Nightfall - Page 20


Chapter Twenty

This was the young astronomer's first full day of restored reasoning power. What he had been doing for the two previous days he had no clear idea. The whole period was simply a blur, punctuated by the rising and setting of Onos, with other suns wandering across the sky now and then. If someone had told him that this was the fourth day since the catastrophe, or the fifth or sixth, Beenay would not have been able to disagree.


His back was sore, his left leg was a mass of bruises, and there were blood-encrusted scratches along the side of his face. He hurt everywhere, though the pain of the early hours had given way by now to dull aches of half a dozen different kinds radiating from various parts of his body.


What had been happening? Where had he been?


He remembered the battle in the Observatory. He wished he could forget it. That howling, screaming horde of crazed townspeople breaking down the door-a handful of robed Apostles were with them, but mainly they were just ordinary people, probably good, simple, boring people who had spent their whole lives doing the good, simple, boring things that kept civilization operating. Now, suddenly, civilization had stopped operating and all those pleasant ordinary people had been transformed in the twinkling of an eye into raging beasts.


The moment when they came pouring in-how terrible that had been. Smashing the cameras that had just recorded the priceless data of the eclipse, ripping the tube of the great solarscope out of the Observatory roof, raising computer terminals high over their heads and dashing them to the floor- And Athor rising like a demigod above them, ordering them to leave-! One might just as well have ordered the tides of the ocean to turn back.


Beenay remembered imploring Athor to come away with him, to flee while there still might be a chance. "Let go of me, young man!" Athor had roared, hardly seeming even to recognize him. "Get your hands off me, sir!" And then Beenay had realized what he should have seen before: that Athor had gone insane, and that the small part of Athor's mind that was still capable of functioning rationally was eager for death. What was left of Athor had lost all will to survive-to go forth into the dreadful new world of the post-eclipse barbarism. That was the most tragic single thing of all, Beenay thought: the destruction of Athor's will to live, the great astronomer's hopeless surrender in the face of this holocaust of civilization.


And then-the escape from the Observatory. That was the last thing that Beenay remembered with any degree of confidence: looking back at the main Observatory room as Athor disappeared beneath a swarm of rioters, then turning, darting through a side door, scrambling down the fire escape, out the back way into the parking lot- Where the Stars were waiting for him in all their terrible majesty.


With what he realized later had been sublime innocence, or else self-confidence verging on arrogance, Beenay had totally underestimated their power. In the Observatory at the moment of their emergence he had been too preoccupied with his work to be vulnerable to their force: he had merely noted them as a remarkable occurrence, to be examined in detail when he had a free moment, and then had gone on with what he was doing. But out here, under the merciless vault of the open sky, the Stars had struck him in their fullest might.


He was stunned by the sight of them. The implacable cold light of those thousands of suns descended upon him and knocked him groveling to his knees. He crawled along the ground, choking with fear, sucking in sharp gasps of breath. His hands were shaking feverishly, his heart was palpitating, streams of sweat were running down his burning face. When some shred of the scientist he once had been motivated him to turn his face toward that colossal brilliance overhead, so that he could examine and analyze and record, he was compelled to hide his eyes after only a second or two.


He could remember that much: the struggle to look at the Stars, his failure, his defeat.


After that, everything was murky. A day or two, he guessed, of wandering in the forest. Voices in the distance, cackling laughter, harsh discordant singing. Fires crackling on the horizon; the bitter smell of smoke everywhere. Kneeling to plunge his face in a brook, cool swift water sweeping along his cheek. A pack of small animals surrounding him-not wild ones, Beenay decided afterward, but household pets that had escaped -and baying at him as though they meant to rip him apart.


Pulling berries off a vine. Climbing a tree to strip it of tender golden fruit, and falling off, landing with a disastrous thud. The long hours of pain before he could pick himself up and move onward.


