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Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

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“Believe it or not,” continued Pat, “you can see just three kilometres—or two miles,
for those of you who haven’t been able to go metric yet. I know it looks a couple
of lightyears out to the horizon, but you could walk in twenty minutes, if you could
walk on this stuff at all.”

He moved back to his seat, and started the motors once more.

“Nothing much to see for the next sixty kilometres,” he called over his shoulders,
“so we’ll get a move on.”

Selene
surged forward. For the first time there was a real sensation of speed. The boat’s
wake became longer and more disturbed as the spinning fans bit fiercely into the dust.
Now the dust itself was being tossed up on either side in great ghostly plumes; from
a distance,
Selene
would have looked like a snow-plough driving its way across a winter landscape, beneath
a frosty moon. But those grey, slowly-collapsing parabolas were not snow, and the
lamp that lit their trajectory was the planet Earth.

The passengers relaxed, enjoying the smooth, almost silent ride. Every one of them
had travelled hundreds of times faster than this, on the journey to the Moon—but in
space one was never conscious of speed, and this swift glide across the dust was far
more exciting. When Harris swung
Selene
into a tight turn, so that she orbited in a circle, the boat almost overtook the
falling veils of powder her fans had hurled into the sky. It seemed altogether wrong
that this impalpable dust should rise and fall in such clean-cut curves, utterly unaffected
by air resistance. On Earth it would have drifted for hours—perhaps for days.

As soon as the boat had straightened out on a steady course and there was nothing
to look at except the empty plain, the passengers began to read the literature thoughtfully
provided for them. Each had been given a folder of photographs, maps, souvenirs (“This
is to certify that Mr/Mrs/Miss… has sailed the Seas of the Moon, aboard Dust-cruiser
Selene
”) and informative text. They had only to read this to discover all that they wanted
to know about the Sea of Thirst, and perhaps a little more.

Most of the Moon, they read, was covered by a thin layer of dust, usually no more
than a few millimetres deep. Some of this was debris from the stars—the remains of
meteorites that had fallen upon the Moon’s unprotected face for at least five billion
years. Some had flaked from the lunar rocks as they expanded and contracted in the
fierce temperature extremes between day and night. Whatever its source, it was so
finely divided that it would flow like a liquid, even under this feeble gravity.

Over the ages, it had drifted down from the mountains into the lowlands, to form pools
and lakes. The first explorers had expected this, and had usually been prepared for
it. But the Sea of Thirst was a surprise; no one had anticipated finding a dust-bowl
more than a hundred kilometres across.

As the lunar ‘seas’ went, it was very small; indeed, the astronomers had never officially
recognised its title, pointing out that it was only a small portion of the Sinus Roris—the
Bay of Dew. And how, they protested, could part of a Bay be an entire Sea? But the
name, invented by a copy-writer of the Lunar Tourist Commission, had stuck despite
their objections. It was at least as appropriate as the names of the other so-called
Seas—Sea of Clouds, Sea of Rains, Sea of Tranquillity. Not to mention Sea of Nectar….

The brochure also contained some reassuring information, designed to quell the fears
of the most nervous traveller, and to prove that the Tourist Commission had thought
of everything. “All possible precautions have been taken for your safety,” it stated.

Selene
carries an oxygen reserve sufficient to last for more than a week, and all essential
equipment is duplicated. An automatic radio beacon signals your position at regular
intervals, and in the extremely improbable event of a complete power failure, a Dust-ski
from Port Roris would tow you home with little delay. Above all, there is no need
to worry about rough weather. No matter how bad a sailor you may be, you can’t get
sea-sick on the Moon. There are never any storms on the Sea of Thirst; it is always
a flat calm.”

Those last comforting words had been written in all good faith, for who could have
imagined that they would soon be proved untrue?

As
Selene
raced silently through the earthlit night, the Moon went about its business. There
was a great deal of business now, after the aeons of sleep. More had happened here
in the last fifty years than in the five billions before that, and much was to happen
soon.

