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Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (8 page)

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Above all, it had to make an effort to find them and give them a decent burial. This
little problem had been placed squarely in the lap of Chief Engineer Lawrence, who
was still at Port Roris.

He had seldom tackled anything with less enthusiasm. While there was a chance that
the
Selene
’s passengers were still alive, he would have moved heaven, Earth and Moon to get
at them. But now that they must be dead, he saw no point in risking men’s lives to
locate them and dig them out. Personally, he could hardly think of a better place
to be buried, than among these eternal hills.

That they were dead, Chief Engineer Robert Lawrence did not have the slightest doubt;
all the facts fitted together too perfectly. The quake had occurred at just about
the time
Selene
should have been leaving Crater Lake, and the gorge was now half-blocked with slides.
Even the smallest of those would have crushed her like a paper toy, and those aboard
would have perished within seconds as the air gushed out. If, by some million to one
chance, she had escaped being smashed, her radio signals would have been received;
the tough little automatic beacon had been built to take any reasonable punishment,
and if
that
was out of action, it must have been some crack-up….

The first problem would be to locate the wreck; that might be fairly easy, even if
it was buried beneath a million tons of rubble. There were prospecting instruments
and a whole range of metal detectors that could do the trick. And when the hull was
cracked, the air inside would have rushed out into the lunar near-vacuum; even now,
hours later, there would be traces of carbon dioxide and oxygen that might be spotted
by one of the gas detectors used for pin-pointing spaceship leaks. As soon as the
dust-skis came back to base for servicing and recharging, he’d get them fitted with
leak detectors and would send them sniffing round the rock-slides.

No—
finding
the wreck might be simple; it was getting it out that might be impossible. He wouldn’t
guarantee that the job could be done for a hundred million. (And he could just see
the C.A.’s face if he mentioned a sum like that.) For one thing, it was a physical
impossibility to bring heavy equipment into the area—the sort of equipment needed
to move thousands of tons of rubble. The flimsy little dust-skis were useless; to
shift those rock-slides one would have to float moondozers across the Sea of Thirst,
and import whole ship-loads of gelignite to blast a road through the mountains. The
whole idea was absurd; he could understand the Administration’s point of view, but
he was damned if he would let his overworked Engineering Division get saddled with
such a Sisyphean task.

As tactfully as possible—for the Chief Administrator was not the sort of man who liked
to take ‘no’ for an answer—he began to draft his report. Summarised, it might have
read: “(A) The job’s almost certainly impossible. (B) If it can be done at all it
will cost millions and may involve further loss of life. (C) It’s not worth doing
anyway.” But because such bluntness would make him unpopular, and he had to give his
reasons, the report ran to over three thousand words.

When he had finished dictation he paused to marshal his ideas, could think of nothing
further, and added: “Copies to Chief Administrator, Moon; Chief Engineer, Farside;
Supervisor, Traffic Control; Tourist Commissioner; Central Filing. Classify as Confidential.”

He pressed the Transcription key. Within twenty seconds all twelve pages of his report,
impeccably typed and punctuated, with several grammatical slips corrected, had emerged
from the office Telefax. He scanned it rapidly, in case the Electrosecretary had made
mistakes. She did this occasionally (all Electrosecs were ‘she’), especially during
rush periods when she might be taking dictation from a dozen sources at once. In any
event, no wholly sane machine could cope with all the eccentricities of a language
like English, and every wise executive checked his final draft before he sent it out.
Many were the hilarious disasters that had overtaken those who had left it all to
electronics.

Lawrence was halfway through this task when the telephone rang.

“Lagrange II on the line, sir,” said the operator—a human one, as it happened. “A
Doctor Lawson wants to speak to you.”

Lawson? Who the devil’s that? the C.E.E. asked himself. Then he remembered; that was
the astronomer who was making the telescopic search. Surely someone had told him that
it was useless….

