Ivan Benedict was known as the billionaire who never smiled, and he had good reason for his melancholy demeanor. Twenty five years ago as his wife was driving their young son back from summer camp, she lost control of the car. Crashing through a bridge guardrail, mother and son plunged sixty feet into the lake below. Police investigations indicated that both survived the impact, but drowned while attempting to open the doors of the car. For a time it seemed to the world that Ivan could not get past the tragedy and would never be productive again. However, he did push on and after operating his company, Alpha Space Tours, for a number of years, he determined it was time to take commercial space travel to the next altitude. This is where I, Nathan Calder, former NASA engineer, launched into the picture. Ivan offered me several times what I was being paid at NASA to work for him and design the first space elevator. The concept of the elevator is to anchor a ribbon made out of carbon nanotubes, from a mobile platform in the Pacific Ocean, to a counterweight in space. Extending about a quarter of the way to the moon, the ribbon appears to just hang there; but in reality, it is the rotation of the Earth and the ribbon that produces the force to keep it in place. The ribbon is therefore held up by angular momentum, allowing cable cars to climb it by traction. There were enough astronauts working for Alpha Space Tours to pilot the several ships necessary to get all the elevator parts up into orbit. What Ivan needed was an astronaut experienced in operating a robotic arm to assemble all the pieces and position them properly in space. I recommended Janice Mallakh without hesitation, and Ivan hired her.
There were a couple of reasons for my recommending Janice. First, she had served as the robotic arm operator for several International Space Station missions. Second, I had a thing for her. I never mentioned this to Ivan, but I had been schlepping a torch for Janice since the day we met at NASA. She was arresting, with black hair worn in a short style, and just the kind of figure I like – tall and serpentine, but also elegant. When she was a little girl, Janice’s father, whom she idolized, taught her to be equally proud of both her Egyptian heritage and her American citizenship. A week before joining me at Alpha Space Tours, she started dating a handsome and wealthy antiquities dealer named Amir. Amir claimed he was originally from Zamalek, a luxurious island in the Nile, where Janice’s father had been born. He was also only a year older than Janice, who was 37 at the time. Naturally, I gave up on us ever being together. How could I compete? I was 49 and almost completely bald.
As a result of our laboring together almost every day for two years, Janice and I completed the project ahead of schedule. Because we had designed everything and toiled so persistently, Ivan asked us to be the first passengers. On the day of our departure, hundreds of reporters, world leaders, politicians, famous actors, and family and friends squeezed onto the little Alpha Space Tours’ man-made island. The only person missing was Amir. When I asked Janice about it, she gave me a sad smile. “Two weeks ago he broke up with me over the phone and didn’t even tell me why.”
I touched her shoulder and feigned a tone of disbelief. “He didn’t even tell you why?”
She made a face of exasperation, then shrugged. “Yeah, can you imagine?”
Smearing it on thick, I began telling Janice how sorry I was for Amir’s callousness. Deep down, my heart was leapfrogging over the new possibilities. If all went well, we would be back in twelve days. Six days to the end of the ribbon, six days to get back down. The elevator vehicle, or climber, had two compartments, one used for sleeping, the other a fully stocked kitchen. The ribbon ran down in between the two compartments, with rounded hallways on either side, so that we could walk from one compartment to the other. During the first five days of our heading upward, Janice and I spent most of the time making each other laugh. Doing impersonations of Amir just never seemed to get old for us. On the morning of the sixth day, I had risen early and was waiting for her in the kitchen. She exited the sleeping quarters, walked through one of the rounded hallways, and stepped into the compartment I was in to join me for breakfast. The quiet sound of the door closing behind her was followed by the explosion.
We were thrown like weightless dolls against the far wall of the kitchen. Our sleeping quarters were completely destroyed. The compartment we were in was severely damaged and barely still attached to the ribbon, which remarkably survived the blast. Our communication systems were down so we had no way of telling anyone that we were still alive. Fortunately, each section of the elevator vehicle had its own emergency life support system, but we were stuck. When I tried to stand, it felt as if my back was on fire in three places. I hobbled over to Janice who was lying on the floor a few feet away from me. As I sat her up, she complained of pain on the left side of her body, underneath her rib cage. I suspected she had a ruptured spleen. If this was the case, then Janice was bleeding internally, and it was unlikely that a rescue team would reach us in time to save her. Ivan’s spacecrafts were plush and comfortable for the tourists, but they were not very fast.
High powered telescopes informed everyone back on earth that there had been an explosion which completely destroyed one side of the climber. Even though the other side appeared intact, most people were convinced we were dead. However, Ivan refused to believe it. Knowing his commercial ships were too slow for a possible rescue, Ivan contacted a competitor, Destination Space, to ask for help. Responding with compassion, they readily agreed to allow an Alpha crew to pilot one of their faster crafts. Unfortunately, there was a complication. Because Destination Space had been partially funded through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, a Presidential order was required to launch from Cape Canaveral. Ivan immediately called the President, requesting his permission to take off from NASA’s platform in Florida. The President was hesitant to agree because of the financial cost and possible dangers to the rescue crew. Ivan explained that he would cover all the expenses even if it left him ruined and that everyone volunteering for the mission understood the risks involved. After a long pause, the President asked softly, “Ivan, do you really believe they’re still alive?” “Yes, but they won’t be for long!” Ivan snapped. The President gave the order.
It had been two days since the explosion. Janice spent most of the time drifting in and out of consciousness. Whenever she was awake, we discussed what could have possibly happened. Amir’s name kept emerging. Inquiries later unveiled the full tale. Amir had stolen a gold-plated fountain pen Janice’s father had given her when she received her doctorate in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts. After her dad succumbed to cancer, Janice decided to take the pen wherever she went. The last time Amir visited Janice, he replaced the pen with a duplicate. Unfortunately for us, the copy was a high-tech bomb. Thanks to nanotechnology, an incendiary the size of a pen was able to destroy half a space elevator. Janice lost consciousness again, and this time, I could no longer wake her up. It was clear to me that we were both going to die on that elevator. As I observed the stars through a large bay window, a giant white metallic wall slid in front of my view. Painted onto the pure white landscape was the American flag. We were saved.
All this took place several years ago, and my wife Janice and I have retold this story many times for many magazines. As for the Space Elevator, Ivan completed it. He then went on to construct a space dock, space port, and even a spacecraft repair depot. In fact, cases have already been documented of repairs on ships that would have otherwise disintegrated upon reentry.
Today, I find myself on a large fishing boat, docked in a location aptly named Paradise Bay. As Janice leans over and kisses me, my right eye flickers open and I see something spectacular. A little embarrassed by our moment of intimacy, Ivan pretends not to notice the kiss, and focuses on bating a hook. His smile gives him away.
Bio: I am a Professor at Davis College (in Johnson City, just outside of Binghamton, New York) and Mid-America Theological Seminary (Schenectady, NY).
I have had some of my work published by the online science fiction magazine, the Cross and the Cosmos.