The nexus odyssey, p.6
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       The Nexus Odyssey, p.6
 

           Hylton Smith

  Chapter 13

  Magnusson had briefly considered telling the crew of the sabotage event before the landing, to let them know that there was a mole of some kind in their midst, and more significantly to confirm to the mole that he was on the case. He decided against this as the separation and landing sequence not only required zero gravity, but all personnel had to be strapped into their seats in the command section. With everyone in the same location and the various sections landing prior to orbit insertion of the Copernicus, and undocking of the descent module, he felt this was a better gamble. Before taking his seat, Veltrano passed the Commander a message stating that he could only pin down the loss of optic feed to a period of approximately three minutes and at a time which made it difficult to account for everyone’s whereabouts.

  Only three of them were ‘hands-on’ in the sequence - Magnusson himself, Banjani and Carvalho. Veltrano could keep an eye on the others. The Lander went first, followed quickly by the Habitat section. The pre-programmed interval and burn control were crucial, not only for atmosphere entry and velocity deceleration gradient, but the ultimate proximity of the landed sections. The Lander had automatic cable laying robots to connect to the Habitat, but only a finite length of power cable they could rollout. There was extra cable in the Habitat storage, but again this was limited by bulk and weight. After what seemed like an interminable descent watched by cameras in the command module, and the inevitable agonising settling of the dust clouds generated by the thrusters - the visuals confirmed the telemetry - the hypercones had done their job and phase 1 was successful. Magnusson was relieved and cast a glance toward Veltrano which was reciprocated as if to say ‘two down, two to go’. Fortunately there was not much time to dwell on the first achievement, before they had to address orbit insertion, which was a theoretically more proven exercise than the one just completed.

  The burn however required extreme precision and was effectively in the hands of the instrumentation. Knowledge of the false fuel leak raised concerns of different kinds in the minds of the crew. It went without a hitch and Magnusson could announce to Beijing that Mars Capture had been achieved. There was the expected euphoric reaction at Mission Control; their mapping system indicated this event before they heard Magnusson’s words. On board Copernicus, the sense of relief was more dominant. Preparation for separation of the Descent/Ascent vehicle now loomed and with it the importance of landing at the prescribed co-ordinates, as close as they could to the optimum distance between the drilling area and the Habitat.

  The feverish obsession with this final phase helped blank out the unknown true efficiency of the hypercone technology. They could not know yet if any of the already landed units had suffered damage. Concentration levels were so high that few words were exchanged, save the necessary confirmation at each parameter check that it was ‘on target value’. The deployment of the hypercone was, however, more severe in terms of perceived braking than any of the simulations on Earth. Temporary fear of the outcome gripped those who were not engaged in continual monitoring of the plethora of data from the control displays. Then it was over and the subsonic parachute warning told them the most risky phase was accomplished. The remainder of the descent was fittingly gentle and before the obligatory dust cloud had settled, there were tears mixed with sheer elation and humility at being the first of our species to truly visit another planet. Not just a proclamation by flag; a temporary home, a new frontier.

  The first step on to the red soil was traditionally the honour of the skipper but he insisted that they form a chain by hand-holding as they descended the steps from the Descent vehicle. They were in a crater about 7 km in diameter and it was difficult to spot the Lander or Habitat in such a monochrome planetary indentation with rising extremities. It didn’t really matter as Carvalho activated the robots remotely and the dust trail gave away the location. The distance between the Lander and Habitat would soon be evident as the robot seeking software led them to their target. It turned out to be a short trip but not quite as short as Natalia thought. “The distance is deceptive from here,” said Carvalho, “the time taken and velocity tell me it is about 0.8 km.”

  Just then Magnusson received an alert that a message had been received from Earth. He instructed the others to divide the tasks of ensuring the power was connected to the Habitat and employing the Rover from the Lander to load up cargo from the Descent vehicle for transfer to the Habitat. The cargo and supplies from the Lander could come next.

  ********

  The message was not from Xiang. He introduced himself as Allbright. The cam was then panned to show Xiang sitting adjacent.

  “Commander Magnusson…the reason for my presence will become self-evident when Xiang updates you. He will continue to be your reference point on all operational matters of the mission. There may be other requirements of communication and to that purpose, please get Veltrano to make contact with me as soon as possible. I will now pass you to the Mission Controller.”

  Xiang went directly to the sealant research. “I am sorry to tell you that we have irrefutable proof that none of the components of the partitioning, either singly or in combination with one another, could possibly affect the cure process of the polymer. We can only conclude that there is no such degradation. If that is correct, then, as I said before landing, you should not encounter any problem relating to the false prognosis on your ascent for the homeward journey. This leaves us with the probability that Redgrave has for some reason created a bogus situation which implies danger rather than the existence of real danger. We are advised by Intelligence that this kind of thing is not new to them, and they will handle that side of things from now on. Wes Allbright will brief Veltrano separately and he will work with you on this. It is not planned to alert Redgrave that we are cognizant of any of this. However, he must be observed and directed very carefully by Veltrano and yourself, no one else is to know until you hear to the contrary. Regular reports of your observations will be valuable to us. We don’t know how long it will take to run to ground any connections he may have back here. One last thing on this, which I hardly need to say, if he becomes a serious threat to the rest of you – then you must take whatever steps you deem necessary. Veltrano will be issued with the same responsibility. I’m obviously appalled to give you such wretched news at a time when the population at large celebrates your first step to ensure mankind has an alternative future to contemplate. This euphoria they enjoy is supposedly rooted in unprecedented uniformity of objectives to preserve this planet. I’ll expect your response within one Martian day Commander.”

