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51. On the Porch

Though it was cold and uncomfortable on the summit, the crowd continued to grow. There was something hypnotic about that brilliant little star in the zenith, upon which the thoughts of the world, as well as the laser beam from Kinte, were now focused. As they arrived, all the visitors would head for the north tape, and stroke it in a shy, half-defiant manner as if to say: I know this is silly, but makes me feel I'm in contact with Morgan. Then they would gather round the coffee dispenser and listen to the reports coming over the speaker system. There was nothing new from the refugees in the Tower; they were all sleeping or trying to sleep in an attempt to conserve oxygen. As Morgan was not yet overdue, they had not been informed of the hold-up; but within the next hour they would undoubtedly be calling Midway to find what had happened.

Maxine Duval had arrived at Sri Kanda just ten minutes too late to see Morgan. There was a time when such a near-miss would have made her very angry; now she merely shrugged her shoulders and reassured herself with the thought that she would be the first to grab the engineer on his return. Kingsley had not allowed her to speak to him, and she had accepted even this ruling with good grace. Yes, she was growing old. ..

For the last five minutes the only sound that had come from the capsule was a series of Checks as Morgan went through the suit routine with an expert up in Midway. That was now complete; everyone was waiting tensely for the crucial next step.

Valving the air, said Morgan, his voice overlaid with a slight echo now that he had closed the visor of his helmet. Capsule pressure zero. No problem with breathing. A thirty second pause; then: Opening the front door there it goes. Now releasing the seat-belt.

There was an unconscious stirring and murmuring among the watchers. In imagination, every one of them was up there in the capsule, aware of the void that had suddenly opened before him.

"Quick-release buckle operated. I'm stretching my legs. Not much head-room.

"Just getting the feel of the suit quite flexible now I'm going out on the porch don't worry! I've got the seat-belt wrapped around my left arm.

"Phew. Hard work, bending as much as this. But I can see that butterfly nut, underneath the porch grille. I'm working out how to reach it. ..

"On my knees now not very comfortable I've got it! Now to see if it will turn. . .

The listeners became rigid, silent then, in unison, relaxed with virtually simultaneous sighs of relief.

No problem! I can turn it easily. Two revs already any moment now just a bit more I can feel it coming off LOOK OUT DOWN BELOW!

There was a burst of clapping and cheering; some people put their hands over their heads and cowered in mock terror. One or two, not fully understanding that the falling nut would not arrive for five minutes and would descend ten kilometres to the east, looked genuinely alarmed.

Only Warren Kingsley failed to share the rejoicing. Don't cheer too soon, he said to Maxine. We're not out of the woods yet.

The seconds dragged by. . . one minute. . . two minutes

It's no use, said Morgan at last, his voice thick with rage and frustration. I can't budge the strap. The weight of the battery is holding it jammed in the threads. Those jolts we gave must have welded it to the bolt.

Come back as quickly as you can, said Kingsley. There's a new power-cell on the way, and we can manage a turn-around in less than an hour. So we can still get up to the Tower in-oh, say six hours. Barring any further accidents, of course.

Precisely, thought Morgan; and he would not care to take Spider up again without a thorough check of the much-abused braking mechanism. Nor would he trust himself to make a second trip; he was already feeling the strain of the last few hours, and fatigue would soon be slowing down his mind and body, just when he needed maximum efficiency from both.

He was back in the seat now, but the capsule was still open to space and he had not yet refastened the safety belt. To do so would be to admit defeat; and that had never been easy for Morgan.

The unwinking glare of the Kinte laser, coming from almost immediately above, still transfixed him with its pitiless light. He tried to focus his mind upon the problem, as sharply as that beam was focused upon him.

All that he needed was a metal cutter a hacksaw, or a pair of shears that could sever the retaining strap. Once again he cursed the fact that there was no tool-kit aboard Spider; even so, it would hardly have contained what he needed.

There were megawatt-hours of energy stored in Spider's own battery; could he use that in any way? He had a brief fantasy of establishing an arc and burning through the strap; but even if suitable heavy conductors were available and of course they weren't the main power supply was inaccessible from the control cab.

Warren and all the skilled brains gathered around him had failed to find any solution. He was on his own, physically and intellectually. It was, after all, the situation he had always preferred.

And then, just as he was about to reach out and close the capsule door, Morgan knew what he had to do. All the time the answer had been right by his finger-tips.

50. The Falling Fireflies | The Fountains of Paradise | 52. The Other Passenger