The Nexus Odyssey, p.34Hylton Smith
Xiang wanted Alex 2 to make his own farewell address and asked only one favour. “Please make it clear that we are going to see you back here at some point, I don’t want to give the doubters any carrion to feed on. Your critique of human inability to find consensus which you shared with me is understood, but it would do no harm for others to hear it.”
Alex 2 never failed to be amazed at the species. He sometimes considered that the consistent inconsistency was a facet of their progress. He always came back to the opposite view. He comforted Xiang with a prognosis that the discovery of the Rabo and his need to interface with them was good news in the long term. “That is of course dependent on how humans will interpret the inevitable comparisons. I will refer to this in my address.”
“Thank you. Anyway, I have the list of selected personnel who will return with you. The choice was not difficult, with one caveat - I will return to that. Nikos Keriakis is a very bright palaeontologist with a good backup in geology. Propulsion technician Kipchoge Yamamoto is one of Japan’s brightest. Computing will benefit from Art Legrange, a prominent ex-employee at a certain five sided building in the USA. We decided that communications could be bridged with engineering physics, bearing in mind what we hope to achieve with these abandoned machines. To that end Marco van de Ende has been released from a Belgian supplier to the satellite industry.”
Alex 2 replied, “What is the caveat?”
“The question of Commander – none of those I have just mentioned would consider themselves being capable of that task. In fact that was partly why they were chosen. Dan has steered Newton back, and although neither he nor Red needed a hierarchical structure, he is perceived as a Commander by humans. We have to get used to non-humans having claim to potentially being better equipped for such roles. There was also the return trip to Earth for Newton – we don’t want two Commanders on one ship, and this minimises that situation as we ramp up shuttle frequency.”
“Refreshing logic Mr. Xiang.”
Scillacci’s detailed post-mortem confirmed that the individual had contracted and probably died from Legionella pneumophila. It focussed more attention on the chemical fuel the Rabo consumed and its attraction for the bacteria. The attack was almost exclusively evident on the ‘organic’ connection nodes. Isolating traces of the ‘biofuel’ was proving difficult until Scillacci tried extraction from the preserved bacteria. This was to be compared with existing database information on Legionella. Some success was achieved, although the results varied from one node to another. The presence of nitrous oxide provoked curiosity. Commonly known as laughing gas rather than fuel, it was not an obvious candidate to fit with what they had learned so far. Scillacci then entertained the idea of it acting as an anaesthetic to stem discomfort with the condition rather than being the fuel itself. There certainly was sufficient nitrogen and oxygen in their preferred atmosphere to enable synthesis of a molecule with the required ratio of 2:1. She did not want to fail in finding this elusive fuel only to be embarrassed by the arrival of the caretakers with a ridiculously obvious answer. She would reluctantly discuss this with Pascal 2. He recommended looking more at the ‘organs’ themselves. His logic was simply, that unlike some human organs, the Rabo had designed out certain disadvantages. “A good example could be the pancreas. The malfunction which produces diabetes, subsequently requiring insulin by injection, loses automatic control but also brings a dangerous tightrope. The balance between hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia (respectively too little and too much blood glucose) is difficult, and either could, if unattended lead to fatality. The Rabo have a system which is like a car running out of fuel, it stops, but is not damaged and is easily corrected. Too much fuel is simply wastage. The consequence in the Rabo may just be incapacitation until replenishment. The different organs may offer different clues.”
At the fissure the Symbiants had meticulously cleared the large machine of dust and because Red had the highly focussed laser at 633 nanometres on board Newton, they used both of the drillbot types. Working in tandem initiated the console ‘boot up’ and they tried to familiarise themselves with some of the command routines. However the solar fibre took two days to charge to maximum. The legs were fully retractable and capable of bend and twist manoeuvres. The tripod architecture was slow and cumbersome but quite stable when moving forwards, and flexible when turning. The maximum safe ‘stride’ was about 7 metres, and at this point the fissure was a fraction less than 2.5 metres. At the point where the robots had encountered the fissure it was close to 18 metres wide. However, it was deep wherever they checked. The plan was to attempt to cross with the machine at its current location, with an emergency tether attached, and if successful press on to Utopia Planitia. There was only space for one occupant, who would scout ahead, advising of the best route. The rest would scavenge parts from the array of machines left to fabricate a bridge to carry the robots over at the same point. They needed to classify the remaining machines in some kind of order of usefulness before cannibalising any of them. The tripod was bestowed with the name ‘Stalker’.
