The nexus odyssey, p.32
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.32
 

           Hylton Smith

  Xiang grinned. “Will he go if you tell him Park found some of the precious crystal and has replicated himself already? You can also explain why he really needs to see what this replicant can do, and you have him in custody. You can convince him that this single replicant will be worth a fortune. You can also report you have disposed of Park as the double has the location of the crystal source. If he is still not convinced, make him aware of the difficulty you’ll have getting out of the country, as Park’s picture is in circulation by the Egyptian police, and that you will risk losing the replicant if you are stopped at the airport. His private jet would ensure your safe exit with the prize. Do I have to do all the thinking here?”

  They conferred for a while. “Will Mike be instructed to protect us?”

  “I think we can add that to our side of the bargain.”

  Alpha wanted more. “How do you propose to take care of the squad? Even Mike may have difficulties; if he comes in his jet there will still be a minimum of four with him.”

  “You need to be agile but don’t worry about Mike, apart from having superhuman strength, he is immune to firearms or knives. He will placate all four with ease. We’ll have local backup once the meeting begins. Now I need an answer so I can make arrangements with my Egyptian people to receive you and set up the meeting place.” They nodded.

  ********

  Dan and Red asked how long it would be until they were expected to ascend now that they had donned the suits. “Commander, since we switched off the Rabo heating and climate controls to preserve supply for the caretakers, we have started monitoring the battery life so we can decide when to implement the countdown. We have extracted most of the available data here. We assume the road progress is not within a distance we could reach without transport, but the Symbiants there will be able to accurately assess that. Once we know more precisely how long the batteries will last we can recalculate the gap to the road. If that looks unfavourable it might make sense to ascend sooner and get on the way back to Earth with the latest samples they have requested.”

  Carvalho promised to get back to them as soon as possible. He also knew there would be consternation about Newton returning with only Symbiants on board. Now he realised why Xiang had given approval for the extra descent/ascent risk on condition that they were to stay on Mars until further notice. He had originally assumed that stipulation was meant for humans only. He was furious with himself for the oversight. He would have to challenge the edict on the grounds of his misinterpretation.

  It was refused. When he informed the humans at Marineris Central he was confronted with a mini-mutiny. He said he would support their view as a last resort. They had to concentrate on getting to Dan and Red. Radmanov had a simple solution. “Tell them to switch the Rabo life support systems back on until we get there. They are more important to us than these caretakers.”

  Ari Nielsen agreed, suggesting the oxygen which was currently siphoned off from the dome interior could be collected to restore the Rabo deficit. When Carvalho put this to Dan, the Symbiant was hesitant. “Our purpose is to assist promise, yours and that of the Rabo. Can you update the estimates I asked for earlier and we will determine if there is sufficient time and oxygen replenishment to make the probability one which we can accept.”

  This was a watershed moment. The Symbiants had never declined to carry out an operational request before. Nevertheless, Carvalho could see their logic. Beth said they could consider ways of speeding up the road works, by asking the Symbiants to give suggestions. This was a subtle point because they had not asked them to contribute, merely to implement. If that produced nothing there was always more replication. Carvalho called for a break and asked Pascal 2 to join them.

  When he was informed about Dan’s stance Pascal 2 said it was indeed logical. “It is an assessment of risk and promise. Without further data he computes that there is high promise and risk to the Rabo. There appears to be no risk to you, and they do not consider their individual reversion to be of major significance.”

  “Yes I guessed as much. Can you confer with the Symbiants on the road programme to offer any ideas, to accelerate the process?”

  “Of course, I can do that from here.”

  ********

  Xiang made contact with Sadat and furnished him with the details, including the identity of the target. Escobar was well known to Sadat, and there was some reluctance to be involved. Xiang said he was not asking for direct, traceable help in the setup, just the extradition part.

