The Nexus Odyssey, p.7Hylton Smith
“I know exactly what you mean. There’s more intimacy in kissing than wham – bam intercourse. Although, I do have to confess, I am ‘one of those women’ who likes uncomplicated sex. I’ve been so focussed in my life on all things career that I found ‘deep and meaningful’ got in the way. Yearnings needed to be addressed and I found that passion could be a temporary substitute for building relationships. If I found a man really attractive and his desire to have me was setting off alarms I could truly climax several times. This was not possible with Mali, yet I loved him. I don’t think our prayers will be answered on Mars. You have already discounted one admirer and I don’t have any!”
“Hope springs eternal Indira, let’s at least put this algae stuff to bed.”
Redgrave scratched his head. The message read – ‘Please retrieve sample 24d and re-test. Could you on this occasion hold up the printer trace up to the camera, as well as sending the numbers? We have noted some change in our retained portion since we first tested it together, and then split the sample. We need to know if you have picked up the same change or whether yours has remained unaltered in the inert atmosphere of the lab unit on the journey. Sorry about this Alex, but the only other explanation we can entertain at the moment is that one of our lab team has managed to inadvertently mislabel the sample. As you are aware 24a, b, c and d are shades of the same grey. Please give this priority and inform Magnusson. Apologies. Ayrton de Santos.’
This was obviously designed to give Magnusson valid status in Redgrave’s mind to take a closer interest in his work. Redgrave found this extra chore annoying when he was poised to collect his first Martian samples. Magnusson employed his psychology chip and said, “I don’t see why Beijing’s cock-up should rain on our parade. Go get yourself a couple of rocks and then do what they asked.” Redgrave smiled and thanked the Commander. He rejoined Veltrano and Carvalho. The gesture ‘added innocence’ to the exercise. Magnusson took the Rover back to what they now referred to as Marineris Central. The drill site took on the spookier mantle of Pandora’s Rift.
Having finished the drill setup programme, Carvalho gave Redgrave the go ahead to cycle through the test run procedure and then Veltrano would finalise the comm. link between control and drillbot. This allowed Carvalho to start something he was really looking forward to, modifying the robots to each carry two people. This would give the busy crew three runabouts for the steadily increasing number of tasks planned for the coming months. He was making good progress with the foldaway arms when he caught a glimpse of Veltrano remonstrating with Redgrave. He had temporarily switched himself out of the conversation loop to concentrate on the robots.
“What is going on?” he muttered as he rejoined them.
“I’m sorry,” said Redgrave, “now can we get on with it?”
Veltrano turned in frustration to Carvalho. “He almost went over the edge because he was eager to see the drillbot descending, but he hadn’t harnessed himself to the frame as I had told him to do several times.”
“He’s right Alex, I could have finished these robot modifications in half the time by ignoring protocol, but I need to be here tomorrow to do something else of equal importance. We need you to accomplish one of the most important parts of the mission.”
“OK Daniel, I know he’s right, it was silly. But Jesus, he has been going on about it incessantly and threatening to report any further infantile behaviour to the Commander. I mean, give me a break. This is like my honeymoon, climbing Everest and scoring the winning goal in the Cup Final all rolled into one. I got excited, excuse me.”
They all looked at one another in silence and then burst out laughing. They picked up where they had left off and with Redgrave now secured, he dropped the drillbot on to a beautiful turquoise ledge at what looked like one fifth of the way down. The various colours were now glinting as if they were flashing messages to some far away receiver. The sun was streaming its light along the line of the chasm and it was even more mind-boggling than their first sight of its splendour. The recovered crystal was safely labelled and Redgrave decided to go deeper. There was a vein of red which he could not resist. The drillbot took much longer to prise a sample from the mother lode but it was worth the effort. The red was swirled with orange, and a greyish-white speckled the inner cut surface, but not the exposed face of the crystal. They were interrupted by Magnusson’s voice. “We have retrieved the magnetic boots from storage and we’re losing light now. You guys should be heading back.”
Carvalho answered, “Another ten minutes and we can all come back with ‘our own wheels’, how about that?”
“Fantastic, but take your time when driving, spacing yourselves out might reduce dust interference.” So it proved and the returning crew parked the vehicles in a queue next to the charging bay. When they were all together again Magnusson declared that they should all prepare messages for folks back home. Beijing had been alerted. As they dispersed to prepare their transmission drafts Veltrano told Magnusson he had to ‘fix’ Redgrave’s contact routing and he needed the Commander to ensure he was kept occupied. As Veltrano himself needed no personal transmission other than to Allbright, it would make sense if Redgrave was last and Veltrano preceded him. Magnusson spoke to Redgrave and expressed interest in the sparklers he had acquired, so it was not perceived as a problem when the message order was read out. Redgrave was bubbling with desire to get on with analysing the crystals, but Magnusson reminded him of the Beijing sample 24d request. Redgrave hung his head in mock schoolboy pique and Magnusson chuckled as he thought, ‘could this guy really be a saboteur’?
