All rights belong to the author: Ben Bova.
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Test of Fire by Ben Bova

Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.

— Seneca

PROLOGUE

It was a fine moonless night. A light summer breeze rustled through the forest, making the trees murmur in the darkness. High up on the mountaintop, far from the noise and lights of cities, the sky was deep and wondrous, sparkling with thousands of stars.

Pipe clamped tightly in his teeth, Dr. Robert J. Lord leaned against the parapet surrounding the observatory dome. He could just make out the lovely features of the student beside him in the shadows.

“This is what your life will be like,” he said to her, his voice a calculatedly soft whisper. “If you go ahead and take your degree in optical astronomy, you’ll be here night after night, working ’til dawn.”

Jenny Robertson tried not to show how cold she felt. It was mid-August, but up here on the mountain the New England night was almost wintry. I won’t let him see that I’m freezing, she told herself.

Physical discomfort is something that astronomers have to face. And besides, one shiver and he’ll try to put his arm around me.

“All night long,” Lord repeated wistfully. “It gets pretty lonely.”

Jenny knew about his reputation. Dr. Lord was in fairly good shape for a man of fifty, she thought, even though that age seemed ancient to her. Every female student in the department knew his statistics: married twice, divorced twice, and you could get an A from him the same way Hester Prynne got hers.

“But doesn’t the computer handle the telescope once you’ve programmed in the coordinates for the night’s observations?” she asked, clasping her arms to herself and wishing she had worn a heavier sweater. “I mean, like, you don’t really have to stay up here all night, do you?”

Lord took the pipe from his mouth and fiddled with it while he arranged a reply in his mind. He wanted to impress this pert-faced, ample-bosomed graduate student with his dedication to astronomy.

“Oh, sure, you can let the computer and the image enhancers and the cameras do your work for you,” he said lightly, almost carelessly. “But some of us prefer to stay on duty right here and make certain everything is going right. I’m probably old-fashioned about it, I guess.”

“Oh no,” she said quickly. “I think you’re very… well, like, dedicated.” And she told herself silently that the trick is to get a good grade out of him without letting him get his hands on her.

Lord shrugged modestly. “You see, there’s always the chance that something unexpected might happen. Equipment glitch, maybe, or maybe something pops up there in the sky and you want to get onto it right away.”

“Have you ever come across a totally unexpected phenomenon?” Jenny asked. “Something that nobody’s ever seen before?”

“Well, no,” he admitted. “Not yet, but…”

He stopped. It suddenly struck him that he could see her face clearly. Turning, he looked up at the eastern sky. It was milky white. He glanced at his wristwatch. It was bright enough to see the hands easily.

“Two-twelve,” he muttered. “Dawn isn’t for another five hours.”

A breath of warm breeze gusted past them.

Jenny felt herself relax; her goosebumps disappeared. But Lord was staring open-mouthed at the brightening sky.

“It can’t be,” he said. “It can’t be.”

The wind rose sharply and became warmer, hot as midsummer noon. The vast forest surrounding the mountain sighed and groaned under the wind.

The sky turned molten copper, the stars faded from sight. Birds began chirping in the trees below.

And still Lord stared at the glowing sky. “Oh my god,” he whispered. “Oh my god…”

In Rome the sun had been up for more than an hour and the city was alive with honking, beeping automobiles driven by impatient, excitable Romans who banged on their horns and leaned out of their car windows to hurl imprecations at each other.

Without warning the air suddenly became unbearably bright and hot, as if giant floodlamps had been turned on everywhere. Traffic crawled to a halt, people stared in fright, drivers clawed their way out of jam-packed cars, sweating, staggering, and still the light became brighter and hotter, intolerably white-hot like a vast burning iron pressed down everywhere. Women screamed and fainted. Men collapsed onto bubbling asphalt streets. Trees began to smolder along the sidewalks as people ran shrieking indoors. Awnings burst into flame. The Vatican gardens blossomed into a firestorm. Fountains turned to steam. The entire city began to smoke and flame under the burning sky.

All of Italy, all of Europe, Africa, Asia burst into flame. Wherever the sunlight touched, flame and death blossomed. By the millions, by the hundreds of millions, people died in their tracks. Whole forests of equatorial Africa blazed as animals panicked blindly, racing for shelter where there was no shelter. Human animals panicked too: pygmy hunters deep in the burning forests and western-dressed businessmen in modern cities, they all died, their clothing bursting into fire where the sun touched them, or suffocating in the firestorms that swept whole continents as they tried to hide from the sun inside their white-hot buildings.

Cities became ovens. Grasslands became seas of flame. As the touch of dawn swept westward across the spinning planet Earth, its fiery finger killed everything in its path. Glaciers in Switzerland began to melt, floodwaters poured down on the burning, smoking villages dotting the Alpine meadows. Paris became a torch, then London.

North of the Arctic Circle, Lapplanders in their summer furs burst into flame as their reindeer collapsed and roasted on the smoking tundra.

The line of dawn raced westward across the Atlantic Ocean, but as it did the brightness diminished. The Sun dimmed as quickly as it had brightened. The flare was over. It had lasted less than an hour, and on the scale of the Sun’s seething furnace of energy it had been little more than a minor disturbance. But it left half the planet Earth a pyre. Smoke covered Asia from Tokyo to the Urals, all of Europe and Africa and Australia.

The Americas escaped the Sun’s wrath. Almost.