The practice sessions provided confidence and the Symbiant elected to tame Stalker was the first replicant of Ari Nielsen, his chosen name being Dane. The choice was more related to what he might find en-route and interpret at Utopia Planitia than his skill with the machine. They had all passed the driving test. It was a nervous, slow process with observers at every angle. The technobabble network was extremely busy and then it was over. The sighs of relief were almost audible at Valles Marineris, Carvalho in particular. The remaining Symbiants at the fissure merely turned to investigating the other machines.
Dan and Red were now undergoing quarantine and medical checks. The sample hoard was scanned and sent ahead to Beijing for the attention of Ayrton de Santos. This consignment was not as visually striking as the Copernicus and Darwin hauls, but they had been taken from more dispersed sites in and outside Candor Chasm.
Alex 2 started his address by enumerating some of the good things which had happened in the last two years. “By working together we have made significant advances in helping people suffering from brain disorders. In the same way organ transplants have been successful in saving lives. Both depend to some degree on applying an artificial relief for the specific organ, whether that is donated by another human, or it is synthetic. We have also witnessed a paradigm shift in propulsion technology as we are now truly in the Mars shuttle era. The additional cohesion of effort with the USAr heralds a period of further promise, and conservation is a major part of that. The discovery of the Rabo is an extremely important event for several reasons. They have demonstrated their respectful nature, despite most severe temptation to settle for a ready-made oasis like Earth. They wanted and maybe still want their cultural legacy to be available to others facing their predicament. They have technical understanding which bridges your own to that which is designed into the Continuance by the Progenitors. There may be pitfalls in their evolution, and also opportunity. I feel it is critical that together with my fellow Symbiants, albeit as per usual, directed by the humans on Mars, that this optimised. I will return to Earth when this phase is complete. The Rabo have come so close to achieving their goal that we need to know more. Mankind will then be in a better position to contemplate the future. Thank you.”
Xiang paid tribute to Alex 2 and the gathered audience was obviously caught off guard, judging by the muted response. The questions from media people did begin to trickle through, but the atmosphere was downbeat. This is what Xiang had hoped for; it would strengthen his hand in upcoming discussions of contentious issues.
Scillacci was becoming more frustrated at the repetitive negative results. The breakthrough came with the discovery of another type of bacteria in the remains. It was not known to her and the database also had no record. Discussing this with Pascal 2, he contacted Red who recalled Rabo reference to a ‘good’ type of bacteria,
The best explanation they could muster was derived from research done at the end of the first decade of the century. It was known that bacteria which ‘fix’ nitrogen from the atmosphere go on to yield nitrogen compounds, which are essential for soil fertility. In order to fix nitrogen the bacteria need readily available sources of energy. One potential source is cellulose. On Earth, cellulose is the most abundant naturally occurring organic material. Although it is difficult to break down, fungi and a large number of bacteria are capable of doing it. Some of the successful strains are anaerobic bacteria, not requiring oxygen to function.
The theory fitted the available data but it could not be proven. If indeed the Rabo architecture involved this type of fuel - to mobilise the partly organic components for controlling motion and joint rotation, they still had to know how.
Dane was making good progress and he found the way ahead was littered with abandoned Rabo artefacts, which had defied total eclipse by Martian dust. He didn’t want any delay in his route-charting task so he communicated the coordinates of each one to the bridge builders. He had a suit with him for periods of minimal data interaction to provide the warmth which would offset reversion. The capsule had automatic dusk activated lights, but he only used them where there was tricky terrain. His own ‘night vision’ was sufficient for flat stretches and he wanted to conserve solar energy to avoid too many charging stops.
In the meantime, at the fissure, the Symbiants had uncovered most of the collection of Rabo machines. They were mostly runabouts with slightly different features and presumably corresponding functions. The two with most immediate potential were completely different. One was very large and heavy with an earth moving scoop. The second had a capsule, like Stalker, but was attached to an inflatable of some kind. It was extremely light and had several fins and flaps. The laser treatment brought up console information and it appeared that the inflatable needed hydrogen to get this aircraft off the ground. It looked no more technically advanced than a micro-light, but they would discover it was a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Powering up this discovery seemed to depend on hydrogen being prised from polar or near surface equatorial locations. Not so, the small craft had grid markings, for buried storage tanks, if they could be found and had survived. There was a listed ‘depot’ near the current location. The Earth mover was next in line for scrutiny. It did have ‘caterpillar’ drive belts augmented with rotary drill pads to deliver more torque when in a stationary position. This brute also operated through solar power, but fabric was patently not practical – so a large dish with five-sided, interlocking violet crystals was employed. These were much darker than the ones previously seen and were protected by a very durable, clear material. The Symbiants had much more on their minds now than road-building and it provided welcome relief from the Spartan data feed of the M1 (Marineris-Utopia) motorway. Nevertheless, the bridge was progressing slowly. They were all curious as to how the Rabo materials could last for such a long time. After elimination of the obvious, such as the non-metallic composition, it was still an extraordinary situation that little or no degradation had occurred either above or below the surface. They dismissed the idea of regenerative materials. It would have to wait.
