Two hundred years after landing on the Moon, mankind has moved further out into the solar system. With permanent settlements now established on the Moon, Venus, and Mars, the inhabitants of these colonies have formed a political alliance called the Federation.
On the Moon, a government agent from Earth is tracking a suspected spy at a prominent observatory. His mission is complicated by the rise in tensions between Earth’s government and the Federation over access to rare heavy metals. As the agent finds himself locked in a battle for life and death on the eerie, lunar landscape, the larger conflict explodes across space, leaving mankind’s future in doubt.
First published in 1955, this suspense-filled space opera by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inductee was a significant forerunner of television hits like Star Trek and The Expanse.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:December 16, 1917
Date of Death:March 19, 2008
Place of Birth:Minehead, Somerset, England
Place of Death:Sri Lanka
Education:1948, King's College, London, first-class honors in Physics and Mathematics
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The Monorail was losing speed as it climbed up out of the shadowed lowlands. At any moment now, thought Sadler, they would overtake the sun. The line of darkness moved so slowly here that, with a little effort, a man could keep abreast of it, could hold the sun balanced on the horizon until he had to pause for rest. Even then, it would slip so reluctantly from sight that more than an hour would pass before the last dazzling segment vanished below the edge of the Moon, and the long lunar night began.
He had been racing through that night, across the land that the first pioneers had opened up two centuries ago, at a steady and comfortable five hundred kilometers an hour. Apart from a bored conductor, who seemed to have nothing to do but produce cups of coffee on request, the only other occupants of the car were four astronomers from the Observatory. They had nodded affably enough when he came aboard, but had promptly lost themselves in a technical argument and had ignored Sadler ever since. He felt a little hurt by this neglect, then consoled himself with the thought that perhaps they took him for a seasoned resident, not a newcomer on his first assignment to the Moon.
The lights in the car made it impossible to see much of the darkened land through which they were racing in almost complete silence. "Darkened," of course, was only a relative term. It was true that the sun had gone, but not far from the zenith the Earth was approaching its first quarter. It would grow steadily until at lunar midnight, a week from now, it would be a blinding disk too bright for the unprotected eye to gaze upon.
Sadler left his seat and went forward, past the still-arguing astronomers, toward the curtained alcove at the front of the car. He was not yet accustomed to possessing only a sixth of his normal weight, and moved with exaggerated caution through the narrow corridor between the toilets and the little control room.
Now he could see properly. The observation windows were not as large as he would have liked; some safety regulation was responsible for that. But there was no internal light to distract his eyes, and at last he could enjoy the cold glory of this ancient, empty land.
Cold — yes, he could well believe that beyond these windows it was already two hundred degrees below zero, though the sun had sunk only a few hours before. Some quality of the light pouring down from the distant seas and clouds of Earth gave the impression. It was a light tinged with blues and greens, an arctic radiance that gave no atom of heat. And that, thought Sadler, was surely a paradox, for it came from a world of light and warmth.
Ahead of the speeding car, the single rail — supported by pillars uncomfortably far apart — arrowed into the east. Another paradox; this world was full of them. Why couldn't the sun set in the west, as it did on Earth? There must be some simple astronomical explanation, but for the moment Sadler could not decide what it was. Then he realized that, after all, such labels were purely arbitrary, and could easily get misplaced when a new world was mapped.
They were still rising slowly, and there was a cliff on the right which limited vision. On the left — let's see, that would be south, wouldn't it? — the broken land fell away in a series of layers as though a billion years ago the lava welling up from the Moon's molten heart had solidified in successive, weakening waves. It was a scene that chilled the soul, yet there were spots on Earth as bleak as this. The Badlands of Arizona were equally desolate; the upper slopes of Everest were far more hostile, for here at least was no eternal, ravening wind.
And then Sadler almost cried out aloud, for the cliff on the right came to a sudden end as if a monstrous chisel had sliced it off the surface of the Moon. It no longer barred his view: he could see clear round to the north. The unpremeditated artistry of Nature had produced an effect so breathtaking that it was hard to believe it was merely an accident of time and place.
There, marching across the sky in flaming glory, were the peaks of the Apennines, incandescent in the last rays of the hidden sun. The abrupt explosion of light left Sadler almost blinded; he shielded his eyes from the glare, and waited until he could safely face it again. When he looked once more, the transformation was complete. The stars, which until a moment ago had filled the sky, had vanished. His contracted pupils could no longer see them: even the glowing Earth now seemed no more than a feeble patch of greenish luminosity. The glare from the sunlit mountains, still a hundred kilometers away, had eclipsed all other sources of light.
The peaks floated in the sky, fantastic pyramids of flame. They seemed to have no more connection with the ground beneath them than do the clouds that gather above a sunset on Earth. The line of shadow was so sharp, the lower slopes of the mountains so lost in utter darkness, that only the burning summits had any real existence. It would be hours yet before the last of those proud peaks fell back into the shadow of the Moon and surrendered to the night.
