Read A Fall of Moondust Online

Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (3 page)

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Far above, a narrow ribbon of stars was all that could be seen of the outside world;
it swung in crazy arcs from right to left and back again with each abrupt change of
’s course. The Night Ride, as Pat privately called it, lasted for about five minutes,
but seemed very much longer. When he once again switched on the floods, so that the
cruiser was moving in the centre of a great pool of light, there was a sigh of mingled
relief and disappointment from the passengers. This was an experience none of them
would forget in a hurry.

Now that vision had been restored, they could see that they were travelling up a steep-walled
valley or gorge, the sides of which were slowly drawing apart. Presently the canyon
had widened into a roughly oval amphitheatre about three kilometres across—the heart
of an extinct volcano, breached aeons ago, in the days when even the Moon was young.

The crater was extremely small, by lunar standards, but it was unique. The ubiquitous
dust had flooded into it, working its way up the valley age after age, so that now
the tourists from Earth could ride in cushioned comfort into what had once been a
cauldron filled with the fires of Hell. Those fires had died long before the dawn
of terrestrial life, and would never wake again. But there were other forces that
had not died, and were merely biding their time.

began a slow circuit of the steeply-walled amphitheatre, more than one of her passengers
remembered a cruise in some mountain lake at home. Here was the same sheltered stillness,
the same sense of unknown depths beneath the boat. Earth had many Crater Lakes, but
the Moon only one—though it had far more craters.

Taking his time, Pat made two complete circuits of the lake, while the floodlights
played upon its enclosing walls. This was the best way to see it; during the daytime,
when the sun blasted it with heat and light, it lost much of its magic. But now it
belonged to the kingdom of fantasy, as if it had come from the haunted brain of Edgar
Allan Poe. Ever and again one seemed to glimpse strange shapes moving at the edge
of vision, beyond the narrow range of the lights. It was pure imagination, of course;
nothing moved in all this land except the shadows of the sun and earth. There could
be no ghosts upon a world that had never known life.

It was time to turn back, to sail down the canyon into the open sea. Pat aimed the
blunt prow of
towards the narrow rift in the mountains, and the high walls enfolded them again.
On the outward journey he left the lights on, so that the passengers could see where
they were going, besides, that trick of the Night Ride would not work so well a second

Far ahead, beyond the reach of
’s own illumination, a light was growing, spreading softly across the rocks and crags.
Even in her last quarter, Earth still had the power of a dozen full moons, and now
that they were emerging from the shadow of the mountains she was once more the mistress
of the skies. Everyone of the twenty-two men and women aboard
looked up at that blue-green crescent, admiring its beauty, wondering at its brilliance.
How strange, that the familiar fields and lakes and forests of Earth shone with such
celestial glory when one looked at them from afar! Perhaps there was a lesson here;
perhaps no man could appreciate his own world, until he had seen it from space.

And upon Earth, there must be many eyes turned towards the waxing Moon—more than ever
before, now that the Moon meant so much to mankind. It was possible, but unlikely,
that even now some of those eyes were peering through powerful telescopes at the faint
spark of
’s floodlights as it crept through the lunar night. But it would mean nothing to them,
when that spark flickered and died.

For a million years the bubble had been growing, like a vast abscess, below the root
of the mountains. Throughout the entire history of Man, gas from the Moon’s not-yet-wholly-dead
interior had been forcing itself along lines of weakness, accumulating in cavities
hundreds of metres below the surface. On nearby Earth, the Ice Ages had marched past,
one by one, while the buried caverns grew and merged and at last coalesced. Now the
abscess was about to burst.

Captain Harris had left the controls on Autopilot and was talking to the front row
of passengers when the first tremor shook the boat. For a fraction of a second he
wondered if a fan blade had hit some submerged obstacle; then, quite literally, the
bottom fell out of his world.

It fell slowly, as all things must upon the Moon. Ahead of
, in a circle many acres in extent, the smooth plain puckered like a navel. The Sea
was alive and moving, stirred by the forces that had woken it from its age-long sleep.
The centre of the disturbance deepened into a funnel, as if a giant whirlpool was
forming in the dust. Every stage of that nightmare transformation was pitilessly illuminated
by the earthlight, until the crater was so deep that its far wall was completely lost
in shadow, and it seemed as if
was racing into a curving crescent of utter blackness—an arc of annihilation.

The truth was almost as bad. By the time that Pat had reached the controls, the boat
was sliding and skittering far down that impossible slope. Its own momentum, and the
accelerating flow of the dust beneath it, was carrying it headlong into the depths.
There was nothing he could do but attempt to keep on an even keel, and to hope that
their speed would carry them up the far side of the crater before it collapsed upon

If the passengers screamed or cried out, Pat never heard them. He was conscious only
of that dreadful, sickening slide, and of his own attempts to keep the cruiser from
capsizing. Yet even as he fought with the controls, feeding power first to one fan,
then to the other in an effort to straighten
’s course, a strange, nagging memory was teasing his mind. Somewhere, somehow, he
had seen this happen before….

That was ridiculous, of course, but the memory would not leave him. Not until he reached
the bottom of the funnel and saw the endless slope of dust rolling down from the crater’s
star-fringed lip, did the veil of time lift for a moment.

He was a boy again, playing in the hot sand of a forgotten summer. He had found a
tiny pit, perfectly smooth and symmetrical, and there was something lurking in its
depths—something completely buried except for its waiting jaws. The boy had watched,
wondering, already conscious of the fact that this was the stage for some microscopic
drama. He had seen an ant, mindlessly intent upon its mission, stumble at the edge
of the crater and topple down the slope.

