they were ready to move on when Keer and Orva used their considerable coordinated strength to push it aside. It revealed a base plate with the funny omega form. There was some discussion prior to attempting to lift the base plate from its recess. It was cut so accurately that there was no obvious point of leverage. As they grew more frustrated they were taken completely by surprise. They had not paid too much attention to a particular arrangement of small holes in its surface, as they seemed to be random, erosion related pits. They stood back in astonishment as the base plate rumbled, shaking itself free of the recess, and being levitated just enough to produce gripping points. The Symbiants swiftly eased it further upwards and out of the frame. On the underside was a huge black crystal, connected to fibre, which they would later discover led to a geothermal energy source. The diagram inside the space clearly showed that once the covering rock was moved to reveal the base plate, a particular alignment of the sun with the pattern of holes would trigger the energy source to raise the plate. This would apparently happen at four different times in a day. The sun did not appear to be at one of the prescribed angles right now and it was Red who reminded them that this was constructed a long time before the present stability of the gas giants was realised. “It is a miracle that the pattern of holes can still configure the correct light enabling energy connection, let alone that the geothermal system is operational.”

  The cautious approach prevailed as the Symbiants were first into the small cavity. The entry to further chambers was not sophisticated, consisting of sliding slabs with counterbalancing equivalents on the other side of the opening. This construction was not dissimilar to ideas used by ancient Egyptians, and caused the Symbiants in particular to consider why the species was so highly rated by the Progenitors.

  As they explored further, the caverns spread downwards in a cylindrical shape with very regular vertical support pillars, and overreaching beams. Suddenly there was no further descent option. There was also a distinct lack of descriptive purpose of the complex. Everything seemed to be shouting – ‘secret’. Even the means of descent was pretty crude and not without danger. The pillars were interspersed with small platforms at varying heights and areas, and it was just possible to leap to adjacent ones. They were however cleverly arranged so that a sequence had to be used to eventually progress to the floor. It was Yamamoto who suggested a reason. “Maybe the descent platforms are for visitors; Species 1101 were capable of flying and wouldn’t need to use them.”

  Once they had all assembled on the bottom level they observed a single exit. Pursuing this tunnel for quite a way revealed nothing. They decided to continue for another ten minutes or so. The tunnel was almost perfectly straight and had no branches in any direction. About a mile into the darkness it widened and there was a panel on either side to give illumination, which managed to settle the nervous Indys. This space was also a cylinder, but with no descent platforms or anything else except the next exit. They stopped to evaluate the possible alternatives. The plan emerged; two of the Symbiants would press ahead for another ten minutes and report back by technobabble.

  The report came quickly as they had superb night vision and could move a lot faster than the others. The main reason was however, that they had found another cylinder with platforms. The rest joined them to see that Keer and Orva had located evidence of primitive living. There were tools and utensils. Ascending was a more formidable challenge for the Sapients. They had to be assisted by the Symbiants. The Indys were back to adolescent pranks and made it to the top first. The Europan and Gliese delegates had impressive ability to leap upward and found it to be pretty straightforward. Here there was an internal mechanism to lift the base plate, which had no holes and was obviously not part of an entrance system from the outside. When they surfaced and surveyed the terrain, it was clear that a lot of difficult territory had been avoided by going underground. They were currently in a raised spot surrounded by cliffs, waterfalls and lookalike
moss. The coordinates were recorded as they disappeared once more into the cylinder, replacing the base plate before descent.

  The next phase was almost a repeat, a cylinder without ascent platforms, and after that a larger one with two exits. The first was straight ahead (east) and the other at right angles (north). It was not felt prudent to split up so they went north first. An ascent cylinder took them to a surface oasis. In this terrain that mental image was pictured as a relaxing area without water. There were large, fleshy plants bearing fruit, and the Indys declared them edible. After a short break Alex 2 said it would make sense to continue north to see if there would be further branching. It proved negative, so they returned to the cylinder with the option to go further east. Two more repeats of the ‘modular’ design and they entered a small ‘urban’ like complex. There were fossils here and crude energy enabled facilities; they were accompanied by inscriptions. Red took a while to decipher the mixture of symbols and drawings. The repetitive references to predators were chilling. Larger flying creatures and amphibious carnivores were pushing Species 1101 near to extinction. The decision to relocate underground gave some period of recovery but over many generations they mutated to a point at which they became vulnerable to microorganisms. Having come from another planet and lost the technology to move on again they were faced with a critical dilemma. Surface and die, or single-mindedly develop, in the time they had left, a synthetic form of themselves with immunity to the bugs and therefore the time to give further options. The next few modules grew more complex and Alex 2 noted that extrapolation of the relatively short route already covered would eventually take them back toward Renewal.

  Several surface forays were necessary for those requiring food. It was also an opportunity to let the Symbiants remaining in Renewal receive technobabble to let everyone else know that apart from the tragic loss of the two Indys, everyone else was fine.

  It was four long weeks before the ‘launch’ silo was discovered. It was huge. There were no plans in evidence to reveal any detail about the technology, time or destination. They clearly did not want to be followed. The transformation in sophistication from the outer tunnels to this hub seemed to reflect their graduation to the healthy, synthetic branching of their species. Red remarked, “Perhaps, this is why the original species were regarded so highly. They survived and evolved against all odds to be very close to the Progenitor model of promise.” There was recognition by the rest, in synchronised, solemn nodding.

  The group divided. Alex 2 and Red would continue with the main party while Keer and Orva would return to Renewal with the ascent module. Flying back over a surface marker confirmed that the tunnel travellers were on course for the rift.

  Life in the ‘city’ had been thankfully free of incident during their absence, and it was not surprising that Keer and Orva were besieged with the thirst for detailed knowledge of the fate of Species 1101. The expansion of the boundaries of Renewal had been the focus of quite some discussion. With survival emphasis concentrated on the need to increase population, and give critical mass to the entire Nexus civilisation, thereby overtaking non-sentient predatory threat – a theme had emerged. The awful fate of the two lost Indys was the springboard. The idea was to produce a technological barrier to predators as the city expanded. It should have one now. Repeating it every so many years implied that the most sensible way to expand was in concentric circles, where every point of extremity is the same distance from the protective barrier.