The curtains behind Sadler parted; one of his fellow passengers came into the alcove and took up a position by the window. Sadler wondered whether to open the conversation. He still felt a little piqued at being so completely ignored. However, the problem in etiquette was solved for him.
"Worth coming from Earth to see, isn't it?" said a voice from the gloom at his side.
"It certainly is," Sadler replied. Then, trying to be blasé, he added: "But I suppose you get used to it in time."
There was a chuckle from the darkness.
"I wouldn't say that. Some things you never get used to, however long you live here. Just got in?"
"Yes. Landed last night in the Tycho Brahe. Haven't had time to see much yet."
In unconscious mimicry, Sadler found himself using the clipped sentences of his companion. He wondered if everyone on the Moon talked like this. Perhaps they thought it saved air.
"Going to work at the Observatory?"
"In a way, though I won't be on the permanent staff. I'm an accountant. Doing a cost-analysis of your operations."
This produced a thoughtful silence, which was finally broken by: "Rude of me — should have introduced myself. Robert Molton. Head of Spectroscopy. Nice to have someone around who can tell us how to do our income tax."
"I was afraid that would come up," said Sadler dryly. "My name's Bertram Sadler; I'm from the Audit Bureau."
"Humph. Think we're wasting money here?"
"That's for someone else to decide. I've only got to find how you spend it, not why."
"Well, you're going to have some fun. Everyone here can make out a good case for spending twice as much money as they get. And I'd like to know how the devil you'll put a price tag on pure scientific research."
Sadler had been wondering that for some time, but thought it best not to attempt any further explanations. His story had been accepted without question; if he tried to make it more convincing, he would give himself away. He was not a good liar, though he hoped to improve with practice.
In any case, what he had told Molton was perfectly true. Sadler only wished it were the whole truth, and not a mere five per cent of it.
"I was wondering how we're going to get through those mountains," he remarked, pointing to the burning peaks ahead. "Do we go over — or under?"
"Over," said Molton. "They look spectacular, but they're really not so big. Wait till you see the Leibnitz Mountains or the Oberth Range. They're twice as high."
These are quite good enough to start with, thought Sadler. The low-slung monorail car, straddling its single track, bored through the shadows on a slowly rising course. In the darkness around them, dimly seen crags and cliffs rushed forward with explosive swiftness, then vanished astern. Sadler realized that probably nowhere else could one travel at such velocities so close to the ground. No jet liner, far above the clouds of Earth, ever gave such an impression of sheer speed as this.
If it had been day, Sadler could have seen the prodigies of engineering that had flung this track across the foothills of the Apennines. But the darkness veiled the gossamer bridges and the canyon-fringing curves; he saw only the approaching peaks, still magically afloat upon the sea of night that lapped around them.
Then, far to the east, a burning bow peeped above the edge of the Moon. They had risen out of shadow, had joined the mountains in their glory and overtaken the sun itself. Sadler looked away from the glare which flooded the cabin, and for the first time saw clearly the man standing by his side.
Doctor (or would it be Professor?) Molton was in the early fifties, but his hair was quite black and very abundant. He had one of those strikingly ugly faces that somehow immediately inspire confidence. Here, one felt, was the humorous, worldly-wise philosopher, the modern Socrates, sufficiently detached to give unbiased advice to all, yet by no means aloof from human contact. The heart of gold beneath the rugged exterior, Sadler thought to himself, and flinched mentally at the triteness of the phrase.
Their eyes met in the silent appraisal of two men who know that their future business will bring them together again. Then Molton smiled, wrinkling a face that was almost as craggy as the surrounding moonscape.
"Must be your first dawn on the Moon. If you can call this a dawn, of course — anyway, it's a sunrise. Pity it'll only last ten minutes — we'll be over the top then and back into night. Then you'll have to wait two weeks to see the sun again."
"Doesn't it get a trifle — boring — being cooped up for fourteen days?" asked Sadler. No sooner had he spoken the words than he realized that he had probably made a fool of himself. But Molton let him down lightly.
"You'll see," he answered. "Day or night, it's much the same underground. Anyway, you can go out whenever you like. Some people prefer the nighttime; the Earthlight makes them feel romantic."
The monorail had now reached the apex of its trajectory through the mountains. Both travelers fell silent as the peaks on either side reared to their climax, then began to sink astern. They had burst through the barrier, and were dropping down the much steeper slopes overlooking the Mare Imbrium. As they descended, so the sun which their speed had conjured back from night shrank from a bow to a thread, from a thread to a single point of fire, and winked out of existence. In the last instant of that false sunset, seconds before they sank again into the shadow of the Moon, there was a moment of magic that Sadler would never forget. They were moving along a ridge that the sun had already left, but the track of the monorail, scarcely a meter above it, still caught the last rays. It seemed as if they were rushing along an unsupported ribbon of light, a filament of fame built by sorcery rather than human engineering. Then final darkness fell, and the magic ended. The stars began to creep back into the sky as Sadler's eyes readapted themselves to the night.
