Nightfall - Page 16


Chapter Sixteen

"What's he saying?" he whispered. "Can you make it out?"


"He's quoting the Book of Revelations, fifth chapter," replied Sheerin. Then, urgently, "Keep quiet and listen, will you?"


The Apostle's voice rose suddenly in an increase of fervor:


"'And it came to pass in those days that the sun, Dovim, held lone vigil in the sky for ever longer periods as the revolutions passed; until such time as for full half a revolution, it alone, shrunken and cold, shone down upon Kalgash.


"'And men did assemble in the public squares and in the highways, there to debate and to marvel at the sight, for a strange fear and misery bad seized their spirits. Their minds were troubled and their speech confused, for the souls of men awaited the coming of the Stars.


"'And in the city of Trigon, at high noon, Vendret 2 came forth and said unto the men of Trigon, "Lo, ye sinners! Though ye scorn the ways of righteousness, yet will the time of reckoning come. Even now the Cave approaches to swallow Kalgash; yea, and all it contains."


"'And in that moment as he spoke the lip of the Cave of Darkness passed the edge of Dovim so that to all Kalgash it was hidden from sight. Loud were the cries and lamentations of men as it vanished, and great the fear of soul with which they were afflicted.


"'And then it came to pass that the Darkness of the Cave fell full upon Kalgash in all its terrible weight, so that there was no light to be seen anywhere on all the surface of the world. Men were even as blinded, nor could one see his neighbor, though be felt his breath upon his face.


"'And in this blackness there appeared the Stars in countless number, and their brightness was as the brightness of all the gods in concourse assembled. And with the coming of the Stars there came also a music, which had a beauty so wondrous that the very leaves of the trees turned to tongues that cried out in wonder.


"'And in that moment the souls of men departed from them and fled upward to the Stars, and their abandoned bodies became even as beasts; yea, even as dull brutes of the wild; so that through the darkened streets of the cities of Kalgash they prowled with wild cries, like the cries of beasts.


"'From the Stars then there 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 of the works of man, nothing whatever remained.


"'Even then-'


There was a subtle change in Folimun's tone. His eyes had not shifted, but somehow it seemed that he had become aware of the absorbed attention of the other two. Easily, without pausing for breath, he altered the timbre of his voice, so that it rose in pitch and the syllables became more liquid.


Theremon, caught by surprise, frowned. The words seemed to be on the border of familiarity. There had been nothing more than an elusive shift in the accent, a tiny change in the vowel stress-yet Theremon no longer had the slightest idea of what Folimun was saying.


"Maybe Siferra would be able to understand him now," Sheerin said "He's probably speaking the liturgical tongue now, the old language of the previous Year of Godliness that the Book of Revelations was supposedly translated from"


Theremon gave the psychologist a peculiar look "You know a lot about this, don't you? What's he saying, then?"


"You think I can tell you? I've done a little studying lately, yes But not that much I'm just guessing at what he's talking about -Weren't we going to lock him in a closet?"


"Let him be," Theremon said "What difference does it make now? It's his big moment Let him enjoy it" He shoved his chair back and ran his fingers through his hair His hands weren't shaking any longer. "Funny thing," he said. "Now that it's all actually begun, I don't feel jittery any more."


"No?"


"Why should P" Theremon said A note of hectic gaiety had crept into his voice "There's nothing I can do to stop what's going to happen, is there? So I'll just try to ride it out -Do you think the Stars are really going to appear?"


"Not a clue," Sheerin said. "Maybe Beenay would know."


"Or Athor."


"Leave Athor alone," said the psychologist, laughing. "He just passed through the room and gave you a look that should have killed you."


Theremon made a wry face "I'll have plenty of crow to eat when all this is over, I know. What do you think, Sheerin? Is it safe to watch the show outside?"


"When the Darkness is total-"


"I don't mean the Darkness I can handle Darkness, I think I mean the Stars."


"The Stars?" Sheerin repeated impatiently. "I told you, I don't know anything about them."