  Months passed and the tunnel team had found the need to spend more time above ground. It was not just for food; the need for sunlight was becoming an acute necessity for some. Three more silos had been charted, and what was considered to be the central hub yielded more information on the microorganism which had forced Species 1101 on to this path. Alex 2 would confer with Pascal 2 but he was already sure that it looked like a forerunner of the Liberty variety.

  Pascal 2 confirmed this was the case by technobabble comparison of key features. He asked Alex 2 to let Yamamoto know that his wish to become a ‘godfather’ of the first laboratory reared Sapient had been granted. The accelerated nurture and programming had produced the female a few days ago. She was rapidly developing and would be walking and have rudimentary vocabulary at her disposal by the time he returned. She would not have a name until he returned and chose one. He was humbled to a level he had never previously thought possible, and could not get back soon enough. He would have liked to sleep under the stars that night but he knew it would not happen. Reflecting on his own early childhood in Japan, he pondered on how he would be able to tell her stories which could possibly make any sense to her. In the same way that Rene’s birth had been symbolic to the Europans on Mars, this youngster was to shift the entire subject of ordaining life by prescription, on Nexus.

  The arduous tunnel journey was almost at an end. They had come to what should have been the rift cylinder, but it had been blocked from the underground route by the earthquake. They had to surface via the previous one and complete the epic trek in sunlight, which was welcomed by the weary participants. The awaiting relatives of the two lost Indys did know there would be no bodies, as Keer had related details of the horrific incident, yet they wanted to greet the surviving members of their party to give closure. Life in Renewal would in theory get back to normal, whatever that was. However, that would only happen once the appearance of the new little girl was witnessed by those returning, and the inevitable ensuing discussion had at least been arranged. It was such a pivotal challenge to all traditions of all species. Doc had, until this period, been considered by his makers as an ‘intelligent robot’, but this would no longer suffice. The Europans had belatedly recognised and admitted their own contradictions, and this had indirectly spawned their interest in the Pascal 2 synthesis.

  As the decision did not really affect the Symbiants, Alex 2 and Red wanted to make another trip to the Brown dwarf. The information gleaned about Species 1101 having transformed their entire architecture, and departed for another world, was the justification. They made the request politely from the relay and were pleasantly surprised that it met with no resistance. On arrival and clearance they went directly to this subject and declared it was the only one on their agenda. Silence prevailed for long enough to convince them that the trip had been futile. They were preparing to leave, thinking that no reply meant refusal to enter discussion. They were advised to wait for another two weeks and return, this apparently equated to the time for authority to allow release of more data. They decided to interrogate other aspects of the database but found nothing of significant interest and left.

  Yamamoto had at last been able to get time alone with his new friend, musing that they were ‘related by technology’. He soon learned that she had been pretty well accepted by all residents. She was a quick learner and immediately asked why she had no name. “I have some friends and they all have names, even ones who were born just before and after me, but are smaller than me, and they can’t even talk yet. Their parents feel sorry that I don’t have a name so they have given me one. Anyway, they also told me that I do not have parents, but I don’t know what parents are for. Everyone is nice to me and told me about you, but why?”

  “We can talk more on that later. Please tell me the name you have been given.”

  “Suki.”

  “Do you like it?”

  “Yes, it is easy to remember, not like some other names we have here. I would like to keep it but I have been told you might want to change it. Why would you be able to do that when I have never known you?”

  “I think it’s a great name, but even if I didn’t, you wouldn’t have to change. I think we should now talk about why we might become special friends.” It was a delight for Kipchoge Yamamoto to fill in the details for this little girl. He had imagined it would be so difficult, but she had made it quite the opposite. He had a new purpose in life and he embraced it.

  Chapter 34

  Alex 2 and Red were back to hear what news if any
there was from the brown dwarf senders. The data they got seemed logical but didn’t open up an observation window on where to search next. They did have something new to report themselves. They had over-flown part of the planet on their way. Several of their options in the tunnels to go north had been plotted and appeared to converge on one location. They had not yet explored that location but already knew from altitude that it had a very unusual magnetic signature and was emanating high radiation levels. They had decided to keep this revelation until they had squeezed as much information as possible out of the 0101 sender species.

  What they did get was a detailed description of what Species 1101 had turned themselves into. It was accompanied by a display. The photonic representation was apparently a good likeness. It differed in many ways from the form they had been ‘descended’ from. They were much smaller and did not require the myriad of cilia and recognition blotches of the real thing. This was all very interesting but not really useful. Red asked, “Where did they go?”

  “No data is available.”

  “Exactly why are they so highly rated?”

  “When they first transformed they were not amongst the registered codes. What they became was remarkable, and in retrospect the originators, who were destined to become extinct, were accorded their accolade. If they had not done what they did we would never have known Species 0001.”

  Alex 2 could not refrain from the direct question as a statement. “So Species 1101 somehow provided the link to the highest ranking life form commanded by the Progenitors?”

  “Correct.”

  The two Symbiants paused as they felt they were on the cusp of a real breakthrough. They overplayed their hand by assertively requesting a visual of what Species 0001 was like now. The reply was clear in its tone and brevity. “They now have no resemblance to what you have seen. If you have other questions proceed.”

  They asked about the significance of the radiation source to the north. An instant response did provoke further curiosity. “It is a very large deposit of Seaborgium and its derivative Oxy-chloride. You may not be able to access this from the surface.”

  This effectively terminated the discussion. On the homeward journey they debated the significance of the revelations. One theory seemed to have merit. Species 0001 could well have created 0011(robots) and 0101(senders). The presence of Seaborgium was also a strong candidate for the means of escape of the synthetic ‘descendants’ of what Species 1101 had now become, especially as several tunnels ran toward it. The previously annoying missing link of where they initially departed to would fade if the first assumptions were correct, because they would now be spread through the Cosmos. They had previously learned at least that much about Species 0001. The next investigation should be for evidence of vessel construction and therefore distance capability. If they were all over the known universe there had to be stepwise advances in cosmic transport. They were generally pleased with the information extracted, but felt there was likely to be a limit on what else they could discover on Nexus, which would unlock the remaining clues. If indeed the answers they were seeking were elsewhere, there would not be much enthusiasm from the other species in Renewal to uproot again.

