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49. A Bumpy Ride

Warren Kingsley's voice had regained its control; now it was merely dull and despairing.

We're trying to stop that mechanic from shooting himself he said. But it's hard to blame him. He was interrupted by another rush job on the capsule, and simply forgot to remove the safety-strap.

So, as usual, it was human error. While the explosive links were being attached, the battery had been held in place by two metal bands. And only one of them had been removed. Such things happened with monotonous regularity; sometimes they were merely annoying, sometimes they were disastrous, and the man responsible had to carry the guilt for the rest of his days. In any event, recrimination was pointless. The only thing that mattered now was what to do next.

Morgan adjusted the external viewing mirror to its maximum downward tilt, but it was impossible to see the cause of the trouble. Now that the auroral display had faded the lower part of the capsule was in total darkness, and he had no means of illuminating it. But that problem, at least, could be readily solved. If Monsoon Control could dump kilowatts of infra-red into the basement of the Tower, it could easily spare him a few visible photons.

We can use our own searchlights, said Kingsley, when Morgan passed on his request.

No good they'll shine straight into my eyes, and I won't be able to see a thing. I want a light behind and above me there must be somebody in the right position.

I'll check, Kingsley answered, obviously glad to make some useful gesture. It seemed a long time before he called again; looking at his timer, Morgan was surprised to see that only three minutes had elapsed.

Monsoon Control could manage it, but they'd have to retune and defocus I think they're scared of frying you. But Kinte can light up immediately; they have a pseudo-white laser and they're in the right position. Shall I tell them to go ahead?

Morgan checked his bearings let's see, Kinte would be very high in the west that would be fine.

I'm ready, he answered, and closed his eyes.

Almost instantly, the capsule exploded with light. Very cautiously, Morgan opened his eyes again. The beam was coming from high in the west, still dazzlingly brilliant despite its journey of almost forty thousand kilometres. It appeared to be pure white, but he knew that it was actually a blend of three sharply-tuned lines in the red, green and blue parts of the spectrum.

After a few seconds' adjustment of the mirror he managed to get a clear view of the offending strap, half a metre beneath his feet. The end that he could see was secured to the base of Spider by a large butterfly nut; all be had to do was to unscrew that, and the battery would drop off.

Morgan sat silently analysing the situation for so many minutes that Kingsley called him again. For the first time there was a trace of hope in his deputy's voice.

We've been doing some calculations, Van. What do you think of this idea?

Morgan heard him out, then whistled softly. You're certain of the safety margin? he asked.

Of course, answered Kingsley, sounding somewhat aggrieved; Morgan hardly blamed him, but he was not the one who would be risking his neck.

Well I'll give it a try. But only for one second, the first time.

That won't be enough. Still, it's a good idea you'll get the feel of it.

Gently Morgan released the friction brakes that were holding Spider motionless on the tape. Instantly he seemed to rise out of the seat, as weight vanished. He counted One, TWO ! and engaged the brakes again.

Spider gave a jerk, and for a fraction of a second Morgan was pressed uncomfortably down into the seat. There was an ominous squeal from the braking mechanism, then the capsule was at rest again, apart from a slight torsional vibration that quickly died away.

That was a bumpy ride, said Morgan. But I'm still here and so is that infernal battery.

So I warned you. You'll have to try harder. Two seconds at least.

Morgan knew that he could not outguess Kingsley, with all the figures and computing power at his command, but he still felt the need for some reassuring mental arithmetic. Two seconds of free fall say half a second to put on the brakes allowing one ton for the mass of Spider. . . . The question was: which would go first the strap retaining the battery, or the tape that was holding him here four hundred kilometres up in the sky? In the usual way it would be no contest in a trial between hyperfilament and ordinary steel. But if he applied the brakes too suddenly or they seized owing to this maltreatment both might snap. And then he and the battery would reach the earth at very nearly the same time.

Two seconds it is, he told Kingsley. Here we go.

This time the jerk was nerve-racking in its violence, and the torsional oscillations took much longer to die out. Morgan was certain that he would have felt or heard the breaking of the strap. He was not surprised when a glance in the mirror confirmed that the battery was still there.

Kingsley did not seem too worried. It may take three or four tries, he said.

Morgan was tempted to retort: Are you after my job? but then thought better of it. Warren would be amused; other unknown listeners might not.

After the third fall he felt he had dropped kilometres, but it was only about a hundred metres even Kingsley's optimism started to fade. It was obvious that the trick was not going to work.

I'd like to send my compliments to the people who made that safety strap, said Morgan wryly. Now what do you suggest? A three-second drop before I slam on the brakes?

He could almost see Warren shake his head. Too big a risk. I'm not so much worried about the tape as the braking mechanism. It wasn't designed for this sort of thing.

Well, it was a good try, Morgan answered. But I'm not giving up yet. I'm damned if I'll be beaten by a simple butterfly nut, fifty centimetres in front of my nose. I'm going outside to get at it.

MORGAN STUCK 200 KM SHORT OF GOAL | The Fountains of Paradise | 50. The Falling Fireflies