  ********

  A pensive moment helped Magnusson to skip telling Beijing that he was already aware of Veltrano’s situation. That could have complicated unfolding events, and they needed to be in every loop on the rest of the mission. He digested the implications of this revelation and sought out Veltrano. “I knew there was something we missed,” whispered the Mexican.

  “Sorry, what are you referring to?” replied Magnusson.

  “The NMR equipment was faulty; it consumed excess energy. Carvalho convinced you that it was a minimal consideration. We can’t be certain that the equipment is properly correlated. Maybe this is a campaign to cause worry and loss of confidence in the mission rather than be seen to openly jeopardise it. I’ll make my contact with Allbright and get back to you Commander.”

  ********

  Allbright had his sidekick in operation now. Xiang’s findings had given him the legitimacy to intervene and bypass Koppelt. Jack Northgrave would now be assigned to get everything known about Redgrave into their analytical division, and attempt to quantify any remaining risk to the mission, and just as critical, any underlying agenda.

  Allbright’s contact came and Veltrano conveyed the suspicion of equipment correlation corruption, which he and Magnusson would like Xiang to investigate, via a decoy request from Beijing direct to Redgrave. Allbright told Veltrano to divert all transmissions from Redgrave to himself so that it could all be evalu
ated before passing it on to its intended receiver. Veltrano assured him he could probably do this if he could get Magnusson to pin Redgrave to a personnel session of up to an hour.

  Chapter 14

  The extra power cable was transferred from the Habitat to the spare space in the Lander now that the robots and Rover were out. It had become a valuable resource especially with the task of unhinging the lab section from the ascent module, and robotic transfer to cabling distance from the Lander. It would also be locked inside and the only keys would reside with Magnusson and Veltrano. The power generators in the Lander were to be fitted with access codes to the controls, the codes themselves known only to Carvalho and Magnusson.

  With the Habitat, Lab and Power supply all operating to specification attention was focussed on the exploration and drilling programme. The site was a ‘safe’ distance but reasonably close to West Candor Chasm. The Rover was to work in tandem with the Robots to clear the area of loose rocks and mark out sifting bays to avoid clutter and unlabelled samples finding their way into the Lab, which was now a Rover journey from the drill site.

  ********

  Allbright was in ‘full on’ mode at last. He briefed his own team on Veltrano’s concern about lab equipment correlation. Toshihiko Taniguchi offered another possible motive for the ‘alleged’ misfiring of the NMR unit. “As the fault was registered early in the mission it could be a planned precedent and if repeated in the actual sample analysis nobody would question the validity of the claim. An intermittent fault is convenient to cover many possibilities. Failure, unexpected values, bogus results, disagreements over accuracy and affecting the confidence in the mission, are all able to be manipulated, especially as he alone has all of the Martian samples.”

  Allbright called Xiang into the meeting and exposed Veltrano’s concern and request to somehow construct a correlation trap for Redgrave. Xiang nodded and expressed agreement with Taniguchi’s line of reasoning. As he was about to leave Allbright checked his exit by asking if he was totally confident in his own specialists working with Redgrave. “I’m not disputing their expertise, but I can’t discount the possibility of an accomplice. We will refer to the original screening and run our own. Don’t worry…no one will know unless we unearth a problem - sorry about the pun - and you will be first to hear.”

  Xiang could not dispute any of this; nevertheless he was beginning to feel increasingly out of his depth. Allbright also had a conundrum insofar as his remit clearly stated his duty of care to the Confederation of Nations on all matters of mission security. His experience however told him that premature claims and involvement of politicians was extremely dangerous. He was also sensitive to the probability that any remotely competent organisation behind this subversion could be banking on this.

  ********

  The Habitat offered a little more space and privacy than the living quarters of the main spacecraft. This was a happy marriage of necessity and psychology. After months of living in an ant’s nest, and the building tension of the landing sequence the more interesting, comfortable and sanitised phase promised a feel-good factor. Natalia was secretly hoping for an early massage request. Dupree would have more potentially meaningful checks to perform, maybe even the odd bruise or scrape. Banjani was excited by the exploratory capabilities of the Rover and Carvalho had some toys to maintain with his robot buddies. Magnusson and Veltrano had their distraction of the simmering investigation on Mars and Terra. Redgrave visually exuded an air of destiny. This was his time of centre stage and he was determined not to let it shrink to an Andy Warhol moment.

  When they all arrived at the edge of West Candor Chasm it could only be described as a collectively stupefying experience. The scale and beauty of topography, diffuse light, and colour was beyond belief, especially when set in its context of unchanging monochrome.

