53. Fade Out
The fact that he was still only thirty minutes behind schedule seemed too good to be true; Morgan would have been prepared to swear that the capsule had halted for at least an hour. Up there in the Tower, now much less than two hundred kilometres away, the reception committee would be preparing to welcome him. He refused even to consider the possibility of any further problems.
When he passed the five-hundred-kilometre mark, still going strong, there was a message of congratulations from the ground. “By the way,” added Kingsley, “the Game Warden in the Ruhana Sanctuary's reported an aircraft crashing. We were able to reassure him – if we can find the hole, we may have a souvenir for you.” Morgan had no difficulty in restraining his enthusiasm; he was glad to see the last of that battery. Now if they could find the spinnerette – but that would be a hopeless task…
The first sign of trouble came at five-fifty kilometres. By now the rate of ascent should have been over two hundred klicks; it was only one nine eight. Slight though the discrepancy was – and it would make no appreciable difference to his arrival time – it worried Morgan.
When he was only thirty kilometres from the Tower he had diagnosed the problem, and knew that this time there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Although there should have been ample reserve, the battery was beginning to fade. Perhaps those sudden jolts and restarts had brought on the malaise; possibly there was even some physical damage to the delicate components. Whatever the explanation the current was slowly dropping, and with it the capsule's speed.
There was consternation when Morgan reported the indicator readings back to the ground.
“I'm afraid you're right,” Kingsley lamented, sounding almost in tears. “We suggest you cut speed back to one hundred klicks. We'll try to calculate battery life – though it can only be an educated guess.”
Twenty-five kilometres to go – a mere fifteen minutes, even at this reduced speed! If Morgan had been able to pray, he would have done so.
“We estimate you have between ten and twenty minutes, judging by the rate the current is dropping. It will be a close thing, I'm afraid.”
“Shall I reduce speed again?”
“Not for the moment; we're trying to optimise your discharge rate, and this seems about right.”
“Well, you can switch on your beam now. If I can't get to the Tower, at least I want to see it.”
Neither Kinte nor the other orbiting stations could help him, now that he wished to look up at the underside of the Tower. This was a task for the searchlight on Sri Kanda itself, pointing vertically towards the zenith.
A moment later the capsule was impaled by a dazzling beam from the heart of Taprobane. Only a few metres away – indeed, so close that he felt he could touch them – the other three guiding tapes were ribbons of light, converging towards the Tower. He followed their dwindling perspective – and there it was.
Just twenty kilometres away! He should be there in a dozen minutes, coming up through the floor of that tiny square building he could see glittering in the sky, bearing presents like some troglodytic Father Christmas. Despite his determination to relax, and obey CORA's orders, it was quite impossible to do so. He found himself tensing his muscles, as if by his own physical exertions he could help Spider along the last fraction of its journey.
At ten kilometres there was a distinct change of pitch from the drive motor; Morgan had been expecting this, and reacted to it at once. Without waiting for advice from the ground, he cut speed back to fifty klicks. At this rate he still had twelve minutes to go, and he began to wonder despairingly if he was involved in an asymptotic approach. This was a variant of the race between Achilles and the tortoise; if he halved his speed every time he halved the distance, would he reach the Tower in a finite time? Once he would have known the answer instantly; now he felt too tired to work it out.
At five kilometres he could see the constructional details of the Tower – the catwalk and protective rails, the futile safety net provided as a sop to public opinion. Although he strained his eyes he could not yet make out the airlock towards which he was now crawling with such agonising slowness.
And then it no longer mattered. Two kilometres short of the goal Spider's motors stalled completely. The capsule even slid downwards a few metres, before Morgan was able to apply the brakes.
Yet this time, to Morgan's surprise, Kingsley did not seem utterly downcast.
“You can still make it,” he said. “Give the battery ten minutes to recuperate. There's still enough energy there for that last couple of kilometres.”
It was one of the longest ten minutes that Morgan had ever known. Though he could have made it pass more swiftly by responding to Maxine Duval's increasingly desperate pleas, he felt too emotionally exhausted to talk. He was genuinely sorry about this, and hoped that Maxine would understand and forgive him.
He did have one brief exchange with Driver-Pilot Chang, who reported that the refugees in the Basement were still in fairly good shape, and much encouraged by his nearness. They were taking turns to peer at him through the one small porthole of the airlock's outer door, and simply could not believe that he might never be able to bridge the trifling space between them.
Morgan gave the battery an extra minute for luck. To his relief the motors responded strongly, with an encouraging surge of power. Spider got within half a kilometre of the Tower before stalling again.
"Next time does it," said Kingsley, though it seemed to Morgan that his friend's confidence now sounded somewhat forced. "Sorry for all these delays. . .
“Another ten minutes?” Morgan asked with resignation.
“I'm afraid so. And this time use thirty-second bursts, with a minute between them. That way, you'll get the last erg out of the battery.”
And out of me, thought Morgan. Strange that CORA had been quiet for so long. Still, this time be had not exerted himself physically; it only felt that way.
In his preoccupation with Spider he had been neglecting himself. For the last hour he had quite forgotten his zero-residue glucose-based energy tablets and the little plastic bulb of fruit juice. After he had sampled both he felt much better, and only wished that he could transfer some of the surplus calories to the dying battery.
Now for the moment of truth – the final exertion. Failure was unthinkable, when he was so close to the goal. The fates could not possibly be so malevolent, now that he had only a few hundred metres to go. ..
He was whistling in the dark, of course. How many aircraft had crashed at the very edge of the runway, after safely crossing an ocean? How many times had machines or muscles failed, when there were only millimetres to go? Every possible piece of luck, bad as well as good, happened to somebody, somewhere. He had no right to expect any special treatment.
The capsule heaved itself upwards in fits and starts, like a dying animal seeking its last haven. When the battery finally expired, the base of the Tower seemed to fill half the sky.
But it was still twenty metres above him.