"They're probably not as terrifying as the Book of Revelations would want us to think. If that pinpoint-in-the-ceiling experiment of those two students means anything-" He turned his hands palms upward, as though they might hold the answer. "Tell me, Sheerin, what do you think? Won't some people be immune to the effects of the Darkness and the Stars?"


Sheerin shrugged. He pointed to the floor in front of them. Dovim was past its zenith now, and the square of bloody sunlight that outlined the window upon the floor had moved a few feet toward the center of the room, where it lay like the terrible stain of some ghastly crime. Theremon stared at its dusky color thoughtfully. Then he swung around and squinted once more into the sun itself.


The chip in its side had grown to a black encroachment that covered a third of its visible disk. Theremon shuddered. Once, jokingly, he had talked with Beenay of dragons in the sky. Now it seemed to him that the dragon had come, that it had swallowed five of the suns already, that it was nibbling enthusiastically at the only one that remained.


Sheerin said, "There are probably two million people in Saro City who are all trying to join the Apostles at once. They'll be holding one giant revival meeting down at Mondior's headquarters, I'll bet. -Do I think there's immunity to the Darkness effects? Well, we're about to discover if there is, aren't we?"


"There must be. How else would the Apostles keep the Book of Revelations going from cycle to cycle, and how on Kalgash did it get written in the first place? There must have been some sort of immunity. If everyone had gone mad, who would have been left to write the book?"


"Very likely the members of the secret cult hid themselves away in sanctuaries until it was over, just as some of us are doing tonight," Sheerin said.


"Not good enough. The Book of Revelations is set up as an eyewitness account. That seems to indicate they had firsthand experience of the madness-and survived it."


"Well," said the psychologist, "there are three kinds of people who might remain relatively unaffected. First, the very few who don't get to see the Stars at all-the blind, let's say, or those who drink themselves into a stupor at the beginning of the eclipse and stay that way to the end."


"They don't count. They're not really witnesses."


"I suppose not. The second group, though-young children, to whom the world as a whole is too new and strange for anything to seem more unusual than anything else. They wouldn't be frightened by the Darkness or even the Stars, I suspect. Those would just be two more curious events in an endlessly surprising world. You see that, don't you?"


Theremon nodded doubtfully. "I suppose so."


"Lastly, there are those whose minds are too coarse-grained to be entirely toppled. The very insensitive might scarcely be affected-the real clods. They'd just shrug and wait for Onos to rise, I suppose."


"So the Book of Revelations was written by insensitive clods?" Theremon asked, grinning.


"Hardly. It would have been written by some of the keenest minds of the new cycle-and it would have been based on the fugitive memories of the children, combined with the confused, incoherent babblings of the half-mad morons, and, yes, perhaps some of the tales that the clods told."


"You'd better not let Folimun hear that."


"Of course, the text would have been extensively edited and re-edited over the years. And even passed on, perhaps, from cycle to cycle, the way Athor and his people hope to pass along the secret of gravitation. But my essential point is this: that it can't help but be a mass of distortion, even if it is based on fact. For instance, consider that experiment with the holes in the roof that Faro and Yimot were telling us about-the one that didn't work."


"What of it?"


"Well, the reason why it didn't w-" Sheerin stopped and rose in alarm. "Uh-oh."


"Something wrong?" Theremon asked.


"Athor's coming this way. Just look at his face!"


Theremon turned. The old astronomer was moving toward them like some vengeful spirit out of a medieval myth. His skin was paper-white, his eyes were blazing, his features were a twisted mask of consternation. He shot a venomous glance toward Folimun, who still stood by himself in the corner on the far side of the window, and another at Theremon.


To Sheerin he said, "I've been on the communicator for the past fifteen minutes. I talked to the Sanctuary, and to the Security people, and to downtown Saro City."


"And?"


"The newspaperman here will be very pleased with his work. The city's a shambles, I hear. Rioters everywhere, looters, panicky mobs-"


"What about the Sanctuary?" Sheerin asked anxiously.