  Alex 2 suggested that they stop at the relay and send one last question, which would have a recorded reply rather than the brown dwarf type. Red was puzzled, then realised what his colleague was up to. “Yes of course – Liberty.”

  They phrased it as a proven fact. ‘The evidence found in the tunnels of Species 1101 included detailed reference to the microorganism which eventually wiped them out. Our analysis shows this to be an ancestor of the Liberty Virubact. It is a very primitive virus, but the essential markers of Liberty are unmistakable. Your comments would be appreciated’.

  They waited for an hour before robot activity clicked into gear. The reply eventually came. ‘Your information is correct. At the time in question Virubacts in this region were just beginning to flourish, but were still not evolved to exercise control of hosts in a sophisticated manner. There was also a fierce struggle amongst the viruses and the developing alliances with bacteria. Many of the first Virubacts died out. What you call Liberty was able to resist being reverted by other virus types into simple killers. Eventually a few strains of the new Virubact model persisted and even acquired the ability to neutralise simpler viruses competing for the same host. Liberty was the most successful’.

  Red and Alex 2 looked at one another and pushed harder with the next transmission. ‘We were warned off the brown dwarf and told that Virubacts were the secondary enemy of the Progenitors. You now appear to be telling us that some of them are not dangerous, and could even be helpful’.

  The reply was instant but short. ‘Not some of them, all except Liberty had problems’.

  The Symbiants knew they were close. ‘Was Liberty chosen or assisted in some way?’

  ‘It was developed by Species 1101 at the same time as they engineered the synthetic version of themselves’.

  Alex 2 and Red were now unsure as to what the next question should be. They concluded that statements seemed to ferret out more detailed replies. ‘So, Species 1101 had been working on a solution to the ancestral virus of Liberty, and although too late to save their original form, it was a success with the new one’.

  A few minutes elapsed and the robots retrieved data which they could read. Tragically, the stricken species had decided to alter their form because no cure for the virus was found, then just as their species transformation technique was perfected, the breakthrough came. Species 1101 had dwindled to just a few pockets of resistance and they put all effort into the new form with much more robust immune design. The Virubact breakthrough had been discovered by allowing red crystal to turn to amorphous form and replicate a range of viruses and early Virubacts. The Liberty variety had shown unique modifications, which harmonised their organic control abilities with inorganic hosts for the first time. Species 1101 had interacted with the Continuance long before they were forced underground. The replicants of their original form are now regressed, somewhere in the rift area and would avail of much data about this era. The discovery of Liberty and its beneficial character had been too late to save the badly infected remnants of the original Species 1101. They were indeed a remarkable example of forward thinking. Alex 2 and Red now had their direction. Although it was a surprise in one way, the existence of the red crystal on Nexus had been known of and utilised by the Axis at the time of their exodus. It was in addition, a perfect example of the Progenitors’ strategy of ‘sowing potential and possibly reaping promise’. Also, the entire process of being warned, opening the rift, being pointed toward Liberty in an obscure way and the tag of illogical behaviour, was now realised as a test. They decided that finding any crystal with embedded data on Species 1101, was higher priority than exploring the Seaborgium source.

  When this was reported to the inhabitants of Renewal it had a mixed reception. All of the Axis clans began to visualise the red crystal as a ‘sacred’ encapsulation of their own historical evolution on Nexus. Species 1101 was being deified. The Sapients found it interesting but did not show much enthusiasm for gathering samples at this time. They were pressing on with the controlled way forward on natural and artificial increase in their numbers. That statistic now stood at eleven, and it was planned to foster two more friends for Suki, the Eva Ryan twins, and Anna-Severine’s daughter.

  The Symbiants were alone in wanting to recreate replicant Species 1101. There were many locations where small quantities of crystal were found but none were of the elusive source. Gradually the ‘needle in a haystack’ search diminished and life did get back to catering for the planned expansion of the fledgling city.

  The Axis clans had been truly bonded by their tenuously linked heritage with Species 1101. They had all authorised Pascal 2 synthesis programmes following successful restoration of Epsilon natural procreative ability. There was no longer concern about the future population mix. It was a poignant time for Doc; at last he acq
uired his own sense of ‘belonging’.

  With the recovering ecosystem, the first barrier against predators was installed. It was developed from the Gliese laser weapons. They were fitted with detectors and modified intensity output would confer a severe shock to marauding land based prowlers which contacted the ring. Flying pests would receive targeted bursts to discourage them. This period of stability and expansion lasted for almost three years. It was punctured by the Symbiants eventually deciding to explore the tunnels which converged on the Seaborgium signature. Separate groups of them followed their individual tunnels until they met each other again some sixty-five miles from the radiation source. It was in a prefabrication complex. The lead-lined space indicated it could be a formation plant for automated layering of the radioactive material. The photonic robots of Species 1101 were in abundance. The Symbiants needed to figure out how to access the command routines and hopefully learn more of the technology of their means of escaping Nexus. Red reminded his colleagues that the artificial versions of the species would not require large scale vessels or sustenance facilities. As they didn’t know what they were looking for, he urged them to check everything. “We have become accustomed to organic needs in this kind of transportation; that will not necessarily be helpful in this survey. We are looking for a conduit for photonic entities.”

  The first clue came in the form of the robot protocols. They were much more limited than those in the relay. They were confined to operating a buffer of call up codes to activate the holographic representations. Orva found an exit leading to another space, which housed an extensive inventory of Seaborgium coils. It struck Alex 2 that maybe the silos were devoid of vessel manufacture because there were no vessels as such. He spoke to Red and suggested returning to the silos if they failed to find anything of further interest at this location. After a thorough trawl of the entire complex, they proceeded to the tunnel for the Seaborgium deposit. There was nothing there either, other than extraction facility.

  They returned to the nearest silo. Their previous observation that there were no retractable doors, when allied to the lack of ‘vessel’ fabrication plant, reinforced their theory that there was no need for any. They were looking for a totally different concept. Keer hailed them to a refrigeration device which he had stumbled into. The contents caused them to stare at length into the device then at one another. The red crystal was pulsing. They carefully removed it from the device and watched patiently as it slowly acquired the surrounding temperature. The amorphous form began to dust the red surface in a much shorter time than normal crystal. The furious discussion in technobabble was curtailed by Red volunteering to be first.

