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Moon Dust

By Oliver Saari
"Come in, Jessup.... Come in, Jessup	" the voice said over and over.

He reached out blindly to push it away until the tearing pain in his side cleared his mind of smothering fog.

"I ... I.	" he croaked.

The voice droned on unheeding for an interminable time, then:

"Jess!" it deafened him "Hey, Colonel! I've got him! He's alive! Jess—"

The voice of Colonel Markley broke in, "What happened, Jessup?" Then there was a deathly silence, a waiting.

"I	I don't know," said Jessup. "It's dark out there—the bull's-eye's dark.
Or maybe I can't see—"

He checked his voice as he sensed its rising pitch. His groping hand found the emergency switch, and the panel lights came on before him like round eyes in the dark.

"Jessup, what's wrong?" roared the colonel's voice. "You've been silent for an hour. We watched you land, but lost you and now we can't see you. Where are you?"

He asked himself the question, and the answer trickled slowly into his mind.... I'm in a very small, padded place. My head and side hurt like fire. All I can see are those owl-eyed dials....

There should be more to see than that.

His hand next felt what his eyes now saw: the plastiglass gleam of the bull's-eye only a few inches from his face. Beyond the transparency was a darkness like the bottom of a mine.

"I don't know where I am, Colonel," he said finally. "It's dark outside. I must have gone over the terminator."

He could sense the colonel waiting like a trapped hawk. There was only a three-second time-lag, but it seemed like more. It had made itself felt, like a growing sense of distance, all the way from the Station.
"You didn't cross over," insisted Markley's voice. "We saw you land a hundred miles safe in sunlight. Can't you even see the stars?"

The stars! Jessup strained his face toward the little round hole of transparency, and yet he saw nothing. He felt strange, idiotic words rising: "Someone's painted it black—I fell in a puddle of ink—"

"What's that?" shouted the colonel. "In God's name, man, talk sense!"

"I must have landed in a big shadow and fallen over," said Jessup. "That's why it's dark."

"Apparently you hit on your head," rasped Markley. "Look—pull yourself together! You're not in any shadow. You skimmed right into daylight in the middle of Nubium."

"You saw me land!" cried Jessup eagerly. "How did it look from up there?"

"You went down from the West," said the colonel, speaking fast. "Your jets started over the Altai Range. You sailed over Regio, apparently pretty high, and slanted in toward the edge of Pitatus. Your jets blinked out just about fifty miles north of that. That's all we saw."

"One of the steering vanes blew and she was going to spin—I had to cut the jets too high," said Jessup, his mind clearing rapidly. "Wait a minute, Colonel, I'll see what gives."

There was another interval of silence, underscored by the sound of his own labored breathing. He explored his body with his hands and found many sore spots but no obvious fractures. He loosened the harness and put his feet on the floor, bracing himself with his hands against the sides of the tiny cabin. He stood there for a minute, swaying, before he realized what was wrong.

The floor was down.

That meant the ship was resting on her tail structure. And so the bull's- eye above his head should have gleamed with cold stars and fiery sunlight!

He placed his hand against the tiny window and clicked on his wristlight. The inner and outer surfaces of the transparency glared back in double
 reflection. On the outside was a sooty deposit, like a greyish something dipped in candle smoke.

"First things first," he muttered aloud and started scanning the instruments.

The chronometer showed that Markley had exaggerated: he'd been out only ten minutes. And he was losing air! Sickeningly he visualized the mess that must be down below, the jets and undercarriage smashed and twisted. Then Markley's voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Yes, yes, I see it—" the colonel was shouting at someone on the other end. Then his voice became low, hesitant, "Jess—we may have something here.... I'm looking at a photo of the spot you went down. I don't see your rocket, but there's a—a—uh, pit that looks different from the rest of the smallpox. Like a dent in a hill of sand. I'm afraid to say what it might mean!"

So that was it. Sand—no, volcanic ash! Of course they had known that parts of the moon would be covered with it. What they hadn't known— what even the Space Station's telescopes hadn't been able to tell them— was how soft the stuff was, and how deep. Jessup felt an ancient horror clutching at him—a horror that should have been totally foreign to the vast sweep of space.

