Nightfall - Page 1


Chapter One

TO THE READER


Kalgash is an alien world and it is not our intention to have you think that it is identical to Earth, even though we depict its people as speaking a language that you can understand, and using terms that are familiar to you. Those words should be understood as mere equivalents of alien terms-that is, a conventional set of equivalents of the same sort that a writer of novels uses when he has foreign characters speaking with each other in their own language but nevertheless transcribes their words in the language of the reader. So when the people of Kalgash speak of "miles," or "hands," or "cars," or "computers," they mean their own units of distance, their own grasping-organs, their own ground-transportation devices, their own information-processing machines, etc. The computers used on Kalgash are not necessarily compatible with the ones used in New York or London or Stockholm, and the "mile" that we use in this book is not necessarily the American unit of 5,280 feet. But it seemed simpler and more desirable to use these familiar terms in describing events on this wholly alien world than it would have been to invent a long series of wholly Kalgashian terms.


In other words, we could have told you that one of our characters paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything might have seemed ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it would also have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful. The essence of this story doesn't lie in the quantity of bizarre terms we might have invented; it lies, rather, in the reaction of a group of people somewhat like ourselves, living on a world that is somewhat like ours in all but one highly significant detail, as they react to a challenging situation that is completely different from anything the people of Earth have ever had to deal with. Under the circumstances, it seemed to us better to tell you that someone put on his hiking boots before setting out on a seven-mile walk than to clutter the book with quonglishes, vorks, and gleebishes.


If you prefer, you can imagine that the text reads "vorks" wherever it says "miles," "gliizbiiz" wherever it says "hours," and "sleshtraps" where it says "eyes." Or you can make up your own terms. Vorks or miles, it will make no difference when the Stars come out.


-I.A.


-R.S.


If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, bow would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!


-EMERSON


Other world! There is no other world! Here or nowhere is the whole fact.


-EMERSON


It was a dazzling four-sun afternoon. Great golden Onos was high in the west, and little red Dovim was rising fast on the horizon below it. When you looked the other way you saw the brilliant white points of Trey and Patru bright against the purplish eastern sky. The rolling plains of Kalgash's northernmost continent were flooded with wondrous light. The office of Kelaritan 99, director of the Jonglor Municipal Psychiatric Institute, had huge windows on every side to display the full magnificence of it all.


Sheerin 501 of Saro University, who had arrived in Jonglor a few hours before at Kelaritan's urgent request, wondered why he wasn't in a better mood. Sheerin was basically a cheerful person to begin with; and four-sun days usually gave his normally ebullient spirits an additional lift. But today, for some reason, he was edgy and apprehensive, although he was trying his best to keep that from becoming apparent. He had been summoned to Jonglor as an expert on mental health, after all.


"Would you like to start by talking with some of the victims?" Kelaritan asked. The director of the psychiatric hospital was a gaunt, angular little man, sallow and hollow-chested. Sheerin, who was ruddy and very far from gaunt, was innately suspicious of anyone of adult years who weighed less than half of what he did. Perhaps it's the way Kelaritan looks that's upsetting me, Sheerin thought. He's like a walking skeleton.


"Or do you think it's a better idea for you to get some personal experience of the Tunnel of Mystery first, Dr. Sheerin?"


Sheerin managed a laugh, hoping it didn't sound too forced.


"Maybe I ought to begin by interviewing a victim or three," he said. "That way I might be able to prepare myself a little better for the horrors of the Tunnel."


Kelaritan's dark beady eyes flickered unhappily. But it was Cubello 54, the sleek and polished lawyer for the Jonglor Centennial Exposition, who spoke out. "Oh, come now, Dr. Sheerin! 'The horrors of the Tunnel!' That's a little extreme, don't you think? After all, you've got nothing but newspaper accounts to go by, at this point. And calling the patients 'victims.' That's hardly what they are."


"The term was Dr. Kelaritan's," said Sheerin stiffly.


"I'm sure Dr. Kelaritan used that word only in the most general sense. But there's a presupposition in its use that I find unacceptable."


Sheerin said, giving the lawyer a look compounded equally of distaste and professional dispassion, "I understand that several people died as a result of their journey through the Tunnel of Mystery. Is that not so?"


"There were several deaths in the Tunnel, yes. But there's no necessary reason at this point to think that those people died as a result of having gone through the Tunnel, Doctor."


"I can see why you wouldn't want to think so, Counselor," said Sheerin crisply.


