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Introduction to this Edition

The idea of a space elevator, a load-bearing cable that extends from the surface of the earth to high orbit and beyond, is an old one. It was first suggested by Tsiolkovsky in 1895, as a passing comment and with no analysis of the idea. Sixty-five years later, in 1960, the concept was rediscovered and explored in more detail by another Russian, Artsutanov. His work in turn remained unknown in the West until 1966, when the idea was rediscovered by Isaacs, Vine, Bradner, and Bachus. Since then it has been "discovered" at least more three times.

However, the notion of the space elevator, also known as a skyhook, a heavenly funicular, an anchored satellite, an orbital tower, and my own favorite name, a beanstalk, was still new to science fiction in 1978. When I sent a short story about beanstalks, "Skystalk," to the science fiction magazines, the response was not encouraging. The editor of Asimov's magazine, George Scithers, in an unusually frank rejection slip, said, "Neither I nor anyone on my staff understands this story." The editor of Analog magazine, Stan Schmidt, was more encouraging, asking, "Is the idea in this story really feasible?" But he still rejected it. And when it was finally bought by Jim Baen, in December, 1978, for publication in Destinies magazine, he suggested that I write an accompanying article, explaining the dynamics and physics behind what might otherwise seem an outrageous idea.

All this made me feel somewhat insecure. At the time I was busy writing a whole novel centered on beanstalks. Suppose that the readers and reviewers rejected the whole thing as scientifically impossible.

And then, in the fall of 1978, I heard from Fred Durant. He was and is a friend of mine, and Arthur Clarke's oldest friend in the United States. Fred lived just a couple of miles away from me, and he spoke with Clarke frequently by telephone. Arthur, he told me, was finishing a new novel—a novel in which a space elevator was a main element.

I won't say I was pleased. Nervous is a better word. I had never met Arthur Clarke, but at Fred Durant's suggestion, not to say insistence, I took my completed manuscript and sent a copy to Clarke in Sri Lanka. I had no idea what to expect; what I certainly didn't expect was what came: first, a very friendly letter from Arthur Clarke, and, soon after, an open letter from him to the Science Fiction Writers of America, stating that coincidence, not plagiarism, lay behind the fact that two books were to be published in 1979 with strikingly similar themes. Not just the space elevator, but each book had as main character the world's leading bridge-builder; each one employed a device known as a Spider.

The fear that the idea would be mocked disappeared. All that was left were questions that remain to this day. If Clarke had not published his The Fountains of Paradise, how would my The Web Between the Worlds have been received? Would my book have been hailed, as the source of a big idea new to science fiction? Or would it have suffered instant obscurity, as a piece of science fantasy?

I'll never know.



Goblin Night

The voice began again in her ear as she hurried into the airport. It was the merest thread of sound, carrying through the implanted receiver.

"I hope you're on the plane by now, Julia. It looks as though it was the right decision. I'm still here in the lab, but all the exits are covered. I still can't get any messages out over the standard com-links. I'm going to see if I can signal Morrison, over in Building Two. Keep going, and take care."

Gregor's voice ceased in her ears as she entered the main Christchurch terminal and looked about her. It was almost two A.M. There were few flights out at this hour, and few people around. That might be both good and bad. She ought to be able to spot anyone seeking her, but perhaps no one would be there to save her and her burden from harm. She walked cautiously over to the ticket desk and looked at the departure display board. One flight was listed in the next hour. It was the one she wanted—and it was running on time. She went slowly up to the counter, where one tired young clerk was on duty.

He yawned at her. "Yes, ma'am?"

"Do you have a reservation for Merlin, Julia Merlin?"

Had she and Gregor made a mistake, booking the flight under her real name? She glanced around. The terminal was empty, except for two young men stretched out asleep on the long couch by the far wall.

"Right here." The clerk keyed in her confirmation for the flight. "Flight 157, transpolar to Capetown. Pre-paid ticket for one." He looked at her swelling belly and smiled. "I guess that's really for two, right?"

She nodded and forced an answering smile. "One more month. Don't ever believe anybody who tells you a pregnancy is nine months. It feels like five times that."

He was nodding, not listening closely. "You'll be boarding in about twenty minutes. Flight time will be three and a half hours." He looked apologetic. "It's not the fastest equipment on this run, less than Mach Three all the way. People who fly in the middle of the night don't seem to be in much of a hurry, I guess. There'll only be about fifty of you on this one—at least you'll be able to stretch out, maybe take a nap. Now, what about luggage? Checking both of them?"

