47. Beyond the Aurora
Morgan doubted if even Professor Sessui, five hundred kilometres above, had so spectacular a view. The storm was developing rapidly; short-wave radio – still used for many non-essential services – would by now have been disrupted all over the world. Morgan was not sure if he heard or felt a faint rustling, like the whisper of falling sand or the crackle of dry twigs. Unlike the static of the fireball, it certainly did not come from the speaker system, because it was still there when he switched off the circuit.
Curtains of pale green fire, edged with crimson, were being drawn across the sky, then shaken slowly back and forth as if by an invisible hand. They were trembling before the gusts of the solar wind, the million-kilometre-an-hour gale blowing from Sun to Earth – and far beyond. Even above Mars a feeble auroral ghost was flickering now; and sunward, the poisonous skies of Venus were ablaze. Above the pleated curtains long rays like the ribs of a half-opened fan were sweeping around the horizon; sometimes they shone straight into Morgan's eyes like the beams of a giant searchlight, leaving him dazzled for minutes. There was no need, any longer, to turn off the capsule illumination to prevent it from blinding him; the celestial fireworks outside were brilliant enough to read by.
Two hundred kilometres; Spider was still climbing silently, effortlessly. It was hard to believe that he had left earth exactly an hour ago. Hard, indeed, to believe that earth still existed; for he was now rising between the walls of a canyon of fire.
The illusion lasted only for seconds; then the momentary unstable balance between magnetic fields and incoming electric clouds was destroyed. But for that brief instant Morgan could truly believe that he was ascending out of a chasm that would dwarf even Valles Marineris – the Grand Canyon of Mars. Then the shining cliffs, at least a hundred kilometres high, became translucent and were pierced by stars. He could see them for what they really were – mere phantoms of fluorescence.
And now, like an airplane breaking through a ceiling of low-lying clouds, Spider was climbing above the display. Morgan was emerging from a fiery mist, twisting and turning beneath him. Many years ago he had been aboard a tourist liner cruising through the tropical night, and he remembered how he had joined the other passengers on the stern, entranced by the beauty and wonder of the bioluminescent wake. Some of the greens and blues flickering below him now matched the plankton-generated colours he had seen then, and he could easily imagine that he was again watching the byproducts of life – the play of giant, invisible beasts, denizens of the upper atmosphere. . .
He had almost forgotten his mission, and it was a distinct shock when he was recalled to duty.
“How's power holding up?” asked Kingsley “You've only another twenty minutes on that battery.”
Morgan glanced at his instrument panel. “It's dropped to ninety-five percent – but my rate of climb has increased by five percent. I'm doing 220 klicks.”
“That's about right, Spider's feeling the lower gravity – it's already down by ten percent at your altitude.”
That was not enough to be noticeable, particularly if one was strapped in a seat and wearing several kilos of spacesuit. Yet Morgan felt positively buoyant, and he wondered if he was getting too much oxygen.
No, the flow-rate was normal. It must be the sheer exhilaration produced by that marvellous spectacle beneath him – though it was diminishing now, drawing back to north and south, as if retreating to its polar strongholds. That, and the satisfaction of a task well begun, using a technology that no man had ever before tested to such limits.
This explanation was perfectly reasonable, but he was not satisfied with it. It did not wholly account for his sense of happiness – even of joy. Warren Kingsley, who was fond of diving, had often told him that he felt such an emotion in the weightless environment of the sea. Morgan had never shared it, but now he knew what it must be like. He seemed to have left all his cares down there on the planet hidden below the fading loops and traceries of the aurora.
The stars were coming back into their own, no longer challenged by the eerie intruder from the poles. Morgan began to search the zenith, not with any high expectations, wondering if the Tower was yet in sight. But he could make out only the first few metres, still lit by the faint auroral glow, of the narrow ribbon up which Spider was swiftly and smoothly climbing. That thin band upon which his own life – and seven others' – now depended was so uniform and featureless that it gave no hint of the capsule's speed; Morgan found it difficult to believe that it was flashing through the drive mechanism at more than two hundred kilometres an hour. And, with that thought, he was suddenly back in his childhood, and knew the source of his contentment.
