42. Death in Orbit
Every large building, it is said, claims a life; fourteen names were engraved on the piers of the Gibraltar Bridge. But thanks to an almost fanatical safety campaign, casualties on the Tower had been remarkably low. There had, indeed, been one year without a single death.
And there had been one year with four – two of them particularly harrowing. A space-station assembly supervisor, accustomed to working under zero gravity, had forgotten that though he was in space he was not in orbit – and a life-time's experience had betrayed him. He had plummeted more than fifteen thousand kilometres, to burn up like a meteor upon entry into the atmosphere. Unfortunately his suit radio had remained switched on during those last few minutes…
It was a bad year for the Tower; the second tragedy had been much more protracted, and equally public. An engineer on the counterweight, far beyond synchronous orbit, had failed to fasten her safety belt properly – and had been flicked off into space like a stone from a sling. She was in no danger, at this altitude, either of falling back to earth or of being launched on an escape trajectory; unfortunately her suit held less than two hours' air. There was no possibility of rescue at such short notice; and despite a public outcry, no attempt was made. The victim had co-operated nobly. She had transmitted her farewell messages, and then – with thirty minutes of oxygen still unused – had opened her suit to vacuum. The body was recovered a few days later, when the inexorable laws of celestial mechanics brought it back to the perigee of its long ellipse.
These tragedies flashed through Morgan's mind as he took the highspeed elevator down to the Operations Room, closely followed by a sombre Warren Kingsley and the now almost forgotten Dev. But this catastrophe was of an altogether different type, involving an explosion at or near the Basement of the Tower. That the transporter had fallen to earth was obvious, even before the garbled report had been received of a “giant meteor shower” somewhere in central Taprobane.
It was useless to speculate until he had more facts; and in this case, where all the evidence had probably been destroyed, they might never be available. He knew that space accidents seldom had a single cause; they were usually the result of a chain of events, often quite harmless in themselves. All the foresight of the safety engineers could not guarantee absolute reliability, and sometimes their own over-elaborate precautions contributed to disaster. Morgan was not ashamed of the fact that the safety of the project now concerned him far more than any loss of life. Nothing could be done about the dead, except to ensure that the same accident could never happen again. But that the almost completed Tower might be endangered was a prospect too appalling to contemplate.
The elevator floated to a halt, and he stepped out into the Operations Room – just in time for the evening's second stunning surprise.