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Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (32 page)

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“Twenty—that’s
you
, Commodore—quickly!”

“Like hell it is, Susan,” said the Commodore. “Up you go.” Pat could not see what
happened—he was still partly blinded by the dust and the darkness—but he guessed that
Hansteen must have literally thrown Sue through the roof. Neither his age nor his
years in space had yet robbed him of his earthborn strength.

“Are you there, Pat?” he called. “I’m on the ladder.”

“Don’t wait for me—I’m coming.”

That was easier said than done; it felt as if a million soft yet determined fingers
were clutching at him, pulling him back into the rising flood. He gripped one of the
seat-backs—now almost hidden beneath the dust—and pulled himself towards the beckoning
light.

Something whipped against his face; instinctively, he reached out to push it aside—then
realised that it was the end of the rope-ladder. He hauled upon it with all his might,
and slowly, reluctantly, the Sea of Thirst relaxed its grip upon him.

Before he entered the shaft, he had one last glimpse of the cabin. The whole of the
rear was now submerged by that crawling tide of grey; it seemed unnatural, and doubly
sinister, that it rose in such a geometrically perfect plane, without a single ripple
to furrow its surface. A metre away—this was something Pat knew he would remember
all his life, though he could not imagine why—a solitary paper cup was floating sedately
on the rising tide, like a toy boat upon a peaceful lake. In a few minutes it would
reach the ceiling and be overwhelmed, but for the moment it was still bravely defying
the dust.

And so were the emergency lights; they would continue to burn for days, even when
each one was encapsulated in utter darkness.

Now the dimlit shaft was around him; he was climbing as quickly as his muscles would
permit, but he could not overtake the Commodore. There was a sudden flood of light
from above as Hansteen cleared the mouth of the shaft, and involuntarily Pat looked
downwards to protect his eyes from the glare. The dust was already rising swiftly
behind him, still unrippled, still smooth and placid… and inexorable.

Then he was straddling the low mouth of the caisson, in the centre of a fantastically
overcrowded igloo. All around him, in various stages of exhaustion and dishevellment,
were his fellow passengers; helping them were four spacesuited figures and one man
without a suit, whom he assumed was Chief Engineer Lawrence. How strange it was to
see a new face, after all these days….

“Is everyone out?” Lawrence asked anxiously.

“Yes,” said Pat. “I’m the last man.” Then he added, “I hope,” for he realised that
in the darkness and confusion someone might have been left behind. Suppose Radley
had decided not to face the music back in New Zealand….

No—he was here with the rest of them. Pat was just starting to do a count of heads
when the plastic floor gave a sudden jump—and out of the open well shot a perfect
smoke-ring of dust. It hit the ceiling, rebounded, and disintegrated before anyone
could move.

“What the devil was
that
?” said Lawrence.

“Our lox tank,” answered Pat. “Good old bus—she lasted just long enough.”

And then, to his helpless horror, the skipper of
Selene
burst into tears.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

“I still don’t think those flags are a good idea,” said Pat as the cruiser pulled
away from Port Roris. “They look so phoney, when you know they’re in vacuum.”

Yet he had to admit that the illusion was excellent, for the lines of pennants draped
around the Embarkation building were stirring and fluttering in a non-existent breeze.
It was all done by springs and electric motors, and would be very confusing to the
viewers back on Earth.

This was a big day for Port Roris, and indeed for the whole Moon. He wished that Sue
could be here, but she was hardly in proper shape for the trip. Very literally; as
she had remarked when he kissed her good-bye that morning: “I don’t see how women
could ever have had babies on Earth. Fancy carrying all this weight around, in six
times our gravity.”

Pat turned his mind away from his impending family, and pushed
Selene II
up to full speed. From the cabin behind him came the “Ohs” and “Ahs” of the thirty-two
passengers, as the grey parabolas of dust soared against the sun like monochrome rainbows.
This maiden voyage was in daylight; the travellers would miss the Sea’s magical phosphorescence,
the night ride up the canyon to Crater Lake, the green glories of the motionless Earth.
But the novelty and excitement of the journey were the main attractions; thanks to
her ill-fated predecessor,
Selene II
was one of the best-known vehicles in the Solar System.

It was proof of the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Now that
the advance bookings were coming in, the Tourist Director was very glad that he had
taken his courage in both hands and insisted on more passenger space. At first he
had had to fight to get a new
Selene
at all; “Once bitten, twice shy,” the Chief Administrator had said, and had capitulated
only when Father Ferraro and the Geophysics Division had proved beyond reasonable
doubt, that the Sea would not stir again for another million years.

“Hold her on that course,” said Pat to his co-pilot. “I’ll go back and talk to the
customers.”