A sudden furious fight in the deepest, darkest part of the woods-fists flailing, elbows jabbing into ribs, wild kicks, then stone-throwing, bestial screeching, a man's face pushed close up against his own, eyes red as flame, fierce wrestling, the two of them rolling over and over-reaching for a massive rock, bringing it down in a single decisive motion- Hours. Days. A feverish daze.


Then, on the morning of the third day, remembering finally who he was, what had happened. Thinking of Raissta, his contract-mate. Remembering that he had promised to go to her at the Sanctuary when his work at the Observatory was done.


The Sanctuary-now where was that?


Beenay's mind had healed enough for him to recall that the place of refuge that the university people had established for themselves was midway between the campus and Saro City, in an open, rural area of rolling plains and grassy meadows. The Physics Department's old particle accelerator was there, a vast underground chamber, abandoned a few years back when they had built the new research center at Saro Heights. It hadn't been difficult to equip the echoing concrete rooms for short-term occupation by several hundred people, and, since the accelerator site had always been sealed off from easy access for security reasons, it was no problem to make the site safe against any sort of invasion by townsfolk who might be driven insane during the eclipse.


But in order to find the Sanctuary, Beenay first had to find out where be was. And he had been wandering randomly in a dismal stupor for at least two days, perhaps more. He could be anywhere.


In the early morning hours he found his way out of the forest, almost by accident, stepping forth unexpectedly into what had once been a neatly laid out residential district. It was deserted now, and in frightening disarray, with cars piled up every which way in the streets where their owners had left them when they no longer were capable of driving, and the occasional body lying in the street under a black cluster of flies. There was no sign that anyone was alive here.


He spent a long morning trudging along a suburban highway lined by blackened, abandoned homes, without recognizing a single familiar landmark. At midday, as Trey and Patru rose into the sky, he entered a house through its open door and helped himself to whatever food he could find that had not spoiled. No water came out of the kitchen tap; but he found a cache of bottled water in the basement and drank as much of that as he could hold. He bathed himself in the rest.


Afterward he proceeded up a winding road to a hilltop cul-de-sac of spacious, imposing dwellings, every one of them burned to a shell. Nothing at all was left of the uppermost house except a hillside patio decorated with pink and blue tiles, no doubt very handsome once, but marred now by thick black lumps of clotted debris scattered along its gleaming surface. With difficulty he made his way out onto it and looked out into the valley beyond.


The air was very still. No planes were aloft, there was no sound of ground traffic, a weird silence resounded from every direction.


Suddenly Beenay knew where he was, and everything fell into place.


The university was visible off to his left, a handsome cluster of brick buildings, many of them now streaked with black smoke-stains and some seeming to be altogether destroyed. Beyond, on its high promontory, was the Observatory. Beenay glanced at it quickly and looked away, glad that at this distance he was unable to make out its condition very clearly.


Far away to his right was Saro City, gleaming in the bright sunlight. To his eyes it seemed almost untouched. But he knew that if he had a pair of field glasses he would surely see shattered windows, fallen buildings, still-glowing embers, rising wisps of smoke, all the scars of the conflagration that had broken out at Nightfall.


Straight below him, between the city and the campus, was the forest in which he had been wandering during the time of his delirium. The Sanctuary would be just on the far side of that; he might well have passed within a few hundred yards of its entrance a day or so ago, all unknowing.


The thought of crossing that forest again did not appeal to him. Surely it was still full of madmen, cutthroats, irate escaped pets, all manner of troublesome things. But from his vantage point on the hilltop he could see the road that cut across the forest, and the pattern of streets that led to the road. Stick to paved routes, he told himself, and you'll be all right.


And so he was. Onos was still in the sky when he completed the traversal of the forest highway and turned onto the small rural road that he knew led to the Sanctuary. Afternoon shadows had barely begun to lengthen when he came to the outer gate. Once past that, Beenay knew, he had to go down a long unpaved road that would take him to the second gate, and thence around a couple of outbuildings to the sunken entrance to the Sanctuary itself.


