Read A Fall of Moondust Online

Authors: Arthur C. Clarke

A Fall of Moondust (9 page)

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“How do
know?” asked David Barrett, the Englishman who had commended the tea. The only answer
was an indignant sniff. Professor Jayawardene looked very unhappy, and glanced at
the Commodore for support. He did not get any; Hansteen was studiously looking the
other way. If the passengers relied on him for everything, that would be fatal; as
far as possible, he wanted them to stand on their own feet.

“Very well,” said the Professor. “To prevent any argument, we’ll start with

There were several protesting cries of: “We want
The Orange and the Apple
!” but, surprisingly, the Professor stood firm. “It’s a very long book,” he said.
“I really don’t think we’ll have time to finish it before we’re rescued.” He cleared
his throat, looked around the cabin to see if there were any further objections, and
then started to read in an extremely pleasant though rather sing-song voice.

“‘Introduction—the Role of the Western in the Age of Space. By Karl Adams, Professor
of English. Being based on the 2037 Kingsley Amis Seminars in Criticism at the University
of Chicago.’”

The poker players were wavering; one of them was nervously examining the worn pieces
of paper that served as cards. The rest of the audience had settled down, with looks
of boredom or anticipation. Miss Wilkins was back in the airlock-galley, checking
the provisions. The melodious voice continued:

“‘One of the most unexpected literary phenomena of our age has been the revival, after
half a century of neglect, of the romance known as the “Western”. These stories, set
in a background extremely limited both in space and time—the United States of America,
1865–1900—were for a considerable period one of the most popular forms of fiction
the world has ever known. Millions were written, almost all published in cheap magazines
and shoddily-produced books, but out of those millions, a few have survived both as
literature and as a record of an age—though we must never forget that the writers
were describing an era that had passed long before they were born.

“‘With the opening up of the Solar System in the 1970s, the earth-based frontier of
the American West seemed so ludicrously tiny that the reading public lost interest
in it. This, of course, was as illogical as dismissing
on the grounds that events restricted to a small and draughty Danish castle could
not possibly be of universal significance.

“‘During the last few years, however, a reaction has set in. I am creditably informed
that Western stories are among the most popular reading matter in the libraries of
the space-liners now plying between the planets. Let us see if we can discover the
reason for this apparent paradox—this link between the Old West and the New Space.

“‘Perhaps we can best do this by divesting ourselves of all our modern scientific
achievements, and imagining that we are back in the incredibly primitive world of
1870. Picture a vast, open plain, stretching away into the distance until it merges
into a far-offline of misty mountains. Across that plain is crawling, with agonising
slowness, a line of clumsy wagons. Around them ride men on horseback, bearing guns—for
this is Indian territory.

“‘It will take those wagons longer to reach the mountains than a Star-class liner
now requires to make the journey from Earth to Moon. The space of the prairie was
just as great, therefore, to the men who challenged it as the space of the Solar System
is to us This is one of the links we have with the Western; there are others, even
more fundamental. To understand them, we must first consider the role of the Epic
in literature….’”

It seemed to be going well, thought the Commodore. An hour would be long enough; at
the end of that time Professor J. would be through the introduction and well into
the story. Then they could switch to something else—preferably at an exciting moment
in the narrative, so that the audience would be anxious to get back to it.

Yes, the second day beneath the dust had started smoothly, with everyone in good heart.
But how many days were there still to go?

The answer to that question depended upon two men who had taken an instant dislike
to each other even though they were fifty thousand kilometres apart. As he listened
to Dr. Lawson’s account of his discoveries, the Chief Engineer found himself torn
in opposing directions. The astronomer had a most unfortunate method of approach,
especially for a youngster who was addressing a very senior official more than twice
his age. He talks to me, thought Lawrence—at first more amused than angry—as if I’m
a retarded child, who has to have everything explained to him in words of one syllable.

When Lawson had finished, the C.E.E. was silent for a few seconds, examining the photographs
that had come over the Telefax while they were talking. The earlier one, taken before
sunrise, was certainly suggestive—but it was not enough to prove the case, in his
opinion. And the one taken after dawn showed nothing at all on the reproduction he
had received; there might have been something on the original print, but he would
hate to take the word of this unpleasant young man for it.

“This is very interesting, Dr. Lawson,” he said at last. “It’s a great pity, though,
that you didn’t continue your observations when you took the first photos. Then we
might have had something more conclusive.”

Tom bridled instantly at this criticism, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that
it was well founded.

“If you think that anyone else could have done better—” he snapped.

“Oh, I’m not suggesting that,” said Lawrence, anxious to keep the peace. “But where
do we go from here? The spot you indicate may be fairly small, but its position is
uncertain by at least half a kilometre. There may be nothing visible on the surface,
even in daylight. Is there any way we can pin-point it more accurately?”

“There’s one very obvious method. Use this same technique at ground level. Go over
the area with an infra-red scanner. That will locate any hot-spot, even if it’s only
a fraction of a degree warmer than its surroundings.”

“A good idea,” said Lawrence, “I’ll see what can be arranged, and will call you back
if I need any further information. Thank you very much—Doctor.”

He hung up quickly, and wiped his brow. Then he immediately put through another call
to the satellite.

“Lagrange II? Chief Engineer, Earthside, here. Give me the Director, please.

“Professor Kotelnikov? This is Lawrence; I’m fine, thanks. I’ve been talking to your
Dr. Lawson—no, he hasn’t done anything, except nearly make me lose my temper. He’s
been looking for our missing dust-cruiser, and he thinks he’s found her. What I’d
like to know is—how competent is he?”

