Nightfall - Page 6


Chapter Six

Athor 77's eyes narrowed, and he scrutinized the little sheaf of printouts lying before him on his desk as though they were maps of continents that no one had ever known existed.


He was very calm. He was amazed at how calm he was.


"Very interesting, Beenay," he said slowly. "Very, very interesting."


"Of course, sir, there's always the possibility that not only have I made some crucial error in fundamental assumptions, but that Yimot and Faro also-"


"All three of you getting your basic postulates wrong? No, Beenay. I think not."


"I just wanted to indicate that the possibility exists."


"Please," Athor said. "Let me think."


It was midmorning. Onos in full glory blazed in the sky that was visible through the tall window of the Observatory director's office. Dovim was barely apparent, a small hard red dot of light, making a high northerly transit.


Athor fingered the papers, moving them about again and again on his desk. And moved them yet again. How strange to be taking this so easily, he thought. Beenay was the one who seemed all wrought up over it; he himself had scarcely reacted at all.


Perhaps I'm in shock, Athor speculated.


"Over here, sir, I have the orbit of Kalgash according to the generally accepted almanac computation. And here, on the printout, we have the orbital prediction that the new computer-"


"Please, Beenay. I said I wanted to think."


Beenay nodded jerkily. Athor smiled at him, not an easy thing for Athor to do. The formidable head of the Observatory, a tall, thin, commanding-looking man with an impressive shock of thick white hair, had allowed himself so long ago to slip into the role of Austere Giant of Science that it was difficult for him to unbend and permit himself to show ordinary human responses. At least, it was difficult for him while he was here at the Observatory, where everyone looked upon him as a sort of demigod. At home, with his wife, with his children, especially with his noisy flock of grandchildren, it was a different matter.


So Universal Gravitation wasn't quite right, was it? No! No, that was impossible! Every atom of common sense in him protested at the thought. The concept of Universal Gravitation was fundamental to any comprehension of the structure of the universe, Athor was certain. Athor knew. It was too clean, too logical, too beautiful, to be wrong.


Take Universal Gravitation away, and the entire logic of the cosmos dissolved into chaos.


Inconceivable. Unimaginable.


But these figures-this damnable printout of Beenay's- "I can see you're angry, sir." Beenay, chattering again! "And I want to tell you, I can quite understand it-the way this must hit you-anyone would be angry, having his life's work jeopardized this way-"


"Beenay-"


"Just let me say, sir, that I'd give anything not to have had to bring you this today. I know you're furious with me for coming in here with this, but I can only say that I thought long and hard before I did. What I really wanted to do was burn everything and forget I ever got started on any of this. I'm appalled that I found what I did, and appalled that I was the one who-"


"Beenay," Athor said again, in his most ominous voice.


"Sir?"


"I am furious with you, yes. But not for the reason you think."


"Sir?"


"Number one, I'm annoyed at the way you've been babbling at me, when all I want to do is sit here and quietly work through the implications of these papers you've just tossed at me. Number two, and much more important, I'm absolutely outraged that you'd have hesitated for so much as a moment to bring me your findings. Why did you wait so long?"


"It was only yesterday that I finished double-checking."


"Yesterday! Then you should have been in here yesterday! Do you really mean to say, Beenay, that you seriously considered suppressing all this? That you would simply have tossed your results away and said nothing?"


"No, sir," said Beenay miserably. "I never actually thought about doing that."


"Well, that's a blessing. Tell me, man, do you think I'm so enamored of my own beautiful theory that I'd want one of my most gifted associates to shield me from the unpleasant news that the theory's got a flaw in it?"


"No, sir. Of course not."


"Then why didn't you come running in here with the news the moment you were sure you were right?" -


"Because-because, sir-" Beenay looked as though he wanted to vanish into the carpet. "Because I knew how upset you'd be. Because I thought you might-you might be so upset that your health would be affected. So I held back, I talked to a couple of friends, I thought through my own position on all of this, and I came to see that I really had no choice, I had to tell you that the Theory of Univer-"


"So you really do believe I love my own theory more than I do the truth, eh?"


"Oh, no, no, sir!"


