The nexus odyssey, p.4
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.4
 

           Hylton Smith

  ********

  Natalia decided that the risk of not telling Magnusson about the pod switch was potentially more damaging than coming clean and later finding he could be involved. The Commander did not react at first, then asked if she was absolutely sure she was not mistaken – a valid question. She convinced him by several references to her own ‘obsessive’ need for order. She was more likely to forget the colour of a fire engine than the order of the three kings in a poker hand. He was disturbed, but not as much as she expected. The first priority was to stay alert and keep this to the two of them for now; they could endanger lives if they lost focus while approaching orbit. He suggested they met regularly but casually, to compare notes, and he then made a strange request. He was worried about Dupree, and acquainted her with the Frenchman’s lack of appreciation of his responsibility, especially the need to look further than pills when people are acting out of character in asking for help. Magnusson regretted having to burden her with such sensitive information, but he had to put the crew morale and wellbeing first. The bombshell was that he wanted her to second guess, when asked, Dupree’s recommendations in similar circumstances. It was irregular, but so was hurtling toward a planet possibly incapable of sustaining life, which commanded priority. She had to agree. Magnusson promised to give her his input on her ‘Sherlock’ quest.

  Carvalho and Redgrave were playing chess when Veltrano interrupted to report an LED flashing red. “I am not observing, merely passing a message from First Officer Banjani.”

  “Who are you passing the message to Senor?”

  Veltrano did not overreact to the heavy sarcasm when he replied. “Apparently it may be related to propulsion variance. Anybody know anything about engines?” Carvalho angrily rose from the table, deliberately colliding with Veltrano and knocking him over. “Sorry mate, you did say it was urgent didn’t you? Here let me help you up.” Veltrano smiled but declined assistance. When he was alone with Redgrave he casually asked who was going to report this to the Boss, adding that he had a choice – to be witness or accuser.

  With the orbit insertion approaching there was excitement mixed with apprehension, and any glitches with propulsion would shift the fulcrum significantly toward the latter. The warning signal occurring when propulsion was not operational was unusual. Banjani pointed at the helm display. It was indicating pressure variation in helium storage – vessel one, which would normally suggest a leak. It was puzzling that the external detectors did not confirm that as a cause. Carvalho’s first reaction was that the LED had an intermittent fault. Rather than replace it with a spare he decided to swap it with its duplicate on vessel two, which was apparently functioning normally. “I’ll inform Magnusson after I’ve checked telemetric data on the main control system.”

  “OK, please get back to me when you have any further information, because you know that Beijing will insist on hundreds of repeat simulations if any parameter changes.”

  Magnusson asked Carvalho if he had considered the pressure aberration could be valid and the external detector faulty. “Yes I have, and I’m not entirely ruling it out, but I would estimate the reliability of the detectors to be an order of magnitude greater than the pressure monitors. Also if helium was escaping I would not expect the LED to flash at irregular intervals, it should be constantly lit. Either way Commander, I think that we can only be certain if we go in there and look, check it out and change the unit. I can also ask Alex to come with me, and use an atmospheric density gauge to improve the prognosis of whether helium is present before we enter the storage section to carry out my tests. Protocol demands we have two people on any task like this. I must admit I always felt these stipulations were overkill, but this shows that I was wrong.”

  Magnusson was impressed with his focus considering he had asked Dupree for help. “Fine Carvalho, I’ll contact Beijing immediately but don’t let that hold you up. We can’t afford to have any potential helium leak merrily vaporising in our midst while Mission Control debate all possible causes. Stay in communication with Banjani continually and ask Veltrano to patch me into the loop in the message room.”

  “Sure. I have to checkout telemetry before we suit up so you may want Banjani to organise Veltrano. That will save Alex time in detecting any density irregularity, therefore leak?”

  “Good idea, let’s go.”

  Banjani briefed Veltrano and he privately welcomed the chance of a ‘happenchance’ meeting with Magnusson to get the Commander to ask why his cheekbone was sporting a medical dressing, applied by Dupree.

  Carvalho quickly briefed Redgrave and told Banjani that she should switch the LED on his signal. Redgrave was quite excited about having something really necessary to do now rather than at his leisure, and he decided not to mention Veltrano’s threat to report Carvalho to the Commander at this time, as it could easily affect his judgement. Anyway, the childish duel they had nurtured deserved no attention, let alone urgency right now, although he would be forced to tell it as it happened when the time came.

  When they exited the airlock and entered the propulsion section they quickly adjusted their oxygen supply to auto, and made their way carefully to an observation port where they could look at the storage area before opening the dividing door. If there had been massive escape of liquid helium, the point of leakage would betray some observable turbulence as the liquid/gas interface equilibrated. The monitoring camera was at the opposite side to their observation port and consequently could not offer conclusive evidence one way or the other. They could not see any such rippling effect so Redgrave proceeded to open the door. He placed the wireless gauge close to the bottom of vessel one and set the data transmission cycle to his palmtop and made his way back to join his colleague. With the light coming from the other direction now he reported seeing his own ‘footprints’ as a slight sweat. He also said that he saw what looked like the track of a snail near the door. Looking up, it appeared that some sealant had ‘dripped’ from a conduit which was to deliver fuel to the main propulsion area. He stopped, waved at Carvalho and pointed upwards, but Carvalho shrugged his shoulders and motioned to him to come out as he reopened the door.

