ORBITAL TOWER SHOT DOWN
said the headline.
“Follow up?” asked the console.
“You bet,” replied Morgan, now instantly awake.
During the next few seconds, as he read the text display, his mood changed from incredulity to indignation, and then to concern. He switched the whole news package to Warren Kingsley with a “Please call me back as soon as possible” tag, and settled down to breakfast, still fuming.
Less than five minutes later, Kingsley appeared on the screen.
"Well, Van," he said with humorous resignation, "we should consider ourselves lucky. It's taken him five years to get round to us.''
“It's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of! Should we ignore it? If we answer, that will only give him publicity. Which is just what he wants.”
Kingsley nodded. “That would be the best policy – for the present. We shouldn't over-react. At the same time, he may have a point.”
“What do you mean?”
Kingsley had become suddenly serious, and even looked a little uncomfortable.
“There are psychological problems as well as engineering ones,” he said. “Think it over. I'll see you at the office.”
The image faded from the screen, leaving Morgan in a somewhat subdued frame of mind. He was used to criticism, and knew how to handle it; indeed, he thoroughly enjoyed the give-and-take of technical arguments with his peers, and was seldom upset on those rare occasions when he lost. It was not so easy to cope with Donald Duck.
That, of course, was not his real name, but Dr. Donald Bickerstaff's peculiar brand of indignant negativism often recalled that mythological twentieth-century character. His degree (adequate, but not brilliant) was in pure mathematics; his assets were an impressive appearance, a mellifluous voice, and an unshakeable belief in his ability to deliver judgements on any scientific subject. In his own field, indeed, he was quite good; Morgan remembered with pleasure an old-style public lecture of the doctor's which he had once attended at the Royal Institution. For almost a week afterwards he had almost understood the peculiar properties of transfinite numbers.
Unfortunately, Bickerstaff did not know his limitations. Though he had a devoted coterie of fans who subscribed to his information service – in an earlier age, he would have been called a pop-scientist – he had an even larger circle of critics. The kinder ones considered that he had been educated beyond his intelligence. The others labelled him a self-employed idiot. It was a pity, thought Morgan, that Bickerstaff couldn't be locked in a room with Dr. Goldberg/Parakarma; they might annihilate each other like electron and positron – the genius of one cancelling out the fundamental stupidity of the other. That unshakeable stupidity against which, as Goethe lamented, the Gods themselves contend in vain. No gods being currently available, Morgan knew that he would have to undertake the task himself. Though he had much better things to do with his time, it might provide some comic relief; and he had an inspiring precedent.
There were few pictures in the hotel room that had been one of Morgan's four “temporary” homes for almost a decade. Most prominent of them was a photograph so well faked that some visitors could not believe that its components were all perfectly genuine. It was dominated by the graceful, beautifully restored steamship – ancestor of every vessel that could thereafter call itself modern. By her side, standing on the dock to which she had been miraculously returned a century and a quarter after her launch, was Dr. Vannevar Morgan. He was looking up at the scrollwork of the painted prow; and a few metres away, looking quizzically at him, was Isambard Kingdom Brunel – hands thrust in pockets, cigar clenched firmly in his mouth, and wearing a very rumpled, mud-spattered suit.
Everything in the photo was quite real; Morgan had indeed been standing beside the Great Britain, on a sunny day in Bristol the year after the Gibraltar Bridge was completed. But Brunel was back in 1857, still awaiting the launch of his later and more famous leviathan, whose misfortunes were to break his body and spirit.
The photograph had been presented to Morgan on his fiftieth birthday, and it was one of his most cherished possessions. His colleagues had intended it as a sympathetic joke, Morgan's admiration for the greatest engineer of the nineteenth century being well known. There were times, however, when he wondered if their choice was more appropriate than they realised. The Great Eastern had devoured her creator. The Tower might yet do the same to him.
Brunel, of course, had been surrounded by Donald Ducks. The most persistent was one Doctor Dionysius Lardner, who had proved beyond all doubt that no steamship could ever cross the Atlantic. An engineer could refute criticisms which were based on errors of fact or simple miscalculations. But the point that Donald Duck had raised was more subtle and not so easy to answer. Morgan suddenly recalled that his hero had to face something very similar, three centuries ago.
He reached for his small but priceless collection of genuine books, and pulled out the one he had read, perhaps, more often than any other – Rolt's classic biography Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Leafing through the well-thumbed pages, he quickly found the item that had stirred his memory.
Brunel had planned a railway tunnel almost three kilometres long – a “monstrous and extraordinary, most dangerous and impracticable” concept. It was inconceivable, said the critics, that human beings could tolerate the ordeal of hurtling through its Stygian depths. “No person would desire to be shut out from daylight with a consciousness that he had a superincumbent weight of earth sufficient to crush him in case of accident… the noise of two trains passing would shake the nerves… no passenger would be induced to go twice…”
It was all so familiar. The motto of the Lardners and the Bickerstaffs seemed to be: “Nothing shall be done for the first time.”
