Nightfall - Page 5


Chapter Five

"What's that? I can't hear what you're saying!"


Beenay realized that he hadn't managed to get out anything more than a croak. "It's Beenay, I said! I-I want to change our appointment time."


"To change it? Look, fellow, I understand how you feel about mornings, because so do I. But I've absolutely got to talk to you no later than noon tomorrow or I'll have no story here. I'll make it up to you any way I can, but-"


"You don't understand. I want to see you sooner, not later, Theremon."


"What?"


"This evening. Let's say half past nine. Or ten, if you can't make it."


"I thought you had photographs to take at the Observatory."


"The deuce with the photos, man. I need to see you."


"Need to? Beenay, what's happened? Is it something with Raissta?"


"It has nothing to do with Raissta in the slightest. Half past nine? At the Six Suns?"


"Six Suns, half past nine, yes," Theremon said. "It's a date." Beenay broke the contact and sat for a long moment staring at the rolled paper cylinder before him, somberly shaking his head. He felt fractionally calmer now, but only fractionally. Confiding in Theremon would make it easier to bear the burden of all this. He trusted Theremon completely. Newsmen were generally not noted for their trustworthiness, Beenay knew, but Theremon was a friend first, a journalist after that. He had never betrayed Beenay's confidence, not once.


Even so, Beenay didn't have any idea of his next move. Maybe Theremon would be able to come up with something. Maybe.


He left the Observatory by the back stairs, sneaking out by the fire escape like a thief. He didn't dare risk the possibility of running into Athor by going out the main way. It was appalling to him to consider the possibility of seeing Athor now, having to confront him face to face, man to man.


He found the motor scooter ride home a terrifying one. At every moment he was afraid that the laws of gravity would cease to hold true, that he would go soaring off into the heavens. But at last Beenay reached the little apartment that he shared with Raissta 717.


She gasped when she saw him.


"Beenay! You're white as a-"


"Ghost, yes." He reached for her and pulled her close against him. "Hold me," he said. "Hold me."


"What is it? What happened?"


"I'll tell you later," he said. "Just hold me."


Theremon was at the Six Suns Club a little after nine. It was probably a good idea to get a head start on Beenay, a quick drink or two first, just to lubricate his brain a little. The astronomer had sounded awful-as though he was keeping hysteria at bay only by some tremendous effort. Theremon couldn't imagine what terrible thing could have happened to him, there in the seclusion and stillness of the Observatory, to make such a wreck out of him in so short a time. But plainly Beenay was in big trouble, and plainly he was going to need the highest-quality help Theremon could provide.


"Let me have a Tano Special," Theremon told the waiter. "No, wait-make it a double. A Tano Sitha, okay?"


"Double white light," the waiter said. "Coming up."


The evening was mild. Theremon, who was well known here and received special treatment, had been given his regular warm-weather table on the terrace overlooking the city. The lights of downtown sparkled gaily. Onos had set an hour or two ago, and only Trey and Patru were in the sky, burning brightly in the east, casting harsh twin shadows as they made their descent toward morning.


Looking at them, Theremon wondered which suns would be in the sky tomorrow. It was different all the time, a brilliant ever changing display. Onos, certainly-you could always be sure of seeing Onos at least part of the time every day of the year, even he knew that-and then what? Dovim, Tano, and Sitha, to make it a four-sun day? He wasn't sure. Maybe it was supposed to be just Tano and Sitha, with Onos visible only for a few hours at midday. That would be gloomy. But then, after a second sip, he reminded himself that this wasn't the season for short Onos-rises. So it would be a three-sun day, most likely, unless it was going to be just Onos and Dovim tomorrow.


It was so hard to keep it all straight- Well, he could ask to see an almanac, if he really cared. But he didn't. Some people always seemed to know what tomorrow's suns would be like-Beenay was one, naturally-but Theremon took a more happy-go-lucky approach to it all. So long as some sun was going to be up there the next day, Theremon didn't especially care which one it was. And there always was one-two or three, actually, or sometimes four. You could count on that. Even five, once in a while.


