56. View from the Balcony
The outer door of the north airlock opened without difficulty, framing a rectangle of complete darkness. Running horizontally across that darkness was a line of fire – the protective hand-rail of the catwalk, blazing in the beam of the searchlight pointed straight up from the mountain so far below. Morgan took a deep breath and flexed the suit. He felt perfectly comfortable, and waved to Chang, peering at him through the window of the inner door. Then he stepped out of the Tower.
The catwalk that surrounded the Basement was a metal grille about two metres wide; beyond it the safety net had been stretched out for another thirty metres. The portion that Morgan could see had caught nothing whatsoever during its years of patient waiting.
He started his circumnavigation of the Tower, shielding his eyes against the glare blasting up from underfoot. The oblique lighting showed up every least bump and imperfection in the surface that stretched above him like a roadway to the stars – which, in a sense, it was.
As he had hoped and expected, the explosion on the far side of the Tower had caused no damage here; that would have required an atomic bomb, not a mere electro-chemical one. The twin grooves of the track, now awaiting their first arrival, stretched endlessly upwards in their pristine perfection. And fifty metres below the balcony – though it was hard to look in that direction because of the glare – he could just make out the terminal buffers, ready for a task which they should never have to perform.
Taking his time, and keeping close to the sheer face of the Tower, Morgan walked slowly westwards until he came to the first corner. As he turned he looked back at the open door of the airlock, and the – relative, indeed! – safety that it represented. Then he continued boldly along the blank wall of the west face.
He felt a curious mixture of elation and fear, such as he had not known since he had learned to swim and found himself for the first time, in water out of his depth. Although he was certain that there was no real danger, there could be. He was acutely aware of CORA, biding her time; but Morgan bad always hated to leave any job undone, and his mission was not yet complete.
The west face was exactly like the north one, except for the absence of an airlock. Again, there was no sign of damage, even though it was closer to the scene of the explosion.
Checking the impulse to hurry – after all, he had been outside for only three minutes – Morgan strolled on to the next corner. Even before he turned it, he could see that he was not going to complete his planned circuit of the Tower. The catwalk had been ripped off and was dangling out into space, a twisted tongue of metal. The safety net had vanished altogether, doubtless torn away by the falling transporter.
I won't press my luck, Morgan told himself. But he could not resist peering round the corner, holding on to the section of the guard rail that still remained.
There was a good deal of debris stuck in the track, and the face of the Tower had been discoloured by the explosion. But, as far as Morgan could see, even here there was nothing that could not be put right in a couple of hours by a few men with cutting torches. He gave a careful description to Chang, who expressed relief and urged Morgan to get back into the Tower as soon as possible.
“Don't worry,” said Morgan. “I've still got ten minutes and all of thirty metres to go. I could manage on the air I have in my lungs now.”
But he did not intend to put it to the test. He had already had quite enough excitement for one night. More than enough, if CORA was to be believed; from now on he would obey her orders implicitly.
When he had walked back to the open door of the airlock he stood for a few final moments beside the guard-rail, drenched by the fountain of light leaping up from the summit of Sri Kanda far below. It threw his own immensely elongated shadow directly along the Tower, vertically upwards towards the stars. That shadow must stretch for thousands of kilometres, and it occurred to Morgan that it might even reach the transporter now dropping swiftly down from the 10K Station. If he waved his arms the rescuers might be able to see his signals; he could talk to them in Morse code.
This amusing fantasy inspired a more serious thought. Would it be best for him to wait here, with the others, and not risk the return to earth in Spider? But the journey up to Midway, where he could get good medical attention, would take a week. That was not a sensible alternative, since he could be back on Sri Kanda in less than three hours.
Time to go inside – his air must be getting low and there was nothing more to see. That was a disappointing irony, considering the spectacular view one would normally have here, by day or by night. Now, however, the planet below and the heavens above were both banished by the blinding glare from Sri Kanda; he was floating in a tiny universe of light, surrounded by utter darkness on every side. It was almost impossible to believe that he was in space, if only because of his sense of weight. He felt as secure as if he were standing on the mountain itself, instead of six hundred kilometres above it. That was a thought to savour, and to carry back to earth.
He patted the smooth, unyielding surface of the Tower, more enormous in comparison to him than an elephant to an amoeba. But no amoeba could ever conceive of an elephant – still less create one.
“See you on earth in a year's time,” Morgan whispered, and slowly closed the airlock door behind him.