This theory about the lunar atmosphere had proven to be correct. The tiny density was still sufficient to give the Moon almost as effective an atmospheric meteor screen as the Earth's. The relatively low velocity needed to maintain vehicles in circumlunar orbits, made its danger to such vehicles small. It could help reduce speed for a landing; it caused that innocuous hiss of passage. But it could sometimes be treacherous.
Frank thought of these things as the long minutes dragged. Perhaps Rodan, hunched intently over his controls, had reason enough, there, to be silent...
The actual landing still had to be made in the only way possible on worlds whose air-covering was so close to a complete vacuum as this--like a cat climbing down a tree backwards. With flaming jets still holding it up, and spinning gyros keeping it vertical, the rocket lowered gradually. The seats swung level, keeping their occupants right side up. There was a hovering pause, then the faint jolt of contact. The jet growl stopped; complete silence closed in like a hammer blow.
"Do you men know where you are?" Rodan asked after a moment.
"At the edge of Mare Nova, I think," Frank answered, his eyes combing the demons' landscape beyond the thick, darkened glass of the cabin's ports.
The dazzling sun was low--early morning of two weeks of daylight. The shadows were long, black shafts.
"Yes--there's Tower Rock," Lester quavered. "And the Arabian Range going down under the dust of the plain."
"Correct," Rodan answered. "We're well over the rim of the Far Side. You'll never see the Earth from here. The nearest settlement is eight hundred miles away, and it's Tovie at that. This is a really remote spot, as I intimated before."
He paused, as if to let this significant information be appreciated. "So that's settled," he went on. "Now I'll enlighten you about what else you need to know... Come along."
Frank Nelsen felt the dust crunch under the rubberized boot-soles of his Archer. There was a brief walk, then a pause.
Rodan pointed to a pit dynamited out of the dust and lava rock, and to small piles of greyish material beside six-inch borings rectangularly spaced over a wide area.
"There is an extensive underlying layer of gypsum, here," he said. "The water-bearing rock. A mile away there's an ample deposit of graphite--carbon. Thus, there exists a complete local source of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, ideal for synthesizing various hydrocarbonic chemicals or making complicated polyethylene materials such as stellene, so useful in space. Lead, too, is not very far off. Silicon is, of course, available everywhere. There'll be a plant belonging to Hoffman Chemicals here, before too long. I was prospecting for them, for a site like this. Actually I was very lucky, locating this spot almost right away--which is fortunate. They think I'm still looking, and aren't concerned..."
Rodan was quiet for a moment before continuing. The pupils of his eyes dilated and contracted strangely.
"Because I found something else," he went on. "It was luck beyond dreams, and it must be my very own. I intend to investigate it thoroughly, even if it takes years! Come along, again!"
This time the walk was about three hundred yards, past three small stellene domes, the parabolic mirrors of a solar-power plant, a sun-energized tractor, and onward almost to the mountain wall, imbedded in the dust of the mare. There Frank noticed a circular, glassy area.
Strips of magnesium were laid like bridging planks across chunks of lava, and in the dust all around were countless curious scrabbled marks.
Rodan stood carefully on a magnesium strip, and looked back at Nelsen and Lester, his brows crinkling as if he was suspicious that he had already told them too much. Frank Nelsen became more aware of the heavy automatic pistol at Rodan's hip, and felt a tingling urge to get away from here and from this man--as if a vast mistake had been made.
"It is necessary for you to be informed about some matters," Rodan said slowly. "For instance, unless it is otherwise disturbed, a footprint, or the like, will endure for millions of years on the Moon--as surely as if impressed in granite--because there is no weather left to rub it out. You will be working here. I am preserving some of these markings. So please walk on these strips, which Dutch and I have laid down."
Rodan indicated a large, Archer-clad man, who also carried an automatic. He had the face of a playful but dangerous mastiff. He was hunkered down in a shallow pit, scanning the ground with a watch-sized device probably intended for locating objects hidden just beneath the surface, electronically. Beside him was a screen-bottomed container, no doubt meant for sifting dust.
