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Rajasinghe's fingertips requested the details, and he was relieved to find that his first fears were groundless. Morgan was not stuck; he was unable to complete the journey. He could return to earth whenever he wished – but if he did Professor Sessui and his colleagues would certainly be doomed.

Directly above his head the silent drama was being played out at this very moment. Rajasinghe switched from text to video, but there was nothing new – indeed, the item now being screened in the news recap was Maxine Duval's ascent, years ago, in Spider's precursor.

“I can do better than that,” muttered Rajasinghe, and switched to his beloved telescope.

For the first months after he had become bed-ridden he had been unable to use it. Then Morgan had paid one of his brief courtesy calls, analysed the situation, and swiftly prescribed the remedy. A week later, to Rajasinghe's surprise and pleasure, a small team of technicians had arrived at the Villa Yakkagala, and had modified the instrument for remote operation. Now he could lie comfortably in bed, and still explore the starry skies and the looming face of the Rock. He was deeply grateful to Morgan for the gesture; it had shown a side of the engineer's personality he had not suspected.

He was not sure what he could see, in the darkness of the night – but he knew exactly where to look, for he had long been watching the slow descent of the Tower. When the sun was at the correct angle, he could even glimpse the four guiding tapes converging into the zenith, a quartet of shining hair-lines scratched upon the sky.

He set the azimuth bearing on the telescope control, and swung the instrument around until it pointed above Sri Kanda. As he began to track slowly upwards, looking for any sign of the capsule, he wondered what the Maha Thero was thinking about this latest development. Though Rajasinghe had not spoken to the prelate – now well into his nineties – since the Order had moved to Lhasa, he gathered that the Potala had not provided the hoped-for accommodation. The huge palace was slowly falling into decay while the Dalai Lama's executors haggled with the Chinese Federal Government over the cost of maintenance. According to Rajasinghe's latest information, the Maha Thero was now negotiating with the Vatican – also in chronic financial difficulties, but at least still master of its own house.

All things were indeed impermanent, but it was not easy to discern any cyclic pattern. Perhaps the mathematical genius of Parakarma-Goldberg might be able to do so; the last time Rajasinghe had seen him, he was receiving a major scientific award for his contributions to meteorology. Rajasinghe would never have recognised him; he was clean-shaven and wearing a suit cut in the very latest neo-Napoleonic fashion. But now, it seemed, he had switched religions again. . . . The stars slid slowly down the big monitor screen at the end of the bed, as the telescope tilted up towards the Tower. But there was no sign of the capsule, though Rajasinghe was sure that it must now be in the field of view.

He was about to switch back to the regular news channel when, like an erupting nova, a star flashed out near the lower edge of the picture. For a moment Rajasinghe wondered if the capsule had exploded; then he saw that it was shining with a perfectly steady light. He centred the image and zoomed to maximum power.

Long ago he had seen a two-century-old video-documentary of the first aerial wars, and he suddenly remembered a sequence showing a night attack upon London. An enemy bomber had been caught in a cone of searchlights, and had hung like an incandescent mote in the sky. He was seeing the same phenomenon now, on a hundredfold greater scale; but this time all the resources on the ground were combined to help, not to destroy, the determined invader of the night.

48. Night at the Villa | The Fountains of Paradise | 49. A Bumpy Ride