And yet – sometimes they were right, if only through the operation of the laws of chance. Donald Duck made it sound so reasonable. He had begun by saying, in a display of modesty as unusual as it was spurious, that he would not presume to criticise the engineering aspects of the space elevator. He only wanted to talk about the psychological problems it would pose. They could be summed up in one word: Vertigo. The normal human being, he had pointed out, had a well-justified fear of high places; only acrobats and tightrope artistes were immune to this natural reaction. The tallest structure on earth was less than five kilometres high – and there were not many people who would care to be hauled vertically up the piers of the Gibraltar Bridge.
Yet that was nothing compared to the appalling prospect of the orbital tower. "Who has not stood," Bickerstaff declaimed, "at the foot of some immense building, staring up at its sheer precipitous face, until it seemed about to topple and fall? Now imagine such a building soaring on and on through the clouds, up into the blackness of space, through the ionosphere, past the orbits of all the great space-stations – up and up until it reaches a large fraction of the way to the moon! An engineering triumph, no doubt – but a psychological nightmare. I suggest that some people will go mad at its mere contemplation. And how many could face the vertiginous ordeal of the ride – straight upwards, hanging over empty space, for twenty-five thousand kilometres to the first stop at the Midway Station?
"It is no answer to say that perfectly ordinary individuals can fly in spacecraft to the same altitude, and far beyond. The situation then is completely different – as indeed it is in ordinary atmospheric flight. The normal man does not feel vertigo even in the open gondola of a balloon, floating through the air a few kilometres above the ground. But put him on the edge of a cliff at the same altitude, and study his reactions then!
“The reason for this difference is quite simple. In an aircraft, there is no physical connexion linking the observer and the ground. Psychologically, therefore, he is completely detached from the hard, solid earth far below. Falling no longer has terrors for him; he can look down upon remote and tiny landscapes which he would never dare to contemplate from any high elevation. That saving physical detachment is precisely what the space elevator will lack. The hapless passenger, whisked up the sheer face of the gigantic tower, will be all too conscious of his link with earth. What guarantee can there possibly be that anyone not drugged or anaesthetised could survive such an experience? I challenge Dr. Morgan to answer.”
Dr. Morgan was still thinking of answers, few of them polite, when the screen lit up again with an incoming call. When he pressed the ACCEPT button, he was not in the least surprised to see Maxine Duval.
“Well, Van,” she said, without any preamble, “what are you going to do?”
“I'm sorely tempted, but I don't think I should argue with that idiot. Incidentally, do you suppose that some aerospace organisation has put him up to it?”
“My men are already digging; I'll let you know if they find anything. Personally, I feel it's all his own work – I recognise the hallmarks of the genuine article. But you haven't answered my question.”
“I haven't decided; I'm still trying to digest my breakfast. What do you think I should do?”
“Simple. Arrange a demonstration. When can you fix it?”
“In five years, if all goes well.”
“That's ridiculous. You've got your first cable in position…” “Not cable – tape.”
“Don't quibble. What load can it carry?”
“Oh – at the Earth end, a mere five hundred tons.”
“There you are. Offer Donald Duck a ride.”
“I wouldn't guarantee his safety.”
“Would you guarantee mine?”
“You're not serious !”
“I'm always serious, at this hour of the morning. It's time I did another story on the Tower anyway. That capsule mock-up is very pretty, but it doesn't do anything. My viewers like action, and so do I. The last time we met, you showed me drawings of those little cars the engineers will use to run up and down the cable – I mean tapes. What did you call them?”
“Ugh – that's right. I was fascinated by the idea. Here's something that has never been possible before, by any technology. For the first time you could sit still in the sky, even above the atmosphere, and watch the earth beneath – something that no spacecraft can ever do. I'd like to be the first to describe the sensation. And clip Donald Duck's wings at the same time.”
Morgan waited for a full five seconds, staring Maxine straight in the eyes, before he decided that she was perfectly serious.
“I can understand,” he said rather wearily, “just how a poor struggling young media-girl, trying desperately to make a name for herself, would jump at such an opportunity. I don't want to blight a promising career, but the answer is definitely no.”
The doyen of media-persons emitted several unladylike, and even ungentlemanly, words, not commonly transmitted over public circuits.
“Before I strangle you in your own hyperfilament, Van,” she continued, “why not?”
“Well, if anything went wrong, I'd never forgive myself.”
“Spare the crocodile tears. Of course, my untimely demise would be a major tragedy – for your project. But I wouldn't dream of going until you'd made all the tests necessary, and were sure it was one hundred percent safe.”
“It would look too much like a stunt.”
“As the Victorians (or was it the Elizabethans?) used to say – so what?”
“Look, Maxine – there's a flash that New Zealand has just sunk – they'll need you in the studio. But thanks for the generous offer.”
“Dr. Vannevar Morgan – I know exactly why you're turning me down. You want to be the first.”
“As the Victorians used to say – so what?”
«Touché. But I'm warning you, Van – just as soon as you have one of those spiders working, you'll be hearing from me again.»
Morgan shook his head. “Sorry, Maxine,” he answered. “Not a chance -”