The outer gate, a high metal-mesh screen, was standing open when he reached it. That was an unexpected and ominous sight. Had the mob come roaring in here too?


But there was no sign of mob destruction. Everything was as it should be, except that the gate was open. He went on in, puzzled, and made his way down the unpaved road.


The inner gate, at least, was closed.


"I am Beenay 25," he said to it, and gave his university identification-code number. Moments passed, and lengthened into minutes, and nothing happened. The green scanner eye overhead seemed to be working-he saw its lens sliding from side to side-but perhaps the computers that operated it had lost their power, or had been smashed altogether. He waited. He waited some more. "I am Beenay 25," he said again, finally, and gave his number a second time. "I am authorized to enter here." Then he remembered that mere name and number were not enough: there was a password to say, also.


But what was it? Panic churned his soul. He couldn't remember. He couldn't remember. How absurd, finally to have found his way here and then be stranded at the outer gate by his own stupidity!


The password-the password- Something to do with the catastrophe, that was it. "Eclipse?"


No, not that. He wracked his aching brain. "Kalgash Two?" Didn't seem right. "Dovim?" "Onos?" "Stars?"


That was closer.


Then it came to him.


"Nightfall," he said triumphantly.


Still nothing happened, at least not for a long while.


But then, what seemed like a thousand years later, the gate opened to admit him.


He zigzagged past the outbuildings and confronted the oval metal door of the Sanctuary itself, set at a forty-five-degree angle into the ground. Another green eye studied him here. Did he have to identify himself all over? Evidently he did. "I am Beenay 25," he said, preparing for another long wait.


But the gate began immediately to roll back. He stared down into the Sanctuary's concrete-floored vestibule.


Raissta 717 was waiting for him there, scarcely ten yards away.


"Beenay!" she cried, and came rushing toward him. "Oh, Beenay, Beenay-"


Since they had first become contract-mates, two years earlier, they had never been apart longer than eighteen hours. Now they had been separated for days. He pulled her slim form up against him and held her tight, and it was a long while before he would release her.


Then he realized they were still standing in the open gateway of the Sanctuary.


"Shouldn't we go in and lock the gate behind us?" he asked. "What if I've been followed? I don't think I was, but-"


"It doesn't matter. There's no one else here."


"What?"


"They all went yesterday," she said. "As soon as Onos came up. They wanted me to come too, but I said I was going to wait for you, and I did."


He gaped at her, uncomprehendingly.


He saw now how weary and haggard she looked, how drawn and thin. Her once-lustrous hair was hanging in unkempt strings and her face was pale, unadorned. Her eyes were reddened and puffy. She seemed to have aged five or ten years.


"Raissta, how long has it been since the eclipse?"


"This is the third day."


"Three days. That was more or less what I figured." His voice echoed strangely. He glanced past her, into the deserted Sanctuary. The bare underground chamber stretched on and on, lit by a track of overhead bulbs. He saw no one as far as his eye could reach. He hadn't expected this, not at all. The plan had been for everyone to stay hidden down here until it was safe to emerge. In wonder he said, "Where have they gone?"


"Amgando," Raissta said.


"Amgando National Park? But that's hundreds of miles from here! Were they crazy, coming out of hiding on only the second day and going marching off to some place halfway across the country? Do you have any idea what's going on out there, Raissta?"


Amgando Park was a nature preserve, far to the south, a place where wild animals roamed, where the native plants of the province were jealously protected. Beenay had been there once, when a boy, with his father. It was almost pure wilderness, with a few hiking trails cut into it.


She said, "They thought it would be safer to go there."


"Safer?"


"Word came that everyone who was still sane, everybody who wanted to take part in the rebuilding of society, should rendezvous at Amgando. Apparently people are converging on it from all over, thousands of them. From other universities, mostly. And some government people."


"Fine. A whole horde of professors and politicians trampling around in the park. With everything else ruined, why not ruin the last bit of unspoiled territory we have, too?"


