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Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (4 page)

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“There are only a few possibilities. It must have been sudden, because there was no
message from them. That usually means an explosion.”

The Commissioner paled; there was always the chance of sabotage, and no one could
ever guard against that. Because of their vulnerability, space-vehicles, like aircraft
before them, were an irresistible attraction to a certain type of criminal. Davis
thought of the Venus-bound liner
, which had been destroyed with two hundred men, women and children aboard—because
a maniac had a grudge against a passenger who scarcely knew him.

“And then there’s collision,” continued the Chief Engineer. “She could have run into
an obstacle.”

“Harris is a very careful driver,” said the Commissioner. “He’s done this trip scores
of times.”

“Everyone can make mistakes; it’s easy to misjudge your distance when you’re driving
by earthlight.”

Commissioner Davis barely heard him; he was thinking of all the arrangements he might
have to make, if the worst came to the worst. He’d better start by getting the Legal
Branch to check the indemnity forms. If any relatives started suing the Tourist Commission
for a few million dollars, that would undo his entire publicity campaign for the next
year—even if he won.

The Ground Traffic officer gave a nervous cough.

“If I might make a suggestion,” he said to the Chief Engineer. “We could call Lagrange.
The astronomers up there may be able to see something.”

“At night?” asked Davis sceptically. “From fifty thousand kilometres up?”

“Easily, if her searchlights are still burning. It’s worth trying.”

“Excellent idea,” said the Chief Engineer. “Do that right away.”

He should have thought of that himself, and wondered if there were any other possibilities
he had overlooked. This was not the first occasion he had been forced to pit his wits
against this strange and beautiful world, so breathtaking in her moments of magic—so
deadly at her times of peril. She would never be wholly tamed, as Earth had been,
and perhaps that was just as well. For it was the lure of the untouched wilderness,
and the faint but ever-present hint of danger, that now brought the tourists as well
as the explorers across the gulfs of space. He would prefer to do without the tourists—but
they helped to pay his salary.

And now he had better start packing. This whole crisis might evaporate, and
might turn up again quite unaware of the panic she had caused. But he did not think
this would happen, and his fear deepened to certainty as the minutes passed. He would
give her another hour; then he would take the sub-orbital shuttle to Port Roris and
to the realm of his waiting enemy, the Sea of Thirst.

When the
signal reached Lagrange, Thomas Lawson, Ph.D., was fast asleep. He resented the interruption;
though one needed only two hours’ sleep in twenty-four when living under zero gravity,
it seemed a little unfair to lose even that. Then he grasped the meaning of the message,
and was fully awake. At last it looked as if he would be doing something useful here.

Tom Lawson had never been very happy about this assignment; he had wanted to do scientific
research, and the atmosphere aboard Lagrange II was much too distracting. Balanced
here between Earth and Moon, in a cosmic tight-rope act made possible by one of the
obscurer consequences of the Law of Gravitation, the satellite was an astronautical
maid-of-all work. Ships passing in both directions took their fixes from it, and used
it as a message centre—though there was no truth in the rumour that they stopped to
pick up mail. Lagrange was also the relay station for almost all lunar radio traffic,
for the whole Earthward-facing side of the Moon lay spread beneath it.

The hundred-centimetre telescope had been designed to look at objects billions of
times further away than the Moon, but it was admirably suited for this job. From so
close at hand, even with the low power, the view was superb. Tom seemed to be hanging
in space immediately above the Sea of Rains, looking down upon the jagged peaks of
the Appenines as they glittered in the morning light. Though he had only a sketchy
knowledge of the Moon’s geography, he could recognise at a glance the great craters
of Archimedes and Plato, Aristillus and Eudoxus, the dark scar of the Alpine Valley,
and the solitary pyramid of Pico, casting its long shadow across the plain.

But the daylight region did not concern him; what he sought lay in the darkened crescent
where the sun had not yet risen. In some ways, that might make his task simpler. A
signal lamp—even a hand-torch—would be easily visible down there in the night. He
checked the map co-ordinates, and punched the control buttons. The burning mountains
drifted out of his field of view, and only blackness remained, as he stared into the
lunar night that had just swallowed more than twenty men and women.

At first he could see nothing—certainly no winking signal light, flashing its appeal
to the stars. Then, as his eyes grew more sensitive, he could see that this land was
not wholly dark. It was glimmering with a ghostly phosphorescence as it lay bathed
in the earthlight, and the longer he looked, the more details he could see.

There were the mountains to the east of Rainbow Bay, waiting for the dawn that would
strike them soon. And there—my God, what was that star shining in the darkness? His
hopes soared, then swiftly crashed. That was only the lights of Port Roris, where
even now men would be waiting anxiously for the results of his survey.

Within a few minutes, he had convinced himself that a visual search was useless. There
was not the slightest chance that he could see an object no bigger than a bus, down
there in that faintly luminous landscape. In the daytime, it would have been different;
he could have spotted
at once by the long shadow she cast across the Sea. But the human eye was not sensitive
enough to make this search by the light of the waning Earth, from a height of fifty
thousand kilometres.

This did not worry Dr. Lawson. He had scarcely expected to see anything, on this first
visual survey. It was a century and a half since astronomers had had to rely upon
their eyesight; today, they had far more delicate weapons—a whole armoury of light-amplifiers
and radiation-detectors. One of these, Tom Lawson was certain, would be able to find

He would not have been so sure of this, had he known that she was no longer upon the
surface of the Moon.


came to test, both crew and passenger were still too stricken by astonishment to
utter a sound. Captain Harris was the first to recover, perhaps because he was the
only one who had any idea of what had happened.

