Nightfall - Page 15


Chapter Fifteen

The main room was in an uproar. Everyone clustered around Faro and Yimot, who were trying to parry a burst of eager questions while they removed their outer garments.


Athor bustles through the crowd and faced the newcomers angrily. "Do you realize that it's practically E-hour? Where have you two been?"


Faro 24 seated himself and rubbed his hands. His round, fleshy cheeks were red with the outdoor chill. He was smirking strangely. And he seemed curiously calm, almost as if he had been drugged.


"I've never seen him like that before," Beenay whispered to Sheerin. "He's always been very obsequious, very much the humble junior astronomer deferring to the great people around him. Even to me. But now-"


"Shh. Listen," Sheerin said.


Faro said, "Yimot and I have just finished carrying through a little crazy experiment of our own. We've been trying to see if we couldn't construct an arrangement by which we could simulate the appearance of Darkness and Stars so as to get an advance notion as to how it looked."


There was a confused murmur from the listeners.


"Stars?" Theremon said. "You know what Stars are? How did you find out?"


Smirking again, Faro said, "By reading the Book of Revelations. It seems pretty clear that Stars are something very bright, like suns but smaller, that appear in the sky when Kalgash enters the Cave of Darkness."


"Absurd!" someone said.


"Impossible!"


"The Book of Revelations! That's where they did their research! Can you imagine-"


"Quiet," Athor said. There was a sudden look of interest in his eyes, a touch of his old vigor. "Go on, Faro. What was this 'arrangement' of yours? How did you go about it?"


"Well," said Faro, "the idea came to Yimot and me a couple of months ago, and we've been working it out in our spare time. Yimot knew of a low one-story house down in the city with a domed roof-some kind of warehouse, I think. Anyway, we bought it-"


"With what?" interrupted Athor peremptorily. "Where did you get the money?"


"Our bank accounts," grunted the lanky, pipestem-limbed Yimot 70. "It cost us two thousand credits." Then, defensively, "Well, what of it? Tomorrow two thousand credits will be two thousand pieces of paper and nothing else."


"Sure," Faro said. "So we bought the place and rigged it up with black velvet from top to bottom so as to get as perfect a Darkness as possible. Then we punched tiny holes in the ceiling and through the roof and covered them with little metal caps, all of which could be shoved aside simultaneously at the close of a switch. At least, we didn't do that part ourselves; we got a carpenter and an electrician and some others-money didn't count. The point was that we could get the light to shine through those holes in the roof, so that we could get a Starlike effect."


"What we imagined a Starlike effect would be," Yimot amended.


Not a breath was drawn during the pause that followed. Athor said stiffly:


"You had no right to make a private-"


Faro seemed abashed. "I know, sir-but, frankly, Yimot and I thought the experiment was a little dangerous. If the effect really worked, we half expected to go mad-from what Dr. Sheerin says about all this, we thought that would be rather likely. We felt that we alone should take the risk. Of course, if we found that we could retain our sanity, it occurred to us that we might be able to develop immunity to the real thing, and then expose the rest of you to what we had experienced. But things didn't work out at all-"


"Why? What happened?"


It was Yimot who answered. "We shut ourselves in and allowed our eyes to get accustomed to the dark. It's an extremely creepy feeling because the total Darkness makes you feel as if the walls and ceiling are crashing in on you. But we got over that and pulled the switch. The caps fell away and the roof glittered all over with little dots of light."


"And?"


"And-nothing. That was the wacky part of it. So far as we understood the Book of Revelations, we were experiencing the effect of seeing Stars against a background of Darkness. But nothing happened. It was just a roof with holes in it, and bright points of light coming through, and that's just what it looked like. We tried it over and over again-that's what kept us so late-but there just wasn't any effect at all."


There was a shocked silence. All eyes turned to Sheerin, who stood motionless, mouth open.


Theremon was the first to speak. "You know what this does to the whole theory you've built up, Sheerin, don't you?" He was grinning with relief.


But Sheerin raised his hand. "Not so fast, Theremon. Just let me think this through. These so-called 'Stars' that the boys constructed-the total time of their exposure to Darkness-" He fell silent. Everyone watched him. And then he snapped his fingers, and when he lifted his head there was neither surprise nor uncertainty in his eyes. "Of course-"


He never finished. Thilanda, who had been up in the Observatory dome exposing photographic plates of the sky at ten second intervals as the time of eclipse drew near, came rushing in, waving her arms in wild circles that would have been worthy of Yimot at his most excited.


"Dr. Athor! Dr. Athor!"


Athor turned. "What is it?"