Deep underground, beneath the solid granite of the Ural Mountains, Vasily Brudnoy stared at his communications screen in horror.

His was the biggest screen in the missile control center, a full fifteen meters across. It showed the entire Soviet Union, with white lights for each major city, red lights for military centers, and clusters of orange lights for the missile silos that held the ICBMs.

Vasily, a captain after ten years of service in the Red Army, could feel General Kubacheff’s gasping breath on his neck.

“Try Moscow again,” the general commanded.

Vasily touched the proper buttons on his keyboard console. He pressed his free hand against the earphone clamped to the left side of his head, leaning forward intently as if he could make Moscow reply by sheer force of his will.

Nothing. Only the hum of the carrier wave.

“They don’t reply, sir.”

General Kubacheff put a brown Turkish cigarette to his lips. “Leningrad,” he snapped. And when Vasily told him again that there was no answer, the general puffed out a cloud of gray smoke.

“Rostov. Gorki. Someone must answer!”

Vasily tried. In vain. He kept his eyes focused on his screen, wanting to see nothing of the men and women behind his back. But he could not escape the phantom images of their reflections against the screen’s glass. Already they look like ghosts, he thought. He heard their whispers, their frightened murmurings. He felt the cold, clammy fear that gripped the underground command center.

“Vorkuta doesn’t answer either?” the general asked, his harsh voice almost pleading.

“No sir.”

“Bratsk?”

“No.”

Vasily heard a woman sob. General Kubacheff laid a weary hand on the captain’s shoulder.

Shakily, he said, “There’s no one left. It’s up to us. Send out the strike order. Keep sending it until every missile is launched. Every last one of them!”

“My mother,” someone was saying, in a dazed voice. “She lived in Rostov.”

Lived. Already they were thinking in the past tense. Vasily Petrovich Brudnoy unlatched the safety cover over the red button, his teeth clenched together so hard that he could feel the pain in his jaws. He leaned his thumb on the red button and looked up at his screen. If the Americans have knocked out our silos, he told himself, we have lost everything. But almost immediately the clusters of orange lights began to change to green.

General Kubacheff grunted behind him. “At least the automatic controls still work. Not even direct hits could knock them out, we buried them so deep.” Vasily smelled, almost tasted, the general’s final puff on his cigaret. “Well, that’s the end of it all. At least the American bastards won’t live to enjoy their victory.”


* * *

Human life also existed precariously on the Moon, buried under the sheltering rock of the huge crater Alphonsus. Airless, almost waterless, the Moon was a harsh habitat for the few hundred engineers and technicians who lived and worked there.

Douglas Morgan was also sitting at a console, watching a monitoring screen, deep beneath the 80-mile-wide crater. On the screen he saw three people in stark white hardsuits working up on the surface. The instruments flanking his screen on either side told him every detail of information about his three charges: their heartbeats, breathing rates, internal temperatures, blood pressures, more. Other digital readouts told him the temperature of the Sun-scorched lunar rocks, the levels of radiation out on the surface, the number of days to go until sunset.

Morgan was a big man, with broad shoulders and a thick chest, heavy strong arms and a shock of sandy hair that he kept brushing back from his Nordic blue eyes. He chafed at being confined to the monitoring task. He was happier up on the surface, out in the open, even if it meant being sealed into a cumbersome hardsuit.

The screen seemed to brighten all of a sudden, and he blinked at the unexpected increase in light.

Automatically he reached for the brightness control knob, but as he did three separate alarm buzzers came to life. His thick-fingered hands froze in mid-air.

“Lisa, Fred, Martin… get inside the airlock!” he shouted into the microphone set into the console.

“Now! Move it!”

The three figures in the screen hesitated, looked up, as if someone had tapped them on their shoulders.

Behind the heavily-mirrored curve of their visors, their faces could not be seen. No one could tell what expressions of surprise, or annoyance, or terror crossed their features.

But Douglas Morgan was no longer watching the monitor screen. With a single sweeping punch at the general alarm button, he bolted from his chair and raced from the monitoring room toward the powerlift that went up to the airlock on the surface.

The three figures on the screen brightened, the suddenly intense sunlight glinting off their hardsuits with wild ferocity. Harsh claxons sounded throughout the underground community, startling everyone, as Douglas Morgan loped in long, low-gravity strides through the corridors that led to the airlock.

By the time he got to the airlock and pulled on an emergency pressure suit, two of the hardsuited figures were already stumbling through the inner airlock hatch. He could not tell who they were.

“Lisa?” he called his wife’s name. “Lisa?”

“I’m here, Doug.” Her voice sounded frightened in his helmet earphones. But she was safe, inside, alive, sheltered from the fierce radiation of the flaring Sun.

“Fred’s still out there,” said Martin Kobol, the second of the hardsuited figures. “I saw him go down as we ran for the airlock.”

Lisa pushed her visor up into the top of her helmet, revealing an aristocrat’s fine-boned face.

But her dark eyes were wide with terror.

“We’ve got to get him!” she said, her voice low and urgent. “Doug… do something!”

But Douglas was staring at the radiation dosimeter on the chest of her suit. It had gone entirely black. Turning, he saw that Martin Kobol’s badge was black too.

“It’s too late,” he said, the realization of it making his insides flutter. “You barely made it back in time. He’s dead by now.”

“No!” Lisa snapped. “Get him! Save him!”

She started to pull the visor down again.

