Nightfall - Page 19


Chapter Nineteen

That was all. Everything after that was blank, utterly blank, until the moment of his awakening, when he looked up to see Onos in the sky once more, and began to put back together the shards and slivers of his mind.


I am Theremon 762, he told himself again. I used to live in Saro City and write a column for the newspaper.


There was no Saro City any longer. There was no newspaper.


The world had come to an end. But he still lived, and his sanity, he hoped, was returning.


What now? Where to go?


"Siferra?" he called.


No one answered. Slowly he began to shuffle down the hill once more, past the broken trees, past the burned and overturned cars, past the scattered bodies. If this is what it looks like out here in the country, he thought, what must it be like in the city itself?


My God, he thought again.


All you gods! What have you done to us?


Sometimes cowardice has its advantages, Sheerin told himself, as he unbolted the door of the storeroom in the Observatory basement where he had spent the time of Darkness. He still felt shaky, but he had no doubt that he was still sane. As sane as he had ever been, at any rate.


It seemed quiet out there. And although the storeroom had no windows, enough light had managed to make its way through a grating high up along one of its walls so that he was fairly confident that morning had come, that the suns were in the sky again. Perhaps the madness had passed by this time. Perhaps it was safe for him to come out.


He poked his nose out into the hallway. Cautiously he looked around.


The smell of smoke was the first thing he perceived. But it was a stale, musty, nasty, damp, acrid kind of smoke-smell, the smell of a fire that has been extinguished. The Observatory was not only a building made of stone, but it had a highly efficient sprinkler system, which must have gone into operation as soon as the mob began setting fires.


The mob! Sheerin shuddered at the recollection.


The rotund psychologist knew that he would never forget the moment when that mob had come bursting into the Observatory. It would haunt him as long as he lived-those twisted, distorted faces, those berserk eyes, those howling cries of rage. These were people who had lost their fragile grip on sanity even before the totality of the eclipse. The deepening Darkness had been enough to push them over the edge-that, and the skillful rabble-rousing of the Apostles of Flame, triumphant now in their moment of fulfilled prophecy. So the mob had come, by the thousands, to root out the despised scientists in their lair; and there they were, now, rushing in, waving torches, clubs, brooms, anything at all with which they could hit, smash, ruin.


Paradoxically enough, it was the coming of the mob that had jolted Sheerin into being able to get a grip on himself. He had had a bad moment, back there when he and Theremon first went downstairs to barricade the doors. He had felt all right, even strangely buoyant, on the way down; but then the first reality of the Darkness had hit him, like a whiff of poison gas, and he had folded up completely. Sitting huddled up there on the stairs, cold with panic, remembering his trip through the Tunnel of Mystery and realizing that this time the trip would last not only a few minutes but for hour upon intolerable hour.


Well, Theremon had pulled him out of that one, and Sheerin had recovered some of his self-control as they returned to the upper level of the Observatory. But then came totality-and the Stars. Though Sheerin had turned his head away when that ungodly blast of light first came bursting through the opening in the Observatory roof, he had not been able completely to avoid the shattering sight of it. And for an instant he could feel his mind's grip giving way-could feel the delicate thread of sanity beginning to sunder- But then had come the mob, and Sheerin knew that the issue wasn't simply one of preserving his sanity, any more. It was one of saving his life. If he wanted to survive this night he had no choice but to hold himself together and find a place of safety. Gone was his naive plan to observe the Darkness phenomena like the aloof, dispassionate scientist he pretended to be. Let someone else observe the Darkness phenomena. He was going to hide.


And so, somehow, he had made his way to the basement level, to that cheery little storeroom with its cheery little godlight casting a feeble but very comforting glow. And bolted the door, and waited it out.


He had even slept, a little.


And now it was morning. Or perhaps afternoon, for all he knew. One thing was certain: the terrible night was over, and everything was calm, at least in the vicinity of the Observatory. Sheerin tiptoed into the hall, paused, listened, started warily up the stairs.


Silence everywhere. Puddles of dirty water, from the sprinklers. The foul reek of old smoke.


