The meteor, a pebble, a little larger than a match head, traveled through space and time since it came into being. The light from the star that died when the meteor was created fell on Earth before the first lungfish ventured from the sea.
In its last instant, the meteor fell on the Moon. It was impeded by Evans’ tractor.
It drilled a small, neat hole through the casing of the steam turbine, and volitized upon striking the blades. Portions of the turbine also volitized; idling at eight thousand RPM, it became unstable. The shaft tried to tie itself into a knot, and the blades, damaged and undamaged were spit through the casing. The turbine again reached a stable state, that is, stopped. Permanently stopped.
It was two days to sunrise, where Evans stood.
It was just before sunset on a spring evening in September in Sydney. The shadow line between day and night could be seen from the Moon to be drifting across Australia.
Evans, who had no watch, thought of the time as a quarter after Australia.
Evans was a prospector, and like all prospectors, a sort of jackknife geologist, selenologist, rather. His tractor and equipment cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Fifty thousand was paid for. The rest was promissory notes and grubstake shares. When he was broke, which was usually, he used his tractor to haul uranium ore and metallic sodium from the mines at Potter’s dike to Williamson Town, where the rockets landed.
When he was flush, he would prospect for a couple of weeks. Once he followed a stampede to Yellow Crater, where he thought for a while that he had a fortune in chromium. The chromite petered out in a month and a half, and he was lucky to break even.
Evans was about three hundred miles east of Williamson Town, the site of the first landing on the Moon.
Evans was due back at Williamson Town at about sunset, that is, in about sixteen days. When he saw the wrecked turbine, he knew that he wouldn’t make it. By careful rationing, he could probably stretch his food out to more than a month. His drinking water--kept separate from the water in the reactor--might conceivably last just as long. But his oxygen was too carefully measured; there was a four-day reserve. By diligent conservation, he might make it last an extra day. Four days reserve--plus one is five--plus sixteen days normal supply equals twenty-one days to live.
In seventeen days he might be missed, but in seventeen days it would be dark again, and the search for him, if it ever began, could not begin for thirteen more days. At the earliest it would be eight days too late.
“Well, man, ‘tis a fine spot you’re in now,” he told himself.
“Let’s find out how bad it is indeed,” he answered. He reached for the light switch and tried to turn it on. The switch was already in the “on” position.
“Batteries must be dead,” he told himself.
“What batteries?” he asked. “There’re no batteries in here, the power comes from the generator.”
“Why isn’t the generator working, man?” he asked.
He thought this one out carefully. The generator was not turned by the main turbine, but by a small reciprocating engine. The steam, however, came from the same boiler. And the boiler, of course, had emptied itself through the hole in the turbine. And the condenser, of course--
“The condenser!” he shouted.
He fumbled for a while, until he found a small flashlight. By the light of this, he reinspected the steam system, and found about three gallons of water frozen in the condenser. The condenser, like all condensers, was a device to convert steam into water, so that it could be reused in the boiler. This one had a tank and coils of tubing in the center of a curved reflector that was positioned to radiate the heat of the steam into the cold darkness of space. When the meteor pierced the turbine, the water in the condenser began to boil. This boiling lowered the temperature, and the condenser demonstrated its efficiency by quickly freezing the water in the tank.
Evans sealed the turbine from the rest of the steam system by closing the shut-off valves. If there was any water in the boiler, it would operate the engine that drove the generator. The water would condense in the condenser, and with a little luck, melt the ice in there. Then, if the pump wasn’t blocked by ice, it would return the water to the boiler.
But there was no water in the boiler. Carefully he poured a cup of his drinking water into a pipe that led to the boiler, and resealed the pipe. He pulled on a knob marked “Nuclear Start/Safety Bypass.” The water that he had poured into the boiler quickly turned into steam, and the steam turned the generator briefly.
Evans watched the lights flicker and go out, and he guessed what the trouble was.
“The water, man,” he said, “there is not enough to melt the ice in the condenser.”
He opened the pipe again and poured nearly a half-gallon of water into the boiler. It was three days’ supply of water, if it had been carefully used. It was one day’s supply if used wastefully. It was ostentatious luxury for a man with a month’s supply of water and twenty-one days to live.
The generator started again, and the lights came on. They flickered as the boiler pressure began to fail, but the steam had melted some of the ice in the condenser, and the water pump began to function.
“Well, man,” he breathed, “there’s a light to die by.”