"You were lucky," said Molton. "I've ridden this run a hundred times, but I've never seen that. Better come back into the car — they'll be serving a snack in a minute. Nothing more to see now, anyway."
That, thought Sadler, was hardly true. The blazing Earthlight, coming back into its own now that the sun was gone, flooded the great plain that the ancient astronomers had so inaccurately christened the Sea of Rains. Compared with the mountains that lay behind, it was not spectacular, yet it was still something to catch the breath.
"I'll wait awhile," Sadler answered. "Remember, this is all new to me and I don't want to miss any of it."
Molton laughed, not unkindly. "Can't say I blame you," he said. "Afraid we sometimes take things for granted."
The monorail was now sliding down an absolutely vertiginous incline that would have been suicide on Earth. The cold, green-lit plain lifted to meet them: a range of low hills, dwarfs beside the mountains they had left behind, broke the skyline ahead. Once again, the uncannily near horizon of this little world began to close in upon them. They were back at "sea" level....
Sadler followed Molton through the curtains and into the cabin, where the steward was setting out trays for his small company.
"Do you always have as few passengers as this?" asked Sadler. "I shouldn't think it was a very economical proposition."
"Depends what you mean by economical," Molton replied. "A lot of the things here will look funny on your balance sheets. But it doesn't cost much to run this service. Equipment lasts forever — no rust, no weather. Cars get serviced only every couple of years."
That was something Sadler certainly hadn't considered. There were a great many things he had to learn, and some of them he might find out the hard way.
* * *
The meal was tasty but unidentifiable. Like all food on the Moon, it would have been grown in the great hydroponic farms that sprawled their square kilometers of pressurized greenhouses along the equator. The meat course was presumably synthetic: it might have been beef, but Sadler happened to know that the only cow on the Moon lived in luxury at the Hipparchus Zoo. This was the sort of useless information his diabolically retentive mind was always picking up and refusing to disgorge.
Perhaps mealtime had made the other astronomers more affable, for they were friendly enough when Dr. Molton introduced them, and managed to avoid talking shop for a few minutes. It was obvious, however, that they regarded his mission with some alarm. Sadler could see them all mentally reviewing their appropriations and wondering what kind of case they could put up if they were challenged. He had no doubt that they would all have highly convincing stories, and would try to blind him with science if he attempted to pin them down. He had been through it all before, though never in quite such circumstances as these.
The car was now on the last lap of its journey, and would be at the Observatory in little more than an hour. The six-hundred-kilometer run across the Mare Imbrium was almost straight and level, apart from a brief detour to the east to avoid the hills around the giant walled-plain of Archimedes. Sadler settled himself down comfortably, pulled out his briefing papers, and began to do some study.
The organization chart he unfolded covered most of the table. It was neatly printed in several colors, according to the various departments of the Observatory, and Sadler looked at it with some distaste. Ancient man, he remembered, had once been defined as a tool-making animal. He often felt that the best description of modern man would be a paper-wasting animal.
Below the headings "Director" and "Deputy Director" the chart split three ways under the captions Administration, Technical Services, and Observatory. Sadler looked for Dr. Molton; yes, there he was, in the Observatory section, directly beneath the chief scientist and heading the short column of names labeled "Spectroscopy." He seemed to have six assistants: two of them — Jamieson and Wheeler — were men to whom Sadler had just been introduced. The other traveler in the monocab, he discovered, was not really a scientist at all. He had a little box of his own on the chart, and was responsible to no one but the director. Sadler suspected that Secretary Wagnall was probably quite a power in the land, and would be well worth cultivating.
He had been studying the chart for half an hour, and had completely lost himself in its ramifications, when someone switched on the radio. Sadler had no objection to the soft music that filled the car; his powers of concentration could deal with worse interference than this. Then the music stopped; there was a brief pause, the six beeps of a time signal, and a suave voice began:
"This is Earth, Channel Two, Interplanetary Network. The signal you have just heard was twenty-one hundred hours G.M.T. Here is the news."
There was no trace of interference. The words were as clear as if they were coming from a local station. Yet Sadler had noticed the skyward tilting antenna system on the roof of the monocab, and knew that he was listening to a direct transmission. The words he was hearing had left Earth almost one and a half seconds ago. Already they would be heading past him to far more distant worlds. There would be men who would not hear them for minutes yet — perhaps for hours, if the ships that the Federation had beyond Saturn were listening in. And that voice from Earth would still go on, expanding and fading, far beyond the uttermost limits of man's explorations, until somewhere on the way to Alpha Centauri it was at last obliterated by the ceaseless radio whispering of the stars themselves.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Earthlight"
Copyright © 1983 Arthur C. Clarke.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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