He halted on the stairway and thoughtfully removed a firehatchet from a bracket on the wall. He doubted very much that he could ever bring himself to use a hatchet on another living thing; but it might be a useful thing to be carrying, if conditions outside were as anarchic as he expected to find them.


Up to the ground floor, now. Sheerin pulled the basement door open-the same door that he had slammed behind him in his frenzied downward flight the evening before-and looked out.


The sight that greeted him was horrifying.


The great hall of the Observatory was full of people, all scrambled together on the floor, sprawled every which way, as though some colossal drunken orgy had been going on all night. But these people weren't drunk. Many of them lay twisted in ghastly impossible angles that only a corpse could have adopted. Others lay flat, stacked like discarded carpets in heaps two or three people high. They too seemed dead, or lost in the last unconsciousness of life. Still others were plainly alive, but sat whimpering and mewling like shattered things.


Everything that once had been on display in the great hall, the scientific instruments, the portraits of the great early astronomers, the elaborate astronomical charts, had been pulled down and burned or simply pulled apart and trampled. Sheerin could see the charred and battered remains jutting up here and there amidst the crush of bodies.


The main door was open. The warm and heartening glow of sunlight was visible beyond.


Carefully Sheerin picked his way through the chaos toward the exit.


"Dr. Sheerin?" a voice said suddenly, unexpectedly.


He whirled, brandishing his hatchet so fiercely that he came close to laughing at his own feigned belligerence.


"Who's there?"


"Me. Yimot."


"Who?"


"Yimot. You remember me, don't you?"


"Yimot, yes." The gangling, gawky young graduate astronomy student from some backwoods province. Sheerin saw the boy now, half hidden in an alcove. His face was blackened with ashes and soot and his clothing was torn, and he looked stunned and shaken, but he seemed otherwise to be all right. As he came forward, in fact, he moved in a far less comical way than usual, none of his jerky mannerisms, no wild swings of his arms or twitches of his head. Terror does strange things to people, Sheerin told himself. -"Have you been hiding here all through the night?"


"I tried to get out of the building when the Stars came, but I got jammed up in here. Have you seen Faro, Dr. Sheerin?"


"Your friend? No. I haven't seen anyone."


"We were together for a while. But then, with all the shoving and pushing, things got so wild-" Yimot managed an odd smile. "I thought they would burn the building down. But then the sprinklers came on." He pointed at the townspeople who lay all around. -"Are they all dead, do you think?"


"Some of them are just insane. They saw the Stars."


"I did too, just for a moment," Yimot said. "Just for a moment."


"What were they like?" Sheerin asked.


"You didn't see them, Doctor? Or is it that you just don't remember?"


"I was in the basement. Nice and snug."


Yimot craned his long neck upward as though the Stars were still blazing in the ceiling of the hallway. "They were-awesome," he whispered. "I know that doesn't tell you anything, but that's the only word I can use. I saw them only for two seconds, maybe three, and I could feel my mind spinning, I could feel the top of my head starting to lift off, so I looked away. Because I'm not very brave, Dr. Sheerin."


"No. Neither am I."


"But I'm glad I had those two or three seconds. The Stars are very frightening, but they're also very beautiful. At least to an astronomer they are. They were nothing at all like those silly little pinpricks of light that Faro and I created in that stupid experiment of ours. We must be right in the middle of an immense cluster of them, you know. We have our six suns in a tight group close by us-some of them closer than others, I mean-and then farther back, five or ten light-years back, or more, there's this whole giant sphere of Stars, which are suns, thousands of suns, a tremendous globe of suns completely enclosing us, but invisible to us normally because of the light of our own suns shining all the time. Just as Beenay said. Beenay's a wonderful astronomer, you know. He'll be greater than Dr. Athor some day. -You didn't see the Stars at all?"


"Just the merest quick glimpse," said Sheerin, a little sadly. "Then I went and hid. -Look, boy, we've got to get ourselves out of this place."


"I'd like to try to find Faro first."