It was a cave-in, of course; they were not rare, though none had ever been recorded
in the Sea of Thirst. Deep down in the Moon, something had given way; possibly the
infinitesimal weight of
had itself triggered the collapse. As Harris rose shakily to his feet, he wondered
what line of talk he had better use to the passengers. He could hardly pretend that
everything was under control and that they’d be on their way again in five minutes;
on the other hand, panic was liable to set in if he revealed the true seriousness
of the situation. Sooner or later he would have to, but until then it was essential
to maintain confidence.

He caught Miss Wilkins’ eye as she stood at the back of the cabin, behind the expectantly
waiting passengers. She was very pale, but quite composed; he knew that he could rely
on her, and flashed her a reassuring smile.

“We seem to be in one piece,” he began in an easy, conversational style. “We’ve had
a slight accident, as you’ll gather, but things could be worse.” (How? a part of his
mind asked him. Well, the hull could have been fractured…. So you want to prolong
the agony? He shut off the interior monologue by an effort of will.) “We’ve been caught
in a landslip—a Moonquake, if you like. There’s certainly no need to be alarmed; even
if we can’t get out under our own power, Port Roris will soon have someone here. Meanwhile,
I know that Miss Wilkins was just going to serve refreshments, so I suggest you all
relax while I—ah—do whatever proves necessary.”

That seemed to have gone over quite well. With a silent sigh of relief, he turned
back to the controls. As he did so, he noticed one of the passengers light a cigarette.

It was an automatic reaction, and one that he felt very much like sharing. He said
nothing; that would have destroyed the atmosphere his little speech had created. But
he caught the man’s eye just long enough for the message to go home; the cigarette
had been stubbed out before he resumed his seat.

As he switched on the radio, Pat heard the babble of conversation start up behind
him. When a group of people was talking together, you could gather their mood even
if you could not hear the individual words. He could detect annoyance, excitement,
even amusement—but as yet, very little fear. Probably those who were speaking did
not realise the full danger of the situation; the ones who did were silent.

And so was the ether. He searched the wave-bands from end to end, and found only a
faint crackle from the electrified dust that had buried them. It was just as he had
expected; this deadly stuff, with its high metallic content, was an almost perfect
shield. It would pass neither radio waves nor sound; when he tried to transmit, he
would be like a man shouting from the bottom of a well that was packed with feathers.

He switched the beacon to the high-powered emergency setting, so that it automatically
broadcast a distress signal on the
band. If anything got through, this would; there was no point in trying to call Port
Roris himself, and his fruitless efforts would merely upset the passengers. He left
the receiver operating on
’s assigned frequency, in case of any reply; but he knew that it was useless. No one
could hear them; no one could speak to them. As far as they were concerned, the rest
of the human race might not exist.

He did not brood over this set-back for very long; he had expected it, and there was
too much else to do. With the utmost care, he checked all the instruments and gauges.
Everything appeared to be perfectly normal, except that the temperature was just a
shade high. That also was to be expected, now that the dust blanket was shielding
them from the cold of space.

His greatest worry concerned the thickness of that blanket, and the pressure it was
exerting on the boat. There must be thousands of tons of the stuff above
—and her hull had been designed to withstand pressure from within, not from without.
If she went deep, she might be cracked like an eggshell.

How deep the cruiser was, he had no idea. When he had caught his last glimpse of the
stars, she was about ten metres below the surface, and she might have been carried
down much further by the suction of the dust. It would be advisable—even though it
would increase their oxygen consumption—to put up the internal pressure and thus take
some of the strain off the hull.

Very slowly, so that there would be no tell-tale popping of ears to alarm anyone,
he boosted the cabin pressure by twenty per cent. When he had finished, he felt a
little happier. He was not the only one, for as soon as the pressure gauge had stabilised
at its new level a quiet voice said over his shoulders: “I think that was a very good

He twisted round to see what busy-body was spying on him, but his angry protest died
unborn. On his first quick inspection, Harris had recognised none of the passengers;
now, however, he could tell that there was something vaguely familiar about the stocky,
grey-haired man who had come forward to the driver’s position.

“I don’t want to intrude, Captain—you’re the skipper here. But I thought I’d better
introduce myself in case I can help. I’m Commodore Hansteen.”

Harris stared, slack-jawed, at the man who had led the first expedition to Pluto,
who had probably landed on more virgin planets and moons than any explorer in history.
All he could say to express his astonishment was, “You weren’t down on the passenger

The Commodore smiled.

is Hanson. Since I retired, I’ve been trying to do a little sightseeing without quite
so much responsibility. And now that I’ve shaved off my beard, no one ever recognises

“I’m very glad to have you here,” said Harris with deep feeling. Already some of the
weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders; the Commodore would be a tower of
strength in the difficult hours—or days—that lay ahead.

“If you don’t mind,” continued Hansteen, with that same careful politeness. “I’d appreciate
an evaluation. To put it bluntly, how long can we last?”

“Oxygen’s the limiting factor, as usual. We’ve enough for about seven days, assuming
that no leaks develop. So far, there are no signs of any.”

“Well, that gives us time to think. What about food and water?”

“We’ll be hungry, but we won’t starve. There’s an emergency reserve of compressed
food, and of course the air-purifiers will produce all the water we need. So there’s
no problem there.”


“Plenty, now that we’re not using our motors.”

“I notice that you haven’t tried to call Base.”

“It’s useless; the dust blankets us completely. I’ve put the beacon on emergency—that’s
our only hope of getting a signal through, and it’s a slim one.”

“So they’ll have to find us in some other way. How long do you think it will take

“That’s extremely difficult to say. The search will begin as soon as our 20.00 hours
transmission is missed, and they’ll know our general area. But we may have gone down
without leaving any trace—you’ve seen how this dust obliterates everything. And even
when they
find us—”

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