"We just found-he came walking right into the dome-you won't believe this, Dr. Athor-"


"Slow down, child. What happened? Who came walking in?"


There were the sounds of a scuffle in the hail, and a sharp clang. Beenay, starting to his feet, rushed out the door and came to a sudden halt, crying, "What the deuce!"


Davnit and Hikkinan, who should have been up in the dome with Thilanda, were out there. The two astronomers were struggling with a third figure, a lithe, athletic-looking man in his late thirties, with strange curling red hair, a thin sharp-featured face, icy blue eyes. They dragged him into the room and stood holding him with his arms gripped tightly behind his back.


The stranger wore the dark robe of the Apostles of Flame.


"Folimun 66!" Athor cried.


And in the same breath, from Theremon: "Folimun! What in the name of Darkness are you doing here?"


Quietly, in a cold, commanding tone, the Apostle said, "It's not in the name of Darkness that I've come to you this evening but in the name of light."


Athor stared at Thilanda. "Where did you find this man?"


"I told you, Dr. Athor. We were busy with the plates, and then we heard him. He had come right in and was standing behind us. 'Where is Athor,' he said. 'I must see Athor.'"


"Call the security guards," Athor said, his face darkening with rage. "The Observatory is supposed to be sealed this evening. I want to know how this man succeeded in getting past the guards."


"Obviously you've got an Apostle or two on the payroll," Theremon said pleasantly. "Naturally they'd have been only too obliging when the Apostle Folimun showed up and asked them to unlock the gate."


Athor shot him a blistering glance. But the look on his face indicated that the old astronomer realized the probable accuracy of Theremon's guess.


Everyone in the room had formed a ring around Folimun now. They were all staring at him in astonishment-Siferra, Theremon, Beenay, Athor, and the rest.


Calmly Folimun said, "I am Folimun 66, special adjutant to His Serenity Mondior 71. I have come this evening not as a criminal, as you seem to think, but as an envoy from His Serenity. Do you think you could persuade these two zealots of yours to release me, Athor?"


Athor gestured irritatedly. "Let him go."


"Thank you," Folimun said. He rubbed his arms and adjusted the set of his robe. Then he bowed in gratitude-or was it only mock gratitude?-to Athor. The air around the Apostle seemed to tingle with some special electricity.


"Now then," Athor said. "What are you doing here? What do you want?"


"Nothing, I suspect, that you would give me of your own free will."


"You're probably right about that."


Folimun said, "When you and I met some months ago, Athor, it was, I would say, a very tense meeting, a meeting of two men who might well have looked upon themselves as princes of hostile realms. To you, I was a dangerous fanatic. To me, you were the leader of a band of godless sinners. And yet we were able to come to a certain area of agreement, which was, you recall, that on the evening of Theptar nineteenth, Darkness would fall upon Kalgash and would remain for many hours."


Athor scowled. "Come to the point, if there is one, Folimun. Darkness is about to fall, and we don't have a lot more time."


Folimun replied, "To me, the coming Darkness was being sent upon us by the will of the gods. To you, it represented nothing more than the soulless movement of astronomical bodies. Very well: we agreed to disagree. I provided you with certain data that had been in the possession of the Apostles since the previous Year of Godliness, certain tables of the movements of the suns in the sky, and other even more abstruse data. In return, you promised to prove the essential truth of the creed of our faith and to make that proof known to the people of Kalgash."


Looking at his watch, Athor said, "And I did exactly that. What does your master want of me now? I've fulfilled my end of the bargain."


Folimun smiled faintly, but said nothing.


There was an uneasy stir in the room.


"I asked him for astronomical data, yes," Athor said, looking around. "Data that only the Apostles had. And it was given to me. For that, thank you. In return I did agree, in a manner of speaking, to make public my mathematical confirmation of the Apostles' basic tenet that Darkness would descend on Theptar nineteenth."


"There was no real need for us to give you anything," was the proud retort. "Our basic tenet, as you call it, was not in need of proof. It stands proven by the Book of Revelations."


"For the handful that constitute your cult, yes," Athor snapped. "Don't pretend to mistake my meaning. I offered to present scientific background for your beliefs. And I did!"


The cultist's eyes narrowed bitterly. "Yes, you did-with a fox's subtlety, for your pretended explanation backed our beliefs and at the same time removed all necessity for them. You made of the Darkness and of the Stars a natural phenomenon and removed all their real significance. That was blasphemy."


"If so, the fault isn't mine. The facts exist. What can I do but state them?"


"Your 'facts' are a fraud and a delusion."


Athor's face grew mottled with rage. "How do you know?" And the answer came with the certainty of absolute faith: "I know."