"If he's all right, he's outside. If he isn't, there's nothing you can do for him."


"But if he's underneath one of those heaps-"


"No," Sheerin said. "You can't go poking around those people. They're all still stunned, but if you provoke them there's no telling what they'll do. The safest thing is to get out of here. I'm going to try to make it to the Sanctuary. If you're smart, you'll come with me."


"But Faro-"


"Very well," Sheerin said, with a sigh. "Let's look for Faro. Or Beenay, or Athor, or Theremon, any of the others."


But it was hopeless. For perhaps ten minutes they picked through the heaps of dead and unconscious and semi-conscious people in the hallway; but none of them were university people. Their faces were appalling, horribly distorted by fear and madness. Some stirred when they were disturbed, and began to froth and mutter in a horrifying way. One snatched at Sheerin's hatchet, and Sheerin had to use the butt end to push him away. It was impossible to ascend the stairs to the upper levels of the building; the staircase was blocked by bodies, and there was broken plaster everywhere. Pools of muddy water had collected on the floor. The harsh, piercing smell of smoke was intolerable.


"You're right," Yimot said finally. "We'd better go."


Sheerin led the way, stepping out into the sunlight. After the hours that had just passed, golden Onos was the most welcome sight in the universe, though the psychologist found his eyes unaccustomed to so much bright light after the long hours of Darkness. It hit him with almost tangible force. For a few moments after he emerged he stood blinking, waiting for his eyes to readapt. After a time he was able to see, and gasped at what he saw.


"How awful," Yimot murmured.


More bodies. Madmen wandering in circles, singing to themselves. Burned-out vehicles by the side of the road. The shrubbery and trees hacked up as though by blind monstrous forces. And, off in the distance, a ghastly pall of brown smoke rising above the spires of Saro City.


Chaos, chaos, chaos.


"So this is what the end of the world looks like," Sheerin said quietly. "And here we are, you and I. Survivors." He laughed bitterly. "What a pair we are. I'm carrying a hundred pounds too many around my middle and you've got a hundred pounds too few. But we're still here. I wonder if Theremon made it out of there alive. If anyone did, he would have. But I wouldn't have bet very much on you or me. -The Sanctuary's midway between Saro City and the Observatory. We ought to be able to walk it in half an hour or so, if we don't get into any trouble. Here, take this."


He scooped up a thick gray billy-club that was lying beside one of the fallen rioters and tossed it to Yimot, who caught it clumsily and stared at it as though he had no idea what it might be.


"What will I do with it?" he asked finally.


Sheerin said, "Pretend that you'll use it to bash in the skull of anybody that bothers us. Just as I'm pretending that I'd use this hatchet if I needed to defend myself. And if necessary I will. It's a new world out here, Yimot. Come on. And keep your wits about you as we go."


The Darkness was still upon the world, the Stars still were flooding Kalgash with their diabolical rivers of light, when Siferra 89 came stumbling out of the gutted Observatory building. But the faint pink glow of dawn was showing on the eastern horizon, the first hopeful sign that the suns might be returning to the heavens.


She stood on the Observatory lawn, legs far apart, head thrown back, pulling breath deep down into her lungs.


Her mind was numb. She had no idea how many hours had passed since the sky had turned dark and the Stars had erupted into view like the blast of a million trumpets. All the night long she had wandered the corridors of the Observatory in a daze, unable to find her way out, struggling with the madmen who swarmed about her on all sides. That she had gone mad too was not something she stopped to think about. The only thing on her mind was survival: beating back the hands that clutched at her; parrying the swinging clubs with blows of the club that she herself had snatched up from a fallen man; avoiding the screaming, surging stampedes of maniacs who rumbled arm in arm in groups of six or eight through the hallways, trampling everyone in their way.


It seemed to her that there were a million townsfolk loose in the Observatory. Wherever she turned she saw distended faces, bulging eyes, gaping mouths, lolling tongues, fingers crooked into monstrous claws.