  He contacted the white powder and within a few minutes the changes were difficult to keep track of, but gradually they reached some kind of priority queue. Red was now oblivious to whatever was happening. A second step of sorting out sequences heralded the visual phase of the emerging new replicant. From here the process accelerated and disconnection approached. Red was now able to technobabble the others and assured them the process was worthwhile.

  Separation was achieved and the new entity took a while to plug in to the silent Symbiant communication mode. The most interesting initial disclosure was that replication prior to departure had been a mandatory facet of the transformation of Species 1101. Apparently it met the rudimentary conditions toward optimum balance of inorganic/organic balance for further progression. The combined ability of photons and micro-organic protection was very promising, but it had to evolve further. In order to travel vast distances at incredible velocity, the Virubact itself had to be altered to become part of the coding. This micro-engineering was perfected by the photonic branch of Species 1101, as the founders were now all but extinct. The Virubact replicant structure was, just as it had been with Pascal 2’s own conversion, grafted onto the inorganic core.

  The solution to the next riddle was now available. The mode of escape from Nexus was however, not yet obvious. They had seen several short pillars in the silos, but not attached much significance to them. They were told by the newcomer that they were cosmic distributors. Essentially they were photon canons. Each Seaborgium coil had a unique design which had built in distance instruction. Feeding the photonic code, with the embedded Virubact routine, into the coil married the gravity ‘A’ wave production to the switching command of the photon array. With direction and distance pre-set, this light-based simulation of radio wave travel was able to spray the synthetic version of Species 1101 to almost infinite locations of the galaxy. As these new space-farers did not need planets to survive they occupied as much void as they did solid celestial bodies.

  When the process was almost complete, the small remaining amount of crystal with the replication history was placed in refrigerated and unchanging data environment to ensure regression. The fact that there was residual crystal was not necessarily indicative of it being planned; it was possibly and merely a margin for error.

  There was now an understandable raised level of curiosity, but that was all the new entity could tell them, other than a more accurate date, which was not really important any more.

  The realisation that the Continuance had been a key enabling tool for such a feat was humbling for them. It also promoted a new dedication to pursue this line of investigation. Red wanted to address a practical question – how were they to present his double to the inhabitants of Renewal? They already had to deal with the difficulty of separating Alex 2 and himself, as they were replicated from the same Human. Extension of different clothing for discrimination was felt to be insufficient for the new replicant. The entity provided the solution – generation of a continuous, soft photonic glow was a recognisable outline. A name rather than a numeric designation would be favoured by the other species. They chose Olo.

  The enormity of this discovery in the registry of the Symbiants was not shared by the other inhabitants. They had suffered so much, and were enjoying the pioneering of their new city, that the Progenitor stuff had diminished in inverse proportion. They were genuinely pleased for the Symbiants and asked to be kept up to date on developments, but had their own preoccupation with nurturing their society of existing and other new arrivals already in the pipeline. They were more concerned about flying lizards than flying photons.

  Chapter 35

  The natural cleavage between the Symbiants and others was accelerating, but didn’t create difficulty. It had caused Doc to become part of their search for their ‘Nirvana’. The next visit to the brown dwarf was on the agenda. It needed to be planned carefully as they sensed they were near the ‘final solution’.

  By contrast, the presence of so many new individuals in the city had brought contentment to the lives of the Axis and Sapients alike. Testimony to this was the rigorous upholding of their pledge to dispense with the various clan differentiation names; they wished to be known only as Axis.

  Even though they knew they had amassed more than enough new data to warrant another visit, Alex 2 made the courteous request from the relay. It was sanctioned without hesitation and they set off.

  Before they commenced the interrogation of the list of what they now knew, Red posed a question. “The symbolism on the base plate of the underground complexes still has us confused; the funny omega has four strands running outward in different directions – the significance eludes us.”

  This time they received a clear explanation. ‘The omega to which you refer is the signature of Species 1101. The strands are representative of the species emanating from them and where they currently are comparatively, in terms of development’.

  Red responded. “So the shortest one is Species 1101 and they can have no further progression?”

  “Correct.”

  “And the longest is Species 0001 with no terminal marker?”

  “Yes.”

  “I see, so the others are Species 0011 and 0101 and they have been capped, er sorry, you have been capped?”

  “Not exactly, the robots are capped, we are under
further consideration.”

  After some discussion Alex 2 resumed the dialogue and quickly disgorged the information gleaned from Olo. He then fired his first question. “If Species 0001 ended up in space and on planetary bodies in all of the possible locations, they must have intersected dark matter. Does that mean they actually interacted directly with the Progenitors?”

  “You will have a reply in seven to eight of your time periods of months.”

  “Wait. Can you say why it has to wait for such a long and yet precise period of time?”

  “Authority clearance and distance to source of decision.”

  “Thank you.”

  This was an infuriatingly unsatisfactory situation, but in a way confirmed their assertion that they were so close. Their frustration was obvious to the others when they had returned, but still they did not engage with the puzzle. Olo was able to expand on the core data he had already given the Symbiants, but this was no consolation as it was simply ‘padding’.

  Rene had alerted Pascal 2 that she had been aware of feeling ‘change’. His diagnosis confirmed that it was the first stage of Liberty withdrawing from her. There had been no real opportunity to push on research for potential corrections of the syndrome, as the work involved in restoring the Epsilons to normality in terms of physique and procreation potency had been laborious. He felt that there were only two promising avenues to pursue. She could be re-infected by ‘virgin’ Liberty, or her scaly dermis could be genetically reverse-engineered to be furry and thus the natural process of continuous shedding of dead cells would probably induce self-regulation again. She opted for the latter as it might be a permanent fix, and it would assist the pledge to the common reference of Axis, with no sub-designation of Europan.

  Now that the other Symbiants were in virtual vacuum for the seven to eight month waiting period, there were more volunteers to assist Pascal 2.

  It was judged by the number of ‘pests’ caught by the ring of protective lasers that the next one should be constructed. The cull was surprising, especially as many of the various species had never been seen alive, before or after the earthquake. Most were insect types but there were isolated mammalian looking creatures too. They were not large enough to cause serious concern - nevertheless it was assumed that the carrion would attract more fearsome beasts. The logic was simply that the food chain would follow a free lunch. The next ring was to be set two hundred metres further out. The Symbiant mentality of killing time had evaporated.

