This short story (under 3,000 words) is one I wrote after talking with Michael Laine and other friends with the Liftport Group. Space elevator technology is just barely out of our grasp for now, but not for long. This story is unrelated to any others I’ve written.
Give me the breathless void of space any time… at least there if my suit breaches it’s a slow, cold loss of air.
Jack moved cautiously along the ocean floor, his suit protecting him from the cold, yet doing nothing to ease his fears.
Or not so slow… Either way, it’s better than what would happen in this frigid, unforgiving saltwater.
Jack tried not to look at the monstrous fish swimming around him. Well, maybe not so monstrous, but… unpredictable. Space was peaceful. Maneuvering in null gee was freeing, exhilarating. Although every astronaut wore a suit in the water long before they ever wore one in space, Jack had never grown accustomed to the undersea maneuvers. Space was home. Or rather, it should be…
He felt the pressure of not only the atmosphere, but too many meters of ocean water over his head. His companion stopped in front of him, fighting against the current as he turned and beckoned Jack closer. Jack, not as accustomed to walking the ocean floor, carefully stepped closer until the two men could touch helmets. Coms were out of the question. They couldn’t risk being detected by anyone on the platform above.
“Are you OK?” Dr. Katholieke asked. He had a first name, something that started with a “V”, but Jack had always used the formal address with his cohort.
Jack had always been “just Jack” to everyone. He was only “Dr. Eyjafjallajökull” in print. Of course, that had more to do with the fact that no one could pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull” and less to do with his status in the company. It was his beanstalk; everyone knew that. His design, his baby.
No matter what the Reus Corporation thought.
“I’m OK,” Jack told his companion, keeping an eye on a school of brightly-colored sea creatures who seemed to be fascinated with the men, “I just hate fish.”
“Good,” Dr. K responded, ignoring Jack’s discomfort. “Tommy just pinged us from the platform. Ready to go up?”
Jack looked up. The ocean’s surface seemed impossibly far away.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he replied. “Let’s do this.”
Fortunately, the sea creatures scattered at the disturbance of the engines. The two men ascended slowly, minimizing their noise as well as mindful of the change in pressure and the effect it would have on their fragile bodies.
It would not be the worst thing they’d have to endure in the coming hours.
They surfaced in a pool of relatively calm water in the bowels of the ocean platform. A youngish man in the blue uniform of a Reus Corp maintenance worker welcomed them.
“Take Grimaud…” Jack mouthed, but the young man was already hauling the machine out of the water. Mousqueton, Dr. Katholieke’s machine, was dripping on the dock.
Jack tried not to look too clumsy next to his partner’s demonstration of agility in climbing out of the pool. He only slipped once. EVA in null gravity, he was a ballerino. Splashing about in a pool? Not so graceful.
“How are we doing, Tommy?” asked Dr. Katholieke. Jack was still fumbling with his helmet vent, something he was not used to ever using at all.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I traded shifts with two of the guys. As long as they don’t figure out that I traded the exact same shift with both of them, we’ll be fine.”
“And the guards at the tether?” asked Jack.
“Bribed. For surprisingly little. And the bosses downsized again, so there are only a couple of them anyway.” Tommy scoffed. “And knowing those two, if they’re awake and sober, it’s a miracle.”
As they made their way up through the ocean platform’s corridors and utility rooms, Jack silently fumed at the shoddy state of maintenance in the facility. Reus Corp should never have been allowed to take over the beanstalk. They were idiots; so concerned with the profitability of the space elevator that they had let one little thing after another slip by, preferring to listen to the talking heads that knew nothing of real science or engineering.
The three of them only saw one other human the whole time. He was dressed in nothing but his skivvies, and seemed way too tired to take any notice of them. “Hey Tommy.” The man mumbled as they passed him in the corridor. He nodded to them as if he’d just forgotten their names but really didn’t care.
When Jack had been in charge, no employee would have been so indifferent. They saw themselves as part of a team, doing something important. It had been a fight just to build the beanstalk in the first place… the necessary technology had existed for almost thirty years before the political difficulties had been overcome.
It had been in operation for less than a decade before the hostile takeover.
They finally reached the open courtyard where the ribbon was tethered. Jack stared up, momentarily immobilized by the sight of his own magical creation. It had been almost two years since he’d seen it. Two years since he’d been forced out by the hostile takeover by Reus Corp.
Two years during which he’d been helpless as the reports came in about all the careless, idiotic decisions the company made regarding the care and management of the technological marvel that took payloads into orbit.
Dr. Katholieke was unfolding Planchet, the small, light survey and maintenance climber that would ascend ahead of them, examining the ribbon as it went. Planchet spanned the entire ten meter width of the ribbon. Jack began to assemble Bazin, the counterpart to Planchet which would follow them up, providing a lifeline if the worst were to happen.