They were smashing everything. She had no idea where Beenay was, or Theremon. She vaguely remembered seeing Athor in the midst of ten or twenty bellowing hoodlums, his thick mane of white hair rising above them-and then seeing him go down, swept under and out of sight.


Beyond that Siferra remembered nothing very clearly. For the whole duration of the eclipse she had run back and forth, up one hallway and down the other like a rat caught in a maze. She had never really been familiar with the layout of the Observatory, but getting out of the building should not have been that difficult for her-if she had been sane. Now, though, with the Stars blazing relentlessly at her out of every window, it was as if an icepick had been driven through her brain. She could not think. She could not think. She could not think. All she could do was run this way and that, shoving leering gibbering fools aside, shouldering her way through clotted gangs of ragged strangers, searching desperately and ineffectually and futilely for one of the main exits. And so it went, for hour after hour, as though she were caught in a dream that would not end.


Now, at last, she was outside. She didn't know how she had gotten there. Suddenly there had been a door in front of her, at the end of a corridor that she was sure she had traversed a thousand times before. She pushed and it yielded and a cool blast of fresh air struck her, and she staggered through.


The city was burning. She saw the flames far away, a bright furious red stain against the dark background of sky.


She heard screams, sobs, wild laughter from all sides.


Below her, a little way down the hillside, some men were mindlessly pulling down a tree-tugging at its branches, straining fiercely, ripping its roots loose from the ground by sheer force. She couldn't guess why. Probably neither could they.


In the Observatory parking lot, other men were tipping cars over. Siferra wondered whether one of those cars might be hers. She couldn't remember. She couldn't remember very much at all. Remembering her name was something of an effort.


"Siferra," she said aloud. "Siferra 89. Siferra 89."


She liked the sound of that. It was a good name. It had been her mother's name-or her grandmother's, perhaps. She wasn't really sure.


"Siferra 89," she said again. "I am Siferra 89."


She tried to remember her address. No. A jumble of meaningless numbers.


"Look at the Stars!" a woman screamed, rushing past her. "Look at the Stars and die!"


"No," Siferra replied calmly. "Why should I want to die?"


But she looked at the Stars all the same. She was almost getting used to the sight of them now. They were like very bright lights-very bright-so close together in the sky that they seemed to merge, to form a single mass of brilliance, like a kind of shining cloak that had been draped across the heavens. When she looked for more than a second or two at a time she thought she could make out individual points of light, brighter than those around them, pulsing with a bizarre vigor. But the best that she could manage was to look for five or six seconds; then the force of all that pulsating light would overwhelm her, making her scalp tingle and her face turn burning hot, and she would have to lower her head and rub her fingers against the fiery, throbbing, angry place of pain between her eyes.


She walked through the parking lot, ignoring the frenzy going on all about her, and emerged on the far side, where a paved road led along a level ridge on the flank of Observatory Mount. From some still-functioning region of her mind came the information that this was the road from the Observatory to the main part of the university campus. Up ahead, Siferra could see some of the taller buildings of the university now.


Flames were dancing on the roofs of some of them. The bell tower was burning, and the theater, and the Hall of Student Records.


You ought to save the tablets, said a voice within her mind that she recognized as her own.


Tablets? What tablets?


The Thombo tablets.


Oh. Yes, of course. She was an archaeologist, wasn't she? Yes. Yes. And what archaeologists did was dig for ancient things.  She had been digging in a place far away. Sagimot? Beklikan? Something like that. And had found tablets, prehistoric texts. Ancient things, archaeological things. Very important things. In a place called Thombo.


How am I doing? she asked herself.


And the answer came: You're doing fine.


She smiled. She was feeling better moment by moment. It was the pink light of dawn on the horizon that was healing her, she thought. The morning was coming: the sun, Onos, entering the sky. As Onos rose, the Stars became less bright, less terrifying. They were fading fast. Already those in the east were dimmed by Onos's gathering strength. Even at the opposite end of the sky, where Darkness still reigned and the Stars thronged like minnows in a pool, some of the intensity was starting to go from their formidable gleam. She could look at the sky for several moments at a stretch now without feeling her head begin to throb painfully. And she was feeling less confused. She remembered clearly now where she lived, and where she worked, and what she had been doing the evening before.


