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"Christ ... it's big," Harding said in a hoarse whisper. "I didn't think anything could be that big."
Big was too small a word. A gleaming skyscraper in the flat plain; a windowless tower of metal that dwarfed the buildings round it. Not a building; a spacecraft. 20,000 tons that would soon roar flame from its engines, shudder and rise, at first slowly then faster and faster, and soar arrow-like into space. The largest spacecraft men had ever built or dreamed of.
Large as their four-engined jet was, it was dwarfed to insignificance. It was a fly buzzing round a steeple. Here were the six gleaming boosters, each of them identical, each larger than the largest American spacecraft ever built. In flight the outer five would drop away once their fuel had been expended, leaving the central core booster to hurtle on with the payload. But payload was too trivial a word for this Prometheus; Prometheus the mortal who stole fire from the gods and brought it back to Earth, now Prometheus the machine that would circle the Earth 22,300 miles up, would reach out silver arms and seize the sun's energy and hurtle it down to Earth. The answer to mankind's energy problem, the ultimate solution that would supply unlimited power. Forever.
This was the plan. The enormity of it was driven home to Patrick Winter now by the sheer size of Prometheus. When his aircraft had completed its circle he straightened the wheel and eased it forward, dropping towards the waiting runway. Buthis mind wasn't completely on his task and he was a good enough pilot to know it.
"Bring her in, will you, Colonel?" he asked.
Harding nodded and took control. He knew what the other man was thinking. Like an afterimage the memory of that burnished metal tower hung before him too. He brushed it away and concentrated; the multiple wheels touched down and he reversed thrust on the engines, braked and slowed. Only when they were rumbling along the taxiway towards the buildings did he speak.
"And you're going to fly that son-of-a-bitch?"
It was halfway between a statement and a question, perhaps a suspicion that something as big as that couldn't ever lift off the ground. Patrick heard the tone and understood; he grinned slightly as he unbuckled and stood.
"Yes, I'm going to fly that son-of-a-bitch."
He went back to the main cabin and 1. L. J. Flax signaled him to come over. Flax sat on the couch, lolling back, the telephone handset almost lost in his big hand. Flax normally didn't enjoy flying because he was too cramped. Over six feet tall, he must have been over six feet around the middle as well; with his legs wide apart he filled the couch. He had a tendency to sweat and his shaven, bald skull was dotted with droplets.
"Yes, all right," he said in his clear, ever-so-slightly accented English. "Keep the line to them open. I'll call again as soon as formalities are over." He could have been talking to anywhere in the world. Air Force One had the communications capacity of an aircraft carrier. Flax hung up the phone and pushed it away, scowling unseeingly at the window.
"Still under observation but the medics seem to agree that it's appendicitis," he said. "They'll operate in a couple of hours. Wonderful. You'd think a doctor would take better care of himself. Why the hell should a doctor get appendicitis?" He shook his head in unbelief, his loose jowls flapping.
"Maybe you don't believe it, Flax, but doctors have appendixes too." Patrick stood in front of the full-length mirror and knotted his tie. At thirty-seven he didn't look too bad. An Apollo next to Flax--but then anyone was. His gut was still flat and he exercised enough to stay in shape. Handsome enough so that girls didn't run away screaming, although his jaw was on the large size and his hairline had a tendency tocreep a little higher every year. He pulled the knot tight and reached for his jacket. "And Kennelly does have a backup. We've all worked with Feinberg and he'll do the job all right."
"Ten will get you twenty he never shows," Ely Bron said.
Ely was sitting by the window, his long nose in a book--its usual position--and hadn't appeared to be listening. But he had the maddening ability of being able to read and talk at the same time. He could win an argument and remember every word of the chapter he had read while doing it. He turned a page.
"What's the bet?" Patrick asked. "Feinberg's our only backup medic. He has to show."
"Really? Then let's see your ten spot."
"It's a bet," Flax said. "Do you know something we don't, Ely?"
"Know, guess, ear to the wall. It's the same thing."
"I'll take another ten if you're throwing your money away," Patrick said. He buttoned his uniform jacket and brushed some invisible dust from his major's oakleaves. It was probably ten bucks thrown away since Dr. Ely Bron had a way of usually being right about things and of winning bets. And he would let you know too. Patrick tried hard to like his nuclear physicist colleague but was aware that he did not always succeed.
"Let's go," Flax said, heaving his bulk to his feet as they slowed and stopped. "Band, guard of honor, politicians, usual crap."
