Nightfall - Page 2


Chapter Two

Harrim was sitting up, staring without interest at a spinner cube that was casting light in half a dozen colors on the wall opposite his bed. He smiled affably enough when he saw Kelaritan, but seemed to stiffen when he noticed the lawyer Cubello walking behind the hospital director, and his face turned completely glacial at the sight of Sheerin.


"Who's he?" he asked Kelaritan. "Another lawyer?"


"Not at all. This is Sheerin 501, from Saro University. He's here to help you get well."


"Huh," Harrim snorted. "Another double-brain! What good have any of you done for me?"


"Absolutely right," Sheerin said. "The only one who can really help Harrim get well is Harrim, eh? You know that and I know that, and maybe I can persuade the hospital people here to see that too." He sat down on the edge of the bed. It creaked beneath the psychologist's bulk. "At least they have decent beds in this place, though. They must be pretty good if they can hold the two of us at the same time. -Don't like lawyers, I gather? You and me both, friend."


"Miserable troublemakers is all they are," Harrim said. "Full of tricks, they are. They make you say things you don't mean, telling you that they can help you if you say such-and-such, and then they end up using your own words against you. That's the way it seems to me, anyway."


Sheerin looked up at Kelaritan. "Is it absolutely necessary that Cubello be here for this interview? I think it might go a little more smoothly without him."


"I am authorized to take part in any-" Cubello began stiffly. "Please," Kelaritan said, and the word had more force than politeness behind it. "Sheerin's right. Three visitors at once may be too many for Harrim-today, anyway. And you've already heard his story."


"Well-" Cubello said, his face dark. But after a moment he turned and went out of the room.


Sheerin surreptitiously signaled to Kelaritan that he should take a seat in the far corner.


Then, turning to the man in the bed, he smiled his most agreeable smile and said, "It's been pretty rough, hasn't it?"


"You said it."


"How long have you been in here?"


Harrim shrugged. "I guess a week, two weeks. Or maybe a little more. I don't know, I guess. Ever since-"


He fell silent.


"The Jonglor Exposition?" Sheerin prompted.


"Since I took that ride, yes."


"It's been a little more than just a week or two," Sheerin said.


"Has it?" Harrim's eyes took on a glazed look. He didn't want to hear about how long he'd been in the hospital.


Changing tack, Sheerin said, "I bet you never dreamed a day would come when you'd tell yourself you'd be glad to get back to the docks, eh?"


With a grin, Harrim said, "You can say that again! Boy, what I wouldn't give to be slinging those crates around tomorrow." He looked at his hands. Big, powerful hands, the fingers thick, flattened at the tips, one of them crooked from some injury long ago. "I'm getting soft, laying here all this time. By the time I get back to work I won't be any good any more."


"What's keeping you here, then? Why don't you just get up and put your Street clothes on and get out of here?"


Kelaritan, from the corner, made a warning sound. Sheerin gestured at him to keep quiet.


Harrim gave Sheerin a startled look. "Just get up and walk out?"


"Why not? You aren't a prisoner."


"But if I did that-if I did that-" The dockworker's voice trailed off.


"If you did that, what?" Sheerin asked.


For a long while Harrim was silent, face downcast, brow heavily knitted. Several times he began to speak but cut himself off. The psychologist waited patiently. Finally Harrim said, in a tight, husky, half-strangled tone, "I can't go out there. Because of the-because-because of the-" He struggled with himself. "The Darkness," he said.


"The Darkness," said Sheerin.


The word hung there between them like a tangible thing.


Harrim looked troubled by it, even abashed. Sheerin remembered that among people of Harrim's class it was a word that was rarely used in polite company. To Harrim it was, if not actually obscene, then in some sense sacrilegious. No one on Kalgash liked to think about Darkness; but the less education one had, the more threatening it was to let one's mind dwell on the possibility that the six friendly suns might somehow totally disappear from the sky all at once, that utter blackness might reign. The idea was unthinkable-literally unthinkable.


"The Darkness, yes," Harrim said. "What I'm afraid of is that-that if I go outside I'll find myself in the Darkness again. That's what it is. The Dark, all over again."


