The Cruel Sky
By Arthur C. Clarke
No man in all history had ever greeted a stranger dawn. Though they were tired and stiff and cold, and the dryness of the thin air made every breath rasp in their throats, they forgot all these discomforts as the first dim glow spread along the jagged eastern horizon. The stars fades one by one; last to go, only minutes before the moment of daybreak, was the most brilliant of all the space stations – Pacific Number Three, hovering twenty-two thousand miles above Hawaii. Then the sun lifted above a sea of nameless peaks, and the Himalayan day had dawned.
It was like watching sunrise on the Moon. At first, only the highest mountains caught the slanting rays, while the surrounding valleys remained flooded with inky shadows. But slowly the line of light marched down the rocky slopes, and more and more of this harsh, forbidding land climbed into the new day.
Now, if one looked hard enough, it was possible to see signs of human life. There were a few narrow roads, thin columns of smoke from lonely villages, glints of reflected sunlight from monastery roofs. The world below was waking, wholly unaware of the two spectators poised so magically fifteen thousand feet above.
During the night, the wind must have changed direction several times, and harper had no idea where they were. He could not recognize a single landmark. They could have been anywhere over a five-hundred-mile-long strip of Nepal and Tibet.
The immediate problem was to choose a landing place – and that soon, for they were drifting rapidly toward a jumble of peaks and glaciers where they could hardly expect to find help. The wind was carrying them in a northeasterly direction, toward China. If they floated over the mountains and landed there, it might be weeks before they could get in contact with one of the U.N. Famine Relief Centers and find their way home. They might even be in some personal danger, if they descended out of the sky in an area where there was only an illiterate and superstitious peasant population.
“We’d better get down quickly,” said Harper.” I don`t like the look of those mountains.”
His words seemed utterly lost in the void around them. Although Dr. Elwin was only ten feet away, it was easy to imagine that his companion could not hear anything he said. But at last the Doctor nodded his head, in almost reluctant agreement.
“I’m afraid you’re right – but I’m not sure we can make it, with this wind. Remember – we can’t go down as quickly as we can rise.”
That was true enough; the power-packs could be charged at only a tenth of their discharge rate. If they lost altitude and pumped gravitational energy back into them too fast, the cells would overheat and probably explode. The startled Tibetans (or Nepalese?) would thing that a large meteorite had detonated in their sky. And no one would ever know exactly what had happened to Dr. Jules Elwin and his promising young assistant.
To make matters worse, they had completely miscalculated the air speed at ground level. That infernal, unpredictable wind was blowing a near-gale once more. They could see streamers of snow, torn from exposed ridges, waving like ghostly banners beneath them. (Arthur C. Clarke). Illustration: © Megan Jorgensen