"Is it good afternoon or good evening?" Patrick asked, looking at his watch.
"Dobry Vyecher is good at any time," Flax said. "Or Zdractvootye."
Through the open door came the first notes of the Star Spangled Banner, slightly off key and with the beat wrong, sounding more like a Russian folk song than the seige of Fort McHenry. The ranked batteries of cameras clicked when they appeared at the head of the stairs, and the reception party stepped forward. There were some mercifully brief speeches of welcome, in Russian, followed by equally brief statements of pleasure at being able to come--then it was inside for the vodka and caviar. And the press. Patrick was relieved that Flax fielded most of the questions, switching from Russian to Polish to German to English without hesitation. Ely Bronseemed to do just as well in French and German, no doubt learned in his spare time at MIT when he wasn't getting another master's or doctorate. Patrick had worked hard on his technical Russian and knew he could work a space flight in it--but he wasn't up to conducting any interviews. It would have to be English or nothing. A short man in a very wrinkled suit pushed through the crowd towards him. His glasses were stained and he had a tendency to spray fine droplets when he talked.
"Pilkington, World Star, London," he said in faint cockney and pushed a microphone towards Patrick. "Major Winter, as Commander of this venture I imagine you must have very definite ideas about it. Firstly the danger ..."
"I don't think venture is quite the right word." Patrick smiled when he spoke; he had met Pilkington's type before on both sides of the Atlantic. There were reporters who wanted facts, hard news. And there were others who wrote primarily for people who moved their lips when they read. He had read World Star occasionally and thought it made ideal catbox lining, but remembered his training. "Always be nice to the press."
"Operation Prometheus is a joint Soviet-American project that combines the specific knowledge and talents of both countries in a way that will benefit the whole world."
"You mean the Russians are better at something than the Americans?" The microphone hovered close and Patrick, still holding his sincere smile, thought how much better it would be pushed down Pilkington's throat.
"What we're doing is beyond political or national rivalries. The Prometheus operation will supply pollution-free energy at a time when traditional sources of power are running out. Eventually it will supply this energy to every nation on the face of the earth ... ."
"But now only the Russians and the Americans are going to get any?"
"Right now just the Soviets and the Americans are building and financing the project which has cost twenty-two billion dollars to launch. Once in place it can be expanded far more cheaply. In any case any increase in total world energy supplies will benefit everybody."
Pilkington wiped his lips with the back of his hand and twitched, then took a new tack. "The danger, that's the thingthe whole world's worried about. This death ray you'll be shooting out, it could wipe out whole cities, couldn't it?"
"That's not quite true, Mr. Pilkington, I'm afraid you must have been reading your own paper." A quick thrust instantly half-regretted. "Colonel Kuznekov developed the technique and it has been tested as thoroughly as anyone knows how. Electricity is generated from sunlight in space by simple thermal means, a turbine-driven generator, then broadcast as a beam of high-energy short waves. These are received on Earth and converted back into electricity."
"But couldn't this death ray get out of control and wipe the countryside right out?"
"The radio waves are the same as the radio waves that are all round us now. They're just stronger; more concentrated. Admittedly if you stood in the right spot they could cook you." His voice left no doubt as to who it was that needed cooking. "But this is a very remote possibility. The receiving antennae are located in extremely remote surroundings, and there are a great number of automatic controls to stop the broadcasting if any emergency should arise." Patrick looked across the room, over the reporter's head, and saw Nadya standing against the far wall. "You'll have to excuse me, I'm needed over there. Be sure and tell your readers that Britain's power grid is ideally set up to distribute electricity of this kind. Eventually it will supply all the UK's power needs--incidentally getting rid of all the pollution you get through the burning of irreplaceable coal and oil. Thank you."
He ducked round the microphone and pushed his way through the crowd, reaching out to take two of the tiny glasses of icy vodka from a tray. She turned as he came up. The remembered face with the transparent, ice-blue eyes with the little tilt at their corners, the hair golden as Ukrainian wheat. She was in uniform, a wide leather belt tight about the long jacket, a row of little medals on ribbons pinned over the swell of her breast.
"Welcome to the Soviet Union, Major Winter." She took one of the glasses and raised it, unsmiling.
"Thank you, Major Kalinina." He drank it down with a single motion and his eyes never left hers. Her fixed expression did not change. "Nadya, after this thing is over I would like to talk to you ... ."
"There will be many opportunities for conversation, Major, during our official duties."