“How long has it really been since an actual load has gone up or down?” Jack asked Tommy.
Tommy shook his head. “Weeks. They’ve sent maintenance climbers up and down, and they tried to send a load up a few days ago, but they had to stop when it reached low earth orbit. Too much gunk in the ribbon.”
“How are they getting supplies?” Dr. Katholieke asked.
Tommy shrugged again. “They’re not, as far as I can tell. But they’re corporate. They have everything they need to last for weeks. Long enough…”
“Long enough to convince the United Governments that they need a huge influx of taxpayer dollars to make it work.” Jack finished with a scowl. “And they’ll find a way to blame it on me.”
They installed Planchet and sent the plucky machine scurrying up the ribbon at a rapid pace. Jack checked the readout in his helmet, already seeing that even the lowest links in the nanotube ribbon were contaminated with filth.
We knew this could happen. There were reasons we had maintenance bots scheduled so frequently. They weren’t a wasteful excess; they were an important necessity.
Grimaud and Mousqueton required more work. Jack had designed the lifters specifically to carry one very small, very fragile human payload at a far greater speed than the commercial lifters that usually crawled the ribbon. Normally, a payload took days to reach the Synchpoint Station. They would have to reach it in a matter of hours.
“So… you tested these, right?” asked Dr. Katholeike, a teasing smile on his face. He knew the answer.
“Sure. Testing on the tiny little one kilometer ribbon we have at our test facility. A ribbon under far less tension than this one. A ribbon that is only a few months old, not eleven years old.”
“And it probably doesn’t have space snot on it either.” Added Tommy helpfully.
Both scientists made a tiny grunting scoff, not really wanting to laugh outright since they were about to trust their lives to the old beanstalk. Jack looked at the info stream from Planchet. It had already found hundreds of tiny problems that could easily be fixed by any of the standard maintenance climbers that had been in use for years. Sure, the fixes would cost money, but it was exponentially less expensive to fix them as they occurred than to let the problems grow to the point that they needed a major overhaul.
Jack settled himself into the supports of Grimauld. He was in a loose fetal position, his head and neck supported within his suit so that he could easily breathe as well as see the various readouts and camera views. He keyed the lifter to go up about twenty meters, then back down again, making sure everything was properly aligned. After checking and rechecking, he ascended twenty meters and waited while Dr. Katholieke mounted Mousqueton and performed the same checks.
“Are we a go?” Asked Jack.
“Bazin’s on and ready to follow you up.” Answered Tommy.
“I’m set,” answered Dr. Katholieke.
Jack started them off slow, hoping that the sight of two climbers ascending the ribbon would be overlooked by any personnel who might be looking their way. After a few minutes, he looked at the feed from Planchet, and programmed in an acceleration and deceleration that would limit the g force to something they could stand, but get them up to the first problem area as quickly as possible.
Jack concentrated on keeping his breathing as even as possible, and tried not to think about everything that could go wrong. To entertain them on the trip, their team mates back at their test facility started the broadcast. Dozens of partners around the planet echoed and redistributed the signal, detailing the many sins of Rous Corp in their management of the space elevator. He smiled as he saw his own image in the feeds from numerous telescopes on the mainland and any ships that happened to be close enough aimed at him, the video being simulcast by hundreds of amateurs, jumping on the bandwagon to watch the stunt in progress.
Half of them are probably hoping we’ll die in some spectacular way.
By the time he felt the g force ease off as the lifters switched from acceleration to deceleration, the readout reported that almost two million people were either actively following or at least mentioning them. Hundreds of news outlets around the globe and in orbit were reporting on them, verifying the research they’d already done.
We’re certain to receive a cold reception when we get there, but at least they can’t do anything too terrible with so many people watching.
Jack paused, suddenly wondering just how well he really knew his enemy.
Unless it looks like an accident…
Jack hoped they didn’t have time to plan anything…unfortunate.
He felt light. His body still had starward momentum, but with the lifters’ deceleration he was actually being held back. They slowed, and then stopped when they reached the first point of major damage.
Carefully, Jack maneuvered within Grimaud’s embrace so that he could examine the ribbon himself. Even without his suit’s microscope, it was clear that dirt and debris had accumulated until the actual fibers of the ribbon were damaged so as to make it unsafe for a climber, especially one with the typically large payload.
“Now, you can see here how even with the most basic tools, a lot of this junk can be easily cleaned off…” Jack broadcast a dialog with Dr. Katholieke, who was doing the same thing on the other side.
“You can see here where the nanotubes themselves are actually damaged…” he explained, using his suit’s electron microscope to examine the ribbon at the molecular level. “The only way to produce this kind of damage is to repeatedly carry loads that are too large or unbalanced, or to lift them too quickly.”