He was buried alive.

"Like a stone in a puddle of mud," said Markley gloomily to White, the Station's Second. "Maybe we ought to be thankful; the stuff probably saved his life!"

"Saved him! What for, if he can't get out?"

The colonel shrugged his shoulders, his face an expressionless mask for his thoughts. White could sense the tortured anxiety of the older man. More than anyone, he had worked for and pushed Project Moon. He'd never really been a military man. Space was his driving mania. He'd risen to General once, but had been busted for plugging his conviction too hard. And now—in the penultimate moment—this!

"How deep could he be and still send?" Markley asked of the man with the earphones.
"His signal's weak and distorted. Antenna might be damaged or partly under. At that, I don't know if a few feet of that dust would stop shortwave—"

"Might be fifteen feet," muttered Markley, his face gray and tired- looking. "God! Maybe he's still sinking!"

"Sir, we don't know that he's that deep," cautioned White. "I don't see how an impact could bury him like that."

"What do we know of the conditions?" moaned the colonel. "That stuff must be absolutely dry—and loosely packed. In the light gravity it probably flows like water—quicksand! I should have thought of it—"

"Jessup wants to know if there are any orders, sir," said the radioman.

The question might have been phrased with a semi-humorous bitterness, but the colonel answered seriously:

"Tell him to give us an estimate to the damage. Ask him if he thinks he can blast out."

As the radio man spoke into the microphone, White was suddenly struck with the irony of the situation. Here was the historic moment: they were talking to the first man on the moon. And what did it mean? Where was the thrilling revelation, the sense of triumph? A poor, blind man, buried under a mountain of dust....

"Jessup says he can't tell much yet about the ship," said the radioman. "He says to hold on."

"We'll be out of beam range in fifteen minutes," said Markley hollowly, his heavy shoulders hunched forward as if he were trying to reach his arms out to the sunken rocket.

White felt the same helplessness. They could not even stop the Station in its hurtling chase around the Earth. Soon the Moon would be lost from sight behind the vast, misty mass of the planet.

He became aware of the New Mexico beep-call, sounding furiously. He picked the phone up and listened to the angry, excited voice at the other end. Muttering an abject, unmeant apology, he handed the phone to Markley, who made an expression of distaste.

"Yes, General	we're going out of range soon—can you hear him  down
there?... No! He didn't crack up. He's buried ... we can't tell yet yes,
 buried in the ash—volcanic ash or meteor dust, I don't know ... I don't know ... yes, General ... yes, sir!"

He slammed the receiver down.

"Do they get him at all?" asked White anxiously.

"Only a word here and there. They're going to try and clear the air a bit— widen his channel—put a crimp in somebody's T.V. If I hear one complaint, I'm dropping a bomb!"

"We're going out of range now," said Markley's voice in the earphones. "They hear you down below. Keep sending. And—good luck!"

Other voices in the background echoed, "Good luck, Jess!"

He had a vision of the Station's silver disc falling behind the bulging Earth as the voices quivered into silence. He stood there for a while, steadying himself with both hands braced on a pressure wheel.

"Think," he said aloud, reading from an absurd little cardboard sign in his mind.

And immediately he thought of the leak in the hull. What a stupid thing to forget!

Already the air-pressure gauge glowed a warning red.

With a swift, trained motion he poked the smoke button. White tendrils burst out and swirled eerily in the dim light. He watched anxiously as they converged near his feet and vanished, riding invisible currents of escaping air. There he found a bulge in the tough duralumin wall, evidence of a broken stanchion.

Quickly he broke out a rubberoid seal-pad and slammed it into place over the hole, pressing the edges firmly Again he pushed the smoke button,
and this time the streamers hung uncertainly about. He found there were no more leaks!