The Chief Engineer had never had the dubious privilege of meeting Dr. Lawson. He did
not know that the astronomer was a very neurotic and very brilliant young man—and,
what was more important in this case, a very stubborn one.

Lawson had just began to dismantle the infra-red scanner when he stopped to consider
his action. Since he had practically completed the blasted thing, he might as well
test it, out of sheer scientific curiosity. Tom Lawson prided himself, rightly, as
a practical experimenter; this was something unusual in an age when most so-called
astronomers were really mathematicians who never went near an observatory.

He was now so tired that only sheer cussedness kept him going. If the scanner had
not worked first time, he would have postponed testing it until he had some sleep.
But by the good luck that is occasionally the reward of skill, it
did
work; only a few minor adjustments were needed before the image of the Sea of Thirst
began to build up upon the viewing screen.

It appeared line by line, like an old-fashioned TV picture, as the infra-red detector
scanned back and forth across the face of the Moon. The light patches indicated relatively
warm areas, the dark ones, regions of cold. Almost all the Sea of Thirst was dark,
except for a brilliant band where the rising sun had already touched it with fire.
But in that darkness, as Tom looked closely, he could see some very faint tracks,
glimmering as feebly as the paths of snails through some moonlit garden back on Earth.

Beyond doubt, there was the heat-trail of
Selene
; and there also, much fainter, were the zigzags of the dust-skis that even now were
searching for her. All the trails converged towards the Mountains of Inaccessibility
and there vanished beyond his field of view.

He was much too tired to examine them closely, and in any event it no longer mattered,
for this merely confirmed what was already known. His only satisfaction, which was
of some importance to him, lay in the proof that another piece of Lawson-built equipment
had obeyed his will. For the record, he photographed the screen—then staggered to
bed to catch up with his arrears of sleep.

Three hours later he awoke from a restless slumber. Despite his extra hour in bed,
he was still tired, but something was worrying him and would not let him sleep. As
the faint whisper of moving dust had disturbed Pat Harris in the sunken
Selene
, so also, fifty thousand kilometres away, Tom Lawson was recalled from sleep by a
trifling variation from the normal. The mind has many watchdogs; sometimes they bark
unnecessarily, but a wise man never ignores their warning.

Still bleary-eyed, Tom Lawson left the cluttered little cell that was his private
cabin aboard Lagrange, hooked himself on to the nearest moving belt, and drifted along
the gravityless corridors until he had reached the Observatory. He exchanged a surly
good-morning (though it was now late in the satellite’s arbitrary afternoon) with
those of his colleagues who did not see him in time to take avoiding action. Then,
thankful to be alone, he settled down among the instruments that were the only things
he loved.

He ripped the photograph out of the one-shot camera where it had been lying all night,
and looked at it for the first time. It was then that he saw the stubby trail emerging
from the Mountains of Inaccessibility, and ending a very short distance away in the
Sea of Thirst.

He must have seen it last night when he looked at the screen—but he had not noticed
it. For a scientist, that was a serious, almost an unforgivable lapse and Tom Lawson
felt very angry with himself. He had let his preconceived ideas affect his powers
of observation.

What did it mean? He examined the area closely with a magnifier. The trail ended in
a small, diffuse dot, which he judged to be about two hundred metres across. It was
very odd—almost as if
Selene
had emerged from the mountains, and then taken off like a spaceship.

Tom’s first theory was that she had blown to pieces, and that this smudge of heat
was the aftermath of the explosion. But in that case, there would have been plenty
of wreckage, most of it light enough to float on the dust. The skis could hardly have
missed it when they passed through this area—as the thin, distinctive track of one
showed it had indeed done.

There had to be some other explanation, yet the alternative seemed absurd. It was
almost impossible to imagine that anything as large as
Selene
could sink without trace in the Sea of Thirst, merely because there had been a quake
in that neighbourhood. He certainly could not call the Moon, on the evidence of a
single photograph and say, “You’re looking in the wrong place.” Though he pretended
that the opinion of others meant nothing to him, Tom was terrified of making a fool
of himself. Before he could advance this fantastic theory, he would have to get more
evidence.

