Read A Fall of Moondust Online

Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (7 page)

Advertising Download Read Online

Commodore Hansteen was well aware of that, as he planned the programme for the dwindling
hours that lay ahead. Some men are born to be leaders, and he was one of them. The
emptiness of his retirement had been suddenly filled; for the first time since he
had left the bridge of his flagship
Centaurus
, he felt whole again.

As long as his little crew was busy, he need not worry about morale. It did not matter
what they were doing, provided they thought it interesting or important. That poker
game, for instance, took care of the Space Administration accountant, the retired
civil engineer, and the two executives on vacation from New York. One could tell at
a glance that they were all poker-fanatics; the problem would be to stop them playing,
not to keep them occupied.

Most of the other passengers had split up into little discussion groups, talking quite
cheerfully among themselves. The Entertainments Committee was still in session, with
Professor Jayawardene making occasional notes while Mrs. Schuster reminisced about
her days in burlesque, despite the attempts of her husband to shut her up. The only
person who seemed a little apart from it all was Miss Morley, who was writing slowly
and carefully, using a very minute hand, in what was left of her notebook. Presumably,
like a good journalist she was keeping a diary of their adventure; Commodore Hansteen
was afraid that it would be briefer than she suspected, and that not even those few
pages would be filled. And if they were, he doubted that anyone would ever read them.

He glanced at his watch, and was surprised to see how late it was. By now, he should
have been on the other side of the Moon, back in Clavius City. He had a lunch engagement
at the Lunar Hilton, and after that a trip to—but there was no point in thinking about
a future that could never exist. The brief present was all that would ever concern
him now.

It would be as well to get some sleep, before the temperature became unbearable.
Selene
had never been designed as a dormitory—or a tomb, for that matter—but it would have
to be turned into one now. This involved some research and planning, and a certain
amount of damage to Tourist Commission property. It took his twenty minutes to ascertain
all the facts; then, after a brief conference with Captain Harris, he called for attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we’ve all had a busy day, and I think most of us
will be glad to get some sleep. This presents a few problems, but I’ve been doing
some experimenting and have discovered that with a little encouragement the centre
armrests between the seats come out. They’re not supposed to, but I doubt if the Commission
will sue us. That means that ten of us can stretch out across the seats; the rest
will have to use the floor.

“Another point. As you will have noticed, it’s become rather warm, and will continue
to do so for some time. Therefore I advise you to take off all unnecessary clothing;
comfort is much more important than modesty.” (“And survival,” he added silently,
“is much more important than comfort”—but it would be some hours yet before it came
to that.)

“We’ll turn off the main cabin lights, and as we don’t want to be in complete darkness
we’ll leave on the emergency lighting at low power. One of us will remain on watch
at all times in the skipper’s seat; Mr. Harris is working out a roster of two-hour
shifts. Any questions or comments?”

There were none, and the Commodore breathed a sigh of relief. He was afraid that someone
would be inquisitive about the rising temperature, and was not quite sure how he would
have answered. His many accomplishments did not include the gift of lying, and he
was anxious that the passengers should have as untroubled a sleep as was possible
in the circumstances. Barring a miracle, it would be their last.

Miss Wilkins, who was beginning to lose a little of her professional smartness, took
round final drinks for those who needed them. Most of the passengers had already begun
to remove their outer clothing; the more modest ones waited until the main lights
went off. In the dim red glow, the interior of
Selene
now had a fantastic appearance—one which would have been utterly inconceivable when
she left Port Roris a few hours before. Twenty-two men and women, most of them stripped
down to their underclothing, lay sprawled across the seats or along the floor. A few
lucky ones were already snoring, but for most, sleep would not come as easily as that.

Captain Harris had chosen a position at the very rear of the cruiser; in fact, he
was not in the cabin at all, but in the tiny airlock-kitchen. It was a good vantage
point; now that the communicating door had been slid back, he could look the whole
length of the cabin and keep an eye on everyone inside it.

He folded his uniform into a pillow, and laid down on the unyielding floor. It was
six hours before his watch was due, and he hoped he could get some sleep before then.

