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The nexus odyssey, p.5
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.5

           Hylton Smith
 

  Magnusson felt he had to call for a ‘think tank’ session on Copernicus before informing Beijing. Nobody had any immediate feasible suggestions, but Veltrano asked Redgrave if his projections could be firmed up by observing the degradation via his fibre optics device, especially if they recorded the remote pictures and then applied a mathematical extrapolation of the initial curve. Redgrave had not considered this but agreed it would be useful. Further discussion was not fruitful, other than Carvalho’s unpopular statement that turning off artificial gravity would surely slow the drip effect. His argument was valid; furthermore, it would have to be switched off for the months they were to spend on Mars, otherwise they may not be able to return home after the ascent back to Copernicus. The only other option, if Redgrave’s fears were confirmed, would be to return via the Darwin. As this had very wide ranging implications for the entire programme, Beijing needed to know before descent plans were initiated. This could also split the crew with respect to their feelings of the merits or futility on continuance or aborting the mission. Magnusson needed to have his one-on-one with Xiang.

  ********

  His transmission let the Mission Controller know that he was alert by thanking him for the good advice in his letter, especially keeping the big picture at the forefront of his mind. As he appended this to the main message detailing the sealant dilemma, it came over as a genuine morale boosting tactic and nothing more, to any prying eyes. Xiang was relieved at Magnusson’s astuteness and now knew he had his secure channel; he could use the letter to construct a code which only the two of them could decipher. However the more pressing matter of the sealant prognosis was to dominate all transmissions until decisions had been reached and agreed.

  ********

  Veltrano had confirmed to Allbright that nothing had been held back from Beijing, so for now at least they were all on the same team. Xiang’s people could only extrapolate data that Redgrave transmitted; they could not collect it themselves. Their estimate with the help of the world’s best mathematicians was even bleaker than Redgrave’s own simple calculation. As a consequence, the decision was taken to switch off gravity earlier than planned with all its attendant disruption to the crew.

  ********

  The footage from Veltrano’s fibre optic monitor showed no advance of the problem. The debate over this raged in both Beijing and aboard Copernicus. Carvalho argued that zero gravity had slowed or stopped further dripping of the partially cured polymer. Redgrave disagreed, maintaining that the removal of a centrifugal force would cause a temporary change in dynamics of the polymer flow patterns, but it would then assume a new pattern, perhaps of spreading rather than dripping. The heated exchange was punctured when Veltrano, in his own way of minimising melodrama announced that the optic feed had ceased. He didn’t know why and volunteered to return to the fuel storage section to find out. Magnusson stated the obvious, that this would be much trickier with no gravity. He also agreed it had to be done.

  Carvalho accompanied Veltrano again, and with meticulous care they finally accessed the target area. Having inspected the optics rig, Veltrano switched places with Carvalho and asked him to say nothing. “Just look and we will head back.” The rest of the crew was huddled anxiously around the remote viewpoint and the Commander was repeatedly asking for an update, but neither of the inspection team appeared to be able to hear him. When they had disrobed from their suits they were met by Magnusson who simply said, “Well?”

  “In your quarters would be better Sir,” whispered Veltrano. Carvalho nodded in accord. Once the door was closed Veltrano took a piece of paper and wrote the words – ‘manually disconnected’. The ramifications exploded in Magnusson’s mind. He could not even exclude the two with whom he was now discussing the sabotage. He muttered a sentence in Swedish, which was a little disturbing for the other two. Then he thanked them and asked them to leave him while he mulled over the next steps.

  The former adversaries went to the hygiene section to clean up and took advantage of the privacy to speculate on whom? Why? And any connections back on Earth. If they were to exclude themselves and Magnusson it did not leave any logical suspect, especially as it would have needed a suit up and some agility in zero gravity for one person.

  The Commander had to let Beijing know, but was now sensitised to the probability that someone in Mission Control was an accomplice to whoever the culprit was on his vessel. He assumed that Xiang had kept a copy of the farewell letter, but did not want to alert any eavesdropper to the potential coded messages. He made a unilateral decision, telling the crew that he had to restore gravity with immediate effect, pending further Beijing analysis and recommendation when Earth was informed of the optics failure, which of course had not yet happened. This was to be a short term action because there were tasks to be carried out which would be jeopardised by zero gravity. He was bombarded with questions from the crew about the reason for the failure, and why couldn’t they just install another one? Magnusson promised to answer them as soon as gravity came back on line, and headed for the message room. The questioning turned to Veltrano, Redgrave and Carvalho. The latter was about to break ranks when his new friend interrupted and lied about having already started a replacement unit. He emphasised that time was of the essence, and he and Carvalho must get on with it, adding that he must avoid his schoolboy blunder with the phasing this time. He was gambling that three out of the four would buy this, and the other one would know sabotage was under investigation. While they pretended to remake the device Carvalho said, “That was quick thinking compadre,” indicating he had realised it was a ploy.

