The Lotus Caves
MARTY HAD TO GO ALL the way across the Bubble every morning, since school and his parents’ apartment were both on the perimeter but almost exactly opposite. This did not present much of a problem: he only had to walk a hundred yards to pick up an autocabin. After that he punched his destination on the dial and the robots took over, swinging the cabin out onto the overhead moving cable and plotting the course which would take him most directly to the school depot. He had timed it once at twenty and a half minutes, and knew it would never vary by more than seconds. It could have been a bore but he usually had enough homework held over to pass the time. The dial panel served as a desk; fairly stable except when the cabin swung out onto a new line with a jerk that sent his stylo skittering across the plastic. That sometimes meant blanking out several lines and rewriting them.
Morning was Earth-time, of course. The sun took fourteen days to arc its way across the sky above the Bubble, its glare reduced but not eliminated by the film sprayed on the inside of the huge transparent dome, and then for another fourteen days there was night, the stars and the bright globe of Earth surrounded by the deep blackness of space. That was how it was now but the long lunar night was approaching its end. Tomorrow the sun would be up.
A minute before the journey’s end the dial pinged softly at him. Marty set about gathering his things. He looked out of the side and saw a boy from his class, Ben Trillici, in a cabin that was on a line converging with his toward the school run-in. There was some fun in gauging which would hit the relay first and slide through while the robot controls held the second cabin back. His was the one that made it, and he gave a thumbs-up sign and grinned. Other cabins were coming in and he checked them over to see if Paul was in one. He was not, though. Marty’s guess was that he was already in school; he himself was a couple of minutes later than usual.
It was only at assembly that he realized Paul must be away. He was surprised at that. They had visiphoned the previous evening about a problem in math, and he had seemed O.K. then. Moon-sickness, of course, could come on you pretty quickly. (Even after nearly fifty years of people living in the Bubble the doctors did not understand it completely: they said it was partly a disturbance of the inner ear, partly psychological.) It would have to be Moon-sickness. Owing to the barrier precautions and the isolation there were no other forms of illness. In films he had seen people on Earth suffering from things like flu and head colds, and wondered what it must be like to have to cough and sneeze like that.
The first class was history. They were doing the Roman Empire and Mr. Milligan, the teacher, ran a reconstruct film on the screen. You saw a Roman family on the day of a triumph, watched the yawning slaves prepare breakfast as the deep blue sky paled behind the roofs of the villa, heard the creak of oxcart wheels in the narrow streets where the stone, through the long years, had worn into deep ruts. The family itself consisted of father and mother and five children, two boys and three girls. One of the boys was about Marty’s age. He ate figs and crusty bread for breakfast, washing it down with watered wine, and was dressed in a toga which he had just become old enough to wear. Dawn had broken over the city of Rome, and the sun was a soft gleaming gold in powder blue.
Marty let his gaze stray from that scene to the windows of the classroom. Mr. Milligan had not blanked them; teachers rarely did during the lunar night. They looked through the transparent wall of the Bubble to the plain and distant mountains. Nothing moved or changed there. In the brightness of Earthlight one saw the stretch of flat blackness and the faraway jagged peaks. One or two of the high points dazzled white; signs of a different kind of dawn.
He came back to the film. With the sound track muted, Mr. Milligan was pointing out things of which they ought to take special note: the atrium with its tinkling fountain, the triclinium with couches along three sides of the great dining table. Then the family set out, attended by slaves, for the Senate stand from which they would watch the procession. The girls and their mother rode in litters but the senator and his sons walked through the colorful and now crowded streets. In schools on Earth, Marty gathered, reconstruct films gave you the smell of the scene in addition to sight and sound. He had asked his father why this was not done on the Moon—was it a technical problem? Not technical, his father had said, but a matter of policy. Smell was the most powerful of all the senses, and they did not think it advisable.
English followed. They were on the late nineteenth-century Romantic poets. Mrs. Kahn read Swinburne to them:
The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
From leaf to flower, and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofed heel of a satyr crushes
The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root . . .