He was still young enough, and vain enough, to savour the admiring glances as he walked
back into the passenger cabin. Everyone aboard would have read of him or seen him
on TV; in fact, the very presence of these people here was an implicit vote of confidence.
Pat knew well enough that others shared the credit, but he had no false modesty about
the role he had played during the last hours of
Selene I
. His most valued possession was the little golden model of the cruiser that had been
a wedding present to Mr. and Mrs. Harris “From all on the last voyage, in sincere
appreciation.” That was the only testimonial that counted, and he desired no other.

He had walked half-way down the cabin, exchanging a few words with a passenger here
and there, when he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.

“Hello, Captain,” said an unforgotten voice. “You seem surprised to see me.”

Pat made a quick recovery and flashed his most dazzling official smile.

“It’s certainly an unexpected pleasure, Miss Morley. I had no idea you were on the
Moon.”

“It’s rather a surprise to me—I owe it to the story I wrote about
Selene I
. I’m covering this trip for
Life Interplanetary
.”

“I only hope,” said Pat, “that it will be a little less exciting than last time. By
the way, are you in touch with any of the others? Dr. McKenzie and the Schusters wrote
a few weeks ago, but I’ve often wondered what happened to poor little Radley after
Harding marched him off.”

“Nothing—except that he lost his job. Universal Travel Cards decided that if they
prosecuted, everyone would sympathise with Radley, and it would also give other people
the same idea. He makes a living, I believe, lecturing to his fellow-cultists about
‘What I found on the Moon’. And I’ll make you a prediction, Captain Harris.”

“What’s that?”

“Some day, he’ll get back to the Moon.”

“I rather hope he does. I never did discover just what he expected to find in the
Mare Crisium.”

They both laughed; then Miss Morley said: “I hear you’re giving up this job.”

Pat looked slightly embarrassed.

“That’s true,” he admitted. “I’m transferring to the Space Service.
If
I can pass the tests.”

He was by no means sure that he could, yet he knew that he had to make the effort.
Driving a moon-bus had been an interesting and enjoyable job, but it was also a dead-end—as
both Sue and the Commodore had now convinced him. And there was another reason….

He had often wondered how many other lives had been changed or diverted when the Sea
of Thirst had yawned beneath the stars. No one who had been aboard
Selene I
could fail to be marked by the experience, in most cases for the better. The fact
that he was now having this friendly talk with Miss Morley was sufficient proof of
that.

It must also have had a profound effect on the men who had been involved in the rescue
effort—especially Doctor Lawson and Chief Engineer Lawrence. Pat had seen Lawson many
times, giving his irascible TV talks on scientific subjects; he was grateful to the
astronomer, but found it impossible to like him. It seemed, however, that some millions
of people did.

As for Lawrence, he was hard at work on his memoirs, provisionally entitled “A Man
About the Moon”—and wishing to God he’d never signed the contract. Pat had already
helped him on the
Selene
chapters, and Sue was reading the typescript while waiting for the baby.

“If you’ll excuse me,” said Pat, remembering his duties as skipper, “I must attend
to the other passengers. But please look us up next time you’re in Clavius City.”

“I will,” promised Miss Morley, slightly taken aback but obviously somewhat pleased.

Pat continued his progress to the rear of the cabin, exchanging a greeting here, answering
a question there. Then he reached the air-lock-galley and closed the door behind him—and
was instantly alone.

There was more room here than in
Selene I
’s little air-lock, but the basic design was the same. No wonder that memories came
flooding back; that might have been the spacesuit whose oxygen he and McKenzie had
shared while all the rest were sleeping; that could have been the wall against which
he had pressed his ear, and heard in the night the whisper of the ascending dust.
And this whole chamber, indeed, could have been where he had first known Sue, in the
literal and biblical sense.

There was one innovation in this new model—the small window in the outer door. He
pressed his face against it, and stared across the speeding surface of the Sea.

He was on the shadowed side of the cruiser, looking away from the sun, into the dark
night of space. And presently, as his vision adjusted itself to that darkness, he
could see the stars. Only the brighter ones, for there was enough stray light to desensitise
his eyes, but there they were—and there also was Jupiter, most brilliant of all the
planets next to Venus.

Soon he would be out there, far from his native world. The thought exhilarated and
terrified him, but he knew he had to go.

He loved the Moon, but it had tried to kill him: never again could he be wholly at
ease out upon its open surface. Though deep space was still more hostile and unforgiving,
as yet it had not declared war upon him. With his own world, from now on, there could
never be more than an armed neutrality.

The door of the cabin opened, and the stewardess entered with a tray of empty cups.
Pat turned away from the window, and from the stars. The next time he saw them, they
would be a million times brighter.

He smiled at the neatly uniformed girl, and waved his hand around the little galley.

“This is all yours, Miss Johnson,” he said. “Look after it well.”

Then he walked back to the controls to take
Selene II
on his last voyage, and her maiden one, across the Sea of Thirst.

*
Don’t laugh. This may be exactly what is happening in the rings of Saturn, causing
the mysterious—and downright impossible—dark ‘spokes’ revealed by the Voyager spacecraft.

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