"No." Her reply had been too fast, too urgent. "I'll check the case, but I need to keep this box with me." She was clutching it hard against her chest, unable to prevent her reaction.

"All right." He looked it over with an experienced eye. "I don't think you'll quite get it under the seat. That's all right, though, you'll have lots of spare room fore and aft." He glanced at the display of her reservation, checking it for dates. "I see your ticket was paid by the Antigeria Labs. You're with them, are you?"

A mistake. If their fears were real, she and Gregor should never have used the lab's name in booking the ticket.

"Yes." She swallowed. "My husband is the Director."

She hesitated, wondering whether to add more, but he was nodding absently. It must just be a bored midnight conversation to him. Surely he had no real interest in an unkempt, eight-months-pregnant woman? She picked up her ticket and turned to leave.

"Just a second, Mrs. Merlin."

She froze, as the clerk's voice rang out behind her. She turned slowly. He was smiling and holding out a yellow square of paper. "You're forgetting your boarding pass."

She took it from him without speaking and walked on slowly to the gate. As she passed the security checks, Gregor's voice began again in her ear.

"Julia. Julia, I don't know if you can still hear me, but it's worse than we thought. I got through to Morrison in Building Two, and he completed the first test on the other Goblin. He agrees with your analysis, there's conclusive evidence of induced progeria. We were only two minutes on the video, then the link failed at his end."

His voice was thin and reedy through the tiny implant, but she could hear the tension. "I'm standing at the window now," he went on. "There's a fire across in Building Two and the exits are being watched here. I don't see any way of getting out. You have to get the other Goblin over to the Carlsberg Lab, and let McGill take a look at it."

She clutched the oblong box closer. Inside her, the unborn child stirred restlessly, responding to the adrenaline that was running in her bloodstream.

"I'm going to try and get out of here," continued Gregor's voice. "I'll take the transmitter with me, but it doesn't have enough range to reach you once you get a few miles out of the airport. According to our schedule, you should be about ready for takeoff. I wish there was some way you could send to me. Look, tell McGill a couple of other things. The Goblin that Morrison was working on died the same way as the one you have with you. Vacuum exposure. That suggests they both died the same place—in a non-pressurized plane compartment. Morrison came up with an age estimate, twelve months or so. Body mass was five and a half kilos. Length a little under half a meter, about the same as the one you have with you. I hope you're somewhere where you can hear all this. We still have no idea how they got to the lab, but I'm sure now that they only died a couple of days ago."

Julia Merlin was through the boarding lounge now and walking along the connecting tunnel to the aircraft. She was vaguely aware of the steward smiling at her and gesturing towards the box she carried. She shook her head, walked heavily back to her seat and sat down in it. Gregor's voice had ceased in her ears. She leaned forward and tried to push the oblong box under the seat, but it would not fit. Leaning far forward was a great effort. She straightened up, gasping at the sudden jab of pain.

"It won't go there, ma'am," said the steward. He was standing beside her, holding out his hand. "Here, let me stow it in the rear, where there's room. No need for you to come with me," he added, as she began to rise from her seat. "Look, see that space in the back? I'll just tuck it in there."

He lifted the box lightly from her hands and carried it aft. She strained round in her seat, watching until it was safely placed in position. Gregor was speaking through the implant again, but his voice was almost unintelligible through the interference.

" . . . get to the lower floor . . . standing next to the street light . . . again . . ."

His final words were lost in the increasing noise of the engines. The aircraft, wide-bodied and squat, began to move along the runway. There was a sudden acceleration that pressed her back hard into the seat. They left the ground rapidly and began to climb at an angle of about thirty degrees, powering up to the cruising altitude of ninety thousand feet and a cruising speed above Mach Two.

Julia lay back in her seat, exhausted. She could not relax, but sheer physical and mental strain were taking their toll. She sat there, silent, as the liner reached its assigned altitude and set a great circle route for Capetown. The pain that she had felt when she stretched forward in her seat had not gone away. It was a dull, sullen ache in her belly, rising from time to time to a fierce cramp. But she had escaped. Whatever it was that Gregor feared so much could not reach her now.

