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Some stories of terror and the supernormal start with a moonlit face at a diamond-paned window, or an old document in spidery handwriting, or the baying of a hound across lonely moors. But this one began with an eclipse of the moon and with four glisteningly new astronomical photographs, each showing starfields and a planetary object. Only... something had happened to the stars.
The oldest of the photographs was only seven days out of the developer at the time of the eclipse. They came from three widely separated observatories and one came from a telescope on a satellite. They were the star-graven runes of purest science, at the opposite extreme from matters of superstition, yet each photograph struck a twinge of uneasiness in the young scientist first to see it.
As he looked at the black dots that should have been there... and at the faint black curlicues that shouldn't... he felt the barest touch of a strangeness that for a moment made him kin to the caveman and the devil-worshipper and the witch-haunted Middle Ages.
Passing along priority channels, the four photographs came together at the Los Angeles Area Headquarters of the Moon Project of the U.S. Space Force -- the American Moon Project that was barely abreast of the Russian one, and far behind the Soviet Mars Project. And so at Moon Project U.S. the sense of strangeness and unease was sharpest, though expressed in sardonic laughter and a bouncy imaginativeness, as is the way with scientists faced with the weird.
In the end the four photographs -- or rather, what they heralded -- starkly affected every human being on Earth, every atom of our planet. They opened deep fissuresin the human soul.
They cost thousands their sanity and millions their lives. They did something to the moon, too.
So we might begin this story anywhere -- with Wolf Loner in the mid-Atlantic, or Fritz Scher in Germany, or Richard Hillary in Somerset, or Arab Jones smoking weed in Harlem, or Barbara Katz sneaking around Palm Beach in a black playsuit, or Sally Harris hunting her excitement in the environs of New York, or Doc Brecht selling pianos in L.A., or Charlie Fulby lecturing about flying saucers, or General Spike Stevens understudying the top role in the U.S. Space Force, or Rama Joan Huntington interpreting Buddhism, or with Bagong Bung in the South China Sea, or with Don Merriam at Moonbase U.S., or even with Tigran Biryuzov orbiting Mars. Or we could begin it with Tigerishka or Miaow or Ragnarok or the President of the United States.
But because they were close to that first center of unease near Los Angeles, and because of the crucial part they were to play in the story, we will begin with Paul Hagbolt, a publicist employed by Project Moon; and with Margo Gelhorn, fiancée of one of the four young Americans who had soared to Moonbase U.S., and with Margo's cat Miaow, who had a very strange journey ahead of her; and with the four photographs, though they were then only an eerie, top-secret mystery rather than a trumpeting menace; and with the moon, which was about to slide into the ambiguous gleam-haunted darkness of eclipse.
MARGO GELHORN, coming out on the lawn, saw the full moon halfway up the sky. Earth's satellite was as vividly three-dimensional as a mottled marble basketball. Its pale gold hue fitted the weather rarity of a balmy Pacific Coast evening.
"There's the bitch up there now," Margo said.
Paul Hagbolt, emerging through the door behind her, laughed uneasily. "You really do think of the moon as a rival."
"Rival, hell. She's got Don," the blonde girl said flatly. "She's even got Miaow here hypnotized." She was holding in her arms a tranquil gray cat, in whose green eyes the moon was two smudged pearls.
Paul too turned his gaze on the moon, or rather toward a point near its top, above the Mare Imbrium shadow. He couldn't distinguish the crater Plato holding Moonbase U.S., but he knew it was in view.
Margo said bitterly: "It's bad enough to have to look up at that graveyard monstrosity, knowing Don's there, exposed to all the dangers of a graveyard planet. But now that we have to think about this other thing that's shown up in the astronomical photographs--"
"Margo!" Paul said sharply, automatically flashing a look around. "That's still classified information. We shouldn't be talking about it -- not here."
"The Project's turning you into an old auntie! Besides, you've given me no more than a hint--"
"I shouldn't have given you even that."
"Well, what are we going to talk about, then?"
Paul let off a sigh. "Look," he said, "I thought we came outside to watch the eclipse, maybe take a drive, too--"
"Oh, I forgot the eclipse! The moon's turned a little smoky, don't you think? Has it started?"
"Looks like it," Paul said. "It's time for first contact."
"What'll the eclipse do to Don?"
"Nothing much. It'll get dark up there for a while. That's all. Oh yes, and the temperature outside Moonbase will drop 250 degrees or so."