For Carvalho it seemed as if the humans were under-occupied compared to the others. Pykonnen and Nielsen were helping Finn but Scillacci was almost at a dead end with the fossil. Beth and Radmanov were going through the motions of keeping busy. More significantly, they were alone together for much of the time. It was too much for Radmanov. He had kept the lid on his obsession with Beth while others were around. He had made several calculated attempts to arouse her curiosity about Pykonnen, as he was privy to all personnel history. Although, he had been extremely careful, only hinting at skeletons that Jussi would not be happy to have exposed. She continually declined to take the bait. He had also tried to probe her intentions when they finally returned to Earth, on both a professional and personal level. Eventually he could not hold back his declaration of his feelings for her.
“I’m flattered,” she professed, “but I can only see as far as being reunited with Elke for now. I’m not even sure what I want career-wise – so the other is on the back burner.” Her hopes that this would extinguish his ardour were naive at best. He gained encouragement from the fact that she did not include Pykonnen in her plans. He lay awake at night, thinking of her in all respects – physical and personal. At no time did he consider his own mental preoccupation as strange, which was somewhat at odds with his professional discipline and its required detachment.
It boiled over when he took the opportunity to sneak into the sanitary facility while he knew she was using the sonic shower. He watched her through the semi-transparent screen and timed his ‘mistake’ of appearing just as she came out of the cubicle. She shrieked and he put his hands over his eyes and apologised profusely as he backed away. “My God, I’m sorry – what the hell – I was sure it was free – I, I, sorry.” He exited the facility convincingly. When she had recovered her composure and dressed, she went directly to reprimand him as the roster was quite clear. He held up his hands and feigned distress claiming that the only other person around was Carvalho, who he had wanted to see, but could hear him talking in his quarters and assumed it could only be with her. “I’m appalled at my own stupidity Beth; it’s the last thing I would have wanted to happen after our last conversation. I hope you can forgive me, I’m lost for the right words.” She bought it and said it would go no further.
With Dan, Red and Alex 2 reunited, the technobabble prevailed for some time before they were interrupted by a message that they should all report to Xiang. The decision had been made on the Command of the Newton. “We have decided to ask Dan to take this role. His main expertise is propulsion and engineering, and on six week trips as opposed to ten months, we don’t feel there is much concern about morale. We also know that all Symbiants cooperate and are not in need of a well-defined hierarchy. We’ve been asked if you will take some hydrogen canisters in case the Rabo depots are empty. There isn’t much space to spare so this will be limited to two small units. The other supplies are being loaded as we speak. One further request - as all the Rabo equipment seems to be activated by the 633 nm lasers; we are giving them into your care Red.”
“I am honoured, would that be correct Mr. Xiang?” said Dan.
Alex 2 asked Xiang if he knew who would be returning to Earth with Newton. “Not at this point, I have to discuss this with Commander Carvalho a little closer to the time. Is there any particular reason for the query?”
“No. Apart from Symbiant presence here; if that is required. At present there is only Mike, who we know of, but he is undercover; I still suspect Pascal Dupree has crystal or replicants in Sudan. I am obviously not returning this time so we could discuss this now or whenever you feel it is appropriate.” Xiang wished them well and seemed quite emotional when they departed.
When they arrived at the grid reference the Symbiants had to remove a considerable amount of dust before the hydrogen storage was exposed. However, even though they were right about the vessel being empty, they were pleasantly surprised that there were two ‘tanks’. One was for sequestering hydrogen from a near surface shaft, and once trapped the second was storing the gas, until the pressure indicators flashed full. The process was completely automated. The first stopped until they had filled the balloon receptacle and then started to harvest hydrogen again.
The Symbiants seemed to be enjoying choosing
Bee set off and noted that the Hindenburg was following a much more direct route than Stalker. For the rest it was back to bridge construction. The human crew marvelled at the last few days’ achievements and wondered what they would call the bridge.
When Sadat called he spoke in generalities. “We have information from our contacts in South America that our friend was informed of his impending demise by a group from his own country. Apparently it was the first of further plans to reduce headcount. It is thought that the market for the sought after product is not sufficient to support two organisations.”
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