Part Five of The Archives of the Moon
by Robert Gibson
The scene etched itself on his awareness in a few sharp seconds of indelible but curiously abstract terror. It was in a fatalistic daze that Royden took note of the details which confronted him: five dead men flopped over a stone slab, with their helmets off. They ought to have gasped out their lives in the inadequate air, but there must have been more to the cause of death than that. Their scalps and faces were curiously shrivelled and dessicated. Wizened mummies, clad from the neck downwards in modern vacuum-suits, the helmets of which lay within easy reach, the corpses presented a baffling spectacle.
Well, it was a matter of record that some people had found the atmosphere in the centre of this lunarian city to be thick enough for short periods of respiration, so perhaps the bare-headedness of these researchers at the time they fell was not unaccountable, especially if they had been carrying out a close naked-eye examination of the object over which they now were sprawled...
The stone slab was peculiarly flecked with a lurid spattering of vermillion lines and dots. It lay at the base of a long grooved incline which jutted from the outer wall of a low, squat building. The slab had apparently slid down the incline, out from where it had been stored – stored among other slabs, in a lunar library, realized Royden as he stood numb with awe. And these men had died trying to read –
Stick to what I know, he told himself sharply. Yes, the men, just before they died, had removed one of the library’s treasures: a written text on this heavy slab. The vermillion lines and dots were what they seemed to be: a text. What harm could a text do, and why did he sense some innominable malaise like an impossible cloud upon the airless horizon?
He tried to shake off the soul-shaking dubitation which possessed him as he turned away, not wishing to imagine the slightest connection between the deaths he had seen and the treasure of knowledge.
What to do now? Continue through the city on the route he had envisaged – there was no other plan he could think of. Find the base and alert the authorities, if they didn’t know already.
Sorting out his fears, he lost something of the inexplicable terror which had assailed him at the sight of the written lines on the Selenite stone. An explanation occurred to him, a piece of logic which smoothed over his primal anxiety. Some kind of spore or germ, he postulated, which had lain dormant for ages in the building, had been extracted together with the glyphic stone. Thus, Sherman had been telling the truth; plague had broken out upon Farside.
In which case, Royden might now be the only only living person in this hemisphere of the Moon. This dismal possibility was fraught with discomfort and inconvenience, but not with immediate danger: he was sealed in a vacuum suit which was surely capable of preventing the ingress of noxious organisms, and there must be spare oxygen bottles at the research base, enough for him to survive until help came –
Glumly he corrected himself: no one would come. The area had been placed under quarantine, the ban which he had broken by arriving. Now he would have to stay, alone, shut up in his suit till he starved. Or he could open his helmet and risk the shrivelling doom which he had observed upon those other men...
On the other hand the Base might contain facilities for the sterilization of his suit. There had better be! – otherwise, hermetically sealed starvation would be his fate, unless he dared to uncover his head to the alien death of the plague.
This last thought brought Royden to a puzzled stop once more. For to his more honest self it was disquietingly obvious that in this situation he was not really afraid of micro-organisms at all. It was something else which had smitten him with a brooding sense of the vicinage of alien power.
Hesitant and bewildered, he turned to retrace his steps, to look once more at the dead men. And it was at this point, when his sense of some malefic abeyance in the ruins around him became so overpoweringly persuasive as to force his mind to ditch its lesser worries, that he saw he was not alone. The incongruous, corpulent figure of Administrator Dawcott, in ordinary clothing without a vacuum suit, doddered forth as Royden watched. Could this be? It was no hallucination. From some alley in the ruins, the Administrator had emerged to stand forlornly beside the corpses of his team.