  When he had explained his discovery Carvalho nodded but said they must first tell Banjani to swap the LED if his palmtop indicated constant density. After some twenty readings there was no measurable change and Banjani started the switch. Meanwhile, Redgrave’s report of silicone sealant breach had caught Magnusson’s attention during his transmission dialogue with Xiang. He asked Redgrave if it was from the actual conduit or the seal around the ‘hole’ in the partition wall. The reply was simple - it was very close to the hole and looked like part of the cushioning for the conduit, but the light was poor and their helmet torches were too dim to be sure. “OK, get out of there and we will make a second investigation.”

  By the time they returned to the helm, Banjani had good news; the LED was flashing to say vessel two had pressure variation. Carvalho gave her the spare and left to report to Magnusson. When he arrived his stomach churned as he noticed Veltrano’s face. Magnusson’s words surprised him. As the Mexican had been with the Commander at the time of Redgrave’s discovery, Veltrano had considered this a bad time to file a charge against a colleague on an exercise which could make him a hero for a day. So he had told the Commander he had inadvertently walked into his open locker door in hygiene. This of course was at odds with what Redgrave had seen and what Veltrano had initially told Dupree. “Despite his mishap, Veltrano insists he wants to help further investigate this ‘snail trail’ and he is fixing up a fibre optic device with sufficient flexibility to illuminate the entire circumference of the seal, so we can remotely monitor the situation. How long do you need?”

  “Three hours, maybe four.”

  “Well then, both of you get to work on it while I give Beijing the shits.” As they left the Commander, Carvalho was first to speak. “I owe you one, why?”

  Veltrano responded. “I really don’t know, I guess when you are all in danger y
ou see things differently, and as they say in my country ‘it takes two to tango’ so let’s get the fairy lights up and see if we can dance, or whether we have a big problem, deal?”

  “Let’s go,” agreed Carvalho.

  Chapter 10

  Having reported the ‘podgate’ episode, Natalia was more relaxed and her thoughts involuntarily returned to her intoxication with Banjani’s presence, naked or otherwise. Prime suspect or not, she had to avoid deluding herself about her feelings. The butterflies in her stomach betrayed a newly found attraction. It was alarming yet pleasant that this was intensely physical, something she had not experienced to this level with any male. Her discipline and objectivity were under siege. It was utterly impossible to sleep. The massage was beckoning but she would have to lead the conversation to determine any involvement Banjani could have had in the ‘incident’. Natalia fixed a time convenient to both of them and decided a good starting point for the dialogue would be the recent scare about the helium leak.

  Veltrano was just putting the finishing touches to his optics device when Carvalho entered his workspace. “Just a few more minutes and we can go,” beamed the Mexican. His former adversary had been presented with time to fathom Veltrano’s newly found team ethic and affability. There was something strange about the abrupt U-turn in his demeanour now that the relief of explaining the altercation was not an issue. Despite this nagging doubt he wanted to make the most of the olive branch and he knew he needed to ‘grow up’ a little himself.

  “Anything I can do Javier?” he asked timidly.

  “Yeah, can you bunch those ones neatly and use some of that tape to keep them together at one end, but separate the other ends by colour.” They worked for a couple of minutes in silence then Veltrano asked Carvalho to feed the taped end through a transparent plastic tube until he could make the appropriate connections to engage the relay software. He then picked up his portable ‘light box’ and declared the rest could be done at the investigation site.

  Carvalho assisted as requested while Veltrano arranged the mock up around the sealed area, and they exchanged pleasantries about the influence of their respective families on their careers. When the setup was completed there were no high fives, but the sense of achievement was tangible.

  “What exactly are we looking for?” enquired Veltrano.

  “Well, Alex is really the one who can explain any chemical breakdown of the seal and he is already examining fragments of what we scraped off the floor earlier, but this optics rig will hopefully give us a picture of the mechanics to go with his findings.”

  “Right, I’d better get back and implement the final remote link up. I’m curious to see the outcome…you will let me know if Alex comes up with anything?”

  “Absolutely. As soon as we know.”

  Xiang was visibly relieved that there was no helium leak and said he would contact the sealant supplier to ask for their comments. He also wanted his people whose job it was to oversee the sealing operation, to investigate this failure. He said he would come back to Magnusson to report any progress. The Swede noticed some unusual body language from the Controller, and pondered over Xiang’s pre-mission request to contact him on a secure channel with the personnel reports. He was a little disturbed at Xiang’s uncharacteristic vagueness.