He drew a deep lungful of the precious air and  felt  his  muscles  relaxing     and felt a sudden, joyous hope. Since the welded seams of the
 cabin had held, perhaps even the power plant down below was intact. He had plenty of nuclear fuel; he needed only to get down there to repair the
 steering vanes, to refill the exhaust-mass tanks with the moon's abundant material. Accidents had been provided for: there was the radiation- shielded pressure suit, crammed into the tiny but adequate airlock. He
  had a vision of himself in it, battling the dust like a lunatic. 

But could he get out at all?

If he opened the lock, would he be able to dig his way out? Or would the dust flow in, faster than he could push it back? It might jam the door mechanism, flow in around him....

There was a rustling gabble in his earphones, many voices speaking at once. Now one voice came through more clearly as he clicked up the volume.

"... Can you hear us, Jessup? New  Mexico speaking... Can you hear us?
Answer, please, answer..."

He felt an overwhelming surge of relief. 

"Yes!" he cried. "Yes! This is Jessup!"

He repeated it over and over, deafened himself shouting it, until an excited voice answered, "Thank God! We've finally cleared the air. We get you now. Are you all right? Can we help you? The world is with you...." Interference howled. Rising and falling, another voice intoned: "Do not despair and turn away from God!"

"Think, think—"

He slammed his hand against the helmet and the voices ceased. 

"Think," he said again.

What he actually meant was "act." He had to do something. The first thing, of course, was to get out of the ship. He could not go down into  the radiation-infested hull from the inside. Repairs on the ship's structure, if needed, had to be done from the outside; he had the tools....

Jessup examined the darkened port-hole again, peering at the dust. Most of the particles were too fine to be seen separately. The residue of uncounted billions of shattered meteorites, fine as face-powder. The stuff could be a foot thick above him, or ten! The fact that it was so fine meant that this was the lighter portion, the skim. The heavier particles must
 have settled lower in the sifting process of a million windless eons. Heaven knew how deep it was below him!

In panic at the smothering darkness he threw a switch, flooding the cabin with light.

He felt a fierce desire to feel the moon dust in his hands, to grasp at any hope it might offer. There was a safe way. The tiny sample-corer had been meant for the moon's rocks and minerals, but it whirred eagerly in his hands as he pushed it into the duralumin wall. The rush of air into the hole made a wet, sucking sound. Slamming a seal-pad into place, he examined the tool in his hand.

The end of the core-drill was filled with dust. Carefully he shook the particles into his hand. He stared at them a long time, foolishly. They weren't much to see: a few blackish, slippery-feeling grains like pulverized coal.

Was this what he had come for? In the tense haste of landing, he'd barely seen the sunlit mountains, the panorama of glare and shadow above. Was this little handful of dust to be what he had lived—and most probably given—his life for?

He flung it violently against the wall. The motion sent scathing pain into his bruised side.

"Cut out the self-pity!" he yelled aloud.

Suppressing an impulse to cry out, he banged his helmet again and made the clear, welcome voice from New Mexico come floating back.

"... What happened, Jessup? What's wrong? We don't hear you! Answer.... Answer "

"Why don't you try to get a little sleep, sir," said White. "We won't be in range for an hour yet."

Markley was slumped before the Com-panel, his hands in his pockets. His face was pasty white, the stubble sticking out on it like hoar frost.

"Listen to this," he said, holding up a hand. The radio before him spoke with a smooth announcer's voice:
"Colonel Markley of the Space Station says that every effort is being made to assist Lieutenant Robert Jessup, the first man on the moon. Rescue is still out of the question, but Jessup appears to be in good spirits. He is acting on expert advice, but Colonel Markley says that suggestions from any source will be considered. If anything in your experience can help Bob Jessup, get in touch with your nearest radio or television station—now!"

"Hm-m. Expect anything?" asked White. 


"Then why—?"

"It keeps them interested," said Markley. 

"Interested! Surely—"

"Surely nothing!" cried Markley with a strange, wild emphasis. "Do you know why we weren't on the moon ten years ago? The techniques we're using now have been known a good deal longer than that."

