"Don't be silly. You're younger than I am, and I'm hardly ancient, you know."
Siferra nodded indifferently. She looked toward the window. Suddenly the rain didn't seem so pleasing. Everything was dark outside, disturbingly dark.
"Still, to hear that our findings are already controversial, and not even published yet-"
"They have to be controversial, Siferra. Everybody's wagons are going to be upset by what we found in that hill-not just in our department, but History, Philosophy, even Theology, they'll all be affected. And you can bet they'll fight to defend their established notions of the way civilization developed. Wouldn't you, if somebody came along with a radical new idea that threatened everything you believe? -Be realistic, Siferra. We've known from the start that there'd be a storm over this."
"I suppose. I wasn't ready for it to begin so soon. I've hardly begun unpacking."
"That's the real problem. You've plunged back into the thick of things so fast, without taking any time to decompress. - Look, I've got an idea. We're entitled to a little time off before we get back to full-time academic loads. Why don't you and I run away from the rain and take a little holiday together? Up to Jonglor, say, to see the Exposition? I was talking to Sheerin yesterday-he was just there, you know, and he says-"
She stared at Balik in disbelief. "What?"
"A holiday, I said. You and me."
"You're making a pass at me, Balik?"
"You could call it that, I suppose. But is that so incredible? We aren't exactly strangers. We've known each other since we were graduate students. We've just come back from a year and a half spent in the desert together."
"Together? We were at the same dig, yes. You had your tent, I had mine. There's never been anything between us. And now, out of the blue-"
Balik's stolid features showed dismay and annoyance. "It's not as though I asked you to marry me, Siferra. I just suggested a quick little trip to the Jonglor Exposition, five or six days, some sunshine, a decent resort hotel instead of a tent pegged out in the middle of the desert, a few quiet dinners, some good wine-" He turned his palms outward in a gesture of irritation. "You're making me feel like a silly schoolboy, Siferra."
"You're acting like one," she said. "Our relationship has always been purely professional, Balik. Let's keep it that way, shall we?"
He began to reply, evidently thought better of it, clamped his lips tight shut.
They looked at each other uncomfortably for a long moment. Siferra's head was pounding. All this was unexpected and disagreeable-the news that the other members of the department were already taking positions on the Thombo finds, and Balik's clumsy attempt at seducing her as well. Seducing? Well, at establishing some sort of romantic rapport with her, anyway. How utterly astonished he looked at being rejected, too.
She wondered if she had ever accidentally seemed to be leading him on in some way, to give him a hint of feelings that had never existed.
No. No. She couldn't believe that she had. She had no interest in going to north-country resorts and sipping wine in romantically lit restaurants with Balik or anyone else. She had her work. That was enough. For twenty-odd years, ever since her teens, men had been offering themselves to her, telling her how beautiful, how wonderful, how fascinating she was. It was flattering, she supposed. Better that they think her beautiful and fascinating than ugly and boring. But she wasn't interested. Never had been. Didn't want to be. How tiresome of Balik to have created this awkwardness between them now, when they still had all the labor of organizing the Beklimot material ahead of them-the two of them, working side by side- There was another knock at the door. She was immensely grateful for the interruption.
"Mudrin 505," a quavering voice replied.
"Come in. Please."
"I'll leave now," Balik said.
"No. He's here to see the tablets. They're your tablets as much as mine, aren't they?"
"Siferra, I'm sorry if-"
"Forget it. Forget it!"
Mudrin came doddering in. He was a frail, desiccated-looking man in his late seventies, well past retirement age, but still retained as a member of the faculty in a nonteaching post so that he could continue his paleographic studies. His mild graygreen eyes, watery from a lifetime of poring over old faded manuscripts, peered out from behind thick spectacles. Yet Siferra knew that their watery appearance was deceptive: those were the sharpest eyes she had ever known, at least where ancient inscriptions were concerned.
"So these are the famous tablets," Mudrin said. "You know I've thought about nothing else since you told me." But he made no immediate move to examine them. -"Can you give me a little information about the context, the matrix?"
"Here's Balik's master photo," Siferra said, handing him the huge glossy enlargement. "The Hill of Thombo, the old midden-heap south of Beklimot Major. When the sandstorm slit it open, this was the view we had. And then we ran our trench down here-and down to here, next-we laid the whole thing open. Can you make out this dark line here?"
"Charcoal?" Mudrin asked.