  Sadat was unmoved. “With someone like this it is messy. The ‘civilised’ world sees the merit of getting him off the scene, but the infrastructure we have financed in such countries and regions are partly achieved by ‘blind eye’ policy on their part. In some of those areas, high-ranking government officials are often compliant with pressure from the ‘barons’. I am wary of even raising this with those who would need to be involved. It is a no smoke without fire scenario. It would be much less complicated for him to disappear from one of his abodes.”

  Xiang conveyed his disappointment. “We don’t want him to disappear, that would mean he would still be a threat in terms of the knowledge he already has.”

  “You misunderstand. I meant disappear completely.”

  Xiang quickly responded. “No, no – we can’t operate outside the law… that would make us no better than him. Our entire charter is to lead the way in conservation, colonisation, and any underpinning human adaptation with an ethic which is morally transparent.”

  “I see,” said Sadat, “let me think about this more carefully Mr. Xiang. I repeat, we would very much like to help, it is a matter of how.”

  ********

  Pascal 2 conducted conference technobabble with all Symbiants including Dan and Red. They were agreed – there was no feasible short term improvement in the road building rate. They had done their own estimates of historical battery life and set this against the time and distance of the completed road. Although this could not be accurate it was a long way short of the two groups meeting before Dan and Red would revert. More replications would help but the rate determining aspect of the road extension was much more related to machinery than ‘bodies’. Pascal 2 said that all of the Symbiants were surprised that, apart from the promise they saw in the Rabo, this species had also demonstrated a respect for humanity, worthy of reciprocation. “They did not interfere with Earth’s evolution or take the easy option of settling there after their many setbacks. They also chose to retain evidence of their civilisation to either meet with you or leave their rich legacy with you. To us this would normally seem an emotionally biased objective, but after our experience with your species it takes on a remarkably human character. That is why we expected that you would not question Dan and Red’s decision.”

  This was quite a humbling moment for the crew. Carvalho was almost ashamed of putting the edict from his own genetically related self-serving paper-shufflers ahead of the real issue. The crew did not speak; their facial expression said it for them, with one exception. Radmanov said they could not just ignore Beijing. Carvalho asked the crew to excuse him while he spoke to Pascal 2.

  “Thank you for your reminder of where we are and why. Commander Magnusson often said ‘we are here, Earth is not – and some aspects simply have to be dealt with here.’ Please inform all of the Symbiants that we are going with Dan and Red’s judgement. I’ll be instructing them to prepare for ascent to Newton and return to Earth. We will then not need to deplete the Rabo life support systems and we shall continue the road programme with maximum effort. You had better be careful Pascal 2; you’re showing signs of being compromised by human traits.”

  He informed the crew, who were generally supportive despite their stay on Mars being indefinite and dependent on the launch of the next shuttle. He had to have a private conversation with Radmanov, who opposed the decision, and said he must transmit the proposed override to his contact in Beijing.

  “That won’t be necessary; I’m proposing to do
that myself. I suspect you may be prone to leaving out some of the issues we’ve been made more aware of by our inorganic friends. However you and I need to get at what is really bothering you.”

  ********

  Xiang listened very carefully to Carvalho’s transmission. He was experienced enough to realise by the tone and the wording he wasn’t going to be able to prevent Newton from returning with only the two Symbiants on board. This did not mean it would dock. There would be calls to have it intercepted or turned away. It was an agonising situation because he actually believed Carvalho was right. He also thought he could guess Alex 2’s reaction. The anticipated furore would ignite even without the disclosure of Mike. When he did speak with Alex 2 he was mildly surprised by the response.

  “What would it take for your species to accept us? Why did Magnusson save me from being eliminated? Why did they bestow this symbolic title upon me? I fear that your species is demonstrating that they cannot unite sufficiently to maintain the original promise they offered. There is increasing conflict in my resolution of all current data I am processing. Perhaps I should speak to your people and sign off from this phase of interaction. You now have one crystal location on Earth if you want to resurrect involvement with the Continuance. It would leave you with a blank canvass. I can also get instruction to all Symbiants to execute reversion. What do you think?”