The director purpled even more. Beenay started to go to his side, but Athor waved him away.


"And what does Mondior 71 want us to do? He still thinks, I suppose, that in trying to warn the world to take measures against the menace of madness we are somehow interfering with his attempt to seize power after the eclipse. Well, we aren't succeeding. I hope that makes him happy."


"The attempt itself has done harm enough. And what you are trying to achieve here this evening will make things worse."


Delete this


"What do you know of what we're trying to achieve here this evening?" Athor demanded.


Smoothly Folimun said, "We know that you've never abandoned your hope of influencing the populace. Having failed to do it before the Darkness and the Flames, you intend to come forth afterward, equipped with photographs of the transition from daylight to Darkness. You mean to offer a rational explanation to the survivors of what happened-and to put aside in a safe place your supposed evidence of your beliefs, so that at the end of the next Year of Godliness your successors in the realm of science will be able to step forward and guide humanity in such a way that the Darkness can be resisted."


"Someone's been saying things," Beenay whispered.


Folimun went on, "All this works against the interests of Mondior 71, obviously. And it is Mondior 71 who is the appointed prophet of the gods, the one who is intended to lead mankind through the period ahead."


"It's high time you came to the point," Athor said in a frigid tone.


Folimun nodded. "The point is simply this. Your ill-advised and blasphemous attempt to gain information by means of your devilish instruments must be stopped. I only regret that I could not have destroyed your infernal devices with my own hands."


"Is that what you had in mind? It wouldn't have done you much good. All our data, except for the direct evidence we intend collecting right now, is already safely cached and well beyond the possibility of harm."


"Bring it forth. Destroy it."


"What?"


"Destroy all your work. Destroy your instruments. In return for which, I will see to it that you and all your people are protected against the chaos that is certain to break loose when Nightfall comes."


Now there was laughter in the room.


"Crazy," someone said. "Absolutely nuts."


"Not at all," Folimun said. "Devout, yes. Dedicated to a cause beyond your comprehension, yes. But not crazy. I'm quite sane, I assure you. I think this man here"-he indicated Theremon-"would testify to that, and he's not known for his gullibility. But I place my cause above all other things. This night is crucial in the history of the world, and when tomorrow dawns, Godliness must triumph. I offer you an ultimatum. You people are to end your blasphemous attempt to provide rational explanations for the coming of Darkness this evening and accept His Serenity Mondior 71 as the true voice of the gods' will. When morning comes, you will go forth to do Mondior's work among mankind, and no more will be heard of eclipses, or orbits, or the Law of Universal Gravitation, or the rest of your foolishness."


"And if we refuse?" said Athor, looking almost amused by Folimun's presumptuousness.


"Then," said Folimun coolly, "a band of angry people led by the Apostles of Flame will ascend this hill and destroy your Observatory and everything within it."


"Enough," Athor said. "Call Security. Have this man thrown out of here."


"You have exactly one hour," Folimun said, unperturbed. "And then the Army of Holiness will attack."


"He's bluffing," Sheerin said suddenly.


Athor, as though he hadn't heard, said again, "Call Security. I want him out of here!"


"Damn it, Athor, what's wrong with you?" Sheerin cried. "If you turn him loose, he'll get out there to fan the flames. Don't you see, chaos is what all these Apostles have been living for? And this man's a master at creating it."


"What are you suggesting?"


"Lock him up," Sheerin said. "Stash him away in a closet and slap a padlock on him, and keep him there for the duration of the time of Darkness. It's the worst possible thing we could do to him. If he's locked away like that, he won't see the Darkness, and he won't see the Stars. It doesn't take much of a knowledge of the fundamental creed of the Apostles to realize that for him to be hidden from the Stars when they appear will mean the loss of his immortal soul. Lock him up, Athor. It's not only what's safest for us, it's what he deserves."


"And afterward," breathed Folimun fiercely, "when you have all lost your minds, there'll be no one to let me out. This is a sentence of death. I know as well as you do what the coming of the Stars will mean-I know it far better than you. With your minds gone, you won't give any thought to freeing me. Suffocation or slow starvation, is it? About what I might have expected from a group of-of scientists." He made the word sound obscene. "But it won't work. I've taken the precaution of letting my followers know that they are to attack the Observatory precisely an hour from now, unless I appear and order them not to. Locking me away, then, will achieve nothing useful to you. Within an hour it'll bring your own destruction upon you, that's all. And then my people will free me, and together-joyously, ecstatically-we will watch the coming of the Stars." A vein throbbed in Folimun's temple. "Then, tomorrow, when you all are babbling madmen, damned forever by your deeds, we will set about the creation of a wondrous new world."