"That isn't important, Beenay. The important thing is that Amgando Park is in the hands of sane people, it's an enclave of civilization in the general madness. And they knew about us, they were asking us to come join them. We took a vote, and it was two to one to go."


"Two to one," said Beenay darkly. "Even though you people didn't see the Stars, you managed to go nuts anyway! Imagine leaving the Sanctuary to take a three-hundred-mile stroll-or is it five hundred?-through the utter chaos that's going on. Why not wait a month, or six months, or whatever? You had enough food and water to hold out here for a year."


"We said the same thing," Raissta replied. "But what they told us, the Amgando people, was that the time to come was now. If we waited another few weeks, the roving bands of crazed men out there would coalesce into organized armies under local warlords, and we'd have to deal with them when we came out. And if we waited any longer than a few weeks, the Apostles of Flame would probably have established a repressive new government, with its own police force and army, and we'd be intercepted the moment we stepped outside the Sanctuary. It's now or never, the Amgando people said. Better to have to contend with scattered half-insane free-lance bandits than with organized armies. So we decided to go."


"Everyone but you."


"I wanted to wait for you."


He took her hand. "How did you know I'd come?"


"You said you would. As soon as you were finished photographing the eclipse. You always keep your promises, Beenay."


"Yes," Beenay said, in a remote tone of voice. He had not yet recovered from the shock of finding the Sanctuary empty. It had been his hope to rest here, to heal his bruised body, to complete the job of restoring his Stars-shattered mind. What were they supposed to do now, set up housekeeping here by themselves, just the two of them in this echoing concrete vault? Or try to get to Amgando all alone? The decision to vacate the Sanctuary made a sort of crazy sense, Beenay supposed-assuming it made any sense at all for everyone to collect at Amgando, it was probably better to make the journey now, while the countryside was in such a high degree of disorder, than to wait until new political entities, whether Apostles or private regional buccaneers, clamped down on all travel between districts. But he had wanted to find his friends here-to sink down into a community of familiar people until he had recovered from the shock of the past few days. Dully he said, "Do you have any real idea of what's going on out there, Raissta?"


"We got reports by communicator, until the communicator channels broke down. Apparently the city was almost completely destroyed by fire, and the university was badly damaged also-that's all true, isn't it?"


Beenay nodded. "So far as I know, it is. I escaped from the Observatory just as a mob came smashing in. Athor was killed, I'm pretty sure. All the equipment was wrecked-all our observations of the eclipse were ruined-"


"Oh, Beenay, I'm so sorry."


"I managed to get out the back way. The moment I was outside, the Stars hit me like a ton of bricks. Two tons. You can't imagine what it was like, Raissta. I'm glad you can't imagine it. I was out of my mind for a couple of days, roaming around in the woods. There's no law left. It's everybody for himself. I may have killed someone in a fight. People's household animals are running wild-the Stars must have made them crazy too-and they're terrifying."


"Beenay, Beenay-"


"All the houses are burned. This morning I came through that fancy neighborhood on the hill just south of the forest- Onos Point, is that what it's called?-and it was unbelievable, the destruction. Not a living soul to be seen. Wrecked cars, bodies in the streets, the houses in ruins-my God, Raissta, what a night of madness! And the madness is still going on!"


"You sound all right," she said. "Shaken, but not-"


"Crazy? But I was. From the moment I first came out under the Stars until I woke up today. Then things finally began to knit back together in my head. But I think it's much worse for most other people. The ones who hadn't the slightest degree of emotional preparation, the ones who simply looked up and- bam!-the suns were gone, the Stars were shining. As your Uncle Sheerin said, there'll be a whole range of responses, from short-term disorientation to total and permanent insanity."


Quietly Raissta said, "Sheerin was with you at the Observatory during the eclipse, wasn't he?"


"Yes."


"And afterward?"