He had quickly recovered from the loss of that first kite, and had graduated to larger and more elaborate models. Then, just before he had discovered Meccano and abandoned kites forever, he had experimented briefly with toy parachutes. Morgan liked to think that he had invented the idea himself, though he might well have come across it somewhere in his reading or viewing. The technique was so simple that generations of boys must have rediscovered it.
First he had whittled a thin strip of wood about five centimetres long, and fastened a couple of paper-clips on to it. Then he had hooked these around the kite-string, so that the little device could slide easily up and down. Next he had made a handkerchief-sized parachute of rice paper, with silk strings; a small square of cardboard served as payload. When he had fastened that square to the wooden strip by a rubber band – not too firmly – he was in business.
Blown by the wind, the little parachute would go sailing up the string, climbing the graceful catenary to the kite. Then Morgan would give a sharp tug, and the cardboard weight would slip out of the rubber band. The parachute would float away into the sky, while the wood-and-wire rider came swiftly back to his hand, in readiness for the next launch.
With what envy he had watched his flimsy creations drift effortlessly out to sea! Most of them fell back into the water before they had travelled even one kilometre, but sometimes a little parachute would still be bravely maintaining altitude when it vanished from sight. He liked to imagine that these lucky voyagers reached the enchanted islands of the Pacific; but though he had written his name and address on the cardboard squares he never received any reply.
Morgan could not help smiling at these long-forgotten memories, yet they explained so much. The dreams of childhood had been far surpassed by the reality of adult life; he had earned the right to his contentment.
“Coming up to three eighty,” said Kingsley. “How is the power level?”
“Beginning to drop – down to eighty-five percent – the battery's starting to fade.”
“Well, if it holds out for another twenty kilometres, it will have done its job. How do you feel?”
Morgan was tempted to answer with superlatives, but his natural caution dissuaded him. “I'm fine,” he said. “If we could guarantee a display like this for all our passengers, we wouldn't be able to handle the crowds.”
“Perhaps it could be arranged,” laughed Kingsley. “We could ask Monsoon Control to dump a few barrels of electrons in the right places. Not their usual line of business, but they're good at improvising. . . . aren't they?”
Morgan chuckled, but did not answer. His eyes were fixed on the instrument panel, where both power and rate of climb were now visibly dropping. But this was no cause for alarm; Spider had reached 385 kilometres out of the expected 400, and the booster battery still had some life in it.
At 390 kilometres Morgan started to cut back the rate of climb, until Spider crept more and more slowly upwards. Eventually the capsule was barely moving, and it finally came to rest just short of 405 kilometres.
“I'm dropping the battery,” Morgan reported. “Mind your heads.”
A good deal of thought had been given to recovering that heavy and expensive battery, but there had been no time to improvise a braking system that would let it slide safely back, like one of Morgan's kite-riders. And though a parachute had been available, it was feared that the shrouds might become entangled with the tape. Fortunately the impact area, just ten kilometres east of the earth terminus, lay in dense jungle. The wild life of Taprobane would have to take its chances, and Morgan was prepared to argue with the Department of Conservation later.
He turned the safety key and then pressed the red button that fired the explosive charges; Spider shook briefly as they detonated. Then he switched to the internal battery, slowly released the friction brakes, and again fed power into the drive motors.
The capsule started to climb on the last lap of its journey. But one glance at the instrument panel told Morgan that something was seriously wrong. Spider should have been rising at over two hundred klicks; it was doing less than one hundred, even at full power. No tests or calculations were necessary; Morgan's diagnosis was instant, for the figures spoke for themselves. Sick with frustration, he reported back to Earth.
“We're in trouble,” he said. “The charges blew – but the battery never dropped. Something's still holding it on.”
It was unnecessary, of course, to add that the mission must now be aborted. Everyone knew perfectly well that Spider could not possibly reach the base of the Tower carrying several hundred kilos of dead-weight.