57. The Last Dawn
Morgan was back in the Basement for only five minutes; this was no time for social amenities, and he did not wish to consume any of the precious oxygen he had brought here with such difficulty. He shook hands all round, and scrambled back into Spider.
It was good to breathe again without a mask – better still to know that his mission had been a complete success, and that in less than three hours he would be safely back on Earth. Yet, after all the effort that had gone into reaching the Tower, he was reluctant to cast off again, and to surrender once more to the pull of gravity – even though it was now taking him home. But presently he released the docking latches and started to fall downwards, becoming weightless for several seconds.
When the speed indicator reached three hundred klicks, the automatic braking system came on and weight returned. The brutally depleted battery would be recharging now, but it must have been damaged beyond repair and would have to be taken out of service.
There was an ominous parallel here: Morgan could not help thinking of his own overstrained body, but a stubborn pride still kept him from asking for a doctor on stand-by. He had made a little bet with himself; he would do so only if CORA spoke again.
She was silent now, as he dropped swiftly through the night. Morgan felt totally relaxed, and left Spider to look after itself while he admired the heavens. Few spacecraft provided so panoramic a view, and not many men could ever have seen the stars under such superb conditions. The aurora had vanished completely, the searchlight had been extinguished, and there was nothing left to challenge the constellations.
Except, of course, the stars that man himself had made. Almost directly overhead was the dazzling beacon of Ashoka, poised forever above Hindustan – and only a few hundred kilometres from the Tower complex. Halfway down in the east was Confucius, much lower still Kamehameha, while high up from the west shone Kinte and Imhotep. These were merely the brightest signposts along the equator; there were literally scores of others, all of them far more brilliant than Sirius. How astonished one of the old astronomers would have been to see this necklace around the sky; and how bewildered he would have become when, after an hour or so's observation, he discovered that they were quite immobile – neither rising nor setting while the familiar stars drifted past in their ancient courses.
As he stared at the diamond necklace stretched across the sky, Morgan's sleepy mind slowly transformed it into something far more impressive. With only a slight effort of the imagination, those man-made stars became the lights of a titanic bridge.
He drifted into still wilder fantasies. What was the name of the bridge into Valhalla, across which the heroes of the Norse legends passed from this world to the next? He could not remember, but it was a glorious dream. And had other creatures, long before Man, tried in vain to span the skies of their own worlds? He thought of the splendid rings encircling Saturn, the ghostly arches of Uranus and Neptune. Although he knew perfectly well that none of these worlds had ever felt the touch of life, it amused him to think that here were the shattered fragments of bridges that had failed.
He wanted to sleep but, against his will, imagination had seized upon the idea. Like a dog that had just discovered a new bone, it would not let go. The concept was not absurd; it was not even original. Many of the synchronous stations were already kilometres in extent, or linked by cables which stretched along appreciable fractions of their orbit. To join them together, thus forming a ring completely around the world, would be an engineering task much simpler than the building of the Tower, and involving much less material.
No – not a ring – a wheel. This Tower was only the first spoke. There would be others (four? six? a score?) spaced along the equator. When they were all connected rigidly up there in orbit, the problems of stability that plagued a single tower would vanish. Africa – South America, the Gilbert Islands, Indonesia – they could all provide locations for earth terminals, if desired. For some day, as materials improved and knowledge advanced, the Towers could be made invulnerable even to the worst hurricanes, and mountain sites would no longer be necessary. If he had waited another hundred years, perhaps he need not have disturbed the Maha Thero.
While he was dreaming the thin crescent of the waning moon had lifted unobtrusively above the eastern horizon, already aglow with the first hint of dawn. Earthshine lit the entire lunar disc so brilliantly that Morgan could see much of the nightland detail; he strained his eyes in the hope of glimpsing that loveliest of sights, never seen by earlier ages – a star within the arms of the crescent moon. But none of the cities of man's second home was visible tonight.
Only two hundred kilometers – less than an hour to go. There was no point in trying to keep awake; Spider had automatic terminal programming and would touch gently down without disturbing his sleep.
The pain woke him first; CORA was a fraction of a second later. “Don't try to move,” she said soothingly. “I've radioed for help. The ambulance is on the way.”
That was funny. But don't laugh, Morgan ordered himself, she's only doing her best. He felt no fear; though the pain beneath his breastbone was intense, it was not incapacitating. He tried to focus his mind upon it, and the very act of concentration relieved the symptoms. Long ago he had discovered that the best way of handling pain was to study it objectively.
Warren was calling him, but the words were far away and had little meaning. He could recognise the anxiety in his friend's voice, and wished that he could do something to alleviate it; but he had no strength left to deal with this problem – or with any other. Now he could not even hear the words; a faint but steady roar had obliterated all other sounds. Though he knew that it existed only in his mind – or the labyrinthine channels of his ears – it seemed completely real; he could believe that he was standing at the foot of some great waterfall. ..
It was growing fainter, softer – more musical. And suddenly he recognised it. How pleasant to hear once more, on the silent frontier of space, the sound he remembered from his very first visit to Yakkagala!
Gravity was drawing him home again, as through the centuries its invisible hand had shaped the trajectory of the Fountains of Paradise. But he had created something that gravity could never recapture, as long as men possessed the wisdom and the will to preserve it.
How cold his legs were! What had happened to Spider's life-support system? But soon it would be dawn; then there would be warmth enough.
The stars were fading, far more swiftly than they had any right to do. That was strange; though the day was almost here, everything around him was growing dark. And the fountains were sinking back into the earth, their voices becoming fainter fainter. . . fainter.
And now there was another voice, but Vannevar Morgan did not hear it. Between brief, piercing bleeps CORA cried to the approaching dawn:
HELP! WILL ANYONE WHO HEARS ME PLEASE COME AT ONCE!
THIS IS A CORA EMERGENCY!
HELP! WILL ANYONE WHO HEARS ME PLEASE COME AT ONCE!
She was still calling when the sun came up, and its first rays caressed the summit of mountain that had once been sacred. Far below the shadow of Sri Kanda leaped forth upon the clouds, its perfect cone still unblemished, despite all that man had done.
There were no pilgrims now, to watch that symbol of eternity lie across the face of the awakening land. But millions would see it, in the centuries ahead, as they rode in comfort and safety to the stars.