  Photographs were never going to do justice to this utterly breathtaking vista but they had to be part of the mission, and the intensely personal transference was manifest among friends for the duration of silence that prevailed. No one wanted to be first to pierce the ambience with mere words. Smiles seemed to be appropriately respectful of this wonder, while some thoughts were no doubt meandering towards the age old debate of omnipresence.

  At last Magnusson called for Carvalho, Redgrave and Veltrano to prepare the site for the drilling control units which were to direct the actual drillbot. He told the others to return to the Habitat location and begin to assemble the algae trays. Some were to be kept in the habitat itself, others to be set out in the Martian atmosphere, albeit with hi-tech units to give protection from anticipated dust storms and more importantly intense solar radiation. The integral photo-voltaic panels kept the internal temperature significantly higher than ambient. This in turn would assist condensation after the warmest part of the day. Experiments with increasing levels of the red soil were to be studied to evaluate the sustainability potential of the new world. This was to be done concurrent with soil analysis results from Redgrave. Future oxygen capture from any of these ‘seed pockets’ would be greatly improved if water was discovered. The supply of water for the crew was secured. There was a very limited quantity set aside for nurturing plants. There were plans to recycle urine to produce experimental quantities of liquid stripped of much of its soluble solids content. Nanotechnology had offered breakthrough techniques. Collection of the urine was not expected to be subordinated to privacy or embarrassment, so they employed a similar allocation of hygiene facility as on board Copernicus. Subsequent transfer to the pilot stripping plant in the lab was not the most popular duty. Some of the recovered liquid could be stored outside and conveniently frozen by the Martian climate at night but with the requisite nanoprobes, it could sustain liquidity for many of the planetary days. Chunks could be brought into the Habitat to help those trays flourish. The nanoprobes were developed specifically to dramatically increase the algae’s low temperature resistance, and act like a chemical catalyst to lift the photosynthesis efficiency by a significant order of magnitude (x4-5). Their design was engineered following growth experiments at arid sites, the hot desert in Israel, the cold desert in the Arctic. The real elegance of these nanoprobes however was their ability to exchange moisture content with the surroundings, including microorganisms. Like an organic building society they would lend and borrow moisture from the mini-atmosphere of the trays, triggered by condensate. This was regulated to the photosynthesis cycle and carbon dioxide demand, in plentiful supply from the Martian atmosphere. The exchange mechanism could not be supported indefinitely and the nanoprobes themselves would slowly degrade, but newer versions were being developed on Earth to arrive with Darwin. It was therefore still a massive priority to find Martian water. The second phase of more complex plant life depended heavily on such discovery. Ultimately they would need to construct ‘greenhouse’ facilities to scale up successful specimens if initial oxygen harvesting was ever to become more energy efficient.

  Carvalho was itching to ask Veltrano for an update, but patiently ploughed on with the drilling assembly. Redgrave assisted them until he received a call from Banjani that there was a message for him in the ascent module. She would ask Dupree to come with the Rover and pick him up shortly.

  When Indira and Natalia were alone they began talking about their loved ones at home and what they might be thinking. “My grandparents will be so proud, without really understanding what a tenuous flirtation with oblivion we have come through,” Natalia enthused, “how about you?”

  “My parents will quietly be thinking about their little girl, and now I have done something special they will probably never see me in the same light. That is more than I can say for Mali.”

  Natalia felt the need to tread carefully. “Mali, is that your fiancée?”

  “Was,” admitted Indira, “we parted on bad terms. Oh I’m sure he will think it is recoverable, a little blip, but this was the most important step in my life. We’re both streaked with selfishness, however I know I wouldn’t have react
ed the way he did if the roles were reversed. I could never be happy in such an emotionally confined relationship. They say you have to live with someone to really know them, I guess that’s true.”

  Natalia felt a sudden overwhelming compulsion to hug her friend but fought off the potentially awkward moment and agreed. “I have had exactly the same disappointment with all my relationships with men, some casual, others a little deeper. Maybe we are part of a generation of women who’ve come to demand individual recognition to the point of marginalising ‘family structure’ until or if we become ready. I’ve basically conceded to myself that I’m unlikely to find a man who will value interpersonal feelings with anything like the same rank as I do. They must be out there somewhere, just as the next Einstein will be, and the chances of me snaring one of them are statistically insignificant.”

  Banjani was intrigued by Natalia’s philosophical surrender. She was intelligent, attractive, engaging and oozed strength of character. Perhaps she spent too much time in her self-analysis. “How many men are we talking about?”

  “Err, lots,” was the sheepish reply, “but they never got to the level of intimacy I hoped for.”

  Indira said she did not want to pry but asked, “You never had sex with any of them?”

  “That isn’t what I meant by intimacy, of course I had sex with a couple of them but I hated it because it was devoid of any special feeling or bond. Before you say anything I know there are women who prefer intercourse more when it is casual, spontaneous and not inhibited by straitjackets like monogamy. I sometimes wish that was me, it isn’t. In fact one of the more promising candidates only told me he was gay when, after two dates, we seemed to be heading for the anatomical test drive. He thought I knew but I just could not see it, he was gorgeous too.”

 
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