In the first city that Man had ever built outside his native world, Chief Administrator
Olsen was taking a stroll through the park. He was very proud of the park, as were
all the twenty-five thousand inhabitants of Port Clavius. It was small, of course—though
not as small as was implied by that miserable TV commentator who’d called it ‘a window-box
with delusions of grandeur’. And certainly there were no parks, gardens, or anything
else on Earth where you could find sunflowers ten metres high.

Far overhead, wispy cirrus clouds were sailing by—or so it seemed. They were, of course,
only images projected on the inside of the dome, but the illusion was so perfect that
it sometimes made the C.A. homesick. Homesick? He corrected himself;
this
was home.

Yet in his heart of hearts, he knew it was not true. To his children it would be,
but not to him. He had been born in Stockholm, Earth; they had been born in Port Clavius.
They were citizens of the Moon; he was tied to Earth with bonds that might weaken
with the years, but would never break.

Less than a kilometre away, just outside the main dome, the head of the Lunar Tourist
Commission inspected the latest returns, and permitted himself a mild feeling of satisfaction.
The improvement over the last season had been maintained; not that there
were
seasons on the Moon, but it was noticeable that more tourists came when it was winter
in Earth’s northern hemisphere.

How could he keep it up? That was always the problem, for tourists wanted variety
and you couldn’t give them the same thing over and over again. The novel scenery,
the low gravity, the view of Earth, the mysteries of Farside, the spectacular heavens,
the pioneer settlements (where tourists were not always welcomed, anyway)—after you’d
listed those, what else did the Moon have to offer? What a pity there were no native
Selenites with quaint customs and quainter physiques at which visitors could click
their cameras. Alas, the largest life-form ever discovered on the Moon needed a microscope
to show it—and its ancestors had come here on Lunik 2, only a decade ahead of Man
himself.

Commissioner Davis riffled mentally through the items that had arrived by the last
telefax, wondering if there was anything here that would help him. There was, of course,
the usual request from a TV company he’d never heard of, anxious to make yet another
documentary on the Moon—if all expenses were paid. The answer to that one would be
“No”; if he accepted all these kind offers, his department would soon be broke.

Then there was a chatty letter from his opposite number in the Greater New Orleans
Tourist Commission, Inc., suggesting an exchange of personnel. It was hard to see
how that would help the Moon, or New Orleans either, but it would cost nothing and
might produce some goodwill. And—this was more interesting—there was a request from
the water-skiing champion of Australia, asking if anyone had ever tried to ski on
the Sea of Thirst.

Yes—there was definitely an idea here; he was surprised that someone had not tried
it already. Perhaps they had, behind
Selene
or one of the small dust-skis. It was certainly worth a test; he was always on the
look-out for new forms of lunar recreation, and the Sea of Thirst was one of his pet
projects.

It was a project which, within a very few hours, was going to turn into a nightmare.

CHAPTER TWO

Ahead of
Selene
, the horizon was no longer a perfect, unbroken arc; a jagged line of mountains had
risen above the edge of the Moon. As the cruiser raced towards them, they seemed to
climb slowly up the sky, as if lifted upon some gigantic elevator.

“The Inaccessible Mountains,” announced Miss Wilkins. “So-called because they’re entirely
surrounded by the Sea. You’ll notice, too, that they’re much steeper than most lunar
mountains.”

She did not labour this, as it was an unfortunate fact that the majority of lunar
peaks were a severe disappointment. The huge craters which looked so impressive on
photographs taken from Earth turned out upon close inspection to be gently rolling
hills, their relief grossly exaggerated by the shadows they cast at dawn and sunset.
There was not a single lunar crater whose ramparts soared as abruptly as the streets
of San Francisco, and there were very few that could provide a serious obstacle to
a determined cyclist. No one would have guessed this, however, from the publications
of the Tourist Commission, which featured only the most spectacular cliffs and canyons,
photographed from carefully-chosen vantage points.

“They’ve never been thoroughly explored, even now,” Miss Wilkins continued. “Last
year we took a party of geologists there, and landed them on that promontory, but
they were only able to go a few kilometres into the interior. So there may be
anything
up in those hills; we simply don’t know.”

