The Nexus Odyssey, p.33Hylton Smith
After some days the world news agency confirmed that Escobar was one of the victims of the Zimbabwe terrorism. Still no organisation had claimed responsibility and this led Xiang to believe that it was one of two possibilities. Either Sadat had organised a ‘favour’ for him without disclosing involvement, or more likely some competitive drug baron eventually got to him. If that was the case they may have known of his recruitment of Park, which would probably mean more quests for the red crystals. He decided not to speak to Sadat just yet.
He spoke to Alex 2. “I’ve got agreement to allow the docking and welcome of Dan and Red. They will have to go through the same medical screening as you did, and I have made everyone aware of the need to avoid any cold plasma sweeps. The samples they are carrying will also undergo quarantine. I’m sorry this meeting was necessary, but at least when I conveyed your concerns it was reassuring to hear most of the participants apologise for their short-sighted original appraisal.”
“That is good to hear, however I want to relinquish the honorary office they bestowed upon me. I was never really comfortable with being viewed as Leader. I therefore withdraw my intention to halt Symbiant assistance to humans. However, I wish to offer the same cooperation to the Rabo, and as a consequence I ‘apply’ for passage to Mars on the next shuttle.”
Xiang was saddened yet understanding. “Oh dear, I hope this doesn’t mean we won’t get to work together any more. I can see why you want to go back to Mars and I’ll make sure it happens. We need to view this as humanity cooperating with the Rabo through the Symbiants. We all stand to gain.” Alex 2 assured him that the only dependence for working together was the frequency of Mars shuttles. Xiang acknowledged that the ball was in his court.
The examination of the fossilised Rabo caused a difference of opinion. As chief human medical presence Sophia Scillacci, wanted to have first shot. Pascal 2 made the point that replication with the amorphous form would not be possible on something which has been deceased for least 2.8 million years, but contact through the powder to his own structure could yield valuable data. This may be compromised if too much dissection took place first. Carvalho was approached and he could not help thinking back to the replication of Alex Redgrave’s fresh corpse, which proved he was innocent of any involvement in his death.
Scillacci complained. “The compromise can go both ways Commander. We don’t know that this replication attempt leaves the subject unaltered. Perhaps Pascal 2 should explain in more detail what problems I might cause.”
“So let me get this right – you think Pascal 2 may affect your information recovery but he has to give evidence of the reverse. I believe we should resolve this sensibly, both of you having a cursory examination and then a more in depth one. I think Pascal 2 should go first in a very small area and you follow, then if all is ok you take your second shot before handing the reins back to him.”
He was taken aback by her indignant reaction. “I’m beginning to think we are second class personnel here. We’ve all subscribed to your views concerning the Symbiants recently – even subordinating our return home to their requirements. You may want to think on this Sir!!”
Before this ran deeper Pascal 2 said he had only been trying to offer help. He withdrew his request to precede Scillacci in the evaluation, but would assist her if she wished.
“Well?” said Scillacci to Carvalho. The Commander now felt indecisive. He accepted Pascal 2’s suggested resolution and whispered to Scillacci as he left, “My quarters when you have completed your first sweep.”
The tea cup was going to prove just big enough to confine this storm. The cursory stage brought nothing whatsoever from Scillacci. Pascal 2 selected one of the two fingers of the Rabo’s left hand to sprinkle a tiny amount of amorphous powder on to the underside skin. There was no replication, as predicted, but the information transfer suggested a substantial attack from microorganisms.
Carvalho asked Scillacci to put the objective ahead of her bruised, yet considerable ego. He did not take kindly to the open challenge of his authority in such a gladiatorial fashion in front of others. “I was going to say this whether you had found anything or not. If it’s a serious problem for you to have to wait for an indeterminate time to return to Earth I’d like to ask why you wanted the mission in the first place. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt by not asking that, as I felt the same on Copernicus at one stage. Hopefully you’ll also see things differently when you revisit the team ethic which got you selected.”
Scillacci’s expression was one of insolence but the Commander let it pass. “I want you to decide whether you wish to discuss the next steps with Pascal 2 and inform me of your agreed programme or if you still have issues.”
Scillacci and Pascal 2 repaired a fragile relationship sufficiently to progress. She accepted deep down that the Symbiants had no ego and in that respect Carvalho had a point. She began cutting and sifting for any clues such as organ arrangement and connection to the all-important sphere. There was a circulation system but traces of the solidified fluid clearly were not anything like blood. They concurred that it was likely to be a spinal fluid. There was a central pumping system for distribution and return to the sphere. However, it was not truly organic. The same conclusion applied to the other ‘organs’. The synthetic systems were analogous to alloys, but made from ‘plastic’ type materials rather than metal. There was no stomach or digestive system as such; they seemed to have been replaced by energy production units. Pascal 2 thought they may be dependent on chemical infusion as the species, having lived underground would not benefit from solar sources. There was still some organic dependence, in the ‘bones and joints’ – some of the skeletal structure illustrated dovetailing of natural and implanted parts. In summary, the Rabo appeared to have achieved what Alex 2 had suggested to humans, as a prerequisite to escaping their solar system.