His drink arrived. He took a deep gulp and exhaled in pleasure. What a delightful thing a Tano Special was! The good strong white rum of the Velkareen Islands, mixed with a shot of the even stronger product, clear and tangy, that they distilled on the coast of Bagilar, and just a dab of sgarrino juice to take the edge off-ah, magnificent! Theremon wasn't a particularly heavy drinker, certainly not the way newspapermen were legendarily supposed to be, but he counted it a shabby day when he couldn't find time for one or two Tano Specials in those quiet dusky hours after Onos had set.


"You look like you're enjoying that, Theremon," a familiar voice said behind him.


"Beenay! You're early!"


"Ten minutes. What are you drinking?"


"The usual. A Tano Special."


"Good. I think I'll have one too."


"You?" Theremon stared at his friend. Fruit juice was about Beenay's speed, so far as he knew. He couldn't recall ever having seen the astronomer drink anything stronger.


But Beenay looked strange this evening-haggard, weary, worn. His eyes had an almost feverish glow to them.


"Waiter!" Theremon called.


It was alarming to see Beenay gulp his drink. He gasped after the first slug, as though the impact was a lot greater than he'd been expecting, but then he went back to it quickly for a second deep pull, and a third.


"Easy," Theremon urged. "Your head'll be swimming in five minutes."


"It's swimming already."


"You had a drink before you came here?" -


"No, not a drink," Beenay said. "A shock. An upset." He put his drink down and peered balefully at the city lights. After a moment he picked it up again, almost absent-mindedly, and drained what was left. -"I shouldn't have another one so soon, should I, Theremon?"


"I doubt it very much." Theremon reached out and let his hand rest lightly on the astronomer's wrist. "What's going on, fellow? Tell me about it."


"It's-hard to explain."


"Come on. I've been around the track a little, you know. You and Raissta-"


"No! I told you before, this has nothing to do with her. Nothing."


"All right. I believe you."


Beenay said, "Maybe I should have that second drink."


"In a little while. Come on, Beenay. What is it?"


Beenay sighed. "You know what the Theory of Universal Gravitation is, don't you, Theremon?"


"Of course I do. I mean, I couldn't tell you what it means, exactly-there are only twelve people on Kalgash who truly understand it, isn't that so?-but I can certainly tell you what it is-more or less."


"So you believe that garbage too," Beenay said, with a harsh laugh. "About the Theory of Gravitation being so complicated that only twelve people can understand its math."


"That's what I've always heard."


"What you've always heard is ignorant folk wisdom," said Beenay. "I could give you all the essential math in a sentence, and you'd probably understand what I was saying, too."


"You could? I would?"


"No question of it. Look, Theremon: the Law of Universal Gravitation-the Theory of Universal Gravitation, I mean- states that there exists a cohesive force among all bodies of the universe, such that the amount of this force between any two given bodies is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them. It's that simple."


"That's all there is to it?"


"That's enough! It took four hundred years to develop it."


"Why that long? It seems simple enough, the way you put it."


"Because great laws aren't divined by flashes of inspiration, no matter what you newspaper people like to believe. It usually takes the combined work of a worldful of scientists over a period of centuries. Ever since Genovi 41 discovered that Kalgash rotates around Onos, rather than vice versa-and that was about four centuries ago-astronomers have been working on the problem of why all six of the suns appear and disappear in the sky as they do. The complex motions of the six were recorded and analyzed and unwoven. Theory after theory was advanced and checked and counterchecked and modified and abandoned and revived and converted to something else. It was a deuce of a job."


Theremon nodded thoughtfully and finished off his drink. He signaled the waiter for two more. Beenay seemed calm enough so long as he was talking about science, he thought.


