Nightfall - Page 17


Chapter Seventeen

"I told you, Sheerin, life is fundamentally dependent upon light. And therefore in a world where-"


"Life here is fundamentally dependent on light. But what does that have to do with a planet that-"


"It stands to reason, Sheerin!"


"It stands to circular reason!" Sheerin retorted. "You define life as such-and-such a kind of phenomenon that occurs on Kalgash, and then you try to claim that on a world that's totally unlike Kalgash life would be-"


Theremon burst suddenly into harsh gusts of laughter.


Sheerin and Beenay looked at him indignantly.


"What's so funny?" Beenay demanded.


"You are. The two of you. An astronomer and a psychologist having a furious argument about biology. This must be the celebrated interdisciplinary dialogue that I've heard so much about, the great intellectual ferment for which this university is famous." The newspaperman stood up. He was growing restless anyway, and Beenay's long disquisition on abstract matters was making him even edgier. "Excuse me, will you? I need to stretch my legs."


"Totality's almost here," Beenay pointed out. "You may not want to be off by yourself when that happens."


"Just a little stroll, and then I'll be back," said Theremon.


Before he had taken five steps, Beenay and Sheerin had resumed their argument. Theremon smiled. It was a way of easing the tension, he told himself. Everybody was under tremendous pressure. After all, each tick of the clock was bringing the world closer to full Darkness-closer to- To the Stars?


To madness?


To the Time of the Heavenly Flames?


Theremon shrugged. He had gone through a hundred gyrations of mood in the past few hours, but now he felt oddly calm, almost fatalistic. He had always believed that he was the master of his own destiny, that he was able to shape the course of his life: that was how he had succeeded in getting himself into places where other newspapermen hadn't remotely had a chance. But now everything was beyond his control, and he knew it. Come Darkness, come Stars, come Flame, it would all happen without a by-your-leave from him. No sense consuming himself in jittery anticipation, then. Just relax, sit back, wait, watch it all happen.


And then, he told himself-then make sure that you survive whatever turmoil follows.


"Going up to the dome?" a voice asked.


He blinked in the half-darkness. It was the chubby little graduate-student astronomer-Faro, was that his name?


"Yes, as a matter of fact," Theremon said, though in truth he had had no particular destination in mind.


"So am I. Come on: I'll take you there."


A spiral metal staircase wound upward into the high-vaulted top story of the huge building. Faro went chugging up the stairs in a thudding short-legged gait, and Theremon loped along behind him. He had been in the Observatory dome once before, years ago, when Beenay wanted to show him something. But he remembered very little about the place.


Faro pulled back a heavy sliding door, and they went in.


"Come for a close look at the Stars?" Siferra asked.


The tall archaeologist was standing just inside the doorway, watching the astronomers at their work. Theremon reddened. Siferra wasn't what he wanted to run into just now. Too late he recalled that this was where Beenay had said she had gone. Despite the ambiguous smile she had seemed to cast his way at the moment of the eclipse's beginning, he still feared the sting of her scorn for him, her anger over what she saw as his betrayal of the Observatory group.


But she showed no sign now of hard feelings. Perhaps, now that the world was plunging headlong into the Cave of Darkness, she felt that anything that had happened before the eclipse was irrelevant, that the coming catastrophe canceled out all errors, all quarrels, all sins.


"What a place!" Theremon said.


"Isn't it amazing? Not that I really know much of what's going on here. They've got the big solarscope trained on Dovim-it's really a camera more than it is a spyglass, they told me; you can't just squint through it and see the heavens-and then these smaller telescopes are focused deeper out, watching for some sign that the Stars are appearing-"


"Have they spotted them yet?"


"Not so far as anyone's told me," Siferra said.


Theremon nodded. He looked around. This was the heart of the Observatory, the room where the actual scanning of the skies took place. It was the darkest room he had ever been in- not truly dark, of course; there were bronze sconces arrayed in a double row around the curving wall, but the glow that came from the lamps they held was faint and perfunctory. In the dimness he saw a great metal tube going upward and disappearing through an open panel in the roof of the building. He was able to glimpse the sky through the panel also. It had a terrifying dense purple hue now. The diminishing orb of Dovim was still visible, but the little sun seemed to have retreated to an enormous distance.