Douglas grabbed at her but she twisted free. It took the two men to hold her back from the airlock hatch.

“It’s no use, Lisa!” Douglas bellowed at his wife.

“The radiation! He’s fried by now.”

“No! Let me go! Let me go to him!” she screamed.

Others were racing up toward the airlock hatch now. Douglas and Kobol held Lisa grimly while she kicked and struggled in their arms. Slowly they backed her away from the hatch, while two technicians swung the heavy steel door shut manually and a third hovered helplessly, his head pivoting from the hatch to the two men struggling with Lisa Morgan.

BOOK ONE

Chapter 1

One man died on the Moon when the Sun emitted its superflare. Billions died on Earth. The Sun returned to normal, shining as steadily and peacefully as if nothing unusual had happened. It had spewed out such flares before, in the distant past, before human civilization had covered the Earth with villages and farms and cities. In another hundred thousand years or so it might emit such a flare again.

The entire Old World was a scorched ruin, burned to a smoldering black wasteland. From Iceland to the easternmost tip of Siberia there was nothing but silent, smoking devastation. All the proud cities of human history were pyres, choked with the dead. The Eiffel Tower stood watch over a charred Paris. The cliff of the Acropolis was surrounded by a scorched Athens; the stench of rotting bodies rose past the shattered remains of the Parthenon, which had finally collapsed in the unbearable heat from the flare.

Moscow, Delhi, Peking, Sydney were no more.

For a thousand unbroken miles the tundra of high Asia was blackened, and the only animals that had survived were those who had been burrowed deep enough underground to escape the heat and the suffocating firestorms that followed the flare.

The whole of Africa was a vast funereal silence.

Men, elephants, forests, insects, veldts were nothing more than brittle blackened corpses, slowly turning to dust in the gentle summer breezes. The ancient Pyramids stood undamaged by the scorching flare, but the Western Desert beyond them had been turned into hundreds of miles of glittering glass.

The Americas had escaped the Sun’s momentary outburst, but not the rage of terrified men. Nuclear-tipped missiles had pounded North America.

Almost every city had been blown into oblivion under a mushroom cloud, and the radioactive fallout smothered the continent from sea to sea, from the frozen muskeg of Canada to the jungles of Yucatan. Alaska received its share of nuclear devastation; even Hawaii was bombed and sprayed with deadly radiation.

Latin America survived almost untouched, but cut off from the rest of the world by oceans and the radioactive wasteland that blocked migration northward. The great cities of Rio de Janiero, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Lima, soon began to disintegrate as their swollen populations drifted back to the subsistance farming that would feed them — some of them. Even in the lucky South, without the commerce of a worldwide civilization, the cities died. The old ways of life reaffirmed themselves: dawn-to-dusk toil with hand-made implements were necessary to raise enough food to survive.

The veneer of civilization cracked and peeled away quickly.

The few hundred men and women living on the Moon watched with growing horror as their mother world died. They were safely underground, buried protectively against even the normal glare of the powerful Sun. In their telescopes they saw the Old World disappear under continent-wide clouds of smoke and steam. From their radio receivers they heard the cries of the dying. Then came the pinpoint bursts of light that marked the nuclear deaths of the cities of North America.

They watched, they listened, in silence. Numbly.

And their horror began to turn into guilt. Everyone on Earth was dying. The human race was being flensed from the surface of its mother world. But they were here on the Moon, inside its protective rocky shell. They were safe. They lived while their mothers, brothers, friends, lovers died.

After three days of numb horror and mounting guilt they looked at each other and began to wonder: How long can we keep ourselves^ alive without Earth to supply us with food, equipment, medicine?

The guilt was there, in each man and woman’s mind. The horror went beyond words; none of them could voice what they truly felt. The nights were filled with nightmare screams. But surmounting it all was the drive to live. Deep within each of them was the burning secret: I’m alive and I’m glad of it No matter what happened to all the others, I’m glad it wasn’t me.

Not every man and woman in the lunar community could face the secret. Some retreated into catatonic shock. A handful committed suicide.

Others tried suicide, but in ways that easily caught the attention of their friends. Stopped in their attempts at self-destruction, convinced by the psychologists among them that they had no need to expiate their sins, they returned to the ranks of the overtly healthy. Two of them tried to sabotage the life support systems of the underground settlement, attempting to kill themselves and everyone else. Both of them were stopped in time. Both of them died in hospital beds: one received an improper dose of medication, the other had a totally unexpected heart attack. The physician who was in charge of both patients shrugged his shoulders about them and the next morning was found dead of a huge overdose of barbituates.


Douglas Morgan sat on the edge of the hospital bed, gazing at the sleeping face of his wife. The lunar settlement’s hospital was only six beds and a pair of surgery rooms, carved out of the solid basalt of the lunar crust. Before the Sun’s flare the most serious medical problems facing the community’s four doctors had been broken bones among the miners and depression among those who had difficulty adjusting to an underground life.

The beds were empty now, except for Lisa’s. All mining work had stopped since the flare. The depressions that afflicted everyone were being treated without hospitalization. The last patient to occupy one of the other beds had been the would-be saboteur who had died of a heart attack.

Lisa’s exquisitely sensitive face was pale and drawn. With her eyes closed she seemed almost a mask of death. But if death is so beautiful, Douglas thought, no man should fear it. Her dark, short-cropped hair framed her delicate face and looked more lustrous for the contrast against the white pillowcase and sheets of the hospital bed.