"I don't know. I was busy overseeing the photographing of the eclipse. I don't have any idea what became of him. He didn't seem to be in sight when the mob broke in."


With a faint smile Raissta said, "Perhaps he slipped away in the confusion. Uncle is like that-very quick on his feet, sometimes, when there's trouble. I'd hate to have had anything bad happen to him."


"Raissta, something bad has happened to the whole world. Athor may have had the right idea: better just to let it sweep over you and carry you away. That way you don't have to contend with worldwide insanity and chaos."


"You mustn't say that, Beenay."


"No. No, I mustn't." He came up behind her and lightly stroked her shoulders. Bent forward, softly nuzzled behind her ear. -"Raissta, what are we going to do?"


"I think I can guess," she said.


Despite everything, he laughed. "I mean afterward."


"Let's worry about that afterward," she told him.


Theremon had never been much of an outdoorsman. He thought of himself as a city boy through and through. Grass, trees, fresh air, the open sky-he didn't actually mind them, but they held no particular appeal for him. For years his life had shuttled along a fixed urban-based triangular orbit, rigidly following a familiar path bounded at one corner by his little apartment, at another by the Chronicle office, by the Six Suns Club at the third.


Now, suddenly, he was a forest-dweller.


The strange thing was that he almost liked it.


What the citizens of Saro City called "the forest" was actually a fair-sized woodsy tract that began just southeast of the city itself and stretched for a dozen miles or so along the south bank of the Seppitan River. There once had been a great deal more of it, a vast wilderness sweeping on a great diagonal across the midsection of the province almost to the sea, but most of it had gone to agriculture, much of the remainder had been cut up into suburban residential districts, and the university had taken a goodly nip some fifty years back for what was then its new campus. Unwilling to have itself engulfed by urban development, the university had then agitated to have what was left set aside as a park preserve. And since the rule in Saro City for many years had been that whatever the university wanted the university usually got, the last strip of the old wilderness was left alone.


That was where Theremon found himself living now.


The first two days had been very bad. His mind was still half fogged by the effects of seeing the Stars, and he was unable to form any clear plan. The main thing was just to stay alive.


The city was on fire-smoke was everywhere, the air was scorching hot, from certain vantage points you could even see the leaping flames dancing along the rooftops-so obviously it wasn't a good idea to try to go back there. In the aftermath of the eclipse, once the chaos within his mind had begun to clear a little, he had simply continued downhill from the campus until he found himself entering the forest.


Many others plainly had done the same thing. Some of them looked like university people, others were probably remnants of the mob that had come out to storm the Observatory on the night of the eclipse, and the rest, Theremon guessed, were suburbanites driven from their homes when the fires began to break out.


Everyone he saw appeared to be at least as unsettled mentally as he was. Most seemed very much worse off-some of them completely unhinged, totally unable to cope.


They had not formed any sort of coherent bands. Mainly they were solitaries, moving on mysterious private tracks through the woods, or else groups of two or three; the biggest aggregation Theremon saw was eight people, who from their appearance and dress seemed all to be members of one family.


It was horrifying to encounter the truly crazy ones: the vacant eyes, the drooling lips, the slack jaws, the smeared clothing. They plodded through the forest glades like the walking dead, talking to themselves, singing, occasionally dropping to their hands and knees to dig up clumps of sod and munch on them. They were everywhere. The place was like one vast insane asylum, Theremon thought. Probably the whole world was.


Those of this sort, the ones who had been most affected by the coming of the Stars, were generally harmless, at least to others. They were too badly deranged to have any interest in being violent, and their bodily coordination was so seriously disrupted that effective violence was impossible for them, anyway.


But there were others who were not quite so mad-who at a glance might seem almost normal-who posed very serious dangers indeed.


These, Theremon quickly realized, fell into two categories. The first consisted of people who bore no one any ill will but who were hysterically obsessed with the possibility that the Darkness and the Stars might return. These were the fire-lighters.


