44. A Cave in the Sky
Deep inside the mountain, amid the display and communications equipment of the Earth Operations Centre, Morgan and his engineering staff stood around the tenth-scale hologram of the Tower's lowest section. It was perfect in every detail, even to the four thin ribbons of the guiding tapes extending along each face. They vanished into thin air just above the floor, and it was hard to appreciate that, even on this diminished scale, they should continue downwards for another sixty kilometers – completely through the crust of the earth.
“Give us the cutaway,” said Morgan, “and lift the Basement up to eye level.”
The Tower lost its apparent solidity and became a luminous ghost – a long, thin-walled square box, empty except for the superconducting cables of the power supply. The very lowest section – the “Basement” was indeed a good name for it, even if it was at a hundred times the elevation of this mountain – had been sealed off to form a single square chamber, fifteen metres on a side.
“Access?” queried Morgan.
Two sections of the image started to glow more brightly. Clearly defined on the north and south faces, between the slots of the guidance tracks, were the outer doors of the duplicate airlocks – as far apart as possible, according to the usual safety precautions for all space habitats.
“They went in through the south door, of course,” explained the Duty Officer. “We don't know if it was damaged in the explosion.”
Well, there were three other entrances, thought Morgan – and it was the lower pair that interested him. This had been one of those afterthoughts, incorporated at a late stage in the design. Indeed, the whole Basement was an afterthought; at one time it had been considered unnecessary to build a refuge here, in the section of the Tower that would eventually become part of Earth Terminus itself.
“Tilt the underside towards me,” Morgan ordered.
The Tower toppled, in a falling arc of light, and lay floating horizontally in mid-air with its lower end towards Morgan. Now he could see all the details of the twenty-metre-square floor – or roof, if one looked at it from the point of view of its orbital builders.
Near the north and south edges, leading into the two independent airlocks, were the hatches that allowed access from below. The only problem was to reach them – six hundred kilometres up in the sky.
The airlocks faded back into the structure; the visual emphasis moved to a small cabinet at the centre of the chamber.
“That's the problem, Doctor,” the Duty Officer answered sombrely. “There's only a pressure maintenance system. No purifiers, and of course no power. Now that they've lost the transporter, I don't see how they can survive the night. The temperature's already falling – down ten degrees since sunset.”
Morgan felt as if the chill of space had entered his own soul. The euphoria of discovering that the lost transporter's occupants were all still alive faded swiftly away. Even if there was enough oxygen in the Basement to last them for several days, that would be of no importance if they froze before dawn.
“I'd like to speak to Professor Sessui.”
“We can't call him direct – the Basement emergency phone only goes to Midway. No problem, though.”
That turned out to be not completely true. When the connexion was made, Driver-Pilot Chang came on the line.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “the Professor is busy.”
After a moment's incredulous silence Morgan replied, pausing between each word and emphasising his name: “Tell him that Dr. Vannevar Morgan wants to speak to him.”
“I will, Doctor – but it won't make the slightest difference. He's working on some equipment with his students. It was the only thing they were able to save – a spectroscope of some kind – they're aiming it through one of the observation windows…”
Morgan controlled himself with difficulty. He was about to retort: “Are they crazy?”, when Chang anticipated him.
“You don't know the Prof – I've spent the last week with him. He's – well, I guess you could say single-minded. It took three of us to stop him going back into the cabin to get some more of his gear. And he's just told me that if we're all going to die anyway, he'll make damn sure that one piece of equipment is working properly.”
Morgan could tell from Chang's voice that, for all his annoyance, he felt a considerable admiration for his distinguished and difficult passenger. And, indeed, the Professor had logic on his side. It made good sense to salvage what he could, out of the years of effort that had gone into this ill-fated expedition.
“Very well,” said Morgan at length, co-operating with the inevitable. “Since I can't get an appointment, I'd like your summary of the situation. So far, I've only had it secondhand.”
It now occurred to him that, in any event, Chang could probably give a much more useful report than the Professor. Though the driver-pilot's insistence on the second half of his title often caused derision among genuine astrologers, he was a highly skilled technician with a good training in mechanical and electrical engineering.
“There's not much to say. We had such short notice that there was no time to save anything – except that damned spectrometer. Frankly, I never thought we'd make it through the airlock. We have the clothes we're wearing – and that's about it. One of the students grabbed her travel bag. Guess what – it contained her draft thesis, written on paper, for heaven's sake! Not even flame-proofed, despite regulations. If we could afford the oxygen, we'd burn it to get some heat.”
