36. The Cruel Sky
The eye could follow the tape much further by night than by day. At sunset, when the warning lights were switched on, it became a thin band of incandescence, slowly dwindling away until, at some indefinite point, it was lost against the background of stars.
Already, it was the greatest wonder of the world. Until Morgan put his foot down and restricted the site to essential engineering staff, there was a continual flood of visitors – “pigrims”, someone had ironically called them – paying homage to the sacred mountain's last miracle.
They would all behave in exactly the same way. First they would reach out and gently touch the five-centimetre-wide band, running their finger tips along it with something approaching reverence. Then they would listen, ears pressed against the smooth, cold material of the ribbon, as if they hoped to catch the music of the spheres. There were some, indeed, who claimed to have heard a deep, bass note at the uttermost threshold of audibility, but they were deluding themselves. Even the highest harmonics of the tape's natural frequency were far below the range of human hearing. And some would go away shaking their heads, saying:
“You'll never get me to ride up that thing!” But they were the ones who had made just the same remark about the fusion rocket, the space shuttle, the airplane, the automobile – even the steam locomotive…
To these sceptics, the usual answer was: “Don't worry – this is merely part of the scaffolding – one of the four tapes that will guide the Tower down to Earth. Riding up the final structure will be exactly like taking an elevator in any high building. Except that the trip will be longer – and much more comfortable.”
Maxine Duval's trip, on the other hand, would be very short, and not particularly comfortable. But once Morgan had capitulated, he had done his best to make sure that it would be uneventful.
The flimsy “Spider” – a prototype test vehicle looking like a motorised Bosun's Chair – had already made a dozen ascents to twenty kilometres, with twice the load it would be carrying now. There had been the usual minor teething problems, but nothing serious; the last five runs had been completely trouble-free. And what could go wrong? If there was a power failure – almost unthinkable, in such a simple battery-operated system – gravity would bring Maxine safely home, the automatic brakes limiting the speed of descent. The only real risk was that the drive mechanism might jam, trapping Spider and its passenger in the upper atmosphere. And Morgan had an answer even for this.
“Only fifteen kilometres?” Maxine had protested. “A glider can do better than that!”
“But you can't, with nothing more than an oxygen mask. Of course, if you like to wait a year until we have the operational unit with its life-support system…”
“What's wrong with a space-suit?”
Morgan had refused to budge, for his own good reasons. Though he hoped it would not be needed, a small jet-crane was standing by at the foot of Sri Kanda. Its highly skilled operators were used to odd assignments; they would have no difficulty in rescuing a stranded Maxine, even at twenty kilometres altitude.
But there was no vehicle in existence that could reach her at twice that height. Above forty kilometres was no-man's land – too low for rockets, too high for balloons.
In theory, of course, a rocket could hover beside the tape, for a very few minutes, before it burned up all its propellent. The problems of navigation and actual contact with the Spider were so horrendous that Morgan had not even bothered to think about them. It could never happen in real life, and he hoped that no producer of video-drama would decide that there was good material here for a cliff-hanger. That was the sort of publicity he could do without.
Maxine Duval looked rather like a typical Antarctic tourist as, glittering in her metal-foil thermosuit, she walked towards the waiting Spider and the group of technicians round it. She had chosen the time carefully; the sun had risen only an hour ago, and its slanting rays would show the Taprobanean landscape to best advantage. Her Remote, even younger and huskier than on the last memorable occasion, recorded the sequence of events for her System-wide audience.
She had, as always, been thoroughly rehearsed. There was no fumbling or hesitation as she strapped herself in, pressed the BATTERY CHARGE button, took a deep draught of oxygen from her facemask, and checked the monitors on all her video and sound channels. Then, like a fighter pilot in some old historical movie, she signalled “Thumbs Up”, and gently eased the speed control forward.
There was a small burst of ironic clapping from the assembled engineers, most of whom had already taken joy-rides up to heights of a few kilometres. Someone shouted: “Ignition! We have lift off!” and, moving about as swiftly as a brass bird-cage elevator in the reign of Victoria I, Spider began its stately ascent.
