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39. The Wounded Sun

The last time that Morgan had seen Dev, his nephew had been a child. Now he was a boy in his early teens; and at their next meeting, at this rate, he would be a man.

The engineer felt only a mild sense of guilt. Family ties had been weakening for the last two centuries: he and his sister had little in common except the accident of genetics. Though they exchanged greetings and small talk perhaps half-a-dozen times a year, and were on the best of terms, he was not even sure when and where they had last met.

Yet when he greeted the eager, intelligent boy (not in the least overawed, it seemed, by his famous uncle) Morgan was aware of a certain bitter-sweet wistfulness. He had no son to continue the family name; long ago, he had made that choice between Work and Life which can seldom be avoided at the highest levels of human endeavour. On three occasions not including the liaison with Ingrid he might have taken a different path; but accident or ambition had deflected him.

He knew the terms of the bargain he had made, and he accepted them; it was too late now to grumble about the small print. Any fool could shuffle genes, and most did. But whether or not History gave him credit, few men could have achieved what he had done and was about to do.

In the last three hours, Dev had seen far more of Earth Terminus than any of the usual run of VIPs. He had entered the mountain at ground level, along the almost completed approach to the South Station, and had been given the quick tour of the passenger and baggage handling facilities, the control centre, and the switching yard where capsules would be routed from the East and West DOWN tracks to the North and South up ones. He had stared up the five-kilometre-long shaft like a giant gun barrel aimed at the stars, as several hundred reporters had already remarked in hushed voices along which the lines of traffic would rise and descend. And his questions had exhausted three guides before the last one had thankfully handed him over to his uncle.

Here he is, Van, said Warren Kingsley as they arrived via the high-speed elevator at the truncated summit of the mountain. Take him away before he grabs my job.

I didn't know you were so keen on engineering, Dev.

The boy looked hurt, and a little surprised. Don't you remember, Uncle that No 12 Meccamax you gave me on my tenth birthday?

Of course of course. I was only joking. (And, to tell the truth, he had not really forgotten the construction set; it had merely slipped his mind for the moment.) You're not cold up here? Unlike the well-protected adults, the boy had disdained the usual light thermocoat.

No I'm fine. What kind of jet is that? When are you going to open up the shaft? Can I touch the tapes?

See what I mean? chuckled Kingsley.

One: that's Sheik Abdullah's Special his son Feisal is visiting. Two: we'll keep this lid on until the Tower reaches the mountain and enters the shaft we need it as a working platform, and it keeps out the rain. Three: you can touch the tapes if you want to don't run it's bad for you at this altitude!

If you're twelve, I doubt it, said Kingsley towards Dev's rapidly receding back. Taking their time, they caught up with him at the East Face anchor.

The boy was staring, as so many thousands of others had already done, at the narrow band of dull grey that rose straight out of the ground and soared vertically into the sky. Dev's gaze followed it up up up until his head was tilted as far back as it would go. Morgan and Kingsley did not follow suit, though the temptation, after all these years, was still strong. Nor did they warn him that some visitors got so giddy that they collapsed and were unable to walk away without assistance.

The boy was tough: he gazed intently at the zenith for almost a minute, as if hoping to see the thousands of men and millions of tons of material poised there beyond the deep blue of the sky. Then he closed his eyes with a grimace, shook his head, and looked down at his feet for an instant, as if to reassure himself that he was still on the solid, dependable earth.

He reached out a cautious hand, and stroked the narrow ribbon linking the planet with its new moon.

What would happen, he asked, if it broke?

That was an old question; most people were surprised at the answer.

Very little. At this point, it's under practically no tension. If you cut the tape it would just hang there, waving in the breeze.

Kingsley made an expression of distaste; both knew, of course, that this was a considerable over-simplification. At the moment, each of the four tapes was stressed at about a hundred tons but that was negligible compared to the design loads they would be handling when the system was in operation and they had been integrated into the structure of the Tower. There was no point, however, in confusing the boy with such details.

Dev thought this over; then he gave the tape an experimental flick, as if he hoped to extract a musical note from it. But the only response was an unimpressive click that instantly died away.

If you hit it with a sledge-hammer, said Morgan, and came back about ten hours later, you'd be just in time for the echo from Midway.

Not any longer, said Kingsley. Too much damping in the system.

Don't be a spoil-sport, Warren. Now come and see something really interesting.

They walked to the centre of the circular metal disc that now capped the mountain and sealed the shaft like a giant saucepan lid. Here, equidistant from the four tapes down which the Tower was being guided earthwards, was a small geodesic hut, looking even more temporary than the surface on which it had been erected. It housed an oddly-designed telescope, pointing straight upwards and apparently incapable of being aimed in any other direction.

This is the best time for viewing, just before sunset; then the base of the Tower is nicely lit up.

Talking of the sun, said Kingsley, just look at it now. It's even clearer than yesterday. There was something approaching awe in his voice, as he pointed at the brilliant flattened ellipse sinking down into the western haze. The horizon mists had dimmed its glare so much that one could stare at it in comfort.

Not for more than a century had such a group of Spots appeared; they stretched across almost half the golden disc, making it seem as if the sun had been stricken by some malignant disease, or pierced by falling worlds. Yet not even mighty Jupiter could have created such a wound in the solar atmosphere; the largest spot was a quarter of a million kilometres across, and could have swallowed a hundred Earths.

There's another big auroral display predicted for tonight Professor Sessui and his merry men certainly timed it well.

Let's see how they're getting on, said Morgan, as he made some adjustments to the eye-piece. Have a look, Dev.

The boy peered intently for a moment, then answered: I can see the four tapes, going inwards I mean upwards until they disappear.

Nothing in the middle?

Another pause. No not a sign of the Tower.

Correct it's still six hundred kilometres up, and we're on the lowest power of the telescope. Now I'm going to zoom. Fasten your seatbelt.

Dev gave a little laugh at the ancient clich, familiar from dozens of historical dramas. Yet at first he could see no alteration, except that the four lines pointing towards the centre of the field were becoming a little less sharp. It took him a few seconds to realise that no change could be expected as his point of view hurtled upwards along the axis of the system; the quartet of tapes would look exactly the same at any point along its length.

Then, quite suddenly, it was there, taking him by surprise even though he had been expecting it. A tiny bright spot had materialised in the exact centre of the field; it was expanding as he watched it, and now for the first time he had a real sensation of speed.

A few seconds later, he could make out a small circle no, now both brain and eye agreed that it was a square. He was looking directly up at the base of the Tower, crawling earthwards along its guiding tapes at a couple of kilometres a day. The four tapes had now vanished, being far too small to be visible at this distance. But that square fixed magically in the sky continued to grow, though now it had become fuzzy under the extreme magnification.

What do you see? asked Morgan.

A bright little square.

Good that's the underside of the tower, still in full sunlight. When it's dark down here you can see it with the naked eye for another hour before it enters the earth's shadow. Now, do you see anything else?

Nooo replied the boy, after a long pause.

You should. There's a team of scientists visiting the lowest section to set up some research equipment. They've just come down from Midway. If you look carefully you'll see their transporter it's on the south track that will be the right side of the picture. Look for a bright spot, about a quarter the size of the Tower.

Sorry, Uncle I can't find it. You have a look.

Well, the seeing may have got worse. Sometimes the Tower disappears completely though the atmosphere may look -

Even before Morgan could take Dev's place at the eyepiece, his personal receiver gave two shrill double beeps. A second later, Kingsley's alarm also erupted.

It was the first time the Tower had ever issued a four-star emergency alert.

38. A Place of Silent Storms | The Fountains of Paradise | 40. The End of the Line