"Greetings, Novices!" he gruffed with genial contempt. But his pale eyes, beyond the curve of his helmet, had a masked puzzlement, as if something from the lunar desolation had gotten into his brain, leaving the realization of where he was, permanently not altogether clear to him.
Rodan pulled a shiny object from his thigh pouch, and held it out in a gloved palm for his new employees to peer at.
"One of the things we found," he remarked. "Incomplete. If we could, for instance, locate the other parts..."
Frank saw a little cylinder, with grey coils wrapped inside it--a power chamber, perhaps, to be lined with magnetic force, the only thing that could contain what amounted to a tiny twenty-million degree piece of a star's hot heart. It was a familiar principle for releasing and managing nuclear power. But the device, perhaps part of a small weapon, was subtly marked by the differences of another technology.
"I believe I have said enough," Rodan stated with a thin smile. "Though some facts will be unavoidably obvious to you, working here. But at least I will let you figure them out for yourselves, since you are well-informed young men, by your own statement." Here Rodan looked hard at the pale, unsteady Lester. "We will go back, now, so I can show you the camp, its routine, and your place in it. We have three domes--garden and living quarters, with a workshop and supply dome between them..."
Quarters proved to be okay--two bunks and the usual compact accessories.
"Leave your Archers in the lockers outside your door--here are your keys," Rodan suggested. "Helen will have a meal ready for you in the adjacent dining room. Afterwards, take a helpful tranquilizer, and sleep. No work until you awaken. I shall leave you, now..."
It was a good meal--steak cultured and grown in a nourishing solution, on the Moon, perhaps at Serene, much as Dr. Alexis Carrel had long ago grown and kept for years a living fragment of a chicken's heart. Potatoes, peas and tomatoes, too--all had become common staples in hydroponic gardens off the Earth.
"What do you make of what Rodan was talking about, Les?" Frank asked conversationally.
But David Lester was lost and vague, his food almost untouched. "I--I don't know!" he stammered.
Scared and embittered further by this bad sign, Frank turned to Helen. "And how are you?" he asked hopefully.
"I am all right," she answered, without a trace of encouragement.
She was in jeans, maybe she was eighteen, maybe she was Rodan's daughter. Her face was as reddened as a peasant's. It was hard to tell that she was a girl at all. She wasn't a girl. It was soon plain that she was a zombie with about ten words in her vocabulary. How could a girl have gotten to this impossible region, anyway?
Now Frank tried to delay Lester's inevitable complete crackup by encouraging his interest in their situation.
"It's big, Les," he said. "It's got to be! An expedition came here to investigate the Moon--it couldn't be any more recently than sixty million years ago, if it was from as close as Mars, or the Asteroid Planet! Two adjacent worlds were competing, then, the scientists know. Both were smaller than the Earth, cooled faster, bore life sooner. Which sent the party? I saw where there rocket ship must have stood--a glassy, spot where the dust was once fused!... From all the markings, they must have been around for months. Nowhere else on the Moon--that I ever heard of--is there anything similar left. So maybe they did most of their survey work by gliding, somehow, above the ground, not disturbing the dust... I think the little indentations we saw look Martian. That would be a break! Mars still has weather. Archeological objects wouldn't stay new there for millions of years, but here they would! Rodan is right--he's got something that'll make him famous!"
"Yes--I think I'll have a devil-killer and hit the sack, Frank," Lester said.
"Oh--all right," Frank agreed wearily. "Me, likewise."
Frank awoke naturally from a dreamless slumber. After a breakfast of eggs that had been a powder, Lester and he were at the diggings, sifting dust for the dropped and discarded items of an alien visitation.
Thus Frank's job began. In the excitement of a hunt, as if for ancient treasure, for a long time, through many ten hour shifts, Frank Nelsen found a perhaps unfortunate Lethe of forgetfulness for his worries, and for the mind-poisoning effects of the silence and desolation in this remote part of the Moon.
They found things, thinly scattered in the ten acre area that Rodan meant tediously to sift. The screws and nuts, bright and new, were almost Earthly. But would anyone ever know what the little plastic rings were for? Or the sticks of cellulose, or the curved, wire device with fuzz at the ends? But then, would an off-Earth being ever guess the use of--say--a toothbrush or a bobbypin?