"Damn it, Nadya, you know what I mean. I want to explain ... ."
"I do know what you mean, Major, and no explanations are needed. If you will excuse me."
Her voice, like her expression, never altered, but when she turned around her skirt swirled out and dropped back to her polished leather boots, swirling faster perhaps than she had intended. Patrick watched her receding back and smiled. She was still a woman. Maybe she hated him but by God she wasn't indifferent to him.
What had it been, just four months since she had left Houston? After those long, long weeks of training on the Prometheus Flight Deck simulator. At first he had felt like all the other Americans in the program, felt angrier if anything because he would have to fly with her as his copilot. Sure, everyone knew that the Russians had women in their space program, Valentina Tereshkova had been the first and others had come after her. But Prometheus was too big a project for anything but the best--and the Soviets had sent a woman. A political publicity ploy, nothing else. Good old USSR, home of female and racial equality, shining example to capitalistic USA where male fascists cracked the whip over women and the darker races. Maybe that had been the idea behind their choosing Nadya, there was no way to tell, but she had done her job and had done it so well that no one had ever found anything to bitch about. She was too good at what she did. From the very first moment they had met in Houston, she had had Patrick on the defensive ... .
"Ya orchen rad vctretitsa s vamy," Patrick had said.
"How do you do, Major Winter. You have a very good accent and I am sure when we speak Russian during operations that there will be no problem. But wouldn't it be better if we spoke English now?"
Sure, because your English is perfect and I probably sound like an illiterate coal miner from the Caucasus. But he couldn't be sure of this because she quickly added that she had never been in an English-speaking country before and she hoped he and everyone would permit her to talk with native speakers to perfect her knowledge of the language. Feeling likea very native speaker, he had agreed.
The training had been rough but she had hacked it without getting a hair out of place. Like Patrick, she had first trained to fly fighters, then gone on to be a test pilot. Unlike him she had gone back to school for a degree in orbital navigation. She had flown a number of missions on Soyuz and then on Salyut. At times he felt lucky that he had one more space mission than she had--plus the fact that the last stage of Prometheus was an American design. Or he would have been working as copilot for her. She had even been made a major a month before he had. It was enough to give a normally superior male intense feelings of inferiority.
Not only that but she was goddamn good-looking. The blond hair, blue eyes and tilty-nose bit was okay, though she rarely smiled and wore a baggy jump suit for training. But Sundays were always free, a NASA rule in Houston, and on her second one she had accepted an invite for a hamburger barbecue around the pool at Doc Kennelly's. Doc was a stocky, smiling Irishman with a doting wife and seven noisy kids who was, behind the jokes and the Irish whiskey, the best space medic in the business. Nadya may have tried to dodge the invitation, but she never had a real chance to say no. She showed up at the party in a Russian cotton dress of such massive ugliness that she appeared more feminine and attractive by comparison. May Kennelly had taken one horrified look and whisked her into the house and behind closed doors. Some form of feminine argument, backed up by the stewpot climate of a Houston August, had got Nadya into a wispy blue bikini that brought on a whistling round of masculine applause. She accepted it with a small bow then did a smooth dive into the pool. The afternoon had been all a breeze after that. Once out of uniform Nadya seemed to be a more accessible person, ready to talk about trivial things, ready to smile. When Doc shouted Come and get it, Patrick grabbed two paper plates and loaded them up. Nadya was drying her hair with a thick towel and looking very good indeed in the bikini.
"Hungry?" he asked.
"Ravenous. Like a Siberian wolf."
"Then you're in luck. Doc's burgers have no relation to those rubber shoe heels we get in the commissary. Ground sirloin, Bermuda onions, Canadian cheddar--along with May's secret formula bean salad, cole slaw, garlic pickles,french fries, that's the way, douse them with ketchup, and all the rest. Dig in."
She did, with an appetite as good as his, washed down with cans of Jax beer from the ice-filled washtub. "This is very good," she said.
"You better believe it, real American home cooking for a Sunday afternoon. If you were back in Russia what would you be eating now?"
"That would depend where you were. The Soviet Union is very large you must remember, with many different peoples. At my home in Leningrad there would be herring and brown bread, perhaps cucumber in sour cream, very good in summer, and kvass to drink."
"You do not have it here. It is a drink made from old bread ... ."
"Doesn't sound so great."
"Oh, no, it is. Like a beer. Very good in hot weather."