An hour into the flight they were approaching Commonwealth Bay, on the shore of Antarctica. The pilot's voice had just come over the passenger address system, pointing out that they were about to fly over the South Magnetic Pole. The violent explosion in the cargo hold at the extreme rear of the craft obliterated his words.

The on-board computer did its best. Milliseconds after the internal pressure dropped below a quarter of an atmosphere, radio signals were sent to the Search and Rescue satellites that monitored the Earth constantly from low polar orbit. At the same time, the computer assessed the damage to the structure of the aircraft and decided that it was not possible to make a powered descent. The planted bomb in the cargo hold had destroyed the rear assembly completely. Three passengers sitting in the rear had been sucked out of the ship by the aerodynamic pressure. With them had gone Julia Merlin's oblong box with the body of the Goblin packed inside it. Passengers and box dropped together towards the dark wastes of the Antarctic Ocean.

The computer took the seating plan of the remaining passengers, computed total maximum survival probability for the group, and slid the rear set of emergency doors out of the fuselage walls and across the width of the cabin. Three crew members were trapped aft of the seal.

Oxygen was released into the forward part of the cabin from the emergency supply. The tough plastic of the emergency doors bellied under the pressure, but it held easily. Four seconds after the explosion, the atmosphere was again able to support life. While the surviving passengers gulped in oxygen and held their ears against the agony of the sudden pressure changes, the computer began Stage Two.

The rear control surfaces were gone. The computer switched off all flight power, jettisoned the self-contained nuclear reactor unit a fraction of a second before the captain could do it, and flashed an estimated landing location to the Search and Rescue System.

The rear braking chute had gone, too. Computed impact speed, even with the deployment of the forward chute, would still be too high. The computer trimmed all surfaces to minimize descent speed. It prepared to deploy the forward chute, and positioned the air-bags to release the instant before ground impact. The craft would hit inland, seven thousand feet above sea level on the polar ice cap. The Search and Rescue Satellite also computed a trajectory and sent back a confirmation of the estimated arrival point. Messages had already gone out to the nearest ground-based Search and Rescue teams, telling them the number of passengers and crew, their ages and physical condition.

There had been no time to think. Julia Merlin and the other passengers lay helplessly back in their seats while the aircraft dropped like a stone through the long day of an Antarctic November. The fall from ninety thousand feet with chute deployed took six minutes; long enough to breathe again, to despair, and finally to hope.

They almost made it. If the impact had been into soft new snow, instead of old and hard-packed ice, the hull would have remained intact. Instead, it split along its length, spilling some of the passengers and fixtures outside onto the hard ice. The air bags absorbed most of the momentum, so the more fortunate passengers found themselves lying dazed but unharmed inside the ruined hull as it slipped and scraped to a halt down the steep ice-slope.

Julia Merlin was one of the unlucky ones. The portion of the craft where she sat was squeezed vertically as the right wing collapsed and the vessel rolled hard over to the right. A metal brace from the cabin roof above her moved down hard, caught her square on the forehead, and thrust her out of her seat through the gaping side of the hull. The plane skidded on. Julia's body slithered to a halt almost a quarter of a mile short of the place where the ruin of the aircraft stopped its downward career.

Partially shielded by the remains of the air-bag, her body lay supine and bleeding on the ice. The frontal and parietal lobes of her brain had been crushed to a grey and oozing pulp by the impact of the hardened aluminum brace. Her clothing had been ripped from her as she was ejected from the cabin. But she was not dead. The most ancient part of her brain still functioned. Somehow, the process that had begun when she first entered the aircraft continued its work. In the bleak light of the Midnight Sun, the ageless rhythm of parturition quickened in Julia Merlin's unconscious body.

Soon the head was born, thrusting naked into the light of the long day. For a highland area of the ice cap, the weather might be regarded as mild. The new-born was emerging into an atmosphere that held thirty degrees of frost, with a stiff breeze to carry the effective temperature twenty degrees lower. Julia Merlin's thighs provided a partial shield, no more.

The Search and Rescue Team had left Porpoise Bay just minutes after the emergency call was received there. They made excellent time flying over to the wreck and they spotted it at once. The first few minutes were spent caring for the passengers who were still inside the hull, then the team fanned out rapidly across the ice, looking for other survivors.

They came to Julia Merlin's body last of all. Even so, they were almost in time.


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