  Alex 2 could not shed the burning desire to know more despite the enforced hiatus. He pleaded with Fernando to re-engage discussion with him on the theories he had initially posed to Yamamoto. The latter was now fully occupied with Suki’s development and declined. This suited Alex 2, as Yamamoto could sometimes be counter-productive if he had an unshakable belief that the other’s view was wrong.

  Fernando was reluctant but he still sensed some of his father in Alex 2’s expressions and mannerisms. He also knew his father would have expected him to help repay all the moral debt they had to the Continuance. He agreed.

  “Fernando, I do not have sufficient data invested in me to disagree with your ideas about what may occur at the event horizon of a black hole, so I must consider all feasible theory. I would just like to run through a few challenges to your general concept and see where that takes us.”

  “Fine, but you know I came up with these suggestions, silly as they seem to me now, to explain the Progenitors’ struggle as much as to make the equations fit. Yamamoto has never really been convinced of their existence and so it didn’t develop into a serious debate.”

  Alex 2 declared that he could not be more serious about finding the missing link. “Even if we accept that from the instant after the big bang there has been continuous expansion of the Cosmos, we have to deal with variations in the rate of that expansion. This is with respect to the formation processes and the post formation phase.”

  Fernando nodded. Alex 2 carried on, “I believe there may be very different forces at work in these overlapping but separate phases. The initial equations are responsible for tailoring the introduction of much longer term change. The laws of physics do not simply come along and selectively decide what is appropriate, they are always there. However, even within a set of unbreakable laws there can be periods of predominance of conditions which test some of those laws. In just the same way that the weather reaches limits, before it has to change to meet the equations which govern the phases of fine, cloudy, dry, precipitation, electromagnetic storms and worse. I am repeatedly driven to this consideration when I try to compare the mathematics of the short formation period and the ‘eternal’ aftermath. This would inevitably result in a sequence of freedom – boundary – change – freedom. But what if manipulation of some of the conditions occurs before the boundary is confronted? This is where I am intrigued by your idea that the event horizon is possibly a manipulative phenomenon to either avoid the predicted change or create a condition which would not occur without it.”

  Fernando furrowed his brow. “Mmm, I had not looked at the problem from precisely that perspective, but I can see where this would call for an explanation of where and even when the manipulation arises.”

  “Yes, but please bear with me. I now want to consider this exclusively in the aftermath phase. We still see a picture of outward acceleration. If we had the ability to look at the rate over a very short and very long period we could see if there have been eras of change, or the assumed alternative of uninterrupted progression. The latter would encourage me to just sit and wait out the next few months. The former would give new impetus to explain why. That is where your point comes to the fore about the manipulation source. It is such a pivotal question and it can only have a ‘yes or no’ ascribed to the answer, there is no in-between. Your attempt to explain the savage rearrangement at the event horizon is absolutely crucial to this argument. The answer must be there. We are staring right at it. Would you please consider what I have said, and perhaps let me know whether any thoughts you come up with mean our ideas are compatible or mutually exclusive?”

  “Yes of course. It has less practical fascination for me than when I dreamed it up, but it is peculiarly addictive.”

  The Symbiant on duty aboard Phoenix broadcast an unusual message to his kin on the surface. “A transmission has been received. It is a distress call. I believe the signature to be a valid Quantum Space Distortion source.”

  Red immediately ascended to verify the unmistakable recognition of the original QSD Mars-Europa prototype. This small craft had been bequeathed to the Martian society upon Phoenix departure. The remainder of the transmission defied belief.

  ‘We are a crew of four Humans who escaped the plague and the planet Mars. We stole this craft as it was our only means of avoiding death or capture. We don’t know at this stage whether the craft made any worthwhile distance or avoided collision with cosmic objects. If you have received this message, then we have so far. We will still be in stasis and will remain so until we reach Nexus or perish. We departed with pre-set coordinates and auto-navigation. The odds are against us but are better than remaining on Mars. If you are reading this, our coordinates will follow, as we set the transmission time to one which should be approximately twelve months travel from Nexus. This can be verified with our departure date via computational calculations. We are two males and two females. We fervently hope you made it successfully to Nexus and can help us do the same’.

  The shock waves quickly got back to the Sapients. Their new found contentment was instantly swept aside and an emergency meeting was requested to mount a rescue plan.

  The Symbiants responded and the Axis would not stand in the way of employing Phoenix for the intended rendezvous, as it was very unlikely that the small craft would drop out of QSD accurately after the years of travel and misalignment effects. They would be seriously weakened by muscle atrophy, and would be incapable of vessel control. It was decided to home in on the repeating signal and when they wer
e close enough to shadow the craft to its drop out point, move in with medical assistance and recovery therapy, before piloting the vessel to Nexus orbit.

  The Sapients did not allow unrealistic expectations to flourish - of recovering the four Humans alive, but they owed them a fighting chance, after their heroic effort to defy the Russian roulette revolver with five bullets in the six chambers on Mars.

  Yamamoto would not go; he conceded that he now had to think of Suki more than his natural desire to be at the edge of frontiers. Fernando would join with Luther Sanford and six Symbiants, including Alex 2 and Pascal 2. It would mean a slowdown in Pascal 2’s research but it was felt to be justified. It was quite a sight for the surface population to witness the departure of the only city vessel left of the three which had converged on Nexus. The other two were gone. Even for those remaining it proved to be a distraction from their leisurely routine, but the ring protection project would keep their minds on how their slender existence could be prejudiced at any time and by an unforeseen threat.

  With the two vessels distorting the intervening space toward each other, the time to contact would obviously be reduced but it was still a nervous journey. The Symbiants in particular could not stop calculating the odds and updating them, of the potential to hit some destructive object. The known arrangement of 55 Cancri and its immediate outlying space was the basis for their concern. It was tense, especially as they were powerless to alter any parameter which could affect the outcome, the brown dwarf and relay station for example. Fernando declared, “Time always seems to pass slowly in such situations.”

  Luther Sanford said, “I believe that some divine assistance may have got them this far, and we can help them by our thoughts to reinforce the favourable actions of their benefactor.”

  Alex 2 reflected on this statement of pure faith compared to the morass of mathematical equations he was wrestling with, in order to explain some laws by which his own version of ‘divine intervention’ could deliver such faith.