It was easy talk, not really important, but still fun. Nadya lay back on the grass, her arms behind her head, and even if he had wanted to Patrick could not have ignored the rise and fall of her breasts.
"Have you a family back home?"
"Yes, one brother and one sister. Both married and I am an aunt three times now. When I go home there is always plenty of family to see."
"And you never married?"
"No. One day perhaps, but I've been too busy up until now. But you shouldn't talk. In all the publicity releases from NASA I read that you are the only unmarried astronaut. What is your reason?"
"No reason, really. I guess I like being a bachelor and don't want to be tied down. I suppose I just enjoy playing the field."
"This expression, I do not understand it."
"Slang. You know, like playing around, only not so much the same thing. Going out with girls and enjoying a healthy sex life without worrying about hearing the wedding bells chime."
Nadya sat abruptly and pulled the towel around her shoulders, her unrevealing working expression back on her face. "In the Soviet Union we do not talk about this sort of thing."
"Really. Well we certainly do here. You get some of these wives alone and you'll hear some utterly fascinating things.Relax, Nadya, it's just reality, you know. I'm a healthy male of thirty-seven. You wouldn't really believe I was a virgin, would you? And you are, what did the release say, thirty years old, and damn good-looking too so you ... ."
"You must excuse me." She rose swiftly to her feet. "I must thank Dr. and Mrs. Kennelly for their hospitality."
They never talked this way again. Not that Nadya was distant or even unfriendly, just that the relationship always stayed a professional one. If they did have a chance for small talk, between training sessions in the simulator trainer when the computer was having problems, it was the kind of talk two pilots who barely knew each other might have during a flight. Trivial but never personal. This situation continued right through their months of training, right to the very end. They worked well together and both did their job in a highly professional manner. Period. After work they never saw one another unless it was at some official function, like the going-away party. This stage of the training was ended. In the morning the Soviet team would be jetting back to Baikonur--Star City --the big Soviet rocket complex. The next time they would all meet would be at Baikonur, for the launch.
It was hot and the air conditioner was overloaded, they were all in uniform and drank a lot of toasts. Patrick realized that it took three good blinks before he could focus his eyes well enough to read his watch. After two in the morning. Time to go. He had brought the car and he still wasn't so wiped out that he couldn't drive it home easily through the wide, empty streets. But no more drink. Stepping over a broken glass, he found the front door. On the steps two Russians were holding up the unconscious form of a third. Patrick walked around them digging out his keys. Someone was standing quietly under a tree near the cars and as he came close he realized it was Nadya.
"Good-night," he said. "See you in Baikonur." He walked on, then stopped. "Having trouble?"
"No. It is nothing. I just don't want to drive with those three."
"I don't blame you. If they don't pass out before they get to the car they'll add to the highway mortality figures by morning. I'll drive you home."
"Thank you. But a cab has been called."
"Many are called but few arrive. This time on a Saturdaynight you stand the chance of a snowball in August. Get in, you're only a block away from me."
Knowing he had drunk a lot, Patrick drove with slow concentration. Staying under 35 and obeying the stop signs instead of easing through slowly in the traditional Hollywood Stop. Despite this, and the empty roads, they almost added to the mortality figures themselves.
The car roared around the bend towards them, high beams blinding, on the wrong side of the road.
Patrick responded with a test pilot's trained reflexes. The other car might swerve back, so if he tried to pass it on the left there could be a head-on smash. Small houses on the right, set back from the road, lawns and shrubs in front, no trees.
He twisted the wheel hard, smashed into the curb and up over and on to the sidewalk, the grass. Hitting the brake and fighting the slewing surging machine. The other car was gone by in an instant, never stopping. Then Patrick had the twisting ton of metal under control and back into the street, stopping.
"You dirty son-of-a-bitch," he said, watching the tail lights vanish around a turn in the distance.
"Is everything all right?"
"It is now--but that screwball bastard was out to kill us."
The street was silent. No lights had come on in the dark houses, no one was interested. Maybe screaming brakes were the norm around here. The careening black marks of their tires sliced through the lawn and flowerbeds. "I'll get you home. Call the police and report this thing. My insurance will buy this guy some new rose bushes."
All of the drink had worn off, quite suddenly. He parked in her driveway and Nadya unlocked the front door of her apartment. By the time he was off the phone he wondered why he had bothered. No one hurt, no cars smashed, the Houston police were massively uninterested in even recording the details. He gave them all the information in any case and slammed the receiver back down. Nadya was standing behind him with a very large scotch on the rocks; he realized suddenly he was completely sober and very much in need of a drink now that the burst of adrenalin was wearing off.
