Read A Fall of Moondust Online

Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (21 page)

Advertising Download Read Online

“Message received. But hold on a minute—several of the news agencies want to speak
to you.”

“Sorry,” Pat answered. “I’ve given all the information there is, and I’ve twenty unconscious
men and women to look after.
Selene
out.”

That was only an excuse, of course, and a feeble one at that; he was not even sure
why he had made it. He felt, in a sudden and uncharacteristic burst of rancour: “Why,
a man can’t even die in peace nowadays!” Had he known about that waiting camera, only
five kilometres away, his reaction might have been even stronger.

“You still haven’t answered my question, Captain,” said Dr. McKenzie patiently.

“What question? Oh—
that
. No, it wasn’t luck. The Commodore and I both thought you’d be the most useful man
to have awake. You’re a scientist, you spotted the overheating danger before anyone
else did, and you kept quiet about it when we asked you.”

“Well, I’ll try to live up to your expectations. I certainly feel more alert than
I’ve done for hours. It must be the oxygen we’re sniffing; the big question is—how
long will it last?”

“Between the two of us, twelve hours—plenty of time for the skis to get here. But
we may have to give most of it to the others, if they show signs of distress. I’m
afraid it’s going to be a very close thing.”

They were both sitting cross-legged on the floor, just beside the pilot’s position,
with the oxygen bottle between them. Every few minutes they would take turns with
the inhaler—but only two breaths at a time. I never imagined, Pat told himself, that
I should ever get involved in the Number One
cliché
of the TV Space Operas. But it had occurred in real life too often to be funny any
more—especially when it was happening to you.

Both Pat and McKenzie—or almost certainly one of them—could survive if they abandoned
the other passengers to their fate. Trying to keep these twenty men and woman alive,
they might also doom themselves.

The situation was one in which logic warred against conscience. But it was nothing
new; certainly it was not peculiar to the age of space. It was as old as Mankind,
for countless times in the past, lost or isolated groups had faced death through lack
of water, food or warmth. Now it was oxygen that was in short supply, but the principle
was just the same.

Some of those groups had left no survivors; others, a handful who would spend the
rest of their lives in self-justification. What must George Pollard, late captain
of the whaler
Essex
, have thought as he walked the streets of Nantucket, with the taint of cannibalism
upon his soul? That was a two-hundred-year-old story of which Pat had never heard;
he lived on a world too busy making its own legends to import those of Earth. As far
as he was concerned, he had already made his choice—and he knew, without asking, that
McKenzie would agree with him. Neither was the sort of man who would fight over the
last bubble of oxygen in the tank. But if it
did
come to a fight—

“What are you smiling at?” asked McKenzie.

Pat relaxed; there was something about this burly Australian scientist that he found
very reassuring. Hansteen gave him the same impression, but McKenzie was a very much
younger man. There were some people you knew that you could trust, whom you were certain
would never let you down. He had that feeling about McKenzie.

“If you want to know,” he said, putting down the oxygen mask, “I was thinking that
I wouldn’t have much of a chance if you decided to keep the bottle for yourself.”

McKenzie looked a little surprised, then he too grinned.

“I thought all you Moonborn were sensitive about that,” he said.


I’ve
never felt that way,” Pat answered. “After all, brains are more important than muscles.
I can’t help being bred in a gravity field a sixth of yours. Anyway, how could you
tell I was Moonborn?”

“Well, it’s partly your build. You all have that same tall, slender physique. And
there’s your skin colour—the u.v. lamps never seem to give you the same tan as natural
sunlight.”

“It’s certainly tanned
you
,” retorted Pat with a grin. “At night, you must be a menace to navigation. Incidentally,
how did you get a name like McKenzie?”

Having had little contact with the racial tensions which were not yet wholly extinct
on Earth, Pat could make such remarks without embarrassment—indeed, without even realising
that they might cause embarrassment.

“My grandfather had it bestowed on him by a missionary when he was baptised. I’m very
doubtful if it has any—ah—genetic significance. To the best of my knowledge, I’m a
full-blooded abo.”

“Abo?”

