“Your trouble, Dr. Morgan,” said the man in the wheelchair, “is that you're on the wrong planet.”
“I can't help thinking,” retorted Morgan, looking pointedly at his visitor's life-support system, “that much the same may be said of you.”
The Vice-President (Investments) of Narodny Mars gave an appreciative chuckle.
“At least I'm here only for a week – then it's back to the Moon, and a civilised gravity. Oh, I can walk if I really have to: but I prefer otherwise.”
“If I may ask, why do you come to Earth at all?”
“I do so as little as possible, but sometimes one has to be on the spot. Contrary to general belief; you can't do everything by remotes. I'm sure you are aware of that.”
Morgan nodded; it was true enough. He thought of all the times when the texture of some material, the feel of rock or soil underfoot, the smell of a jungle, the sting of spray upon his face, had played a vital role in one of his projects. Some day, perhaps even these sensations could be transferred by electronics-indeed, it had already been done so crudely, on an experimental basis, and at enormous cost. But there was no substitute for reality; one should beware of imitations.
“If you've visited Earth especially to meet me,” Morgan replied, “I appreciate the honour. But if you're offering me a job on Mars, you're wasting your time. I'm enjoying my retirement, meeting friends and relatives I haven't seen for years, and I've no intention of starting a new career.”
“I find that surprising; after all, you're only 52. How do you propose to occupy your time?”
“Easily. I could spend the rest of my life on any one of a dozen projects. The ancient engineers – the Romans, the Greeks, the Incas – they've always fascinated me, and I've never had time to study them. I've been asked to write and deliver a Global University course on design science. There's a text-book I'm commissioned to write on advanced structures. I want to develop some ideas about the use of active elements to correct dynamic loads – winds, earthquakes, and so forth – I'm still consultant for General Tectonics. And I'm preparing a report on the administration of TCC.”
“At whose request? Not, I take it, Senator Collins'?”
“No,” said Morgan, with a grim smile. “I thought it would be – useful. And it helps to relieve my feelings.”
“I'm sure of it. But all these activities aren't really creative. Sooner or later they'll pall – like this beautiful Norwegian scenery. You'll grow tired of looking at lakes and fir trees, just as you'll grow tired of writing and talking. You are the sort of man who will never be really happy, Dr. Morgan, unless you are shaping your universe.”
Morgan did not reply. The prognosis was much too accurate for comfort.
“I suspect that you agree with me. What would you say if I told you that my Bank was seriously interested in the space elevator project?”
“I'd be sceptical. When I approached them, they said it was a fine idea, but they couldn't put any money into it at this stage. All available funds were needed for the development of Mars. It's the old story – we'll be glad to help you, when you don't need any help.”
“That was a year ago; now there have been some second thoughts. We'd like you to build the space elevator – but not on Earth. On Mars. Are you interested?”
“I might be. Go on.”
“Look at the advantages. Only a third of the gravity, so the forces involved are correspondingly smaller. The synchronous orbit is also closer – less than half the altitude here. So at the very start, the engineering problems are enormously reduced. Our people estimate that the Mars system would cost less than a tenth of the Terran one.”
“That's quite possible, though I'd have to check it.”
“And that's just the beginning. We have some fierce gales on Mars, despite our thin atmosphere – but mountains that get completely above them. Your Sri Kanda is only five kilometres high. We have Mons Pavonis – twenty-one kilometres, and exactly on the equator! Better still, there are no Martian monks with long-term leases sitting on the summit… And there's one other reason why Mars might have been designed for a space elevator. Deimos is only three thousand kilometres above the stationary orbit. So we already have a couple of million megatons sitting in exactly the right place for the anchor.”
“That will present some interesting problems in synchronisation, but I see what you mean. I'd like to meet the people who worked all this out.”
“You can't, in real time. They're all on Mars. You'll have to go there.”
“I'm tempted, but I still have a few other questions.”
“Earth must have the elevator, for all the reasons you doubtless know. But it seems to me that Mars could manage without it. You have only a fraction of our space traffic, and a much smaller projected growth rate. Frankly, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to me.”
“I was wondering when you'd ask.”
