Authors: William R. Forstchen
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Copyright 1998 by William R.
Cover art by
First printing, September, 1998
, military aviation historian, who, on the day this book was finished, was killed flying a P-38 Lightning. As of the time of this writing it is believed that the plane suffered a major mechanical failure and Jeff sacrificed his life trying to bring it in safely rather than let a historic plane be destroyed.
Jeff's love of history, his ability as a writer, his dedication to honoring the memory of those who served in World War II, his devotion to his faith and his family, and his remarkable skill as a pilot were an inspiration to those fortunate enough to call Jeff friend.
All who knew you shall miss you, Jeff and thanks for the ride in the P-51 Mustang. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and I'll never forget it or you.
"For you have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God."
John Gillespie McGee
Justin Bell was heading back to the stars.
He settled back in his chair and felt a chill of excitement race down his back as the airlock door to the Skyhook
slammed shut. He looked over at Matt Everett, his best friend from the Academy, and smiled.
"Well, buddy, good-bye Earth, but back home for you," Justin said with a smile.
"I finally got a chance to see a sunset and go canoeing. There's a lot about Earth I'll miss," Matt replied wistfully.
"But gravity sure ain't one of them," Justin laughed.
Matt gulped and shook his head ruefully. The ultimate moment of embarrassment for the solar sailor had been when he jumped up a bit too quickly at the dinner table, forgetting that he would not simply float away. Instead, he crashed down on the table in the Chinese restaurant, ruining his dress white uniform.
live with gravity all the time is beyond me," Matt said. "It'll be good to be able to float again."
"We'll be back at the Academy soon enough," Justin replied.
It was hard to believe he was actually heading back to the Academy. Only two weeks ago he had thought for sure that he'd wash out at the end of the summer session. Thanks to the help of a lot of friends he managed (somewhat to his own surprise) to squeak through the
-Navigation course and was now returning for his first full year as a cadet at
"Please fasten seatbelts for liftoff," a computerized voice announced.
Justin settled down into his seat by the window and strapped himself in.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Skyhook Tower One, first tower to the stars. This is passenger car number 338, departing at 1303 Greenwich Space Time, arriving at
Orbit Base at 1919 Greenwich Space Time. Even if you have traveled with us before, please pay close attention to the safety briefing."
Justin watched the computer screen mounted into the back of the seat in front of him as the crew pointed out where space suits were stored in case air pressure inside the cabin was lost. Justin shook his head at that one. If they had a catastrophic depressurization there would be just enough time to look at the instructions for getting the shit out of its bag before it was all over.
"If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask your computer, the serving 'bots, or your flight attendant. We are second in line for boost so please remain in your seats until the seatbelt light is turned off."
A shudder ran through the cabin and Justin looked out the window to watch the show.
He half-wished that he lived back in the old days before 2050 when there was only one way to get into space aboard a shuttle plane. He remembered his grandfather's stories about riding an old
United States second generation shuttle, soaring to the heavens atop a pillar of fire. But those days were just about finished because of the
, which was far safer and a hundred times cheaper for boosting a passenger into space.
The tower was opening up space. Well over a hundred thousand passengers per day were going up or coming back down on the thirty-seven thousand kilometer-high tower, along with several hundred thousand tons of manufactured goods and supplies.
Outside his window he saw the vast domed pavilion of the Rio Skyhook Terminal, packed with thousands of passengers rushing to catch their rides into space or waiting for those coming back. It was obvious who the space travelers returning to Earth were. Many of them had been too long away from the home world's standard gravity and moved slowly, or rode on small float chairs until they got used to gravity again.
"Departure in ten seconds," the computer notified them.
The Skyhook car shuddered again as it rolled along its track and then locked itself on to the side of the tower. Justin pressed his face against the window and looked out across the terminal. Dozens of cars, which were nothing more than long thin tubes eighty feet long and twenty feet wide, were loading up with passengers. On one side of the cars were the heavy magnetic locks that hooked to the tracks located on the side of the tower. The rest of the car was ringed with small porthole windows so that the hundred and twenty passengers on board could watch the show. Once loaded, the car, standing upright, slid out of its terminal gate onto a conveyor track that guided it to one of the vertical magnetic tracks strapped to the side of the tower.
The cars would then ride up the side of the tower into space. Directly in front of the car the track would carry a negative charge while directly behind the car the track was positively charged, the combination propelling the positively charged car in the desired direction. It was the same system used in the magnetic levitation trains that now hooked the world together, with the Express running from
Los Angeles in five hours.
The lights in the cabin flickered slightly and the car started up. Justin felt the seat pushing into his back as the terminal floor appeared to drop away. A couple of seconds later they were through the top of the building. It was a scorching hot morning in
Brazil, heat shimmers rising off the parking lot and the magnetic levitation train station outside the terminal. To the south of the passenger terminal Justin could see the vast warehouses where cargo bound for space and manufactured goods returning down the tower were stored. Rio had replaced Gape Kennedy and
Russia as the major port into space, though
Brazil would soon have competition when the second tower was finished in
Indonesia just outside of
He felt as if he were sinking into the seat as the car sped up to over eight hundred kilometers per hour, the fastest it would go while inside the Earth's atmosphere. Within seconds they were nearly six kilometers above the ground.
