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In all this silence he sometimes thought he could hear the universe breathing.
 
     
 
The orbital junk hit hard and the air was gone into the void.
 
 
The Water Sculptor
by George Zebrowski

Sitting there, watching the Earth below him from the panel of Station Six, Christian Praeger suddenly felt embarrassed by the planet's beauty. For the last eight hours he had watched the great storm develop in the Pacific, and he had wanted to share the view with someone, tell someone how beautiful he thought it was. He had told it to himself now for the fiftieth time.

The storm was a physical evil, a spinning hell that might reach the Asian mainland and kill thousands of starving billions. They would get a warning, for all the good that would do. Since the turn of the century there had been dozens of such storms, developing in places way off from the traditional storm cradles.

He looked at the delicate pinwheel. It was a part of the planet's ecology—whatever state that was in now. The arms of the storm reminded him of the theory which held the galaxy to be a kind of organized storm system which sucked in gas and dust at its center and sent it all out into the vast arms to condense into stars. And the stars were stormy laboratories building the stuff of the universe in the direction of huge molecules, from the inanimate and crystalline to the living and conscious. In the slowness of time it all looked stable, Praeger thought, but almost certainly all storms run down and die.

He looked at the clock above the center screen. There were six clocks around the watch room, one above each screen. The clock on the ceiling gave station time. His watch would be over in half an hour.

He looked at the sun screen. There all the dangerous rays were filtered out. He turned up the electronic magnification and for a long time watched the prominences flare up and die. He looked at the cancerous sunspots. The sight was hypnotic and frightening no matter how many times he had seen it. He put his hand out to the computer panel and punched in the routine information. Then he looked at the spectroscopic screens, small rectangles beneath the Earth watch monitors. He checked the time and set the automatic release for the ozone scatter-canisters to be dropped into the atmosphere. A few minutes later he watched them drop away from the station, following their fall until they broke in the upper atmosphere, releasing the precious ozone that would protect Earth's masses from the sun's deadly radiation. Early in the twentieth century a good deal of the natural ozone layer in the upper atmosphere had been stripped away as a result of atomic testing and the use of aerosol sprays, resulting in much genetic damage in the late eighties and nineties. But soon now the ozone layer would be back up to snuff.

When his watch ended ten minutes later, Praeger was glad to get away from the visual barrage of the screens. He made his way into one of the jutting spokes of the station where his sleep cubicle was located. Here it was a comfortable half-g all the time. He settled himself into his bunk and pushed the music button at his side, leaving his small observation and com screen on the ceiling turned off. Gradually the music filled the room and he closed his eyes. Mahler's weary song of Earth's misery enveloped his consciousness with pity and weariness, and love. Before he fell asleep he wished he might feel the Earth's atmosphere the way he felt his own skin.

I wish I could hear and feel the motion of gas molecules in the upper air, the whisperings of subtle energy transfers …

In the Pacific, weather control engineers guided the great storm into an electrostatic basket. The storm would provide usable power for the rest of its natural life.


· · · · · 


Praeger awoke a quarter of an hour before his watch was due to begin. He thought of his recent vacation Earthside, remembering the glowing volcano he had seen in Italy and how strange the silver shield of the Moon had looked through Earth's atmosphere. He remembered watching his own Station Six, his post in life, moving slowly across the sky, remembered one of the inner stations as it passed Julian's Station 233, one of the few private satellites, synchronous, fixed for all time over one point on the Earth. He should be able to talk to Julian soon, during his next off period. Even though Julian was an artist and a recluse, a water sculptor as he called himself, Julian and he were very much alike. At times he felt they were each other's conscience, two ex-spacemen in continual retreat from their home world. It was much more beautiful and bearable from out here. In all this silence he sometimes thought he could hear the universe breathing. It was alive, the whole starry cosmos throbbing.

If I could tear a hole in its body, it would bleed and cry out for a bandage …

He remembered the stifling milieu of Rome's streets: the great screens which went dead during his vacation, blinding the city, the crowds waiting on the stainless steel squares for the music to resume over the giant audios. They could not work without it. The music pounded its monotonous bass beat: the sound of some imprisoned beast beneath the city. The cab that waited for him was a welcome sight: an instrument for fleeing.