"Complete symptom reversal in the last few weeks," Kelaritan said in a low voice. "At first it was just the opposite. You couldn't get him to go indoors unless you sedated him. A powerful case of claustrophobia first, that is, and then after some time the total switch to claustrophilia. We think it's a sign that he's healing." -


"Maybe so," Sheerin said. "But if you don't mind-"


To Harrim he said, gently, "You were one of the first to ride through the Tunnel of Mystery, weren't you?"


"On the very first day." A note of pride came into Harrim's voice. "There was a city lottery. A hundred people won free rides. There must have been a million tickets sold, and mine was the fifth one picked. Me, my wife, my son, my two daughters, we all went on it. The very first day."


"Do you want to tell me a little about what it was like?"


"Well," Harrim said. "It was-" He paused. "I never was in Darkness ever, you know. Not even a dark room. Not ever. It wasn't something that interested me. We always had a godlight in the bedroom when I was growing up, and when I got married and had my own house I just naturally had one there too. My wife feels the same way. Darkness, it isn't natural. It isn't anything that was meant to be."


"Yet you entered the lottery."


"Well, this was just once. And it was like entertainment, you know? Something special. A holiday treat. The big exposition, the five hundredth year of the city, right? Everybody was buying tickets. And I figured, this must be something different, this must be something really good, or why else would they have built it? So I bought the ticket. And when I won, everybody at the docks was jealous, they all wished they had the ticket, some of them even wanted to buy it from me- 'No, sir,' I told them, 'not for sale, me and my family, this is our ticket-'


"So you were excited about taking the ride in the Tunnel?"


"Yeah. You bet."


"And when you were actually doing it? When the ride started? What did that feel like?"


"Well-" Harrim began. He moistened his lips, and his eyes seemed to look off into a great distance. "There were these little cars, you see, nothing but slats inside for seats, and the cars were open on top. You got in, six people in each one, except they let just the five of us go together, because we were all one family, and it was almost enough to fill a whole car without putting a stranger in with us. And then you heard music and the car started to move into the Tunnel. Very slow, it went, not like a car on the highway would, just creeping along. And then you were inside the Tunnel. And then-then-"


Sheerin waited again.


"Go on," he said after a minute, when Harrim showed no sign of resuming. "Tell me about it. I really want to know what it was like."


"Then the Darkness," Harrim said hoarsely. His big hands were trembling at the recollection. "It came down on you like they dropped a giant hat over you, you know? And everything turned black all at once." The trembling was becoming a violent tremor. "I heard my son Trinit laugh. He's a wise guy, Trinit is. He thought the Darkness was something dirty, I bet you. So he was laughing, and I told him to shut up, and then one of my daughters began to cry a little, and I told her it was okay, that there was nothing to worry about, that it was just going to be for fifteen minutes, and she ought to look at it like it was a treat, not something to be scared of. And then-then-"


Silence again. This time Sheerin didn't prompt.


"Then I felt it closing in on me. Everything was Darkness-Darkness-you can't imagine what it was like-you can't imagine-how black it was-how black-the Darkness-the Darkness-"


Suddenly Harrim shuddered, and great racking sobs came from him, almost like convulsions.


"The Darkness-oh, God, the Darkness-!"


"Easy, man. There's nothing to be afraid of here. Look at the sunlight! Four suns today, Harrim. Easy, man."


"Let me take care of this," Kelaritan said. He had come rushing to the bedside when the sobbing began. A needle glinted in his hand. He touched it to Harrim's burly arm, and there was a brief whirr of sound. Harrim grew calm almost at once. He slumped back against his pillow, smiling glassily. -"We need to leave him now," said Kelaritan.


"But I've hardly only begun to-"


"He won't make any sense again for hours, now. We might as well go for lunch."


"Lunch, yes," Sheerin said halfheartedly. To his own surprise he felt almost rio appetite at all. He could scarcely remember a time when he had felt that way. "And he's one of your strongest ones?"


"One of the most stable, yes."


"What are the others like, then?"