Cubello looked in outrage toward the hospital director. "Dr. Kelaritan! If this is the way this inquiry is going to be conducted, I want to register a protest right now. Your Dr. Sheerin is here as an impartial expert, not as a witness for the prosecution!"


Sheerin chuckled. "I was expressing my view of lawyers in general, Counselor, not offering any opinion about what may or may not have happened in the Tunnel of Mystery."


"Dr. Kelaritan!" Cubello exclaimed again, growing red-faced.


"Gentlemen, please," Kelaritan said, his eyes moving back and forth quickly from Cubello to Sheerin, from Sheerin to Cubello. "Let's not be adversaries, shall we? We all have the same objective in this inquiry, as I see it. Which is to discover the truth about what happened in the Tunnel of Mystery, so that a repetition of the-ah-unfortunate events can be avoided."


"Agreed," said Sheerin amiably. It was a waste of time to be sniping at the lawyer this way. There were more important things to be doing.


He offered Cubello a genial smile. "I'm never really much interested in the placing of blame, only in working out ways of heading off situations where people come to feel that blame has to be placed. Suppose you show me one of your patients now, Dr. Kelaritan. And then we can have lunch and discuss the events in the Tunnel as we understand them at this point, and perhaps after we've eaten I might be able to see another patient or two-"


"Lunch?" Kelaritan said vaguely, as though the concept was unfamiliar to him.


"Lunch, yes. The midday meal. An old habit of mine, Doctor. But I can wait just a little while longer. We can certainly visit one of the patients first."


Kelaritan nodded. To the lawyer he said, "Harrim's the one to start with, I think. He's in pretty good shape today. Good enough to withstand interrogation by a stranger, anyway."


"What about Gistin 190?" Cubello asked.


"She's another possibility, but she's not as strong as Harrim. Let him get the basic story from Harrim, and then he can talk to Gistin, and-oh, maybe Chimmilit. After lunch, that is."


"Thank you," said Sheerin.


"If you'll come this way, Dr. Sheerin-"


Kelaritan gestured toward a glassed-in passageway that led from the rear of his office to the hospital itself. It was an airy, open catwalk with a 360-degree view of the sky and the low gray-green hills that encircled the city of Jonglor. The light of the day's four suns came streaming in from all sides.


Pausing for a moment, the hospital director looked to his right, then to his left, taking in the complete panorama. The little man's dour pinched features seemed to glow with sudden youth and vitality as the warm rays of Onos and the tighter, sharply contrasting beams from Dovim, Patru, and Trey converged in a brilliant display.


"What an absolutely splendid day, eh, gentlemen!" Kelaritan cried, with an enthusiasm that Sheerin found startling, coming from someone as restrained and austere as he seemed to be. "How glorious it is to see four of the suns in the sky at the same time! How good it makes me feel when their light strikes my face! Ah, where would we be without our marvelous suns, I wonder?"


"Indeed," said Sheerin.


He was feeling a little better himself, as a matter of fact.


Half a world away, one of Sheerin 501's Saro University colleagues was staring at the sky also. But the only emotion she felt was horror.


She was Siferra 89, of the Department of Archaeology, who had been conducting excavations for the past year and a half at the ancient site of Beklimot on the remote Sagikan Peninsula. Now she stood rigid with apprehension, watching a catastrophe come rushing toward her. -


The sky offered no comfort. In this part of the world the only real light visible just then was that of Tano and Sitha, and their cold, harsh gleam had always seemed joyless, even depressing, to her. Against the deep somber blue of the two-sunday sky it was a baleful, oppressive illumination, casting jagged, ominous shadows. Dovim was in view also-barely, just rising now-right on the horizon, a short distance above the tips of the distant Horkkan Mountains. The dim glow of the little red sun, though, was hardly any more cheering.


But Siferra knew that the warm yellow light of Onos would come drifting up out of the east before long to cheer things up. What was troubling her was something far more serious than the temporary absence of the main sun.


A killer sandstorm was heading straight toward Beklimot. In another few minutes it would sweep over the site, and then anything might happen. Anything. The tents could be destroyed; the carefully sorted trays of artifacts might be overturned and their contents scattered; their cameras, their drafting equipment, their laboriously compiled stratigraphic drawings-everything that they had worked on for so long might be lost in a moment.


Worse. They could all be killed.


Worse yet. The ancient ruins of Beklimot itself-the cradle of civilization, the oldest known city on Kalgash-were in jeopardy.