"Safe. They're sealed off according to plan, and they're going to stay hidden until daybreak, at the earliest. They'll be all right. But the city, Sheerin-you have no idea-" He was having difficulty in speaking.


Theremon said, "Sir, if you would only believe me when I tell you how deeply I regret-"


"There's no time for that now," snapped Sheerin impatiently. He put his hand on Athor's arm. "What about you? Are you all right, Dr. Athor?"


"Does it matter?" Athor leaned toward the window, as if trying to see the riots from there. In a dull voice he said, "The moment the eclipse began, everyone out there realized that all the rest of it was going to happen just as we had said-we, and the Apostles. And hysteria set in. The fires will be starting soon. And I suppose Folimun's mob will be here too. What are we to do, Sheerin? Give me some suggestion!"


Sheerin's head bent, and he stared in long abstraction at his toes. He tapped his chin with one knuckle for a time. Then he looked up and said crisply, "Do? What is there to do? Lock the gates, hope for the best."


"What if we were to tell them that we'd kill Folimun if they tried to break in?"


"And would you?" Sheerin asked.


Athor's eyes sparked in surprise. "Why-I suppose-"


"No," Sheerin said. "You wouldn't."


"But if we threatened to-"


"No. No. They're fanatics, Athor. They already know we're holding him hostage. They probably expect us to kill him the moment they storm the Observatory, and that doesn't faze them at all. And you know you wouldn't do it anyway."


"Of course not."


"So, then. How long is it until totality?"


"Not quite an hour."


"We'll have to take our chances. It'll take time for the Apostles to get their mob together-it's not going to be a bunch of Apostles, I'll bet on that, it's going to be a huge mass of ordinary townspeople stirred up to panic by a handful of Apostles, who'll promise them immediate entrance into grace, promise them salvation, promise them anything-and it'll take more time to get them out here. Observatory Mount is a good five miles from the city-"


Sheerin glared out the window. Theremon, beside him, looked also, staring down the slopes. Below, the farmed patches gave way to clumps of white houses in the suburbs. The metropolis beyond was a blur in the distance-a mist in the waning blaze of Dovim. Eerie nightmare light bathed the landscape.


Without turning, Sheerin said, "Yes, it'll take time for them to get here. Keep the doors locked, keep on working, pray that totality comes first. Once the Stars are shining I think not even the Apostles will be able to keep that mob's mind on the job of breaking in here."


Dovim was cut in half. The line of division was pushing a slight concavity across the middle into the still bright portion of the red sun. It was like a gigantic eyelid inexorably dropping down over the light of a world.


Theremon stood frozen, staring. The faint clatter of the room behind him faded into oblivion, and he sensed only the thick silence of the fields outside. The very insects seemed frightened mute. And things were dimmer and dimmer. That weird blood-hue stained everything.


"Don't look so long at a time," Sheerin murmured in his ear.


"At the sun, you mean?"


"At the city. At the sky. I'm not worried about you hurting your eyes. It's your mind, Theremon."


"My mind's all right."


"You want it to stay that way. How are you feeling?"


"Why-" Theremon narrowed his eyes. His throat was a little dry. He ran his finger along the inside of his collar. Tight. Tight. A hand beginning to close around his throat, was that how it felt? He twisted his neck back and forth but found no relief. "A little trouble breathing, maybe."


"Difficulty in breathing is one of the first symptoms of a claustrophobic attack," Sheerin said. "When you feel your chest tightening, you'd be wise to turn away from the window."


"I want to see what's happening."


"Fine. Fine. Whatever you like, then."


Theremon opened his eyes wide and drew two or three long breaths. "You don't think I can take it, do you?"


Wearily Sheerin said, "I don't know anything about anything, Theremon. Things are changing from moment to moment, aren't they? -Hello, here's Beenay."


The astronomer had interposed himself between the light and the pair in the corner. Sheerin squinted up at him uneasily. "Hello, Beenay."


