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Inconstant Moon

by Larry Niven

I

I was watching the news when the change came, like a flicker of motion at the corner of my eye. I turned toward the balcony window. Whatever it was, I was too late to catch it.

The moon was very bright tonight.

I saw that, and smiled, and turned back. Johnny Carson was just starting his monologue.

When the first commercials came on I got up to reheat some coffee. Commercials came in strings of three and four, going on midnight. I’d have time.

The moonlight caught me coming back. If it had been bright before, it was brighter now. Hypnotic. I opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the balcony.

The balcony wasn’t much more than a railed ledge, with standing room for a man and a woman and a portable barbecue set. These past months the view had been lovely, especially around sunset. The Power and Light Company had been putting up a glass-slab style office building. So far it was only a steel framework of open girders. Shadow-blackened against a red sunset sky, it tended to look stark and surrealistic and hellishly impressive.

Tonight…

I had never seen the moon so bright, not even in the desert. Bright enough to read by, I thought, and immediately, but that’s an illusion. The moon was never bigger (I had read somewhere) than a quarter held nine feet away. It couldn’t possibly be bright enough to read by.

It was only three-quarters full!

But, glowing high over the San Diego Freeway to the west, the moon seemed to dim even the streaming automobile headlights. I blinked against its light, and thought of men walking on the moon, leaving corrugated footprints. Once, for the sake of an article I was writing, I had been allowed to pick up a bone-dry moon rock and hold it in my hand…

I heard the show starting again, and I stepped inside. But, glancing once behind me, I caught the moon growing even brighter—as if it had come from behind a wisp of scudding cloud.

Now its light was brain-searing, lunatic.

* * *

The phone rang five times before she answered.

“Hi,” I said. “Listen—”

“Hi,” Leslie said sleepily, complainingly. Damn. I’d hoped she was watching television, like me.

I said, “Don’t scream and shout, because I had a reason for calling. You’re in bed, right? Get up and… can you get up?”

“What time is it?”

“Quarter of twelve.”

“Oh, Lord.”

“Go out on your balcony and look around.”

“Okay.”

The phone clunked. I waited. Leslie’s balcony faced north and west, like mine, but it was ten stories higher, with a correspondingly better view. Through my own window, the moon burned like a textured spotlight.

“Stan? You there?”

“Yah. What do you think of it?”

“It’s gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it. What could make the moon light up like that?”

“I don’t know, but isn’t it gorgeous”?

“You’re supposed to be the native.” Leslie had only moved out here a year ago. “Listen, I’ve never seen it like this. But there’s an old legend,” I said. “Once every hundred years the Los Angeles smog rolls away for a single night, leaving the air as clear as interstellar space. That way the gods can see if Los Angeles is still there. If it is, they roll the smog back so they won’t have to look at it.”

“I used to know all that stuff. Well, listen, I’m glad you woke me up to see it, but I’ve got to get to work tomorrow.”

“Poor baby.”

“That’s life. ’Night.”

“’Night.”

Afterward I sat in the dark, trying to think of someone else to call. Call a girl at midnight, invite her to step outside and look at the moonlight… and she may think it’s romantic or she may be furious, but she won’t assume you called six others.

So I thought of some names. But the girls who belonged to them had all dropped away over the past year or so, after I started spending all my time with Leslie. One could hardly blame them. And now Joan was in Texas and Hildy was getting married, and if I called Louise I’d probably get Gordie too. The English girl? But I couldn’t remember her number. Or her last name.

Besides, everyone I knew punched a time clock of one kind or another. Me, I worked for a living, but as a freelance writer I picked my hours. Anyone I woke up tonight, I’d be ruining her morning. Ah, well…

The Johnny Carson Show was a swirl of gray and a roar of static when I got back to the living room. I turned the set off and went back out on the balcony.

The moon was brighter than the flow of headlights on the freeway, brighter than Westwood Village off to the right. The Santa Monica Mountains had a magical pearly glow. There were no stars near the moon. Stars could not survive that glare.

I wrote science and how-to articles for a living. I ought to be able to figure out what was making the moon do that. Could the moon be suddenly larger?

…Inflating like a balloon? No. Closer, maybe. The moon, falling?

Tides! Waves fifty feet high… and earthquakes! San Andreas Fault splitting apart like the Grand Canyon ! Jump in my car, head for the hills… no, too late already…

Nonsense. The moon was brighter, not bigger. I could see that. And what could possibly drop the moon on our heads like that?

I blinked, and the moon left an afterimage on my retinae. It was that bright.

A million people must be watching the moon right now, and wondering, like me. An article on the subject would sell big… if I wrote it before anyone else did…

There must be some simple, obvious explanation.

Well, how could the moon grow brighter? Moonlight reflected sunlight. Could the sun have gotten brighter? It must have happened after sunset, then, or it would have been noticed…

I didn’t like that idea.

Besides, half the Earth was in direct sunlight. A thousand correspondents for Life and Time and Newsweek and Associated Press would all be calling in from Europe, Asia, Africa… unless they were all hiding in cellars. Or dead. Or voiceless, because the sun was blanketing everything with static, radio and phone systems and television… television: Oh my God.

I was just barely beginning to be afraid.

All right, start over. The moon had become very much brighter. Moonlight, well, moonlight was reflected sunlight; any idiot knew that. Then… something had happened to the sun.

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