Douglas looked down and saw that his left hand, pressing against the bed’s surface, rested next to Lisa’s hand. The contrast between the two fascinated him. Her hand was so tiny, delicate, almost fragile beside his heavy, thick-fingered paw. Her hand was made for a ballerina, a painter, a musician. His was built to carve rock from lunar caves, to punch equations into a computer, to point and command men. But he knew the strength that her china-boned hands were capable of; he had felt those fingers clawing at him even through the thickness of a pressure suit.

With a reluctant sigh he pushed himself up from the bed and, standing, stretched his tensed back muscles. Tendons popped as his fingers scraped the ceiling.

Lisa’s eyes opened. She was looking straight at him. Her dark smoldering eyes betrayed the delicacy of her features. She was strong. Despite the seeming fragility of her body, she was as strong as a thin blade of steel.

“You’re awake,” Douglas said, instantly feeling inane.

“You’re leaving,” she countered.

“Yes.” He glanced at his digital wristwatch.

“The ship leaves in two hours. I’ve got to get my gear ready and…”

“Why you?”

He blinked at the question. It had never occurred to him that he would not lead the mission.

“Why take on this expedition at all?” Lisa went on. “It’s all nonsense. None of you will get back alive.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” he said.

Lisa’s eyes roamed around the bleak little chamber, the rock walls that had been laser-fused into smoothness and then painted pastel green, the five empty beds sitting stiffly starched and white around them. Finally she looked back at her husband.

“It’s foolishness,” she said. “Male foolishness. You’re just trying to prove that you’re brave.”

He almost smiled. The terrible events of the past few days had not destroyed Lisa’s spirit.

Sitting on the edge of her bed again, he answered carefully, “We are a community of five hundred and seventy-three men and women. Most of us are mining engineers and technicians. We have three physicians, five psychologists…”

“Four physicians,” Lisa corrected.

“Three. Haley OD’d last night.”

She took the news with no discernable reaction.

Douglas resumed, “As things stand now, we can’t survive on our own. And there’ll be no further help from Earth—unless we go Earthside and take what we need.”

“If you go to Earth you will be killed.”

“Maybe,” he conceded, shrugging. “Maybe you’re right and we’re all subconsciously trying to kill ourselves in one grand final gesture, instead of waiting around up here in this underground tomb.”

Lisa sighed, a mixture of weariness and impatience.

“You’re always so logical. The Earth has been destroyed, billions of people have died, and you’re as cool and logical as one of your computers.”

“We’re not dead. Not yet, anyway.” His voice was tight, grim. “And I want to live. I want you to live, Lisa. That’s why I have to lead this mission Earthside. We’ll only go as far as the space station, for sure. We won’t go down to the surface unless…”

“I don’t want you to kill yourself,” Lisa said.

Her voice was flat, devoid of emotion.

“Why not?”

“Because we need you here. / need you here. You’re a natural leader. I need you here to hold this community together.”

He thought for a few moments before replying softly, “What you mean is, you want me here so that you can run the community through me.”

Her gaze never wavered from him, but she did not answer. The silence between them stretched achingly.

Finally Douglas said, “I don’t mind, Lisa. You want the power. I don’t.”

“You’re a fool,” she said, unsmiling.

“Yeah. I know.” He got up slowly to his feet.

Looking down at her, “The baby… it was Fred’s, not mine, wasn’t it?”

The barest flicker of surprise crossed her face.

Then she said, “What difference does it make now? Fred’s dead and I’ve lost the baby.”

“It makes an enormous difference to me.”

She turned away from him.

Suddenly his hand flashed out, grasped her slim jaw and wrenched her head around to face him.

“Why?” he demanded. “Why did you do it? I love you.”

She stared at him, eyes blazing, until he released his grip on her. Then she said, “Go to Earth and kill yourself. Just as you killed him. Just as you killed my baby. You deserve to die.”

Chapter 2

We can make it,” Martin Kobol said, his long face somber. “We can survive—I think.”

Six of them had crowded into the tiny bedroom.

Like the rest of the underground settlement, it had been carved out of the lunar rock, designed originally as a standard dormitory room for a mining technician or a scientist. Its furniture consisted of a single bed, a wall unit that combined closet, desk, bureau drawers and bookshelf, and the same type of shower stall and toilet system that had been developed for the space station.

William Demain shared the room with his wife, Catherine. Now it was being used as a meeting place for the Demains, Kobol, and three other men. The Demains and one of the men sat on the narrow bed. Kobol had the room’s only chair. The other two men had hunkered down on the thinly carpeted floor.

“Each of us is in charge of a key section of the settlement,” Kobol said, pointing to each individual in turn. “Hydroponics, communications, life support, medicine, mining.” He jabbed a thumb at his own narrow chest and added, “Electrical power.”

“You forgot administration.”

They turned, startled, to the accordian-fold door to the corridor outside. Lisa stood there, gripping the door jamb as if she would collapse if she didn’t have something to hold onto. Her face was white.

She wore a jet black jumpsuit, so that it was difficult to see how frail she had become.

“You shouldn’t be out of the hospital!” Kobol was at her side in a single bound. Catherine Demain pulled herself up from the bed and also went to Lisa. Together, they moved her to the chair.

“I’m all right,” Lisa protested. “Just a little weak from being in bed so long.”

“You walked here from the hospital?”

