These were the last weeks and days before the end of the world, before total destruction overwhelmed Earth and every living thing on the surface of the planet. No one knew exactly how long they had before the sun turned nova and destroyed not only Earth but all of the other planets in the Solar System. For mankind, the only excape lay in flight to the stars, to Alpha Centauri, more than four light years distant. The hyperdrive, capable of carrying them there at close to the speed of light had been developed, but as yet had not been perfected. In a world without a future, the starships were the only salvation of mankind and they could save only a minute fraction of the population of Earth. Panic is there, but temporarily forgotten by most, as the plans for a mass exodus are speeded up, as the long hours of mounting tension draw to a close and Judgement Day, when the world shall be destroyed by fire, is mo longer a hazy time in the far future, but something very close and very terrible. For those who remained behind, there could be no escape; death would come suddenly, eight minutes after the nova explosion. For those who fled the Solar System in the starships, untried and working on principles only partially understood, there was only the long, terrible journey through the endless night, not knowing what lay at the end of it.
Release date: December 22, 2014
Print pages: 109
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Edge of Eternity
Blackness and stars, a sense of terrible depth and remoteness, made his eyes ache so that he kept blinking them, as if sweat were continually running into them. The pattern of stars did not move. Norvis did not expect it to. There was still no sense of movement, neither up nor down, left to right, back or forth. Even the deceleration was nothing more than a pain in his chest and a rising nausea in his stomach that brought with it a touch of dizziness, that told him that the rocket and all it contained, including himself, was rushing downward through the great emptiness above the moon.
The unchanging face of the moon, they had called it on Earth twenty or thirty years earlier. In a way, he reflected, they had been right. He remembered standing at the foot of Mount Palomar less than three days before, staring up at it. It had certainly looked no different then than it had for the past ten million years or so.
But when he had driven up to the Observatory that night, even the smaller finder telescope of the huge reflector had been sufficient to show him the tiny, discrete dots on the edge of the Mare Imbrium which were indicative of the tremendous changes which had taken place over the past ten years. Those dots and blotches were the domed Lunar Stations and Observatories which had been set up on the moon, where telescopes far smaller than the two hundred-inch reflector of Palomar were probing further into the depths of space, unlocking the secrets of the universe, simply because there was no atmosphere there to absorb the light from the more distant stars and galaxies.
This was only the second time he had been to the moon, his second trip into space. Under ordinary circumstances he might have felt a little lost, a little afraid, at the prospect of setting foot in that alien environment again. His place was on Earth, in normal surroundings. The moon was a world of black and white, a starkly terrifying world of light and shadow, with enormous temperature changes from day to night, pock-marked rock and dust, and the rearing crater walls that lifted tall and forbidding on the close horizons. On the moon, he would be close on a quarter of a million miles from everything he held dear and that was a sizeable distance, even for an astronomer, when it was boiled down to a hard, concrete fact.
Under normal circumstances, all of this would be so.
But not at the moment. Right now, Norvis was in a poor mood to appreciate any of these things, to think of anything but the stark fact which had brought him out here to the Observatory on the moon. He tried to marshal the thoughts in his mind, but he was still a little tensed, a little confused. Strange, he thought as he lay there, listening to the thunderous waterfall of sound that was the retarding rockets, that an astronomer, who was used to dealing with these extramundane problems, should feel so tensed and nervous.
He put the thought of what lay ahead out of his mind with an almost angry shake of his head. Already, he was keenly regretting his impulse to accept the offer of facilities here. En route from Earth to the moon, he had studied the reports which had been given to him, until he knew them all almost by heart. To the layman, they would have been virtually incomprehensible; even to more than a handful of astronomers, they would have made little sense, in that the overall picture behind the pages of symbols and abstruse mathematics would not have been readily discernible.
As far as he was concerned, the picture was only too clear. But it needed the verification, the observational proof, which only the telescope on the moon could give. He smiled wryly to himself as he lay there with the thunder of the rockets dying very slowly as they approached the surface. When it came down to hard, basic facts, he had not really had any choice about coming here.