Sheerin glanced doubtfully at Athor. But Athor looked hesitant too.


Beenay, standing next to Theremon, murmured, "What do you think? Is he bluffing?"


But the newspaperman didn't reply. He had gone pale to the lips. "Look at that!" The finger he pointed toward the window was shaking, and his voice was dry and cracked.


There was a simultaneous gasp as every eye followed the pointing finger and, for one moment, stared frozenly.


Dovim was chipped on one side!


The tiny bit of encroaching blackness was perhaps the width of a fingernail, but to the staring watchers it magnified itself into the crack of doom.


For Theremon the sight of that small arc of darkness struck with terrible force. He winced and put his hand to his forehead and turned away from the window. He was shaken to the roots of his soul by that little chip in Dovim's side. Theremon the skeptic-Theremon the mocker-Theremon the tough-minded analyst of other people's folly- Gods! How wrong I was!


As he turned, his eyes met Siferra's. She was at the other side of the room, looking at him. There was contempt in her eyes- or was it pity? He forced himself to meet her gaze and shook his head sadly, as though to tell her with all the humility there was in him, I fouled things up and I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.


It seemed to him that she smiled. Maybe she had understood what he was trying to say.


Then the room dissolved in shrieking confusion for a moment, as everyone began to rush frenziedly around; and a moment after that, the confusion gave way to an orderly scurry of activity as the astronomers leaped to their assigned tasks, some running upstairs to the Observatory dome to watch the eclipse through the telescopes, some going to the computers, some using hand-held instruments to record the changes in Dovim's disk. At this crucial moment there was no time for emotion. They were merely scientists with work to do. Theremon, alone in the midst of it all, looked about for Beenay and found him, finally, sitting at a keyboard, madly working out some sort of problem. Of Athor there was no sign at all.


Sheerin appeared at Theremon's side and said prosaically, "First contact must have been made five or ten minutes ago. A little early, but I suppose there were plenty of uncertainties involved in the calculations despite all the effort that went into them." He smiled. -"You ought to get away from that window, man."


"Why is that?" said Theremon, who had swung around again to stare at Dovim.


"Athor is furious," the psychologist whispered. "He missed first contact on account of this fuss with Folimun. You're in a vulnerable position, standing where you are. If Athor comes by this way he's likely to try to throw you out the window."


Theremon nodded shortly and sat down. Sheerin looked at him, eyes wide with surprise.


"The devil, man! You're shaking."


"Eh?" Theremon licked dry lips and then tried to smile. "I don't feel very well, and that's a fact."


The psychologist's eyes hardened. "You're not losing your nerve, are you?"


"No!" cried Theremon in a flash of indignation. "Give me a chance, will you? You know, Sheerin, I wanted to believe all this eclipse rigmarole, but I couldn't, I honestly couldn't, it all seemed like the sheerest woolly fantasy to me. I wanted to believe it for Beenay's sake, for Siferra's sake-even for Athor's sake, in a strange way. But I couldn't. Not until just this minute. Give me a chance to get used to the idea, all right? You've had months. It's all hitting me at once."


"I see what you mean," Sheerin said thoughtfully. "Listen. Have you got a family-parents, wife, children?"


Theremon shook his head. "No. Nobody I need to worry about. Well, I have a sister, but she's two thousand miles away. I haven't even spoken with her in a couple of years."


"Well then, what about yourself?"


"What do you mean?"


"You could try to get to our Sanctuary. They'd have room for you there. There's probably still time-I could call them and say that you're on the way, and they'd unlock the gate for you-"


"So you think I'm scared stiff, do you?"


"You said yourself you didn't feel so good."


"Maybe I don't. But I'm here to cover the story. That's what I intend to do."


There was a faint smile on the psychologist's face. "I see. Professional honor, is that it?"


"You might call it that." Wearily Theremon said, "Besides, I helped in a big way to undermine Athor's preparedness program, or have you forgotten? Do you really think I'd have the gall now to go running for shelter into the very Sanctuary I was poking fun at, Sheerin?"


"I hadn't seen it that way."


"I wonder if there's any more of that miserable wine hidden around here somewhere. If ever there was a time when a fellow needed a drink-"


"Shh!" Sheerin said. He nudged Theremon violently. "Do you hear that? Listen!"


Theremon glanced in the direction Sheerin was indicating. Folimun 66 stood by the window, a look of wild elation on his face. The Apostle was droning something to himself in a low singsong tone. It made the newspaperman's skin crawl.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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