Nightfall - Page 12


Chapter Twelve

"Yes. I do."


"Gods! Are you serious, man?"


"As serious as I've ever been in my life, Theremon."


"I can't believe it. You seem so steady, Beenay. So solid, so responsible. And yet you've taken a bunch of admittedly speculative astronomical calculations, and some bits of charcoal dug up in a desert thousands of miles from here, and some wild frothings out of the mouths of a crew of wild-eyed cultists, and rolled them up together into the craziest damned mess of apocalyptic nonsense I ever-"


"It isn't crazy," Beenay insisted quietly. "It isn't nonsense."


"So the world is really coming to an end this evening."


"The world we know and love, yes."


Theremon released his grip on Beenay's arm and threw his hands up in exasperation. "Gods! Even you! By Darkness, Beenay, I've been trying for better than a year to put some faith in all this stuff, and I can't, I absolutely can't. No matter what you say, or Athor, or Siferra, or Folimun 66, or Mondior, or-"


"Just wait," Beenay said. "Only another few hours."


"You really are sincere!" Theremon said wonderingly. "By all the gods, you're as big a crackpot as Mondior himself. Bah! That's what I say, Beenay. Bab! -Take me in to see Athor, will you?"


"I warn you, he doesn't want to see you."


"You said that already. Take me in there anyway."


Theremon had never really expected to find himself taking a stance hostile to the Observatory scientists. Things had simply worked out that way, very gradually, in the months leading up to the nineteenth of Theptar.


It was basically a matter of journalistic integrity, he told himself. Beenay was his longtime friend, yes; Dr. Athor was unquestionably a great astronomer, Sheerin was genial and straightforward and likable; and Siferra was-well, an attractive and interesting woman and an important archaeologist. He had no desire at all to position himself as an enemy of such people.


But he had to write what he believed. And what he believed, to the depths of his soul, was that the Observatory group was every bit as loopy as the Apostles of Flame, and just as dangerous to the stability of society.


There was no way he could make himself take what they said seriously. The more time he spent around the Observatory, the nuttier it all seemed to him.


An invisible and apparently undetectable planet soaring through the sky on an orbit that brought it close to Kalgash every few decades? A combination of solar positions that would leave only Dovim overhead when the invisible planet arrived this time? Dovim's light thereby blotted out, throwing the world into Darkness? And everyone going insane as a result? No, no, he couldn't buy it.


To Theremon, all of it seemed just as wild as the stuff the Apostles of Flame had been peddling for so many years. The only extra thing that the Apostles threw in was the mysterious advent of the phenomenon known as Stars. Even the Observatory people had the good grace to admit that they couldn't imagine what Stars were. Some other sort of invisible heavenly bodies, apparently, which suddenly came into view when the Year of Godliness ended and the wrath of the gods descended on Kalgash-so the Apostles indicated.


"It can't be," Beenay had told him, one evening at the Six Suns Club. It was still six months before the date of the eclipse. "The eclipse and the Darkness, yes. The Stars, no. There's nothing in the universe except our world and the six suns and some insignificant asteroids-and Kalgash Two. If there are Stars also, why can't we measure their presence? Why can't we detect them by orbital perturbations, the way we've detected Kalgash Two? No, Theremon, if there are Stars out there, then something's got to be wrong with the Theory of Universal Gravitation. And we know the theory's all right."


"We know the theory's all right," that was what Beenay had said. But wasn't that just like Folimun saying, "We know that the Book of Revelations is a book of truth"?


In the beginning, when Beenay and Sheerin first told him of their emerging awareness that there was going to be a devastating period of Darkness upon all the world, Theremon, half skeptical and half awed and impressed by their apocalyptic visions, had indeed done his best to be helpful. "Athor wants to meet with Folimun," Beenay said. "He's trying to find out if the Apostles have any sort of ancient astronomical records that might confirm what we've found. Can you do anything to arrange it?"


"A funny notion," Theremon said. "The irascible old man of science asking to see the spokesman of the force~s of anti-science, of non-science. But I'll see what I can do."