A voice broke in upon his thoughts. Although it sounded close against his ear, he knew that it had been spoken by one of the men in the control section, seventy feet from where he lay, amidships. The tiny amplifier built into the seat was sufficiently powerful for him to make out the words with ease, even above the boisterous noise of the rockets.
“You all right, Andy?” Harlan’s voice. He recognised it instantly. Harlan the pilot. As concerned as ever of his passenger’s welfare.
“Fine, thanks. I’ll be glad when it’s over. I suppose you get used to it in time.”
“We’ll be landing in a little under five minutes. This is the worst part of the journey. Have you made the moon trip before?”
“Once.” Norvis felt first confused, and then a little anxious. Surely these irrelevancies must be hiding something—and besides, how could Harlan keep up this trivial conversation when he was supposed to be giving the whole of his attention to the tricky business of landing the rocket? He had a momentary vision of something going wrong, of some extremely slight mistake on the other’s part, resulting in them pitching the rest of the way on to that cruel, alien surface. His throat felt a little constricted as the thought passed through his mind.
Then Harlan said: “You’ll find that things have changed a lot since you were last on the moon, Andy. They’ve been building fast in the past three years. Extending the old lunar base and putting up the new Observatory domes. That’s where you’ll be heading once you land, I suppose.”
“That’s right. I have a full programme of work to carry through before we head back to Earth in five weeks time.” He deliberately held all triumph out of his voice. “At Palomar, I never thought they would send me out here. Only a few astronomers have ever been asked to visit the Lunar Observatory.”
“Reckon they must consider you to be in the top flight, Andy.” A tight laugh from the amplifier. “Can’t say I envy you, though. Even flying one of these things can get pretty boring after a little while.”
Norvis licked his lips. “Speaking of flying these things, who’s supposed to be landing this rocket?”
“All completely automatic. We’ve gone past the stage when it needed a man at the controls. Electronic servo-mechanism handles everything now. It’s taken some of the interest out of the job, but in the long run, it’s safer, I guess.”
Norvis nodded to himself. He ought to have known. That was the trouble with being an astronomer, tucked away in the small community at the foot of Mount Palomar, spending most of his working day in the observatory. He knew a great deal of the universe, the distant stars, galaxies, space and time. He knew so very little of what went on among ordinary people, on Earth or the moon.
Second by second, the view of the small visiplate set above his reclining couch expanded. The spuming jets of the landing rockets, for by now they had switched to the chemical drive, marred most of the picture, but he could see enough of it to make a rough estimate of their height above the surface. Three miles now, perhaps two. The rearing walls of the huge crater which lay a little off-centre threw long, irregular shadows across the crater floor. In the middle he could make out the sky-climbing spike of the central peak. But this particular crater was not their destination. They would be landing on the smooth surface of the maria, perhaps a quarter of a mile from the Lunar Base.
He found himself holding his breath as the picture on the ’plate flowed outwards more swiftly now. The rocket seemed to be gathering momentum as it plunged downwards, but it was only an illusion, due to shifting perspective. Still, it was disturbing and, in the end, he simply lay back and closed his eyes, tensing his body for the crash which seemed inevitable.
When it came, it was nowhere near as bad as he had expected. There was a sudden jar which shook every bone in his body, but the built-in springs of the seat absorbed almost all of the jarring force of the impact and after a few moments he had recovered sufficiently to knock away the restraining strap around his middle.
There was a one-way visiplate connection between the control cabin and the passenger compartment and Harlan must have been keeping a close watch on him for a second later his voice said tightly: “Careful how you get up, Andy. Remember that gravity is only a sixth Earth-normal here. You’ll find the suits in the locker on the inner wall. When you’re dressed, I’ll take you through.”