Catherine Demain asked. At Lisa’s nod she said, “That’s enough exercise for one day. You still have a lot of recuperating to do.”

Kobol glanced at her with a curious grin. “How did you know we were meeting here? I mean, we didn’t broadcast…”

Fixing her dark eyes on his long, hound-sad face, Lisa answered, “The day that you—any of you — can get together like this without me knowing about it, that will be the day I resign as head of administration.”

LaStrande, the other man sitting on the bed, said gravely, “We’re happy to see you up and around.”

The rest of them murmured agreement.

“Thank you,” said Lisa. “Martin, you made a slight misstatement a moment ago. You are not in charge of electrical power; Douglas is.”

Kobol nodded unhappily. “That’s right, Douglas is… when he’s here.” His voice was nasal, reedy, and had a tendency toward screeching when he got upset. “But it’s been nearly two weeks since he went Earthside. We haven’t heard a report from him for three days now.”

“He’ll be back,” Lisa said.

“Of course. And when he’s back he’ll be in charge of electrical power. But until he comes back, I’m in charge.”

Lisa smiled at him. “Naturally.”

Kobol was tall, almost as tall as Douglas, but bone-thin. Cadaverous, Lisa thought. He looks like those mummies the archeologists dig up in Egypt.

For a briefest moment a hot pang of remorse shot through her as she realized that the temples, the museums, the archeological digs, the people of Egypt and England and everywhere else were all gone, dead, burned, melted by the fury of the Sun and the even hotter fireballs of human retaliation.

She forced the thought down, just as she forced away the pain that surged through her abdomen.

Instead she concentrated on the other people in the room, the self-proclaimed leaders of the isolated little colony.

Demain sat on the bed, his back pressed against the stone wall, his legs pulled up against his chest foetally. His bulging, balding dome gave him an infant’s look, but his eyes were crafty. The eyes of a peasant, a farmer. And that’s exactly what he is, Lisa thought, even if his farms are complicated hydroponics facilities that use chemicals and electrical energy and sunlight filtered down from the surface through fiber optics pipes.

His wife was in charge of the hospital. White haired but still radiantly lovely, her skin unwrinkled, her life truly dedicated to caring for others, Catherine had given up a brilliant medical career Earthside to be with her husband on the Moon.

LaStrande was a little gnome of a man, already half-blind despite the laser surgery performed on his failing eyes. But he was a powerhouse of a personality, argumentative yet never offensive, a genius at maintaining and even enlarging the settlement’s vital life support equipment on a shoestring of personnel and materials.

Blair was dying of cancer. They all knew it, despite the fact that he looked pinkly healthy arid went about his work at the communications center with unfailing good cheer. Marrett was a burly, loud-voiced diamond in the rough who had retired from a career in meteorology to spend his final days on the Moon and somehow—restless, talented, a born leader—had become chief of the tough, no-nonsense miners.

And Kobol. She looked up at him as he stood next to her chair, automatically taking charge of the meeting, reaching for the power to rule them all the way an eager little boy reaches for a jar of cookies.

What would they think, Lisa wondered, if they knew that Kobol had fathered the baby I’ve lost, and not Fred Simpson? What would Douglas do, if I ever told him? She closed her eyes for a moment.

Catherine Demain noticed and thought that Lisa must be in pain. But Lisa was merely holding tight the anger she felt at Douglas, her husband, the man she had chosen five years ago to mold into a leader, a giant, a commander who could take charge of this pathetic little community on the Moon and use it as a base for political power on Earth.

She shook her head, trying to dismiss the thoughts from her mind. The Earth was gone now.

There was nothing left. Not that Douglas would have followed her lead anyway; he had turned out to be far too stubborn and self-centered to be influenced by anyone else. What a mistake I made!

Lisa told herself. To think that I believed I could mold that domineering, simple-minded bull into a world leader.

But he’s gone too, she realized. He’ll never come back. He’s probably dead by now. Strangely, the thought saddened her.

“…and if the hydroponics output can be increased fifteen percent,” Kobol was saying, in his reedy twang, “we ought to be able to get along without importing food from Earthside indefinitely.”

If the population stays level, Lisa thought.

Demain was bobbing his head up and down, over his drawn-up knees. “I can do it,” his soft voice was barely audible, “if you can get me more room, more acreage. And more energy. It takes energy.”

“We’ll carve out the acreage for you,” Marrett assured him.

LaStrande waggled a hand in the air. “Listen, I know how we can get a leg up on the energy problem. The safety margins we’ve enforced on the life support systems are ridiculously large. Typical Earthside over-engineering. I can run the air and heating systems on half the energy we now allocate…”

“Half?” Kobol snapped. “You’re sure?”

LaStrande peered at him myopically. “If I say I can, I can. The recyclers don’t need all that standby power. There’s no reason we can’t shunt it off to hydroponics.”

Kobol rubbed his chin in thought.

Lisa smiled inwardly at him. He’s not easy to mold, either, she told herself. But at least he wants power. He has the ambition that Douglas lacks.

But he’s insidious. Like a snake. He’d never challenge Douglas face-to-face. But he didn’t mind slipping into my bed when I invited him. And now he’s trying to take charge of the community.

With a weary sigh of regret, Lisa realized, this is all the world we have now. Martin can be made into its ruler. And I will rule him.