"Some are completely catatonic. Others need sedation at least half the time. In the first stage, as I said, they don't want to come in out of the open. When they emerged from the Tunnel they seemed to be in perfect order, you understand, except that they had developed instant claustrophobia. They would refuse to go into buildings-any buildings, including palaces, mansions, apartment houses, tenements, huts, shacks, lean-tos, and tents."


Sheerin felt a profound sense of shock. He had done his doctoral work in darkness-induced disorders. That was why they had asked him to come here. But he had never heard of anything as extreme as this. "They wouldn't go indoors at all? Where'd they sleep?"


"In the open."


"Did anyone try to force them inside?"


"Oh, they did, of course they did. Whereupon these people went into violent hysterics. Some of them even became suicidal-they'd run up to a wall and hit their heads against it, things like that. Once you did get them inside, you couldn't keep them there without a straitjacket and a good stiff injection of some strong sedative."


Sheerin looked at the big longshoreman, who was sleeping now, and shook his head.


"The poor devils."


"That was the first phase. Harrim's in the second phase now, the claustrophilic one. He's adapted to being here, and the whole syndrome has swung completely around. He knows that it's safe in the hospital: bright lights all the time. But even though he can see the suns shining through the window he's afraid to go outside. He thinks it's dark out there."


"But that's absurd," Sheerin said. "It's never dark out there."


The instant he said it, he felt like a fool.


Kelaritan rubbed it in all the same, though. "We all realize that, Dr. Sheerin. Any sane person does. But the trouble with the people who have undergone trauma in the Tunnel of Mystery is that they are no longer sane."


"Yes. So I gather," said Sheerin shamefacedly.


"You can meet some of our other patients later today," Kelaritan said. "Perhaps they'll provide you with some other perspectives on the problem. And then tomorrow we'll take you over to see the Tunnel itself. We have it closed down, of course, now that we know the difficulties, but the city fathers are very eager to find some way to reopen it. The investment, I understand, was immense. But we should have lunch first, yes, Doctor?"


"Lunch, yes," said Sheerin once again, even less enthusiastically than before.


The great dome of the Saro University Observatory, rising majestically to dominate the forested slopes of Observatory Mount, glinted brilliantly in the light of late afternoon. The small red orb of Dovim had already slipped beyond the horizon, but Onos was still high in the west, and Trey and Patru, crossing the eastern sky on a sharp diagonal, etched shining trails of brightness along the dome's immense face.


Beenay 25, a slender, agile young man with a quick, alert way of carrying himself, darted briskly about the small apartment below the Observatory in Saro City that he shared with his contract-mate, Raissta 717, gathering his books and papers together.


Raissta, sprawled comfortably on the worn green upholstery of their little couch, looked up and frowned.


"Going somewhere, Beenay?"


"To the Observatory."


"It's so early, though. You usually don't go there until after Onos sets. And that won't be for hours yet."


"I've got an appointment today, Raissta."


She gave him a warm, seductive look. They were both graduate students in their late twenties, each an assistant professor, he in astronomy, she in biology, and they had been contract-mates only seven months. Their relationship was still in its first bloom of excitement. But problems had already arisen. He did his work in the late hours, when usually only a few of the lesser suns were in the sky. She was at her freshest and best in the period of high daylight, under the golden glow of bright Onos.


Lately he had spent more and more time at the Observatory, and it was getting so that they were almost never awake at the same time. Beenay knew how trying that was for her. It was trying for him. All the same, the work he was doing on Kalgash's orbit was demanding stuff, and it was leading him into ever more difficult regions that he found both challenging and frightening. If only Raissta would be patient just another few weeks-a month or two, maybe- "Can't you stay here a little while longer this evening?" she asked.


His heart sank. Raissta was giving him her come-here-andlet's-play look. Not easy to resist, nor did he really want to. But Yimot and Faro would be waiting.


"I told you. I have an-"


"-appointment, yes. Well, so do I. With you."


"Me?"


"You said yesterday you might have some free time this afternoon. I was counting on that, you know. I cleared a whole swatch of free time of my own-did my lab work in the morning, as a matter of fact, just so-"


Worse and worse, Beenay thought. He did remember saying something about this afternoon, completely overlooking the fact that he had arranged to meet the two younger students.