Again Athor smiled, and this time it was no effort at all. "But I do, you know. I'm as human as anybody else, believe it or not. The Theory of Universal Gravitation brought me every scientific honor this planet has to offer. It's my passport to immortality, Beenay. You know that. And to have to deal with the possibility that the theory's wrong-oh, it's a powerful shock, Beenay, it goes right through me from front to back. Make no mistake about that. -Of course, I still believe that my theory's correct."


"Sir?" said Beenay, all too obviously aghast. "But I've checked and checked and checked again, and-"


"Oh, your findings are correct too, I'm sure of that. For you and Faro and Yimot all to have done it wrong-no, no, I've already said I don't see much chance of that. But what you've got here doesn't necessarily overthrow Universal Gravitation."


Beenay blinked a few times. "It doesn't?"


"Certainly not," Athor said, warming to the situation. He felt almost cheerful now. The deathly unreal calm of the first few moments had given way to the very different tranquillity that one feels when one is in pursuit of truth. "What does the Theory of Universal Gravitation say, after all? That every body in the universe exerts a force on all other bodies, proportional to mass and distance. And what did you attempt to do in using Universal Gravitation to compute the orbit of Kalgash? Why, to factor in the gravitational impact that all the various astronomical bodies exert on our world as it travels around Onos. Is that not so?"


"Yes, sir."


"Well, then, there's no need to throw the Theory of Universal Gravitation out, at least not at this point. What we need to do, my friend, is simply to rethink our comprehension of the universe, and determine whether we're ignoring something that should be figured into our calculations-some mysterious factor, that is, which all unbeknownst to us is exerting gravitational force on Kalgash and isn't being taken into account."


Beenay's eyebrows rose alarmingly. He gaped at Athor in what could only have been a look of total astonishment.


Then he began to laugh. He smothered it at first by clamping his jaws, but the laughter insisted on escaping anyway, causing him to hunch his shoulders and emit strangled lurching coughs; and then he had to clap both his hands over his mouth to hold back the torrent of merriment.


Athor watched, flabbergasted.


"An unknown factor!" Beenay blurted, after a moment. "A dragon in the sky! An invisible giant!"


"Dragons? Giants? What are you talking about, boy?"


"Yesterday evening-Theremon 762-oh, sir, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry-" Beenay struggled to regain his self-control. Muscles writhed in his face; he blinked violently and caught his breath; he turned away for an instant, and when he turned back he was almost himself again. Shamefacedly he said, "I had a couple of drinks with Theremon 762 yesterday evening-the newspaper columnist, you know-and told him something about what I'd found, and how uneasy I was about bringing my findings to you."


"You went to a newspaperman?"


"A very trustworthy one. A close friend."


"They're all scoundrels, Beenay. Believe me."


"Not this one, sir. I know him, and I know he'd never do anything to hurt me or offend me. In fact Theremon gave me some excellent advice, by which I mean he said I absolutely had to come here, which is why I did. But also-trying to offer me some hope, you see, some consolation-he said the same thing you did, that maybe there was an 'unknown factor'-his exact phrase, an unknown factor-that was confusing our understanding of Kalgash's orbit. And I laughed and told him that it was useless to drag unknown factors into the situation, that it was too easy a solution. I suggested-sarcastically, of course- that if we allowed any such hypothesis, then we might as well tell ourselves that it was an invisible giant that was pushing Kalgash out of orbit, or the breath of a giant dragon. And now here you are, sir, taking the same line of reasoning-not a layman like Theremon, but the greatest astronomer in the world!-Do you see how foolish I feel, sir?"


"I think I do," said Athor. All this was becoming a little trying. He ran his hand through his imposing white mane and gave Beenay a look of mingled irritation and compassion. "You were right to tell your friend that inventing fantasies to solve a problem isn't very useful. But the random suggestions of laymen aren't always without merit. For all we know, there is some unknown factor at work on Kalgash's orbit. We need at least to consider that possibility before we toss the theory overboard. I think what we need to do here is to make use of Thargola's Sword. You know what that is, Beenay?"


"Of course, sir. The principle of parsimony. First put forth by the medieval philosopher Thargola 14, who said, 'We must drive a sword through any hypothesis that is not strictly necessary,' or words to that effect."