"Blessings on your head," he said taking the glass and drinking deep. He put it on the table and placed his hands lightly about her waist. "You know that was pretty hairy for a moment."
"It did look dangerous."
"Deadly. Those nut cases were out to kill us. Set back the joint American-Soviet space program ten years it would." Suddenly it did not seem funny at all. "I was frightened. For you, not me. I didn't want anything to happen ... to you ..."
Words ran out and, without conscious thought, he pulled her tight to him and kissed her with a passion that was not artificial, that surprised him with its intensity. Kissed her and she returned the kiss, her lips and tongue hot in his, nor did she pull away when his hands went down her body, moving with their own will.
Her underwear was very non-proletarian, dark lace, very delicate. The rug was soft under them and everything was just right. Until he realized, suddenly, that he was all alone. She was there, yes, naked and lovely beyond belief, but she apparently felt nothing. Her body did not move and her hands lay at her sides. What they had felt together, what they must have felt together, was gone. He ran his fingers over her breast and down the firm roundness of her stomach and she lay quiet.
"Nadya," he said, then did not know what more to add. Her eyes were open but she was not looking at him. "I'm too old for rape." He sat up, regretting the words the instant he spoke them.
Whatever regrets he had were too late. The bedroom door slammed behind her and the bits of lace and the crumpled dress were the only reminders of what had been just short instants before. He talked to her through the door, tried to apologize, explain, but she never answered. Nor was he very clear in what he said because he was not sure himself just what had happened. In the end he dressed, poured another large drink, left it untouched on the bar and stamped out into the hot night. At the last moment he had even caught the door as it slammed shut behind him, fury instantly becoming concern, closing it quietly and wondering just how he did feel about her. About everything.
He never had made his mind up completely. Some things seemed clear, he thought he had the right answers, but seeing her there in the stuffy room in Baikonur changed everything one more time. Four months. Nothing had changed. The same exit, the same closed door. He envied her her certainty of decision.Exactly how he felt was not clear at all.
"Tovarich," a deep voice said and he turned with relief and took the proffered glass of vodka from the Soviet officer.
"Mir, mir in our bloody time and forever," he said, and drained the glass.
"Reilly, do you realize that it's only nine in the morning and it's already so hot you could fry an egg on this oscilloscope. This place is worse than the Cape."
"I feel so sorry for you, Duffy. If you don't like it why did you sign up?"
"For the same reason you did. When they folded the C5-A project NASA was the only place hiring. What does this bunch of screwball letters mean?"
"The alphabet is called Cyrillic, Duffy, don't flaunt your ignorance. Zemlya 445L. Connection of that number. Yevgeni ..." He turned to the stolid technician who stood on the platform beside them and rattled off a quick question in Russian. Yevgeni grunted and flipped through the thick manual he held and found the correct diagram. Reilly squinted against the intense sunlight, then read the translation aloud. "Secondary starter circuit first stage servo disconnect."
Duffy removed the stainless steel screws from the support collar and examined the multi-connectors where the looms passed through a bulkhead into a high-pressure helium tank. He carefully pulled back the clips and with a rocking motion pulled out the uppermost fifty-way plug and sprayed cleaner on the gold-plated pins. Satisfied, he reconnected it and nodded to Yevgeni who made an entry in the thick manual.
"Thirteen down and maybe four million to go," Duffy said. "Ask your buddy where the next one is in this system. You know, I been wondering, how come a good mick named Reilly speaks this lingo?"
"My adviser in college said it was the language of the space age, that and English."
"Looks like he was right. I took two years of Spanish and I didn't even learn enough to argue a buck off the price when I got laid in Tijuana."
The Russian technician worked the controls and the inspection platform rose slowly up between the towering cylinders of the booster rockets. The ground was three hundred feet below them and the figures of the other men on the ground appearedtiny as ants. Above their heads the stainless steel wall rose another hundred and fifty feet. Great braces joined the boosters to each other and to the core body. There were hydraulic lines, fuel exchange pipes, power cables, oxygen drains, computer monitoring readouts, telemetry hardlines, hundreds of connections for services of every kind joined the units of the immense vehicle together.
They were all needed. They must all be able to function perfectly. The failure of a single component among the thousands and thousands could jeopardize everything.
If Prometheus exploded, it would be the largest non-atomic bomb ever made by man.
Copyright © 1976 by Harry Harrison