  “I think it would be a bleak canvass, as well as blank. I cannot entertain it.”

  Alex 2 unusually betrayed disillusionment. “It is not the first time we have had to withdraw, but I must admit it has never been for reasons related to diverse opinions and agendas within the species.”

  Xiang’s lips were trembling. “It is simply what we are; we have an expression ‘like the curate’s egg’ – it means we are basically riddled with contradictions, good and bad. I wish I could give you assurances this will diminish, but that would be wishful thinking. It is tiring as well as frustrating for me to deal with it when I have to concede I’m part of it. All I do know is that we will be much worse off without you. I can only implore you to reconsider.”

  “Reconsideration will only result in the same conclusion. It is a change of behavioural perception which is required. Maybe we have done all we can for now.”

  Xiang was despondent and knew it was pointless to make his contemporaries aware of this conversation as a threat to shake them up. That would only reinforce Alex 2’s point. “Please don’t do anything until I at least iron out the wrinkles of the Newton’s return.” Alex 2 nodded.

  Chapter 16

  He was having lunch while watching the news. He spilled his coffee when they showed the debris from a terrorist attack in Zimbabwe. The large colonial building had been virtually levelled to the ground. There were no survivors although it was not known exactly how many had been inside when the blast occurred. The building was thought to be owned by a Columbian national. More details could be expected when the emergency services declared the area safe.

  Xiang immediately made contact with Sadat, who claimed ignorance. “I am as mystified as you are, as nobody seems to know if any organisation has claimed responsibility or whether it is an internal protest against the regime. I’m making discreet enquiries in the light of our last discussion but I also do not want to appear too interested.”

  Xiang thought this sounded sincere but Sadat had not definitely denied involvement. He was curious to know if Escobar had been there at the time. He decided to get Alpha to try to make contact. The latter was decidedly nervous about doing so but complied. He repeatedly got the unavailable message from all three numbers he had. Xiang levelled with him as the story was on world news anyway. Alpha’s body language changed; there was visible relief. “What happens now?”

  “Well, since you haven’t assisted us in the way we structured the deal, it is no longer valid if your boss has actually perished. That would mean you have to face charges of kidnap and aggravated assault. Pity, but these things happen – that prompts me to ask, does Escobar have enemies who could reach him there?” Alpha tried to make this into a bargaining point. “Can we trade any information here?”

  “No way, I was just curious. We wanted to interview him and this has erased that option if he is no longer with us. If it transpires he was elsewhere, we may be able to talk again.”

  Alpha gambled. “There were many who would want him gone. I didn’t think they could get to him this way. Names would only be recollected if we do talk again.”

  “I think your next chat may well be with the Civil Prosecutor.”

  ********

  After Carvalho’s disgust with Beijing and the wider influences on Earth, he was not going to consult them on Finn’s plan. After all, it was the Martian colony which was facing the prospect of a major volcanic eruption, so it was fitting that he chose to risk the wrath of a political eruption.

  With the immediate pressure off road building, Carvalho wanted to lance the volcanic boil in the chasm. It would be a slow delicate process. Finn and Nielsen were joined by Pykonnen and they mapped out six sites for boreholes. Each one was subjected in turn to the drilling laser, initially in the same way Pykonnen had devised for carving out fracture lines for Scarlet O’Hara. Repeated extraction of the slabs, and the succeeding one being smaller, gradually funnelled the incisions to hopefully act as blowholes when the time came. This was by no means an exact science, and it also depended on the ticking time bomb under the surface with its own pressure distribution patterns. Finn recommended they now wait and collect more thermal and pressure data. As he was the only one of the three who could safely descend to the base of the canyon, the two humans could only observe via the drillbot cameras. It was especially frustrating for Pykonnen – he joked to Nielsen that it was like watching your son ascend to become head of the family when you thought you still had so much to offer. The banter was interrupted by Finn reporting an observation. Further along the floor of the rift he had detected what appeared to be an unusual reflection of the afternoon light. He detoured to get closer. He then became more certain it was not simply geological rock or crystal. When he reached the source he reported that it was a fossil. There was no intonation of excitement upon declaring that it was part of a well preserved and deeply embedded Rabo corpse. The exposed parts were their variegated scales which were intensely light reflective - a useful attribute when living underground in artificial light. The humans directed the camera there and asked Finn to assess how difficult it would be to retrieve the find without damaging it too much. “It will need care and patience but it is achievable. I would suggest we have another Symbiant to assist.” The request was enthusiastically approved and they would begin the following day in morning light.

