45. The Man for the Job
“We can do it,” said Warren Kingsley with a broad smile. “Spider can reach the Basement.”
“You've been able to add enough extra battery power?”
“Yes, but it's a very close thing. It will have to be a two-stage affair, like the early rockets. As soon as the battery is exhausted, it must be jettisoned to get rid of the dead weight. That will be around four hundred kilometres; Spider's internal battery will take it the rest of the way.”
“And how much payload will that give?”
Kingsley's smile faded.
“Marginal. About fifty kilos, with the best batteries we have.”
“Only fifty! What use will that be?”
“It should be enough. A couple of those new thousand-atmosphere tanks, each holding five kilos of oxygen. Molecular filter masks to keep out the CO2. A little water and compressed food. Some medical supplies. We can bring it all in under forty-five kilos.”
“Phew! And you're sure that's sufficient?”
“Yes – it will tide them over until the transporter arrives from the 10K Station. And if necessary Spider can make a second trip.”
“What does Bartok think?”
“He approves. After all, no one has any better ideas.”
Morgan felt that a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Plenty of things could still go wrong, but at last there was a ray of hope; the feeling of utter helplessness had been dispelled.
“When will all this be ready?” he asked.
“If there are no hold-ups, within two hours. Three at the most. It's all standard equipment, luckily. Spider's being checked out right now. There's only one matter still to be decided…”
Vannevar Morgan shook his head. “No, Warren,” he answered slowly, in a calm, implacably determined voice that his friend had never heard before. “There's nothing more to decide.”
“I'm not trying to pull rank on you, Bartok,” said Morgan. “It's a simple matter of logic. True, anyone can drive Spider – but only half-a-dozen men know all the technical details involved. There may be some operational problems when we reach the Tower, and I'm in the best position to solve them.”
“May I remind you, Dr. Morgan,” said the Safety Officer, “that you are sixty-five. It would be wiser to send a younger man.”
“I'm not sixty-five; I'm sixty-six. And age has absolutely nothing to do with it. There's no danger, and certainly no requirement for physical strength.”
And, he might have added, the psychological factors were far more important than the physical ones. Almost anybody could ride passively up and down in a capsule, as Maxine Duval had done and millions of others would be doing in the years ahead. It would be quite another matter to face some of the situations that could easily arise, six hundred kilometres up in the empty sky.
“I still think,” said Safety Officer Bartok with gentle persistence, “that it would be best to send a younger man. Dr. Kingsley, for example.”
Behind him, Morgan heard (or had he imagined?) his colleague's suddenly indrawn breath. For years they had joked over the fact that Warren had such an aversion to heights that he never inspected the structures he designed. His fear fell short of genuine acrophobia, and he could overcome it when absolutely necessary; he had, after all, joined Morgan in stepping from Africa to Europe. But that was the only time that anyone had ever seen him drunk in public, and he was not seen at all for twenty-four hours afterwards.
Warren was out of the question, even though Morgan knew that he would be prepared to go. There were times when technical ability and sheer courage were not enough; no man could fight against fears that had been implanted in him at his birth, or during his earliest childhood.
Fortunately, there was no need to explain this to the Safety Officer. There was a simpler and equally valid reason why Warren should not go. Only a very few times in his life had Vannevar Morgan been glad of his small size; this was one of them.
“I'm fifteen kilos lighter than Kingsley,” he told Bartok. “In a marginal operation like this, that should settle the matter. So let's not waste any more precious time in argument.”
He felt a slight twinge of conscience, knowing that this was unfair. Bartok was only doing his job, very efficiently, and it would be another hour before the capsule was ready. No one was wasting any time.
For long seconds the two men stared into each other's eyes as if the twenty-five thousand kilometres between them did not exist. If there was a direct trial of strength, the situation could be messy. Bartok was nominally in charge of all safety operations, and could theoretically over-rule even the Chief Engineer and Project Manager. But he might find it difficult to enforce his authority; both Morgan and Spider were far below him on Sri Kanda, and possession was nine points of the law.
Bartok shrugged his shoulders, and Morgan relaxed.
“You have a point. I'm still not too happy, but I'll go along with you. Good luck.”
“Thank you,” Morgan answered quietly, as the image faded from the screen. Turning to the still silent Kingsley, he said:
Only as they were leaving the Operations Room on the way back to the summit did Morgan automatically feel for the little pendant concealed beneath his shirt. CORA had not bothered him for months, and not even Warren Kingsley knew of her existence. Was he gambling with other lives as well as his own, just to satisfy his own selfish pride? If Safety Officer Bartok had known about this…
It was too late now. Whatever his motives, he was committed.