Read The Precipice Online

Authors: Ben Bova

The Precipice (4 page)

Humphries's brows rose questioningly.

“I know, I know,” Dan said. “There's the energy market. Sure. But how many solar-power satellites can we park in orbit? The
double-damned GEC just put a cap on them. We're building the next-to-last one now. After those two, no more powersats.”

Before Humphries could ask why, Dan continued, “The goddamned Greater Asia Power Consortium complained about the powersats
undercutting their prices. And the double-damned Europeans sided with them. Serve ‘em all right if they freeze their asses
off when the Gulf Stream breaks up.”

“The Gulf Stream?” Humphries looked startled.

Dan nodded unhappily. ‘That's one of the projections. The greenhouse warming is already changing ocean currents. When the
Gulf Stream breaks up, Europe goes into the deep freeze; England's weather will be the same as Labrador's.”

“When? How soon?”

“Twenty years, maybe. Maybe a hundred. Ask five different scientists and you get twelve different answers.”

“That's a real opportunity,” Humphries said excitedly. “Winterizing all of Europe. Think of it! What an opportunity!”

“Funny,” Dan retorted. “I was thinking of it as a disaster.”

“You see the glass half empty. To me, it's half full.**

Dan had a sudden urge to throw this young opportunist out of his office. Instead, he slumped back in his chair and muttered,
“It's like a sick Greek tragedy. Global warming is going to put Europe in the deep-freezer. Talk about ironic.”

“We were talking about the energy market,” Humphries said, regaining his composure. “What about the lunar helium-three?”

Dan wondered if his visitor was merely trying to pump him. Warily, he answered, “Barely holding its own. There's
not that many fusion power plants up and running yet— thanks to the kneejerk anti-nuke idiots. And digging helium-three out
of the lunar regolith ain't cheap. Fifty parts per million sounds good to a chemist, maybe, but it doesn't lead to a high
profit ratio, let me tell you.”

“So you'd need an injection of capital to start mining the asteroids,” Humphries said.

“A transfusion,” Dan grumbled.

“That can be done.”

Dan felt his brows hike up. “Really?”

“I can provide the capital,” Humphries said, matter-of-factly.

“We're talking forty, fifty billion, at least.”

Humphries waved a hand, as if brushing away an annoyance. “You wouldn't need that much for a demonstration flight.”

“Even a one-shot demo flight would cost a couple bill,”. Dan said.

“Probably.”

“Where are you going to get that kind of money? Nobody's willing to talk to me about investing in Astro.”

“There are people who'd be willing to invest that kind of money in developing the asteroid market.”

For an instant Dan felt a surge of hope. It could work! Open up the Asteroid Belt. Bring those resources to Earth's needy
people. Then the cost figures flashed into his mind again, as implacable as Newton's laws of motion.

“You know,” he said wearily, “if we could just cover our own costs I'd be willing to try it.”

Humphries looked disappointed. “Just cover your own costs?”

“Damned right. People need those resources. If we could get them without driving ourselves into bankruptcy, I'd go to double-damned
Pluto if I had to!”

Relaxing visibly, Humphries said, “I know how we can do it and make a healthy profit, besides.”

Despite himself, Dan felt intrigued. “How?”

“Fusion rockets.”

By the seven cities of Cibola, Dan thought, this guy's a fanatic. Worse: he's an enthusiast.

“Nobody's made a fusion rocket,” he said to Humphries. “Fusion power generators are too big and heavy for flight applications.
Everybody knows that.”

With the grin of a cat that had just finished dining on several canaries, Humphries replied, “Everybody's wrong.”

Dan thought it over for all of half a second, then leaned both his hands on his desktop, palms down, and said, “Prove it to
me.”

Wordlessly, Humphries fished a data chip from his jacket pocket and handed it to Dan.

SPACE STATION
GALILEO

L
eaving her five fellow astronauts gaping dumbfounded at the airlock in the maintenance module, Pancho sailed weightlessly
to the metal arm of the robotic cargohandling crane jutting out from the space station. It was idle at the moment; with no
mass of payload to steady it, the long, slim arm flexed noticeably as Pancho grasped it in both hands and swung like an acrobat
up to the handgrips that studded the module's outer skin.