Justin turned to the computer screen mounted on the seat in front of him and switched it to show the forward view.
rose like a white finger pointing straight up into space. Of course it was impossible to see the far end of it, which terminated at just over thirty-seven thousand kilometers above the surface of the Earth. It was, he realized once more, the engineering miracle of the 21st century. It had been constructed from the top down. In the same way that the cables of a suspension bridge are woven together, back and forth across a river, the cables that made up the heart of the tower were lowered thirty-seven thousand kilometers down from space and anchored to the ground. It in fact had to be made in space, since the cables were uniquely engineered metal-carbon
with strength ten thousand times that of steel at only a fraction of the weight. They could only be made in the zero gravity and vacuum of space. What was fascinating as well was that the tower was actually held erect by centrifugal force. The rotation of the Earth and the angular momentum thus created held the tower aloft.
The tower was really an elevator to the stars, with nine tracks mounted on the side of the tower. Two were for passengers, one up and one down, with cars departing every minute, and six for cargo, while the final track was for the maintenance crews.
Justin found it to be fascinating that there was a staircase inside the tower that went all the way from the ground up to the first station, which was located five hundred kilometers up. A bizarre new sport had developed with athletes wearing specially designed lightweight pressure suits racing up the steps; the world record for the climb was now just under twenty-two days. A rung ladder inside the tower went up for the next thirty-six thousand and seven hundred kilometers. A few crazies had asked to go for it, though it would take years to finish the climb. The UN and Colonies Space Commission had come down with a definite "No!" on that idea.
The computer screen showed that they were clearing the thirty-five-thousand-meter mark and Justin, glad that he wasn't climbing, looked back out the window. The sky was a deep indigo and he could now begin to make out the curvature of the Earth. Down below the entire Amazon basin was visible.
The replanted jungle, which had been saved and
throughout the 21st century, spread out before him, its dark green glowing warmly beneath the midday sun.
"I'll miss the green of Earth," Matt said wistfully.
"If we get home for Christmas I'll take you to a pine forest. After it snows it's wonderful, the pine boughs covered with white, everything so silent and smelling just wonderful."
Matt pressed his nose against the window for another look.
"Good-bye, Earth," he said almost sadly.
"Hey, we're heading back to the Academy, don't be so glum," Justin said.
"Yeah, I know. But it was my first time down there. I've been living out in space all my life going down to Earth was about as exciting for me as going into space is for you."
"No frontiers down there," Justin replied. "Space is where it's happening now, and we're part of it."
"If you survive the Academy," a threatening voice behind them commented.
Justin froze as he slowly looked over his shoulder.
It was Brian
, their senior cadet instructor from the summer session.
towered over them, looking like a shark contemplating his prey.
"How you doing, scrubs?" he asked.
"Glad to be going back, sir," Justin replied, trying to keep a knot from forming in his stomach at the sight of the dreaded senior cadet.
Brian grinned slightly.
"Relax, you two, scrub summer is past. Glad the two of you made it. As of tomorrow you're plebes. Plebes third class but still plebes, and that's a start at least. Congratulations!"
He leaned forward and extended his hand. The threatening look was gone and there was almost an air of comradeship to his gesture. Hesitating a bit, Justin shook it.
"Look, there aren't any other cadets aboard this shuttle car so
just relax for awhile, OK?"
settled down into an empty chair across from Justin and Matt and strapped in.
"We'll be playing the saluting game again once we get back out there. And besides, the word is you two guys are hot shots, regular heroes for risking your lives to save those two girls. I was proud to have you in my company this summer. You even made me look good!"
Matt blushed at the mention of saving Tanya and Sue. It had even made the news nets back on Earth and resulted in the two of them being interviewed by the local
while they were there on leave. Matt, who was normally good for a long yarn, simply went tongue-tied when the camera was turned on him, so Justin wound up doing ninety-nine percent of the talking.
He looked down shyly at the red and gold stripe above his left pocket, the life-saving award given to any member of the United Space Military Command who risked his life to save another. He noticed for the first time that Brian was wearing one as well. Brian saw him looking at the decoration and smiled.
"It was nothing much, just a little
accident down on the Moon. I breathed vacuum for a couple seconds when I went out to pull my roommate back in, and they made a big fuss about it later. Hell, the guy owed me twenty bucks on a falcon flying game I didn't want to lose the money!"
Brian laughed quietly and Justin looked at him with renewed respect.
"You joined the Vacuum Breathers' club?"
Brian nodded, a bit embarrassed.
The Vacuum Breathers' club was
a mythical club open
to anyone who had ever been exposed, without benefit of pressurized suit, to the vacuum of space. Quite a few were qualified to join
the only problem was that the vast majority of people eligible for membership received their qualification by dying.
"What happened?" Justin asked.
"I really didn't have time to think," Brian said. "I heard the depressurizing alarm go off in my room right after I stepped out and closed the door. They figured out later that an old gasket seal on the window had let go. I looked through the door porthole and saw my roommate Abdul flopping around inside."
He hesitated for an instant as if the memory were alive and floating before him. "You know that once the pressure goes you can't open the door from the inside."
Justin nodded. It was a grim part of standard procedure better to lose the people inside rather than a whole station.
"There were no emergency suits in there and I figured that by the time I got one on he'd be finished. So I secured the door down the corridor behind me, called Base Central Control to release the safety on the door into the room, and went in after him.
"When I popped the door, we didn't have time to drop the pressure in the corridor. Luckily the door opened in rather than out. The moment I opened the door it just exploded inward; I went in and dragged Abdul out. I got a mild case of the bends from it and my eyes hurt for a couple of days, but that was it."