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Moon Race

Written by Ben Bova
Illustrated by Garret W.Vance

John Henry, he said to his captain,
"A man ain't nothing but a man.
"And before I'll let your steam drill beat me
"I'll die with a hammer in my hand,
"Lawd, Lawd,
"I'll die with a hammer in my hand."

Usually, gazing out across the crater floor to the weary old ring-wall mountains with the big, blue, beautiful Earth hanging in the black sky above—usually it fills my heart with peace and calm.

But not today.

My palms are sweaty while I wait for the GO signal. There are six of us lined up in our lunar buggies, ready to race out to the old Ranger 9 site and back again to Selene's main air lock. Two hundred and some kilometers, round-trip. If I follow the path the race officials have laid out.

I'm sitting at the controls of a five-meter-tall, six-legged lunar vehicle that we've nicknamed Stomper. We designed it to haul freight and carry cargo over rough ground, not for racing. The five other racers are also converted from working lunar vehicles, but they're either wheeled or tracked: they can zip along at speeds up to thirty klicks per hour, if you push them.


I've got to win this race or get sent back to dirty, dangerous, overcrowded Earth.

See, Harry Walker and I started this design company, Walker's Walkers, while I was still his student at Selene University. Put every penny we had into it. Now we've built our prototype, Stomper, and we've got to prove to everybody that a legged vehicle can work out on the Moon's surface as well or better than anything with wheels or tracks.

So we entered the race. Harry's a paraplegic. If we win, he'll be able to afford stem-cell therapy to rebuild his legs. If we don't win, Walker's Walkers goes bust, he stays in his wheelchair, and I get sent back Earthside. It's Selene's one hard rule: if you don't have a job, you get shipped out. You either contribute to Selene's economy or you're gone, man, gone. There's no room for freeloaders. No charity. No mercy.

The light on my control board flashes green, and I push Stomper's throttle forward carefully. We're off with a lurch and a bump.

Stomper's six legs start thumping along as I edge the throttle higher. But Zeke Browkowski zips out ahead of the rest of the pack, just like I figured he would.

"So long, slowpokes," he sings out as he pulls farther in front. "Hey, Taylor," he calls to me, "why don't you get out and push?" I can hear him laughing in my headphones.

Zeke's in Dash-nine, the newest buggy in Selene, of course. His older brother runs the maintenance section and makes certain he does well by Zeke.

Even though Stomper's cabin is pressurized, I'm suited up, helmet and all. It's uncomfortable, but if I have to go outside for emergency maintenance during the race, I won't have to take the time to pull on the cumbersome suit.

Selene City is built into the base of Mt. Yeager, the tallest mountain in the ring wall of the giant crater Alphonsus. Two-thirds of the way across the crater floor lie the remains of Ranger 9, one of the early unmanned probes from back in the days before Armstrong and Aldrin landed over in the Sea of Tranquility.

There's been some talk about expanding Selene beyond Alphonsus's ring wall, going out onto the Mare Nubium and even farther. But so far it's only talk. Selene is restricted to Alphonsus, for now.

I figure the run out to the Ranger 9 site and back to Selene's main air lock should take on the order of ten hours. Zeke Browkowski will try to make it faster, of course. Knowing him, I'll bet he's souped up Dash-nine with extra fuel cells even though that's against the race rules.

Harry teaches mechanical design at the university, from his wheelchair. He had the ideas for Walker's Walkers, and I did his legwork, so to speak. I've got to win this race and show everybody what Stomper can do. Harry can keep his professorship at the university even if we lose. But I'll have to go back to Detroit, Michigan, USA, Earth. I've worked too long and too hard to go back to that cesspool.

I need to win this race!

Stomper's lumbering along like some monster in a horror vid. Sitting five meters above the ground, I can see Zeke's Dash-nine pulling farther ahead of us, kicking up a cloud of dust as it rolls across the crater floor on its big, springy wheels. In the Moon's low gravity, the dust just hangs there like a lazy cloud.

"Come on, Stomper," I mutter to myself, as we galumph past the solar-cell farms spread out on the crater floor. "It's now or never." I nudge the throttle a notch higher.

Stomper's six legs speed up, but not by much. It's like sitting on top of a big mechanical turtle with six heavy metal feet. I have to be careful: if I push too hard, I could burn out a bearing. Stomper's slow enough on six legs; if we lose one, we'll be out of it altogether.