The metal cylinders, neatly cut open, might have contained food--dried leaf-like dregs still remained inside. There were small bottles made of pearly glass, too--empty except for gummy traces. They were stoppered with a stuff like rubber. There were also crumpled scraps, like paper or cellophane, most of them marked with designs or symbols.
After ten Earth-days, in the lunar afternoon, Frank found the grave. He shouted as his brushing hands uncovered a glassy, flexible surface.
Rodan took charge at once. "Back!" he commanded. Then he was avidly busy in the pit, working as carefully as a fine jeweller. He cleared more dust away, not with a trowel, not with his gloved fingers, but with a little nylon brush.
The thing was like a seven-pointed star, four feet across. And was the ripped, transparent casing of its body and limbs another version of a vacuum armor? The material resembled stellene. As in an Archer, there were metal details, mechanical, electronic, and perhaps nuclear.
In the punctured covering, the corpse was dry, of course--stomach, brain sac, rough, pitted skin, terminal tendrils--some coarse, some fine, almost, as thread, for doing the most delicate work, half out of protecting sheaths at the ends of its arms or legs.
In the armor, the being must have walked like a toe dancer, on metal spikes. Or it might even have rolled like a wheel. The bluish tint of its crusty body had half-faded to tan. Perhaps no one would ever explain the gaping wound that must have killed the creature, unless it had been a rock fall.
"Martian!" Lester gasped. "At least we know that they were like this!"
"Yes," Rodan agreed softly. "I'll look after this find."
Moving very carefully, even in the weak lunar gravity, he picked up the product of another evolution and bore it away to the shop dome.
Frank was furious. This was his discovery, and he was not even allowed to examine it.
Still, something warned him not to argue. In a little while, his treasure hunter's eagerness came back, holding out through most of that protracted lunar night, when they worked their ten hour periods with electric lamps attached to their shoulders.
But gradually Frank began to emerge from his single line of attention. Knowing that Lester must soon collapse, and waiting tensely for it to happen, was part of the cause. But there was much more. There was the fact that direct radio communication with the Earth, around the curve of the Moon, was impossible--the Tovies didn't like radio-relay orbiters, useful for beamed, short-wave messages. They had destroyed the few unmanned ones that had been put up.
There were the several times when he had casually sent a slender beam of radio energy groping out toward Mars and the Asteroid Belt, trying to call Storey or the Kuzaks, and had received no answer. Well, this was not remarkable. Those regions were enormous beyond imagining; you had to pinpoint your thread of tiny energy almost precisely.
But once, for an instant, while at work, he heard a voice which could be Mitch Storey's, call "Frank! Frankie!" in his helmet phone. There was no chance for him to get an instrument-fix on the direction of the incoming waves. And of course his name, Frank, was a common one. But an immediate attempt to beam Mars--yellow in the black sky--and its vicinity, produced no result.
His trapped feeling increased, and nostalgia began to bore into him. He had memories of lost sounds. Rodan tried to combat the thick silence with taped popular music, broadcast on very low power from a field set at the diggings. But the girl voices, singing richly, only made matters worse for Frank Nelsen. And other memories piled up on him: Jarviston, Minnesota. Wind. Hay smell, car smell. Home... Cripes...! Damn...!
Lester's habit of muttering unintelligibly to himself was much worse, now. Frank was expecting him to start screaming at any minute. Frank hadn't tried to talk to him much, and Lester, more introverted than ever, was no starter of conversations.
But now, at the sunrise--S.O.B., was it possible that they had been here almost a month?--Frank at the diggings, indulged in some muttering, himself.
"Are you all right, Frank?" Lester asked mildly.
"Not altogether!" Frank Nelsen snapped dryly. "How about you?"