The trial trenches that Siferra had sliced in the surrounding alluvial plain stood wide open. The onrushing wind, if it was strong enough, would lift even more sand than it was already carrying, and hurl it with terrible force against the fragile remains of Beklimot-scouring, eroding, reburying, perhaps even ripping whole foundations loose and hurling them across the parched plain. Beklimot was a historical treasure that belonged to the entire world. That Siferra had exposed it to possible harm by excavating in it had been a calculated risk. You could never do any sort of archaeological work without destroying something: it was the nature of the job. But to have laid the whole heart of the plain bare like this, and then to have the lousy luck of being hit by the worst sandstorm in a century- No. No, it was too much. Her name would be blackened for aeons to come if the Beklimot site was shattered by this storm as a result of what she had done here.


Maybe there was a curse on this place, as certain superstitious people were known to say. Siferra 89 had never had much tolerance for crackpots of any sort. But this dig, which she had hoped would be the crowning achievement of her career, had been nothing but headaches ever since she started. And now it threatened to finish her professionally for the rest of her life- if it didn't kill her altogether.


Eilis 18, one of her assistants, came running up. He was a slight, wiry man who looked insignificant beside the tall, athletic figure of Siferra.


"We've got everything nailed down that we were able to!" he called to her, half breathless. "It's all up to the gods now!"


She replied, scowling, "Gods? What gods? Do you see any gods around here, Eilis?"


"I simply meant-"


"I know what you meant. Forget it."


From the other side came Thuvvik 443, the foreman of the workers. He was wild-eyed with fear. "Lady," he said. "Lady, where can we hide? There is no place to hide!"


"I told you, Thuvvik. Down below the cliff."


"We will be buried! We will be smothered!"


"The cliff will shelter you, don't worry," Siferra told him, with a conviction she was far from feeling. "Get over there! And make sure everybody else stays there!"


"And you, lady? Why are you not there?"


She gave him a sudden startled glance. Did he think she had some private hiding place where she'd be safer than the rest?


"I'll be there, Thuvvik. Go on! Stop bothering me!"


Across the way, near the six-sided brick building that the early explorers had called the Temple of the Suns, Siferra caught sight of the stocky figure of Balik 338. Squinting, shading his eyes against the chilly light of Tano and Sitha, he stood looking toward the north, the direction from which the sandstorm was coming. The expression on his face was one of anguish.


Balik was their chief stratigrapher, but he was also the expedition's meteorological expert, more or less. It was part of his job to keep the weather records for them andto watch out for the possibility of unusual events.


There wasn't much in the way of weather on the Sagikan Peninsula, normally: the whole place was unthinkably arid, with measurable rainfall no more often than every ten or twenty years. The only unusual climatic event that ever occurred there was a shift in the prevailing pattern of air currents that set cyclonic forces in motion and brought about a sandstorm, and even that didn't happen more than a few times a century.


Was Balik's despondent expression a hint of the guilt he must feel for having failed to foresee the coming of the storm? Or did he look so horrified because he was able now to calculate the full extent of the fury that was about to descend?


Everything might have been different, Siferra told herself, if they'd had a little more time to prepare for the onslaught. In hindsight, she could see that all the telltale signs had been there for those with the wit to notice them-the burst of fierce dry heat, excruciating even by the standards of the Sagikan Peninsula, and the sudden dead calm that replaced the usual steady breeze from the north, and then the strange moist wind that began to blow from the south. The khalla-birds, those weird scrawny scavengers that haunted the area like ghouls, had all taken wing when that wind started blowing, vanishing into the dune-choked western desert as though demons were on their tails.


That should have been the clue, Siferra thought. When the khalla-birds took off and went screaming into the dune country.


But they had all been too busy working at the dig to pay attention to what was going on. Sheer denial, most likely. Pretend that you don't notice the signs of an approaching sandstorm and maybe the sandstorm will go somewhere else. And then that little gray cloud appearing out of nowhere in the far north, that dull stain on the fierce shield of the desert sky, which ordinarily was always as clear as glass- Cloud? Do you see a cloud? I don 't see any clouds.


Denial again.


Now the cloud was an immense black monster filling half the sky. The wind still blew from the south, but it was no longer moist-a searing furnace-blast was what it was, now-and there was another wind, an even stronger one, bearing down from the opposite direction. One wind fed the other. And when they met- "Siferra!" Balik yelled. "Here it comes! Take cover!" "I will! I will!"