At the Observatory-with her friends, the astronomers, who had predicted the eclipse- The eclipse- That was what she had been doing, she realized. Waiting for the eclipse. For the Darkness. For the Stars.


Yes. For the Flames, Siferra thought. And there they were. Everything had happened right on schedule. The world was burning, as it had burned so many times before-set ablaze not by the hand of the gods, nor by the power of the Stars, but by ordinary men and women, Star-crazed, cast into a desperate panic that urged them to restore the normal light of day by any means they could find.


Despite the chaos all around her, though, she remained calm. Her injured mind, numbed, all but stupefied, was unable to respond fully to the cataclysm that Darkness had brought. She walked on and on, down the road, into the main quadrangle of the campus, past scenes of horrifying devastation and destruction, and felt no shock, no regret for what had been lost, no fear of the difficult times that must lie ahead. Not enough of her mind was restored yet for such feelings. She was a pure observer, tranquil, detached. The blazing building over there, she knew, was the new university library that she had helped to plan. But the sight of it stirred no emotion in her. She could just as well have been walking through some two-thousand-year-old site whose doom was a cut-and-dried matter of historical record. It would never have occurred to her to weep for a two-thousand-year-old ruin. It did not occur to her to weep now, as the university went up in flames all around her.


She was in the middle of the campus now, retracing familiar paths. Some of the buildings were on fire, some were not. Like a sleepwalker she turned left past the Administration building, right at the Gymnasium, left again at Mathematics, and zigzagged past Geology and Anthropology to her own headquarters, the Hall of Archaeology. The front door stood open. She went in.


The building seemed almost untouched. Some of the display cases in the lobby were smashed, but not by looters, since all the artifacts appeared still to be there. The elevator door had been wrenched off its hinges. The bulletin board next to the stairs was on the floor. Otherwise everything apparently was intact. She heard no sounds. The place was empty.


Her office was on the second floor. On the way up the stairs she came upon the body of an old man lying face upward at the first-floor landing. "I think I know you," Siferra said. "What's your name?" He didn't answer. "Are you dead? Tell me: yes or no." His eyes were open, but there was no light in them. Siferra pressed her finger against his cheek. "Mudrin, that's your name. Or was. Well, you were very old anyway." She shrugged and continued upward.


The door to her office was unlocked. There was a man inside. He looked familiar too; but this one was alive, crouching against the file cabinets in a peculiar huddled way. He was a burly, deep-chested man with powerful forearms and broad, heavy cheekbones. His face was bright with sweat and his eyes had a feverish gleam.


"Siferra? You here?"


"I came to get the tablets," she told him. "The tablets are very important. They have to be protected."


He rose from his crouch and took a couple of uncertain steps toward her. "The tablets? The tablets are gone, Siferra! The Apostles stole them, remember?"


"Gone?"


"Gone, yes. Like your mind. You're out of your mind, aren't you? Your face is blank. There's nobody home behind your eyes. I can see that. You don't even know who I am."


"You are Balik," she said, the name coming unbidden to her lips.


"So you do remember."


"Balik. Yes. And Mudrin is on the stairs. Mudrin is dead, do you know that?"


Balik shrugged. "I suppose. We'll all be dead in a little while. The whole world's gone crazy out there. But why am I bothering to tell you that? You're crazy too." His lips trembled. His hands shook. An odd little giggle burst from him, and he clenched his jaws as though to suppress it. "I've been here all through the Darkness. I was working late, and when the lights started to fail-my God," he said, "the Stars, the Stars. I had just one quick look at them. And then I got under the desk and stayed there through the whole thing." He went to the window. "But Onos is coming up now. The worst must be over. -Is everything on fire out there, Siferra?"


"I came for the tablets," she said again.


"They're gone." He spelled the word out for her. "Do you understand me? Gone. Not here. Stolen."


"Then I will take the charts that we made," she said. "I must protect knowledge."