In the shuttle craft that brought him back to Station Six he read the little quotation printed on the back of every seat for the ten thousandth time; it told him that the shuttle dated back to the building of the giant Earth station system.

"… What we are building now is the nervous system of mankind … the communications network of which the satellites will be the nodal points. They will enable the consciousness of our grandchildren to flicker like lightning back and forth across the face of the planet …"


· · · · · 


Praeger got up from his bunk and made his way back to the watch room. He was glad now to get away from his own thoughts and return to the visual stimulation of the watch screens. Soon he would be talking to Julian again; they would share each other's friendship in the universe of the spoken word as they shared a silent past every time they looked at each other across the void.

Julian's large green eyes reminded him each time of the view out by Neptune, the awesome size of the sea green giant, the ship outlined against it, and the fuel tank near it blossoming into a red rose, silently; the first ship had been torn in half. Julian had been in space, coming over to Praeger's command ship when it happened, to pick up a spare part for the radio-telescope. They blamed Julian because they had to blame someone. After all, he had been in command. Chances were that something had already gone wrong, and that nothing could have stopped it. Only one man had been lost.

Julian and Praeger were barred from taking any more missions; unfairly, they thought. There were none coming up that either of them would have been interested in anyway, but at the time they put up a fight. Some fool official said publicly that they were unfit to represent mankind beyond the solar system—a silly thing to say, especially when the UN had just put a ban on extra-solar activities. They were threatened with dishonorable discharges, but they were also world heroes; the publicity would have been embarrassing.

Julian believed that most of mankind was unfit for just about everything. With his small fortune and the backing of patrons he built his bubble station, number 233 in the registry; his occupation now was "sculptor," and the tax people came to talk to him every year. To Julian Earth was a mudball, where ten percent of the people lived off the labor of the other ninety percent. Oh, the brave ones shine, he told Praeger once, but the initiative that should have taken men to the stars had been ripped out of men's hearts. The whole star system was rotting, overblown with grasping things living in their own wastes. The promise of ancient myths, three thousand years old, had not been fulfilled …

In the watch room Praeger watched the delicate clouds which enveloped the Earth. He could feel the silence, and the slowness of the changing patterns was reassuring. Given time and left alone, the air would clean itself of all man-made wastes, the rivers would run clear again, and the oceans would regain their abundance of living things.

When his watch was over he did not wait for his relief to come. He didn't like the man. The feeling was mutual and by leaving early they could each avoid the other as much as was possible. Praeger went directly to his cubicle, lay down on his bunk, and opened the channel, both audio and visual, on the ceiling com and observation screen.

Julian's face came on promptly on the hour.

"EW-CX233 here," Julian said.

"EW-CXOO6," Praeger said. Julian looked his usual pale self, green eyes with the look of other times still in them. "Hello, Julian. What have you been doing?"

"There was a reporter here. I made a tape of the whole thing, if you can call it an interview. Want to hear it?"

"Go ahead. My vacation was the usual. I don't know what's wrong with me."

Julian's face disappeared and the expressionless face of the reporter appeared. The face smiled just before it spoke.

"Julian—that's the name you are known by?"

"Yes."

"Will you describe your work for our viewers, Julian?"

"I am a water sculptor. I make thin plastic molds and fill them with water. Then I put them out into the void, and when they solidify I go out and strip off the plastic. You can see most of my work orbiting my home."

"Isn't the use of water expensive?"

"I re-use much of it. And I am independently wealthy."

"What's the point of leaving your work outside?"

"On Earth the wind shapes rock. Here space dust shapes the ice, mutilates it, and I get the effect I want. Then I photograph the results in color and make more permanent versions here inside."

Praeger watched Julian and the reporter float over to a large tank of water.

"Inside here," Julian said, "you see the permanent figures. When I spin the tank, the density of each becomes apparent, and each takes its proper place in the suspension."

"Do you ever work with realistic subjects?"

"No."

"Do you think you could make a likeness of the Earth?"

"Why?" Praeger saw Julian smile politely. The reporter suddenly looked uncomfortable. The tape ended and Julian's face reappeared.