Zeke's pulling farther ahead while ol' Stomper's six feet pound along the dusty bare ground. Lots of little pockmark craterlets scattered across the floor of Alphonsus, and plenty of rocks, some big as houses. Stomper's automated guidance sensors walk us around the more dangerous ones, but I get a kick out of smashing the smaller stones into powder.

It's a real boot, sitting five meters tall with Stomper's control panel spread out in front of me, feeling all that power, watching the rock-strewn ground go by. Harry would love to be up here, I bet, in control even though his own legs are useless.

Stomper has a lot of power, all right, but not enough speed to catch Dash-nine or even the slower vehicles. Like the turtle against a quintet of hares. But I have a plan. I'm going to take a shortcut.

The race's official course from Selene's main air lock to the Ranger 9 site is a dogleg shape, because the buggies have to detour around the hump of rugged hills in the center of Alphonsus. I figure that ol' Stomper can climb those hills, thread through 'em, and get to the Ranger 9 site ahead of everybody else. Then I'll come back the same way and win the race!

That's my plan.

For now I follow the trail of lighted poles that mark the race course. Dash-nine is so far ahead that all I can see of Browkowski is a cloud of dust near the short horizon. Three of the other vehicles are ahead of me, too, but I see that the fourth one of them is stopped dead, its two-man crew outside in their suits, bending over a busted track.

I flick to the suit-to-suit frequency and get a blast of choice language from the pair of 'em.

"You guys all right?" I call to them.

Moans and groans and elaborate profanity. But neither one of them is hurt, and Selene's already sending a repair tractor to pick them up.

I push on. I can see the tired old slumped hills of the crater's central peak rising just over the horizon. I turn Stomper toward them.

Instantly, my earphones sing out, "Taylor Reed, you're veering off course." Janine's voice. She sounds upset.

"I'm taking a shortcut," I say.

"That's not allowed, Taylor."

The race controller is Janine Al-Jabbar, as sweet and lovely a lady as you could find. But now she sounds uptight, almost fearful.

"I've studied the rules," I tell her, keeping my voice calm, "and there's nothing in 'em says you have to follow the course they've laid out."

"It's a safety regulation," she answers, sounding even more worried. "You can't go off on your own."

"Janine, there's no problem with safety. Ol' Stomper can—"

A man's voice breaks in. "Taylor Reed, get back on course, or you're disqualified!"

That's Mance Brunner, the director of the race. He's also chancellor of Selene University. Very important person, and he knows it.

"Disqualified?" My own voice comes out as a mouse squeak. "You can't disqualify me just because—"

"Get back on course, Reed," says Brunner, less excited but harder, colder. "Otherwise, I'll have no option except to disqualify you."

I take a deep breath, then I reply as calmly as I can, "Sir, I am continuing on my own course. This is not a safety risk, nor is it grounds—"

He doesn't even hear me out. "You're disqualified, Reed!"


"Attention all vehicles," Brunner announces. "Taylor Reed in vehicle oh-four is hereby disqualified."

None of the other racers says a word, except for Zeke Browkowski, who snickers, "Bye-bye, turtle guy."

To say I am pissed off is putting it very mildly. Brunner never did like me, but what he's just done is about as low and rotten as you can get. And there's no way around it, he's the race director. There's no court of appeals. If he says I'm out, I'm out.

Stomper's still clunking along, but I reach for the control yoke to turn us around and head back to Selene.

But I hesitate. Disqualify me, huh? Okay, so I'm disqualified. I'm not going to let that stop me. Brunner can yell all he wants to, I'm going to push through those hills and prove my point, even if it's just to myself.

Janine's voice comes back in my earphones, low and kind of sad. "I'm sorry, Tay. He was standing right over my shoulder. There was nothing I could do."

"Not your fault, Janine," I tell her. "You didn't do anything to feel sorry about."

But in the back of my mind I realize that if I have to go back Earthside, I'll never see her again.

Well, disqualified or not, I head out for the Ranger 9 site by the most direct route: across the central hills.

They look like dimples in the satellite imagery, but as ol' Stomper gets closer to them, those rounded, slumped hills rise up in front of me like a real barrier. They're not steep, and not really all that high, but those slopes are worn almost as smooth as glass. There's no air on the Moon, you know, and for eons, micrometeorites the size of dust motes have been falling in from space and sandpapering the hills.