"Very good, Beenay. Though the way I was taught it, it's 'If we are offered several hypotheses, we should begin our considerations by striking the most complex of them with our sword.' Here we have the hypothesis that the Theory of Universal Gravitation is in error, versus the hypothesis that you've left out some unknown and perhaps unknowable factor in making your calculations of the orbit of Kalgash. If we accept the first hypothesis, then everything we think we know about the structure of the universe tumbles into chaos. If we accept the second one, all we need to do is locate the unknown factor, and the fundamental order of things is preserved. It's a lot simpler to try to find something we may have overlooked than it would be to come up with a new general law governing the movements of heavenly bodies. So the hypothesis that the Theory of Gravitation is wrong falls before Thargola's Sword and we begin our investigations by working with the simpler explanation of the problem. Eh, Beenay? What do you say?"


Beenay looked radiant.


"Then I haven't overthrown Universal Gravitation after all!"


"Not yet, anyway. You've probably won a place in scientific history for yourself, but we don't know yet whether it's as a debunker or as an originator. Let's pray it's the latter. And now we need to do some very hard thinking, young man." Athor 77 closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, which was beginning to ache. It had been a long time since he'd done any real science, he realized. He'd occupied himself almost entirely with administrative matters at the Observatory for the past eight or ten years. But the mind that had produced the Theory of Universal Gravitation might yet have a thought or two left in it, he told himself. -"First, I want to take a closer look at these calculations of yours," he said. "And then, I suppose, a closer look at my own theory."


The headquarters of the Apostles of Flame was a slender but magnificent tower of gleaming golden stone, rising like a shining javelin above the Seppitan River, in the exclusive Birigam quarter of Saro City. That soaring tower, Theremon thought, must be one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the entire capital.


He had never stopped to consider it before, but the Apostles had to be an exceedingly wealthy group. They owned their own radio and television stations, they published magazines and newspapers, they had this tremendous tower. And probably they controlled all sorts of other assets too that were less visibly theirs. He wondered how that was possible. A bunch of fanatic puritan monks? Where would they have managed to get their hands on so many hundreds of millions of credits?


But, he realized, such well-known industrialists as Bottiker 222 and Vivin 99 were outspoken adherents of the teachings of Mondior and his Apostles. It wouldn't surprise him to know that men like Bottiker and Vivin, and others like them, were heavy contributors to the Apostles' treasury.


And if the organization was even a tenth as old as it claimed to be-ten thousand years, was what they said!-and if it had invested its money wisely over the centuries, there was no telling what the Apostles could have achieved through the miracle of compound interest, Theremon thought. They might be worth billions. They might secretly own half of Saro City.


It was worth looking into, he told himself.


He entered the vast, echoing entrance hall of the great tower and peered about in awe. Though he had never been here before, he had heard it was an extraordinarily lavish building both inside and out. But nothing he had heard had prepared him for the reality of the cultist's building.


A polished marble floor, with inlays in half a dozen brilliant colors, stretched as far as he could see. The walls were covered with glittering golden mosaics in abstract patterns, rising to arched vaults high overhead. Chandeliers of woven gold and silver threw a shimmering shower of brightness over everything.


At the opposite end from the entrance Theremon saw what seemed to be a model of the whole universe, fashioned, apparently, entirely of precious metals and gems: immense suspended globes, which seemed to represent the six suns, hung from the ceiling by invisible wires. Each of them cast an eerie light: a golden beam from the largest of them, which must be Onos, and a dim red glow from the Dovim globe, and cold hard blue-white from the Tano-Sitha pair, and a gentler white light from Patru and Trey. A seventh globe that must be Kalgash moved slowly among them like a drifting balloon, its own colors changing as the shifting pattern of the suns' light played over its surface. -


As Theremon stood gaping in astonishment, a voice coming from nowhere in particular said, "May we have your name?"


"I'm Theremon 762. I have an appointment with Mondior."


"Yes. Please enter the chamber on your immediate left, Theremon 762."


He saw no chamber on his immediate left. But then a segment of the mosaic-covered wall slid noiselessly open, revealing a small oval room, more an antechamber than a chamber. Green velvet hangings covered the walls and a single bar of amber light provided illumination.


He shrugged and stepped in. At once the door closed behind him and he felt a distinct sensation of motion. This wasn't a room, it was a lift! Yes, he was rising, he was certain of it. Up and up and up he went, in a very unhurried way. It took half an eternity before the lift chamber came to a halt and the door slid open once again.


A black-robed figure was waiting for him.


"Would you come this way, please?"