It would have escaped easily enough—but when the first grain of sand had rolled to
the bottom of the pit, the waiting ogre had reared out of its lair. With its forelegs
it had hurled a fusillade of sand at the struggling insect, until the avalanche had
overwhelmed it and brought it sliding down into the throat of the crater.

was sliding now. No ant-lion had dug this pit on the surface of the Moon, but Pat
felt as helpless now as that doomed insect he had watched so many years ago. Like
it, he was struggling to reach the safety of the rim, while the moving ground swept
him back into the depths where death was waiting. A swift death for the ant, a protracted
one for him and his companions.

The straining motors were making some headway, but not enough. The falling dust was
gaining speed—and, what was worse, it was rising outside the walls of the cruiser.
Now it had reached the lower edge of the windows; now it was creeping up the panes;
and at last it had covered them completely. Harris cut the motors before they tore
themselves to pieces, and as he did so the rising tide blotted out the last glimpse
of the crescent Earth. In darkness and in silence, they were sinking into the Moon.


In the banked communications racks of Traffic Control, Earthside North, an electronic
memory stirred uneasily. The time was one second past twenty-hundred hours G.M.T.;
a pattern of pulses that should arrive automatically on every hour had failed to make
its appearance.

With a swiftness beyond human thought, the handful of cells and microscopic relays
looked for instructions, “
,” said the coded orders. “

The minute portion of the traffic computer as yet concerned with the problem waited
patiently for this enormous period of time—long enough to make a hundred million twenty-figure
additions, or to print most of the Library of Congress. Then it closed circuit 10011001.

High above the surface of the Moon, from an antenna which, curiously enough, was aimed
directly at the face of the Earth, a radio pulse launched itself into space. In a
sixth of a second it had flashed the fifty thousand kilometres to the relay satellite
known as Lagrange II, directly in the line between Moon and Earth. Another sixth of
a second and the pulse had returned, much amplified, flooding Earthside North from
Pole to Equator.

In terms of human speech, it carried a simple message, “
,” the pulse said, “

The computer waited for another five seconds. Then it sent out the pulse again, and
yet again. Geological ages had passed in the world of electronics, but the machine
was infinitely patient.

Once more, it consulted its instructions. Now they said: “
.” The computer obeyed. In Traffic Control, a green light flared suddenly to red,
a buzzer started to saw the air with its alarm. For the first time, men as well as
machines became aware that there was trouble, somewhere on the Moon.

The news spread slowly at first, for the Chief Administrator took a very poor view
of unnecessary panic. So, still more strongly, did the Tourist Commissioner; nothing
was worse for business than alerts and emergencies—even when, as happened in nine
cases out of ten, they proved to be due to blown fuses, tripped cutouts, or over-sensitive
alarms. But on a world like the Moon, it was necessary to be on one’s toes. Better
be scared by imaginary crises than fail to react to real ones.

It was several minutes before Commissioner Davis reluctantly admitted that this looked
like a real one.
’s automatic beacon had failed to respond on one earlier occasion, but Pat Harris
had answered as soon as he had been called on the cruiser’s assigned frequency. This
time, there was silence.
had not even replied to a signal sent out on the carefully-guarded
band, reserved solely for emergencies. It was this news that brought the Commissioner
hurrying from the Tourist Tower along the buried glideway into Clavius City.

At the entrance to the Traffic Control centre, he met the Chief Engineer, Earthside.
That was a bad sign; it meant that someone thought that rescue operations would be
necessary. The two men looked at each other gravely, each obsessed by the same thought.

“I hope you don’t need me,” said Chief Engineer Lawrence. “Where’s the trouble? All
I know is that a
signal’s gone out. What ship is it?”

“It’s not a ship. It’s
; she’s not answering, from the Sea of Thirst.”

“My God—if anything’s happened to her out there, we can only reach her with the dust-skis.
I always said we should have two cruisers operating, before we started taking out

“That’s what I argued—but Finance vetoed the idea. They said we couldn’t have another
proved she could make a profit.”

“I hope she doesn’t make headlines instead,” said Lawrence grimly. “You know what
think about bringing tourists to the Moon.”

The Commissioner did, very well; it had long been a bone of contention between them.
For the first time, he wondered if the Chief Engineer might have a point.

It was, as always, very quiet in Traffic Control. On the great wall-maps the green
and amber lights flashed continuously, their routine messages unimportant against
the clamour of that single, flaring red. At the Air, Power and Radiation Consoles
the duty officers sat like guardian angels, watching over the safety of one-quarter
of a world.

“Nothing new,” reported the Ground Traffic officer. “We’re still completely in the
dark. All we know is that they’re
out in the Sea.”

He traced a circle on the large-scale map.

“Unless they’re fantastically off-course, they must be in that general area. On the
19.00 hours check they were within a kilometre of their planned route. At 20.00, their
signal had vanished, so whatever happened took place in that sixty minutes.”

“How far can
travel in an hour?” someone asked.

“Flat out, a hundred and twenty kilometres,” replied the Commissioner. “But she normally
cruises at well under a hundred. You don’t hurry on a sight-seeing tour.”

He stared at the map, as if trying to extract information from it by the sheer intensity
of his gaze.

“If they’re out in the Sea, it won’t take long to find them. Have you sent out the

“No, sir; I was waiting for authorisation.”

Davis looked at the Chief Engineer, who outranked anyone on this side of the Moon
except Chief Administrator Olsen himself. Lawrence nodded slowly.

“Send them out,” he said. “But don’t expect results in a hurry. It will take a while
to search several thousand square kilometres—especially at night. Tell them to work
over the route from the last reported position, one ski on either side of it, so that
they sweep the widest possible band.”

When the order had gone out, Davis asked unhappily: “What do you think could have

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