Listening to that voice from space, and looking at the transparent – yet apparently solid – hologram of the Tower, Morgan had a most curious illusion. He could imagine that there were tiny, tenth-scale human beings moving around there in the lowest compartment; it was only necessary to reach in his hand, and carry them out to safety…
“Next to the cold, the big problem is air. I don't know how long it will be before CO2 build-up knocks us out – perhaps someone will work out that as well. Whatever the answer, I'm afraid it will be too optimistic.” Chang's voice dropped several decibels and he began to speak in an almost conspiratorial tone, obviously to prevent being overheard. “The Prof and his students don't know this, but the south airlock was damaged in the explosion. There's a leak – a steady hiss round the gaskets. How serious it is, I can't tell.” The speaker's voice rose to normal level again. “Well, that's the situation. We'll be waiting to hear from you.”
And just what the hell can we say, Morgan thought to himself except “Goodbye”?
Crisis-management was a skill which Morgan admired but did not envy. Janos Bartok, the Tower Safety Officer up at Midway, was now in charge of the situation; those inside the mountain twenty-five thousand kilometres below – and a mere six hundred from the scene of the accident – could only listen to the reports, give helpful advice, and satisfy the curiosity of the news media as best they could.
Needless to say, Maxine Duval had been in touch within minutes of the disaster, and as usual her questions were very much to the point.
“Can Midway Station reach them in time?”
Morgan hesitated; the answer to that was undoubtedly “No”. Yet it was unwise, not to say cruel, to abandon hope as early as this. And there had been one stroke of good luck…
"I don't want to raise false hopes, but we may not need Midway. There's a crew working much closer, at the 10K – ten-thousand-kilometre – Station. Their transporter can reach the Basement in twenty hours.'
“Then why isn't it on the way down?”
“Safety Officer Bartok will be making the decision shortly – but it could be a waste of effort. We think they have air for only half that time. And the temperature problem is even more serious.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's night up there, and they have no source of heat. Don't put this out yet, Maxine, but it may be a race between freezing and anoxia.”
There was a pause for several seconds; then Maxine Duval said in an uncharacteristically diffident tone of voice: “Perhaps I'm being stupid, but surely the weather stations with their big infrared lasers -”
“Thank you, Maxine – I'm the one who's being stupid. Just a minute while I speak to Midway…”
Bartok was polite enough when Morgan called, but his brisk reply made his opinion of meddling amateurs abundantly clear.
“Sorry I bothered you,” apologised Morgan, and switched back to Maxine. “Sometimes the expert does know his job,” he told her with rueful pride. “Our man knows his. He called Monsoon Control ten minutes ago. They're computing the beam power now – they don't want to overdo it, of course, and burn everybody up.” “So I was right,” said Maxine sweetly. “You should have thought of that, Van. What else have you forgotten?”
No answer was possible, nor did Morgan attempt one. He could see Maxine's computer-mind racing ahead, and guessed what her next question would be. He was right.
“Can't you use the Spiders?”
“Even the final models are altitude-limited – their batteries can only take them up to three hundred kilometres. They were designed to inspect the Tower, when it had already entered the atmosphere.”
“Well, put in bigger batteries.”
“In a couple of hours? But that's not the problem. The only unit under test at the moment can't carry passengers.”
“You could send it up empty.”
“Sorry – we've thought of that. There must be an operator aboard to manage the docking, when the Spider comes up to the Basement. And it would still take days to get out seven people, one at a time.”
“Surely you have some plan !”
“Several, but they're all crazy. If any make sense, I'll let you know. Meanwhile, there's something you can do for us.”
“What's that?” Maxine asked suspiciously.
“Explain to your audience just why spacecraft can dock with each other six hundred kilometres up – but not with the Tower. By the time you've done that, we may have some news for you.”
As Maxine's slightly indignant image faded from the screen, and Morgan turned back once more to the well-orchestrated chaos of the Operations Room, he tried to let his mind roam as freely as possible over every aspect of the problem. Despite the polite rebuff of the Safety Officer, efficiently doing his duty up on Midway, he might be able to think of some useful ideas. Although he did not imagine that there would be any magical solution, he understood the Tower better than any living man – with the possible exception of Warren Kingsley. Warren probably knew more of the fine details; but Morgan had the clearer overall picture.
Seven men and women were stranded in the sky, in a situation that was unique in the whole history of space technology. There must be a way of getting to safety, before they were poisoned by CO2, or the pressure dropped so low that the chamber became, in literal truth, a tomb like Mahomet's – suspended between Heaven and Earth.