  “Daniel we have to be realistic here - we might be more successful if we look for the reason rather than the person right now, and it may point to odd behaviour. There’s a lot to gain and lose with this mission, depending on your perspective.”

  Carvalho was beginning to see Veltrano’s detached behaviour in a whole new light. Magnusson wanted to tease the code implications out of Xiang, before exposing the sabotage. He of course did not know of the Veltrano – Allbright link. That link was also under review from Veltrano himself – had he been used? For now he would not contact the American.

  ********

  This of course infuriated Allbright and he arranged an urgent meeting with Karl Koppelt. Although they did not yet know of the sabotage element, Allbright wanted to know if any of the reported problems qualified for intervention. Koppelt shook his head. “They are all operational malfunctions and there is no doomsday scenario so we do not yet have a mandate to muscle in.”

  “Not even with the protocol breaches?”

  The Swiss was unmoved. “You’re the boss, I am merely your walking bible, but if all you have is the one in which the Commander took decisive action in a potential crisis, then informed Mission Control to see if they agreed or whether they wanted to reverse his action, you are on thin ice. I would distance myself from such groundless claims.” Allbright huffed and puffed and paced the room.

  “Perhaps if you told me what you want to achieve I could home in on detail which would contribute, rather than quoting the book at you.”

  “Not possible at this juncture Karl, you know how it is.”

  Koppelt cast his eye over this brash ego, masquerading as an example of the future of intelligence work, as it ploughed its furrow in the pile of the Chinese rug. He mused, ‘So this is what I was passed over for. That is a serious indictment of those responsible for J. Edgar Allbright’. “Yes I do know how it is, so unless something else comes up I suppose we will meet again after the landing.”

  Chapter 12

  Magnusson informed Xiang of his decision to re-establish gravity until the optic device was reinstalled. He was not going to reveal the sinister situation just yet, hoping that the Controller would initiate coded transmissions. In fact he had already decided to do so. First he translated the contents of the letter into Chinese, changed the addressee from Magnusson to his own family. He destroyed the copy of the original and hid the Chin
ese version. He had thought very carefully before opting for an ‘obvious’ place, in his unlocked drawer beside his console in the main operations room. He had unscrewed the nib and ink capsule from one of his many fountain pens and inserted the furled letter in its place. These pens were accompanied by ball points; many pencils with graphite variations and a kaleidoscope of coloured highlight markers. Finally he re-wrote the letter to Magnusson with a different content but included that false reference to the big picture to enhance the fake. He kept this decoy in his jacket pocket at all times.

  His reply to Copernicus acknowledged the gravity decision. He informed Magnusson that although it was late in Beijing (23.00) his team of 4 which was trying to replicate the conditions of the sealant under-cure and subsequent breakdown, were close to their final accelerated test cycle. He mentioned that he had contact with 3 separate experts in crosslinking mechanics and effects of contaminants which could cause steric hindrance in the sealant cure reaction. “Please keep me updated with any new developments, the orbit decision is looming.”

  Magnusson looked at the transmission over and over, then he realised he had never received anything from Xiang containing numbers except in word form, e.g. three as opposed to 3. The number form was generally reserved for appended reports from his subordinates quoting values and equations.

  This must be it. He retrieved the letter.

  Word 23 They

  Word 4 Watch

  Word 3 Me

  He now felt distinctly uncomfortable but at least he could let Xiang know of the sabotage without compromising the Controller’s position, even if it was in cryptic fashion.

  ********

  When Allbright had examined Xiang’s transmission he focussed on the words ‘the orbit decision is looming’. What decision? Just a few days ago we were talking orbit insertion and trajectory corrections, what was going on? The more he reviewed the last few days’ exchanges the more he convinced himself something had got past him. The letter referred to by Xiang was personal, and on reflection it was irregular, especially as it was encouragement expressed over a minor problem. He had the scent and asked his second in command to summon a former colleague in the USA to Beijing. This was someone he could depend on to ferret out the origin of the smoke, without the self-righteousness of Koppelt.

  ********

  When Xiang saw Magnusson’s reply he ‘decrypted’ the relevant bits to reveal ‘problem situation not true’. This confused him but he knew the reference letter afforded a very limited vocabulary. He replied with a verification of orbit approach adjustments to confirm the separation sequence for despatch of the habitat, lab, and power supply units to the surface. Separation of the descent/ascent vehicle from Copernicus would be addressed following successful landing of those units. The coded part read, ‘I get it’.

  He concluded the message verbally with the assumption that gravity would be switched off in twelve hours and remain off until the return to Earth. “I trust this will allow you to complete your Optics replacement. It looks like we may have found a way for Beijing to monitor the sealant situation if Veltrano can make some adjustments in the time before separation. We will send through the list and procedural backup as soon as possible.”

  ********

  Magnusson figured that every hour which elapsed would box them further into an orbit and landing sequence with a renegade crew member who may be in a position to prejudice the mission, and their lives. He decided he had to take a gamble to narrow down the suspects, as Xiang’s position in Beijing was encumbered by a similar problem, and they could not unravel the saboteurs on their own in time for him to neutralise the culprit aboard Copernicus. It was a gamble but he considered the recent behaviour of Veltrano to be indicative of innocence, and he could not have said that a few weeks ago.