“Aboriginal. We were the people occupying Australia, before the whites came along.
The subsequent events were somewhat depressing.”

Pat’s knowledge of terrestrial history was vague; like most residents of the Moon,
he tended to assume that nothing of great importance had ever happened before 8 November
1967, when the fifteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution had been so spectacularly
celebrated.

“I suppose there was war?”

“You should hardly call it that. We had spears and boomerangs—they had guns. Not to
mention T.B. and V.D., which were much more effective. It took us about a hundred
and fifty years to get over the impact; it’s only in the last century—since about
1940—that our numbers started going up again. Now there are about a hundred thousand
of us—
almost
as many as when your ancestors came.”

McKenzie delivered this information with an ironic detachment that took any personal
sting out of it, but Pat thought that he had better disclaim responsibility for the
misdeeds of his terrestrial predecessors.

“Don’t blame me for what happened on Earth,” he said. “I’ve never been there, and
I never will—I couldn’t face that gravity. But I’ve looked at Australia plenty of
times through the telescope. I have some sentimental feeling for the place—my parents
took off from Woomera.”

“And my ancestors named it; a woomer’s a booster stage for spears.”

“Are any of your people,” asked Pat, choosing his words with care, “still living in
primitive conditions? I’ve heard that’s still true, in some parts of Asia.”

“The old tribal life’s gone. It went very quickly, when the African nations in the
U.N. started bullying Australia. Often quite unfairly, I might add—for I’m an Australian
first, and an aboriginal second. But I must admit that my white countrymen were often
pretty stupid; they must have been, to think that
we
were stupid! Why, way into the last century some of them still thought we were Stone
Age savages. Our technology was Stone Age, all right—but we weren’t.”

There seemed nothing incongruous to Pat about this discussion, beneath the surface
of the Moon, of a way of life so distant both in space and time. He and McKenzie would
have to entertain each other, keep an eye on their twenty unconscious companions,
and fight off sleep, for at least five more hours. This was as good a way as any of
doing it.

“If your people weren’t in the Stone Age, Doc—and just for the sake of argument I’ll
grant that
you
aren’t—how did the whites get that idea?”

“Sheer stupidity, with the help of a preconceived bias. It’s an easy assumption that
if a man can’t count, write, or speak good English, he must be unintelligent. I can
give you a perfect example from my own family. My grandfather—the first McKenzie—lived
to see the year 2000, but he never learned to count beyond ten. And his description
of a total eclipse of the Moon was ‘Kerosene lamp bilong Jesus Christ he bugger-up
finish altogether.’

“Now, I can write down the differential equations of the Moon’s orbital motion, but
I don’t claim to be brighter than grandfather. If we’d been switched in time, he might
have been the better physicist. Our opportunities were different—that’s all. Grandfather
never had occasion to learn to count, and I never had to raise a family in the desert—which
was a highly-skilled, full-time job.”

“Perhaps,” said Pat thoughtfully, “we could do with some of your grandfather’s skills
here. For that’s what we’re trying to do now—survive in a desert.”

“I suppose you could put it that way, though I don’t think that boomerang and fire-stick
would be much use to us. Maybe we could use some magic—but I’m afraid I don’t know
any, and I doubt if the tribal gods could make it from Arnhem Land.”

“Do you ever feel sorry,” asked Pat, “about the break-up of your people’s way of life?”

“How could I? I scarcely knew it; I was born in Brisbane, and had learned to run an
electronic computer before I ever saw a corroboree—”

“A what?”

“Tribal religious dance—and half the participants in
that
were taking degrees in cultural anthropology. I’ve no romantic illusion about the
simple life and the noble savage. My ancestors were fine people and I’m not ashamed
of them, but geography had trapped them in a dead-end. After the struggle for sheer
existence, they had no energy left for a civilisation. In the long run, it was a good
thing that the white settlers arrived, despite their charming habit of selling us
poisoned flour when they wanted our land.”

“They did
that
?”

“They certainly did. But why are you surprised? That was a good hundred years before
Belsen.”