That meeting had turned out to be surprisingly easy to arrange. Theremon had been intending to interview Folimun again anyway. The sharp-faced Apostle granted Theremon an audience for the following day.


"Athor?" Folimun said, when the newspaperman had passed Beenay's message along. "Why would he want to see me?"


"Perhaps he's planning to become an Apostle," Theremon suggested playfully.


Folimun laughed. "Not very likely. From what I know of him, he'd sooner paint himself purple and go for a stroll in the nude down Saro Boulevard."


"Well, maybe he's undergone a conversion," said Theremon. Cautiously he added, after a tantalizing pause, "I know for a fact that he and his staff have turned up some data that might just tend to support your belief that Darkness is going to sweep over the world on the nineteenth of Theptar next."


Folimun allowed himself the smallest sort of carefully controlled display of interest, an almost imperceptible raising of one eyebrow. "How fascinating, if it's true," he said calmly.


"You'll have to see him yourself to find that out."


"I may just do that," the Apostle said.


And indeed he did. Exactly what the nature of the meeting between Folimun and Athor was, Theremon never succeeded in finding out, despite all his best efforts. Athor and Folimun were the only ones present, and neither of them said a thing to anyone else about it afterward, so far as Theremon could discover. Beenay, Theremon's chief link to the Observatory, was able to offer only vague guesses.


"It had something to do with the ancient astronomical records that the Chief believes are in the Apostles' possession, that's all I can tell you," Beenay reported. "Athor suspects that they've been handing things down over the centuries, maybe even since before the last eclipse. Some of the passages in the Book of Revelations are in an old forgotten language, you know."


"Old forgotten gibberish, you mean. Nobody's ever been able to make any sense out of that stuff."


"Well, I certainly can't," said Beenay. "But it's the opinion of some quite respectable philologists that those passages may be actual prehistoric texts. What if the Apostles actually have a way of deciphering that language? But they keep it to themselves, thus concealing whatever astronomical data may be recorded in the Book of Revelations. That may be the key Athor's after."


Theremon was astonished. "You mean to say that the preeminent astronomer of our time, perhaps of all time, feels the need to consult a pack of hysterical cultists on a scientific issue?"


With a shrug, Beenay said, "All I know is that Athor doesn't like the Apostles and their teachings any more than you do, but he thought there was something important to gain by meeting with your friend Folimun."


"No friend of mine! He's strictly a professional acquaintance."


Beenay said, "Well, whatever you want to call-"


Theremon cut him off. Real wrath was rising in him now, a little to his own surprise. "And it's not going to sit very well with me, let me tell you, if it turns out that you people and the Apostles have cut some sort of deal. So far as I'm concerned, the Apostles represent Darkness itself-the blackest, most hateful sort of reactionary ideas. Give them their way and they'll have us all living medieval lives of fasting and chastity and flagellation again. It's bad enough we have psychotics like them spewing forth demented delirious prophecies to disturb the tranquillity of everyday life, but if a man of Athor's prestige is going to dignify those ludicrous creeps by incorporating some of their babble into his own findings, I'm going to be very, very suspicious, my friend, of anything at all that emanates from your Observatory from this point onward."


Dismay was evident on Beenay's face.


"If you only knew, Theremon, how scornfully Athor speaks of the Apostles, how little regard he has for anything they've ever advocated-"


"Then why is he deigning to speak with them?"


"You've talked with Folimun yourself!"


"That's different. Like it or not, Folimun's helping to make news these days. It's my job to find out what's going on in his mind."


"Well," Beenay said hotly, "maybe Athor takes the same view.


That was the point where they had let the discussion drop. It was beginning to change from a discussion into a quarrel, and neither one of them wanted that. Since Beenay really had no idea what kind of understanding, if any, Athor and Folimun might have worked out with each other, Theremon saw there wasn't much sense in belaboring him about it.