Wondering if the others had caught on to her sting, Pancho hand-walked along the module's hull, clambering from one runglike
grip to the next. To someone watching from beyond the space station it would have looked as if she were scampering along upside
down, but to Pancho it seemed as if the space station was over her head and she was swinging like a kid in a zero-gee jungle
gym.

She laughed inside her helmet as she reached the end of the maintenance module and pushed easily across the connector section
that linked to the habitation module.

“Hey Pancho, what the hell are you doing out there?”

They had finally gotten to a radio, she realized. But as long as they were puzzled, she was okay.

“I'm taking a walk,” she said, a little breathless from all the exertion.

“What about our bet?” one of the men asked.

“I'll be back in a few minutes,” she lied. “Just hang tight”

“What are you up to, Pancho?” asked Amanda, her voice tinged with suspicion.

Pancho fell back on her childhood answer. “Nothin'.”

The radio went silent. Pancho reached the airlock at the end of the hab module and tapped out the standard code. The outer
hatch slid open. She ducked inside, sealed the hatch and didn't bother to wait for the lock to fill with air. She simply pushed
open the inner hatch and quickly sealed it again. A safety alarm shrilled automatically, but cut off when the module's air
pressure equilibrated again. Yanking off the spacesuit's cumbersome gloves, Pancho slid her visor up as she went to the wallphone
by the airlock hatch.

Blessed with perfect pitch and a steel-trap memory, Pancho punched out the numbers for each of the five astronauts' banks
in turn, followed by their personal identification codes. Mother always said I should have been a musician, Pancho mused as
she transferred almost the total amount of each account into her own bank account. She left exactly one international dollar
for each of them, so the bank's computers would not start the complex process of closing down their accounts.

As she finished, the hatch at the other end of the habitation module swung open and her five fellow astronauts began to push
through, one at a time.

“What's going on?” demanded the first guy through.

“Nothin',” Pancho said again. Then she dived through the hatch at her end of the long narrow module.

Into the Japanese lab module she swam, flicking her fingers along the equipment racks lining both sides of its central
aisle, startling the technicians working there. Laughing to herself, she wondered how long it would take them to figure out
that she had looted their bank accounts.

It didn't take very long. By the time Pancho had reached the galley once again, they were roaring after her, the men bellowing
with outrage.

“When I get my hands on you, I'm gonna break every bone in your scrawny body !” was one of their gentler threats.

Even Amanda was so furious she lapsed back to her native working-class accent: “We'll ‘ang you up by your bloody thumbs, we
will!”

As long as I can stay ahead of them, I'm okay, Pancho told herself as she skimmed through the European lab module and into
the observatory section, ducking under and around the bulky telescopes and electronics consoles. They were still yelling behind
her, but she wondered if all five of them were still chasing. By now there'd been plenty of time for one or more of them to
pop into a suit and cut across the top of the tee-shaped station to cut her off.

Sure enough, when she barged into the Russian hab module, two of the guys were standing at the far end in spacesuits, visors
up, waiting for her like a pair of armored cops.

Pancho glided to a halt. One of the privacy unit screens slid back and a stubbled, bleary, puffy male face peered out, then
quickly popped back in again and slid the screen shut with a muttered string of what sounded like Slavic cursing.

The other three—Amanda and two of the men—came through the hatch behind her. Pancho was well and truly trapped.

“What the fuck are you trying to pull off, Pancho?”

“You cleaned out our bank accounts!”

“We oughtta string you up, damn you!”

She smiled and spread her hands placatingly. “Now fellas, you can't hang a person in microgee. You know that.”

“This isn't funny,” Amanda snapped, back to her faux-Oxford enunciation.

“I'll make restitution, okay?” Pancho offered.

“You damned well better!”

“And you lost the bet, too, so we each get a month's pay from you “

“No,” Pancho said as reasonably as she could. “We never went through on the vacuum breathing, so the bet's off.”

“Then we want our money back from your goddamned escrow account!”

“Sure. Fine.”