"Exactly. A fire line here, the whole town burned. Now we skip down to here and we see a second batch of foundations, and a second fire line. And if you look here-and here-"
Mudrin studied the photograph a long while. "What do you have here? Eight successive settlement sites?"
"Seven," Balik blurted.
"Nine, I think," said Siferra curtly. "But I agree it gets pretty difficult to tell, down toward the base of the hill. We'll need chemical analysis to clear it up, and radiographic testing. But obviously there was a whole series of conflagrations here. And the Thombo people went on building and rebuilding, time after time."
"But this site must be incredibly ancient, if that's the case!" Mudrin said.
"My guess is that the occupation period was a span of at least five thousand years. Perhaps much more. Perhaps ten or fifteen. We won't know until we've fully uncovered the lowest level, and that'll have to wait for the next expedition. Or the one after that."
"Five thousand years, you say? Can it be?"
"To build and rebuild and rebuild again? Five 'thousand at a minimum."
"But no site we've ever excavated anywhere in the world is remotely as old as that," Mudrin said, looking startled. "Beklimot itself is less than two thousand years old, isn't that so? And we regard it as the oldest known human settlement on Kalgash."
"The oldest known settlement," Siferra said. "But what's to say that there aren't older ones? Much older ones? Mudrin, this photo gives you your own answer. Here's a site that has to be older than Beklimot-there are Beklimot-style artifacts in its highest level, and it goes down a long way from there. Beklimot must be a very recent settlement as human history goes. The Thombo settlement, which was ancient before Beklimot ever existed, must have burned and burned and burned again, and was rebuilt every time, down through what must have been hundreds of generations."
"A very unlucky place, then," Mudrin observed. "Hardly beloved of the gods, was it?"
"Eventually that must have occurred to them," Balik said.
Siferra nodded. "Yes. Finally they must have decided there was a curse on the place. So instead of rebuilding it after the last fire in the series they moved a short distance away and built Beklimot. But before that they must have occupied Thombo a long, long time. We were able to recognize the architectural styles of the two topmost settlements-see, it's cyclopean middle-Beklimot here, and proto-Beklimot crosshatch beneath. But the third town down, what there is left of it, is like nothing I can identify. The fourth is even stranger, and very crude. The fifth makes the fourth look sophisticated by comparison. Below that, everything's such a primitive jumble that it's not easy to tell which town is which. But each one is separated by a burn line from the one above it, or so we think. And the tablets-"
"Yes, the tablets," Mudrin said, trembling with excitement.
"We found this set, the square ones, in the third level. The oblong ones came from the fifth one. I can't even begin to make any sense out of them, of course, but I'm no paleographer."
"How wonderful it would be," Balik began, "if these tablets contained some kind of account of the destruction and rebuilding of the Thombo towns, and-"
Siferra shot him a poisonous glance. "How wonderful it would be, Balik, if you wouldn't spin cozy little wish-fulfillment fantasies like that!"
"I'm sorry, Siferra," he said icily. "Forgive me for breathing."
Mudrin took no need of their bickering. He was at Siferra's desk, head bent low over the square tablets for a long while, then over the oblong ones.
Finally the paleographer said, "Astonishing! Absolutely astonishing!"
"Can you read them?" Siferra asked.
The old man chuckled. "Read them? Of course not. Do you want miracles? But I see word-groups here."
"Yes. So did I," Siferra said.
"And I can almost recognize letters. Not on the older tablets-they're done in a completely unfamiliar script, very likely a syllabic one, too many different characters for it to be alphabetic. But the square tablets seem to be written in a very primitive form of the Beklimot script. See, this is a quhas here, I'd almost be willing to wager on it, and this appears to be a somewhat distorted form of the letter tifj ak-it is a tifjak, wouldn't you say? -I need to work on these, Siferra. With my own lighting equipment, my cameras, my scanning screens. May I take them with me?"
"Take them?" she said, as if he had asked to borrow some of her fingers.
"It's the only way I can begin to decipher them."
"Do you think you can decipher them?" Balik asked.
"I offer no guarantees. But if this character is a tifjak and this a quhas, then I should be able to find other letters ancestral to the Beklimot ones, and at least produce a transliteration. Whether we can understand the language once we read the script, that's hard to say. And I doubt I can get very far with the oblong tablets unless you've uncovered a bilingual that will give me some way of approaching this even older script. But let me try, Siferra. Let me try."
Lovingly she gathered up the tablets and put them back in the container in which she had carried them all ~the way from Sagikan. It pained her to let them go out of her possession. But Mudrin was right. He couldn't do anything with them at a quick glance; he had to subject them to laboratory analysis.