But, Theremon realized afterward, that conversation with Beenay was exactly when his attitude toward Beenay and Sheerin and the rest of the Observatory people had begun to shift-when he had started to move from sympathetic and curious onlooker to jeering, scornful critic. Even though he himself had been instrumental in bringing it about, the meeting between the Observatory director and the Apostle now seemed to Theremon to be a sellout of the most disastrous kind, a naive capitulation on Athor's part to the forces of reaction and blind ignorance.


Although he had never really been able to make himself believe the theories of the scientists-despite all the so-called "evidence" they had allowed him to inspect-Theremon had taken a generally neutral position in his column when the first news stories about the impending eclipse began to appear in the Chronicle.


"A startling announcement," he had called it, "and very frightening-if true. As Athor 77 quite rightly says, any prolonged period of sudden worldwide Darkness would be a calamity such as the world has never known. But from the other side of the world comes a dissenting view this morning. 'With all due respect to the great Athor 77,' declares Heranian 1104, Astronomer Royal of the Imperial Observatory of Kanipilitiniuk, 'there is still no firm evidence that the so-called Kalgash Two satellite exists at all, let alone that it is capable of causing such an eclipse as the Saro group predicts. We must bear in mind that suns-even a small sun such as Dovim-are immensely larger than any wandering space satellite could possibly be, and it strikes us as highly unlikely that such a satellite would be able to enter precisely the position in the heavens necessary to intercept all solar illumination that might reach the surface of our world-'"


But then came Mondior 71's speech of Umilithar thirteenth, in which the High Apostle proudly declared that the world's greatest man of science had given his support to the word of the Book of Revelations. "The voice of science is now one with the voice of heaven," Mondior cried. "I urge you now: put no further hope in miracles and dreams. What must come must come. Nothing can save the world from the wrath of the gods, nothing except a willingness to abandon sin, to give up evil, to devote oneself to the path of virtue and righteousness."


Mondior's booming pronouncement had pushed Theremon out of his neutrality. In loyalty to Beenay's friendship he had allowed himself to take the eclipse hypothesis more or less seriously, for a while. But now he began to see it' as pure sillyseason stuff-a bunch of earnest, self-deluding scientists, swept away by their own enthusiasm for a lot of circumstantial evidence and reasoning from mere coincidence, willing to kid themselves into a belief in the century's most nonsensical bit of insanity.


The next day Theremon's column asked, "Are you wondering how the Apostles of Flame ever managed to gain Athor 77 as a convert? Of all people, the grand old man of astronomy seems about the least likely to line up in support of those robed and hooded purveyors of claptrap and abracadabra. Did some silver-tongued Apostle charm the great scientist out of his wits? Or is it simply the case, as we've heard whispered behind the ivy-covered walls of Saro University, that the mandatory faculty retirement age has been pegged a few years too high?"


And that was only the beginning.


Theremon saw what role he had to play now. If people started taking this eclipse thing seriously, there would be mental breakdowns on all sides, even without the coming of general Darkness to start the trouble off.


Let everyone actually begin believing that doom would arrive on the evening of Theptar nineteenth, and there would be panic in the streets long before that, universal hysteria, a collapse of law and order, a prolonged period of general instability and troublesome apprehension-followed by the gods only knew what sort of emotional upheavals when the dreaded day came and went harmlessly. It would have to be his task to deflate the fear of Nightfall, of Darkness, of Doomsday, by poking it with the sharp spear of laughter.


So when Mondior thundered ferociously that the vengeance of the gods was on the way, Theremon 762 replied with lighthearted sketches of what the world would be like if the Apostles succeeded in "reforming" society as they wanted to-people going to the beach bundled up in ankle-length swimsuits, long sessions of prayer between each bit of action at sports events, all the great books and classic plays and shows rewritten to eliminate the slightest hint of impiety.


And when Athor and his group released diagrams showing the movements of the unseen and apparently unseeable Kalgash Two across the sky on its shadowy rendezvous with the pallid red light of Dovim, Theremon made amiable remarks about dragons, invisible giants, and other mythological monsters cavorting through the heavens.