She was pouting now, and somehow smiling at the same time, a trick that she managed to perfection. Beenay wanted to forget all about Faro and Yimot and go to her right away. But if he did that, he might be an hour late for his appointment with them, which wasn't fair. Two hours, maybe.


And he had to admit to himself that he was desperately eager to know whether their calculations had confirmed his own.


It was practically an even struggle: the powerful appeal of Raissta on the one hand, and the desire to put his mind at rest concerning a major scientific issue on the other. And though he had an obligation to be on time for his appointment, Beenay realized in some confusion that he had made an appointment of sorts with Raissta too-and that was a matter not only of obligation but of delight.


"Look," he said, going to the couch and taking her hand in his. "I can't be in two places at once, okay? And when I told you what I did yesterday, it had slipped my mind that Faro and Yimot would be coming to the Observatory to see me. But I'll make a deal with you. Let me get up there and take care of the thing with them, and then I'll skip out and be back here a couple of hours from now. How does that sound?"


"You're supposed to be photographing those asteroids this evening," she said, pouting again, and not smiling at all this time.


"Damn! Well, I'll ask Thilanda to do the camera work for me, or Hikkinan. Or somebody. I'll be back by Onos-set, that's a promise."


"A promise?"


He squeezed her hand and gave her a qui?k sly grin. "One that I'll actually keep. You can bet on that. Okay? You aren't angry?"


"Well-"


"I'll get Faro and Yimot out of the way as fast as I can."


"You'd better." As he began to assemble his papers again she said, "What is this business with Faro and Yimot that's so terribly important, anyway?"


"Lab work. Gravitational studies."


"Doesn't sound all that important to me, I have to say."


"I hope it turns out not to be important to anybody," Beenay replied. "But that's something I need to find out right now."


"I wish I knew what you were talking about."


He glanced at his watch and took a deep breath. He could stay here another minute or two, he supposed. "You know I've been working lately on the problem of the orbital motion of Kalgash around Onos, don't you?"


"Of course."


"All right. A couple of weeks ago I turned up an anomaly. My orbital numbers didn't fit the Theory of Universal Gravitation. So I checked them, naturally, but they came Out the same way the second time. And the third. And the fourth. Always the same anomaly, no matter what method of calculation I used."


"Oh, Beenay, I'm so very sorry to hear that. You've worked so hard on this, I know, and to discover that your conclusions aren't right-"


"What if they are, though?"


"But you said-"


"I don't know if my math is right or wrong, at this point. As far as I can tell it is, but it doesn't seem conceivable that that can be so. I've checked and checked and checked, and I get the same result each time, with all sorts of cross-checks built in to tell me that I haven't made an error in computation. But the result that I'm getting is an impossible one. The only explanation I can come up with is that I'm starting from a cockeyed assumption and doing everything else right from then on, in which case I'm going to come up with the same wrong answer no matter which method of checking my calculations I use. I might just be blind to a fundamental problem at the base of my whole set of postulates. If you start with the wrong figure for planetary mass, for instance, you'll get the wrong orbit for your planet no matter how accurate the rest of your calculations may be. Are you following me?"


"So far, yes."


"Therefore I've given the problem to Faro and Yimot, without really telling them what it's all about, and asked them to calculate the whole thing from scratch. They're bright kids. I can count on them to do decent math. And if they end up with the same conclusion I did, even though they're coming at it from an angle that completely excludes whatever error I might have built into my own line of reasoning, then I'll have to admit that my figures are right after all."


"But they can't be right, Beenay. Didn't you say that your findings are contrary to the Universal Law of Gravitation?"


"What if the Universal Law is wrong, Raissta?"


"What? What?"


She stared at him. There was utter bewilderment in her eyes. "You see the problem?" Beenay asked. "Why I need to know right away what Yimot and Faro have found?"


"No," she said. "No, I don't understand at all."


"We can talk about it later. I promise."


"Beenay-" Half in despair.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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