She didn't want to. What she wanted to do was run from one zone of the dig to another, looking after everything at once, holding the flaps of the tents down, wrapping her arms around the bundles of precious photographic plates, throwing herself against the face of the newly excavated Octagon House to protect the stunning mosaics that they had discovered the month before. But Balik was right. Siferra had done all she could, this frantic morning, to batten down the site. Now the thing to do was to huddle in, down there below the cliff that loomed at the upper edge of the site, and hope that it would be a bulwark for them against the fullest force of the storm.


She ran for it. Her sturdy, powerful legs carried her easily over the parched, crackling sand. Siferra was not quite forty years old, a tall, strong woman in the prime of her physical strength, and until this moment she had never felt anything but optimism about any aspect of her existence. But suddenly everything was imperiled now: her academic career, her robust good health, maybe even her life itself.


The others were crowded together at the base of the cliff, behind a hastily improvised screen of bare wooden poles with tarpaulins lashed to them. "Move over," Siferra said, pushing her way in among them.


"Lady," Thuvvik moaned. "Lady, make the storm turn back!" As though she were some sort of goddess with magical powers. Siferra laughed harshly. The foreman made some kind of gesture at her-a holy sign, she imagined.


The other workers, all of them men of the little village just east of the ruins, made the same sign and began to mutter at her. Prayers? To her? It was a spooky moment. These men, like their fathers and grandfathers, had been digging at Beklimot all their lives in the employ of one archaeologist or another, patiently uncovering the ancient buildings and sifting through the sand for tiny artifacts. Presumably they had been through bad sandstorms before. Were they always this terrified? Or was this some kind of super storm?


"Here it is," Balik said. "This is it." And he covered his face with his hands.


The full power of the sandstorm broke over them.


Siferra remained standing at first, staring through an opening in the tarpaulins at the monumental cyclopean city wall across the way, as though simply by keeping her gaze fixed on the site she would be able to spare it from harm. But after a moment that became impossible. Gusts of incredible heat came sweeping down, so ferocious that she thought her hair and even her eyebrows would burst into flame. She turned away, raising one arm to shield her face.


Then came the sand, and all vision was blotted out.


It was like a rainstorm, a downpour of all too solid rain. There was a tremendous thundering sound, not thunder at all but only the drumming of a myriad tiny sand particles against the ground. Within that great sound were other ones, a slithery whispering sound, a jagged scraping sound, a delicate drumming sound. And a terrible howling. Siferra imagined tons of sand cascading down, burying the walls, burying the temples, burying the vast sprawling foundations of the residential zone, burying the camp.


And burying all of them.


She turned away, face to the wall of the cliff, and waited for the end to come. A little to her surprise and chagrin, she found herself sobbing hysterically, sudden deep wails rising from the core of her body. She didn't want to die. Of course not: who did? But she had never realized until this moment that there might be something worse than dying.


Beklimot, the most famous archaeological site in the world, the oldest known city of mankind, the foundation of civilization, was going to be destroyed-purely as a result of her negligence. Generations of Kalgash's great archaeologists had worked here in the century and a half since Beklimot's discovery: first Galdo 221, the greatest of them all, and then Marpin, Stinnupad, Shelbik, Numoin, the whole glorious roster-and now Siferra, who had foolishly left the whole place uncovered while a sandstorm was approaching.


So long as Beklimot had been buried beneath the sands, the ruins had slumbered peacefully for thousands of years, preserved as they had been on the day when its last inhabitants finally yielded to the harshness of the changing climate and abandoned the place. Each archaeologist who had worked there since Galdo's day had taken care to expose just a small section of the site, and to put up screens and sand-fences to guard against the unlikely but serious danger of a sandstorm. Until now.


She had put up the usual screens and fences too, of course. But not in front of the new digs, not in the sanctuary area where she had focused her investigations. Some of Beklimot's oldest and finest buildings were there. And she, impatient to begin excavating, carried away by her perpetual buoyant urge to go on and on, had failed to take the most elementary precautions. It hadn't seemed that way to her at the time, naturally. But now, with the demonic roaring of the sandstorm in her ears, and the sky black with destruction- Just as well, Siferra thought, that I won't survive this. And therefore won't have to read what they're going to say about me in every book on archaeology that gets published in the next fifty years. "The great site of Beklimot, which yielded unparalleled data about the early development of civilization on Kalgash until its unfortunate destruction as a result of the slipshod excavation practices employed by the young, ambitious S~ferra 89 of Saro University-"


"I think it's ending," Balik whispered. "What is?" she said.


"The storm. Listen! It's getting quiet out there."


"We must be buried in so much sand that we can't hear anything, that's all."


