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Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (6 page)

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That was an idea. “Miss Morley! As a journalist, I imagine you have a notebook?”

“Why, yes, Commodore.”

“Fifty-two blank sheets in it still?”

“I think so.”

“Then I must ask you to sacrifice them. Please cut them out and mark a pack of cards
on them. No need to be artistic—as long as they’re legible, and the lettering doesn’t
show through the back.”

“How are you going to shuffle paper cards?” asked somebody.

“A good problem for our entertainments committee to solve. Anyone who thinks they
have talent in this direction?”

“I used to be on the stage,” said Myra Schuster, rather hesitantly. Her husband did
not look at all pleased at this revelation, but it delighted the Commodore.

“Excellent! Though we’re a little cramped for space, I was hoping we might be able
to put on a play.”

Now Mrs. Schuster looked as unhappy as her husband.

“It was rather a long time ago,” she said, “and I—I never did much talking.”

There were several chuckles, and even the Commodore had difficulty in keeping a straight
face. Looking at Mrs. Schuster, on the wrong side both of fifty years and a hundred
kilos, it was a little hard to imagine her as—he suspected—a chorus girl.

“Never mind,” he said, “it’s the spirit that counts. Who will help Mrs. Schuster?”

“I’ve done some amateur theatricals,” said Professor Jayawardene. “Mostly Brecht and
Ibsen, though.”

That final ‘though’ indicated recognition of the fact that something a little lighter
would be appreciated here—say one of the decadent but amusing comedies of the 1980s,
which had invaded the airways in such numbers with the collapse of TV censorship.

There were no more volunteers for this job, so the Commodore moved Mrs. Schuster and
Professor Jayawardene into adjacent seats and told them to start programme-planning.
It seemed unlikely that such an ill-assorted pair would produce anything useful, but
one never knew. The main thing was to keep everyone busy—either on tasks of their
own, or co-operating with others.

“We’ll leave it at that for the moment,” concluded Hansteen. “If you have any bright
ideas, please give them to the Committee. Meanwhile, I suggest you stretch your legs
and get to know each other. Everyone’s announced his job and home-town; many of you
must have common interests or know the same friends. You’ll have plenty of things
to talk about.” And plenty of time too, he added silently.

He was conferring with Pat in the pilot’s cubicle when they were joined by Dr. McKenzie,
the Australian physicist. He looked very worried—even more so than the situation merited.

“There’s something I want to tell you, Commodore,” he said urgently. “If I’m right,
that seven day’s oxygen reserve doesn’t mean a thing. There’s a much more serious

“What’s that?”

“Heat.” The Australian indicated the outside world with a wave of his hand. “We’re
blanketed by this stuff, and it’s about the best insulator you can have. On the surface,
the heat our machines and bodies generated could escape into space, but down here
it’s trapped. That means we’ll get hotter and hotter—until we cook.”

“My God,” said the Commodore. “I never thought of that. How long do you think it will

“Give me half an hour, and I can make a fair estimate. My guess is—not much more than
a day.”

The Commodore felt a wave of utter helplessness sweep over him. There was a horrible
sickness at the pit of his stomach, like the second time he had been in free fall.
(Not the first—he had been ready for it then. But on the second trip, he had been
over-confident.) If this estimate was right, all their hopes were blasted. They were
slim enough in all conscience, but given a week there was a slight chance that something
might be done. With only a day, it was out of the question. Even if they were found
in that time, they could never be rescued.

“You might check the cabin temperature,” continued McKenzie. “That will give us some

Hansteen walked to the control panel and glanced at the maze of dials and indicators.

“I’m afraid you’re right,” he said. “It’s gone up two degrees already.”

“Over a degree an hour. That’s about what I figured.”

The Commodore turned to Harris, who had been listening to the discussion with growing

“Is there anything we can do to increase the cooling? How much reserve power has our
air-conditioning gear got?”

Before Harris could answer, the physicist intervened.