  As they were shifted away from Nexus by contorted space Fernando could not shed the images of his family members who would still have been alive if they hadn’t set foot on the planet. Being in this safe environment throughout his entire early years and young adulthood again clouded his thoughts. He didn’t really know Mars as a small child, so he had never really accepted that they would have all perished there. Things might have been different if his father had been able to influence the Martian psyche once more. And now he had proof that they would not necessarily have died, in the form of a brave act of escapology, worthy of winning through. His introspective moment was shattered by a rogue lateral thought. He sought out Alex 2. “Did you say that Olo told you that in the judgement of the Progenitors, Species 1101 had fostered the most promising of all candidates?”

  “Yes.”

  “I’m sorry, but as you know, none of us were really paying attention to your debriefing from the interrogation of Olo. If this is still true then Olo himself is about to succeed to that crown. He is the sum of all that they were and has now added all of the new Continuance knowledge from Red.”

  “Haven’t you also forgotten that Species 1101, after the initial transformation developed further to become known as Species 0001. This implies not just a branch, but a considerably different entity. However, you have alerted me to something which we may have overlooked. Olo’s ratio of inorganic/organic composition will be different to all those who underwent the transformation. What you say is not without relevance.”

  Chapter 36

  It was a relief to cross paths with the small craft and then follow it at a safe distance. Phoenix scheduled a couple of drop outs to avoid overlap of competing space distortion. The return to 55 Cancri was uneventful except for the point at which the small craft was approaching one of the gas giants. Surely not, all this way to be sucked into a crushing, toxic domain – they were helpless. It miraculously came to a halt on the edge of an orbit around the huge planet which would ultimately decay into oblivion. They had to act quickly. Conventional thrust was not getting them there quickly but maintaining QSD this close to the gas giant was too risky. Protracted manoeuvring for optimum attitude was adding to the mental pressure. Pascal 2 and Orva made the umbilical safe. Orva returned while Pascal 2 entered the craft to assess the life signs or otherwise. Phoenix gently towed its captive away from danger. The first part of the miracle had been accomplished. As yet there was no prognosis from Pascal 2 other than they were not dead.

  On Nexus the news was received and although premature it kicked off a party atmosphere, albeit one of anticipation of a result, rather than a celebration of the most desirable outcome. It had a hangover effect, not in the inebriation sense, but one of having the next day free of protective ring construction.

  As Nexus orbit was re-established there were several critical phases to negotiate. Pascal 2 had overridden the first. Taking the Humans out of stasis wasn’t complicated but it was felt safer to transfer them to the state of the art medical facility on Phoenix before they were subjected to any conscious trauma. This manoeuvre was not without risk. After much discussion they felt the best option was to steer the small craft slowly into the Phoenix docking port. Transferring the stasis pods in open space was ruled out because it offered the poorest vector control, and required the pods to be disconnected before transfer. The margin of error was slender but with tight focus on precision, the Symbiants conducted the procedure without a hitch, even though it seemed to take an eternity. Once they were in the medical bay the revival process was initiated, and Pascal 2 wanted to make numerous checks before he suffered the inconvenience of zero gravity. This would be necessary simply because in their weakened state the Humans would have to be given a very long acclimatisation programme to any gravitational level, let alone that of Nexus. Their life signs were steadily strengthening and there was now tangible hope.

  On Nexus the awaiting welcome party had not mentally accommodated the weeks or months that would be required for any survivors of the journey to negotiate orbit capture, gradual gravity increase, and finally surface transfer. They had concentrated their thoughts purely on the daring rescue element. It was quite a subdued group of well-wishers who were informed that no visitors would be allowed for the new arrivals. Recovery was still precarious and quarantine, except for Pascal 2, was necessary. It would have been tragic to fall to a transmitted Nexus infection after all the more latent dangers had been avoided.

  As the work ethic filtered back into the protection ring, the Symbiants prepared for the brown dwarf trip. The awaited message had still not arrived. The identity of the survivors was accessed from the few possessions and documents they had time to accumulate before the Mars departure. Sepp and Marion Gerber were of Austrian descent, and had married on Mars. Adele Chandler, a Martian-born geologist, and James Sinclair, a physics and propulsion student completed the manifest. At this stage it was presumed Sinclair was the organiser and ‘commander’ of the little vessel. Marion’s medical background explained in theory at least, how they had managed to set up the stasis routine to match projected arrival time. The assumption that they must have been planning this under siege conditions made their extraordinary presence, recovering peacefully in the comfort of Phoenix, all the more unlikely. Sepp Gerber was first to open his eyes. He could not speak, or even make a sound. Pascal 2 motioned for him to rest and not be concerned at his apparent paralysis.

  When Alex 2 and Red returned to the relay they were perplexed. There was a reply, but it demanded the presence of Olo on their approved visit to the brown dwarf. There was no reference to the question they had asked. Alex 2 informed Red of his discussions with Fernando, and his concern that there was a possibility that Olo was being considered as some kind of bargaining chip. “Let us agree to this but be wary of any sub-agenda.”

  Red looked wistfully at his colleague and replied, “I can understand your caution, but we have obviously triggered interest at the highest level. We can be wary, but we must not
squander the opportunity to know more.” They were agreed on the approach. It didn’t turn out how they thought it might. Their initial reference to the unanswered question was politely but firmly turned into ‘an item which will fit into a logical pattern’. The sender wanted to interrogate them for a change and insisted on a dual response from Alex 2 then Olo. When they had finally delivered the information, presumably in a sufficiently corroborated fashion, the bombshell was dropped. “The answer to your question has been authorised on a provisional basis. If you are willing to demonstrate total support for the objective of the Progenitors, more detailed data can be uploaded to all Symbiants in your region. It would involve returning from proactive status to the favoured and trusted method of encouraging promise. In this stage however, you would be the subject of the encouragement. It is felt you are ready for this challenge. If you wish to confer with others then do so, because the opportunity cannot be for some, it has to be all or none. Another opportunity may arise in the future, and the current one is open until you have unanimity in commitment.” They were taken aback, but there didn’t appear to be any merit in prolonging the session. They needed time to digest this sea change with their colleagues.