“Well, I'm asking.”
“Have you heard of Project Eos?”
“I don't think so.”
“Eos – Greek for Dawn – the plan to rejuvenate Mars.”
“Oh, of course I know about that. It involves melting the polar caps, doesn't it?”
“Exactly. If we could thaw out all that water and CO2 ice, several things would happen. The atmospheric density would increase until men could work in the open without spacesuits; at a later stage, the air might even be made breathable. There would be running water, small seas – and, above all, vegetation – the beginnings of a carefully planned biota. In a couple of centuries, Mars could be another Garden of Eden. It's the only planet in the solar system we can transform with known technology: Venus may always be too hot.”
“And where does the elevator come into this?”
“We have to lift several million tons of equipment into orbit. The only practical way to heat up Mars is by solar mirrors, hundreds of kilometres across. And we'll need them permanently – first to melt the ice-caps, and later to maintain a comfortable temperature.”
“Couldn't you get all this material from your asteroid mines?”
“Some of it, of course. But the best mirrors for the job are made of sodium, and that's rare in space. We'll have to get it from the Tharsis salt-beds – right by the foothills of Pavonis, luckily enough.”
“And how long will all this take?”
“If there are no problems, the first stage could be complete in fifty years. Maybe by your hundredth birthday, which the actuaries say you have a thirty-nine percent chance of seeing.”
“I admire people who do a thorough job of research.”
“We wouldn't survive on Mars unless we paid attention to detail.”
“Well, I'm favourably impressed, though I still have a great many reservations. The financing, for example -”
“That's my job, Dr. Morgan. I'm the banker. You're the engineer.”
“Correct, but you seem to know a good deal about engineering, and I've had to learn a lot of economics – often the hard way. Before I'd even consider getting involved in such a project, I should want a detailed budget breakdown -”
“Which can be provided -”
“– and that would just be the start. You may not realise that there's still a vast amount of research involved in half-a-dozen fields – mass production of the hyperfilament material, stability and control problems – I could go on all night.”
“That won't be necessary; our engineers have read all your reports. What they are proposing is a small-scale experiment that will settle many of the technical problems, and prove that the principle is sound -”
“There's no doubt about that.”
“I agree, but it's amazing what a difference a little practical demonstration can make. So this is what we would like you to do. Design the minimum possible system – just a wire with a payload of a few kilogrammes. Lower it from synchronous orbit to Earth – yes, Earth. If it works here, it will be easy on Mars. Then run some thing up it just to show that rockets are obsolete. The experiment will be relatively cheap, it will provide essential information and basic training – and, from our point of view, it will save years of argument. We can go to the Government of Earth, the Solar Fund, the other interplanetary banks – and just point to the demonstration.”
“You really have worked all this out. When would you like my answer?”
“To be honest, in about five seconds. But obviously, there's nothing urgent about the matter. Take as long as seems reasonable.”
“Very well. Give me your design studies, cost analyses, and all the other material you have. Once I've been through them, I'll let you have my decision in – oh, a week at the most.”
“Thank you. Here's my number. You can get me at any time.”
Morgan slipped the banker's ident card into the memory slot of his communicator and checked the ENTRY CONFIRMED on the visual display. Before he had returned the card, he had already made up his mind. Unless there was a fundamental flaw in the Martian analysis – and he would bet a large sum that it was sound – his retirement was over. He had often noted, with some amusement, that whereas he frequently thought long and hard over relatively trivial decisions, he had never hesitated for a moment at the major turning-points of his career. He had always known what to do, and had seldom been wrong.
And yet, at this stage in the game, it was better not to invest too much intellectual or emotional capital into a project that might still come to nothing. After the banker had rolled out on the first stage of his journey back to Port Tranquillity, via Oslo and Gagarin, Morgan found it impossible to settle down to any of the activities he had planned for the long northern evening; his mind was in a turmoil, scanning the whole spectrum of suddenly changed futures.
After a few minutes of restless pacing, he sat down at his desk and began to list priorities in a kind of reverse order, starting with the commitments he could most easily shed. Before long, however, he found it impossible to concentrate on such routine matters. Far down in the depths of his mind something was nagging at him, trying to attract his attention. When he tried to focus upon it, it promptly eluded him, like a familiar but momentarily forgotten word.
