The First Man on the Moon: Alfred Coppel
The ship lay at a crazy angle on the stark whiteness of the pumice plain. The rocket nozzles were a fused lump of slag; the fire-darkened hull crumpled and warped by the impact of landing. And there was silence ... complete and utter silence.
There could be no return. Thurmon realized this. At first the thought had brought panic, but, as the scope of his achievement dawned on him, the fear retreated. Bruised, giddy, half-crazed ... the certainty of death held no terrors. Not yet. And it was worth it! Fame ... immortality! Glory ... in return for the last few years of a blighted, embittered, over-shadowed life. Yes, it was well worth it. And, except for the crash-landing and the certainty of no return, it had all come to pass just as he had planned it for so long.
On his knees he caressed the gritty soil. He lifted his arms toward the Day Star flaming in the day-night of space and knew completion. Tears streaked his stubbled face, and strange noises came from his slack mouth. The ecstasy of success was almost unbearable. For this, he had labored a lifetime. For this, he had murdered a friend....
Across the abyss, the whole world waited for word. The transmitter in the rocket had survived the crash. The word would come, thought Thurmon ... when he was ready to send it. And sending it, he would place the official seal of immortality on his brow. The book would close. But wonderfully, satisfyingly. There would be no other to steal his rightful glory. Only Wayne could have done that ... and Wayne was dead. He laughed weirdly within his helmet. So simply done!
The Sea of Serenity stretched out before him in weird magnificence. In the far distance a mountain range rose precipitously from the wilderness of pumice to hump its spiny backbone at the brilliant stars. A limbo of black shadows and stark white talus slopes. Moonscape! Thurmon stumbled to his feet and fought the wave of nausea that surged over him as his equilibrium teetered from the low gravity. Then in an instant his discomfort was forgotten. Standing on the brink of the cosmos, his ego drank of grandeur. All the splendor of Creation lay before him like a jeweled carpet. All his! All for John Thurmon, genius ... explorer ... murderer! For John Thurmon ... first man on the Moon!
With an effort he dragged his eyes from the sky. Slowly, his reason was returning. There was work to do. Wayne must be hidden. The next to come must never know. And it should be done quickly. Time would fly and in the last hours the fear would return. He knew that. Right now his triumph sustained him.
There was the broadcast to look forward to. A billion people waited for his words. It was a sop to his ego, but it could not make him forget that this was costing him his life. On occasion, Thurmon could be realistic, and he knew that, when there was nothing left to do but sit and wait for the end, he would be afraid. Terribly, hideously afraid and alone. It was the only flaw in his plan for immortality. Yet, his life had been a barren thing, devoid of love or any real success. It was little enough to trade. And this was his only chance for lasting fame. He could not let it go.
The plan was working ... almost of its own inertia. He was alone. He was on the Moon, where no man had ever been before him. Not even Wayne. Wayne, who designed the rocket and guided it. Wayne, who had stolen every chance Thurmon had ever had for recognition! Well, Wayne was dead now. He had never put a living foot on the soil of the Moon. Only Thurmon had done that. And it was his passport to eternal glory! No one, no one could take that away from him! Weighed in the loaded balance of his mind, it more than compensated for dying alone and on an alien world. In fact, even the dying would add to the legends, and Thurmon would live forever. The first man on the Moon!
He ran his tongue over dry lips and stooped to pick up the thing at his feet. Wayne's corpse was still bloated from internal pressures, and the naked flesh was drying fast to a parchment-like consistency. Moisture was still seeping in awful little globules from the shattered skull where Thurmon's unseen blow had landed.
Thurmon found himself shuddering. The murder had been the hardest part ... but now it was done ... and all that remained was to give his dead companion a secret resting-place somewhere in the vast expanse of pumice that lay out there under the blistering sun....
Thurmon's unsteady mind swerved from high elation to sadness. Poor Wayne! He felt he could afford to be generous now. So many years of work so soon to be forgotten. Just one quick blow, and poor, poor Wayne slipped into the limbo of the Earth's forgotten....
Under the light gravity, he carried the naked, grisly bundle easily. And, as he walked out into the Mare Tranquilitatis, his spirits rose again. How wonderful it was to be certain that no one could steal his triumph! Not even Wayne. Particularly not Wayne. He looked down at the thing in his arms and chuckled. The sound was uncanny within the pyrex bubble of his helmet.
After what seemed a long time, Thurmon stopped and set down his burden. With his pack-spade he set to work digging a trench in the pumice. As he dug, he found himself crooning happily to the corpse. His voice was high-pitched and hysterical, but of course he did not notice it.