Good for Sue, Pat told himself; she was a first-rate guide, and knew what to leave
to the imagination, and what to explain in detail. She had an easy, relaxed tone,
with no trace of that fatal sing-song that was the occupational disease of so many
professional guides. And she had mastered her subject thoroughly; it was very rare
for her to be asked a question that she could not answer. Altogether, she was a formidable
young lady, and though she often figured in Pat’s erotic reveries, he was secretly
a little afraid of her.

The passengers stared with fascinated wonder at the approaching peaks. On the still-mysterious
Moon, here was a deeper mystery. Rising like an island out of the strange sea that
guarded them, the Inaccessible Mountains remained a challenge for the next generation
of explorers. Despite their name, it was now easy enough to reach them—but with millions
of square kilometres of less difficult territory still unexamined, they would have
to wait their turn.

Selene
was swinging into their shadows; before anyone had realised what was happening, the
low-hanging Earth had been eclipsed. Its brilliant light still played upon the peaks
far overhead, but down here all was utter darkness.

“I’ll turn off the cabin lights,” said the stewardess, “so you can get a better view.”

As the dim red background illumination vanished, each traveller felt he was alone
in the lunar night. Even the reflected radiance of Earth on those high peaks was disappearing
as the cruiser raced further into shadow. Within minutes, only the stars were left—cold,
steady points of light in a blackness so complete that the mind rebelled against it.

It was hard to recognise the familiar constellations among this multitude of stars.
The eye became entangled in patterns never seen from Earth, and lost itself in a glittering
maze of clusters and nebulae. In all that resplendent panorama, there was only one
unmistakable landmark—the dazzling beacon of Venus, far outshining all other heavenly
bodies, heralding the approach of dawn.

It was several minutes before the travellers realised that not all the wonder lay
in the sky. Behind the speeding cruiser stretched a long, phosphorescent wake, as
if a magic finger had traced a line of light across the Moon’s dark and dusty face.
Selene
was drawing a comet-tail behind her, as surely as any ship ploughing its way through
the tropical oceans of Earth.

Yet there were no micro-organisms here, lighting this dead sea with their tiny lamps.
Only countless grains of dust, sparking one against the other as the static discharges
caused by
Selene
’s swift passage neutralised themselves. Even when one knew the explanation, it was
still beautiful to watch—to look back into the night and to see this luminous, electric
ribbon continually renewed, continually dying away, as if the Milky Way itself were
reflected in the lunar surface.

The shining wake was lost in the glare as Pat switched on the searchlight. Ominously
close at hand, a great wall of rock was sliding past. At this point the face of the
mountains rose almost sheer from the surrounding sea of dust; it towered overhead
to unknown heights, for only where the racing oval of light fell upon it did it appear
to flash suddenly into real existence.

Here were mountains against which the Himalayas, the Rockies, the Alps were new-born
babies. On Earth, the forces of erosion began to tear at all mountains as soon as
they were formed, so that after a few million years they were mere ghosts of their
former selves. But the Moon knew neither wind nor rain; there was nothing here to
wear away the rocks except the immeasurably slow flaking of the dust as their surface
layers contracted in the chill of night. These mountains were as old as the world
that had given them birth.

Pat was quite proud of his showmanship, and had planned the next act very carefully.
It looked dangerous, but was perfectly safe, for
Selene
had been over this course a hundred times and the electronic memory of her guidance
system knew the way better than any human pilot. Suddenly, he switched off the searchlight—and
now the passengers could tell that while they had been dazzled by the glare on one
side, the mountains had been stealthily closing in upon them from the other.

In almost total darkness,
Selene
was racing up a narrow canyon—and not even on a straight course, for from time to
time she zigged and zagged to avoid invisible obstacles. Some of them, indeed, were
not merely invisible but non-existent; Pat had programmed this course, at slow speed
and in the safety of daylight, for maximum impact on the nerves. The “Ahs” and “Ohs!”
from the darkened cabin behind him proved that he had done a good job.

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