With a sigh of frustration Morgan pushed himself away from the desk, and walked out on to the verandah running along the western face of the hotel. Though it was very cold, the air was quite still and the sub-zero temperature was more of a stimulus than a discomfort. The sky was a blaze of stars, and a yellow crescent moon was sinking down towards its reflection in the fjord, whose surface was so dark and motionless that it might have been a sheet of polished ebony.
Thirty years ago he had stood at almost this same spot, with a girl whose very appearance he could no longer clearly recall. They had both been celebrating their first degrees, and that had been really all they had in common. It had not been a serious affair; they were young, and enjoyed each other's company – and that had been enough. Yet somehow that fading memory had brought him back to Trollshavn Fjord at this crucial moment of his life. What would the young student of twenty-two have thought, could he have known how his footsteps would lead him back to this place of remembered pleasures, three decades in his future?
There was scarcely a trace of nostalgia or self-pity in Morgan's reverie-only a kind of wistful amusement. He had never for an instant regretted the fact that he and Ingrid had separated amicably, without even considering the usual one-year trial contract. She had gone on to make three other men moderately miserable before finding herself a job with the Lunar Commission, and Morgan had lost track of her. Perhaps, even now, she was up there on that shining crescent, whose colour almost matched her golden hair.
So much for the past. Morgan turned his thoughts to the future. Where was Mars? He was ashamed to admit that he did not even know if it was visible tonight. As he ran his eye along the path of the ecliptic, from the Moon to the dazzling beacon of Venus and beyond, he saw nothing in all that jewelled profusion that he could certainly identify with the red planet. It was exciting to think that in the not-too-distant future he – who had never even travelled beyond lunar orbit! – might be looking with his own eyes at those magnificent crimson landscapes, and watching the tiny moons pass swiftly through their phases.
In that moment the dream collapsed. Morgan stood for a moment paralysed, then dashed back into the hotel, forgetting the splendour of the night.
There was no general purpose console in his room, so he had to go down to the lobby to get the information he required. As luck would have it, the cubicle was occupied by an old lady who took so long to find what she wanted that Morgan almost pounded on the door. But at last the sluggard left with a mumbled apology, and Morgan was face to face with the accumulated art and knowledge of all mankind.
In his student days, he had won several retrieval championships, racing against the clock while digging out obscure items of information on lists prepared by ingeniously sadistic judges. ("What was the rainfall in the capital of the world's smallest national state on the day when the second largest number of home runs was scored in college baseball?" was one that he recalled with particular affection.) His skill had improved with years, and this was a perfectly straightforward question. The display came up in thirty seconds, in far more detail than he really needed.
Morgan studied the screen for a minute, then shook his head in baffled amazement.
“They couldn't possibly have overlooked that!” he muttered. “But what can they do about it?”
Morgan pressed the HARD COPY button, and carried the thin sheet of paper back to his room for more detailed study. The problem was so stunningly, appallingly obvious that he wondered if he had overlooked some equally obvious solution and would be making a fool of himself if he raised the matter. Yet there was no possible escape…
He looked at his watch: already after midnight. But this was something he had to settle at once.
To Morgan's relief, the banker had not pressed his DON'T DISTURB button. He replied immediately, sounding a little surprised.
“I hope I didn't wake you up,” said Morgan, not very sincerely.
“No – we're just about to land at Gagarin. What's the problem?”
“About ten teratons, moving at two kilometres a second. The inner moon, Phobos. It's a cosmic bulldozer, going past the elevator every eleven hours. I've not worked out the exact probabilities, but a collision is inevitable every few days.”
There was silence for a long time from the other end of the circuit. Then the banker said: “I could have thought of that. So obviously, someone has the answer. Perhaps we'll have to move Phobos.”
“Impossible: the mass is far too great.”
“I'll have to call Mars. The time delay's twelve minutes at the moment. I should have some sort of answer within the hour.”
I hope so, Morgan told himself. And it had better be good… that is, if I really want this job.