"Mind if I join you?" he asked. "My reckonings are set, and there's nothing for me to do till totality." Beenay paused and eyed the Apostle, who was poring intently through a small leather-bound book that he had drawn from the sleeve of his robe. "Say, weren't we going to put him away?"


"We decided not to," Theremon said. "Do you know where Siferra is, Beenay? I saw her a little while ago, but she doesn't seem to be here now."


"Upstairs, in the dome. She wanted to get a view through the big telescope. Not that there's anything much to see that we can't see with our naked eyes."


"What about Kalgash Two?" Theremon asked.


"What's there to see? Darkness in Darkness. We can see the effect of its presence as it moves in front of Dovim. Kalgash Two itself, though-it's just a chunk of night against the night sky."


"Night, " Sheerin mused. "What a strange word that is."


"Not any more," said Theremon. "So you don't actually see the wandering satellite at all, even with the big telescope?"


Beenay looked abashed. "Our telescopes really aren't very good, you know. They do fine for solar observations, but let it get just a little dark, and-" He shook his head. His shoulders were thrown back and he seemed to be working hard to pull air into his lungs. "But Kalgash Two is real, all right. The strange zone of Darkness that's passing between us and Dovim-that's Kalgash Two."


Sheerin said, "Have you been having trouble breathing, Beenay?"


"A little." He sniffled. "A cold, I guess."


"A touch of claustrophobia, more likely."


"You think?"


"I'm pretty sure. Anything else feel strange?"


"Well," Beenay said, "I get the impression that my eyes are going back on me. Things seem to blur, and-well, nothing is as clear as it ought to be. And I'm cold, too."


"Oh, that's no illusion. It's cold, all right," Theremon said, grimacing. "My toes feel as if I've been shipping them cross country in a refrigeration car."


"What we need right now," Sheerin said intensely, "is to distract ourselves from the effects we're feeling. Keep our minds busy, that's the thing. I was telling you a moment ago, Theremon, why Faro's experiments with the holes in the roof came to nothing."


"You were just beginning," Theremon replied, playing along. He huddled down, encircling a knee with both arms and nuzzling his chin against it. What I ought to do, he thought, is excuse myself and go upstairs to find Siferra, now that the time before totality is running out. But he found himself curiously passive, unwilling to move. Or, he wondered, am I just afraid to face her?


Sheerin said, "What I was about to propose was that they were misled by taking the Book of Revelations literally. There probably wasn't any sense in attaching any physical significance to the concept of Stars. It might be, you know, that in the presence of total and sustained Darkness the mind finds it absolutely necessary to create light. This illusion of light might be all that the Stars really are."


"In other words," Theremon said, starting to get caught up in it now, "you mean the Stars are the results of the madness and not one of the causes? Then what good will the photographs that the astronomers are taking this evening be?"


"To prove that the Stars are an illusion, maybe. Or to prove the opposite, for all I know. Then again-"


Beenay had drawn his chair closer, and there was an expression of sudden enthusiasm on his face. "As long as you're on the subject of Stars-" he began. "I've been thinking about them myself, and I've come up with a really interesting notion. Of course, it's just a wild speculation, and I'm not trying to put it forth in any serious way. But it's worth thinking about. Do you want to hear it?"


"Why not?" Sheerin said, leaning back.


Beenay looked a little reluctant. He smiled shyly and said, "Well then, supposing there were other suns in the universe."


Theremon repressed a laugh. "You said this was really wild, but I didn't imagine-"


"No, it isn't as crazy as that. I don't mean other suns right close at hand that we somehow mysteriously aren't able to see. I'm talking about suns that are so far away that their light isn't bright enough for us to make them out. If they were nearby, they'd be as bright as Onos, maybe, or Tano and Sitha. But as it is, the light they give off seems to us like nothing more than a little point of illumination, and it's drowned out by the constant glare from our six suns."


Sheerin said, "But what about the Law of Universal Gravitation? Aren't you overlooking that? If these other suns are there, wouldn't they be disturbing our world's orbit the way Kalgash Two does, and why, then, haven't you observed it?"