Streams, he thought—rushes, grasses standing high by a riverside and full of flowers, trees breaking into leaf in spring after a long winter . . . He knew what they were. He had seen them on television and the movie screen. He had even seen one fantasy film in which satyrs ran wild through a sunlit glade.
He felt a bit lost at recess. Paul and he usually gossiped about TV, or continued one of their interminable games of chess, or just sat about idly and companionably. They kept more or less to themselves. Although everybody knew everybody in the Bubble, people made one or two friends and stuck to them. This morning Marty was on his own. So was Steve du Cros, but he nearly always was alone. He was an orphan, both his parents having been killed in a launch explosion when he was five or six, and a loner. He was not much liked and gave the impression of not minding that: he had a sharp tongue. The teachers were not enthusiastic about him either. He often broke rules and always gave the impression that he might be just going to.
Then, with recess almost over, Marty saw Paul come in at the door. All Lunarians (the name given those who had been born on the Moon) were taller than they would have been on Earth, but Paul was more so than most—a six-footer at fourteen. He had a thin gangling frame and a face that was ugly except when he smiled. That was his usual expression though, and he smiled now, catching sight of Marty. But there was something else in his look, something odd.
Marty said: “How is it? I thought you must have the sickness.”
Paul shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Then how come you missed the first two classes? Not that there was anything to miss.”
“I had to see old Sherrin. Dad brought me in.”
Sherrin was the principal. Marty asked curiously: “What about? Flunking physics in the last exams?”
There was something which he seemed both eager and reluctant to tell. Marty said impatiently: “Then what?”
“My folks have decided that . . . They’re sending me down.”
Sending down meant only one thing, one destination: the globe lighting the black sky above their heads. Marty could not believe it. He said: “But why?”
Paul shrugged. “Some medical stuff.”
“That’s . . .”
“Yes,” Paul said. “Next week.”
• • •
Marty thought about it in the cabin going back, about the whole business of living in the Bubble and what it meant. Those who came here did not go on home leave: the cost of transporting a human being across a quarter of a million miles, although less than it had once been, was still fantastic. You contracted, usually in your early twenties, for twenty-five years’ service. At the end of that time you retired to Earth, with enough money to make your retirement years easy, even luxurious.
This meant living for a quarter of a century under the unnatural artificial conditions which the Moon enforced. As much as possible was done to make them tolerable. There was family life, for instance. Men and women were recruited in roughly equal numbers, with a preference for married couples or those engaged to be married. They could have children, though large families were discouraged. The children grew up in the Bubble, never knowing anything else except at second hand on a screen. At any time after early childhood parents could, if they chose, decide to send them down—send them back to Earth. The snag was that the trip was one-way and once only. Parents and child would not see each other again, except on the expensive inter-world visiphone link, until the end of the parents’ tour of duty. For Lunarians sending down also involved several weeks of conditioning on Earth in a special unit, with gravity slowly built up to full Earth strength and muscles trained to bear the extra weight.
Marty, like Paul, was fourteen. He had been born in the Bubble five years after his mother and father had come to the Moon. Their contract had six more years to run. There had been some talk of his going back to an Earth university when he was nineteen, which would be a year before their return. He had never thought of going down earlier. But neither, so far as he knew, had Paul.
His mother was in the apartment when he arrived. She had a job outside the family, as everyone in the Bubble did, but her duties in the Food Programming Section were geared to fit in with Marty’s school day. She looked tired—more so than usual. She smiled and kissed him, and asked him how school had been. He wondered if she would say something about Paul—news traveled almost instantaneously around the Bubble—but she did not. Because of that, he said nothing either. They talked about ancient Rome; she said it had been her favorite period of history when she was a girl.
He asked her: “Did you ever get to visit there? Rome, I mean?”
She nodded. “We spent a year there once. Father—your grandfather—had lived there when he was an art student.”