The sun rose on Williamson Town at about the same time it rose on Evans. It was an incredibly brilliant disk in a black sky. The stars next to the sun shone as brightly as though there were no sun. They might have appeared to waver slightly, if they were behind outflung corona flares. If they did, no one noticed. No one looked toward the sun without dark filters.
When Director McIlroy came into his office, he found it lighted by the rising sun. The light was a hot, brilliant white that seemed to pierce the darkest shadows of the room. He moved to the round window, screening his eyes from the light, and adjusted the polaroid shade to maximum density. The sun became an angry red brown, and the room was dark again. McIlroy decreased the density again until the room was comfortably lighted. The room felt stuffy, so he decided to leave the door to the inner office open.
He felt a little guilty about this, because he had ordered that all doors in the survey building should remain closed except when someone was passing through them. This was to allow the air-conditioning system to function properly, and to prevent air loss in case of the highly improbable meteor damage. McIlroy thought that on the whole, he was disobeying his own orders no more flagrantly than anyone else in the survey.
McIlroy had no illusions about his ability to lead men. Or rather, he did have one illusion; he thought that he was completely unfit as a leader. It was true that his strictest orders were disobeyed with cheerful contempt, but it was also true his mildest requests were complied with eagerly and smoothly.
Everyone in the survey except McIlroy realized this, and even he accepted this without thinking about it. He had fallen into the habit of suggesting mildly anything that he wanted done, and writing orders he didn’t particularly care to have obeyed.
For example, because of an order of his stating that there would be no alcoholic beverages within the survey building, the entire survey was assured of a constant supply of home-made, but passably good liquor. Even McIlroy enjoyed the surreptitious drinking.
“Good morning, Mr. McIlroy,” said Mrs. Garth, his secretary. Morning to Mrs. Garth was simply the first four hours after waking.
“Good morning indeed,” answered McIlroy. Morning to him had no meaning at all, but he thought in the strictest sense that it would be morning on the Moon for another week.
“Has the power crew set up the solar furnace?” he asked. The solar furnace was a rough parabola of mirrors used to focus the sun’s heat on anything that it was desirable to heat. It was used mostly, from sun-up to sun-down, to supplement the nuclear power plant.
“They went out about an hour ago,” she answered, “I suppose that’s what they were going to do.”
“Very good, what’s first on the schedule?”
“A Mr. Phelps to see you,” she said.
“How do you do, Mr. Phelps,” McIlroy greeted him.
“Good afternoon,” Mr. Phelps replied. “I’m here representing the Merchants’ Bank Association.”
“Fine,” McIlroy said, “I suppose you’re here to set up a bank.”
“That’s right, I just got in from Muroc last night, and I’ve been going over the assets of the Survey Credit Association all morning.”
“I’ll certainly be glad to get them off my hands,” McIlroy said. “I hope they’re in good order.”
“There doesn’t seem to be any profit,” Mr. Phelps said.
“That’s par for a nonprofit organization,” said McIlroy. “But we’re amateurs, and we’re turning this operation over to professionals. I’m sure it will be to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“I know this seems like a silly question. What day is this?”
“Well,” said McIlroy, “that’s not so silly. I don’t know either.”
“Mrs. Garth,” he called, “what day is this?”
“Why, September, I think,” she answered.
“I mean what day.”
“I don’t know, I’ll call the observatory.”
There was a pause.
“They say what day where?” she asked.
“Greenwich, I guess, our official time is supposed to be Greenwich Mean Time.”
There was another pause.
“They say it’s September fourth, one thirty A.M.”
“Well, there you are,” laughed McIlroy, “it isn’t that time doesn’t mean anything here, it just doesn’t mean the same thing.”
Mr. Phelps joined the laughter. “Bankers’ hours don’t mean much, at any rate,” he said.
The power crew was having trouble with the solar furnace. Three of the nine banks of mirrors would not respond to the electric controls, and one bank moved so jerkily that it could not be focused, and it threatened to tear several of the mirrors loose.
“What happened here?” Spotty Cade, one of the electrical technicians asked his foreman, Cowalczk, over the intercommunications radio. “I’ve got about a hundred pinholes in the cables out here. It’s no wonder they don’t work.”
“Meteor shower,” Cowalczk answered, “and that’s not half of it. Walker says he’s got a half dozen mirrors cracked or pitted, and Hoffman on bank three wants you to replace a servo motor. He says the bearing was hit.”
“When did it happen?” Cade wanted to know.
