29. Final Approach
With increasing technology goes increasing vulnerability; the more Man conquers (sic) Nature the more liable he becomes to artificial catastrophes. Recent history provides sufficient proof of this – for example, the sinking of Marina City (2127), the collapse of the Tycho B dome (2098), the escape of the Arabian iceberg from its towlines (2062) and the melting of the Thor reactor (2009). We can be sure that the list will have even more impressive additions in the future. Perhaps the most terrifying prospects are those that involve psychological, not only technological, factors. In the past, a mad bomber or sniper could kill only a handful of people; today it would not be difficult for a deranged engineer to assassinate a city. The narrow escape of O'Neill Space Colony II from just such a disaster in 2047 has been well documented. Such incidents, in theory at least, could be avoided by careful screening and “fail-safe” procedures – though all too often these live up only to the first half of their name.
There is also a most interesting, but fortunately very rare, type of event where the individual concerned is in a position of such eminence, or has such unique powers, that no-one realises what he is doing until it is too late. The devastation created by such mad geniuses (there seems no other good term for them) can be worldwide, as in the case of A. Hitler (1889-1945). In a surprising number of instances nothing is heard of their activities, thanks to a conspiracy of silence among their embarrassed peers.
A classic example has recently come to light with the publication of Dame Maxine Duval's eagerly awaited, and much postponed, Memoirs. Even now, some aspects of the matter are still not entirely clear.
(Civilisation and its Malcontents: J. K. Golitsyn, Prague, 2175)
“Altitude one five zero, velocity ninety-five – repeat, ninety-five. Heat shield jettisoned.”
So the probe had safely entered the atmosphere, and got rid of its excess speed. But it was far too soon to start cheering. Not only were there a hundred and fifty vertical kilometres still to go, but three hundred horizontal ones – with a howling gale to complicate matters. Though the probe still carried a small amount of propellent, its freedom to manoeuvre was very limited. If the operator missed the mountain on the first approach, he could not go round and try again.
“Altitude one two zero. No atmospheric effects yet.”
The little probe was spinning itself down from the sky, like a spider descending its silken ladder. I hope, Duval thought to herself, that they have enough wire: how infuriating if they run out, only a few kilometres from the target! Just such tragedies had occurred with some of the first submarines cables, three hundred years ago.
“Altitude eight zero. Approach nominal. Tension one hundred percent. Some air drag.”
So – the upper atmosphere was beginning to make itself felt, though as yet only to the sensitive instruments aboard the tiny vehicle.
A small, remotely controlled telescope had been set up beside the control truck, and was now automatically tracking the still invisible probe. Morgan walked towards it, and Duval's Rem followed him like a shadow.
“Anything in sight?” Duval whispered quietly, after a few seconds. Morgan shook his head impatiently, and kept on peering through the eyepiece.
“Altitude six zero. Moving off to the left – tension one hundred five percent – correction, one hundred ten.”
Still well within limits, thought Duval – but things were starting to happen up there on the other side of the stratosphere. Surely, Morgan had the probe in sight now – “Altitude five five – giving two-second impulse correction.” “Got it!” exclaimed Morgan. “I can see the jet!” “Altitude five zero. Tension one hundred five percent. Hard to keep on course – some buffeting.”
It was inconceivable that, with a mere fifty kilometres to go, the little probe would not complete its thirty-six-thousand kilometre journey. But for that matter how many aircraft – and spacecraft – had come to grief in the last few metres?
“Altitude four five. Strong sheer wind. Going off course again. Three second impulse.”
“Lost it,” said Morgan in disgust. “Cloud in the way.”
“Altitude four zero. Buffeting badly. Tension peaking at one fifty – I repeat, one fifty percent.”
That was bad; Duval knew that the breaking strain was two hundred percent. One bad jerk, and the experiment would be over.
“Altitude three five. Wind getting worse. One second impulse. Propellent reserve almost gone. Tension still peaking – up to one seventy.”
Another thirty percent, thought Duval, and even that incredible fibre would snap, like any other material when its tensile strength has been exceeded.
“Range three zero. Turbulence getting worse. Drifting badly to the left. Impossible to calculate correction – movements too erratic.”
“I've got it!” Morgan cried. “It's through the clouds!”
“Range two five. Not enough propellent to get back on course. Estimate we'll miss by three kilometres.”
“It doesn't matter!” shouted Morgan. “Crash where you can !” “Will do soonest. Range two zero. Wind forces increasing. Losing stabilisation. Payload starting to spin.”
“Release the brake – let the wire run out!”
“Already done,” said that maddeningly calm voice. Duval could have imagined that a machine was speaking, if she had not known that Morgan had borrowed a top space-station traffic controller for the job. “Dispenser malfunction. Payload spin now five revs second. Wire probably entangled. Tension one eight zero percent. One nine zero. Two zero zero. Range one five. Tension two one zero. Two two zero. Two three zero.”
It can't last much longer, thought Duval. Only a dozen kilometres to go, and the damned wire had got tangled up in the spinning probe.
“Tension zero – repeat, zero.”
That was it; the wire had snapped, and must be slowly snaking back towards the stars. Doubtless the operators on Ashoka would wind it in again, but Duval had now glimpsed enough of the theory to realise that this would be a long and complicated task. And the little payload would crash somewhere down there in the fields and jungles of Taprobane. Yet, as Morgan had said, it had been more than ninety-five percent successful. Next time, when there was no wind…
“There it is!” someone shouted.
A brilliant star had ignited, between two of the cloud-galleons sailing across the sky; it looked like a daylight meteor, falling down to earth. Ironically, as if mocking its builders, the flare installed on the probe to assist terminal guidance had automatically triggered. Well, it could still serve some useful purpose. It would help to locate the wreckage.
Duval's Rem slowly pivoted so that she could watch the blazing day-star sail past the mountain and disappear into the east; she estimated that it would land less than five kilometres away. Then she said, “Take me back to Dr. Morgan. I'd like a word with him.”
She had intended to make a few cheerful remarks – loud enough for the Martian banker to hear – expressing her confidence that, next time, the lowering would be a complete success. Duval was still composing her little speech of reassurance when it was swept out of her mind. She was to play back the events of the next thirty seconds until she knew them by heart. But she was never quite sure if she fully understood them.