"It was some thirty years ago," the astronomer continued, "that Athor 77 put the touch of perfection on the whole thing by demonstrating that the Theory of Universal Gravitation accounts exactly for the orbital motions of the six suns. It was an amazing achievement. It was one of the greatest feats of sheer logic anyone has ever accomplished."


"I know how you revere that man," Theremon said. "But what does all this have to do with-"


"I'm getting to the point." Beenay rose and walked to the edge of the terrace, carrying his second drink with him. He stood there in silence for a time, looking out at distant Trey and Patru. It seemed to Theremon that Beenay was growing agitated again. But the newspaperman said nothing. After a time Beenay took a long gulp of his drink. Standing with his back still turned, he said finally, "The problem is this. A few months ago I began working on a recalculation of the motions of Kalgash around Onos, using the big new university computer. I provided the computer with the last six weeks' actual observations of Kalgash's orbit and told it to predict the orbital movements for the rest of the year. I didn't expect any surprises. Mainly I just wanted an excuse to fool around with the computer, I guess. Naturally, I used the gravitational laws in setting up my calculations." He swung around suddenly. His face had a bleak, haunted look. "Theremon, it didn't come out right."


"I don't understand."


"The orbit the computer produced didn't match up with the hypothetical orbit I was expecting to get. I don't mean that I was simply working on the basis of a pure Kalgash-Onos system, you realize. I took into account all perturbations that the other suns would cause. And what I got-what the computer was claiming to be the true orbit of Kalgash-was something very different from the orbit that is indicated by Athor's Theory of Gravitation."


"But you said you used Athor's gravitational laws in setting things up," said Theremon, puzzled.


"I did."


"Then how-" Suddenly Theremon's eyes brightened. "Good lord, man! What a story! Are you telling me that the brand-new supercomputer at Saro University, installed at a cost of I don't want to think how many millions of credits, is inaccurate? That there's been a gigantic scandalous waste of the taxpayers' money? That-"


"There's nothing wrong with the computer, Theremon. Believe me."


"Can you be sure of that?"


"Positive."


"Then-what-" -


"I might have given the computer erroneous figures, maybe. It's a terrific computer, but it can't get the right answer from the wrong data." -


"So that's why you're so upset, Beenay! Listen, man, it's only human to make an error once in a while. You mustn't be so harsh on yourself. You-"


"I needed to be completely certain that I had fed the right numbers into the computer, first of all, and also that I had given it the right theoretical postulates to use in processing those numbers," said Beenay, clutching his glass so tightly that his hand shook. The glass was empty now, Theremon noticed. "As you say, it's only human to make an error once in a while. So I called in a couple of hotshot young graduate students and let them work on the problem. They had their results for me today. That was the meeting I had that was so important, when I said I couldn't see you. Theremon, they confirmed my findings. They got the same deviation in the orbit that I did."


"But if the computer was right, then-then-" Theremon shook his head. "Then what? The Theory of Universal Gravitation is wrong? Is that what you're saying?"


"Yes."


The word appeared to have come from Beenay at a terrible price. He seemed stunned, dazed, devastated.


Theremon studied him. No doubt this was confusing for Beenay, and probably very embarrassing. But the journalist still couldn't understand why the impact of all this on him was so powerful.


Then abruptly he understood everything.


"It's Athor! You're afraid of hurting Athor, aren't you?"


"That's it exactly," said Beenay, giving Theremon a look of almost pathetic gratitude for having seen the true situation. He threw himself down in his chair, shoulders hunched, head lowered. In a muffled voice he said, "It would kill the old man to know that someone's poked a hole in his wonderful theory. That I, of all people, had poked a hole in it. He's been like a second father to me, Theremon. Everything I've accomplished in the past ten years has been done under his guidance, with his encouragement, with-with, well, his love, in a manner of speaking. And now I repay it like this. I wouldn't just be destroying his life's work-I'd be stabbing him, Theremon, him."


"Have you considered simply suppressing your findings?"


