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40. The End of the Line

No wonder they called it the Transiberian Railway. Even on the easy downhill run, the journey from Midway Station to the base of the Tower lasted fifty hours.

One day it would take only five, but that still lay two years in the future, when the tracks were energised and their magnetic fields activated. The inspection and maintenance vehicles that now ran up and down the faces of the Tower were propelled by old-fashioned tyres, gripping the interior of the guidance slots. Even if the limited power of the batteries permitted, it was not safe to operate such a system at more than five hundred kilometres an hour.

Yet everyone had been far too busy to be bored. Professor Sessui and his three students had been observing, checking their instruments, and making sure that no time would be wasted when they transferred into the Tower. The capsule driver, his engineering assistant, and the one steward who comprised the entire cabin staff were also fully occupied, for this was no routine trip. The Basement, twenty-five thousand kilometres below Midway and now only six hundred kilometres from Earth had never been visited since it was built. Until now, there had been no purpose in going there, since the handful of monitors had never reported anything amiss. Not that there was much to go wrong, as the Basement was merely a fifteen-metre-square pressurised chamber one of the scores of emergency refuges at intervals along the Tower.

Professor Sessui had used all his considerable influence to borrow this unique site, now crawling down through the ionosphere at two kilometres a day towards its rendezvous with Earth. It was essential, he had argued forcibly, to get his equipment installed before the peak of the current sunspot maximum.

Already, solar activity had reached unprecedented levels, and Sessui's young assistants often found it hard to concentrate on their instruments; the magnificent auroral displays outside were too much of a distraction. For hours on end, both northern and southern hemispheres were filled with slowly moving curtains and streamers of greenish light, beautiful and awe-inspiring yet only a pale ghost of the celestial firework displays taking place around the poles. It was rare indeed for the aurora to wander so far from its normal domains; only once in generations did it invade the equatorial skies.

Sessui had driven his students back to work with the admonition that they would have plenty of time for sight-seeing during the long climb back to Midway. Yet it was noticeable that even the Professor himself sometimes stood at the observation window for minutes at a time, entranced by the spectacle of the burning heavens.

Someone had christened the project Expedition to Earth which, as far as distance was concerned, was ninety-eight percent accurate. As the capsule crawled down the face of the Tower at its miserable five hundred klicks, the increasing closeness of the planet beneath made itself obvious. For gravity was slowly increasing, from the delightful less-than-lunar buoyancy of Midway to almost its full terrestrial value. To any experienced space traveller, this was strange indeed: feeling any gravity before the moment of atmospheric entry seemed a reversal of the normal order of things.

Apart from complaints about the food, stoically endured by the overworked steward, the journey had been devoid of incident. A hundred kilometres from the Basement, the brakes had been gently applied and speed had been halved. It was halved again at fifty kilometers for, as one of the students remarked: Wouldn't it be embarrassing if we ran off the end of the track?

The driver (he insisted on being called pilot) retorted that this was inpossible, as the guidance slots down which the capsule was falling terminated several metres short of the Tower's end; there was also an elaborate buffer system, just in case all four independent sets of brakes failed to work. And everyone agreed that the joke, besides being perfectly ridiculous, was in extremely poor taste.

39. The Wounded Sun | The Fountains of Paradise | 41. Meteor