"See what they send up here to torment me?"

"Is the interview going to be used anywhere?" Praeger asked.

"They were vague about it."

"Have you been happy?"

Julian didn't answer. For a few moments both screens were still portraits. Both men knew all the old complaints, all the old pains. Both knew that the UN was doing secret extra-solar work, and they both knew that it was the kind of work that would revive them, just as it might give the Earth a new lease on life. But they would never have a share of it. Only a few more years of routine service, Praeger knew, and then retirement—to what? To a crowded planet.

Both men thought the same thought at that moment—the promise of space was dead, unless men moved from the solar system.

"Julian," Praeger said softly, "I'll call you after my next watch." Julian nodded and the screen turned gray.

On impulse Praeger pushed the observation button for a look at Station 233. It was a steel and plastic ball one hundred feet in diameter. Praeger knew that most of Julian's belongings floated in the empty center, tied together with line. When he needed something he would bounce around the tiny universe of objects until he found it. Some parts of the station were transparent. Praeger remembered peering out once to catch sight of one of Julian's ice sculptures and seeing a pale white ghost peer in at him for a moment before passing out of sight.

Praeger watched the silent ball that housed his friend of a lifetime. Eventually, he knew, he would join Julian in his retirement. A man could live a long time in zero-g.

The alarm in his cubicle rang and Higgins's voice came over the audio. "That fool! Doesn't he see that orbital debris?"

Praeger had perhaps ten seconds left to see Station 233 whole. The orbital junk hit hard and the air was gone into the void. The water inside, Praeger knew, had frozen instantly. Somewhere inside, the ruptured body of Julian floated among his possessions even as the lights on the station winked out.

Praeger was getting into his suit, knowing there was no chance to save Julian. He made his way down the emergency passage from his cubicle, futilely dragging the spare suit behind him.

The airlock took an age to cycle. When it opened he gave a great kick with his feet and launched himself out toward the other station. Slowly it grew in front of him, until he was at the airlock. He activated the mechanism, and when the locks were both open he pushed himself in toward the center of the little world.

Starlight illuminated Julian's white, ruptured face. Through the clear portion of the station Praeger saw the Earth's shadow eclipse the full Moon: a bronze shield.


· · · · · 


For a long time after Praeger drifted in the starlit shell. He stared at the dark side of the Earth, at the cities sparkling like fireflies; never sleeping, billions living in metal caves; keeping time with the twenty-four hour workday; and where by night the mannequins danced beneath the flickering screens, their blood filled with strange potions which would give them their small share of counterfeit happiness.

Praeger tried to brush away the tears floating inside his helmet, but with no success. They would have to wait until he took his suit off. When the emergency crew arrived an hour later, he took charge.

The station was a hazard now and would have to be removed. He agreed. All this would be a funeral rite for Julian, he thought, and he was sure the artist would approve.

He removed all of Julian's written material and sent it down to his publishers, then put Julian's body in a plastic sack and secured it to the north pole of the station bubble.

He left the sculptures inside. On the body Praeger found a small note:

When we grow up we'll see the Earth not as a special place, but just as one place. Then home will be the starry cosmos. Of course this has always been the case. It is we who will have changed. I have nothing else to hope for.


The hulk continued in its orbit for three weeks, until Praeger sent a demolition crew out to it and blew it out of existence. He watched on the monitor as they set the charges that would send it into a new orbit. Station 233 would leave the solar system at an almost ninety-degree angle to the plane of the ecliptic, on a parabolic path which would not bring it back to Sol for thousands of years. It would be a comet someday, Praeger thought.

He watched the charges flare up, burn for thirty seconds, and die. Slowly the bubble moved off toward the top of the screen. He watched until it disappeared from the screen. In twenty-four hours it would be beyond the boundaries of Earth. Interstellar gas and dust would scar it out of all recognition: a torn seed on the wind.

The End
 
 
 

© 1970 Lancer Books, Inc. as "The Water Sculptor of Station 233." First published in Infinity No.1 edited by Robert Hoskins. Copyright reassigned to the author 1972. Revision copyright © 1985 George Zebrowski.