"How strange it all looks," he murmured. "The sky has a texture I've never seen before. It's thick-it's like some sort of blanket, almost."


"A blanket that will smother us all."


"Frightened?" he asked.


"Of course. Aren't you?"


"Yes and no," Theremon said. "I mean, I'm not trying to sound particularly heroic, believe me. But I'm not nearly as edgy as I was an hour or two ago. Numb, more than anything."


"I think I know what you mean."


"Athor says there's already been some rioting in the city."


"It's only the beginning," Siferra replied. "Theremon, I can't get those ashes out of my mind. The ashes of the Hill of Thombo. Those big blocks of stone, the foundations of the cyclopean city-and ashes everywhere at their base."


"With older ashes below, down and down and down."


"Yes," she said.


He realized that she had moved a little closer to him. He realized also that the animosity she had felt toward him over the past few months seemed to be completely gone, and-could it be?-she appeared to be responding to some ghost of the attraction that he had once had for her. He knew the symptoms. He was much too experienced a man not to know them.


Fine, Theremon thought. The world is coming to an end, and now, suddenly, Siferra is finally willing to put aside her Ice Queen costume.


A weird, gawky figure, immensely tall, came slithering by them in a clumsy jerky way. He offered them a giggly greeting.


"No sign of the Stars yet," he said. It was Yimot, the other young graduate student. "Maybe we won't get to see them at all. It'll all turn out to be a fizzle, like the experiment Faro and I rigged up in that dark building."


"Plenty of Dovim's still visible," Theremon pointed out. "We're nowhere near total Darkness."


"You sound almost eager for it," said Siferra.


He turned to her. "I'd like to get the waiting over with."


"Hey!" someone yelled. "My computer's down!"


"The lights-!" came another voice.


"What's happening?" Siferra asked.


"Power failure," Theremon said. "Just as Sheerin predicted. The generating station must be in trouble. The first wave of madmen, running amok in the city."


Indeed the dim lights in the sconces appeared to be on the verge of going out. First they grew very much brighter, as if a quick final surge of power had gone rushing through them; then they dimmed; then they brightened again, but not as much as a moment before; and then they dropped to just a fraction of their normal light output. Theremon felt Siferra's hand gripping his forearm tightly.


"They're out," someone said.


"And so are the computers-cut in the backup power, somebody! Hey! Backup power!"


"Fast! The solarscope isn't tracking! The camera shutter won't work!"


Theremon said, "Why didn't they prepare for something like this?"


But apparently they had. There came a thrumming from somewhere in the depths of the building; and then the screens of the computers scattered around the room winked back to life. The lamps in their sconces did not, though. Evidently they were on another circuit, and the emergency generator in the basement would not restore them to functioning.


The Observatory was practically in full Darkness.


Siferra's hand still rested on Theremon's wrist. He debated slipping a comforting arm around her shoulders.


Then Athor's voice could be heard. "All right, give me a hand here! We'll be okay in a minute!"


"What's he got?" Theremon asked.


"Athor's brought out the lights," came the voice of Yimot.


Theremon turned to stare. It wasn't easy to see anything, in such a low light level, but in another moment his eyes grew somewhat accustomed to it. There were half a dozen foot-long inch-thick rods cradled in Athor's arms. He glared over them at the staff members.


"Faro! Yimot! Come here and help me."


The young men trotted to the Observatory director's side and took the rods from him. One by one, Yimot held them up, while Faro, in utter silence, scraped a large clumsy match into spluttering life with the air of one performing the most sacred rite of a religious ritual. As he touched the flame to the upper end of each of the rods, the little blaze hesitated a moment, playing futilely about the tip, until a sudden crackling flare cast Athor's lined face into yellow highlights. A spontaneous cheer ran through the great room.


The rod was tipped by six inches of wavering flame!


"Fire?" Theremon wondered. "In here? Why not use godlights, or something?"


"We discussed it," said Siferra. "But godlights are too faint. They're all right for a small bedroom, just a little cozy presence to get you through the sleeping-period, but for a place this size-"


"And downstairs? Are they lighting torches there too?"


"I think so."