"There, there ... Wayne, old friend ... see? I am making a grave for you. The very first grave, Wayne ... and you shall have it, old friend! Yours the grave and mine the glory!" He laughed hilariously at the thought. "I'll say you didn't make it alive. You didn't, did you? But I made it, Wayne. Me! Alone ... all alone! With no help from you, do you hear?"
Thurmon chattered on, the sound of his crazed voice dying within the confines of his helmet, while all around him the eternal silence of the Sea of Serenity continued unbroken. The stars shown steadily in the airless sky, and the sun flamed in impotent splendor, furiously silent.
At last the pit was done, and Thurmon lowered the nude corpse into the shadows. "Goodbye, Wayne. You see, you shouldn't have come here with me. You shouldn't have tried to steal my success. That was a wrong thing. But you're sorry now, aren't you, old friend? Don't feel too badly, Wayne. I'll join you soon. Goodbye, Wayne. Goodbye...." Laboriously, he shoveled pumice into the pit and tamped it down with his leaded boots. Then he smoothed the surface of the dig until it was as smooth as the rest of the surrounding plain. Satisfied, he turned his back on the grave and started for the rocket.
He sang on the way back, so happy was he to have done with his ghastly companion. Recklessly prodigal of his oxygen supply, he ran toward the open valve of the ship. Breath coming hard, he stumbled into the rocket and across the buckled deck-plates to the radarphone. The tiny atomic batteries hummed as he removed the cadmium dampers. Power flickered the needles of the main set. Thurmon adjusted the selector to "relay" and tuned in his suit radio. Then he returned to sit in the open valve and call the monitoring station.
He smiled with satisfaction as the response cut through the blanket of hissing solar static.
"Hello! Hello, ES-1! This is White Sands! My Lord, we'd given you up for lost! Where are you?"
Thurmon took a steadier grip on his dancing mind and replied:
"Listen carefully. Carefully, you understand? This is John Thurmon. I am on the westernmost edge of the Sea of Serenity on the Moon. Wayne is dead ... he didn't make it. Died during acceleration and I had to dispose of his body in space. Did you get that? I am alone here. The ship crashed on landing. I can't get back ... but it's worth it! I haven't much time left ... but I want everyone to know that I made it. It will be easier now for others ... after I've pointed the way. I'm the first and it's worth it! Did you get that?"
There was a long silence. Finally, the radarman spoke respectfully. "Yes, Thurmon, we got that. Your transmission is being shunted onto the commercial bands. Can you tell us what you see up there? And ... and Thurmon, we all want you to know that our prayers are with you." Tears were flowing on Earth now, Thurmon knew. Tears for a martyr to science doomed to death alone on an alien world. He smiled thinly. Even this tiny taste of deference and respect was heady wine to his frustrated psyche.
Thurmon stepped through the valve and lowered himself to the plain. His heart was pounding triumphantly. Carefully, painstakingly, he began to describe his surroundings, interspersing his words with scientific data. He played the hero well. There was no hysteria recognizable in his voice ... and, if it trembled slightly, there was reason enough for that.
He rounded the bulge of the rocket's nose and looked for the first time at the western edge of the Mare. In the near distance an irregularly-shaped outcropping of rock caught his eye. Transmitting as he went, he made his way toward it.... He drew nearer. And as he did, fear began to stir within him. His steps faltered, but some awful power drew him on. His voice became a shrill rasp in his ears, and on Earth a billion people gasped with horror....
Thurmon shouted the name in fear and threw his arm over his face. But the thing remained. It was real!
"Wayne ... no! IT CAN'T BE! NO...."
But the figure did not move. The vast colossus loomed stark white and naked in the brilliant sunlight. Legs apart, arms folded on its breast, it stared with brooding eyes at the vast emptiness of the lunar plain.
Thurmon howled with terror and fury.
"Damn you! Damn you! Why don't you answer me? I killed you once ... I'll kill you again! I'm the first one here! Do you hear me? I'll kill you again!"
He lowered his head and charged. The last thing he remembered was the soundless tinkle of his shattering helmet, and the terrible pain as his skull cracked under the suddenly shifting pressures....
"... And strangely enough, the story of the race's first conquest of space is the story of one man, Sargon, the Lemurian Immortal, who led his people to the Moon in the misty past of Earth's youth. The Lemurians are gone now, but on the westernmost edge of the Sea of Serenity there stands a statue of Sargon. It stands in magnificent isolation, a monument to the first man on the Moon."
Essays on Tellurian History,
Quintus Bland, Geneva Keep
Press, 12.50 Cr.
[From Planet Stories Spring 1950.]