Sleep! The last hours of his life were ticking away, yet he had nothing better to
do. How well do condemned men sleep, he wondered, in the night that will end with
the gallows?

He was so desperately tired that even this thought brought no emotion. The last thing
he saw, before consciousness slipped away, was Dr. McKenzie taking yet another temperature
reading and carefully plotting it on his chart, like an astrologer casting a horoscope.

Fifteen metres above—a distance that could be covered in a single stride under this
low gravity—morning had already come. There is no twilight on the Moon, but for many
hours the sky had held the promise of dawn. Stretching far ahead of the sun was the
glowing pyramid of the Zodiacal Light, so seldom seen on Earth. With infinite slowness
it edged its way above the horizon, growing brighter and brighter as the moment of
sunrise approached. Now it had merged into the opalescent glory of the corona—and
now, a million times more brilliant than either, a thin thread of fire began to spread
along the horizon as the Sun made its reappearance after fifteen days of darkness.
It would take more than an hour for it to lift itself clear of the skyline, so slowly
did the Moon turn on its axis, but the night had already ended.

A tide of ink was swiftly ebbing from the Sea of Thirst, as the fierce light of dawn
swept back the darkness. Now the whole drab expanse of the Sea was raked with almost
horizontal rays; had there been anything showing above its surface, this grazing light
would have thrown its shadow for hundreds of metres, revealing it at once to any who
were searching.

But there were no searchers here: Duster One and Duster Two were busy on their fruitless
quest in Crater Lake, fifteen kilometres away. They were still in darkness; it would
be another two days before the sun rose above the surrounding peaks, though their
summits were already blazing with the dawn. As the hours passed, the sharp-edged line
of light would creep down the flanks of the mountains—sometimes moving no faster than
a man could walk—until the sun climbed high enough for its rays to strike into the
crater.

But man-made light was already shining here, flashing among the rocks as the searchers
photographed the slides that had come sweeping silently down the mountains when the
Moon trembled in its sleep. Within an hour, those photographs would have reached Earth;
in another two, all the inhabited worlds would have seen them.

It would be very bad for the tourist business.

When Captain Harris awoke, it was already much hotter. Yet it was not the now oppressive
heat that had interrupted his sleep, a good hour before he was due to go on watch.

Though he had never spent a night aboard her, Pat knew all the sounds that
Selene
could make. When the motors were not running, she was almost silent; one had to listen
carefully to notice the susurration of the air pumps and the low throb of the cooling
plant. Those sounds were still there, as they had been before he went to sleep. They
were unchanged; but they had been joined by another.

It was a barely audible whisper, so faint that for a moment he could not be sure if
he was imagining it. That it should have called to his subconscious mind across the
barriers of sleep seemed quite incredible; even now that he was awake, he could not
identify it, or decide from which direction it came.

Then, abruptly, he knew why it had awakened him. In a second, the sogginess of sleep
had vanished. He got quickly to his feet, and pressed his ear against the air-lock
door; for that mysterious sound was coming from
outside
the hull.

Now he could hear it, faint but distinct, and it set his skin crawling with apprehension.
There could be no doubt; it was the sound of countless dust-grains whispering past
Selene
’s walls like a ghostly sand-storm. What did it mean? Was the Sea once more on the
move? If so, would it take
Selene
with it? Yet there was not the slightest vibration or sense of motion in the cruiser
itself; only the outside world was rustling past….

Very quietly, being careful not to disturb his sleeping companions, Pat tip-toed into
the darkened cabin. It was Dr. McKenzie’s watch; the scientist was hunched up in the
pilot’s seat, staring out through the blinded windows. He turned round as Pat approached,
and whispered: “Anything wrong at your end?”

“I don’t know—come and see.”

Back in the galley, they pressed their ears against the outer door, and listened for
a long time to that mysterious crepitation. Presently McKenzie said: “The dust’s moving
all right—but I don’t see why. That gives us another puzzle to worry about.”

“Another?”

“Yes; I don’t understand what’s happening to the temperature. It’s still going up,
but nothing like as fast as it should.”

The physicist seemed really annoyed that his calculations had proved incorrect, but
to Pat this was the first piece of good news since the disaster.