“What’s it like?”
“Oh, well . . .” She looked at him. “You’ve seen modern Rome in the films. That one last week.”
“I know. But I mean—what’s it really like?”
She looked away from him. “It’s so long ago, Marty. I don’t remember properly.” She looked through the window toward the ramp. “I think that’s your father.”
Marty glanced at his finger-watch. “It’s too early for him.”
“He said he might get away early today.” The door opened, and she said with what sounded like relief: “Hello, darling.”
They kissed, and his father said: “Hi, boy. They let me off the leash half an hour before time. How about you and me heading up to the reservoir and catching us two or three trout for supper?”
• • •
The reservoir, like the park in which it stood, was one of the things intended to make life more natural. Keeping the recirculated water of the Bubble in this small open lake meant an extra cost in filtering and purifying plant. All such costs had to be very carefully considered. The Moon colony did what it could toward paying its way by mining and refining precious metals which were rocketed back to the mother planet, but apart from that its value lay in the less commercial fields of astronomical, selenographic and interplanetary research. The taxpayers back home footed the bill, and there was small scope for luxuries. This one, though, was regarded as justifiable. The water in the lake was only a degree or so below the Bubble atmospheric temperature of 18° centigrade, and trout flourished in it. Anyone who wanted to fish for natural protein was at liberty to do so. Other fish were grown in tanks. Meat came from the factory farm, with battery chicken as the mainstay.
Marty and his father made their way through the park to their usual fishing spot. There were four carefully trimmed lawns, flower beds and borders, a clump of shrubbery. Everything was calculated for economy and for the carefully planned balance of life in the Bubble. The flowers were specially bred to last and all the shrubs were evergreens: deciduous plants could have been trained to adapt to a world with no seasons, but their falling leaves would have been a nuisance.
The lake had been constructed asymmetrically, in a distorted kidney shape. The Bubble itself had to be a regular hemisphere, but as far as possible things inside it were given irregular shapes and lines in an attempt to avoid monotony. Even so, even with a part of its rim left in the irregular black basalt of the Moon’s natural surface, the pool could not seem anything but artificial. Anyway, there was not an inch of its border, of any place inside the Bubble, that was not as familiar to Marty as the walls of his bedroom. Nothing changed. Changing things would have cost money.
They fished in silence for a time. During lunar night the Bubble was artificially lit by high-poled lamps which were faded out toward the end of the twelve-hour day through a rheostat at the electricity plant. At the moment they were still fully lit. Marty could see the others fishing around them, twenty or thirty, each in the place to which he came automatically. He thought of a feature film he had seen on TV about salmon fishing in Norway, with a thigh-booted man standing out in a torrent that foamed around his legs, and the valley empty to the distant gray horizon.
His father said: “You heard about Paul.”
It was not a question. Marty nodded. “Yes, he told me.”
“I was talking to his father today. There’s a medical factor involved. You know what a long streak Paul has turned into. They’ve always known that rehabilitation to Earth gravity is tougher on tall Lunarians—it’s pretty obvious why—and recently they’ve come to the view that if you leave things too late you get permanent posture trouble. The doctors think Paul’s that sort of case.”
“The Millers aren’t happy about it, but they have to put his health first, of course. They’ve only got three years of contract to run, but it’s a long time.”
Marty asked: “Where will he be living, on Earth?”
“With his grandparents in California. Just outside San Francisco.”
“Sounds like a good place. We’ve been doing the United States in geography.”
“Pretty good. I’m from New England myself.”
Marty knew that, and also knew it was something his parents did not normally talk about. In the Bubble there was a good deal of general talk about Earth—about what TV showed was happening there—but people did not speak much about their own earlier lives.
After a pause, his father said again: “The Millers have only three years to go themselves. That helps.”
“I suppose it does.”
