The Web Between the Worlds

The Web Between the Worlds

by Charles Sheffield, William Roberts

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Rob Merlin was the best engineer who had ever lived. That was why "The King of Space" had to have him for the most spectacular construction project ever—even though Rob was a potentially fatal threat to his power...

Thus begins a breakthrough novel by the former President of the American Astronautical Society, about an idea whose time has come: a

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Rob Merlin was the best engineer who had ever lived. That was why "The King of Space" had to have him for the most spectacular construction project ever—even though Rob was a potentially fatal threat to his power...

Thus begins a breakthrough novel by the former President of the American Astronautical Society, about an idea whose time has come: a shimmering bridge between Earth and space that mankind will climb to the stars!

Sound like fantasy? The concept has been in the literature of physics for over three decades, but only a writer with the scientific background of a Sheffield or a Clarke could bring the idea to life.

Editorial Reviews

Sheffield is a master...the Asimov or Clarke of the future.
Chicago Sun-Times
A treat for readers who like their science fiction loaded with intelligent scientific extrapolation.

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The Web Between the Worlds

By Charles Sheffield

Baen Books

ISBN: 0-671-31973-6

Chapter One

"Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven, to his feet thy tribute bring."

The morning sun, moving slowly higher, cast a broad swath of light around the south-east face of K-2. The bright shaft crept along the steep walls of ice and overhanging rock, up to the tiny figure that hung cocoon-like against the rock face. When the light reached his face mask he stirred in his sleeping bag, fumbling for the dark goggles that would protect his eyes against the fierce ultra-violet. After a couple of minutes he pushed his head out of the bag and looked around him. The weather was holding, with no clouds and with tolerable winds. He glanced up. The summit was invisible past the overhang, but it must be less than two thousand feet above him, standing solitary against the blue-black sky.

Rob Merlin pulled his head back into the shelter of the bag and began his slow, methodical preparation for the day's work, the same procedure that had begun each of the last eleven days. His mind was awake. Now he had to waken his hands. That took fifteen minutes of steady rhythmic exercise, joint by joint and digit by digit, until he was finally satisfied with the coordination. Twenty minutes later he was slipping the clamps loose that held his climbing suit tight to the rock, tucking them into the pack, and beginning a careful ascent. At this height, the appearance of the rock surface was deceptive. Each hand-hold must be carefully tested, each piton placed and checked before any new movement could be made. He had studied the preferred ascent route for so long that the choice of direction and movement had passed below the level of his conscious thoughts. That was dangerous. No amount of prior study could tell of crumbling rocks and moving ice cover. As needed, he made the minor changes to his path, crabbing right and left but always ascending.

By noon he had reached the last, gently-sloping ice field that led to the final summit. He paused there, looking about him at the Karakorum Range. In the clear, thin air, he could see well over a hundred miles. The snow-capped peaks marched endlessly away from him, swelling towards the south-east where Everest stood more than seven hundred miles distant. With his eyes fixed on the jagged peaks he slid down his face mask, loosened the oxygen tube that led from his backpack to the corner of his mouth, and began to eat a cold meal of dry concentrates.

To the south, hovering high in the eye of the noonday sun, a small aircraft hung suspended. It would have been invisible to Rob Merlin, even if he had found reason to squint towards the blinding disc-his photo-sensitive goggles would have darkened too much to see anything but the sun itself. The pilot had placed the craft on automatic control while she fine-tuned the electronic magnifier of the telescope. As she corrected the setting, the figure of Rob Merlin, ant-like in the view-finder, sprang suddenly into sharp focus on the display screen. He was crouched forward, leaning to balance the weight of his backpack. Under the thermal clothing his body appeared stocky and powerfully-built, with heavy shoulders and a broad back. The woman watched him in silence as he ate the simple meal.

"He's on the final approach," she said at last. "The last piece is no problem, that's why he stopped to eat here. I don't think he'll stay long at the top. He'll want good light to start the descent, especially that chimney about six hundred meters down. Do you want me to keep the viewer on him?"

There was a pause of several seconds. The voice that finally came from the speaker was rough and gravelly, as though the vocal cords were scarred and roughened.

"Keep it on him. I've got Caliban hooked into the circuit. He needs everything, audio and visual. Can you push the gain higher? I want to get a better look at the face."

The woman nodded. She turned a control and the display zoomed in on Rob Merlin's head and shoulders. There was a grunt from the wall speaker.

"I see what you mean. He does look smooth. I wish I could see his eyes."