Amanda pointed to the wallphone by the hatch. “You mentioned restitution,” she said.

Meekly, Pancho floated to the phone and tapped out her number. “You'll have to give me your account numbers,” she said. “So
I can put the money back in for you.”

“We'll punch in the account numbers ourselves,” Amanda said firmly.

“You don't trust me?” Pancho managed to keep a straight face, but just barely.

They all growled at her.

“But it was only a joke,” she protested. “I had no intention of keeping your money.”

“Not much you didn't,” one of the guys snapped. “Good thing Mandy figured out what you were up to.”

Pancho nodded in Amanda's direction. “You're the brightest one around, Mandy,” she said, as if she believed it.

“Never mind that,” Amanda replied tartly. To the men she said, “Now we'll all have to change our ID codes, since she's obviously
figured them out”

“I'm going to change my account number,” said one of the guys.

“I'm gonna change my
bank,”
another said fervently.

Pancho sighed and tried her best to look glum, chastised. Inwardly, she was quivering with silent laughter. What a hoot! And
none of these bozos realizes that the half hour or so they've spent chasing me means half an hour's worth of
interest from each of their accounts into mine. It's not all that much, but every little bit helps.

She just hoped they wouldn't figure it out while they were all cooped up in the transfer buggy on the way to the Moon.

Well, she thought, if they try to get physical I'll just have to introduce them to Elly.

CHENGDU, SICHUAN PROVINCE

D
an had to shout through his sanitary mask to make him self heard over the din of construction.

“All I'm asking, Zack, is can he do it or can't he?”

He'd known Zack Freiberg for more than twenty years, since Zack had been an earnest young planetary geochemist intent on exploring
asteroids and Dan had hired him away from his university post. Freiberg had taken flak from his friends in academia for joining
big, bad Dan Randolph, the greedy capitalist founder and head of Astro Manufacturing. But over the years a mutual respect
had slowly developed into a trusting friendship. It had been Zack who'd first warned Dan about the looming greenhouse cliff,
and what it would do to the Earth's climate.

The greenhouse cliff had arrived, and the Earth's politicians and business leaders had sailed blindly over its edge as the
planet plunged into catastrophic warming. Zack was no longer the chubby, apple-cheeked kid Dan had first met. His strawberry
hair had gone iron gray, although it was still thick
and tightly curled. The past few years had toughened him, made him leaner, harder, boiled away the baby fat in his body. His
face had hardened, too, as he watched his equations and graphs turn into massive human suffering.

The two men were standing on the edge of a denuded ridge, looking out across a barren coal-black valley where thousands of
Chinese workers toiled unceasingly. By all the gods, Dan thought, they really do look like an army of ants scurrying around.
In the middle of the valley four enormously tall smokestacks of a huge electricity-generating plant belched dark gray fumes
into the hazy sky. Mountainous piles of coal lay by the railroad track that ran alongside the power plant. Off on the horizon,
beyond the farther stripped-bare ridge, the Yangzi River glittered in the hazy morning sunshine like a deadly boa constrictor
slowly creeping up on its prey. A sluggish warm breeze smelled of raw coal and diesel fumes.

Dan shuddered inwardly, wondering how many billions of microbes were worming their way through his sanitary mask and nose
plugs, eager to chew past his weakened immune system and set up homes for themselves inside his body.

“Dan, I really don't have time for this,” Freiberg hollered over the roar of a huge truck carrying twenty tons of dirt and
rubble down into the valley on wheels that dwarfed both men.

“I just need a few hours of your time,” Dan said, feeling his throat going hoarse from his shouting. “Jeez, I came all the
way out here to get your opinion on this.”

It was a sign of the Chinese government's belated realization that the greenhouse warming would decimate China as well as
the rest of the world that they had asked Freiberg to personally direct their massive construction program. At one end of
the valley, Chinese engineers and laborers were building a dam to protect the electrical power-generating station from the
encroaching Yangzi. At the other end, a crew from Yamagata Industries was constructing a complex
pumping station to remove the carbon dioxide emitted by the power station's stacks and store it deep underground, in the played-out
seams of the coal bed that provided fuel for the generators.

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