Theremon shook his head. "No wonder the city's going to burn this evening. If even you people are resorting to something as primitive as fire to hold back the Darkness-"


The light was dim, dimmer even than the most tenuous sunlight. The flames reeled crazily, giving birth to drunken, swaying shadows. The torches smoked devilishly and smelled like a bad day in the kitchen. But they emitted yellow light.


There was something joyous about yellow light, Theremon thought. Especially after nearly four hours of somber, dwindling Dovim.


Siferra warmed her hands at the nearest, regardless of the soot that gathered upon them in a fine, gray powder, and muttered ecstatically to herself. "Beautiful! Beautiful! I never realized before what a wonderful color yellow is."


But Theremon continued to regard the torches suspiciously. He wrinkled his nose at the rancid odor and said, "What are those things made out of?"


"Wood," she replied.


"Oh, no, they're not. They aren't burning. The top inch is charred and the flame just keeps shooting up out of nothing."


"That's the beauty of it. This is a really efficient artificial light mechanism. We made a few hundred of them, but most went to the Sanctuary, of course. You see"-she turned and dusted off her blackened hands-"you take the pithy core of coarse water reeds, dry them thoroughly, and soak them in animal grease. Then you set fire to it and the grease burns, little by little. These torches will burn for almost half an hour without stopping. Ingenious, isn't it?"


"Wonderful," Theremon said dourly. "Very modern. Very impressive."


But he couldn't remain in this room any longer. The same restlessness that had led him to come up here now afflicted him again. The reek of the torches was bad enough; but also there was the cold blast of air coming in through the open panel in the dome, a harsh wintry flow, the icy finger of night. He shivered. He wished that he and Sheerin and Beenay hadn't finished off that whole bottle of miserable wine so quickly.


"I'm going to go back below," he said to Siferra. "There's nothing to see here if you aren't an astronomer."


"All right. I'll go with you."


In the flickering yellow light he saw a smile appear on her face, unmistakable this time, unambiguous.


They made their way down the clattering spiral staircase to the lower room. Not much had changed down there. The people on the lower level had lit torches there too. Beenay was busy at three computers at once, processing data from the telescopes upstairs. Other astronomers were doing other things, all of them incomprehensible to Theremon. Sheerin was wandering around by himself, a lost soul. Folimun had carried his chair directly beneath a torch and continued reading, lips moving in the monotonous recital of invocations to the Stars.


Through Theremon's mind ran phrases of description, bits and pieces of the article he had planned to write for tomorrow's Saro City Chronicle. Several times earlier in the evening the writing machine in his brain had clicked on the same way -a perfectly methodical, perfectly conscientious, and, as he was only too well aware, perfectly meaningless procedure. It was wholly preposterous to imagine that there was going to be an issue of the Chronicle tomorrow.


He exchanged glances with Siferra.


"The sky," she murmured.


"I see it, yes."


It had changed tone again. Now it was darker still, a horrible deep purple-red, a monstrous color, as though some enormous wound in the fabric of the heavens were gushing fountains of blood.


The air had grown, somehow, denser. Dusk, like a palpable entity, entered the room, and the dancing circle of yellow light about the torches etched itself into ever sharper distinction against the gathering grayness beyond. The odor of smoke here was just as cloying as it had been upstairs. Theremon found himself bothered even by the little chuckling sounds that the torches made as they burned, and by the soft pad of Sheerin's footsteps as the heavyset psychologist circled round and round the table in the middle of the room.


It was getting harder to see, torches or no.


So now it begins, Theremon thought. The time of total Darkness-and the coming of the Stars.


For an instant he thought it might be wisest to look for some cozy closet to lock himself into until it was all over. Stay out of the way, avoid the sight of the Stars, hunker down and wait for things to become normal again. But a moment's contemplation told him what a bad idea that was. A closet-any sort of enclosed place-would be dark too. Instead of being a safe snug harbor, it might become a chamber of terrors far more frightening than the rooms of the Observatory.


And then too, if something big was going to happen, something that would reshape the history of the world, Theremon didn't want to be tucked away with his head under his arm while it was going on. That would be cowardly and foolish; and it might be something he would regret all the rest of his life. He had never been the sort of man to hide from danger, if he thought there might be a story in it. Besides, he was just self-confident enough to believe that he would be able to withstand whatever was about to occur-and there was just enough skepticism left in him so that at least part of him wondered whether anything significant was going to happen at all.