A narrow hallway led a short distance into a kind of waiting room, where a large portrait of Mondior 71 occupied most of one entire wall. As Theremon entered, the portrait seemed to light up, coming strangely to life and glowing, so that Mondior's dark, intense eyes looked straight at him and the High Apostle's stern face took on a luminous inner radiance that made him seem almost beautiful, in a fierce sort of way.


Theremon met the portrait's gaze coolly enough. But even the tough-minded newspaperman found himself ever so slightly unnerved to think that very shortly he would be interviewing this very person. Mondior on radio or television was one thing, just some crazed preacher with an absurd message to peddle. But Mondior in the flesh-awesome, hypnotic, mysterious, if this portrait was any indication-might be something else again. Theremon warned himself to be on his guard.


The black-robed monk said, "If you'll step inside, please-" The wall just to the left of the portrait opened. An office became visible within, as sparsely decorated as a cell, nothing in it but a bare desk made of a single slab of polished stone and a low backless chair, cut from a chunk of some unusual red-streaked gray wood, placed in front of it. Behind the desk sat a man of obvious force and authority, wearing the black Apostles' robe with red trim along the hood.


He was very impressive. But he wasn't Mondior 71.


Mondior, judging by his photographs and the way he seemed on television, had to be a man of sixty-five or seventy, with a kind of intense masculine force about him. His hair was thick and wavy, black with broad streaks of white, and he had a full, fleshy face, a wide mouth, a strong nose, heavy jet-black eyebrows, dark, compelling eyes. But this one was young, surely not yet forty, and though he seemed powerful and highly masculine too, it was in an entirely different way: he was very thin, with a sharp, narrow face and tight, pursed lips. His hair, curling down over his forehead under his hood, was a strange brick-red color, and his eyes were a cold, unrelenting blue.


No doubt this man was some high functionary in the organization. But Theremon's appointment was with Mondior.


He had decided just this morning, after writing his story on the Apostles' latest fulmination, that he needed to know more about this mysterious cult. Everything they had ever said struck him as nonsense, of course, but it was beginning to seem like interesting nonsense, worth writing about in some detail. How better to learn more about them than to go straight to the top man? Assuming that was possible, that is. But to his surprise they had told him, when he called, that he could have an audience with Mondior 71 that very day. It had seemed too easy.


Now he began to realize that it had been too easy.


"I am Folimun 66," the sharp-faced man said in a light, flexible voice with none of Mondior's compelling thunder. Yet it was, Theremon suspected, the voice of someone who was accustomed to being obeyed. "I am the public-relations adjutant for the home district of our organization. It will be my pleasure to answer any questions you may have."


"My appointment was with Mondior himself," Theremon said.


Folimun 66's chilly eyes betrayed no sign of surprise. "You may think of me as the voice of Mondior."


"I understood it would be a personal audience."


"It is. Anything said to me is shared with Mondior; anything that comes from me is the word of Mondior. This should be understood."


"Nevertheless, I was given assurances that I'd be allowed to talk with Mondior. I have no doubt that what you tell me would be authoritative, but it isn't just informition that I'm looking for. I'd like to form some opinion of what sort of man Mondior is, what his views are on other things besides the prophesied destruction of the world, what he thinks about-"


"I can only repeat what I have already said," Folimun declared, cutting in smoothly. "You may think of me as the voice of Mondior. His Serenity will not be able to see you in person today."


"Then I would prefer to return on another day, when His Serenity will be-"


"Permit me to inform you that Mondior does not make himself available for personal interviews, not ever. Not ever. His Serenity's work is much too urgent, now that only a matter of months stands between us and the Time of Flame." Folimun smiled suddenly, an unexpectedly warm and human smile, perhaps intended to take some of the sting out of the refusal and out of that melodramatic-sounding phrase, "the Time of Flame." Almost gently he said, "I would guess that there's been a misunderstanding, that you didn't realize that your appointment would be with a spokesman for Mondior rather than with the High Apostle himself. But that's the way it must be. If you don't wish to speak with me, well, I regret that you've wasted your trip today. But I'm the most useful source of information you're going to be able to find here, now or at any other time."


Again the smile. It was the smile of a man who was coolly and unapologetically closing a door in Theremon's face.


"Very well," Theremon said after a moment or two of consideration. "I see I don't have much choice. I get you or I get nobody. All right: let's talk. How much time do I have?"