"Absolutely crazy, aren't you? Where were you, the Observatory? Got a good view of the Stars, did you?" He giggled again and started to cut diagonally across the room, moving closer to her. Siferra's face twisted with disgust. She could smell the odor of his sweat now, sharp and harsh and disagreeable. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in a week. He looked as if he hadn't slept in a month. "Come here," he said, as she backed away from him. "I won't hurt you."


"I want the charts, Balik."


"Sure. I'll give you the charts. And the photographs and everything. But first I'm going to give you something else. Come here, Siferra."


He reached for her and pulled her toward him. She felt his hands on her breasts and the roughness of his cheek against her face. The smell of him was unbearable. Fury rose in her. How dare he touch her like this? Brusquely she pushed him away.


"Hey, don't do that, Siferra! Come on. Be nice. For all we know, there's just the two of us in the world. You and me, we'll live in the forest and hunt little animals and gather nuts and berries. Hunters and gatherers, yes, and later on we'll invent agriculture." He laughed. His eyes looked yellow in the strange light. His skin seemed yellow too. Again he reached for her, hungrily, one cupped hand seizing one of her breasts, the other sliding down her back toward the base of her spine. He put his face down against the side of her throat and nuzzled her noisily like some kind of animal. His hips were heaving and thrusting against her in a revolting way. At the same time he began to force her backward toward the corner of the room.


Suddenly Siferra remembered the club that she had picked up somewhere during the night in the Observatory building. She was still holding it, loosely dangling in her hand. Swiftly she brought it upward and rammed the top of it against the point of Balik's chin, hard. His head snapped up and back, his teeth clattered together.


He let go of her and lurched a few steps backward. His eyes were wide with surprise and pain. His lip was split where he had bitten into it, and blood was pouring down on one side.


"Hey, you bitch! What did you want to hit me for?"


"You touched me."


"Damn right I touched you! And about time, too." He rubbed his jaw. "Listen, Siferra, put that stick down and stop looking at me that way. I'm your friend. Your ally. The world has turned into a jungle now, and there's just the two of us. We need each other. It isn't safe trying to go it alone now. You can't afford to risk it."


Again he came toward her, hands upraised, seeking her.


She hit him again.


This time she brought the club around and smashed it against the side of his cheek, connecting with bone. There was an audible sharp sound of impact, and Balik jerked to one side under the force of it. With his head turned halfway away from her, he looked at her in utter astonishment and staggered back. But he was still standing. She hit him a third time, above his ear, swinging the club with all her strength in a long arc. As he fell, Siferra clubbed him once more, in the same place, and felt everything give beneath the blow. His eyes closed and he made a strange soft sound, like an inflated balloon releasing its air, and sank down in the corner against the wall, with his head going one way and his shoulders the other.


"Don't ever touch me like that again," Siferra said, prodding him with the tip of the club. Balik didn't reply. He didn't move, either.


Balik ceased to concern her.


Now for the tablets, she thought, feeling wonderfully calm.


No. The tablets were gone, Balik had said. Stolen. And she remembered now: they really were. They had disappeared just before the eclipse. All right, the charts then. All those fine drawings they had made of the Hill of Thombo. The stone walls, the ashes at the foundation lines. Those ancient fires, just like the fire that was ravaging Saro City at this very moment.


Where were they?


Oh. Here. In the chart cabinet, where they belonged.


She reached in, grabbed a sheaf of the parchment-like papers, rolled them, tucked them under her arm. Now she remembered the fallen man, and glanced at him. But Balik still hadn't moved. He didn't look as though he was going to, either.


Out the office door, down the stairs. Mudrin remained where he had been before, sprawled out motionless and stiff on the landing. Siferra ran around him and continued to the ground floor.


Outside, the morning was well along. Onos was climbing steadily and the Stars were pale now against its brightness. The air seemed fresher and cleaner, though the odor of smoke was thick on the breeze. Down by the Mathematics building she saw a band of men smashing windows. They caught sight of her a moment later and shouted to her, raucous, incoherent words. A couple of them began to run toward her.