When Mondior waved the scientific authority of Athor 77 around as an argument demonstrating secular support of the Apostles' teachings, Theremon responded by asking how seriously anyone could take Athor 77's scientific authority, now that he was obviously just as deranged as Mondior himself.


When Athor called for a crash program to store food supplies, scientific and technical information, and everything else that would be needed by mankind after the general insanity broke loose, Theremon suggested that in some quarters the general insanity had already broken loose, and provided his own list of essential items to put away in your basement ("can openers, thumbtacks, copies of the multiplication table, playing cards. . . . Don't forget to write your name on a tag and tie it around your right wrist, in case you don't remember it after the Darkness comes. . . . Put a tag on your left wrist that says, To find out your name, see tag on other wrist. . .


By the time Theremon had finished working the story over, it was hard for his readers to decide which group was more absurd-the ripsnorting doomsayers of the Apostles of Flame, or the pathetic, gullible skywatchers of the Saro University Observatory. But one thing was certain: thanks to Theremon, hardly any member of the general public believed that anything out of the ordinary was going to take place on the evening of Theptar nineteenth.


Athor thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared in rage at the man from the Chronicle. He was able to restrain himself only by a supreme effort.


"You here? Despite everything I said? Of all the audacity!"


Theremon's hand was outstretched in greeting as though he really had expected Athor to accept it. But after a moment he lowered it, and stood regarding the Observatory director with astonishing insouciance.


In a voice trembling with barely controlled emotion Athor said, "You display an infernal gall, sir, in coming here this evening. It astounds me that you'd dare to show your face among us."


From a corner of the room, Beenay, running the tip of his tongue nervously across his lips, interposed nervously, "Now, sir, after all-"


"Did you invite him to be here? When you knew I had expressly forbidden-"


"Sir, I-"


"It was Dr. Siferra," Theremon said. "She urged me very vigorously to come. I'm here at her invitation."


"Siferra? Siferra? I doubt that very much. She told me only a few weeks ago that she thinks you're an irresponsible fool. She spoke of you in the harshest possible manner." Athor looked around. "Where is she, by the way? She was supposed to be here, wasn't she?" No answer came. Turning to Beenay, Athor said, "You're the one who brought this newspaperman in, Beenay. I'm utterly amazed that you'd do such a thing. This isn't the moment for insubordination. The Observatory is closed to journalists this evening. And it's been closed to this particular journalist for a long time now. Show him out at once."


"Director Athor," Theremon said, "if you'll only let me explain what my reason for-"


"I don't believe, young man, that anything you could say now would do much to outweigh your insufferable daily columns of these last two months. You have led a vast newspaper campaign against the efforts of my colleagues and myself to organize the world against the menace that is about to overwhelm us. You have done your best with your highly personal attacks to make the staff of this Observatory objects of ridicule."


He lifted the copy of the Saro City Chronicle on the table and shook it at Theremon furiously. "Even a person of your wellknown impudence should have hesitated before coming to me with a request that he be allowed to cover today's events for this paper. Of all newsmen-you!"


Athor dashed the newspaper to the floor, strode to the window, and clasped his arms behind his back.


"You are to leave immediately," he snapped over his shoulder. "Beenay, get him out of here."


Athor's head was throbbing. It was important, he knew, to get his anger under control. He could not afford to allow anything to distract him from the vast and cataclysmic event that was about to occur.


Moodily he stared out at the Saro City skyline and forced himself back toward calmness, as much calmness as he was likely to be able to attain this evening.


Onos was beginning now to sink toward the horizon. In a little while it would fade and vanish into the distant mists. Athor watched it as it descended.


He knew he would never see it again as a sane man.


The cold white gleam of Sitha also was visible, low in the sky, far across the city at the other end of the horizon. Sitha's twin, Tano, was nowhere to be seen-already set, gliding now through the skies of the opposite hemisphere, which soon would be enjoying the extraordinary phenomenon of a five-sun day-and Sitha itself was also swiftly vanishing from view. In another moment it too would disappear.