  Three of the four had ended their decades of slumber and were recovering faculties gradually. They had not been told that Adele Chandler was still dormant. Pascal 2 was sure from scans and his own sophisticated vision apparatus that the problem was not cardiac or pulmonary in nature. He was equally convinced that it was related to an aberration in reaction to cerebral stimuli. He had considered the last resort of genetic code boost or even a box implant. He decided to proceed with what would have been termed on Earth as ‘coma release therapy’. Music, voice and tactile stimulation were helpful, and then his initiation of image projection through the eyelids accelerated her awakening. The others could be told and the real celebrations planned.

  The Axis knew what it was like to be re-connected to the trunk in the tree of evolution. It was not always straightforward but could ultimately be so rewarding. They ensured that the celebration acknowledged the ‘fallen’ of both species as well as the miracle of Human endeavour.

  The gathering of Symbiants which was confronted with the vague opportunity in front of them could not agree. This was not surprising – the lack of specifics didn’t square with the surrender of the proactive mode, which many of them had come to enjoy. It wasn’t just the freedom itself, but that they were now slightly different from one another in attitude. Some declined, others needed more convincing. Even Alex 2 and Red confessed afterwards that there were some differences in perception of the Progenitors’ agenda between the two of them. It was shelved for now.

  It was fourteen months since the brown dwarf offer had been made. A message awaited them in the relay. This time gap had allowed all four Humans to recover motor functions and full speech facility. Their physiotherapy and gentle exercise regime had been successful; it was now time to consider interaction with others and the vexed question of Liberty immunity. Pascal 2 was being pestered by the quartet on a daily basis to authorise it. He made the situation more melodramatic by suggesting it should be tested on one of them before the others were infected with the Virubact. James Sinclair reminded Pascal 2 of the young Yamamoto, a refreshing blend of considered judgement and recklessness. He volunteered. He was also a prankster and a few hours after the injection he feigned symptoms of hallucinatory trauma, only to act normally after his friends had summoned Pascal 2. A week later they all underwent the treatment. It was a good time for Liberty as well as the last remnants of the previously considered extinct Human species.

  Alex 2 and Red pondered the new message. It made the previous one seem even more bizarre. It stated understanding that - no reply was indicative of no consensus. They were urged to take all the time they needed as the critical time frame was somewhere in the region of nine million years. It was not helpful to convince doubters but did focus attention on the prediction that some event was about to change things dramatically. It was a curious hook on which to land an already confused fish. One aspect was clear – they would get no more data until they all signed up.

  The descent of the Humans was an emotional and comical one. The re-acquaintance with Sapients was tearful, but attempts to hug them in the helium jackets, was nothing short of hilarious. Once the formal part was marked with another addition to the triangle of phoenix sculptures, the process of getting to know one another began. The stories went on long after Pascal 2’s curfew. The Humans could not easily relate to their own good fortune compared to the fate of many Nexus pioneers. They had expected cities and infrastructure similar to what they had left behind. They now did not fail to grasp the sentiment that ‘an end precedes a beginning’.

  The night sky was brighter than normal. Red indicated the comet that had been described as the one which may destabilise the relay station. That was not going to happen, they knew that. It added a kind of biblical backdrop to the mood and this would continue until it disappeared again. With the increased numbers of Sapients and the addition of Humans, the gene pool had been boosted, and the new arrivals added to the natural procreation base, they were male, female and relatively young. Of all the candidates who could have suggested founding a formal education facility, the least likely one emerged. Kipchoge Yamamoto’s vision was freely admitted to have been influenced by Suki’s development. Fernando could not believe that his former mentor and frontiersman wanted to settle for such a tame, albeit worthwhile cause. He taunted his friend by amiably suggesting he was simply recognising he had to move aside for the new generation, in the form of James Sinclair. Yamamoto rose to the bait. “I never said this was a forever commitment, when the right challenge comes along it will be considered. Anyway, youth is relative to experience, not a substitute for it, as your father proved time and again. Don’t write me off just yet Fernando!”

  It was obvious that the Humans were champing at the bit to contribute, but they were tired of menial tasks, purely on the basis of physical deficiencies. They argued that they hadn’t come all this way to be treated like permanent invalids. Pascal 2 relented and they were given a tour of the outer ring of protective shielding with the explanation of the target date for the next ring. Luther Sanford was explaining why this was necessary when they came upon a victim of the existing outer ring. It shocked the Humans. It was the biggest flying carnivorous lizard creature they had seen. It even surprised Luther. This predator was as big as their recollections of young Komodo dragons, but with wings. The food chain was now entering overdrive and this was a serious threat. This slain beast provoked much discussion back in the city. They could increase the laser power, but it was thought to be more efficient in the long term to interfere with their genetic code. Adele Chandler was keen to progress this under direction from Pascal 2. The project had to take in the wider migration of fauna. This flying species had shown via post-mortem that it had gorged on several mammalian types, but it would most likely want to try out Axis, Sapients, and Humans at some time. The flow of such creatures from other parts of the vast planet had not been in evidence prior to the earthquake; they could expect more of the same. They reasoned that the food pyramid must have rearranged quickly to compensate for the extinctions, of which there were many. It was difficult to devise a comprehensive plan when they only held a few pieces of the jigsaw, but they had to prepare for the natural onslaught. The work which Adele would instigate would need a living specimen of ‘the dragon’. It surprised nobody that James Sinclair volunteered. He was told to relax, as he had not yet completed his rehabilitation and he was reminded of the attributes of the Symbiants in such tricky missions. He accepted the rebuke but asked to accompany whoever was chosen to go.

  Alex 2 and Red decided to gamble. They made yet another visit to the brown dwarf. This time they were unannounced. They didn’t try to disguise their angle of attack either. “This critical time period of nine million years is interesting. Would it have anything to do with occurrences at the e
vent horizon of black holes?”

  There was no reply.

  “A period as long as suggested indicates why you ascribe the word approximate to it, but we wonder if it also represents a dependence on other alignments being realised.”

  This time there was a reply. ‘The time period is the only uncertainty, the other to which you refer is not in question’.

  They delivered more attempts to prise just one more clue but realised the futility when silence reigned. As they prepared to leave they were stopped in their tracks by the emphasis on the choice they had. ‘You are aware of all that can be offered, it is now a matter of decision’.

