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28. The First Lowering

There would be nothing to see for at least another twenty minutes. Nevertheless, everyone not needed in the control hut was already outside, staring up at the sky. Even Morgan found it hard to resist the impulse, and kept edging towards the door.

Seldom more than a few metres from him was Maxine Duval's latest Remote, a husky youth in his late twenties. Mounted on his shoulders were the usual tools of his trade twin cameras in the traditional right forward, left backward arrangement, and above those a small sphere not much larger than a grapefruit. The antenna inside that sphere was doing very clever things, several thousand times a second, so that it was always locked on the nearest comsat despite all the antics of its bearer. And at the other end of that circuit, sitting comfortably in her studio office, Maxine Duval was seeing through the eyes of her distant alter ego and hearing with his ears but not straining her lungs in the freezing air. This time she had the better part of the bargain; it was not always the case.

Morgan had agreed to the arrangement with some reluctance. He knew that this was an historic occasion, and accepted Maxine's assurance that my man won't get in the way. But he was also keenly aware of all the things that could go wrong in such a novel experiment especially during the last hundred kilometres of atmospheric entry. On the other hand, he also knew that Maxine could be trusted to treat either failure or triumph without sensationalism.

Like all great reporters, Maxine Duval was not emotionally detached from the events that she observed. She could give all points of view, neither distorting nor omitting any facts which she considered essential. Yet she made no attempt to conceal her own feelings, though she did not let them intrude. She admired Morgan enormously, with the envious awe of someone who lacked all real creative ability. Ever since the building of the Gibraltar Bridge she had waited to see what the engineer would do next; and she had not been disappointed. But though she wished Morgan luck, she did not really like him. In her opinion, the sheer drive and ruthlessness of his ambition made him both larger than life and less than human. She could not help contrasting him with his deputy, Warren Kingsley. Now there was a thoroughly nice, gentle person ("And a better engineer than I am," Morgan had once told her, more than half seriously). But no-one would ever hear of Warren; he would always be a dim and faithful satellite of his dazzling primary. As, indeed, he was perfectly content to be.

It was Warren who had patiently explained to her the surprisingly complex mechanics of the descent. At first sight, it appeared simple enough to drop something straight down to the equator from a satellite hovering motionless above it. But astrodynamics was full of paradoxes; if you tried to slow down, you moved faster. If you took the shortest route, you burned up the most fuel. If you aimed in one direction, you travelled in another And that was merely allowing for gravitational fields. This time, the situation was much more complicated. No-one had ever before tried to steer a space-probe trailing forty thousand kilometres of wire. But the Ashoka programme had worked perfectly, all the way down to the edge of the atmosphere. In a few minutes the controller here on Sri Kanda would take over for the final descent. No wonder that Morgan looked tense.

Van, said Maxine softly but firmly over the private circuit, stop sucking your thumb. It makes you look like a baby.

Morgan registered indignation, then surprise and finally relaxed with a slightly embarrassed laugh.

Thanks for the warning, he said. I'd hate to spoil my public image.

He looked with rueful amusement at the missing joint, wondering when the self-appointed wits would stop chortling: Ha! The engineer hoist by his own petard! After all the times he had cautioned others, he had grown careless and had managed to slash himself while demonstrating the properties of hyperfilament. There had been practically no pain, and surprisingly little inconvenience. One day he would do something about it; but he simply could not afford to spend a whole week hitched up to an organ regenerator, just for two centimetres of thumb.

Altitude two five zero, said a calm, impersonal voice from the control hut. Probe velocity one one six zero metres per second. Wire tension ninety percent nominal. Parachute deploys in two minutes.

After his momentary relaxation, Morgan was once again tense and alert like a boxer, Maxine Duval could not help thinking, watching an unknown but dangerous opponent.

What's the wind situation? he snapped.

Another voice answered, this time far from impersonal.

I can't believe this, it said in worried tones. But Monsoon Control has just issued a gale warning.

This is no time for jokes.

They're not joking; I've just checked back.

But they guaranteed no gusts above thirty kilometres an hour!

They've just raised that to sixty correction, eighty. Something's gone badly wrong

I'll say, Duval murmured to herself. Then she instructed her distant eyes and ears: Fade into the woodwork they won't want you around but don't miss anything. Leaving her Rem to cope with these somewhat contradictory orders, she switched to her excellent information service. It took her less than thirty seconds to discover which meteorological station was responsible for the weather in the Taprobane area. And it was frustrating, but not surprising, to find that it was not accepting incoming calls from the general public.

Leaving her competent staff to break through that obstacle, she switched back to the mountain. And she was astonished to find how much, even in this short interval, conditions had worsened.

The sky had become darker; the microphones were picking up the faint, distant roar of the approaching gale. Maxine Duval had known such sudden changes of weather at sea, and more than once had taken advantage of them in her ocean racing. But this was unbelievably bad luck; she sympathised with Morgan, whose dreams and hopes might all be swept away by this unscheduled this impossible blast of air.

Altitude two zero zero. Probe velocity one one five metres a second. Tension ninety-five percent nominal.

So the tension was increasing in more ways than one. The experiment could not be called off at this late stage; Morgan would simply have to go ahead, and hope for the best. Duval wished that she could speak to him, but knew better than to interrupt him at this crisis.

Altitude one nine zero. Velocity one one zero zero. Tension one hundred five percent. First parachute deployment NOW!

So the probe was committed; it was a captive of the earth's atmosphere. Now the little fuel that remained must be used to steer it into the catching net spread out on the mountainside. The cables supporting that net were already thrumming as the wind tore through them.

Abruptly, Morgan emerged from the control hut, and stared up at the sky. Then he turned and looked directly at the camera.

Whatever happens, Maxine, he said slowly and carefully, the test is already ninety-five percent successful. No ninety-nine percent. We've made it for thirty-six thousand kilometres, and have less than two hundred to go.

Duval made no reply. She knew that the words were not intended for her, but for the figure in the complicated wheelchair just outside the hut. The vehicle proclaimed the occupant; only a visitor to earth would have need of such a device. The doctors could now cure virtually all muscular defects but the physicists could not cure gravity.

How many powers and interests were now concentrated upon this mountain top! The very forces of nature the Bank of Narodny Mars the Autonomous North African Republic Vannevar Morgan (no mean natural force himself) and those gently implacable monks in their windswept eyrie.

Maxine Duval whispered instructions to her patient Rem, and the camera tilted smoothly upwards. There was the summit, crowned by the dazzling white walls of the temple. Here and there along its parapets Duval could catch glimpses of orange robes fluttering in the gale. As she had expected, the monks were watching.

She zoomed towards them, close enough to see individual faces. Though she had never met the Maha Thero (for an interview had been politely refused) she was confident that she could identify him. But there was no sign of the prelate; perhaps he was in the sanctum sanctorum, focusing his formidable will upon some spiritual exercise.

Maxine Duval was not sure if Morgan's chief antagonist indulged in anything so nave as prayer. But if he had indeed prayed for this miraculous storm, his request was about to be answered. The Gods of the Mountain were awakening from their slumbers.

27. Ashoka Station | The Fountains of Paradise | 29. Final Approach