“That won’t help us,” he said a little impatiently. “All that our refrigeration does
is to pump heat out of the cabin and radiate it away. But that’s exactly what it
do now, because of the dust around us. If we try to run the cooling plant faster
it will make matters worse.”

There was a gloomy silence that lasted until the Commodore said: “Please check those
calculations, and let me have your best estimate as soon as you can. And for heaven’s
sake don’t let this go beyond the three of us.”

He felt suddenly very old. He had been almost enjoying his unexpected last command;
and now it seemed that he would have it only for a day.

At that very moment, though neither party knew the fact, one of the searching dust-skis
was passing overhead. Built for speed, efficiency and cheapness, not for the comfort
of tourists, it bore little resemblance to the sunken
. It was, in fact, no more than an open sledge with seats for pilot and one passenger—each
wearing space-suits—and with a canopy overhead to give protection from the sun. A
simple control panel, motor and twin fans at the rear, storage racks for tools and
equipment—that completed the inventory. A ski going about its normal work usually
towed at least one carrier sledge behind it, sometimes two or three, but this one
was travelling light. It had zigzagged back and forth across several hundred square
kilometres of the Sea, and had found absolutely nothing.

Over the suit intercom, the driver was talking to his companion.

“What do
think happened to them, George? I don’t believe they’re here.”

“Where else can they be? Kidnapped by Outsiders?”

“I’m almost ready to buy that,” was the half-serious answer. Sooner or later, all
astronauts believed, the human race would meet intelligence from elsewhere. That meeting
might still be far in the future, but meanwhile the hypothetical ‘Outsiders’ were
part of the mythology of space, and got the blame for everything that could not be
explained in any other way.

It was easy to believe in them when you were with a mere handful of companions on
some strange, hostile world where the very rocks and air (if there
air) were completely alien. Then nothing could be taken for granted, and the experience
of a thousand Earth-bound generations might be useless. As ancient man had peopled
the unknown around him with gods and spirits, so
Homo astronauticus
looked over his shoulder when he landed upon each new world, wondering who or what
was here already. For a few brief centuries Man had imagined himself the lord of the
universe, and those primeval hopes and fears had been buried in his subconscious.
But now they were stronger than ever, and with good reason, as he looked into the
shining face of the heavens, and thought of the power and knowledge that must be lurking

“Better report to Base,” said George. “We’ve covered our area, and there’s no point
in going over it again. Not until sunrise, anyway—we’ll have a much better chance
of finding something then. This damned Earthlight gives me the creeps.”

He switched on the radio, and gave the ski’s call-sign.

“Duster Two calling Traffic Control—over.”

“Port Roris Traffic Control here. Found anything?”

“Not a trace. What’s new from your end?”

“We don’t think she’s out in the Sea. The Chief Engineer wants to speak to you.”

“Right; put him on.”

“Hello, Duster Two. Lawrence here. Plato Observatory’s just reported a quake near
the Mountains of Inaccessibility. It took place at 19.35, which is near enough the
time when
should have been in Crater Lake. They suggest she’s been caught in an avalanche somewhere
in that area. So head for the mountains and see if you can spot any recent slides
or rockfalls.”

“What’s the chance, Sir,” asked the dust-ski pilot anxiously, “that there may be more

“Very small, according to the Observatory. They say it will be thousands of years
before anything like this happens again, now that the stresses have been relieved.”

“I hope they’re right. I’ll radio when I get to Crater Lake; that should be in about
twenty minutes.”

But it was only fifteen minutes before Duster Two destroyed the last hopes of the
waiting listeners.

“Duster Two calling. This is it, I’m afraid. I’ve not reached Crater Lake yet—I’m
still heading up the gorge. But the Observatory was right about the quake; there have
been several slides, and we had difficulty in getting past some of them. There must
be ten thousand tons of rock in the one I’m looking at now; if
’s under that lot, we’ll never find her. And it won’t be worth the trouble of looking.”

The silence in Traffic Control lasted so long that the ski called back: “Hello, Base—did
you receive me?”