"It was the cost—"

"It was the public," snapped Markley bitterly. "The fickle old public. There was a time when the idea of space travel was a fad, when the rockets boomed in every Sunday supplement. We could have had plenty of backing then. But we weren't ready then—by quite a few years. We had to build the Space Station first."

"But that was a military necessity—"

"And a financial calamity—but the public had to swallow it! And maybe because they had to—because of our lithium bombs and the nervous tension of the war that never did come—the pendulum swung the other way! Now the moon-ship's a different matter."

"But there was plenty of interest—"

"To the average man, the moon's still made of green cheese!" shouted Markley, waving a hand for emphasis. "Oh, he can quote figures he's read
—he can tell you how far it is, how big it is. But he doesn't really connect those figures with the moon out there! He doesn't feel what it is!"
White knew what the colonel meant. He himself had experienced a peculiar change of viewpoint on coming to the Space Station. Call it a change in Cosmic Perspective.

"You can't blame them if they lose interest a little," he said lamely. "It's been nothing but moon, moon in the news for years now. When Jessup landed, they had a right to expect something exciting. This thing is a terrible anti-climax."

"They expected the moon brought home to them, I suppose," sighed Markley. "Pictures, descriptions—that sort of thing. All they've got now is a dud firecracker. A small boy on a New York street can see more of the moon than Bob Jessup."

"You talked to him last. How was he?" Markley shook his head, slowly, tiredly.

"His battery was running low. He hasn't tried to get out yet—says he thinks the dust will jam the lock, and maybe he's right. Maybe he'd better wait for those suggestions!"

For the hundredth time, White turned Jessup's problem over in his mind. He always thought of it as Jessup's problem, never having been able to identify himself with the midget-sized fanatic who had boarded the moon-ship. Markley, he knew, had envied the pilot like a shipwrecked sailor envies the free-winging albatross—but not he! That did not mean he didn't want to help. He felt the same desperate longing to help that people have always felt for submarine crews who vainly tap their calls for help on the sides of their sunken vessels—for buried well-diggers, or miners caught by cave-ins. But what could he—what could anyone—do?

"I wonder what he's doing now," said White softly.

Jessup lay in soft darkness, quiescent. He was in the Airlock. Rivulets of sweat ran down his prone body inside the pressure suit and the incoming air was an icy sword in his back. For forty hours now the rocket's cabin had been growing warmer as the unseen sun above blazed on the dust. He had turned off the friendly chug-chug of the air conditioner to conserve power, and the heat was becoming unbearable.

What was it he had to do? Was it better than roasting alive? Oh, well—
He kicked clumsily at the pedal which actuated the outer door of the airlock. The door plug scraped unpleasantly on his metal boots as it slid aside.

Push ... kick. The legs moved stiffly, like pipe joints. He reached above
his head with the suit's clumsy arms and pushed. Slowly the suit scraped outward. He could feel only a soft, yielding resistance on his feet. A wild hope rose within him. Perhaps the dust was loosely-packed tenuous enough to tunnel through!

Then he was running in a waking nightmare. Running in molasses. A soft, yielding something was flowing around his feet—deadly, smothering stuff unseen in the pitch darkness. Panic seized him as first one leg and then the other became stuck fast.

Desperately he waved his arms until the suit's mechanical hands caught on the handwheel of the inner door. His wet palms slipped on the manipulators as he tried to apply pressure, to turn the wheel which refused to move.

He put every ounce of his strength into his arms—and gradually the wheel began to turn. Slowly at first, and then in a rush, the door plug moves aside.

He clung to the handwheel as an unseen force pushed down at him. Suddenly he felt his legs come free, as the cabin's outrushing air forced back the dust!

When the pressure lessened, he managed to squeeze the bulky suit through the inner door and into the now airless cabin; he fought the door back into place.

Relief was as overwhelming as his panic had been. He stood there for a full minute, feeling nothing but joy and thankfulness that the dust could not come in after him. Then the sting of sweat flowing down his forehead and into his eyes swiftly brought him back to reality.

Safe, indeed!

For what?

He had hoped against reason that he could tunnel through the dust to the surface.
Perhaps he would soon have roasted to death in the sunlight, but he would at least have stood on the moon. The real moon—not this coffin where he was already dead and buried.