"Not at this altitude. There's so much UV around, he'll keep the goggles on all the time. But I can tell you what his eyes look like. They're the same as his face-like a blank canvas, waiting for somebody to paint the picture on it."

"That's poetic, but it doesn't carry precision." The voice chuckled, a rough grating sound. "I suppose I can wait until he gets back below twenty thousand before I try my own description. You can back off from high gain now."

The woman nodded. She made two economical movements and the image on the screen returned to a more distant view of Rob Merlin. "I'll keep it like that for Caliban. Any new ideas on how I ought to contact Merlin?"

"No. That's your department, not mine. Do it as soon as you can, though. I need to get back to base, and I don't want to hang around here any longer than I have to."

The woman shook her fringe of chestnut hair away from her eyes and peered again into the view-finder. "I'll get to him as soon as I can, but it may be a while yet. I'd have had a plausible reason to contact him if he'd got into difficulties on the way up, and I can use the same reason if he has problems on the way down. Otherwise, I'm sure he'll want to do the hard parts himself. If things go smoothly you shouldn't expect us for another three days."

"Three days!" The gruff voice was impatient. "Why so long? He's at the top, isn't he, that's all he wanted?"

"He is." The woman sounded amused. "And he'll want to get down in his own way. If I try and contact him now, chances are he'll tell me to get lost. That's my opinion-check it with Caliban, if you don't believe it."

"I did." The voice held grudging agreement. "We couldn't make any sense of his outputs. I'll ask Joseph to try him again, but I doubt if we'll get anything new."

While they were talking, Rob Merlin stood up, adjusted his face mask, and began to make his way to the final summit of K-2. When he reached it he remained there for only a couple of minutes, a tiny figure standing on top of the world. As he turned to begin the laborious descent his total attention was on the sloping ice walls and crevasses below him. They dipped and folded in dizzying complexity, all the way to his planned resting point four thousand feet further down. Full attention was crucial. At this height and pressure the blackened ice would sublime in the sunshine before it would melt-unless it had the force of his weight above it. With that weight, each footstep became perilous.

He never looked back up the mountain, or glanced towards the sun and the silver speck that was hidden in its bright glare. Ascent was the exciting part. Arrival at the summit never matched prior expectations; and descent, as always, would be the most dangerous.

At eighteen thousand feet there came a subtle but significant change in the surroundings. He was still well above the top of the vegetation line, but now the surface of the mountain was rougher and more broken. He could even see choices in the paths that lay ahead of him, replacing the insignificant options that faced the climber above twenty thousand feet. Rob paused to disconnect the oxygen booster and loosened his face mask. He moved slowly down, trying to think of the path ahead instead of the luxury of hot food and hot baths that still lay days in the future.

The noise of the aircraft had been muffled by his ear-pieces. He noticed it only when it came into view a hundred meters ahead of him, descending towards the surface of the slope and hovering there on its air columns. It was a two-passenger model, and an expensive one. As it drifted smoothly towards him, Rob could see the pilot, calmly aligning the exit port with a level patch of scree. He stood and waited as she switched to automatic pilot, opened the port, and stepped out onto the rocky surface twenty meters in front of him.

"Want a ride for the rest of the way? You've finished all the hard part." She was dressed in a quilted snow-suit, with head and forearms bare. Her face was thin and brown, with lively eyes and a full, humorous mouth above a strong chin. Her manner was familiar, but Rob was fairly sure they had never met. He would have remembered that dark complexion and the surprise of those pale, animated eyes.

He looked at her for a moment, thinking suddenly of the delights of a long, lazy soak in steaming water and of his own grimy condition. It was a tempting offer-and she was right, the hard part was all behind him. After a few seconds he shook his head.

"I've taken it this far, I'll finish it myself. Anyway, my gear is all down at Suget Jangal."

"That's on my way. You can get a hot bath there, too." She seemed to be reading his mind-unless she could smell him from four paces.

"I imagine that you need one," she went on. "Eleven days on the mountain is a long time."

"Too long." He looked at her curiously. "You checked my departure down at Suget?"

"Yes. And I've had my eye on you for the past few days." She showed no embarrassment at intruding on what he had thought to be his privacy. He looked at her more closely. She was short, not much above five feet, and slightly built. She didn't look older than twenty, but her manner was completely confident. He shrugged his backpack to an easier position, rubbed at his eleven-day growth of beard, and looked at the waiting aircraft.

"And I had the innocent idea that I was alone up here. So much for privacy. Why couldn't you have waited for me at Suget Jangal? I'll be there anyway, three days from now."