He nodded silently, slid his legs cautiously to the metal floor and stood up shakily, holding on to the edge of the couch for moral, if not actual physical, support. He felt unaccountably light on his feet, but that was the only difference he noticed. After a brief pause, he went over to the lockers, opened one and pulled out the flexerite suit, slipping in on, clipping it around his wrists and ankles.
Harlan and Ferris, the navigator, came into the cabin a few moments later, wearing their suits. They nodded in approval and Harlan motioned him to put on his helmet.
Three minutes later they were outside the airlock, descending the steel-runged ladder to the ground. In spite of the refrigeration of his suit, Norvis felt uncomfortably warm and was acutely aware of the blazing disc of the sun, high in the inky blackness of the heavens, and the heat from the ground, soaking through the soles of his boots as he stood, waiting for the others.
Seven years since he had last stood on the moon, he thought inwardly; seven years, but now, looking back on it, it seemed like an eternity. The unaccustomed blackness of the sky, the starkness of light and shadow, the alien surroundings, the complete absence of sound, everything, struck him as forcibly as if it were the very first time. He shivered for a moment, fought desperately to control the impulse to clamber back into the ship. Gradually, he was aware that the others were waiting for him. He could see Harlan eyeing him curiously through his helmet visor.
“You feeling all right?” The other’s voice grated harshly in the earphones inside the helmet.
He nodded his head, realised with a little shock that the other might not be able to see the gesture, and said through thinned lips: “I’ll be all right in a minute. I’d forgotten what it was really like,” he added lamely.
The quarter of a mile to the cluster of bubbles which marked the position of the Lunar Base was covered within minutes. With the low gravity, every stride carried them the best part of twelve feet and the ground was hard where the tractors and robotrucks had levelled it, pounded down the three-inch deep dust into a solid mass. On the far side of the Lunar Base, some three or four miles beyond, the slender noses of interplanetary vessels pointed towards the black, star-studded sky. There weren’t many such vessels on the moon as yet, although it was the main jumping-off point for the Solar System. With a low gravity, no air resistance to worry about, and the low thrust necessary, it was only logical that any interplanetary flights started from the moon and any traffic with Earth was carried on by the lumbering freighters and the chemically powered passenger vessels.
There had been some talk of faster-than-light ships, vessels which made it possible to reach out beyond the confines of the Solar System, to travel to the stars, but nothing seemed to have come of them Once we have interstellar travel, he thought inwardly, and we’re no longer bound by the Einstein equation, when we can go out to the nearest stars and return in our own lifetimes, then astronomy will cease to be the science it is. For the first time men will be able to go there and obtain information first-hand, instead of relying on the light and radio radiation emitted by those distant suns.
And then he thought of the reason for his visit here.
It would require all of the five weeks which he had at his disposal, all of the tremendous resources of the Lunar Observatory to answer the problem one way or the other; and if it should turn out to be the answer he half suspected, then it might be possible that no one would ever get out to the stars, that no one would ever live to leave the confining limits of the planetary system.
Had they been wrong in their basic deductions, was this some new law whose existence they had not even suspected, or did it truly mean the end of Earth, the end of mankind and all of the Solar planets?
He shook his head inside the helmet and stared out of the transparent visor at the hemispherical bubbles which dotted the lunar landscape. They looked very pretty in the harsh sunlight; very imposing. And yet, very bleak. He pitied those men who were forced to remain here for years at a time. Worse than a prison, a place of strange and lonely men—and women too. The wives of the technicians and scientists were allowed to accompany their menfolk to the Base and remain here until their terms of duty were over.
“You’ll be going straight through to the Observatory Building without bothering with the Quarantine and Customs,” said Harlan, as they approached the tallest bubble, set a little apart from the others. “You’re getting special treatment. For that you ought to be thankful. They can make things awkward for casual visitors, or passengers in transit to and from the planets. There are still plenty of diseases out there that they haven’t managed to lick yet on Earth. They can’t afford to take the risk of letting a single virus or bacterium through that hasn’t been checked. The usual quarantine period is three months—Earth-time—unless you. . .
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