Behind him he heard Beenay and Theremon whispering.


"Is that man still here?" Athor asked ominously.


Beenay said, "Sir, I think you ought to listen to what he has to tell you."


"You do? You think I ought to listen to him?" Athor whirled, his eyes gleaming fiercely. "Oh, no, Beenay. No, he'll be the one to listen to me!" He beckoned peremptorily to the newspaperman, who had made no motion at all to leave. "Come here, young man! I'll give you your story."


Theremon walked slowly toward him.


Athor gestured outward. "Sitha is about to set-no, it already has. Onos will be gone also, in another moment or two. Of all the six suns, only Dovim will be left in the sky. Do you see it?"


The question was scarcely necessary to ask. The red dwarf sun looked even smaller than usual this evening, smaller than it had appeared in decades. But it was almost at zenith, and its ruddy light streamed down awesomely, flooding the landscape with an extraordinary blood-red illumination as the brilliant rays of setting Onos died.


Athor's upturned face flushed redly in the Dovim-light. "In just under four hours," he said, "civilization, as we have known it, will come to an end. It will do so because, as you see, Dovim will be the only sun in the sky." He narrowed his eyes, stared toward the horizon. The last yellow blink of Onos now was gone. "There. Dovim is alone! We have four hours, now, until the finish of everything. Print that! But there'll be no one to read it."


"But if it turns out that four hours pass-and another four- and nothing happens?" asked Theremon softly.


"Don't let that worry you. Plenty will happen, I assure you."


"Perhaps. But if it doesn't?"


Athor fought against his rising rage. "If you don't leave, sir, and Beenay refuses to conduct you out, then I'll call the university guards, and- No. On civilization's last evening, I'll allow no discourtesies here. You have five minutes, young man, to say what you have come here to say. At the end of that time, I will either agree to allow you to stay to view the eclipse, or you will leave of your own accord. Is that understood?"


Theremon hesitated only a moment. "Fair enough."


Athor took out his pocket watch. "Five minutes, then."


"Good! All right, first thing: what difference would it make if you allowed me to take down an eyewitness account of what's to come? If your prediction comes true, my presence won't matter at all-the world will end, there'll be no newspaper tomorrow, I won't be able to hurt you in anyway. On the other hand, what if there isn 't any eclipse? You people will be the subject of such ridicule as the world has never known. Don't you think it would be wise to leave that ridicule to friendly hands?"


Athor snorted. "Do you mean your hands?"


"Certainly!" Theremon flung himself down casually in the most comfortable chair in the room and crossed his legs. "My columns may have been a little rough at times, agreed, but I let you people have the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Beenay's a friend of mine, after all. He's the one who first gave me an inkling of what was going on here, and you may recall that at the beginning I was quite sympathetic to your research. But-I ask you, Dr. Athor-how can you, one of the greatest of all scientists in all of history, turn your back on the awareness that the present century is a time of the triumph of reason over superstition, of fact over fantasy, of knowledge over blind fear? The Apostles of Flame are an absurd anachronism. The Book of Revelations is a muddled mass of foolishness. Everyone intelligent, everyone modern, knows that. And so people are annoyed, even angered, to have scientists turn about face and tell us that these cultists are preaching the truth. They-"


"No such thing, young man," interrupted Athor. "While some of our data has been supplied us by the Apostles, our results contain none of the Apostles' mysticism. Facts are facts, and there's no denying that the Apostles' so-called 'foolishness' does have certain facts behind it. We discovered that to our own chagrin, let me assure you. But we've scorned their mythologizing and done whatever we could to separate their quite genuine warnings of impending disaster from their quite preposterous and untenable program for transforming and 'reforming' society. I assure you that the Apostles hate us now even more than you do."


"I don't hate you. I'm just trying to tell you that the public is in an ugly humor. They're angry."


Athor twisted his mouth in derision. "Let them be angry!"


"Yes, but what about tomorrow?"