"As much as you need, though this first meeting will have to be a fairly brief one. And also"-a grin, a surprising one, almost mischievous-"you must bear in mind that we have only fourteen months altogether. And I've got a few other things to do during that time."


"So I imagine. Fourteen months, you say? And then what?"


"You haven't read the Book of Revelations, then, I assume."


"Not recently, actually."


"Permit me, then." Folimun produced a thin red-bound volume from some crevice of his apparently empty desk and slid it toward Theremon. "This is for you. You'll find much nourishment in it, I hope. Meanwhile I can summarize the theme that appears to be of the greatest interest to you. Very shortly- exactly four hundred and eighteen days from now, to be extremely precise, on the nineteenth of Theptar next-a great transformation will come over our comfortable, familiar world. The six suns will enter the Cave of Darkness and disappear, the Stars will make themselves manifest to us, and all Kalgash will be set ablaze."


He made it sound very casual. As though he might be talking about the coming of a rainstorm tomorrow afternoon, or the expected blossoming of some rare plant next week in the Municipal Botanical Garden. All Kalgash set ablaze. The six suns entering the Cave of Darkness. The Stars.


"The Stars," Theremon said aloud. "And what, in fact, may they be?"


"They are the instruments of the gods."


"Can you be more specific, do you think?"


"The nature of the Stars will be made more than amply clear to us," said Folimun 66, "in a matter of four hundred and eighteen days."


"When the current Year of Godliness comes to its end," said Theremon. "On Theptar nineteenth of next year."


Folimun looked pleasantly surprised. "So you have been studying our teachings."


"To some extent. I've listened to Mondior's recent speeches, at any rate. I know about the two-thousand-and-forty-nine-year cycle. -And the event you call the Time of Flame? I suppose you can't provide me with any sort of advance description of that, either."


"You'll find something along those lines in the fifth chapter of the Book of Revelations. No, you needn't search for it now: I can quote it for you. 'From the Stars there then reached down the Heavenly Flames, that was the bearer of the will of the gods; and where the flames touched, the cities of Kalgash were consumed even to utter destruction, so that of man and the works of man nothing whatever remained.'"


Theremon nodded. "A sudden terrible cataclysm. Why?"


"The will of the -gods. They have warned us against our wickedness and have given us a span of years in which to redeem ourselves. That span is what we call the Year of Godliness, a 'year' two thousand and forty-nine huma~n years long, about which you already appear to know. The current Year of Godliness is nearly at its end."


"And then we'll all be wiped out, you think?"


"Not all of us. But most will; and our civilization will be destroyed. Those few who survive will face the immense task of rebuilding. This is, as you seem already to be aware, a melancholy repetitive cycle in human events. What is soon due to occur will not be the first time that mankind has failed the test of the gods. We have been struck down more than once before; and now we are on the verge of being struck down yet again."


The curious thing, Theremon thought, was that Folimun didn't seem at all crazy.


Except for his odd robe, he could have been any sort of youngish businessman sitting in his handsome office-a loan applications officer, for instance, or an investment banker. He was obviously intelligent. He spoke clearly and well, in a crisp, direct tone. He neither ranted nor raved. But the things he was saying, in his crisp, direct way, were the wildest sort of nonsensical babble. The contrast between what Folimun said and the way he said it was hard to take.


Now he sat quietly, looking relaxed, waiting for the newspaperman to ask the next question.


"I'll be frank," Theremon said after a little while. "Like many people, I have difficulty accepting something this big which is handed to me simply as a revelation. I need solid proofs. But you don't show us any. Take it on faith, you say. There's no tangible evidence to demonstrate, of course, that's what you tell us, but we'd all better just believe what you're offering us, because you've heard all this from the gods, and you know the gods aren't lying to you. Can you show me why I should believe you, though? Faith alone isn't enough for people like me."


"Why do you think there is no evidence?" Folimun asked.


"Is there? Other than the Book of Revelations itself? Circular evidence isn't evidence to me."


"We are a very ancient organization, you know."


"Ten thousand years old, so the story goes."


A brief flickering smile crossed Folimun's thin lips. "An arbitrary figure, perhaps exaggerated somewhat for popular effect. All that we claim among ourselves is that we go back to prehistoric times."


"So your group is at least two thousand years old, then."

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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