“It’s settled, then,” Kobol was concluding. “The standby power goes to hydroponics. Marrett, your miners will start enlarging the hydroponics bay immediately. Jim…”

But Blair and the others were looking past Kobol, to the doorway. Lisa turned in her chair and saw a youngster standing there in a drab coverall. She wore the shoulder patch of the communications group.

“Yes?” Blair said to her. “What is it?”

Her youthful face seemed flushed with excitement.

She stepped into the tiny, crowded bedroom, maneuvered past Kobol and Lisa’s chair, and handed Blair a flimsy sheet of ultra-thin plastic—the lunar settlement’s reusable substitute for paper.

Blair read the message, his face lighting up.

“It’s from Douglas,” he said, his eyes still scanning the typed words, as if he could not believe what they said. “He’s on his way back. He’ll arrive in forty-five hours.”

They all gasped with surprise. Lisa felt an irrational pang of joy spring up inside her. Idiot! she raged at herself. He’ll spoil everything. Everything.

Yet she could not control the surge of happiness that coursed through her.

Kobol’s face was as gray as a corpse’s. His mouth pressed shut into a thin, bloodless line.

“That’s not all,” Blair told them, waving the flimsy sheet in his hand. “Douglas says he’s bringing twenty-five people back with him. He says most of them are in very bad physical condition and will need hospitalization immediately.”

Chapter 3

The biggest chamber in the underground community was a combination warehouse, depot, and garage just inside the big double metal hatch of the main airlock leading out to the surface. Vehicles were parked next to the airlock’s gleaming, vault-like doors, assembled in precise rows along colored lines painted on the smooth floor: electric forklift trucks, springy-wheeled lunar surface rovers, bicycles for pedalling along the underground corridors.

Supplies were stacked in equally precise ranks and files, each box or crate carefully labelled and arranged in sections according to what was inside it. Machinery, foodstuffs, medicines, clothing — all the things that the lunar settlement did not make for itself were stacked there, row upon row, piled up almost as high as the rugged stone ceiling of the cave.

They are a reminder, thought Lisa as she entered the big chamber, a reminder of how much we depended on Earth. Can we survive without Earth? Kobol says we can, but is he right? Can we survive?

Kobol stood beside her, and at her other side was Catherine Demain. They waited before the airlock hatch, at the end of the wide aisle separating the stacks of supplies from the rows of parked vehicles.

Behind them stood a specially-picked team of volunteers, ready to help the survivors from Earth to beds and medical care.

Kobol studied his wristwatch. “Another few minutes, at most.”

“The radar plot is still good?” Lisa asked.

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “I could check with Blair,” he said, gesturing toward the phone set into the wall next to the hatch.

“No. Don’t bother. If anything goes wrong he’ll put it on the public address system.”

She heard the sounds of shoes scuffing on the plastic floor of the cavern, sensed the presence of other people. Turning, Lisa saw that dozens of people were stepping off the powerlift, milling around the cavern expectantly.

Kobol turned too, and his long face sank into a scowl. “Why aren’t these people at their jobs? Nobody’s been given permission to come up here except those…”

Lisa laid a land on his arm, silencing him. She saw that still more people were coming up on the powerlift, chatting, grinning to each other, pressing forward to make room for even more. They were dressed in their work fatigues, almost all of them, but the air was like a holiday excitement back on Earth.

“There must be at least a hundred of them,”

Catherine Demain said, smiling happily.

“And more coming.”

“ATTENTION,” the loudspeakers in the ceiling blared, echoes reverberating along the rock walls.

“THE TRANSFER SHIP HAS TOUCHED DOWN AT THE LANDING PAD…”

The growing crowd cheered, drowning out part of Blair’s message. Lisa held her hands to her ears; the noise of the crowd was painful as it rang through the cavern.

“…SHOULD BE AT THE AIRLOCK IN APPROXIMATELY FIVE MINUTES. MEDICAL TEAMS SHOULD BE AT THE AIRLOCK IN APPROXIMATELY FIVE MINUTES.”

The crowd was laughing and talking and surging forward now. Lisa felt herself pushed closer to the metal hatch; not that anyone touched her, but the emotional energy of the crowd had a vital force to it.

“Who the hell gave anyone permission to leave their jobs?” Kobol snarled, his voice rising. “We can’t have people meandering around like this!”

Catherine Demain laughed at him. “What are you going to do about it? They’re excited about Douglas bringing back survivors, I guess.”

Lisa watched the crowd. Almost every one of the settlement’s five hundred and some people seemed to have suddenly jammed into the cavern, filling up the big central aisle, spilling over into the narrower passages between stacks of crates.

Even the children had come, to clamber over the lunar buggies that they were never allowed to touch.

They were happy. They were excited. They kept a respectful distance from the medical volunteers and the trio of leaders next to the hatch, but they had come to see Douglas’ return, to witness his rescue of a handful of people from Earth.

They want to see that Earth isn’t totally dead, Lisa realized. They’ve come to see survivors of the holocaust with their own eyes.

The crowd surged forward again, kids standing on tiptoes atop buggies and forklifts, an expectant crackle of excitement running through the cavern.

Lisa suddenly felt cold, shiveringly cold. She turned and saw the airlock indicator light had turned from red to amber.

Everyone seemed to hold their breath. The big cavern went absolutely silent. The light finally flashed green and the massive metal door began to swing slowly open. Kobol stood as tense as a steel cable just before it snaps. Catherine Demain took an unconscious half-step toward the slowly opening hatch.