But wasn't he on the moon? Wasn't this what he had wanted, all his life? Wasn't this what he had come for?

What had he come for?

It was a question he had never really asked himself in the proper light, with the proper urgency. Others had asked it: "That crazy Jessup! I wouldn't be in his boots for a million bucks What does he want to go
 to the moon for? What good's the moon?" The men who had said those things had been right, of course. He was crazy. And the question would never be answered—from their viewpoint. For them the moon was just an ornament—a beautiful ornament in the summer sky.

It was strange that he'd never been in a position where he had to think out his reasons for coming on the moon-ship. He'd been too busy fighting for the chance to wonder just why he wanted it.

Markley was like him, of course. He wondered if the colonel would trade places with him right now maybe he would at that!

Ever since he'd been a kid, Bob Jessup had wanted the moon. Not for himself, so much—but for the others. It had been a deep hurt when he met others who didn't want it at all—who didn't even seem to know it was there. To him it was a symbol of the Greater Reality—a stepping stone to the stars.

His body sagged under the weight of an overwhelming longing—not to be back on earth, but to go forward, to show the way.

And suddenly he saw the blinding simplicity of the answer....

It's only a paper moon ... hanging over a cardboard sea....

"The moon's still in the news," said White softly, as the strains of the old song floated over the Station's bridge.

"They're dancing to it," said Markley with an irrational bitterness. "While he's still alive out there "
"Do you suppose we'll still be able to receive him? You said his batteries were just about gone."

"We'll soon know."

The radio man stuck his head into the room.

"I've focused on Nubium, sir—just out of the horizon." 

Markley started droning into the microphone:

"Jessup! Jessup! Come in! Come in!... Yes!... Yes!..."

To White the time seemed endless until Markley turned and said: "His air's gone! He tried to get out and couldn't. He's speaking through the communicator hookup of his suit and I can barely hear him "

Suddenly the colonel stiffened.

"Yes! Yes! I hear you!" he shouted. "You're what?... But that's crazy!...
No! I order you not to—"

He tore the earphones from his head and dived for the tube leading to the radome.

White exchanged puzzled glances with the other two men watching, and then followed.

Markley was at the telescope, cranking handwheels, swinging the tube on its airtight joint. The large quartz port showed the moon, nearly full, just rising from the misty horizon. The instant White turned his eyes on it he saw the flash.

The searing, blue-white fire was like a glimpse of the sun. Then, from the tip of Mare Imbrium, from the mouth of that ancient pock-marked face, rose a bright plume of smoke.

"My God!" cried White. "He's blown himself up!"

Quite perceptibly the plume widened, its jet-black shadow crossing the moon's face like a sword-cut. Gradually it thickened at the top, still rising like a shining fountain in the sunlight. It was beautiful, but with a beauty surpassed for White by its horror.

"Why did he do it?" he groaned, trying to understand.
The spectacle possessed him even as he struggled against it. This was the moon-ship, all their work going up in a cloud of atomic dust! This was the accident they had all feared—and it hadn't been an accident!


Markley looked at him with a face that was old, but with eyes that were strangely bright and proud.

"If you don't know why, when you look at that," he said slowly, "you'll never know."

Then, stung to anger by White's blank face, he shouted, "Don't you see? He had to do something!"

Then, suddenly, White understood. Men like Markley and Jessup had fought against the indifference of men like himself for hundreds of years. Theirs was not a personal ambition. The buried moon-ship had been a deadly fizzle, a "so-what," a tainted success. This was a spectacle a billion people would see and feel—a miracle!

The man-made tree grew where nothing had ever grown before, its branches thickening and spreading, hiding the moon's face like a tantalizing veil.
"Moon Dust" was originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Winter 1954. Additional research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright
on this publication was renewed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Oliver E. “Ollie” Saari was a Finland-born, SF writer of the 1930s– 1940s. There is very little biographical information available on Saari.
As we discover more we will update our pages accordingly.
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