She watched ruefully until the paleographer had gone doddering from the room, his precious bundle clasped close against his hollow chest. Now she and Balik were alone again.
"Siferra-about what I said before-"
"I told you to forget it. I already have. Do you mind if I get about my work now, Balik?""Well, how did he take it?" Theremon asked. "Better than you expected he would, is my guess."
"He was completely marvelous," said Beenay. They were on the terrace at the Six Suns Club. The rains had ended for the time being, and the evening was a splendid one, with the strange clarity of the atmosphere that always came after a prolonged period of rain: Tano and Sitha in the west, casting their hard white ghostly light with more than usual intensity, and red Dovim in the opposing sector of the dusky sky, burning like a tiny gem. "He hardly even seemed upset, except when I indicated that I'd almost been tempted to suppress the whole thing for the sake of protecting his feelings. Then he flew off the handle. He really chewed me out-as I deserved. But the funniest thing was- Waiter! Waiter! A Tano Special for me, please! And one for my friend. Make them doubles!"
"You're really turning into a drinker, aren't you?" Theremon remarked.
Beenay shrugged. "Only when I'm here. There's something about this terrace, the view of the city, the whole atmosphere-"
"That's how it begins. You get to like it little by little, you develop jolly associations between one particular place and drinking, then after a while you experiment with having a drink or two somewhere else, and then a drink or three-"
"Theremon! You sound like an Apostle of Flame! They think drinking's evil too, don't they?"
"They think everything's eviL But drinking certainly is. That's what's so wonderful about it, eh, my friend?" Theremon laughed. "You were telling me about Athor."
"Yes. The really comical thing. Do you remember that wild notion you had that some unknown factor might be pushing Kalgash away from the orbit we'd expect it to have?"
"The invisible giant, yes. The dragon huffing and puffing in the sky."
"Well, Athor took exactly the same position!"
"He thinks there's a dragon in the sky?"
Beenay guffawed. "Don't be silly. But some Sort of unknown factor, yes. A dark sun, maybe, or some other world that's located at a position that's impossible for us to see, but which nevertheless is exerting gravitational force on Kalgash-"
"Isn't that all a little on the fantastic side?" Theremon asked. "Of course it is. But Athor reminded me of the old philosophical chestnut of Thargola's Sword. Which we use-metaphorically, I mean-to smite the more complex premise when we're trying to decide between two hypotheses. It's simpler to go looking for a dark sun than it is to have to produce an entirely new Theory of Universal Gravitation. And therefore-"
"A dark sun? But isn't that a contradiction in terms? A sun is a source of light. If it's dark, how can it be a sun?"
"That's just one of the possibilities Athor tossed at us. It isn't necessarily one that he takes seriously. What we've been doing, these last few days, is throwing around all kinds of astronomical notions, hoping that one of them will make enough sense so that we can begin to put together an explanation for- Look, there's Sheerin." Beenay waved at the rotund psychologist, who had just entered the club. "Sheerin! Sheerin! Come out here and have a drink with us, will you?"
Sheerin stepped carefully through the narrow doorway.
"So you've taken up some new vices, have you, Beenay?"
"Not very many. But Theremon's exposed me to the Tano Special, and I'm afraid I've caught a taste for it. You know Theremon, don't you~ He writes the column in the Chronicle'
"I don't think we've actually met," Sheerin said. He offered his hand. "I've certainly heard a lot about you, though. I'm
Raissta 717's uncle." -
"The psych professor," Theremon said. "You've been at thc Jonglor Exposition, right?"
Sheerin looked startled. "You keep up with everything, don'i you?"
"I try to." The waiter was back. "What can we get you? Tanc Special?"
"Too strong for me," Sheerin said. "And a little too sweet,-Do you have neltigir, by any chance?"
"The Jonglorian brandy? I'm not sure. How do you want it, if I can find some?"
"Straight," said Sheerin. "Please." To Theremon and Beenay he said, "I developed a liking for it while I was up north Thc food's awful in Jonglor, but at least they can distill a deceni brandy."
"I hear they've had a lot of trouble at the Exposition," There. mon said "Some problem in their amusement park-a ridc through Darkness that was driving people crazy, literally driv. ing them out of their heads-"
"The Tunnel of Mystery, yes. That was the reason I wa5 there: as a consultant called in by the city and its lawyers for an opinion."
Theremon sat forward. "Is it true that people were dying ol shock in that tunnel, and they kept it open anyway?"