Magnusson decided he would send his personal transmission first and finish off the session with his operational report. In between he called on Redgrave to check the status of the re-test on 24d. Redgrave retrieved the original data he had sent to Beijing for this sample. He said that the repeat came out identical, so the Commander took both traces with the numbers and said he would include them in his overall summary to Xiang. “Hopefully that means the problem is at their end and we can now get on with our job, keep me updated on the crystals.”
Jack Northgrave had initially struggled to gather any relevant information on Redgrave. One of his people had obtained the birth certificate copy initially presented to the Beijing selection processing unit, and discovered a slight difference when comparing it with an original obtained from the UK. There was a spelling error in the hospital name where the birth was induced for an emergency caesarean operation. A handwritten ‘ch’ had been mistaken by the copier for a ‘ck’. An easily understood error if you did not know anything about UK hospitals. It was a long shot but on checking the hospital records it was discovered that a baby named Alexander Patrick Redgrave had only survived for three weeks, and a copy of the death certificate was supplied. So who was on Mars?
It would be necessary to obtain something from the personal possessions of the impostor as a new starting point. Xiang obtained clearance to inspect the training village apartments where they spent their last weeks prior to the mission. If this proved unfruitful, they would have to resort to snooping on Mars with its accompanying risk of alerting Redgrave.
When Ayrton de Santos received the transmission of the repeat testing of sample 24d he was alongside Xiang and Allbright. His request for the re-test had contained a statement which Redgrave should have known was false. There never was any sample 24d. An error had been made at the Beijing lab in preparing the test sheets to be completed by both parties in the correlation. A box was marked 24d and it had been noted that Redgrave’s returns included a result for such a sample. At first they merely thought that with over a hundred samples to test and the misfiring of the NMR, he had simply and innocently figured he had somehow lost one. He knew that the ‘other three’ in series 24 were virtually identical so it was no big deal in terms of correlation accuracy. Now that he had been given the chance to come clean, he repeated the deception by supplying another test run on one of
When the traces were examined the Earth time and date seemed as if they were deliberately obscured. The final damning point was that series 24 should have shown some difference with time, as it was part of a study of biomass breakdown efficiency of waste. This was for future treatment facilities on Mars. Beijing needed to know the effect of zero gravity space storage. Redgrave had no knowledge of this. When Magnusson was asked to check the true date/time of the traces and if sample 24c was there, he confirmed both traces had the same chronology marking and 24c was not present. Close examination of 23d looked as if the labelling had been altered. Nobody could think why he would continue with an apparently meaningless charade.
However as the NMR was not involved in this part of the correlation, it fostered suspicion that there must be some connection with his reporting a fault with this particular equipment and his agenda.
Around the centre table of the Habitat, Dupree, Banjani and Natalia were mulling over whether they could call it a day on the algae trays. Dupree disappointed the others by airing an idea. “It was not in the directive but maybe we should consider taking soil from some way under the surface as well as selected topsoil from various locations. On Earth there is a lot of difference between the surface and a metre down.”
“Yeah right,” moaned Natalia, “how do we get down that far while we are in suits? Apart from the hazard of compromising our life support with an accidental puncture, we don’t have suitable tools to tackle compacted sub surface aggregate. Anyway if......”
Banjani jumped in, “What about Alex’s drillbot?”
“That’s it, we only need small amounts for lab size experiments,” enthused Dupree, “come on Natalia we can use our medical knowledge to good use here, with the help of Alex and the agreement of the boss.”
Natalia wearily agreed and Dupree shuffled off to see Magnusson. When they were alone Banjani said, “It could be rewarding, because it is going to get boring if we don’t have a hobby of some kind. It will also justify my massages instead of being a mere indulgence.” Waves of alternate interpretation of such a suggestive comment percolated in Natalia’s imagination. “I think we’ll both need restorative therapy if the Commander buys Pascal’s brainchild.”
There was little evidence of Redgrave’s existence at the apartment block, never mind incriminating proof of any ‘alias activity’. The frustration was building when Northgrave asked the obvious question. “Where did the astronauts deposit their personal stuff that needed protection? I mean things they could not take with them but required a safe haven, like passports, bank account data, insurance documentation, last will and testament etc.”
“At the vaults in the basement of this building,” whispered Xiang.
“Who has authorisation for inspection?” asked Allbright.
“Well,” replied Xiang, “there are various contingency provisions but mostly related to the mission status. The individuals can give permission but they would need to know why.” Allbright terminated the discussion with a nod and disappeared with Northgave. “I’ll get Magnusson’s permission to get into the main vault for his stuff, as a decoy, you have to get into Redgrave’s box. We can’t risk exposing any crucial information to others at this stage.”
The next few days went by slowly. The Martian day was only thirty seven minutes longer than its Earth equivalent, although a year comprised 687 Earth days, meaning that there would in theory be little variation in the one Earth year stay. Redgrave had now assembled many collectibles in the holding bays at Pandora’s Rift. About half had been relabelled and transferred to the lab. He was to take a break from drilling and analyse some of the samples. Magnusson had approved Dupree’s request to fit in with Redgrave’s time in the lab, and with the proviso that Carvalho was with them to provide operating help and ensure safety procedures were understood. They were only to drill within a distance from the Rift that did not require moving of the control setup.