  Having passed this on to Beijing, Alex 2 asked to be kept up to date, but more importantly Dan and Red should know of this. They had more data than anyone, and would be able to relate anything from the examination of the specimen to that knowledge.

  ********

  Carvalho asked Radmanov why he had such concerns over Dan and Red piloting the Newton back to Earth, when he had willingly volunteered for replication along with the rest of the crew. “I was surprised, particularly as you had also been one of the first to step forward to help Beth when she first found out about her sister’s accident.”

  “I don’t see the contradiction Commander – my compassion for a fellow crew member is an emotionally derived reaction in part. That was not the case with the replication; I considered that as a quantified risk. The concern you refer to with Dan and Red was not primarily to do with the Newton. I merely ranked the Rabo’s needs at a lower priority than those of the Symbiants. Temporarily consuming their life support had to be weighed against the road-link projections. Replenishing the Rabo life support before their possible visit in 3 years is surely likely as we expect the ground route to take months, not years. If they do return, and a lot of things could have changed since they were last here, we have a safety margin to welcome them. If you are the kind of leader wh
o accepts valid criticism then I would repeat my conclusion that you made the wrong decision. However, it is done – so we move on.”

  Carvalho conceded privately that this analysis made sense in a way; what bothered him was that at the time it was not presented with such detachment. It was more related to getting humans on board the homebound Newton, and was ‘emotionally’ charged. He had also not been the only one to notice his protective relationship with Beth, particularly when she was with Pykonnen.

  ********

  Pascal 2 joined Finn at the bottom of the rift and they meticulously scraped and brushed away the restraining layers of rock and dust. Nielsen and Pykonnen patiently looked on and kept reminding the Symbiants that as mere mortals they could not share the continual technobabble. Eventually Finn said that they were ready with an outline to which they could carefully apply the laser. This cut the block free and gave yet another opportunity for the Symbiants to show their ability to precisely calculate the most efficient way to complete a technically demanding task. In absolute harmony they cleared the corpse of all but debris. They then declared that they could return to the surface with their fossil. They said that a slightly higher controlled temperature would assist in preventing ice/frost giving adhesion to the host. Once that was achieved it would need to return to cold storage. Nielsen radioed ahead to Marineris Central to set the lab conditions. The ballet Pascal 2 and Finn performed in raising the recovered Rabo to the surface was rather routine to them, but quite astonishing for the watching bystanders. After completion of the debris removal from the body the conditioning was reset to preservation levels for the relevant technical expertise to be initiated.

  ********

  Dan and Red were enjoying an uneventful trip when the news of the Rabo corpse arrived. As they had not attempted anything like a post-mortem on the individuals in the sarcophagi, out of respect, they were curious to see the analytical results of this fossil. They were making regular transmissions to Beijing and everything was reported as ‘on target’. One incoming transmission was from Alex 2 and it summarised his discussions with Xiang. He informed them that he may be returning to Mars to assist the Rabo if the caretakers did make the next trip. He also requested that as soon as they were within grid reference range they should upload everything to him in case the information he already had was inaccurate. It would be important to have all available data for his next meeting with Xiang. The routine trip changed suddenly when the instrumentation picked up a cloud of cosmic debris approaching an intercept course with Newton. It provided a relief to have to calculate and implement a detour and resumption manoeuvre.

 
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