In the next five minutes, the Chief Engineer learned a good deal about young Dr. Lawson;
rather more, in fact, than he had any right to know, even over a confidential circuit.
When Professor Kotelnikov had paused for breath he interjected sympathetically: “I
can understand why you put up with him; poor kid—I thought orphanages like that went
out with Dickens and the twentieth century. A good thing it
burn down; do you suppose he set fire to it? No, don’t answer that—you’ve told me
he’s a first-class observer, and that’s all I want to know. Thanks a lot—see you down
here someday?”

In the next half-hour, Lawrence made a dozen calls to points all over the Moon. At
the end of that time, he had accumulated a large amount of information; now he had
to act on it.

At Plato Observatory, Father Ferraro thought the idea was perfectly plausible. In
fact, he had already suspected that the focus of the quake was under the Sea of Thirst
rather than the Mountains of Inaccessibility, but couldn’t prove it because the Sea
had such a damping effect on all vibrations. No—a complete set of soundings had never
been made; it would be very tedious and time-consuming. He’d probed it himself in
a few places with telescopic rods, and had always hit bottom at less than forty metres.
His guess for the average depth was under ten metres, and it was much more shallow
round the edges. No, he didn’t have an infra-red detector, but the astronomers on
Farside might be able to help.

Sorry—no i.r. detector at Dostoievsky. Our work is all in the ultra-violet. Try Verne.

Oh yes, we used to do some work in the infra-red, a couple of years back—taking spectograms
of giant red stars. But do you know what—there were enough traces of lunar atmosphere
to interfere with the readings so the whole programme was shifted out into space.
Try Lagrange….

It was at this point that Lawrence called Traffic Control for the shipping schedules
from Earth, and found that he was in luck. But the next move would cost a lot of money,
and only the Chief Administrator could authorise it.

That was one good thing about Olsen; he never argued with his technical staff over
matters that were in their province. He listened carefully to Lawrence’s story, and
went straight to the main point.

“If this theory is true,” he said, “there’s a chance that they may still be alive,
after all.”

“More than a chance; I’d say it’s quite likely. We know the Sea is shallow, so they
can’t be very deep. The pressure on the hull would be fairly low; it may still be

“So you want this fellow Lawson to help with the search.”

The Chief Engineer gave a gesture of resignation.

“He’s about the last person I
,” he answered. “But I’m afraid we’ve got to have him.”


The skipper of the cargo-liner
was furious, and so was his crew—but there was nothing they could do about it. Ten
hours out from Earth and five hours from the Moon they were ordered to stop at Lagrange,
with all the waste of speed and extra computing that that implied. And to make matters
worse, they were being diverted from Clavius City to that miserable dump Port Roris,
practically on the other side of the Moon. The ether crackled with messages cancelling
dinners and assignations all over the southern hemisphere.

Not far from full, the mottled silver disc of the Moon, its eastern limb wrinkled
with easily visible mountains, formed a dazzling background to Lagrange II as
came to rest a hundred kilometres Earthwards of the station. She was allowed no closer;
the interference produced by her equipment, and the glare of her jets, had already
affected the sensitive recording instruments on the satellite. Only old-fashioned
chemical rockets were permitted to operate in the immediate neighbourhood of Lagrange;
plasma drives and fusion plants were strictly taboo.

Carrying one small case full of clothing, and one large case full of equipment, Tom
Lawson entered the liner twenty minutes after departure from Lagrange; the shuttle
pilot had refused to hurry, despite urgings from
. The new passenger was greeted without warmth as he came aboard; he would have been
received quite differently had anyone known his mission. The Chief Administrator,
however, had ruled that it should be kept secret for the present; he did not wish
to raise false hopes among the relatives of the lost passengers. The Tourist Commissioner
had wanted an immediate release, maintaining that it would prove that they were doing
their best, but Olsen had said firmly: “Wait until he produces results—
you can give something to your friends in the news agencies.”

The order was already too late. Aboard
, Maurice Spenser, Bureau Chief of Interplanet News, was on his way to take up his
duties in Clavius City. He was not sure if this was a promotion or demotion from Peking,
but it would certainly be a change.

Unlike all the other passengers, he was not in the least annoyed by the change of
course. The delay was in the firm’s time, and as an old newsman he always welcomed
the unusual, the break in the established routine. It was certainly odd for a Moon-bound
liner to waste several hours and an unimaginable amount of energy to stop at Lagrange,
just to pick up a dour-faced young man with a couple of pieces of baggage. And why
the diversion from Clavius to Port Roris? “Top-level instructions from Earth,” said
the skipper, and seemed to be telling the truth when he disowned all further knowledge.
It was a mystery, and mysteries were Spenser’s business. He made one shrewd guess
at the reason, and was right—or almost right—first time.

It must be something to do with that lost dust-cruiser there had been such a fuss
about, just before he left Earth. This scientist from Lagrange must have some information
about her, or must be able to assist in the search. But why the secrecy? Perhaps there
was some scandal or mistake that the Lunar Administration was trying to hush up; the
simple and wholly creditable reason never occurred to Spenser.

He avoided speaking to Lawson during the remainder of the brief trip, and was amused
to note that the few passengers who tried to strike up a conversation were quickly
rebuffed. Spenser bided his time, and that time came thirty minutes before landing.

It was hardly an accident that he was sitting next to Lawson when the order came to
fasten seat-belts for deceleration. With the fifteen other passengers, they sat in
the tiny, blacked-out lounge, looking at the swiftly approaching Moon. Projected on
a viewing screen from a lens in the outer hull, the image seemed sharper and more
brilliant even than in real life. It was as if they were inside an old-fashioned
camera obscura
; the arrangement was very much safer than having an actual observation window—a structural
hazard which spaceship designers fought against tooth and nail.

That dramatically expanding landscape was a glorious and unforgettable sight, yet
Spenser could give it only half his attention. He was watching the man beside him,
his intense aquiline features barely visible in the reflected light from the screen.

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