The U.S. mission to the Moon was top secret, and yet somehow, the enemy not only found out about it, but managed to assassinate the mission’s commander. Now Adam Crag has the responsibility for commanding the first manned mission to the Moon… but when Aztec gets there, will they be alone?
FIRST ON THE MOON by Jeff Sutton is a story of the life-or-death race to the Moon between the superpowers and of the First Lunar War!
The room was like a prison–at least to Adam Crag. It was a square with a narrow bunk, a battered desk, two straight-back chairs and little else. Its one small window overlooked the myriad quonsets and buildings of Burning Sands Base from the second floor of a nearly empty dormitory.
There was a sentry at the front of the building, another at the rear. Silent alert men who never spoke to Crag—seldom acknowledged his movements to and from the building—yet never let a stranger approach the weathered dorm without sharp challenge. Night and day they were there. From his window he could see the distant launch site and, by night, the batteries of floodlights illumining the metal monster on the pad. But now he wasn’t thinking of the rocket. He was fretting; fuming because of a call from Colonel Michael Gotch.
“Don’t stir from the room,” Gotch had crisply ordered on the phone. He had hung up without explanation. That had been two hours before.
Crag had finished dressing—he had a date—idly wondering what was in the Colonel’s mind. The fretting had only set in when, after more than an hour, Gotch had failed to show. Greg’s liberty had been restricted to one night a month. One measly night, he thought. Now he was wasting it, tossing away the precious hours. Waiting. Waiting for what?
“I’m a slave,” he told himself; “slave to a damned bird colonel.” His date wouldn’t wait–wasn’t the waiting kind. But he couldn’t leave.
He stopped pacing long enough to look at himself in the cracked mirror above his desk. The face that stared back was lean, hard, unlined–skin that told of wind and sun, not brown nor bronze but more of a mahogany red. Just now the face was frowning. The eyes were wide-spaced, hazel, the nose arrogant and hawkish. A thin white scar ran over one cheek ending.
His mind registered movement behind him. He swiveled around, flexing his body, balanced on his toes, then relaxed, slightly mortified.
Gotch—Colonel Michael Gotch—stood just inside the door, eyeing him. A flush crept over Crag’s face. Damn Gotch and his velvet feet, he thought.
The expression on Gotch’s face was replaced by a wooden mask. He studied the lean man by the mirror for a moment, then flipped his cap on the bed and sat down without switching his eyes.
He said, “You’re it.”
“I’ve got it?” Crag gave an audible sigh of relief. Gotch nodded without speaking.
“What about Temple?”
“Killed last night–flattened by a truck that came over the center-line. On an almost deserted highway just outside the base,” Gotch added. He spoke casually but his eyes were not casual. They were unfathomable black pools. Opaque and hard. Crag wrinkled his brow inquiringly.
“You know better than that. The truck was hot, a semi with bum plates, and no driver when the cops got there.” His voice turned harsh. “No… it was no accident.”
“I’m sorry,” Crag said quietly. He hadn’t known Temple personally. He had been just a name–a whispered name. One of three names, to be exact: Romer, Temple, Crag. Each had been hand-picked as possible pilots of the Aztec, a modified missile being rushed to completion in a last ditch effort to beat the Eastern World in the race for the moon. They had been separately indoctrinated, tested, trained; each had virtually lived in one of the scale-size simulators of the Aztec’s space cabin, and had been rigorously schooled for the operation secretly referred to as “Step One.” But they had been kept carefully apart. There had been a time when no one—unless it were the grim-faced Gotch—knew which of the three was first choice.
Romer had died first–killed as a bystander in a brawl. So the police said. Crag had suspected differently. Now Temple. The choice, after all, had not been the swarthy Colonel’s to make. Somehow the knowledge pleased him. Gotch interrupted his thoughts.
“Things are happening. The chips are down. Time has run out, Adam.” While he clipped the words out he weighed Crag, as if seeking some clue to his thoughts. His face said that everything now depended upon the lean man with the hairline scar across his cheek. His eyes momentarily wondered if the lean man could perform what man never before had done. But his lips didn’t voice the doubt. After a moment he said:
“We know the East is behind us in developing an atomic spaceship. Quite a bit behind. We picked up a lot from some of our atomic sub work–that and our big missiles. But maybe the knowledge made us lax.” He added stridently:
“Now … they’re ready to launch.”
“I didn’t think they were that close.”
“Intelligence tells us they’ve modified a couple of T-3’s–the big ICBM model. We just got a line on it … almost too late.” Gotch smiled bleakly. “So we’ve jumped our schedule, at great risk. It’s your baby,” he added.
Crag said, “I’m glad of the chance.”
“You should be. You’ve hung around long enough,” Gotch said. His eyes probed Crag. “I only hope you’ve learned enough … are ready.”
“Plenty ready,” snapped Crag.
“I hope so.”
Gotch got to his feet, a square fiftyish man with cropped iron-gray hair, thick shoulders and weather-roughened skin. Clearly he wasn’t a desk colonel.
“You’ve got a job, Adam.” His voice was unexpectedly soft but he continued to weigh Crag for a long moment before he picked up his cap and turned toward the door.
“Wait,” he said. He paused, listening for a moment before he opened it, then slipped quietly into the hall, closing the door carefully behind him.
He’s like a cat, Crag thought for the thousandth time, watching the closed door. He was a man who seemed forever listening; a heavy hulking man who walked on velvet feet; a man with opaque eyes who saw everything and told nothing. Gotch would return.
Despite the fact the grizzled Colonel had been his mentor for over a year he felt he hardly knew the man. He was high up in the missile program—missile security, Crag had supposed—yet he seemed to hold power far greater than that of a security officer. He seemed, in fact, to have full charge of the Aztec project—Step One—even though Dr. Kenneth Walmsbelt was its official director. The difference was, the nation knew Walmsbelt. He talked with congressmen, pleaded for money, carried his program to the newspapers and was a familiar figure on the country’s TV screens. He was the leading exponent of the space-can’t-wait philosophy. But few people knew Gotch; and fewer yet his connections. He was capable, competent, and to Crag’s way of thinking, a tough monkey, which pretty well summarized his knowledge of the man.
He felt the elation welling inside him, growing until it was almost a painful pleasure. It had been born of months and months of hope, over a year during which he had scarcely dared hope. Now, because a man had died….
He sat looking at the ceiling, thinking, trying to still the inner tumult. Only outwardly was he calm. He heard footsteps returning. Gotch opened the door and entered, followed by a second man. Crag started involuntarily, half-rising from his chair.
He was looking at himself!
“Crag, meet Adam Crag.” The Colonel’s voice and face were expressionless. Crag extended his hand, feeling a little silly.
“Glad to know you.”
The newcomer acknowledged the introduction with a grin–the same kind of lopsided grin the real Crag wore. More startling was the selfsame hairline scar traversing his cheek; the same touch of cockiness in the set of his face.
Gotch said, “I just wanted you to get a good look at yourself. Crag here”—he motioned his hand toward the newcomer—”is your official double. What were you planning for tonight, your last night on earth?”