“Help them,” Lisa commanded. Two of the medical volunteers dropped the stretcher they were carrying and rushed to the hatch. They leaned their weight on it, swinging it fully open.

The first man out was one of the pilots, grinning broadly as he stepped through, searching the crowd with his eyes until a tiny blonde woman raced through the people standing in front and threw herself into his arms. A murmur ran through the cavern.

A younger man stepped out next. Lisa recognized him as one of the communications technicians.

His coverall was stained with mud, his face was grimy. But he too had an enormous grin on his face, a smile of satisfaction, of relief, of accomplishment.

The crowd watched, hushed, as the survivors from Earth came out one by one, most of them supported by members of Douglas’ crew. The medical volunteers helped them onto stretchers and carried them toward the powerlift to the makeshift infirmary that had been prepared for them. The crowd melted back to make room for them.

They were awed into silence as the survivors were carried past. The people from Earthside were mostly men. They seemed weak, they looked thin, as though starved. There were no obvious burns or wounds on their raggedly-clothed bodies.

When the last of the survivors came out, Catherine Demain hurried after his stretcher. Lisa stood where she was. The crowd began to murmur again, to talk excitedly. The rest of the crew who had gone Earthside stepped through the airlock hatch, each of them wearing that same grin of victory. As each of them came into sight, the crowd cheered and applauded. The noise was growing, building, reverberating off the rock walls and ceiling. One by one, the men who had participated in the mission came out and were quickly surrounded by friends, family, lovers.

And then, last of all, came Douglas Morgan. His smile was not as broad as the others’. There was less of joy and relief in it, more of irony and doubt.

But only Lisa saw this. The others simply roared their approval once they saw him, rushed to him cheering wildly and raised Douglas to their shoulders.

He looked genuinely surprised. Lisa saw that his eyes were tired, sleepless. His coverall was grimy and stained with what might have been blood along one sleeve.

But the crowd noticed none of this. All they knew was that Douglas had led the expedition to Earth, had brought back living survivors of the holocaust, had proved that they were not totally cut off from their mother world, had shown that the Earth was not entirely dead.

They paraded with him on their shoulders and cheered themselves hoarse. Their noise was absolutely head-splitting. But Lisa stayed where she was, her hands at her sides no matter how much she wanted to press them to her ears.

Almost as an afterthought, a pair of wildly laughing men grabbed her and hoisted her up onto their shoulders, then fought their way through the circling, howling, triumphant mob to march side-by-side with their pair holding Douglas aloft. He looked at her and grinned boyishly, almost guiltily. He shouted some words at her but Lisa could not hear them over the ceaseless animal roar of the mob.

Douglas laughed and shrugged his broad shoulders.

Lisa knew, in an utterly unmistakable flash of insight, that her husband could lead these people wherever he chose to take them. They worshipped him. And she knew with equal certainty that he would throw it all away, that he did not want to be their leader, that he thought it all an absurd cosmic joke.

Then she looked back over her shoulder at Kobol, standing alone now back by the open airlock hatch, his face twisted with anger and envy, halfway between weeping and murder.


* * *

Dr. Robert Lord sat staring at the open refrigerator.

There were only four lumps of what had once beer food in it, but now they were green, slimy, shapeless blobs that dripped between the rungs of the refrigerator shelves. The stench made his stomach heave. The emergency power generator had run out of fuel four days earlier, and the food had quickly rotted.

Fungus, Lord thought. At least the simple life forms are still working.

His stomach pangs were so insistent that his hand started to reach out for the festering mess.

“No!” he said aloud. The sound startled him. He pulled his hand away; then grabbed the edge of the refrigerator door and slammed it shut. Slowly, weak with hunger and the fever that was sapping his strength, he made his way out of the observatory’s basement kitchen, up the spiral iron stairs that clanged as hollow as his stomach, and entered the big dome.

The telescope stood patiently, a massive monument to a dead civilization. With each step across the cement floor Lord’s boots echoed eerily through the vast, sepulchral dome. He had always thought of the astronomical observatory as a sacred place. Now it was truly a tomb. He was the only one left alive in it. Two days after the sky had burned, a wild, frenzied mob from the town had sacked the observatory, killing everyone they could find in their madness and hatred for scientists.

“It’s their fault!” the mob screamed as they attacked the handful of men and women in the observatory.

Lord had fled to the film vault and locked himself in without waiting to see if any of the others could reach its safety after him. The vault was almost soundproof, but some of the tortured shrieks of his colleagues and students seeped through, burning themselves into his mind. He waited two days before he dared to come out, weak from hunger, filthy from his own excrement.

They were all dead. The pert little Robertson girl had made it almost to the door of the vault before they found her, stripped her, and raped her to death.

Lord knew he should have buried them, but he did not have the strength. Now, as he tottered across the observatory’s main dome, smudged here and there by fires that the mob had started, there was no one to talk to, to confess to, except himself.

“It was a solar disturbance,” he said to the empty, silent dome. His voice quavered and echoed in the accusing shadows. “Maybe a mild nova. My paper on the fluctuations of the intrinsic solar magnetic field… it’ll never be published now. There’s nobody left to read it.”

He sank to his knees, buried his face in his hands, and cried until he collapsed exhausted on the cold cement floor.

For weeks he had patiently sat at the observatory’s solar-powered radio, calling to other astronomical observatories around the world. When none answered, he swept the frequency dial from one end to another, searching for sounds of life.