"Oh, I believe I'm okay at last," Lester replied with startling brightness. "I was afraid I wouldn't be. I guess I had an inferiority complex, and there was also something to live up to. You see, my dad was here with the original Clifford expedition. We always agreed that I should become a space-scientist, too. Mom went along with that--until Dad was killed, here... Well, I'm over the hump, now. You see, I'm so interested in everything around me, that the desolation has a cushion of romance that protects me. I don't see just the bleakness. I imagine the Moon as it once was, with volcanoes spitting, and with thundrous sounds in its steamy atmosphere. I see it when the Martians were here--they surely visited Earth, too, though there all evidence weathered away. I even see the Moon as it is, now, noticing details that are easy to miss--the little balls of ash that got stuck together by raindrops, two billion years ago. And the pulpy, hard-shelled plants that you can still find, alive, if you know where to look. There are some up on the ridge, where I often go, when offshift. Carbon dioxide and a little water vapor must still come out of the deep crack there... Anyhow, they used to say that a lonesome person--with perhaps a touch of schizophrenia--might do better off the Earth than the more usual types."
Frank Nelsen was surprised as much by this open, self-analytical explanation, and the clearing up of the family history behind him, as by the miracle that had happened. Cripes, was it possible that, in his own way, Lester was more rugged than anybody else of the old Bunch? Of course even Lester was somewhat in wonder, himself, and had to talk it all out to somebody.
"Good for you, Les," Nelsen enthused, relieved. "Only--well, skip it, for now."
Two work periods later, he approached Rodan. "It will take months to sift all this dust," he said. "I may not want to stay that long."
The pupils of Rodan's eyes flickered again. "Oh?" he said. "Per contract, you can quit anytime. But I provide no transportation. Do you want to walk eight hundred miles--to a Tovie station? On the Moon it is difficult to keep hired help. So one must rely on practical counter-circumstances. Besides, I wouldn't want you to be at Serenitatis Base, or anywhere else, talking about my discovery, Nelsen. I'm afraid you're stuck."
Now Nelsen had the result of his perhaps incautious test statement. He knew that he was trapped by a dangerous tyrant, such as might spring up in any new, lawless country.
"It was just a thought, sir," he said, being as placating as he dared, and controlling his rising fury.
For there was something that hardened too quickly in Rodan. He had the fame-and-glory bug, and could be savage about it. If you wanted to get away, you had to scheme by yourself. There wasn't only Rodan to get past; there was Dutch, the big ape with the dangling pistol.
Nelsen decided to work quietly, as before, for a while... There were a few more significant finds--what might have been a nuclear-operated clock, broken, of course, and some diamond drill bits. Though the long lunar day dragged intolerably, there was the paradox of time seeming to escape, too. Daylight ended with the sunset. Two weeks of darkness was no period for any moves. At sunup, a second month was almost finished! And ten acres of dust was less than half-sifted...
In the shop and supply dome, David Lester had been chemically analyzing the dregs of various Martian containers for Rodan. In spare moments he classified those scarce and incredibly hardy lunar growths that he found in the foothills of the Arabian Range. Some had hard, bright-green tendrils, that during daylight, opened out of woody shells full of spongy hollows as an insulation against the fearsome cold of night. Some were so small that they could only be seen under a microscope. Frank's interest, here, however, palled quickly. And Lester, in his mumbling, studious preoccupation, was no companionable antidote for loneliness.
Frank tried a new approach on Helen, who really was Rodan's daughter.
"Do you like poetry, Helen? I used to memorize Keats, Frost, Shakespeare."
They were there in the dining room. She brightened a little. "I remember--some."
"Do you remember clouds, the sound of water? Trees, grass...?"
She actually smiled, wistfully. "Yes. Sunday afternoons. A blue dress. My mother when she was alive... A dog I had, once..."
Helen Rodan wasn't quite a zombie, after all. Maybe he could win her confidence, if he went slow...
But twenty hours later, at the diggings, when Dutch stumbled over Frank's sifter, she reverted. "I'll learn you to leave junk in my way, you greenhorn squirt!" Dutch shouted. Then he tossed Frank thirty feet. Frank came back, kicked him in his thinly armored stomach, knocked him down, and tried to get his gun. But Dutch grabbed him in those big arms. Helen was also pointing a small pistol at him.
She was trembling. "Dad will handle this," she said.
Rodan came over. "You don't have much choice, do you, Nelsen?" he sneered. "However, perhaps Dutch was crude. I apologize for him. And I will deduct a hundred dollars from his pay, and give it to you."
"Much obliged," Frank said dryly.
After that, everything happened to build his tensions to the breaking point.