When the sphere was extracted and dissected, Pascal 2 asked if Scillacci would allow another exposure to the amorphous form. She knew now from Pascal 2’s initial microorganism discovery, that this could be useful. The powder this time oriented itself towards the nodes of the myriad of blue veins running from the surface to the core. His conclusion supported his earlier idea of chemical energy absorption being the driver for their architecture. Like food for humans or fuel for an internal combustion engine, these beings were running on some elegant enabling cocktail. It also pointed to the explosion in bacteria and viruses being competitors for the energy. Comprehensive analysis would need to be carried out on identifying the chemical fuel, and the mechanism by which the microorganisms stole it.
Beth’s sister had made remarkable progress. Isaakson’s box had been modified for the neurons to pass through a cascade mechanism whereby they collected traces of molecular anti-coagulant. Specific nanoprobes had made this possible. Repeated switching experiments between normal and bypass routing had helped clear blocked pathways. This, together with the improved neuron protective agent allowed many patients to recover functions, and could eventually do without the box. Others had a combination of blocked pathways and damaged tissue, which would have to be repaired or replaced before their dependence on the box diminished. Elke was in this category. However she had the miniature version and was to be released from hospital. She was to be further studied with the objective of identifying corrective surgery. This was not to be done for some time to give her brain time to adapt to the new schedule of using the miniature. At least she could now sleep and wake as the same person, and set the alternating on/off cycle herself. She had already noticed she was progressively able to sustain longer periods without it. Dr. Isaakson had said it was a little like physiotherapy, accommodating a little more each time. “My life is coming back Beth and I can’t wait to see you. Will I ever see our new sister you told me about?” Beth wondered just how she should respond to this transmission.
Alex 2 suggested recovery and more thorough analysis of the samples Park had in the safety deposit box to give a picture of the chemical and chronological events. It might indicate other locations with similar components when searching the geological database. They obtained the key for the safety deposit box from Park’s quarters without telling him.
Analysis of some of the Rabo tissues proved interesting. When Carvalho was informed that there was evidence of Legionella pneumophila he recalled the outbreak on the return of Copernicus which cost the life of his friend Javier Veltrano. It had been assumed that the water supply on the vessel had been the source, maybe they had picked it up on Mars.
Pascal 2 had a theory which he bounced off Scillacci before exposing it to the Commander. This pleased her and she listened carefully. “This is entirely based on human research. It has been shown that biofilms have high concentrations of iron and nitrogen, which are requirements for protection of Legionella bacteria. Within biofilm niches Legionella lives in symbiosis with amoeba and ciliated protozoa. They reproduce and survive as intercellular parasites within these organisms. They are not able to multiply in an extracellular environment, but the relationships they have established with these organisms required some unique adaptations. Generally protozoa phagocytose (engulf and use as nutrients) bacteria. The Legionella also has to make changes, for example, its membrane lipid content is altered when they occupy protozoa, and its protein profile changes. This increases the bacteria’s resistance to temperature fluctuation, pH, oxidising agents and biocides. Finally and crucially it facilitates their transmission to complex life forms. This ability includes stealing nitrogen. This could be linked to the chemical fuel of the Rabo or the balance of gases in their lair, or both. I am also not ruling out this as the trigger for the explosive growth in bacteria/viruses they reported in their libraries, but they did not seem to find a solution.”
Scillacci knew all of these dots were database accessible, but was impressed with the way Pascal 2 had connected them. When she said he should update the Commander as she did not want to steal his thunder, he innocently replied, “Perhaps you misunderstood, I was proposing it was nitrogen that was being stolen.”
When they all thought about this it was feasible, as most Martian microorganisms have long been thought to be more virulent under the surface. That is where the Rabo lived and they inadvertently furnished a glut of the very important protection Legionella were craving. They would report this theory to Dan and Red before informing Earth.