“Receiving you,” said the Chief Engineer in a tired voice. “See if you can find
trace of them; I’ll send Duster One in to help. Are you sure there’s no chance of
digging them out?”

“It might take weeks, even if we could locate them. I saw one slide three hundred
metres long. If you tried to dig, the rock would probably start moving again.”

“Be very careful. Report every fifteen minutes, whether you find anything or not.”

Lawrence turned away from the microphone, physically and mentally exhausted. There
was nothing more that he could do—or, he suspected, that anyone could do. Trying to
compose his thoughts, he walked over to the southwards-facing observation window,
and stared into the face of the crescent Earth.

It was hard to believe that she was fixed there in the southern sky—that though she
hung so close to the horizon, she would neither rise nor set in a million years. However
long one lived here, one never really accepted this fact, which violated all the racial
wisdom of mankind.

On the other side of that gulf (already so small to a generation that had never known
the time when it could not be crossed) ripples of shock and grief would soon be spreading.
Thousands of men and women were involved, directly or indirectly, because the Moon
had stirred briefly in her sleep.

Lost in his thoughts, it was some time before Lawrence realised that the Port signals
officer was trying to attract his attention.

“Excuse me, Sir—you’ve not called Duster One. Shall I do it now?”

“What? Oh yes—go ahead. Send him to help Two in Crater Lake. Tell him we’ve called
off the search in the Sea of Thirst.”


The news that the search had been called off reached Lagrange II when Tom Lawson,
red-eyed from lack of sleep, had almost completed the modifications to the hundred-centimetre
telescope. He had been racing against time, and now it seemed that all his efforts
had been wasted.
was not in the Sea of Thirst at all, but in a place where he could never have found
her—hidden from him by the ramparts of Crater Lake, and for good measure buried by
a few thousand tons of rock.

Tom’s first reaction was not one of sympathy for the victims, but of anger at his
wasted time and effort. Those
headlines would never flash across the news-screens of the inhabited worlds. As his
private dreams of glory collapsed, he cursed for a good thirty seconds, with a fluency
that would have astonished his colleagues. Then, still furious, he started to dismantle
the equipment he had begged, borrowed and stolen from the other projects on the satellite.

It would have worked, he was sure of that. The theory had been quite sound—indeed,
it was based on almost a hundred years of practice. Infra-red reconnaissance dated
back to at least as early as the Second World War, when it was used to locate camouflaged
factories by their tell-tale heat.

had left no visible track across the Sea, she must surely, have left an infra-red
one. Her fans had stirred up the relatively warm dust a foot or so down, scattering
it across the far colder surface layers. An eye that could see by the rays of heat
could track her path for hours after she had passed. There would have been just time,
Tom calculated, to make such an infra-red survey before the Sun rose and obliterated
all traces of the faint heat-trail through the cold lunar night.

But, obviously, there was no point in trying now.

It was well that no one aboard
could have guessed that the search in the Sea of Thirst had been abandoned, and that
the dust-skis were concentrating their efforts inside Crater Lake. And it was well,
also, none of the passengers knew of Dr. McKenzie’s predictions.

The physicist had drawn, on a piece of home-made graph-paper, the expected rise of
temperature. Every hour he noted the reading of the cabin thermometer and pin-pointed
it on the curve. The agreement with theory was depressingly good; in twenty hours,
110 degrees Fahrenheit would be passed, and the first deaths from heat-stroke would
be occurring. Whatever way he looked at it, they had barely a day to live. In these
circumstances, Commodore Hansteen’s efforts to maintain morale seemed no more than
an ironic jest. Whether he failed or succeeded, it would be all the same by the day
after tomorrow.

Yet was that true? Though their only choice might lay between dying like men, and
dying like animals, surely the first was better. It made no difference, even if
remained undiscovered until the end of time, so that no one ever knew how her occupants
passed their final hours. This was beyond logic or reason; but so, for that matter,
was almost everything that was really important in the shaping of man’s lives and

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