Beenay looked astonished. "You know I couldn't do that!"


"Yes. Yes, I do know. But I had to find out whether you were thinking of it."


"Whether I was thinking of the unthinkable? No, of course not. It never entered my mind. But what am I going to do, Theremon? -I suppose I could just throw all the papers away and pretend I never looked into the whole subject. But that would be monstrous. So what it comes down to is, I have a choice between violating my own scientific conscience and ruining Athor. Ruining the man I look upon not simply as the head of my profession but as my own philosophical mentor."


"He can't have been much of a mentor, then."


The astronomer's eyes widened in astonishment and fury. "What are you saying, Theremon!" -


"Easy. Easy." Theremon spread his hands wide in a conciliatory gesture. "It seems to me you're being awfully condescending to him, Beenay. If Athor's really the great man you think he is, he's not going to put his own reputation above scientific truth. Do you see what I mean? Athor's theory is not cast-iron. No theory is and there is always room for improvement. Isn't that so? Science is constructed out of approximations that gradually approach the truth, you told me a long time back, and I've never forgotten it. Well, that means all theories are subject to constant testing and modification, doesn't it? And if it eventually turns out that they're not quite close enough to the truth, they need to be replaced by something that's closer. Right, Beenay? Right?"


Beenay was trembling now. He looked very pale.


"Could you get me another drink, Theremon?"


"No. Listen to me: there's more. You say that you're so worried about Athor-he's old; I suppose he's pretty frail-that you don't have the heart to tell him you've found a flaw in his theory. All right. That's a decent and loving position to take. But think about this, will you? If calculating the orbit of Kalgash is all that important, somebody else is likely to stumble across the same flaw in Athor's theory sooner or later, and that other person isn't likely to be as tactful in letting Athor know about it as you'd be. He might even be a professional rival of Athor's, an outright enemy of his-every scientist has enemies, you've told me so plenty of times. Wouldn't it be better for you to go to Athor and tell him, gently, carefully, of what you've discovered, than for him to find out about it one morning in the Chronicle?"


"Yes," Beenay whispered. "You're completely right."


"You'll go to him, then?"


"Yes. Yes. I have to, I suppose." Beenay bit his lip. "I feel miserable about this, Theremon. I feel like a murderer."


"I know you do. But it isn't Athor you'll be murdering, it's a defective theory. Defective theories must never be allowed to persist. You owe it to Athor as well as yourself to let the truth emerge." Theremon hesitated. A sudden startling new idea had occurred to him. "Of course, there's one other possibility. I'm only a layman, you know, and you'll probably laugh. -Is there any chance that the Theory of Gravitation might be correct despite everything, and that the computer's figures for Kalgash's orbit are right also, and that some other factor entirely, something altogether unknown, might be responsible for the discrepancy in your result?"


"That could be, I suppose," said Beenay in a flat, dispirited tone. "But once you begin dragging in mysterious unknown factors, you begin to move into the realm of fantasy. -I'll give you an example. Let's say there's an invisible seventh sun out there-it's got mass, it exerts gravitational force, but we simply can't see it. Since we don't know it's there, we haven't plugged it into our gravitational calculations, and so the figures come out cockeyed. Is that what you mean?"


"Well, why not?"


"Why not five invisible suns, then? Why nOt fifty? Why not an invisible giant who pushed planets around according to his whims? Why not a huge dragon whose breath deflects Kalgash from its proper path? We can't disprove it, can we? When you start in with why nots, Theremon, anything becomes possible, and then nothing makes any sense. At least not to me. I can only deal with what I know is real. You may be right that there's an unknown factor, and that therefore the gravitational laws aren't invalid. I certainly hope so. But I can't do serious work on that basis. All I can do is go to Athor, which I will, I promise you that, and tell him what the computer has told me. I don't dare suggest to him or anybody that I blame the whole mess on a hitherto undiscovered 'unknown factor.' Otherwise I'd sound just as crazy as the Apostles of Flame, who claim to know all sorts of mystic revelations. -Theremon, I really want that other drink now."