Red supported the idea and said it might be additionally important that they try to analyse any retained by-products of the chemical fuel theory to distinguish its contribution from merely ingesting oxygen and nitrogen rich air. Red also came up with another one of those questions which get submerged by the importance of the find. What was that particular Rabo doing at Pandora’s Rift when the lair was on the other side of the planet and how did they get there? He recalled the moment when looking at the inscriptions, when he did not know if the ‘machines’ depicted were for transporting the Rabo or something else, or even whether they were the species. He relayed this to Mars because now that it was known they were machines there may be some evidence of them somewhere between Valles Marineris and Utopia Planitia. As the Symbiants’ road construction was negotiating terrain 2.8 million years on, it could be a very different route. This was taken seriously and the Symbiants were to regularly scan the adjacent stretches of territory as they progressed. The Rabo corpse was too degraded to extract historical or technical data.
The accumulation of this information in Beijing gave Xiang a convincing platform to hound the executive into nominating a date for the next trip to Mars. It was set to occur earlier than planned. In the estimation of Dan, Newton had performed admirably and with some refitting and nominal servicing it was ready to make the journey back. The new vessel was to be completed but a decision on launch date would be taken only after the crew had been selected and trained.
Red and Dan wanted to accompany Alex 2 back to Mars and this was not resisted. This left only four places to fill due to personnel space requirements. Because this trip was to herald the transportation of manufacturing units, an engineer was a priority. The term ‘manufacturing’ at this stage really meant assembly. It would have to be a gradual process of trying to reverse the sequence of industrial revolution to some degree, eventually extracting and smelting ores to yield base metals.
Xiang had pushed the research and production of ‘flat pack’ earth-moving vehicles to the high priority category. Now he had to ask for even more effort as the re-launch of the incoming Newton had shortened the deadline. It was going to be tight in terms of time as well as storage space.
Finn had noted fractional but steady increase in temperature and pressure around his boreholes. It was not only reflected in the readings - there was evidence of more melted water ice. He asked Carvalho for permission to cannibalise some ancillary spares for the robots, as yet unused, to make a passable attempt at a spigot. He wanted to do more tests on the liquid from each borehole to evaluate its potential for human consumption. The first prototype was quite effective for collection and the sources were yielding between half and three quarters of a litre in eight hours when fully open. It was a modest but gratifying achievement.
The thorough analysis did not throw up a disincentive to test it on a couple of volunteers. The only obvious undesirable was a higher than expected level of dissolved carbon dioxide. This could, if necessary, be lowered quite easily. In the meantime it could be used in the forestation areas; even though the plants were doing well the water would help and may have a bearing on the condensate levels over time.
The road-building had encountered a difficulty which had so far been avoided. A small fissure had caused a temporary halt while scouts estimated the best way around it. The bad news was that they had wandered into a loop and there was no way to circumvent it within circa forty miles. The good news was that the Symbiants aboard Newton might be right. The scouts had seen part of a machine which had been largely buried since their abandonment. The description of the exposed parts was sent to Newton and they confirmed it matched part of the drawings which they had seen. Carvalho was approached to agree a salvage operation while some of the Symbiants were working on a means of constructing a crossing of the fissure. They added that there may be parts of the machine which could be used as part of a ‘bridge’. The Commander was getting used to signing off on their requests. He was not to know how important this one was.
In fact there were several different machines which had been covered up over the millennia since they were parked or abandoned. The largest was the one which they had seen above the soil level. The Symbiants were over it like ants and offered an explanation which was either remarkable or preposterous. It appeared to be a solar powered engine set in a capsule which was mounted on very long jointed legs. The whole construction was light yet immensely strong and had some flexibility. The exception to this uniformity was the feet. They had removable and adjustable pads, presumably to lower the centre of gravity. There did not appear to be wires or moving parts to connect the
The Symbiants reported back to Dan that the capsule was made of ‘solar fibre’. It was made of a myriad of tiny cells woven together and it somehow channelled light to a ‘laminated’ plate in which the alternate layers emitted signals to an electrical distributor. Since it had been exposed to even the weak Martian sun all of this was observable. Just like the violet crystals in the Rabo lair, this machine had them in receiver points, obviously to have wireless operation. The controls for these appeared to be in the capsule, and although console ‘gauges’ were in evidence they appeared to be laser activated.
Newton was on the final approach to docking and the new human crew was in the last phase of simulation and training. The preparations had been somewhat truncated because of the decision to go with the re-launch of the returning craft. As the Martian situation was being increasingly flavoured by discoveries directly or indirectly related to the Rabo, this was reflected in the four individuals who were to accompany Dan, Red and Alex 2. With Pascal 2 and Scillacci on Mars, there was adequate medical expertise even if the latter returned to Earth within a year. The same could not be said of communications, and Radmanov. Computing would need reinforcement as it was pretty certain that Beth would want to return at the next opportunity. Propulsion and geology/science knowledge would be beefed up to keep pace with more Rabo revelations. Park was not going to be one of them. His turn would come with the next vessel.
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