“Don’t look so miserable about it; we all make mistakes. And if this one gives us
a few more days to live, I’m certainly not complaining.”

“But I
couldn’t
have made a mistake—the maths is elementary. We know how much heat twenty-two people
generate, and it must go somewhere.”

“They won’t produce so much heat when they’re sleeping; maybe that explains it.”

“You don’t think I’d overlook anything so obvious as that!” said the scientist testily.
“It helps, but it isn’t enough. There’s some other reason why we’re not getting as
hot as we should.”

“Let’s just accept the fact and be thankful,” said Pat. “Meanwhile, what about this
noise?”

With obvious reluctance, McKenzie switched his mind to the new problem.

“The dust’s moving, but we aren’t, so it’s probably merely a local effect. In fact,
it only seems to be happening at the back of the cabin. I wonder if that has any significance.”
He gestured to the bulkhead behind them. “What’s on the other side of this?”

“The motors, oxygen reserve, cooling equipment…”


Cooling
equipment! Of course! I remember noticing that when I came aboard. Our radiator fins
are back there, aren’t they?”

“That’s right.”


Now
I see what’s happened. They’ve got so hot that the dust is circulating, like any
liquid that’s heated. There’s a dust-fountain outside, and it’s carrying away our
surplus heat. With any luck, the temperature will stabilise now. We won’t be comfortable,
but we can survive.”

In the crimson gloom, the two men looked at each other with a dawning hope. Then Pat
said slowly: “I’m sure that’s the explanation. Perhaps our luck’s beginning to turn.”

He glanced at his watch, and did a quick mental calculation.

“The sun’s rising over the Sea about now. Base will have the dust-skis out looking
for us, and they must know our approximate position. Ten to one they’ll find us in
a few hours.”

“Should we tell the Commodore?”

“No, let him sleep. He’s had a harder day than any of us. This news can wait until
morning.”

When McKenzie had left him, Pat tried to resume his interrupted sleep. But he could
not do so; he lay with eyes open in the faint red glow, wondering at this strange
turn to fate. The dust which had swallowed and then had threatened to broil them had
now come to their aid, as its convection currents swept their surplus heat up to the
surface. Whether those currents would continue to flow when the rising sun smote the
Sea with its full fury, he could not guess.

Outside the wall, the dust still whispered past, and suddenly Pat was reminded of
an antique hour-glass he had once been shown as a child. When you turned it over,
sand poured through a narrow construction into the lower chamber, and its rising level
marked the passage of the minutes and the hours.

Before the invention of clocks, myriads of men must have had their days divided by
such falling grains of sand. But none until now, surely, had ever had his life-span
metered out by a fountain of rising dust.

CHAPTER SEVEN

In Clavius City, Chief Administrator Olsen and Tourist Commissioner Davis had just
finished conferring with the Legal Department. It had not been a cheerful occasion;
much of the time had been spent discussing the waivers of responsibility which the
missing tourists had signed before they boarded
Selene
. Commissioner Davis had been much against this when the trips were started, on the
grounds that it would scare away customers, but the Administration’s lawyers had insisted.
Now he was very glad that they had had their way.

He was glad, also, that the Port Roris authorities had done the job properly; matters
like this were sometimes treated as unimportant formalities and quietly ignored. There
was a full list of signatures for
Selene
’s passengers—with one possible exception that the lawyers were still arguing about.

The incognito Commodore had been listed as R. S. Hanson, and it looked very much as
if this was the name he had actually signed. The signature was, however, so illegible
that it might well have been ‘Hansteen’; until a facsimile was radioed from Earth,
no one would be able to decide this point. It was probably unimportant; as the Commodore
was travelling on official business, the Administration was bound to accept some responsibility
for him. And for all the other passengers, it was responsible morally, if not legally.

Other books

His Desire by Ana Fawkes
Florian's Gate by T. Davis Bunn
Successio by Alison Morton
T*Witches: Dead Wrong by Randi Reisfeld, H.B. Gilmour
Edsel by Loren D. Estleman
Sarah Gabriel by Highland Groom