"Yes. All right. And speaking of the Apostles of Flame-"


"You want a statement from me, I remember." Beenay passed a hand wearily in front of his face. "Yes. Yes. I won't let you down. You've been a tremendous help to me this evening. What is it exactly that the Apostles have said now? I forget."


"It was Mondior 71," said Theremon. "The Grand High Mumbo-Jumbo himself. What he said was-let me think-that the time is very near when the gods intend to purge the world of sin, that he can calculate the exact day, even the exact hour, when doom will arrive."


Beenay groaned. "So what's new about that? Isn't that what they've been saying for years?"


"Yes, but they're starting to hand out more of the gory details now. It's the notion of the Apostles, you know, that this won't be the first time the world has been destroyed. They teach that the gods have deliberately made mankind imperfect, as a test, and that they have given us a single year-one of their divine years, not one of our little ones-in which to shape up. That's called a Year of Godliness, and it's exactly two thousand and forty-nine of our years long. Again and again, when the Year of Godliness has ended, the gods have discovered that we're still wicked and sinful, and so they have destroyed the world by sending down heavenly flames from holy places in the sky that are known as Stars. So say the Apostles, anyway."


"Stars?" Beenay said. "Does he mean the suns?"


"No, Stars. Mondior says that the Stars are specifically different from the six suns. -Haven't you ever paid any attention to this stuff, Beenay?"


"No. Why in the world should I?"


"Well, in any event, when the Year of Godliness ends and nothing on Kalgash has improved, morally speaking, these Stars drop some sort of holy fire on us and burn us up. Mondior says this has happened any number of times. But each time it does, the gods are merciful, or at least a faction among them is: every time the world is destroyed, the kinder gods prevail over the sterner ones and humanity is given one more chance. And so the godliest of the survivors are rescued from the holocaust and a new deadline is set: mankind gets another two thousand and forty-nine years to cast off its evil ways. The time is almost up again, says Mondior. It's just under two thousand and forty-eight years since the last cataclysm. In something like fourteen months the suns will all disappear and these hideous Stars of his will shoot flame down out of a black sky to wipe out the wicked. Next year on Theptar nineteenth, to be specific."


"Fourteen months," Beenay said in a musing way. "The nineteenth of Theptar. He's very precise about it, isn't he? I suppose he knows the exact time of day it'll happen, too."


"So he says, yes. That's why I'd like a statement from somebody connected with the Observatory, preferably you. Mondior's latest announcement is that the exact time of the catastrophe can be calculated scientifically-that it isn't simply something that's set forth as dogma in the Book of Revelations, but that it's subject to the same sort of computation that astronomers employ when-when-"


Theremon faltered and halted.


"When we calculate the orbital motions of the suns and the world?" Beenay asked acidly.


"Well, yes," Theremon said, looking abashed.


"Then maybe there's hope for the world after all, if the Apostles can't do any better job of it than we do."


"I need a statement, Beenay."


"Yes. I realize that." The next round of drinks had arrived. Beenay wrapped his hand around his glass. "Try this," he said after a moment. "'The main task of science is to separate truth from untruth, in the hope of revealing the way the universe really works. Putting truth to work in the service of untruth is not what we at the university think of as the scientific way. We are capable now of predicting the movements of the suns in the heavens, yes-but even if we use our best computer, we are no closer than we ever were to being able to foretell the will of the gods. Nor will we ever be, I suspect.' -How's that?"


"Perfect," Theremon said. "Let's see if I've got it. 'The main task of science is to separate truth from untruth, in the hope of-of-' What came next, Beenay?"


Beenay repeated the whole thing word for word, as though he had memorized it hours before.


Then he drained his third drink at a single astonishing long gulp.


And then he stood up, smiled for the first time all evening, and fell flat on his face.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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