  Dupree was not good at putting people at their ease while teasing out of them what was really bothering them. He was a fact and action Doctor and he consequently would have a difficult task with Carvalho, especially after the fracas. To his amazement his patient was apologetic about the incident and also declared he no longer wanted to register for medication. He put the request down to a feeling of ‘let down’ after the euphoria of fulfilling his father’s dream. The journey had been mundane and lacked the anticipated stimulation he had imagined. The recent panic had reminded him of the tenuous existence they were in, and he would settle for boring again. On giving this feedback to Magnusson, Dupree had no knowledge of Veltrano’s white lie over the conflict with Carvalho, and unknowingly informed the Commander of the truth. Magnusson, drawing on his psychology experience let it pass without comment and thanked Dupree but stressed the increasing need to be vigilant for signs of anxiety in all of the crew. Reflecting on this when he was alone, he preferred not to raise the issue again, and determined to build on this mini-crisis to get Veltrano more involved in broader aspects of the mission.

  Although it was not strictly necessary for a back and neck massage Banjani stripped off to the waist and innocently said, “Which way do you want me?” Natalia asked her to lie on her stomach and maintained her discipline by insisting that an effective massage should be at least a tad uncomfortable. “I will only decrease the intensity at your request.” As the preparation was gradually infused into her aching body Banjani quietly moaned and remarked on the sensuous aroma of the cream. “It’s my own formula. I think you are probably inhaling the vapour of sandalwood oil, and the good news is it lingers in the epidermis, even after normal showering, so it will stay more potent with the Sonics.” Banjani was drifting almost ethereally when she was grounded by Natalia’s voice.

  “I will be stepping up the pressure shortly so I will keep talking to distract you from any perceived discomfort. What a collective adrenaline rush we had with the Helium saga and Daniel’s tiff with the Mex.”

  “Mmm. I was the first one to see the LED was indeed faulty and only then did I relax sufficiently to feel tenseness in my shoulders again. That sounds so contradictory, almost as improbable as the new bosom buddies in the ‘A Team’. At least it might stop St. Daniel hitting on you.”

  “I can hope. What a lame tale Veltrano gave the Boss about bumping his head on his open locker door. Nobody would swallow that, and anyway - who leaves their locker door open?”

  “Well you do for a start,” said Banjani, “when I left you in the shower I could not believe the pile of stuff you had in there.”

  Natalia feigned ignorance. “Oh God my smalls, inhalers and gym gear were in there, and the workout suit needs washing, I wish.”

  Banjani went on. “I did get a waft of something as I closed the door. This massage is glorious; I hope you aren’t going to stop anytime soon.”

  “Not too invasive then?”

  “No way, it’s very pleasurable for mind and body.”

  Natalia thought carefully. “Strange – it was still open when I came out of the shower….sorry, it was open again. I never gave it a thought until now. I should check if anything is missing.”

  “Really, it was open? That sounds creepy, were you in the shower long?”

  “Yeah, probably felt like five to ten minutes.”

  Banjani stirred and sat up confronting Natalia with an eye level close up of generously proportioned breasts swaying imperceptibly, as if they were in slow motion zero gravity. Natalia disciplined herself.

  “Can we do this again Natalia, or am I being a pest?”

  “Of course not, just let me know when you feel the need.”

  “Can you do whole body programmes?” she asked, with no inference of embarrassment either way.

  “I guess so,” replied Natalia in a casual disinterested manner, “see you then.”

  Chapter 11

  As orbit insertion was nearing. Magnusson received a transmission from Xiang stating that the sealant company could not offer any feasible explanation and they had requested exact temperature and pressure readings. Beijing’s own team however had some notation from the sign-off sheets that one can of the sealant cross-linker was different to all of the rest. On reporting this to the supplier the reply assured them that this was only a very slight colour difference and was normal batch to batch variation, with no difference expected in the curing process. The trial results had concurred with this so they went ahead. It was baffling.

  Xiang closed with a strange remark. It referred to a handwritten note of farewell he had given Magnusson a few days before departure, wishing him and the crew a safe journey, and how much he wished he was 2
0 years younger. The reference stated that it was in times of concern over every little thing which did not conform to expectation, to keep the big picture in focus.

  “It might be worth another read if you still have it. Anyway I’ll be back with final orbit preparation checks soon.”

  When Magnusson located the personal letter he was perplexed. There was no such reference to the big picture in the letter. This alerted the Commander that his previous appraisal of Xiang’s body language was correct. Something was definitely not right with the Controller. Magnusson had assumed the original request for personnel reports on a secure channel meant secure on the Copernicus, now he was not so sure. He would wait until he received the next transmission before asking for clarification.

  Meanwhile, Redgrave had solved the mystery but not the problem. The ‘rogue’ sealant cross-linker did not show curing abnormality in the lab, but when he introduced the raw edge of the laminated partition material which was exposed to the sealant at the hole around the helium conduit, it was a different story. The uncured sealant, as applied, suffered migration of some inhibitor from the laminate during cure. This had left the sealant closest to the conduit only partially cross-linked as the migrant antioxidant blocked the curing reaction. The various vibrations during the mission had dislodged some of the uncured polymer and it had slowly succumbed to artificial gravity and headed for the floor. Projecting with some guesswork, the effect of the variables, Redgrave concluded that if left ‘as is’ the conduit would gradually abrade its way through the remaining sealant. The process would accelerate as more sealant was dislodged because of more space within which it could vibrate. Then there was the problem of loss of sealant causing inadequate containment of any fuel leak which may yet occur.

 
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