Her breast ached where Balik had squeezed it. She didn't want any more hands touching her now. Turning, Siferra darted behind the Archaeology building, pushed her way through the bushes on the far side of the pathway in back, ran diagonally across a lawn, and found herself in front of a blocky gray building that she recognized as Botany. There was a small botanical garden behind it, and an experimental arboretum on the hillside beyond that, at the edge of the forest that encircled the campus.


Looking back, Siferra thought she saw the men still pursuing her, though she couldn't be sure. She sprinted past the Botany building and easily leaped the low fence around the botanical garden.


A man riding a mowing machine waved at her. He wore the olive-drab uniform of the university gardeners; and he was methodically mowing the bushes, cutting a wide swath of destruction back and forth across the center of the garden. He was chuckling to himself as he worked.


Siferra went around him. From there it was a short run into the arboretum. Were they still following her? She didn't want to take the time to glance behind her. Just run, run, run, that was the best idea. Her long, powerful legs carried her easily between the rows of neatly planted trees. She moved in steady strides. It felt good, running like this. Running. Running.


Then she came to a rougher zone of the arboretum, all brambles and thorns, everything tightly interwoven. Unhesitatingly Siferra plunged into it, knowing no one would go after her there. The branches clawed at her face, ripped at her clothing. As she pushed her way through one dense patch she lost her grip on the roll of charts, and emerged on the far side without them.


Let them go, she thought. They don't mean anything any more anyway.


But now she had to rest. Panting, gasping with exhaustion, she vaulted across a little stream at the border of the arboretum and dropped down on a patch of cool green moss. No one had followed her. She was alone.


She looked up, through the tops of the trees. The golden light of Onos flooded the sky. The Stars could no longer be seen. The night was over at last, and the nightmare too.


No, she thought. The nightmare is just beginning.


Waves of shock and nausea rolled through her: The strange numbness that had afflicted her mind all through the night was beginning to lift. After hours of mental dissociation, she was starting to comprehend the patterns of things again, to put one event and another and another together and understand their meaning. She thought of the campus in ruins, and the flames rising above the distant city. The wandering madmen everywhere, the chaos, the devastation.


Balik. The ugly grin on his face as he tried to paw her. And the look of amazement on it when she had hit him.


I've killed a man today, Siferra thought in astonishment and dismay. Me. How could I ever have done a thing like that?


She began to tremble. The horrifying memory seared her mind: the sound the club had made when she hit him, the way Balik had staggered backward, the other blows, the blood, the twisted angle of his head. The man with whom she had worked for a year and a half, patiently digging out the ruins at Beklimot, falling like a slaughtered beast under her deadly bludgeoning. And her utter calmness as she stood over him afterward-her satisfaction at having prevented him from annoying her any more. That was perhaps the ghastliest part of it all.


Then Siferra told herself that what she had killed hadn't been Balik, but only a madman inside Balik's body, wild-eyed and drooling as he clawed and fondled her. Nor had she really been Siferra when she wielded that club, but a ghost-Siferra, a dream-Siferra, sleepwalking through the horrors of the dawn.


Now, though, sanity was returning. Now the full impact of the night's events was coming home to her. Not just Balik's death-she would not let herself feel guilt for that-but the death of an entire civilization.


She heard voices in the distance, back in the direction of the campus. Thick, bestial voices, the voices of those whose minds had been destroyed by the Stars and would never again be whole. She searched for her club. Had she lost that too, in her frenzied flight through the arboretum? No. No, here it was. Siferra grasped it and rose to her feet.


The forest seemed to beckon to her. She turned and fled into its cool dark groves.


And went on running as long as her strength held out.


What else was there to do but go on running? Running. Running. It was late afternoon, the third day since the eclipse. Beenay came limping down the quiet country road that led to the Sanctuary, moving slowly and carefully, looking about him in all directions. There were three suns shining in the sky, and the Stars had long since returned to their age-old obscurity. But the world had irrevocably changed in those three days. And so had Beenay.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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