Very likely they were people who had led orderly, settled lives before the catastrophe-family folk, hard workers, pleasant cheerful neighbors. So long as Onos was in the sky they were perfectly calm; but the moment the primary sun began to sink in the west and evening approached, fear of Darkness overcame them, and they looked around desperately for something to burn. Anything. Anything at all. Two or three of the other suns might still be overhead when Onos set, but the light of the minor suns did not seem sufficient to soothe the raging dread of Darkness that these people felt.


These were the ones who had burned their own city down around themselves. Who, in their desperation, had ignited books, papers, furniture, the roofs of houses. Now, driven into the forest by the holocaust in the city, they were trying to burn that down too. But that was a harder job. The forest was densely wooded, lush, its thick cover of trees well supplied by the myriad streams that flowed into the broad river running along its border. Pulling down green boughs and trying to set them afire did not provide very satisfactory blazes. As for the carpet of dead wood and fallen leaves that lay on the forest floor, it had been pretty well soaked by the recent rains. Such of it that was capable of being burned was quickly found and used for bonfires, without touching off any sort of general conflagration; and by the second day the supply of such debris was very sparse.


So the fire-lighter people, hampered as they were by forest conditions and by their own shock-muddled minds, were having little success so far. But they had managed to start a couple of good-sized fires in the forest all the same, which fortunately had burned themselves out in a few hours because they had consumed all the fuel in their vicinity. A few days of hot, dry weather, though, and these people might well be able to set the whole place ablaze, as they had already done in Saro City.


The second group of not-quite-stable people roaming the forest seemed to Theremon to be a more immediate menace. These were the ones who had let all social restraints fall away from them. They were the banditti, the hooligans, the cutthroats, the psychopaths, the homicidal maniacs: the ones who moved like unsheathed blades along the quiet forest pathways, striking whenever they pleased, taking whatever they wanted, killing anyone unlucky enough to arouse their irritation.


Since everyone had a certain glazed look in his eyes, some merely from fatigue, others from despondency, and others from madness, you could never be sure, whenever you met someone in the forest, how dangerous he was. There was no way of telling at a quick glance whether the person approaching you was merely one of the distraught or bewildered crazies, and therefore basically harmless, or one of the kind who were full of lethal fury and attacked anyone they encountered, with neither rhyme nor reason behind their deeds.


So you quickly learned to be on your guard against anyone who came prancing and swaggering through the woods. Any stranger at all could be a menace. You might be talking quite amiably with someone, comparing notes on your experiences since the evening of Nightfall, when abruptly he would take offense at some casual remark of yours, or decide that he admired some article of your clothing, or perhaps merely take a blind unreasoning dislike of your face-and, with an animal-like howl, he would come rushing at you in mindless ferocity.


Some of this sort, no doubt, had been criminals to begin with. The sight of society collapsing all around them had freed them of all restraint. But others, Theremon suspected, had been placid enough folk until their minds were shattered by the Stars. Then, suddenly, they found all the inhibitions of civilized life fall away from them. They forgot the rules that made civilized life possible. They were like small children again, asocial, concerned only with their own needs-but they had the strength of adults and the will power of the deeply disturbed.


The thing to do, if you hoped to survive, was to avoid those whom you knew to be lethally crazy, or suspected of it. The thing to pray for was that they would all kill each other off within the first few days, leaving the world safe for the less predatory.


Theremon had three encounters with madmen of this terrifying breed in the first two days. The first one, a tall, rangy man with a weird diabolical grin who was cavorting by the side of a brook that Theremon wanted to cross, demanded that the newspaperman pay him a toll to go past. "Your shoes, let's say. Or how about that wristwatch?"


"How about getting out of my way?" Theremon suggested, and the man went berserk.


Snatching up a cudgel that Theremon hadn't noticed until that moment, he roared some sort of war-cry and charged. There was no time to take evasive action: the best Theremon could do was duck as the other man swung the cudgel with horrific force at his head.