At a work period's end, near the lunar noon, he heard a voice in his helmet-phone. "Frank--this is Two-and-Two...! Why don't you ever call or answer...?"
Two-and-Two's usually plaintive voice had a special quality, as if he was maybe in trouble. This time, Frank got a directional fix, adjusted his antenna, and called, "Hey, Two-and-Two...! Hey, Pal--it's me--Frank Nelsen...!"
Venus was in the sky, not too close to the sun. But still, though Nelsen called repeatedly, there was no reply.
He got back to quarters, and looked over not only his radio but his entire Archer. The radio had been fiddled with, delicately; it would still work, but not in a narrow enough beam to reach millions of miles, or even five hundred. An intricate focusing device had been removed from a wave guide.
That wasn't the worst that was wrong with the Archer. The small nuclear battery which energized the moisture-reclaimer, the heating units, and especially the air-restorer--not only for turning its pumps but for providing the intense internal illumination necessary to promote the release of oxygen in the photosynthetic process of the chlorophane when there was no sun--had been replaced by a chemical battery of a far smaller active life-span! The armor locker! Rodan had extra keys, and could tamper and make replacements, any time he considered it necessary.
Lester had wandered afield, somewhere. When he showed up, Nelsen jarred him out of his studious preoccupations long enough for them both to examine his armor. Same, identical story.
"Rodan made sure," Frank gruffed. "That S.O.B. put us on a real short tether!"
David Lester looked frightened for a minute. Then he seemed to ease.
"Maybe it doesn't make any difference," he said. "Though I'd like to call my mother... But I'm doing things that I like. After a while, when the job is finished, he'll let us go."
"Yeah?" Frank breathed.
There was the big question. Nelsen figured that an old, corny pattern stuck out all over Rodan. Personal glory emphasized to a point where it got beyond sense. And wouldn't that unreason be more likely to get worse in the terrible lunar desert than it ever would on Earth?
Would Rodan ever release them? Wouldn't he fear encroachment on his archeological success, even after all his data had been made public? This was all surmise-prediction, of course, but his extreme precautions, already taken, did not look good. On the Moon there could easily be an arranged accident, killing Lester, and him--Frank Nelsen--and maybe even Dutch. Rodan's pupils had that nervous way of expanding and contracting rapidly, too. Nelsen figured that he might be reading the signs somewhat warpedly himself. Still...?
At the end of another shift, Nelsen took a walk, farther than ever before, up through a twisted pass that penetrated to the other side of the Arabian Mountains. He still had that much freedom. He wanted to think things out. In bitter, frustrating reversal of all his former urges to get off the Earth, he wanted, like a desperate weakling, to be back home.
Up beyond the Arabians, he saw the tread marks of a small tractor vehicle in a patch of dust. There was a single boot print. A short distance farther on, there was another. He examined them with a quizzical excitement. But there weren't any more. For miles, ahead and behind, unimpressable lava rock extended.
Another curious thing happened, only minutes later. A thousand miles overhead, out of reach of his sabotaged transmitter, one of those around the Moon tour bubbs, like the unfortunate Far Side, was passing. He heard the program they were broadcasting. A male voice crooned out what must be a new, popular song. He had heard so few new songs.
Found a queen...
And her name is Eileen..."
Nelsen's reaction wasn't even a thought, at first; it was only an eerie tingle in all his flesh. Then, realizing what his suspicion was, he listened further, with all his nerves taut. But no explanation of the song's origin was given... He even tried futilely to radio the pleasure bubb, full of Earth tourists. In minutes it had sunk behind the abrupt horizon, leaving him with his unanswered wonder.
Girls, he thought, in the midst of his utter solitude. All girls, to love and have ... Eileen? Cripes, could it be little old Eileen Sands, up on her ballet-dancing toes, sometimes, at Hendricks', and humming herself a tune? Eileen who had deserted the Bunch, meaning to approach space in a feminine way? Holy cow, had even she gotten that far, so fast?
Suddenly the possibility became a symbol of what the others of the Bunch must be accomplishing, while here he was, trapped, stuck futilely, inside a few bleak square miles on the far side of Earth's own satellite!