  Their parting shot was something they had decided not to ask. What changed their mind was the time period – nothing else. “If we were agreed would the progression to more promise be irreversible?”

  ‘You would know that it was, as soon as your upload was complete’.

  This is what they feared. Red reasoned that one of the previous comments mentioned there might be another chance and this one was open for this particular time period; it had a different connotation for him now. “I sense that ‘another opportunity’ is not for us, because ours is still open. There must be other candidates in this region apart from us.”

  Alex 2 nodded. This was a new dimension as it wasn’t known whether the other chance could affect the time period or even their entire participation. They also realised on the homeward journey that the latest confirmation of the suspected irreversibility wouldn’t be helpful in reaching consensus. It was worse than that, some of the dichotomy spread to the other species. They were devastated at the prospect of losing the Symbiants. The loss would be perceived as a major reduction in the probability of the survival of all others. The Symbiants recognised this and agreed to postpone further investigation until this dependency was no longer a factor. It meant that comprehensive exploration of the rest of the planet was important, and any resultant programmes would be completed, before the issue was raised again. The first task was now to capture an FK (Flying Komodo). Keer, Orva and James Sinclair set off to track down their habitat.

  Chapter 37

  While the Komodo hunting party were finding their prey elusive, Alex 2, Red and Olo used the ascent module to chart the planet at low altitude. Apart from the vicious marine specimens they knew about, there was not too much evidence of burgeoning life, and where there was activity, it was mostly in unconnected clumps of terrain. The earthquake had produced quite a few rifts around the planet. There was more water than when they first arrived, and it was showing a tendency to form bigger lakes. The lush jungle type swathes which had characterised the borderlands at the edge of their first settlement were now pretty sparse. They concluded that for now there would be a slow outward spread from these jungles which were teeming with life again. So those land-based fauna would take years to reach Renewal. The same could not be said of the flying creatures. These avian species were no longer as varied as the pre-quake times. It had to be assumed that the ones which fared best were those with adaptability to take refuge in many types of environment. The Komodo was comfortable in water, on land and in the air. Although this had helped its survival odds, its prey did not reflect the same picture. Previously there had been a separate food chain in the skies, but many of those had been choked by the constant exposure to toxic gas. The aquatic scene was not an efficient domain for the Komodo, they were sometimes lucky to steal another’s prize, but they were too slow to catch most lake dwellers. This left the land and its clumps of life habitat, with nothing in between. This partly explained their interest in Renewal. There was the prospect of bigger meals there or many smaller ones, as the burrowing vegetarians migrated to an all-year round supply of crops. The Citizens of Renewal had in part, brought this problem on themselves. As they had more than enough synthetic food production it was decided to skip a couple of years of planting to discourage the very migration they had tried to attract – except the Komodo. In his summary Alex 2 concluded that this immediate danger was the only real threat for some time to come. They had never come across the Komodo before, because the creatures had lived exclusively in one region where the forest canopy provided camouflage, and they did not need to hunt outside this province of constant supply. This did also alert Keer and his party to the fact that they may have a much longer journey to find their target. The one caught by the lasers may have been an isolated or lost individual. Alex 2 transmitted a technobabble invitation to shorten the hunt by hitching a ride with them to an area where they were guaranteed to find them. It was accepted and they joined forces.

  They had brought hand lasers and sedative darts, and they were prepared for the possibility of poisonous bites, with strong serums. The major worry was a sudden attack out of nowhere from above. There was no doubt that the Symbiants could subdue these creatures in terms of sheer strength, but their effectiveness, whether with weapons or physical superiority, could depend on avoiding the dragon getting first strike. Another concern was the ascent module. If the heavy beasts crashed into it out of curiosity or by accident they could inflict enough damage to prejudice their ability to return to Phoenix. This factor produced a re-think. It was a chance they could not take. The new plan was for the original party to be dropped and then track the Komodo, and the others to retreat to a safe distance with the transport.

  The plan was also to access a high point, to give good visual coverage of the air and below. The module dropped them in the chosen spot and returned to the plains. Within minutes there were disturbances in the thickets and pools immediately below. The audio accompaniment consisted of familial calls and death throes. They tracked the movement of large fleshy plants. There was a pattern of convergence – moving toward them. When the first Komodo appeared the hunters realised they had not considered the possibility of so many of them being confronted at once. Even the technobabble recall of the module would be too late for extraction. They decided they had to forget capture for now and simply survive. The intended stun intensity for the lasers was replaced by lethal level and the sedation abandoned for now. For James Sinclair this had all of a sudden become a big mistake. Keer and Orva on the other hand were merely focussed on the task at hand. The first three to come into normal vision were much smaller than the one found on the outskirts of Renewal. They were now clear of canopy and were airborne. The Symbiant’s dexterity, computational and geometric targeting of the flyers was awesome. It was also assisted by the dragons’ cumbersome manoeuvrability. The first three had hit the surface already dead. The bigger specimens behind were better flyers, suggesting the others were young. In an instant the sky seemed full of them. As soon as the dead fell they seemed to be replaced by more. Despite the adroitness and aiming of the Symbiants, there were so many that Orva was in collision with two of them almost simultaneously. One from behind was zapped by James Sinclair too late to avoid its momentum from slicing off Orva’s head. The remaining torso was shattered by the dragon arriving from the front. The same one locked its jaws on Sinclair’s left ankle as he panicked and tried to run. Keer swung around and picked up Orva’s laser at the same time as he sprayed a pack of four overhead. He yelled at Sinclair to no avail – James was frozen in fear. The two lasers took out the Komodo but Sinclair’s foot disappeared with it. The odds had shifted. The remaining flyers were nearly all young and some retreated, making it easy for Keer to take out the rest. The module was hovering and ready to extract them. Orva was terminally damaged. Sinclair was unconscious and had to have a tourniquet applied quickly to his leg. The module landed, Keer lifted Sinclair to Alex 2 and then leapt inside himself. They took off without Orva’s remnants and without having achieved the objective.

  James Sinclair survived, but would need a prosthetic device to walk again. The loss of Orva was typically one of pragmatic assessment by the Symbiants. They realised that without the ascent module backup, all three of the hunters would probably have perished. The exercise would not be repeated. Another solution would have to be cons
idered.

 
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