"Sure-and you'll be surrounded by twenty people. That's why I didn't hang around there waiting for you to get back. Did you know that there are four business groups in your hotel waiting for the return of Rob Merlin? You slipped out before they could contact you after the end of your last contract. Now they want to try and get in early to make bids for you on the next one."

"I'm not surprised. They were after me even before I finished. That's why I ran for it and tried to get a little time to myself. I guess I was too easy to track." Rob frowned. The lines added to his smooth forehead suddenly made him look a lot older. "And you're just another one of them, I suppose-but you wanted to get in first even more than they did. Well, it's still no. I'm going to finish the climb. You should have done your homework better. If you had, you'd know that I won't deal with intermediaries-and you'd know that I don't like pressure from anybody to set up contracts before I'm ready."

Her expression didn't alter. She looked around her at the peaks of the Karakorum Range, then back to Rob.

"I know all that." Her mouth quirked. "Give me credit for some brains. I admit that I came here to talk business, but there are special circumstances. First, take my word for it that we're not interested in outbidding anybody for your talents. We don't want to build a bridge at all-at least, not one of the usual sort. Second, this couldn't be handled without an intermediary." She was watching Rob's expressions closely. "The man I work for isn't here because he can't be. He would never survive a trip down to the surface of the Earth. Darius Regulo is sick, has been sick for more than forty years."

"Regulo!" Rob showed his first real sign of interest. "Are you telling me that you work for Darius Regulo?"

"I do. The King of Heaven himself-and he wants to see you."

Rob stared again at the aircraft. "He told you to tell me all this?"

"No." She shook her head, and the chestnut hair swirled about it. "You don't know Regulo. He would never give an order like that. It's not his style. `Go on down there,' he said. `Stop that young fool killing himself on the mountain and bring him up here to talk to me.' That's all the instructions he gave me. He'll never tell you how to do a job, he says that's what he pays people for. Results are the thing he cares about." She noticed the way that Rob was eyeing the aircraft. "You're an engineer-he's a man you ought to know."

Rob glanced down at the path ahead, then at the woman. "No fooling me, now. If I go with you we'll head straight off to meet Regulo?"

"That's what I'm saying."

"Right." Rob walked over to the craft and slung his pack into the back of it. "I don't know how you knew it, but that's a strong lure to me."

She was smiling to herself as they climbed together into the aircar, she at the controls and Rob behind her next to the camera assembly. He eyed that curiously, then looked at the TV screen on the opposite wall of the cabin.

"I see what you mean about keeping your eye on me. Did you have that high-gain scope trained on me when I was climbing?"

She nodded without looking around. "It gives a good picture."

Rob snorted. "Too right it gives a good picture. I guess I don't have many secrets from you."

"I might argue with that. You have a reputation,"

"Look, I'm here. You hooked me with Regulo's name. But who are you, and what's his interest in me?"

"I'm Cornelia Plessey. Don't feel bad that I was watching you. I was told to be ready to help if you got into trouble on K-2, and I couldn't do that if I didn't look."

She keyed in a course assignment and set the autopilot, then swivelled in her chair to face Rob. She was smiling. He peered at her face closely, looking for the faint scars that signalled rejuvenation. There was no sign of them. Was she really as young as she looked? It didn't seem consistent with her ease of manner.

"I'm twenty-six years old," she said, interpreting his look. "Don't worry, though, I have all the authority I need. We can talk money, if that's a big factor with you. Regulo leaves it to me to tempt you with wealth, my body, my brains, or anything that works. All I should really tell you is that Regulo wants to talk with you about a project that will make all the other projects you've ever done look like games with children's blocks. When you hear about it, money won't seem relevant."

Rob raised his eyebrows. They were dark and bushy, concealing deep-set eyes. "And I suppose-just by coincidence-it will turn out that this project of his will need the use of the Spider?"

"It will need you to improve the Spider, speed it up by a factor of twenty. I don't know the details, but I'm quoting Regulo on that."

"Sweet Christ!" Rob rubbed again at his beard and sniffed. "Do you realize how fast the Spider is now? I don't know anything about Regulo apart from his reputation as a super-engineer, but on this one the old fellow doesn't know what he's talking about. Look, Cornelia-"


"All right, Corrie. I'm intrigued, the way you expected me to be. But I'll have to know a lot more about Regulo before I decide anything.


Excerpted from The Web Between the Worlds by Charles Sheffield Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Kim Stanley Robinson
Charles Sheffield is one of the very best hard science fiction writers in the world.