He heard the club go whirring by, missing him by inches. It hit the tree beside him instead, cracking into it with tremendous force-a force so great that the impact of it traveled up the attacker's arm, and he gasped in pain as the cudgel fell from his nerveless fingers.


Theremon was on top of him in an instant, seizing the man's injured arm, bringing it sharply upward with merciless force, making him grunt in agony and double up and fall moaning to his knees. Theremon prodded and pushed him down until his face was in the stream, and held him there. And held him there. And held him there.


How simple it would be, Theremon thought in wonder, just to go on holding his head under water until he drowned.


A part of his mind was actually arguing in favor of it. He would have killed you without even thinking about it. Get rid of him. Otherwise what will you do once you let go of him? Fight him all over again? What ~f he follows you through the forest to get even with you? Drown him now, Theremon. Drown him.


It was a powerful temptation. But only one segment of Theremon's mind was willing to adapt so readily to the world's new jungle morality. The rest of him recoiled at the idea; and finally he released the man's arm and stepped back. He picked up the fallen cudgel and waited.


All the fight was gone from the other man now, though. Choking and gasping, he rose from the stream with water flowing from his mouth and nostrils, and sat trembling by the bank, shivering, coughing, struggling for breath. He stared sullenly and fearfully at Theremon, but he made no attempt to get up, let alone to renew the fighting.


Theremon stepped around him, crossed the stream in a bound, and trotted off quickly, deeper into the forest.


The implications of what he had almost done did not fully strike him for another ten minutes. Then he halted suddenly, in a burst of sweat and nausea, and was swept by a fierce attack of vomiting that racked him so savagely that it was a long while before he could rise.


Later that afternoon he realized that his roamings had brought him right to the border of the forest. When he looked out between the trees he saw a highway-utterly deserted- and, on the far side of the road, the ruins of a tall brick building standing in a broad plaza.


He recognized the building. It was the Pantheon, the Cathedral of All the Gods.


There wasn't much left of it. He walked across the road and stared in disbelief. It looked as if a fire had started in the heart of the building-what had they been doing, using the pews for kindling?-and had swept right up the narrow tower over the altar, igniting the wooden beams. The whole tower had toppled, bringing down the walls. Bricks were strewn everywhere about the plaza. He saw bodies jutting out of the wreckage.


Theremon had never been a particularly religious man. He didn't know anyone who was. Like everyone else, he said things like "My God!" or "Gods!" or "Great gods!" for emphasis, but the idea that there might actually be a god, or gods, or whatever the current prevailing belief-system asserted, had always been irrelevant to the way he lived his life. Religion seemed like something medieval to him, quaint and archaic. Now and then he would find himself in a church to attend the wedding of a friend-who was as much of a disbeliever as he was, of course-or else he went to cover some official rite as a news item-but he hadn't been inside any kind of holy building for religious purposes since his own confirmation, when he was ten years old.


All the same, the sight of the ruined cathedral stirred him profoundly. He had been present at its dedication, a dozen years back, when he was a young reporter. He knew how many millions of credits the building had cost; he had marveled at the splendid works of art it contained; he had been moved by the marvelous music of Ghissimal's Hymn to the Gods as it resounded through the great hall. Even he, who had no belief in the sacred, could not help feeling that if there was any place on Kalgash where the gods truly were present, it must be here.


And the gods had let the building be destroyed like this! The gods had sent the Stars, knowing that the madness to follow would wreck even their own Pantheon!


What did that mean? What did that say about the unknowability and unfathomability of the gods-assuming they even existed?


No one would ever rebuild this cathedral, Theremon knew. Nothing would ever be as it was.


"Help me," a voice called.


That feeble sound cut into Theremon's meditations. He looked around.


"Over here. Here."


To his left. Yes. Theremon saw the glint of golden vestments in the sunlight. A man half buried in the rubble, far along down the side of the building-one of the priests, apparently, judging by his rich garb. He was pinned below the waist by a heavy beam and was gesturing with what must be the last of his strength.