He heard voices. There were people out there.

But the tales they told made his blood freeze.

Cities blasted into radioactive pits. Disease ravaging the countryside. Maddened bands of looters prowling the land, worse than animals, killing for the insane joy of it, raping and torturing and enslaving anyone they found.

Lord shuddered, remembering their voices, pleading, angry, bitter, sick, frightened. He still heard them sometimes, and not always in his dreams.

One woman, a psychology professor at Utah State, actually engaged him in a pleasant conversation over several days, reporting clinically on the devastation of Salt Lake City, the enormous levels of radiation that blanketed the state thanks to the heavy megatonnage that had been targeted for the mobile missile sites along the Nevada border. The wrath of the Lord, she had called it, not knowing his name.

On her last day she told him with mounting excitement in her voice as she watched a group of young men nosing around the wrecked campus.

Her excitement turned to disgust as they set buildings on fire and finally broke into the room she was in. She left the radio on as the marauders kicked down her door and poured into the room.

Lord could still her screams whenever he tried to sleep.

Her screams awoke him.

He was lying on the cold cement floor of the observatory, exhausted and stiff. And starving. He could not tell how much of his weakness was due to the fever that raged through him, how much the fever was due to his hunger. Every muscle in his frail body ached hideously. It was dark now inside the dome. Night had fallen.

Slowly, painfully, he pulled himself to his feet and tottered outside to the balcony ringing the observatory dome. In the shadows of night, the forest was as dark and mysteriously alive as ever.

The warm breeze rustled the leafy boughs the way it always did. Insects buzzed and chirped. Frogs sang their peeping song.

“It’s only the men who have disappeared,” Lord whispered to himself. “Life goes on without us.”

He wondered idly, almost calmly, if he were the last man alive on Earth. Why wonder? he asked himself. Why prolong it? The world will be better, safer, without us. With eyes that glittered of fever and the beginnings of madness he stared down from the parapet ringing the balcony into the inky darkness that fell away to the forest floor a hundred feet below.

“Life goes on without us,” he repeated, and cast his head up for one last glimpse of the stars.

The stars!

Lord gaped at the sight. He had hoped for a glimpse of them, but the clouds had broken at last, after weeks of virtually uninterrupted overcast, and the stars were blazing at him in all their old glory, ordered in the same eternal patterns across the sky. Ursa Major, Polaris, the long graceful sweep of Cygnus, Altair, Vega—they were all there, beckoning to him. Lord almost fainted at the splendor of it.

The Moon rode high in the sky, a slim crescent with a strange unwinking star set just on the dark side of its terminator.

“It can’t be…” he muttered to himself. But even as he said it, he stumbled through the shadows to one of the low-powered binoculars set into steel swivel stands along the balustrade. They had been put in place for visitors, a sop to keep them from pestering the staff to look through the big telescope. They were ideal for gazing at the Moon.

Hands trembling, Lord focused the binoculars on that point of light. It resolved itself into several rings of lights: the surface domes of the lunar colony.

“They’re alive up there,” he whispered to himself, almost afraid that if he said it too loudly the lights would wink out. “Of course… they live underground all the time. The flare wouldn’t have affected them, only their instruments on the surface.”

He stood erect and stared naked-eyed at the Moon. “They’re alive!” he shouted. The lights did not disappear.

Babbling with nearly hysterical laughter, Lord staggered to the stone stairs that led down to the observatory’s parking lot. A dozen cars were there, surely at least one of them would have enough fuel in its tank to take him as far as… where?

He stopped halfway down the winding stairs, panting and trembling on wobbly legs. Where?

Most of the cities were radioactive rubble. Barbarian gangs roamed the countryside. But somewhere there must be a scientific outpost that still survives. With a radio powerful enough to reach the lunar colony.

“Greenbelt, Maryland!” Lord exclaimed. “The NASA Goddard Center. They’re far enough away from Washington to have escaped the blast. Radiation may have been heavy, but most of it should have dissipated by now.”

Nodding eagerly, he resumed his descent of the stairs. “Greenbelt,” he muttered over and over again, convincing himself that it was true. “I can call them from Greenbelt. They’ll have rocket shuttles up there. They’ll come to pick up survivors.

I’ll call them from Greenbelt.”

Chapter 4

Once they were alone in their one-room quarters, Lisa turned to her husband and said, “So now you’re a hero.”

Douglas almost laughed. The wild joy of his reception at the airlock had been completely unexpected.

For more than two weeks he had shouldered the responsibilities of the leader of an expedition into hell. He had seen more of death than any man wanted to see, had forced himself to accept it, to deal with it. He had even steeled himself to killing a few of the wild marauders who had attacked his men almost as soon as their shuttle had touched down on the long airstrip in Florida.

Then came the long return back to the Moon, with the sick and starving survivors they had picked up. And the memories of the others they had been forced to leave behind, too weak to make the trip, too old to be useful once they got back home, too sick to be saved by the lunar settlement’s limited medical staff.

Douglas felt he had aged ten years in less than a month. His nostrils still smelled the stench of decaying corpses; the smell seemed to cling to his clothing, his skin.

And then the outburst of welcome, the hero’s return, the tumultuous enthusiasm of his friends and colleagues, carrying him on their shoulders, praising him, laughing, cheering, blessing him. ...


All rights belong to the author: Ben Bova.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.