This must be like ballooning, Maxine told herself. Smooth, effortless, silent. No – not completely silent; she could hear the gentle whirr of the motors powering the multiple drive wheels that gripped the flat face of the tape. There was none of the sway or vibration that she had half expected; despite its slimness, the incredible band she was climbing was as rigid as a bar of steel, and the vehicle's gyros were holding it rock-steady. If she closed her eyes, she could easily imagine that she was already ascending the final tower. But, of course, she would not close her eyes; there was so much to see and absorb. There was even a good deal to hear; it was amazing how well sound carried, for the conversations below were still quite audible.
She waved to Vannevar Morgan, then looked for Warren Kingsley. To her surprise she was unable to find him; though he had helped her aboard Spider, he had now vanished. Then she remembered his frank admission – sometimes he made it sound almost like a wry boast – that the best structural engineer in the world couldn't stand heights… Everyone had some secret – or perhaps not-so-secret – fear. Maxine did not appreciate spiders, and wished that the vehicle she was riding had some other name; yet she could handle one if it was really necessary. The creature she could never bear to touch – though she had met it often enough on her diving expeditions – was the shy and harmless octopus.
The whole mountain was now visible, though from directly above it was impossible to appreciate its true height. The two ancient stairways winding up its face might have been oddly twisting level roads; along their entire length, as far as Maxine could observe, there was no sign of life. Indeed, one section had been blocked by a fallen tree – as if Nature had given advance notice, after three thousand years, that she was about to reclaim her own.
Leaving Camera One pointed downwards, Maxine started to pan with Number Two. Fields and forests drifted across the monitor screen, then the distant white domes of Ranapura – then the dark waters of the inland sea. And, presently, there was Yakkagala.
She zoomed on to the Rock, and could just make out the faint pattern of the ruins covering the entire upper surface. The Mirror Wall was still in shadow, as was the Gallery of the Princesses – not that there was any hope of making them out from such a distance. But the layout of the Pleasure Gardens, with their ponds and walkways and massive surrounding moat, was clearly visible.
The line of tiny white plumes puzzled her for a moment, until she realised that she was looking down upon another symbol of Kalidasa's challenge to the Gods – his so-called Fountains of Paradise. She wondered what the king would have thought, could he have seen her rising so effortlessly towards the heaven of his envious dreams.
It was almost a year since she had spoken to Ambassador Rajasinghe. On a sudden impulse she called the Villa.
“Hello, Johan,” she greeted him. “How do you like this view of Yakkagala?”
“So you've talked Morgan into it. How does it feel?”
“Exhilarating – that's the only word for it. And unique; I've flown and travelled in everything you can mention, but this feels quite different.”
“'To ride secure the cruel sky…'” “What was that?”
"An English poet, early twentieth century – I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky."
“Well, I care, and I'm feeling secure. Now I can see the whole island – even the Hindustan coast. How high am I, Van?”
“Coming up to twelve kilometres, Maxine. Is your oxygen mask on tight?”
“Confirmed. I hope it's not muffling my voice.”
“Don't worry – you're still unmistakeable. Three kilometres to go.”
“How much gas is still left in the tank?”
“Sufficient. And if you try to go above fifteen, I'll use the override to bring you home.”
“I wouldn't dream of it. And congratulations, by the way – this is an excellent observing platform. You may have customers standing in line.”
“We've thought of that – the comsat and metsat people are already making bids. We can give them relays and sensors at any height they like; it will all help to pay the rent.”
“I can see you!” exclaimed Rajasinghe suddenly. “Just caught your reflection in the 'scope. Now you're waving your arm… Aren't you lonely up there?”
For a moment there was an uncharacteristic silence. Then Maxine Duval answered quietly: “Not as lonely as Yuri Gagarin must have been, a hundred kilometres higher still. Van, you have brought something new into the world. The sky may still be cruel – but you have tamed it. There may be some people who could never face this ride: I feel very sorry for them.”