"There'll be no tomorrow!"


"But if there is. Say that there is-just for the sake of argument. That anger might take shape as something serious. After all, you know, the whole financial world's been in a nose-dive the last few months. The stock market has crashed three separate times, or haven't you noticed? Sensible investors don't really believe the world is coming to an end, but they think other investors might start to think so, and so the smart ones sell out before the panic begins-thus touching off the panic themselves. And then they buy back afterward, and sell again as soon as the market rallies, and begin the whole downward cycle all over again. And what do you think has happened to business? Johnny Public doesn't believe you either, but there's no sense buying new porch furniture just now, is there? Better to hang on to your money, just in case, or put it into canned goods and ammunition, and let the furniture wait.


"You see the point, Dr. Athor. Just as soon as this is all over, the business interests will be after your hide. They'll say that if crackpots-begging your pardon-crackpots in the guise of serious scientists can upset the world's entire economy any time they want simply by making some cockeyed prediction, then it's up to the world to keep such things from happening. The sparks will fly, Doctor."


Athor regarded the columnist indifferently. The five minutes were almost up.


"And just what were you proposing to do to help the situation?"


"Well," Theremon said, grinning, "what I have in mind is this: starting tomorrow, I'll serve as your unofficial public-relations representative. By which I mean that I can try to quell the anger you're going to face, the same way that I've been trying to ease the tension the nation has been feeling-through humor, through ridicule, if necessary. I know-I know-it would be hard to stand, I admit, because I'd have to make you all out to be a bunch of gibbering idiots. But if I can get people laughing at you, they might just forget to be angry. In return for that, all I ask is the exclusive right to cover the scene at the Observatory this evening."


Athor was silent. Beenay burst out, "Sir, it's worth considering. I know that we've examined every possibility, but there's always a million-to-one chance, a billion-to-one chance, that there's an error somewhere in our theory or in our calculations. And if there is-"


The others in the room were murmuring now, and it sounded to Athor like murmurs of agreement. By the gods, was the whole department turning against him? Athor's expression became that of one who found his mouth full of something bitter and couldn't get rid of it.


"Let you remain with us so that you'll be better able to ridicule us tomorrow? You must think I'm far gone in senility, young man!"


Theremon said, "But I've explained that my being here won't make any difference. If there is an eclipse, if Darkness does come, you can expect nothing but the most reverent treatment from me, and all the help I can give in any crisis that might follow. And if nothing unusual happens after all, I'm willing to offer my services in the hope of protecting you, Dr. Athor, against the wrath of the angry citizens who-"


"Please," a new voice said. "Let him stay, Dr. Athor."


Athor looked around. Siferra had come in, unnoticed by him. "I'm sorry I'm late. We had a little last-minute problem at the Archaeology office that upset things a little, and-" She and Theremon exchanged glances. To Athor she said, "Please don't be offended. I know how cruelly he's mocked us. But I asked him to come here this evening, so that he could find out at first hand that we really were right. He's-my guest, Doctor."


Athor closed his eyes a moment. Siferra's guest! It was too much. Why not invite Folimun too? Why not invite Mondior!


But he had lost his appetite for further dispute. Time was running short. And obviously none of the others minded having Theremon here during the eclipse.


What did it matter?


What did anything matter now?


Resignedly Athor said, "All right. Stay, if that's what you want. But you will kindly refrain from hampering us in our duties in any fashion. Understood? You'll keep out of the way as much as possible. You will also remember that I am in charge of all activities here, and in spite of your opinions as expressed in your columns, I will expect full cooperation and full respect-"


Siferra crossed the room to Theremon's side and said quietly, "I didn't seriously expect you to come here this evening."


"Why not? The invitation was serious, wasn't it?"


"Of course. But you were so savage in your mockery, in all those columns you wrote about us-so cruel-"


"'Irresponsible' is the word you used," Theremon said. She reddened. "That too. I didn't imagine you'd be able to look Athor in the eye after all those horrid things you said about him."

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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