He stood still, listening to Siferra's occasional indrawn breaths, the quick little respirations of someone trying to retain composure in a world that was all too swiftly retreating into the shadow.


Then came another sound, a new one, a vague, unorganized impression of sound that might well have gone unnoticed but for the dead silence that prevailed in the room and for Theremon's unnatural focus of attention as the moment of totality grew near.


The newspaperman stood tensely listening, holding his breath. After a moment he carefully moved toward the window and peered out.


The silence ripped to fragments at his startled shout:


"Sheerin!"


There was an uproar in the room. They were all looking at him, pointing, questioning. The psychologist was at his side in a moment. Siferra followed. Even Beenay, crouched in front of his computers, swung around to look.


Outside, Dovim was a mere smoldering splinter, taking one last desperate look at Kalgash. The eastern horizon, in the direction of the city, was lost in Darkness, and the road from Saro City to the Observatory was a dull red line. The trees of the wooded tracts that bordered the highway on both sides had lost all individuality and merged into a continuous shadowy mass.


But it was the highway itself that held attention, for along it there surged another, and infinitely menacing, shadowy mass, surging like a strange shambling beast up the slopes of Observatory Mount.


"Look," Theremon cried hoarsely. "Someone tell Athor! The madmen from the city! Folimun's people! They're coming!"


"How long to totality?" Sheerin asked.


"Fifteen minutes," Beenay rasped. "But they'll be here in five."


"Never mind, keep everyone working," Sheerin said. His voice was steady, controlled, unexpectedly commanding, as though he had managed to tap into some deep reservoir of inner strength in this climactic moment. "We'll hold them off. This place is built like a fortress. You, Siferra, go upstairs and let Athor know what's happening. You, Beenay, keep an eye on Folimun. Knock him down and sit on him if you have to, but don't let him out of your sight. Theremon, come with me."


Sheerin was out the door, and Theremon followed at his heels. The stairs stretched below them in tight, circular sweeps around the central shaft, fading into a dank and dreary grayness.


The first momentum of their rush had carried them fifty feet down, so that the dim, flickering yellow from the open door of the room behind them had disappeared, and both up above and down the same dusky shadow crushed in upon them.


Sheerin paused, and his pudgy hand clutched at his chest. His eyes bulged and his voice was a dry cough. His whole body was quivering in fear. Whatever the final source of resolve he had found a moment ago now seemed exhausted.


"I can't . . . breathe . . . go down . . . yourself. Make sure all doors are closed-"


Theremon took a few downward steps. Then he turned.


"Wait! Can you hold out a minute?" He was panting himself. The air passed in and out of his lungs like so much molasses, and there was a little germ of screeching panic in his mind at the thought of making his way farther below by himself.


What if the guards had left the main door open, somehow?


It wasn't the mob he was afraid of. It was- Darkness.


Theremon realized that he was, after all, afraid of the Dark!


"Stay here," he said unnecessarily to Sheerin, who was huddled dismally on the staircase where Theremon had left him. "I'll be back in a second."


He dashed upward two steps at a time, heart pounding-not altogether from the exertion-tumbled into the main room, and snatched a torch from its holder. Siferra stared at him, eyes wide with bewilderment.


"Shall I come with you?" she asked.


"Yes. No. No!"


He ran out again. The torch was foul-smelling, and the smoke smarted his eyes almost blind, but he clutched that torch as if he wanted to kiss it for joy. Its flame streamed backward as he hurtled down the stairs again.


Sheerin hadn't budged. He opened his eyes and moaned as Theremon bent over him. The newspaperman shook him roughly. "All right, get hold of yourself. We've got light."


He held the torch at tiptoe height, and, propping the tottering psychologist by an elbow, made his way downward again, protected now by the sputtering circle of illumination.


On the ground floor everything was black. Theremon felt the horror rising within him again. But the torch sliced a way through the Darkness for him.


"The Security men-" Sheerin said.


Where were they? Had they fled? It looked that way. No, there were a couple of the guards Athor had posted, jammed up against the corner of the hallway, trembling like jelly. Their eyes were blank, their tongues were lolling. Of the others there was no sign.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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