“Must have been last night, at least two or three days ago. All of ‘em too small for Radar to pick up, and not enough for Seismo to get a rumble.”
“Sounds pretty bad.”
“Could have been worse,” said Cowalczk.
“Wasn’t anybody out in it.”
“Hey, Chuck,” another technician, Lehman, broke in, “you could maybe get hurt that way.”
“I doubt it,” Cowalczk answered, “most of these were pinhead size, and they wouldn’t go through a suit.”
“It would take a pretty big one to damage a servo bearing,” Cade commented.
“That could hurt,” Cowalczk admitted, “but there was only one of them.”
“You mean only one hit our gear,” Lehman said. “How many missed?”
Nobody answered. They could all see the Moon under their feet. Small craters overlapped and touched each other. There was--except in the places that men had obscured them with footprints--not a square foot that didn’t contain a crater at least ten inches across, there was not a square inch without its half-inch crater. Nearly all of these had been made millions of years ago, but here and there, the rim of a crater covered part of a footprint, clear evidence that it was a recent one.
After the sun rose, Evans returned to the lava cave that he had been exploring when the meteor hit. Inside, he lifted his filter visor, and found that the light reflected from the small ray that peered into the cave door lighted the cave adequately. He tapped loose some white crystals on the cave wall with his geologist’s hammer, and put them into a collector’s bag.
“A few mineral specimens would give us something to think about, man. These crystals,” he said, “look a little like zeolites, but that can’t be, zeolites need water to form, and there’s no water on the Moon.”
He chipped a number of other crystals loose and put them in bags. One of them he found in a dark crevice had a hexagonal shape that puzzled him.
One at a time, back in the tractor, he took the crystals out of the bags and analyzed them as well as he could without using a flame which would waste oxygen. The ones that looked like zeolites were zeolites, all right, or something very much like it. One of the crystals that he thought was quartz turned out to be calcite, and one of the ones that he was sure could be nothing but calcite was actually potassium nitrate.
“Well, now,” he said, “it’s probably the largest natural crystal of potassium nitrate that anyone has ever seen. Man, it’s a full inch across.”
All of these needed water to form, and their existence on the Moon puzzled him for a while. Then he opened the bag that had contained the unusual hexagonal crystals, and the puzzle resolved itself. There was nothing in the bag but a few drops of water. What he had taken to be a type of rock was ice, frozen in a niche that had never been warmed by the sun.
The sun rose to the meridian slowly. It was a week after sunrise. The stars shone coldly, and wheeled in their slow course with the sun. Only Earth remained in the same spot in the black sky. The shadow line crept around until Earth was nearly dark, and then the rim of light appeared on the opposite side. For a while Earth was a dark disk in a thin halo, and then the light came to be a crescent, and the line of dawn began to move around Earth. The continents drifted across the dark disk and into the crescent. The people on Earth saw the full moon set about the same time that the sun rose.
Nickel Jones was the captain of a supply rocket. He made trips from and to the Moon about once a month, carrying supplies in and metal and ores out. At this time he was visiting with his old friend McIlroy.
“I swear, Mac,” said Jones, “another season like this, and I’m going back to mining.”
“I thought you were doing pretty well,” said McIlroy, as he poured two drinks from a bottle of Scotch that Jones had brought him.
“Oh, the money I like, but I will say that I’d have more if I didn’t have to fight the union and the Lunar Trade Commission.”
McIlroy had heard all of this before. “How’s that?” he asked politely.
“You may think it’s myself running the ship,” Jones started on his tirade, “but it’s not. The union it is that says who I can hire. The union it is that says how much I must pay, and how large a crew I need. And then the Commission...” The word seemed to give Jones an unpleasant taste in his mouth, which he hurriedly rinsed with a sip of Scotch.
“The Commission,” he continued, making the word sound like an obscenity, “it is that tells me how much I can charge for freight.”
McIlroy noticed that his friend’s glass was empty, and he quietly filled it again.
“And then,” continued Jones, “if I buy a cargo up here, the Commission it is that says what I’ll sell it for. If I had my way, I’d charge only fifty cents a pound for freight instead of the dollar forty that the Commission insists on. That’s from here to Earth, of course. There’s no profit I could make by cutting rates the other way.”
“Why not?” asked McIlroy. He knew the answer, but he liked to listen to the slightly Welsh voice of Jones.
“Near cost it is now at a dollar forty. But what sense is there in charging the same rate to go either way when it takes about a seventh of the fuel to get from here to Earth as it does to get from there to here?”