  “Veltrano, we know there is a rogue crew member, but why did you tell me a false tale when your injury was caused by Carvalho?”

  “When you realise your life could be in real danger you re-evaluate your priorities. I had intended to report him but he was working hard to protect us. I was obviously shaken by the deliberate disconnection of the optics, and this underpins the need for me to make you aware of something Commander. Part of my initial brief was to keep a close watch on adherence to protocol and any crew wobbles, morale and mental condition. I have a direct communication link to Beijing Intelligence which has a similar watching brief on Mission Control. I have reported a couple of events, nothing serious. However as I’m aware that Intelligence is alert for other aspects such as terrorism and financial gain in the form of intellectual information value, I’m alarmed that my contact has either no idea of our saboteur or they are fully aware and instructing their mole. I know this must be sickening for you to hear but it is better that you do know. There’s no point in me apologising for my role, we all have information on a need to know basis in Intelligence. I knew the score…I’ve been in the job long enough to be philosophical about the deception but not the wrong kind of landing on Mars.” This was a lucky break for Magnusson. “What have you told your contact of the sabotage?”

  “Nothing. As I said I’ve had to re-prioritise my ‘loyalty’ if you can accept such honest duplicity. That is why I have discarded my cover.”

  “Then I must test that honest duplicity. I need to know your contact.”

  “Wes Allbright. He’s one of a hierarchy of ‘official mission spies’ – they are all heavyweights, his is the only name I have. Your man Xiang is under increasing scrutiny and has to be careful so as not to invite interference, or worse. He doesn’t know of my brief.” The Commander entertained a silence of considerable duration. “I’ll check out what you have told me.”

  “How?” said Veltrano.

  “That’s not important for now.”

  “Yes, but if you alert them, you will complicate matters to the detrim........”

  “I know,” snapped Magnusson, “you’ll have to trust me on that one, just as I have to buy into your confession. We - you and I - must begin a process of identifying our cuckoo. Let’s begin by pooling our knowledge to try to eliminate any individuals we can, there’s not much time.”

  There wasn’t too much to go on. Magnusson told Veltrano of Natalia’s pod mystery. The Mexican said that it was a start but may not be linked; it might have been related to Banjani’s med stats.

  “How did you know about that?”

  “I’m the Communications Officer and I was able to access the data as well, comparing printouts, and I could see discrepancies made by Dupree.”

  “Did you know that they were picked up by Natalia?”

  “No, I detected no alterations from her laptop. Dupree’s were made direct to the main system. The passwords are ridiculously easy to crack.”

  “What do we find when we look at opportunity without knowing the motive?”

  Veltrano believed that the incidents may have involved different people because there did not seem to be any common effect of the consequences. The med stats meddling started before the mission and had a credible altruistic motive. The pod switch was different insofar as it has until now not shown any altered data. Magnusson wondered how he knew that. The faulty LED had not yet been analysed to determine if it was a routine failure or planned to trigger an investigation which would reveal a mission-compromising problem. The only definite act of sabotage which could be proven right now was the optics disconnection. If the LED failure had been intended to cause panic, it had not accounted for the logical response and subsequent discovery of the more serious problem of the sealant failure. There was also the timing of the latest difficulty – right before the most complex phase of the entire voyage.

  “We’re missing something critical and I believe this sealant scare has the key.”

  “Ok,” agreed Magnusson, “let’s look at opportunity for the discovery of the LED all the way through to the present.”

  Banjani alerted Veltrano who was closest to her, and asked if he would pass the info to Carvalho.
There was no urgency implied. Carvalho was the one who thought through the possible causes before proposing his plan to the Commander. He requested Redgrave’s presence and expertise with the density gauge. They investigated together. Redgrave found the drip and analysed the residue. Veltrano and Carvalho fixed up the optic monitor. The same duo found the sabotage. There was very little opportunity for disconnecting the optics whereas there were many windows for tampering with the LED which prompted the sealant sequence. Veltrano suggested he should examine the original optics feed, back through the relay, to see if he could identify the time of disconnection, then account for everyone’s whereabouts around that period.

  As the signal for preparation of the landing sequence had come through, they had run out of time to work together, and Magnusson asked Veltrano to continue alone while he took up his post to oversee the operation.

  ********

  They were not going to know the identity before the landing attempt. The good news was that Xiang had conclusive information from his simulation experiments of sealant failure, which was corroborated by his independent experts. It was complicated and the Mission Controller felt that detailed discussion should not distract the crew’s concentration from their critical task ahead. Suffice it to say the findings indicated a high probability of the seal remaining uncompromised for the return journey home. The countdown could start. Magnusson had to be vigilant for any unusual signs while retaining his crew’s confidence in his conducting of the orchestra.

 
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