"Everyone's been asking me that," replied Sheerin. "Therc were a few deaths, yes. But they didn't seem to harm the ride'5 popularity. People insisted on taking the risk anyway. And ~ lot of them came out very badly deranged. I took a ride in thc Tunnel of Mystery myself," he said, shuddering. "Well, they'vc shut the thing down, now. I told them it was either that or forI~ over millions of credits in liability suits, that it was absurd tc expect people to be able to tolerate Darkness at that level ol intensity. They saw the logic of that."
"We do have some neltigir, sir," the waiter broke in, putting a glass of somber brownish brandy on the table in front ol Sheerin. "Just one bottle, so you'd better go easy." The psychologist nodded and scooped up his drink, downing about half of it before the waiter had left the table.
"Sir, I said-"
Sheerin smiled at him. "I heard what you said. I'll take it easier after this one." He turned to Beenay. "I understand there was some excitement at the Observatory while I was up north. Liliath told me. But she wasn't too clear on what was going on. Some new theory, I think she said-"
Grinning, Beenay said, "Theremon and I were just talking about that. Not a new theory, no. A challenge to an established one. I was running some calculations on Kalgash's orbit, and-"
Sheerin listened to the story with increasing astonishment. "The Theory of Universal Gravitation's invalid?" he cried when Beenay was halfway through. "Good lord, man! Does that mean that if I put my glass down, it's likely to go floating up into the sky? I'd better finish off my neltigir first, then!" And he did.
Beenay laughed. "The theory's still on the books. What we're trying to do-what Atbor is trying to do; he's been spearheading the work, and it's amazing to watch him go at it-is to come up with a mathematical explanation for why our figures don't come out the way we think they ought to."
"Massaging the data, I think it's called," Theremon added.
"Sounds suspicious to me," Sheerin said. "You don't like the result, so you rearrange your findings, is that it, Beenay? Make everything fit, by hook or by crook?"
"Well, not exactly-"
"Admit it! Admit it!" Sheerin roared with laughter. "Waiter! Another neltigir! And one more Tano Special for my unethical young friend here! -Theremon, can I get you a drink too?"
Sheerin said in the same broad tone as before, "This is all very disillusioning, Beenay. I thought it was only us psychologists who made the data fit the theories and called the result 'science.' Seems more like something the Apostles of Flame might do!"
"Sheerin! Cut it out!"
"The Apostles claim to be scientists too," Theremon put in. Beenay and Sheerin turned to look at him. "Last week just before the rain started I had an interview with one of their big people," he went on. "I had hoped to see Mondior, but I got a certain Folimun 66 instead, their public-relations man, very slick, very bright, very personable. He spent half an hour explaining to me that the Apostles have reliable stientific proof that next year on the nineteenth of Theptar the suns are going to go out and we'll all be plunged into Darkness and everyone will go insane."
"The whole world turned into one big Tunnel of Mystery, is that it?" Sheerin said jovially. "We won't have enough mental hospitals to hold the entire population, you know. Or enough psychiatrists to treat them. Besides, the psychiatrists will be crazy too."
"Aren't they already?" Beenay asked.
"Good point," said Sheerin.
"The madness isn't the worst of it," Theremon said. "According to Folimun, the sky will be filled with something called Stars that will shoot fire down upon us and set everything ablaze. And there we'll be, a world full of gibbering maniacs, wandering around in cities that are burning down around our ears. Thank heaven it's nothing but Mondior's bad dream."
"But what if it isn't?" Sheerin said, suddenly sobering. His round face grew long and thoughtful. "What if there's something to it?"
"What an appalling notion," Beenay said. "I think it calls for another drink."
"You haven't finished the one you've got," Sheerin reminded the young astronomer.
"Well, what of it? It still calls for another one afterward. Waiter! Waiter!"
Athor 77 felt fatigue sweeping through him in shimmering waves. The Observatory director had lost all track of time. Had he really been at his desk sixteen straight hours? And yesterday the same. And the day before- That was what Nyilda claimed, anyway. He had spoken to her just a little while before. His wife's face on the screen had been tense, drawn, unmistakably worried.
"Won't you come home for a rest, Athor? You've been going at it practically around the clock."
"You aren't a young man, you know."
"I'm not a senile one, either, Nyilda. And this is exhilarating work. After a decade of initialing budget reports and reading other people's research papers I'm finally doing some real work again. I love it."
She looked even more troubled. "But you don't need to be doing research at your age. Your reputation is secure, Athor!"
"Ah, is it?"