"Good point," said Beenay. "But these suns, let's say, are really far off-maybe as much as four light-years away, or even more."


"How many years is a light-year?" Theremon asked.


"Not how many. How far. A light-year is a measure of distance-the distance light travels in a year. Which is an immense number of miles, because light is so fast. We've measured it at something like 185,000 miles an hour, and my suspicion is that that isn't a really precise figure, that if we had better instruments we'd find out that the speed of light is even a little faster than that. But even figuring at 185,000 miles an hour, we can calculate that Onos is about ten light-minutes from here, and Tano and Sitha about eleven times as far as that, and so on. So a sun that's a few light-years away, why, that would be really distant. We'd never be able to detect any perturbations they might be causing in Kalgash's orbit, because they'd be so minor. All right: let's say that there are a lot of suns out there, everywhere around us in the heavens, at a distance of four to eight light-years-say, a dozen or two such suns, maybe."


Theremon whistled. "What an idea for a great Weekend Supplement piece! Two dozen suns in a universe eight light-years across! Gods! That would shrink our universe into insignificance! Imagine it-Kalgash and its suns just a little trivial suburb of the real universe, and here we've been thinking that we're the whole thing, just us and our six suns, all alone in the cosmos!"


"It's only a wild notion," said Beenay with a grin, "but you see where I'm heading, I hope. During eclipse, these dozen suns would suddenly become visible, because for a little while there'd be no real sunlight to drown them out. Since they're so far off, they'd appear small, like so many little marbles. But there you'd have it: the Stars. The suddenly emerging points of light that the Apostles have been promising us."


"The Apostles talk of 'countless numbers' of Stars," Sheerin said. "That doesn't seem like a dozen or two to me. More like a few million, wouldn't you think?"


"Poetic exaggeration," said Beenay. "There just isn't room enough in the universe for a million suns-not even if they were jammed right up against each other so that they touched."


"Besides," Theremon offered, "once we get up to a dozen or two, can we really grasp distinctions of numbers? Two dozen Stars would seem like a 'countless' number, I bet-especially if there happens to be an eclipse going on and everybody is wacky already from staring at Darkness. You know, there are tribes in the backwoods that have only three numbers in their language-'one,' 'two,' 'many,' We're a little more sophisticated than that, maybe. So for us one to two dozen are comprehensible, and then it just feels like 'countless' to us." He shivered with excitement. "A dozen suns, suddenly! Imagine it!"


Beenay said, "There's more. Another cute little notion. Have you ever thought what a simple problem gravitation would be if only you had a sufficiently simple system? Supposing you had a universe in which there was a planet with only one sun. The planet would travel in a perfect ellipse and the exact nature of the gravitational force would be so evident it could be accepted as an axiom. Astronomers on such a world would start off with gravity probably before they even invent the telescope. Naked-eye observation would be enough to let them figure things out."


Sheerin looked doubtful. "But would such a system be dynamically stable?" he asked.


"Sure! They call it the 'one-and-one' case. It's been worked out mathematically, but it's the philosophical implications that interest me."


"It's nice to think about," admitted Sheerin, "as a pretty abstraction-like a perfect gas or absolute zero."


"Of course," continued Beenay, "there's the catch that life would be impossible on such a planet. It wouldn't get enough heat and light, and if it rotated there would be total Darkness half of each day. That was the planet you once asked me to imagine, remember, Sheerin? Where the native inhabitants would be fully adapted to alternating daylight and night? But I've been thinking about that. There wouldn't be any native inhabitants. You couldn't expect life-which is fundamentally dependent upon light-to develop under such extreme conditions of light-deprivation. Half of every axial rotation spent in Darkness! No, nothing could exist under conditions like that. But to continue-just speaking hypothetically, the 'one-and-one' system would-"


"Wait a minute," Sheerin said. "That's pretty glib of you, saying life wouldn't have developed there. How do you know? What's so fundamentally impossible about life evolving in a place that has Darkness half the time?"

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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