"A blast from the seventh circle of Hell and he says, 'That's all'!"
"Not as bad as it sounds. You see, the temperature will be about 150 degrees above zero to start with," Paul explained.
"A Siberian cold wave cubed on top of scalding heat and he says, 'That's ducky'! And when I think of this other, unknown horror creeping toward the moon from outer space--"
"Drop it, Margo!" The smile left Paul's face. "You're talking strictly off the top of your imagination."
"Imagination? Did you or did you not tell me about four star photos that showed--"
"I told you nothing -- nothing that you didn't completely misinterpret. No, Margo, I refuse to say another word about that. Or listen to you over-rev your mind. Let's go inside."
"Go inside? With Don up there? I'm going to watch this eclipse through -- from the coast road, if it lasts that long."
"In that case," Paul said quietly, "you'd better get something more than that jacket. I know it seems warm now, but California nights are treacherous."
"And nights on the moon aren't? Here, hold Miaow."
"Why? If you think I'm going to travel a loose cat--"
"Because this jacket is too hot! Here, take it and give me Miaow back. Why not travel a cat? They're people, same as we are. Aren't you, Miaow?"
"They are not. They're simply beautiful animals."
"They are so people. Even your great god Heinlein admits they're second-class citizens, every bit as good as aborigines or fellahin."
"I don't care about the theory of it, Margo. I'm simply refusing to travel a nervous cat in my convertible with the top down."
"Miaow's not nervous. She's a girl."
"Females are calm? Look at yourself!"
"You won't take her?"
A PALTRY quarter million miles starward of Earth, the moon turned from ghostly gold to pale bronze as it slowly coasted into the fringe of the larger orb's shadow. Sun, Earth, and Moon were lining up. It was the moon's ten billionth eclipse, or thereabouts. Nothing extraordinary, really, yet from under the snug blanket of Earth's atmosphere hundreds of thousands of people were already watching the sight from Earth's night side, which now stretched across the Atlantic and the Americas from the North Sea to California and from Ghana to Pitcairn Island.
The other planets were mostly on the other side of the sun, as far away as people at the other end of a big house.
The stars were frosty, dimensionless eyes in the dark, as distant as bright-windowed houses across the ocean.
The Earth-Moon pair, huddling by the solar fire, were almost alone in a black forest twenty million million miles across. A frighteningly lonely situation, especially if you imagined something wholly unknown stirring in the forest, creeping closer, shaking the starlight here and there as it bent the black twigs of space.
FAR OUT in the North Atlantic, a dash of dark spray in his eyes roused Wolf Loner from a chilly dream of fear in time to see the last ragged window high in the thickening black cloudbank to the west close on the coppery moon. He knew it was the eclipse that made the orb look smoky, yet in the after-glisten of his dream the moon seemed to be calling for help from a burning building -- Diana in peril. The shouldering black waves and the wind on the curved drum of the sail soon rocked and harshly crooned away the disturbing vision.
"Sanity is rhythm," Wolf Loner said loudly to no one within five miles, or, for all he knew, two hundred -- the latter being the distance he reckoned he was from Boston in his one-man, east-west passage begun at Bristol.
He checked the link between mainsheet and tiller that kept the twenty-two-foot sailing dory slanting into the west, then slid himself feet first into the coffin-wide cabin for a warmer and longer nap.
THREE THOUSAND MILES south of the dory, the atomic luxury liner "Prince Charles" raced like a seagoing mesa toward Georgetown and the Antilles through an invisible mist of converging radio waves. In the air-conditioned and darkened astrodome a few older people, yawning at the post-midnight hour, watched the eclipse, and a few younger couples necked discreetly or played footsies, which the foot-glove fad facilitated, while from the main ballroom there rumbled faintly, like distant thunder, the Wagnerian strains of neojazz. Captain Sithwise tallied the number of known Brazilian fascists of the unpredictable new sort on the passenger list, and guessed that a revolution had been scheduled.
AT CONEY ISLAND, in the heavy shadow of the new boardwalk, Sally Harris, her hands clasped back of her neck under the sunburst of her permanent-static-charge explosion hairdo, held herself humorously still as Jake Lesher tugged crosswise at the backstrap of her bra through the silky black fabric of her Gimbel's Scaasi Size 8 frock. "Have a good time," she said, "but remember we're seeing the eclipse from the top of the Ten-Stage Rocket. All ten tops."
"Aw, who wants to gawk at a moon that's sick, sick, sick," Jake retorted a bit breathlessly. "Sal, where the hell are the hooks and eyes?"
"In the bottom of your grandmother's trunk," she informed him, and ran a silver-nailed thumb and forefinger down the self-sealing, mood-responsive V of her frock. "The magnetic quick-release gear is forward, not aft, you Second Avenue sailor," she said and gave a deft twist. "There! See why it's called the Vanishing Bra?"
"Christ!" he said, "they're like hot popovers. Oh, Sal..."
"Amuse yourself," she told him coolly, her nostrils flaring, "but remember you're not getting out of taking me for my roller-coaster ride. And kindly handle the bakery goods with reverence."
DON GUILLERMO WALKER, straining to see, through the dull black Nicaraguan cloud-jungle, the inky gleam of Lake Managua, decided that bombing el presidente's stronghold in the dark of the eclipse had been a purely theatric idea, a third-act improvisation from desperation, like having Jean wear nothing under her negligee in Algiers Decision, which hadn't saved that drama from a turkey's fate.
Eclipses weren't all that dark, it turned out, and el presidente's three jet fighters could chop up this ancient Seabee in seconds, ending the Revolution of the Best, or at least the contribution to it of the self-proclaimed lineal descendant of the original William Walker who had filibustered in Nicaragua in the 1850's.
If he did manage to bail out, they would capture him. He didn't think he could stand an electric bull prod except by turning into a three-year-old.
Too much light, too much light! "You're a typical lousy bit-player," Don Guillermo shouted up at the brazen moon. "You don't know how to efface yourself!"
TWO THOUSAND MILES east of Wolf Loner and his cloudbank, Dai Davies, Welsh poet, vigorous and drunk, waved good night from near the dark loom of the Severn Experimental Tidal Power Station to the sooty moon sinking into the cloudless Bristol Channel beyond Portishead Point, while the spreading glow of dawn erased the stars behind him.
"Sleep well, Cinderella," he called. "Wash your face now, but be sure to come back."
Richard Hillary, English novelist, sickish and sober, observed finically, "Dai, you say that as if you were afraid she wouldn't."
"There's a first time for everything, Ricky-bach," Dai told him darkly. "We don't worry enough about the moon."
"You worry about her too much," Richard countered sharply, "reading a veritable vomit of science fiction."
"Ah, science fiction's my food and drink -- well, anyhow my food. Vomit, now -- you were maybe thinking of the book-vomiting dragon Error in The Faerie Queene and fancying her spewing up, after all of Spenser's musty hates, the collected works of H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and Edgar Rice Burroughs?"
Hillary's voice grew astringent. "Science fiction is as trivial as all artistic forms that deal with phenomena rather than people. You should know that, Dai. Aren't the Welsh warmhearted?"
"Cold as fish," the poet replied proudly. "Cold as the moon herself, who is a far greater power in life than you sentimental, sacrilegious, pub-snoozing, humanity-besotted, degenerate Saxo-Normans will ever realize." He indicated the Station with a sweep of his arm. "Power from Mona!"
"David!" the novelist exploded. "You know perfectly well that this tidal power toy is merely a sop to people like myself who are against atomic power because of the weapons aspect. And please don't call the moon Mona -- that's folk etymology. Mona's a Welsh island, if you will -- Anglesey -- but not a Welsh planet!"
Dai shrugged, peering west at the dim, vanishing moon-bump. "Mona sounds right to me and that's all that counts. All culture is but a sop to infant humanity. And in any case," he added with a mocking grin, "there are men on the moon."
"Yes," Hillary agreed coldly, "four Americans and an indeterminate but small number of Soviets. We ought to have cured human poverty and suffering before wasting milliards on space."
"Still, there are men on Mona, on their way to the stars."
"Four Americans. I have more respect for that New Englander Wolf Loner who sailed from Bristol last month in his dory. At least he wasn't staking the world's wealth on his adventurous whim."
Dai grinned, without taking his eyes off the west.
"Be damned to Loner, that Yankee anachronism! He's most likely drowned and feeding the fishes. But the Americans write fine science fiction and make moon-ships almost as good as the Russkies'. Good night, Mona-bach! Come back dirty-faced or clean, but come back."
Copyright © 1964 by Fritz Leiber
Posted September 7, 2010
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Posted November 5, 2009
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Posted March 27, 2010
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