I start to wonder if Stomper can really climb across them. There aren't any trails or passes, just a jumbled knot of rocks rising from the plain of the crater floor. Sigurdsen tried going up them in a wheeled buggy back before Selene became an independent nation; he found the going too treacherous and turned back. Nobody's bothered since then. There's nothing in those bare, knobby hills that's worth the effort.

I throttle down and shift to a lower gear.

"Easy does it, Stomper," I mutter. "You can do it. I know you can."

One step at a time, like a turtle on tiptoes, we pick our way through the jumbled rocks. I'm pouring sweat by the time we get near the top. Inside the space suit, you can boil in your own juices, you know.

"Are you singing?" Janine's voice asks me.


"Sounds like you were singing to yourself, Tay," she says, sounding kind of concerned.

I realize I must have been humming to myself, sort of. An old folk song my grandfather used to sing, about a railroad worker named John Henry.

"I'm okay," I tell her.

"Dr. Brunner's really hacked at you," Janine says. "He's sore you haven't turned back."

"He's gonna have to be sore a while longer," I answer tightly.

Stomper clomps along up the worn old rocks, and we get to the top. Off in the distance I can see the crumpled wreckage of Ranger 9. I have to be even more careful going downhill, making sure each one of Stomper's six feet is solidly planted with each step. No slipping, no sliding.

Easing my way down the hills is even scarier than going up. Ol' Stomper lurches hard; for an instant, I'm scared that we're going to tip over. But Stomper plants those big feet of his solidly, and we're okay. Still, my hands are slippery with perspiration as I jiggle the throttle and the gearshifts.

We get down, back on the crater floor, and start thumping along as fast as we can to the Ranger 9 wreckage. Out on the horizon to my left I spot a hazy cloud of dust heading my way. It's Zeke, in Dash-nine. The turtle has beaten the hare!

"Vehicle oh-four reporting," I sing into my lip microphone. "I'm approaching the Ranger site."

"Pay no attention to Taylor Reed," Brunner's icy voice answers immediately. "He's been disqualified."

Bastard! I walk Stomper right up to the crumpled remains of Ranger 9, under its protective dome of clear glassteel, and use the external arms to plant my marker by the old wreckage. Then I turn around and start for home.

I ought to slow down, I know. I can't win the flicking race, I've been disqualified. So what's the difference? But then I hear Zeke call, "Dash-nine at Ranger site. Starting my return leg."

And again I remember that old, old folk song my grandfather used to sing when things got really bad. About John Henry, a black man who refused to give up. And I thought, I'll be damned if I let Zeke Browkowski or Mance Brunner or anybody else beat me. I'll die with a hammer in my hands, Lawd, Lawd.

"Come on, you ol' turtle," I mutter to Stomper. "Let's get home before Zeke does."

Stomper weaves through the hills again, and we're back down on the flat. We clomp along at a pretty fair clip, but then I see Browkowski off to my right, a cloud of dust coming around the hills and heading straight for home.

It's turning into a two-car race. I'm way ahead, but Zeke is catching up fast. I can see him in the rearview screen, a cloud of dust that's getting closer every second.

I'm pushing too hard. Stomper's middle left leg starts making a grinding noise. My control panel shows a blinking yellow light. The leg's main bearing is starting to overheat.

I shut down the middle left leg altogether; just keep it locked up and off the ground. Stomper limps the rest of the way back to Selene's main air lock. It's a rough, jouncing ride, but we get there a whole two minutes, eighteen seconds ahead of Zeke.

Who is proclaimed the official winner of the race, of course.

I limp Stomper through the main air lock and into Selene's big, cavernous garage, power down, and duck through the hatch. Five meters high, I can see the crowd gathering around Browkowski and Dash-nine: Brunner and Zeke's older brother, the chief of maintenance, a bunch of other people. Even Janine.

Nobody's waiting for me at the bottom of Stomper's ladder except Harry, sitting in his powerchair and grinning up at me.

I'll die with a hammer in my hand. The words to that old song kept ringing in my mind. I was dead all right. Just like ol' John Henry.

Once I plant my boots on the garage's concrete floor, I slide my helmet visor up and take a look at Stomper. His legs are covered with dust, even the middle left one, which is still hanging up there like some ponderous mechanical ballet dancer doing a pose.

"Better keep your distance," I tell Harry. "My coveralls are soaked with perspiration. I'm gonna smell pretty ripe when I peel off this suit."