Jack was able to clean off much of the gunk, sending tiny bits of dirt plummeting back towards the ocean far belo. They took the lifters past where the worst of the damage was. Over the next six grueling hours, he and Dr. Katholieke repeated the routine a dozen times. They skipped over the areas that weren’t as badly damaged, the small, elite lifters being able to bypass areas that would stall one of the large payload lifters.
Finally, the feed from Planchet showed that they could safely ascend the rest of the way without stopping. Exhausted, the scientists lay passively in their lifters, eyes closed and brains on pause as the necessary acceleration produced a g force that bordered on painful.
Jack realized he must have passed out, because he came to feeling like Grimaud was trying to keep him from flying up too quickly. He gazed upwards, making out the huge Synchstation that was at the point of null gravity. As they passed through the last few kilometers, he felt almost peaceful.
Until the feed from Planchet abruptly stopped.
Moments later, a tangled mess of debris fell past them, streaking farther and farther away from the beanstalk.
Planchet…The emergency cutoffs near the station…
Jack remembered the device they had never had to use, but was in place just a kilometer below the station. It was designed to be engaged as an emergency measure if the personnel at the station deemed that a load was coming up too fast, endangering the station itself.
There is no way something as small as Planchet could have posed a threat, and it wasn’t moving that fast. Someone up there is just hoping that our little revolution here will have an unhappy ending…
He slowed their ascent even more, crawling the last kilometer to the trip point.
“Now this you see here is something we never had to use in the years we were running the beanstalk…” Jack explained to his audience. He felt a surge of vindication as the masses of humanity answered back in shock and dismay, their words condensed and sorted by the algorithms in the software.
“This is Dr. Eyjafjallajökull to the Synchstation. Please come in.” Jack transmitted.
A voice of someone who was obviously a subordinate answered. “This is Synchstation. Your ascent is viewed as an act of terrorism, and you are hereby ordered to cease and desist.”
“What do you expect me to do? Climb back down?” Jack drawled. His audience applauded. “I think we’ve shown that the Rous Corporation is guilty of gross negligence in its management of Earth’s first and only space elevator. It’s time to let us finish this like civilized people.”
There was silence for several long minutes. Jack prodded politely several times, but got no response. Sighing, he examined the breakaway point. He was able to reset it so it was safe to proceed, then he cautiously continued their crawl upward.
After another half kilometer, he felt himself violently flung away from the ribbon. Safety measures kicked in, stopping Dr. Katholieke and Mousqueton just centimeters from the trip point.
Cheap Bastards won’t do regular maintenance, but they’ll install redundant trip points?
“Paranoid much?” he chided. Adrenaline was replacing exhaustion. “Careful there… it might look like you’re trying to kill two unarmed men who’ve actually been repairing damage that you’ve left untended for weeks, or even longer.” Jack’s voice was low and confident. He knew that millions of humans were hanging on his every word.
Jack floated at the end of a tether, he and Grimaud both attached to Bazin, which had faithfully followed them up the whole way. They were close enough to the station that he felt virtually weightless, a state in which he was very comfortable.
“Should I try to go on?” asked Dr. K, still securely ensconced in Mousqueton just centimeters from the trip point.
“No, let’s not risk it…yet.” Jack gathered his thoughts while he carefully grasped the tether and got control over his spin and drift.
His info feed was going nuts. He couldn’t pick out any individual threads, but it seemed the world was outraged, and they were on his side. Jack dangled there, sending out the occasional quip, or zooming in on some location far below on the surface of the Earth and saying “Hello Keesburg! Are you guys prepared to catch me if I end up taking the fast way back?”
After an hour dangling there with absolutely no response from the station, Jack was still unwilling to risk not just his life but Dr. Katholieke’s as well. He was tired, he was hungry, but their suits, and the emergency packs on Bazin would keep them alive for days if necessary. Then a shadow came between him and the sun, and he twisted around to see what it was.
A huge United Governments cruiser was docking with the station. He received nothing but speculation from his newsfeed, but ten minutes later he saw angels descending above him. A team of four Marines, each with an individual tether to the station was riding down towards them. “Dr. Eyjafjallajökull, Dr. Katholieke, are you all right?” came a transmission from a new voice.
Jack considered making some quip about enjoying the view, but decided instead it was better to not mess with the Marines. “We’re unharmed, just not exactly comfortable,” he answered. Expertly, the Marines attached safety tethers to the men and the machines, and hauled them all into the station.
A month later, Jack watched with pride and trepidation as the first commercial payload in weeks was lifted into the station. Several crowds cheered from the various viewing areas as it was successfully offloaded. They had reason to be happy…the station’s usual luxuries had quickly run out without the elevator to resupply them.
Jack looked around his office, making sure he had rid himself of every last vestige of the evil giant who had stolen his beanstalk. Not one shred remained.
Of course, with bare walls, dried-up glue where the ugly carpet had been torn up and not replaced, and a few crates for a desk, it didn’t look like much.
But he had catalogs.
And free delivery.