Theremon started to go toward him. But before he could take more than a dozen steps a second figure appeared at the far end of the fallen building and came running forward: a lean, agile little man who went scrambling over the bricks with animal swiftness, heading for the trapped priest.


Good, Theremon thought. Together we ought to be able to pull that beam off him.


But when he was still some twenty feet away he halted, horror-stricken. The agile little man had already reached the priest. Bending over him, he had slit the priest's throat with one quick stroke of a small knife, as casually as one might open an envelope; and now he was busily engaged in slicing the cords that fastened the priest's rich vestments.


He looked up, glaring, at Theremon. His eyes were fiery and appalling.


"Mine," he growled, like a jungle beast. "Mine!" And he flourished the knife.


Theremon shivered. For a long moment he stood frozen in his tracks, fascinated in a ghastly way by the efficient manner with which the looter was stripping the dead priest's body. Then, sadly, he turned and hurried away, back across the road, into the forest. There was no point in doing anything else.


That evening, when Tano and Sitha and Dovim held the sky with their melancholy light, Theremon allowed himself a few hours of fragmentary sleep in a deep thicket; but he awoke again and again, imagining that some madman with a knife was creeping up on him to steal his shoes. Sleep left him long before Onos-rise. It seemed almost surprising to find himself still alive when morning finally came.


Half a day later he had his third encounter with one of the new breed of killers. This time he was crossing a grassy meadow close by one of the arms of the river when he caught sight of two men sitting in a shady patch just across the way, playing some sort of game with dice. They looked calm and peaceful enough. But as Theremon came nearer, he realized that an argument had broken out; and then, unthinkably swiftly, one of the men snatched up a bread-knife sitting on a blanket beside him and plunged it with lethal force into the other man's chest.


The one who had wielded the knife smiled across at Theremon. "He cheated me. You know how it is. It makes you damned angry. I can't stand it when a guy tries to cheat me." It seemed all very clear-cut to him. He grinned and rattled the dice. "Hey, you want to play?"


Theremon stared into the eyes of madness.


"Sorry," he said, as casually as he could. "I'm looking for my girlfriend."


He kept on walking.


"Hey, you can find her later! Come on and play!"


"I think I see her," Theremon called, moving faster, and got out of there without looking back.


After that he was less cavalier about wandering through the forest. He found a sheltered nook in what seemed like a relatively unoccupied glade and built a tidy little nest for himself under a jutting overhang. There was a berry-bush nearby that was heavily laden with edible red fruits, and when he shook the tree just opposite his shelter it showered him with round yellow nuts that contained a tasty dark kernel. He studied the small stream just beyond, wondering if it contained anything edible that he might catch; but there seemed to be nothing in it except tiny minnows, and he realized that even if he could catch them he would have to eat them raw, for he had nothing to use as fuel for a fire and no way of lighting one, besides.


Living on berries and nuts wasn't Theremon's idea of high style, but he could tolerate it for a few days. Already his waistline was shrinking commendably: the only admirable side effect of the whole calamity. Best to stay hidden away back here until things calmed down.


He was pretty sure that things would calm down. General sanity was bound to return, sooner or later. Or so he hoped, at least. He knew that he himself had come a long way back from the early moments of chaos that the sight of the Stars had induced in his brain.


Every day that went by, he felt more stable, more capable of coping. It seemed to him that he was almost his old self again, still a little shaky, perhaps, a little jumpy, but that was only to be expected. At least he felt fundamentally sane. He realized that very likely he had had less of a jolt during Nightfall than most people: that he was more resilient, more tough-minded, better able to withstand the fearful impact of that shattering experience. But maybe everybody else would start recovering, too, even those who had been much more deeply affected than he had been, and it would be safe to emerge and see what, if anything, was being done about trying to put the world back together.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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