"No. We aren't buried, Siferra!" Balik tugged at the tarpaulin in front of them and managed to lift it a little way. Siferra peered out into the open area between the cliff and the wall of the city.


She couldn't believe her eyes.


What she saw was the clear deep blue of the sky. And the gleam of sunlight. It was only the bleak, chilly white glow of the double suns Tano and Sitha, but just now it was the most beautiful light she ever wanted to see.


The storm had passed through. Everything was calm again. And where was the sand? Why wasn't everything entombed in sand?


The city was still visible: the great blocks of the stone wall, the shimmering glitter of the mosaics, the peaked stone roof of the Temple of the Suns. Even most of their tents were still standing, including nearly all of the important ones. Only the camp where the workers lived had been badly damaged, and that could be repaired in a few hours.


Astounded, still not daring to believe it, Siferra stepped out of the shelter and looked around. The ground was clear of loose sand. The hard-baked, tight-packed dark stratum that had formed the surface of the land in the excavation zone could still be seen. It looked different now, abraded in a curious scrubbed way, but it was clear of any deposit the storm might have brought.


Balik said wonderingly, "First came the sand, and then came wind behind it. And the wind picked up all the sand that got dropped on us, picked it up as fast as it fell, and scooped it right on along to the south. A miracle, Siferra. That's the only thing we can call it. Look-you can see where the ground's been scraped, where the whole shallow upper layer of ground sand's been cleaned away by the wind, maybe fifty years' worth of erosion in five minutes, but-"


Siferra was scarcely listening. She caught Balik by the arm and turned him to the side, away from the main sector of their excavation site.


"Look there," she said. "Where? What?"


She pointed. "The Hill of Thombo."


The broad-shouldered stratigrapher stared. "Gods! It's been slit right up the middle!"


The Hill of Thombo was an irregular middling-high mound some fifteen minutes' walk south of the main part of the city. No one had worked it in well over a hundred years, not since the second expedition of the great pioneer Galdo 221, and Galdo hadn't found anything of significance in it. It was generally considered to be nothing but a midden-heap on which the citizens of old Beklimot had tossed their kitchen garbage-interesting enough of itself, yes, but trivial in comparison with the wonders that abounded everywhere else in the site.


Apparently, though, the Hill of Thombo had taken the fullest brunt of the storm: and what generations of archaeologists had not bothered to do, the violence of the sandstorm had achieved in only a moment. An erratic zigzagging strip had been ripped from the face of the hill, like some terrible wound laying bare much of the interior of its upper slope. And experienced field workers like Siferra and Balik needed only a single glance to understand the importance of what was now exposed.


"A town site under the midden," Balik murmured.


"More than one, I think. Possibly a series," Siferra said.


"You think?"


"Look. Look there, on the left."


Balik whistled. "Isn't that a wall in crosshatch style, under the corner of that cyclopean foundation?"


"You've got it."


A shiver ran down Siferra's spine. She turned to Balik and saw that he was as astounded as she was. His eyes were wide, his face was pale.


"In the name of Darkness!" he muttered huskily. "What do we have here, Siferra?"


"I'm not sure. But I'm going to start finding out right this minute." She looked back at the shelter under the cliff, where Thuvvjk and his men still crouched in terror, making holy signs and babbling prayers in low stunned voices as if unable to comprehend that they were safe from the power of the storm. "Thuvvik!" Siferra yelled, gesturing vigorously, almost angrily, at him. "Come on out of there, you and your men! We've got work to do!"


Harrim 682 was a big beefy man of about fifty, with great slabs of muscle bulging on his arms and chest, and a good thick insulating layer of fat over that. Sheerin, studying him through the window of the hospital room, knew right away that he and Harrim were going to get along.


"I've always been partial to people who are, well, oversized," the psychologist explained to Kelaritan and Cubello. "Having been one myself for most of my life, you understand. Not that I've ever been a muscleman like this one." Sheerin laughed pleasantly. "I'm blubber through and through. Except for here, of course," he added, tapping the side of his head. -"What kind of work does this Harrim do?"


"Longshoreman," Kelaritan said. "Thirty-five years on the Jonglor docks. He won a ticket to the opening day of the Tunnel of Mystery in a lottery. Took his whole family. They were all affected to some degree, but he was the worst. That's very embarrassing to him, that a great strong man like him should have such a total breakdown."


"I can imagine," Sheerin said. "I'll take that into account. Let's talk with him, shall we?"


They entered the room.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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