The analytical lab equipment included –
ED (Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy) for determination of elemental distribution.
FTIR (Fourier Transfer Infrared Spectroscopy) for determination of chemical bonding.
GDS (Glow Discharge Spectrometry) for determination of trace elements in solid materials.
NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy) significantly to provide an invaluable tool in finding, understanding the structure, and function of proteins and nucleic acids. This technique could work with both solution and solid samples.
The array of techniques was far greater back in Beijing as was the expertise backup. This team was standing by for in-feed of Redgrave’s data with staggering computer power to run any permutation or combination of results. This aptly named ‘Dreadnought’ had predictive modelling capabilities for subatomic, molecular, and complex structural reaction potential on an unprecedented scale. The personnel charged with feeding the monster, interpretation and subsequent recommendation of further investigations, were simply unparalleled in their respective fields. They would debate and agree priorities for Redgrave to follow. The weak link in all of this of course was that they could only act on whatever they were sent.
The range of goodies laid out in front of Redgrave was mouth-watering. For him this moment was as significant as touchdown. He was not sensitive to a roster of assistance. Everyone was running on adrenaline at the prospect of finding things that were familiar on Terra – water, building blocks for life, or even evidence of fossilised life itself. The anticipation extended to things that were not familiar on Earth – certain heavy elements occurring naturally, and not least of all the kind of unknown that could not be imagined.
First up to help was Natalia as she had some knowledge of chemistry and analytical techniques. This meant that there was only Banjani available for Dupree’s drilling diversion.
Redgrave was a little unhappy at the overriding directive to find water and the way the sample testing priority was so slavishly skewed to that end. He would generally adhere to this requirement but he would also pick out some goodies and decide on a results basis when to pass them on to Beijing. He knew that once they had sufficient data to play with they would totally take over the testing schedule. The boffins had picked out pink deposits from unmanned reconnaissance missions as a possible example of hydrothermal alterations; they could be crystalline ferric oxides. Did they have accessible water of crystallisation which could be sequestered? Deeper samples had a chance of being briny deposits if the theory about Valle Marineris being an ancient lake bed was valid.
Redgrave duly despatched the results when he decided when they were available. Beijing would consider further tests and whether the particular sample should be packaged in highly technically secure containers for the return journey. Most of the samples already in the lab had been there for 4-5 days while Redgrave had been collecting and cataloguing further interesting candidates at Pandora’s Rift. It was Natalia who noticed Redgrave’s very first prized red crystals had developed a ‘dusty’ surface. Redgrave said this was typical of a crystalline material turning to an amorphous form, but he was puzzled that it should occur under these conditions. He decided to cut some of the crystals to expose another surface, and he observed that the grey white content on the new cut surface was much higher than the original when it was prised from the chasm. He asked Natalia to make notes of all this and decided this one had to jump the queue, even if he did not send the results forward just yet.
During preparation of the material for testing he was distracted again by Natalia. She claimed that the amorphous content was not static, it was leaving the crystal and there was a spearhead in the direction of the container closure mechanism. He looked at her and smiled. “It must be the vibration of all the equipment running simultaneously.”
“Oh, I am sorry Alex, what a dummy. Please don’t tell the others.”
Carvalho drove the Rover to the Rift. Banjani could not resist commenting that it was good to see he had eventually backed off with his tacky pursuit of Natalia. “Yes, I am not proud of that stuff. I will make it up to her rather than simply apologise.” Dupree gently rebuked Banjani by declaring that we could all behave strangely under the stressful weight of expectation in a venture like this. “I confess I am constantly struggling to find the balance between being a doctor and a crew member.” He stared at her. She quickly realised he was referring to his actions to keep her in the crew. “That was a bit over the top Daniel, I’m sorry. It’s just so good to have relaxing banter with everyone again, would it be OK to say welcome back?”
“Phew, it is a relief to hear you say that, otherwise I might have had to hit on you.” He winked as he brought the Rover to a halt. Banjani chuckled as she retorted, “Deuce.” They began the search for a promising location before setting up the drill.
The assembly of experts waiting for the first influx of results was primarily European. Charles Cameron, a phlegmatic Scot had seniority in age. Lydia van Leeuwen was a hugely respected Dutch Nobel prize winner. Hans F Mueller, a Viennese resident completed the Northern Hemisphere representation. Ivan Maric was an Australian born Croat with somewhat unconventional theories to his name. It would have been difficult to choose a group with more spread of characteristics, such as open mindedness, respect for consensus of peers, and a truly introspective consideration of how their own ego would or could influence this historic milestone. Open mindedness or objectivity was sometimes argued by their own fraternity as a cover up for not really seeing the ‘proof’.
The Nexus Odyssey by Hylton Smith / Science Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes