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The planetismal began as a region of above-average density that occurred by chance in a swirling cloud of dust and gas condensing out of the expanding vastness of space. Gently at first but at a rate that grew steadily faster as time went by, it continued to sweep up the smaller accretions in its vicinity until it had grown to a rough spheroid of compressed dust and rock measuring fifty feet across.

Eventually the planetismal itself came under the pull of a larger body that had been growing in similar fashion, and began falling toward it. It impacted at a speed of over ten miles per second, releasing the energy equivalent of a one-hundred-kiloton bomb and blasting a crater more than half a mile in diameter.

Shortly afterward, as measured on a cosmic time-scale, a second planetismal fell close by and created another crater of similar dimensions; the distance between the crater centers was such that the raised rims of debris thrown up by the explosions merged together for a distance, resulting in the formation of a ridge of exaggerated height between the two basins.

In the time that followed, the rain of meteorites continued, pulverizing the landscape into a wilderness of sharp-grained dust to a depth of several feet, the desolation being relieved only by the occasional outcrop or shattered boulder. The outlines of the craters were slowly eroded away and stirred back into the sea of dust.

When the bombardment at last petered away, all that remained of the ridge was a rounded hummock to mark where the rims had intersected—a mound of dust and rock debris forty feet high and several hundred long. There it remained as one of the weary but triumphant survivors that were left to stare out over the gently rolling wastes that stretched to the horizon.

From then on the ridge remained essentially unchanged. A steady drizzle of micrometeorites continued to erode the top millimeter or so of its surface, exposing fresh material to trap hydrogen and helium nuclei from the solar wind; particles from sporadic solar flares caused isolated nuclear transformations down to several centimeters, and cosmic rays penetrated slightly farther. But in terms of its size, shape and general appearance, the ridge had become a permanent feature on a changeless world.

Four billion years later, give or take a few, Commander Jerry Fields, assigned to the International Space Administration's lunar base at Reinhold, was standing staring up at that same ridge. Beside him, similarly clad in a blue-gray spacesuit bearing the golden-flashed ISA shoulder insignia, Kal Paskoe frowned through his visor, studying the line of the ridge with an engineer's practiced eye.

"Well, what do you think?" Fields inquired into his radio. "See any problems?"

"Uh uh." Paskoe's reply was slow and noncommittal as he squinted against the glare of the setting sun. He turned to stare back at the metallic glint that marked the position of the base at the foot of the low hills on the skyline behind them, then returned his gaze to the ridge to register mentally a couple of salient boulders near its crest. "No . . . no problems," he said at last. "I think I've seen all I need. Let's get back to the truck and get the job scheduled. We can't do any more here until the computers have figured out how they're going to handle it."

The mass-driver at Maskelyne, over a thousand miles away on the western edge of Tranquillatis, had been in operation for almost a decade. It had been built as part of the EXPLORER (EXPloitation of Lunar ORE Reserves) Project to hurl lunar rock up into orbit for metal extraction and construction of the huge space colonies being assembled within several hundred thousand miles of Earth. In fact the title was something of a deliberate misnomer. There were of course, no true ores on the Moon—ores in the sense of metal-rich substances concentrated by weathering and geological processes. Deep below the surface however, were rich accumulations of titanium, aluminum, iron and suchlike that had been precipitated by thermo-fluidic processes operative during the Moon's early history. The compounds bearing these elements had been dubbed "ores" by the media and the name had stuck

The mass-driver was a five-mile-long, ruler-straight track banked by two "hedges" of continuous electromagnetic windings—an immense linear accelerator stretching westward across Tranquillatis. It accelerated supercooled magnetic "buckets" riding on cushions of flux at 100g to reach escape velocity in the first two miles. Beyond that the buckets were laser-tracked and computer-adjusted to eject their loads of moonrock in a shallow climb that just cleared the mountains two hundred miles away by virtue of the Moon's surface curvature. En route the loads were electrically charged by being sprayed with electrons and fine-trimmed by massive electrostatic deflectors located at the two-hundred-mile downrange point to leave the final phase of launch with an accuracy better than one part in a million—comparable to a football being kicked between the uprights from 3,000 miles.

From there on each load, comprising 60 pounds of "ore," climbed steadily for two days until, 40,000 miles above the lunar surface, it fell into a "Hippo" catcher-ship stationed at the gravitationally stable L2 point. The energy needed to power the mass-driver was beamed down as microwaves from a three-mile-wide orbiting solar collector.

Day in, day out, round the clock, the mass-driver sent up a charge every two seconds, halting only for maintenance or for occasional repairs. Every year, one million tons of moonrock fell into the waiting relays of Hippos. And farther out in space, the colonies steadily took shape.

The project had been so successful that the powers-that-be had decided to go ahead with the construction of a second mass-driver. This one would also be located on the equator, but near Reinhold, aiming out across Procellarum. The track, the experts had decreed, would pass right over the point at which Fields and Paskoe were standing. Not a little to the right nor a little to the left, they had pronounced after extensive surveys, but right there.

First-phase preparation would require accurate sighting with lasers, covering a stretch of terrain that extended from a mile or more behind them to several times that distance ahead, which would require an unobstructed path. The ridge was not really large—about the size of a dozen average houses set end to end—but . . . it was in the way.

And so it came about that the form that had stood valiantly to preserve its record of events from the earliest epoch of the Solar System at last found itself opposing the restless, thrusting outward urge of Man.

The ridge would have to go.

"How goes it?" The voice of Sergeant Tim Cummings came through over the open channel from the nearest of the two surface-crawlers parked a few hundred feet back at the bottom of the shallow slope that led up to the ridge.

"I think we're about done here," Paskoe replied. "Get some coffee on, Tim. We're coming back down."

"See all you wanted from the top?" Cummings inquired.

"Yeah. It's pretty much as we thought," Paskoe told him. "More or less symmetric on both sides. Probably not more than fifty, maybe sixty feet thick at the base." He glanced automatically at the twin lines of footprints that led up to the point on the ridge crest that he and Fields had climbed to, and then led back to where they were now standing.

"Let's go," Fields said, and with that turned and began heading back to the crawler. Paskoe gave the ridge one final glance, then turned to follow at a slow easygoing lope that brought him alongside Fields in a few seconds.

"What do you reckon?" Fields asked as they bounced side by side down the slope. "Soil blower maybe?"

"Dunno," Paskoe replied. "There are some big boulders in there, and it's probably pretty well compacted lower down. Might take a digger or two, probably a heavy shover too. We'll see what the computers reckon."

"There's some heavy equipment the other side of Reinhold," Fields remarked. "If they shifted some of that over here they might get started inside a day or two.

"Nah—I'm pretty sure most of that stuff's tied up," Paskoe said. "They may have to fly something in from Tycho. Anyhow, that's their problem. They know their schedules. We'll just have to wait and see what they come up with."

"As long as we don't end up having to shovel it," Fields said as they slowed down to approach the crawler. Paskoe steadied himself on the handrail and stooped slightly to clear his helmet past the entrance to the crawler's lower cabin.

"No way," he declared with feeling. "I've seen enough Massachusetts winters not to ever wanna see a shovel again. I'll leave it to the computers. If they say the best they can manage is a week, that's okay by me."

"The boss'd get pretty mad about that if it happened," Fields murmured as he ducked to follow the now invisible Paskoe.

"Then the boss could come out here and damn well shovel it himself," Paskoe's voice said in his helmet.

Five minutes later they had removed their helmets and were seated back at the crew stations beneath the viewdome of the crawler's upper cabin.

While Fields and Cummings used the viscreen to discuss the next item on the day's agenda with Michel Chauverier, who was in command of the other crawler parked next to them, Paskoe activated the main console at the far end of the cabin to close a channel via comsat to the Tycho node of the ubiquitous titan computer complex. After a brief dialogue via touchpad and display screen, he had communicated the nature of his request to the system's Executive Command Interpreter. A few seconds later the screen returned the message:




Paskoe remote-steered one of the crawler's external TV cameras until he had an image of the ridge outside nicely centered on one of the console's auxiliary screens. Then he operated the touchpad again to bring up two flashing cursors superimposed on the image, and moved them across the screen until they lined up with the boulder formations he had memorized. In this position the cursors defined the portion of the ridge that mattered.

He then tapped out a brief code with his fingertips. In the fraction of a second that followed, the coordinates of the crawler's identification beacon were read and plotted by one of the invisible satellites high above. At the same time the picture being picked up by the TV camera was analyzed by the onboard computers and the data extracted were used to align the laser mounted on the roof with the centerpoint between the cursors. The range, bearing and elevation data read from the laser were instantly flashed to the Tycho computers. From the readings obtained from the satellite, the computers knew the exact location of the crawler upon the lunar surface. The laser data enabled them to compute the position of the ridge relative to the crawler, and hence to deduce its precise coordinates as well.

A few more seconds elapsed while programs at Tycho pondered over the patterns contained in the TV picture being sent to them. Then the words on the screen vanished to be replaced by:




Paskoe responded:



He drummed his fingers on the console with growing impatience while the machines meditated. No doubt they were bringing in the crawler's armory of X-ray analyzers, infrared analyzers and heavens alone knew what else to scan the ridge and estimate its mass, composition, structural features and whatever else they thought they needed to know to figure out how to go about doing a perfectly simple job.

It was quite straightforward, he told himself. All they had to do was decide which types of earth-moving machine would be best suited—surely any dirt-farmer could have told them that—check where they were located and when they would become available, and advise how long it would take to get them moved here. Then he'd be able to plan the next part of the job.

Computers! The simpler the task, the more it seemed they had to fuss around with irrelevant detail. Just like people.




Paskoe sighed:




The computers, however, were not through yet.






Another wait ensued. Then the words changed again. Paskoe read them casually, blinked, sat forward and read them again.




Paskoe frowned and asked for a repeat . . . and got it. Looking bemused, he turned and interrupted the conversation still going on behind him between his two companions and Chauverier.

"Hey. Look at this. Either I'm crazy or the system's screwed up. Tell me I'm not crazy." Fields and Cummings turned in their seats.

"What's up?" Fields inquired. Paskoe gestured toward his console.

"Tycho's sized up the job and it's giving an ECT of twenty-one minutes."

"You're crazy," Fields declared without hesitation.

"Look at the screen."

"It's crazy," Fields decided.

Cummings rose from his seat and clambered across the cabin to peer more closely at the display.

"What's going on?" Chauverier demanded from the viscreen.

"Kal's got some screwy numbers back from Tycho," Fields told him. "Tim's gone to have a look."

"Could be a fluke," Cummings was saying, rubbing his chin dubiously. "Maybe it's our lucky day. There's probably a transporter due over this way that's carrying just the stuff we need on a low-priority job someplace. Maybe Tycho's rescheduled it to land here." Paskoe pursed his lips and nodded slowly.

"Could be . . ." he agreed, then went on suddenly more decisively. "Yep. You could be right, Tim. I never thought of that. What do you think, Jerry?"

"Makes sense," Fields agreed. "We'd better stay put to see what shows up." He turned back toward Chauverier, who was still peering out of the viscreen. "We think there'll be a ship coming down here pretty soon, Michel. There'll probably only be robodiggers or something on it, but maybe we ought to hang around to check it out. It should only be for half-hour or so."

"Suits us," Chauverier answered readily. "In fact me and Joe were just starting to get hungry. If we're going to stick around here for a while I guess we'll eat. Do you guys want to come on over for a bite?" Fields turned back to the others.

"Michel's inviting us over for lunch in his truck. Okay by you two?"

"Great idea."


"Okay, Michel," Fields advised. "We're on our way. Set it up for three more." With that he cut off the screen. At the same time Paskoe killed the channel to Tycho.

For the next few minutes they donned helmets and took turns going through the routine drill of plugging the test leads from their suits into the socket provided in the panel by the floor hatch. Fields drew a "no go" in the test. The codes being displayed on the panel's miniature screen revealed an intermittent sticking valve in his life-support. Muttering beneath his breath, Paskoe began replacing the faulty valve in Fields's backpack while Cummings called Chauverier again to advise of the delay. Fifteen minutes later they were ready to go.

"It won't last," Fields said over the radio as he turned to begin following Cummings down the short ladder below the floor hatch. "Ill bet fifty bucks on it. Paggett is only there until he retires Earthside and until then he'll just go on rubber-stamping. When he goes, Cawther's bound to take over. Then it'll all be different. I give it twelve months at the most." Cummings had passed through the exit to the surface.

As Fields turned to follow, Paskoe began the descent from the upper cabin, pausing halfway to secure and check the hatch above his head. "Anyhow, I'm not interested," he declared, nodding to himself and stepping down. "I'm only here for another four. Then it's back home for me. A year's banked back pay and a few months around Europe with Cher. Wowie! You can take care of Cawther. Have fun. I sure will."

"Europe?" Cummings, who was waiting for them outside, came in on the circuit. "That's where you're going?"

"All over," Paskoe said. "We never did get to see more than a few of the tourist traps. This time we'll do it right. Three months at least. Cher's especially keen on Germany." They were crossing the gap of about thirty feet that separated the crawler from Chauverier's. Paskoe and Cummings were side by side, with Fields following a short distance behind.

"I was in Germany a couple years back," Fields's voice came through. "Saw some of Poland too. There's a place there you ought to see if you get the chance . . . down south. Krakow I think it was called."

"What's there?" Paskoe asked.

"Salt mines. They go right back to the Middle Ages. Man, are they big."

"Salt mines?" Cummings sounded mystified as he and Paskoe came abreast of the other crawler and moved around it toward where the entrance was located. "What's so special about salt mines? I thought they were places the Russians used to send people they didn't like."

"Those are different," Fields replied. "There's a whole cathedral down there way underground. All carved out of solid salt crystal. Everything's salt—the altar, the chapels, the statues, even the lights. It's fantastic. And they've got—"

The universe blanked out.

"What in Christ! . . ." a voice yelled.

Cummings had just reached the door with Paskoe close behind. Fields was a few feet away, just beyond the end of the vehicle.

Everything around them vanished abruptly into an opaque sheet of gray. At the same moment Paskoe felt the ground shudder beneath his feet. The mass of the crawler above them lurched visibly as if it had been struck an immense blow on the opposite side. For a moment he had the sickening feeling that it was going to topple over on top of them.

A titanic blast of dust, debris and boulders had smashed into the far side of the vehicle and sprayed past it on every side. Mercifully they had been in its lee shadow. Just a few seconds earlier and they would have been caught unprotected. And just as suddenly it was gone.

Paskoe was standing frozen to the spot, still with no idea of what had happened. In front of him Cummings was clinging to the handrail by the door, his face ashen through his visor and his arm gesturing weakly toward a point behind Paskoe's shoulder.

"Jerry! . . ." Cumming's voice came through in a strangled gasp. "Jerry's gone!" Paskoe turned and stared dazedly at the spot where, a few seconds previously, Fields had been standing, just beyond the crawler's protective shadow. There was nobody there.

And then the blast came again, like the discharge of a gigantic shotgun that fired moonrock. And again, and again, and again . . . and again. Paskoe found himself on the ground pressing himself against the vehicle's tracks while the concussions thudded through his body, and the crawler trembled under the repeated impacts of boulders cannoning off its sides and spinning crazily away into the maelstrom of dust. His helmet touched the structure. A sound like a building collapsing onto an enormous kettledrum exploded in his ears. He lost count of the concussions. Maybe ten, twenty . . . His brain had seized up.

He was lying by the track of the crawler, his heart pounding and his body shaking. Every inch of his skin felt cold and wet in his suit. It had stopped. He waited, barely daring to breathe. The tension that held him keyed up waiting for it to begin again refused to let go. But nothing happened. He opened his eyes slowly and looked up.

Cummings was lying on his back with his legs tangled in the steps that bridged the gap between the ground and the floor of the entrance hatch. He looked as if he had been bowled backward out of the doorway just as he had been in the act of climbing in. Still shaking, Paskoe struggled to his feet, rivulets of sticky moondust pouring down the creases in his suit.

"Tim . . . Tim can you hear me?" He lurched over to where Cummings lay motionless, then stopped. A slab of ice-cold horror dropped in his stomach as he saw the shattered visor. And then a feeble voice groaned in his helmet.

"Holy Christ, what happened?"

"Tim? . . ." Paskoe's voice was almost sobbing with relief. "Tim, are you okay in there?" The sprawled figure moved, and gingerly extracted a leg from the steps above it.

"I can't see," Cummings's voice came again, now sounding less disoriented. "Something hit me in the face." The other leg freed itself. Paskoe stooped and helped Cummings to sit up. "Argh! . . . My chest! I think I got hit by a shuttle booster."

"Can you stand up? Easy now. I gotcha."

"Take it slowly." Cummings's words came between heavy breaths. "I think I might have collected a cracked rib."

Paskoe hoisted Cummings to his feet and guided his hand to the rail by the door. The chest panel of Cummings's suit was smashed and the visor an opaque mess of fractured crystal. Paskoe moved around to get at the manual auxiliary controls on the backpack, which appeared none the worse for having taken the impact of Cummings's fall.

"Your visor's cracked but it looks like it's holding," he said. "I'm dropping the pressure in your suit to relieve the stress on it. As far as I can tell you'll be okay for a while, but we ought to get you into another one ASAP."

"What happened?" Cummings asked again.

"I don't know. If there was a war on I'd have said we just had a near miss from a salvo of 108's. Maybe it was a meteorite swarm. I don't know." While he was speaking, Paskoe was peering into the lower cabin of the crawler. The floor was covered in dust and some larger debris. Shafts of light poured through several jagged holes that had been torn in the far wall. Presumably whatever had made the holes had carried right through and caught Cummings head-on just as he was entering from the opposite direction.

"What . . . What about Jerry?" Cummings asked haltingly.

"He got caught in the open." Paskoe turned from the door and began scanning their immediate vicinity. "I guess he must have got blown away. Bad news I . . . Just a sec. I think I see him." He could just make out the twisted figure of Fields, crumpled in a mound of dust that had appeared at the foot of a rounded boulder twenty or thirty feet away, The layer of gray powder covering it was so thick that Paskoe had at first dismissed it as an irregular grouping of rocks. Cummings remained silent, still clinging to the handrail while he regained his breath.

"It's him," Paskoe said. "He's not moving. Looks like he might have been hit pretty bad. Stay there and don't move. I'm going over."

In a few slow bounds he covered the distance to where Fields was lying, and began digging the dust aside frantically with his gauntleted hands. Field's helmet was intact. Paskoe scraped the layer of caked moondust from the visor and peered at the face inside.

It was pale, eyes closed; no sign of life. But at least, there were none of the gruesome signs that would follow decompression. There was hope then. Working swiftly, Paskoe uncovered the rest of the figure.

"What's the news?" Cummings's voice sounded in his helmet. It was tense, obviously prepared for the worst.

"Could be worse," Paskoe replied. "He hasn't decompressed, but if he's alive he's out cold. His pack's all smashed up so he won't last long if we don't get him out. Must have caught a big one right in the back."

"Any sound of breathing?"

"Can't tell. I couldn't hear anything even with my gain wound right up, but I think his radio's probably dead."

At that moment another voice came through, sounding shaky.

"Kal, is that you? Are you guys still alive out there?"

"Michel!" Paskoe swung his head instinctively to look back at the crawler. "You're okay. What's the score inside?"

"The worst damage is downstairs," Chauverier answered. "We've lost pressure up here, but it wasn't explosive—just small holes. The regulators compensated long enough for me to get a helmet on."

"How's Joe?" Paskoe inquired.

"Knocked himself out on the center bulkhead. I put his helmet on for him. He's still out but he should be okay. I heard you talking about Jerry. How's Tim?"

"He seems okay but his visor's flaked, so he can't see. He's outside the door. Right now the problem is Jerry. We've got to get him out. Did you say the cabin's zeroed?"

"Everything's dead," Chauverier replied. "We'll have to use a survival tent and wait for a VTOL to show up. I'll eject one now. Stay clear. I'll be out in a minute with a couple of suits and give you a hand."

"What about Joe?" Paskoe asked.

"He'll be okay here for a while. We can bring him out when the tent's set up."


A package resembling a bale of rubber ejected itself from its stowage point near one end of the vehicle, landed a few feet away and immediately inflated into a bright-orange six-man survival tent. Paskoe freed Field's lower legs from the rubble and began hauling the still inert form across toward it. Just as he reached the tent, two suit-kits sailed out of the crawler door, closely followed by Chauverier. He landed easily on his feet, scooped up the kits and began loping over to where Paskoe was dragging Fields through the outer portal of the tent's airlock.

"Something just went past me," Cummings called over the radio.

"That was me," Chauverier told him. "We're getting Jerry into the tent. I've got a suit here for you. We'll come back for you in a second before we pressurize the lock."

"Okay. I'll be here."

"Say . . ." Chauverier's voice suddenly took on a new note—one of disbelief. Paskoe was inside the lock propping Fields into a more comfortable position. Chauverier had straightened up and was staring out at something beyond the tent.

"What's up?" Paskoe asked.

"Come back out for a moment and get a look at this," Chauverier said. Back at the crawler. Cummings listened in silence. Then he heard Paskoe's voice: "Jesus!"

"What is it?" Cummings asked them.

"Our truck," Paskoe answered. "Did you ever see a tin can after a grenade went off inside it? If anybody had been inside that they'd just be jelly on the walls. It's been turned right over."

"Look at the other side of it," Chauverier suggested,

Paskoe gasped, The entire center section of the ridge had been neatly blown away to leave two small isolated humps at what had been its ends. The gap that now existed between the humps was churned into a tortured tangle of tightly overlapping craters.

"How in the name of . . ." Paskoe began, but Cummings broke in:

"What is it?"

"We've been bombed!"


"I don't know. Something crazy's going on somewhere."

"You'll see for yourself later," Chauverier came in. "Right now let's get you into the tent before that facepiece blows." With that he bounded back to where Cummings was standing, led him over to the tent and guided him into the lock, tossed in the suit-packs and ducked in after them. Paskoe was already inside and waiting to seal the flap. Within seconds the walls of the lock were stiffening as the pressure began building up.

Ten minutes later Joe had recovered, been updated on the situation and had announced that he could make his own way down from the crawler. Inside the tent Chauverier had pronounced Fields to be alive, suffering from shock, oxygen starvation and a dislocated shoulder, but in no immediate danger. A trace of color had returned to his face and his pulse was getting stronger. On the other side of the tent Cummings was pulling on one of the spare suits while Paskoe was using his pocket viewpad to inform base of events.

"The comsats picked up your truck's auto-distress transmission fifteen minutes ago," the day supervisor at Reinhold informed him from the screen, "A couple of VTOLs are on the way. They should arrive any minute now. What happened?"

"That's what I was hoping you turkeys might tell us!" Paskoe yelled, now restored to his normal self. "Some asshole just bombed us, that's what! Are you telling me you don't know anything about it?"

"Nix." The supervisor looked at a loss. "We just got the distress call and sent out the VTOLs. That's all I know."

"Oscar Zebra Two-Five-Five Leader to Reinhold Control," another voice interrupted. "We've got 'em in sight. Two trucks and a tent, one truck turned over. They're on the fringe of what looks like a fresh pattern of impact rays centered on a crater cluster. We're going down now."

"They're here," Paskoe said needlessly. "I'll talk to you later." He cut out the viewpad, closed it and began returning it to his thigh pouch. He stopped, frowned thoughtfully for a second, and then reopened the view-pad and touched in a rapid-fire sequence of commands. An instant later he was through to the Executive Command Interpreter at Tycho. A few more commands yielded the words:


JOB2736/B. 72/Z72



"What's wrong?" Chauverier inquired, turning his head from the viewing port, through which he had been watching the first of the VTOLs as it dropped into sight. Paskoe pointed at the viewpad.

"It was those idiot computers at Tycho! They're asking if they did okay . . . Wanna know if we need a repeat performance!" He steadied the viewpad against his knee, and hastily hammered in with shaking fingers:






Came back the impassive reply.



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