Through the telescope, the Sea was now a flat and featureless glare of light. Visual
observation merely confirmed what he had proved before sunrise; there was nothing
more than a few centimetres high projecting above the dust surface. The infra-red
scanner was no greater help: the heat trails had vanished completely, wiped out hours
ago by the sun.

Tom adjusted the instrument for maximum sensitivity, and searched the area where the
trail had ended. Perhaps there was some lingering trace that could be picked up even
now—some faint smudge of heat that still persisted, strong enough to be detected even
in the warmth of the lunar morning. For the sun was still low, and its rays had not
yet attained the murderous power they would possess at noon.

Was it imagination? He had the gain turned full up, so that the instrument was on
the verge of instability. From time to time, at the very limit of its detecting power,
he thought he could see a tiny glimmer of heat, in the exact area where last night’s
track had ended.

It was all infuriatingly inconclusive—not at all the sort of evidence that a scientist
needed, especially when he was going to stick his neck out. If he said nothing, no
one would ever know—but all his life he would be haunted by doubts. Yet if he committed
himself, he might raise false hopes, becomes the laughingstock of the Solar System,
or be accused of seeking personal publicity.

He could not have it both ways; he would have to make a decision. With great reluctance,
knowing that he was taking a step from which there could be no turning back, he picked
up the Observatory phone.

“Lawson here,” he said. “Get me Luna Central—Priority.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

Aboard
Selene
, breakfast had been adequate but hardly inspiring. There were several complaints
from passengers who thought that crackers and compressed meat, a dab of honey and
a glass of tepid water, scarcely constituted a good meal. But the Commodore had been
adamant: “We don’t know how long this has got to last us,” he said, “and I’m afraid
we can’t have hot meals. There’s no way of preparing them, and it’s too warm in the
cabin already. Sorry, no more tea or coffee. And frankly, it won’t do any of us much
harm to cut down on the calories for a few days.” That came out before he remembered
Mrs. Schuster, and he hoped that she wouldn’t take it as a personal affront. Ungirdled
after last night’s general clothes-shedding, she now looked rather like a good-natured
hippopotamus, as she lay sprawled over a seat and a half.

“The sun’s just risen overhead,” continued Hansteen, “the search-parties will be out,
and it’s only a matter of time before they locate us. It’s been suggested that we
have a sweepstake on that; Miss Morley, who’s keeping the log, will collect your bets.

“Now about our programme for the day. Professor Jayawardene—perhaps you’ll let us
know what the Entertainments Committee has arranged.”

The Professor was a small, bird-like person whose gentle dark eyes seemed much too
large for him. It was obvious that he had taken the task of entertainment very seriously,
for his delicate brown hand clutched an impressive sheaf of notes.

“As you know,” he said, “my speciality is the theatre—but I’m afraid that doesn’t
help us very much. It would be nice to have a play-reading, and I thought of writing
out some parts; unfortunately, we’re too short of paper to make that possible. So
we’ll have to think of something else.

“There’s not much reading matter on board, and some of it is rather specialised. But
we do have two novels—a University edition of one of the classic westerns,
Shane
, and this new historical romance,
The Orange and the Apple
. The suggestion is that we form a panel of readers and go through them. Has anyone
any objection—or any better ideas?”

“We want to play poker,” said a firm voice from the rear.

“But you can’t play poker
all
the time,” protested the Professor, thus showing a certain ignorance of the non-academic
world. The Commodore decided to go to his rescue.

“The reading need not interfere with the poker,” he said. “Besides, I suggest you
take a break now and then. Those cards won’t last much longer.”

“Well, which book shall we start on first? And any volunteers as readers? I’ll be
quite happy to do so, but we want some variety—”

“I object to wasting our time on
The Orange and the Apple
.” said Miss Morley. “It’s utter trash, and most of it is—er—near-pornography.”

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