27. Ashoka Station
How tiny the island looked from this altitude! Thirty-six thousand kilometres below, straddling the equator, Taprobane appeared not much bigger than the moon. The entire country seemed too small a target to hit; yet he was aiming for an area at its centre about the size of a tennis court.
Even now, Morgan was not completely certain of his motives. For the purpose of this demonstration, he could just as easily have operated from Kinte Station and targeted Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya. The fact that Kinte was at one of the most unstable points along the entire stationary orbit, and was always jockeying to remain over Central Africa, would not have mattered for the few days the experiment would last. For a while he had been tempted to aim at Chimborazo; the Americans had even offered, at considerable expense, to move Columbus Station to its precise longitude. But in the end, despite this encouragement, he had returned to his original objective – Sri Kanda.
It was fortunate for Morgan that, in this age of computer-assisted decisions, even a World Court ruling could be obtained in a matter of weeks. The vihara, of course, had protested. Morgan had argued that a brief scientific experiment, conducted on grounds outside the temple premises, and resulting in no noise, pollution or other form of interference, could not possibly constitute a tort. If he was prevented from carrying it out, all his earlier work would be jeopardised, he would have no way of checking his calculations, and a project vital to the Republic of Mars would receive a severe setback.
It was a very plausible argument, and Morgan had believed most of it himself. So had the judges, by five to two. Though they were not supposed to be influenced by such matters, mentioning the litigious Martians was a clever move. The R.o.M. already had three complicated cases in progress, and the Court was slightly tired of establishing precedents in interplanetary law.
But Morgan knew, in the coldly analytical part of his mind, that his action was not dictated by logic alone. He was not a man who accepted defeat gracefully; the gesture of defiance gave him a certain satisfaction. And yet – at a still deeper level – he rejected this petty motivation; such a schoolboy gesture was unworthy of him. What he was really doing was building up his self-assurance, and re-affirming his belief in ultimate success. Though he did not know how, or when, he was proclaiming to the world – and to the stubborn monks within their ancient walls – “I shall return”.
Ashoka Station controlled virtually all communications, meteorology, environmental monitoring and space traffic in the Hindu Cathay region. If it ever ceased to function, a billion lives would be threatened with disaster and, if its services were not quickly restored, death. No wonder that Ashoka had two completely independent sub-satellites, Bhaba and Sarabhai, a hundred kilometres away. Even if some unthinkable catastrophe destroyed all three stations, Kinte and Imhotep to the west or Confucius to the east could take over on an emergency basis. The human race had learned, from harsh experience, not to put all its eggs in one basket.
There were no tourists, vacationers or transit passengers here, so far from Earth; they did their business and sightseeing only a few thousand kilometres out, and left the high geosynchronous orbit to the scientists and engineers – not one of whom had ever visited Ashoka on so unusual a mission, or with such unique equipment.
The key to Operation Gossamer now floated in one of the station's medium-sized docking chambers, awaiting the final check-out before launch. There was nothing very spectacular about it, and its appearance gave no hint of the man-years and the millions that had gone into its development.
The dull grey cone, four metres long and two metres across the base, appeared to be made of solid metal; it required a close examination to reveal the tightly-wound fibre covering the entire surface. Indeed, apart from an internal core, and the strips of plastic interleaving that separated the hundreds of layers, the cone was made of nothing but a tapering hyperfilament thread – forty thousand kilometres of it.
Two obsolete and totally different technologies had been revived for the construction of that unimpressive grey cone. Three hundred years ago, submarine telegraphs had started to operate across the ocean beds; men had lost fortunes before they had mastered the art of coiling thousands of kilometres of cable and playing it out at a steady rate from continent to continent, despite storms and all the other hazards of the sea. Then, just a century later, some of the first primitive guided weapons had been controlled by fine wires spun out as they flew to their targets, at a few hundred kilometres an hour. Morgan was attempting a thousand times the range of those War Museum relics, and fifty times their velocity. However, he had some advantages. His missile would be operating in a perfect vacuum for all but the last hundred kilometres; and its target was not likely to take evasive action.
The Operations Manager, Project Gossamer, attracted Morgan's attention with a slightly embarrassed cough.
“We still have one minor problem, Doctor,” she said. “We're quite confident about the lowering – all the tests and computer simulations are satisfactory, as you've seen. It's reeling the filament in again that has Station Safety worried.”
Morgan blinked rapidly; he had given little thought to the question. It seemed obvious that winding the filament back again was a trivial problem, compared to sending it out. All that was needed, surely, was a simple power-operated winch, with the special modifications needed to handle such a fine, variable-thickness material. But he knew that in space one should never take anything for granted, and that intuition – especially the intuition of an earth-based engineer – could be a treacherous guide.
Let's see – when the tests are concluded, we cut the earth end and Ashoka starts to wind the filament in. Of course, when you tug – however hard – at one end of a line forty thousand kilometres long, nothing happens for hours. It would take half a day for the impulse to reach the far end, and the system to start moving as a whole. So we keep up the tension – Oh! -
“Somebody did a few calculations,” continued the engineer, “and realised that when we finally got up to speed, we'd have several tons heading towards the station at a thousand kilometres an hour. They didn't like that at all.”
“Understandably. What do they want us to do?”
“Programme a slower reeling in, with a controlled momentum budget. If the worst comes to the worst, they may make us move off-station to do the wind-up.”
“Will that delay the operation?”
“No; we've worked out a contingency plan for heaving the whole thing out of the airlock in five minutes, if we have to.”
“And you'll be able to retrieve it easily?”
“I hope you're right. That little fishing line cost a lot of money – and I want to use it again.”
But where? Morgan asked himself; as he stared at the slowly waxing crescent Earth. Perhaps it would be better to complete the Mars project first, even if it meant several years of exile. Once Pavonis was fully operational, Earth would have to follow, and he did not doubt that, somehow, the last obstacles would be overcome.
Then the chasm across which he was now looking would be spanned, and the fame that Gustave Eiffel had earned three centuries ago would be utterly eclipsed.