He's grinning at me, big white teeth sparkling against his dark skin. "I'll go to the infirmary and get some nose plugs," he says.

He rolls his chair alongside me as I clump to the lockers where the suits are stored. I take off the helmet, then sit wearily on the bench to remove my big, thick-soled boots. As I start to worm my arms out of the sleeves, Janine shows up.

I stand up, my arms half in the suit's sleeves. Janine looks pretty as ever, but kind of embarrassed.

"I'm sorry you were disqualified, Tay," she says.

"Not your fault," I mumble.

She tries to smile. "There's a sort of party over to the Pelican Bar."

"For Zeke. He's the winner."

"You're invited, too."

Before I can refuse, Harry pipes up. "We'll be there!"

Janine's smile turns genuine. "Good. I'll see you there, okay?" And she scampers off.

I scowl at Harry. "Why'd you say yes? I don't feel like partying. 'Specially for Zeke."

"Chill out, Taylor," Harry tells me. "All work and no play, you know."

So we go off to the Pelican Bar—after I take a quick shower and pull on a fresh set of coveralls. The Pelican's owned by some fugitive from Florida; he's got the place decorated with statues of pelicans, photographs of pelicans, painting of pelicans. Behind the bar there's a big screen display of Miami, the way it looked before the greenhouse floods covered it over. Lots of pelicans flying over the water, diving for fish.

The place is jammed. Bodies three, four deep around the long bar. Every booth filled. Noise like a solid wall. I take two steps inside the door and decide to turn around and leave.

But Harry grabs my wrist and tows me through the boisterous crowd, like a tractor dragging some piece of wreckage.

He takes me right up to Zeke Browkowski, of all people, who's standing at the bar surrounded by admirers. Including Janine.

"Hey, here's the turtle guy!" Zeke yells out, grinning at me. My hands clench into fists, but I don't say anything.

To my total shock, Zeke sticks out his hand to shake. "Taylor, you beat me. You broke the rules, but you beat me, man. Congratulations."

Surprised, I take his hand, and mutter, "Lotta good it's done me."

Still grinning, Zeke half turns to the guy standing next to him. He's an oriental: older, grayer, wearing a regular suit instead of coveralls, like the rest of us.

"Taylor, this is Hideki Matsumata. He designed Dash-nine."

Matsumata bows to me. On reflex, I bow back.

"You have made an important contribution, Mr. Reed."


Smiling at me, Matsumata says, "I was certain that my Dash-nine couldn't be beaten. You proved otherwise."

I can't figure out why he was smiling about it. I hear myself say, "Like Zeke says, I broke the rules."

"You bent the rules, Mr. Reed. Bent them. Sometimes rules need to bent, stretched."

I didn't know what to say.

Glancing down at Harry, in the powerchair beside me, Matsumata says, "Today you showed that walking vehicles can negotiate mountainous territory that wheeled or tracked vehicles cannot."

"That's what walkers are all about," says Harry. "That's what I was trying to tell you all along."

"You have proved your point, Professor Walker," Matsumata says. But he's looking at me as he says it.

Harry laughs, and says, "Soon's we get that bad bearing replaced, Tay, you're going to take Stomper up to the top of Mt. Yeager. And then maybe you'll do a complete circumnavigation of the ring wall."

"But I don't have a job."

"Sure you do! With Walker's Walkers. I haven't fired you."

"The company's not busted?"

Harry's big grin is my answer. But Matsumata says, "Selene's governing council has wanted for some time to build a cable-car tramway over the ring wall and out onto Mare Nubium. Walking vehicles such as your Stomper will make that project possible."

"We can break out of the Alphonsus ring wall and start to spread out," Harry says. "Get down to the south polar region, where the ice deposits are."

My head's spinning. They're saying that I can stay here on the Moon, and even do important work, valuable work.

Zeke claps me on the shoulder. "You done good, turtle guy."

"By breaking the rules and getting disqualified," I mutter, kind of stunned by it all.

Janine comes up and slips her hand in mine. "What was it you were singing during the race? Something about dying with a hammer in your hand?"

"John Henry," I mumble.

"Wrong paradigm," says Harry, with a laugh.

"Whattaya mean?"

"The right paradigm for this situation is an old engineer's line: Behold the lowly turtle, he only makes progress when he sticks his neck out."

* * *

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