His father cast, and the line floated out across the placid, unrippled waters. He said: “Fifty generations of fish that have never seen a real fly but they still rise to the lure. This is a tricky problem, Marty. I’ve not talked about it before because it’s just about impossible to explain it. Some people send their children down when they’re four or five. That means they grow up as strangers, with strangers. There’s a case for it. You can make a case for doing it at any age. The Dickinsons sent Clive when he was twelve because that was the age for entry to Peter Dickinson’s old boarding school in England.
“We gave it a lot of thought, your mother and I. We decided to keep you till you were ready for a university. Maybe we were being selfish—I don’t know. One of the arguments on our side was that you and Paul were such buddies—had been since you crawled around a sandpit together, before you could walk. I guess that one has kind of blown up in our faces.”
Marty did not say anything. His father went on: “We’ve been thinking about things again. We decided you are old enough to make a decision for yourself. If you want to go down, we’ll fix it.”
“Where would I live?”
“We’ve got relatives in different places. You could have a choice.”
His father had spoken evenly and casually, but Marty realized there was nothing casual about this, nor about the decision he should make. He was excited, and guessed the excitement could have shown in his voice. He was a bit ashamed and, realizing that, realized something else—that it really would mean leaving them, for six long years. He would be down on Earth and they would be still up here in the Bubble. He imagined seeing his mother’s anxious face, not in reality but on the flickering circle of the visiphone screen, rationed to a few minutes at a time. He said quickly: “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to go down.”
“You’re sure of that? You could give it thought. You don’t have to make your mind up right away.”
“I’m sure,” he said. “I’m fine here.”
“Then I’m very glad. Especially on account of your mother. Life here is more of a strain on some people than others. They miss things more, things they knew back on Earth. Your mother does.”
But you don’t, Marty thought with sudden resentment. He looked at his father’s tall, upright figure, the strong chin, high-cheekboned face, steady gray eyes. You’re happy enough here.
“It would have been rough for her if you had decided to go. It’s going to be pretty rough for Mrs. Miller.”
The excitement had gone; in its place there was a sick feeling in his stomach. He had been offered the trip to Earth and had turned it down. He was stuck with the Bubble.
His father said: “Hey, you’re not watching your line! That looks like a big one.”
• • •
He went with the Millers by crawler to the launch station. It was six miles away along the edge of the Sea of Rains, as a precaution against blowups damaging or maybe even destroying the Bubble. The caterpillar tracks took them steadily with occasional jolts across the Moon’s surface, from time to time plunging through dust pockets and sending dust scattering on either side, a shower of floating sparks in the rays of the risen sun.
Nobody spoke much. At the launch station they went on board with Paul and saw him for the last time, with all of them crowded together in the capsule. There was the bunk in which he would lie, cushioned for takeoff. And for landing. It was hard to believe that in a few weeks he would be breathing the air of Earth, not inside a protective dome but out of the whole wide sky of the planet.
Paul said: “You’ll write to me. I’m counting on that.”
“Sure,” Marty said. “You, too. If you don’t find you have too many other things to do.”
But he would, of course. Paul said: “I won’t. Bye, Mom, Dad. I’ll visiphone you right away, soon as I land.”
Mrs. Miller kissed Paul. Mr. Miller put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing hard. Then they had to get out and take a cabin across to the control center. From the viewing level they heard the relay of the countdown, and saw the exhaust gases rise in a fiery cloud from the pit before the ship itself began to rise, sliding out of its sheath, slowly at first and then faster and faster until it was a gleaming, vanishing speck in the sky. That was when Mrs. Miller started crying.
She had stopped by the time they took the crawler back to the Bubble, but the silence was worse than on the way out. Marty left them at the main airlock to make his way home. Mr. Miller said: “Thanks for coming along, Marty.”
Mrs. Miller said: “You’ll come and see us still?” Her hands held his lightly. “We wouldn’t like to lose touch with you, Marty.”
As if one could lose touch with anyone inside the confines of the Bubble. He said: “I won’t lose touch, Mrs. Miller.”