Pat thought this over for a few minutes. Then he looked at his watch and said, with
a distinct expression of relief: “Time I reported to Base again. Let’s have a quick
look at the passengers first.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

There was no time now, Lawrence realised, to worry about inflatable igloos and the
other refinements of gracious living in the Sea of Thirst. All that mattered was getting
those air-pipes down into the cruiser; the engineers and technicians would just have
to sweat it out in the suits until the job was finished. Their ordeal would not last
for long. If they could not manage inside five or six hours, they could turn round
and go home again, and leave
Selene
to the world after which she was named.

In the workshops of Port Roris, unsung and unrecorded miracles of improvisation were
now being achieved. A complete air-conditioning plant, with its liquid oxygen tanks,
humidity and carbon dioxide absorbers, temperature and pressure regulators, had to
be dismantled and loaded on to a sledge. So did a small drilling rig, hurled by shuttle
rocket from the Geophysics Division at Clavius. So did the specially-designed plumbing,
which now had to work at the first attempt, for there would be no opportunity for
modifications.

Lawrence did not attempt to drive his men; he knew it was unnecessary. He kept in
the background, checking the flow of equipment from stores and workshop out to the
skis, and trying to think of every snag that could possibly arise. What tools would
be needed? Were there enough spares? Was the raft being loaded on to the skis last,
so that it could be off-loaded first? Would it be safe to pump oxygen into
Selene
before connecting up the exhaust line? These, and a hundred other details—some trivial,
some vital—passed through his mind. Several times he called Pat to ask for technical
information, much as the internal pressure and temperature, whether the cabin relief
valve had blown-off yet (it hadn’t, probably it was jammed with dust) and advice on
the best spots to drill through the roof. And each time Pat answered with increasing
slowness and difficulty.

Despite all attempts to contact him, Lawrence resolutely refused to speak to the newsmen
now swarming round Port Roris and jamming half the sound and vision circuits between
Earth and Moon. He had issued one brief statement explaining the position and what
he intended doing about it; the rest was up to the administrative people. It was their
job to protect him so that he could get on with his work undisturbed; he had made
that quite clear to the Tourist Commissioner, and had hung up before Davis could argue
with him.

He had no time, of course, even to glance at the TV coverage himself, though he had
heard that Doctor Lawson was rapidly establishing a reputation as a somewhat prickly
personality. That, he presumed, was the work of the Interplanet News man into whose
hands he had dumped the astronomer; the fellow should be feeling quite happy about
it.

The fellow was feeling nothing of the sort. High on the ramparts of the Inaccessible
Mountains, whose title he had so convincingly refuted, Maurice Spenser was heading
swiftly towards that ulcer he had avoided all his working life. He had spent a hundred
thousand stollars to get
Auriga
here—and now it looked as if there would be no story after all.

It would all be over before the skis could arrive; the suspense-packed, breathtaking
rescue operations that would keep billions glued to their screens was never going
to materialise. Few people could have resisted watching twenty-two men and women snatched
from death; but no one would want to see an exhumation.

That was Spenser’s cold-blooded analysis of the situation from the news-caster’s viewpoint,
but as a human being he was equally unhappy. It was a terrible thing to sit here on
the mountain, only five kilometres away from impending tragedy, yet able to do absolutely
nothing to avert it. He felt almost ashamed of every breath he took, knowing that
those people down there were suffocating. Time and again he had wondered if there
was anything that
Auriga
could do to help (the news value of this did not, of course, escape him) but now
he was sure that she could only be a spectator. That implacable Sea ruled out all
possibility of aid.

He had covered disasters before; but this time he felt uncommonly like a ghoul.

It was very peaceful now, aboard
Selene
—so peaceful that one had to fight against sleep. How pleasant it would be, thought
Pat, if he could join the others, dreaming happily all around him. He envied them—and
sometimes felt jealous of them. Then he would take a few draughts from the dwindling
store of oxygen, and reality would close in upon him as he recognised his peril.

Other books

Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Experta en magia by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Falling Sideways by Tom Holt
The Monsters by Dorothy Hoobler
All Roads Lead Home (Bellingwood) by Diane Greenwood Muir
La Prisionera de Roma by José Luis Corral Lafuente