Nightfall - Page 21


Chapter Twenty-One

The thing to do now, he told himself, was to lay low, to keep from getting yourself murdered by one of those psychopaths running around out there. Let them all do each other in, as fast as they could; and then he would come warily creeping out to find out what was going on. It wasn't a particularly courageous plan. But it seemed like a wise one.


He wondered what had happened to the others who had been in the Observatory with him at the moment of Darkness. To Beenay, to Sheerin, to Athor. To Siferra.


Especially to Siferra.


From time to time Theremon thought of venturing out to look for her. It was an appealing idea. During his long hours of solitude he spun glowing fantasies for himself of what it would be like to hook up with her somewhere in this forest. The two of them, journeying together through this transformed and frightening world, forming an alliance of mutual protection- He had been attracted to her from the first, of course. For all the good that had done him, he might just as well not have bothered, he knew: handsome as she was, she seemed to be the sort of woman who was absolutely self-contained, in no need whatever of any man's company, or any woman's, for that matter. He had maneuvered her into going out with him now and then, but she had efficiently and serenely kept him at a safe distance all the time.


Theremon was experienced enough in worldly things to understand that no amount of smooth talk was persuasive enough to break through barriers that were so determinedly maintained. He had long ago decided that no worthwhile woman could ever be seduced; you could present the possibility to them, but you had to leave it ultimately to them to do the seducing for you, and if they weren't so minded, there was very little you could do to change their outlook. And with Siferra, things had been sliding in the wrong direction for him all year long. She had turned on him ferociously-and with some justification, he thought ruefully-once he began his misguided campaign of mockery against Athor and the Observatory group.


Somehow right at the end he had felt that she was weakening, that she was becoming interested in him despite herself Why else had she invited him to the Observatory, against Athor's heated orders, on the evening of the eclipse? For a short time that evening there actually had seemed to be real contact blossoming between them


But then had come the Darkness, the Stars, the mob, the chaos After that everything had plunged into confusion But if he could find her somehow, now- We'd work well together, he thought We'd be a tremendous team-hard-nosed, competent, survival-oriented. Whatever kind of civilization is going to evolve, we'd find a good place for ourselves in it.


And if there had been a little psychological barrier between them before, he was certain it would seem unimportant to her now. It was a brand-new world, and new attitudes were necessary if you were going to survive.


But how could he find Siferra No communications circuits were open, so far as he knew. She was just one of millions of people at large in the area. The forest alone probably had a population of many thousands now; and he had no real reason for assuming that she was in the forest. She could be fifty miles from here by this time. She could be dead. Looking for her was a hopeless task: it was worse than trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. This haystack was several counties wide, and the needle might well be getting farther away every hour. Only by the wildest sort of coincidence could he ever locate Siferra, or, for that matter, anyone else he knew.


The more Theremon thought about his chances of finding her, though, the less impossible the task seemed. And after a while it began to seem quite possible indeed.


Perhaps his steadily rising optimism was a by-product of his new secluded life. He had nothing to do but spend hours each day sitting by the brook, watching the minnows go by-and thinking. And as he endlessly reevaluated things, finding Siferra went from seeming impossible to merely unlikely, and from unlikely to difficult, and from difficult to challenging, and from challenging to feasible, and from feasible to readily achievable.


All he had to do, he told himself, was get back out into the forest and recruit a little help from those who were reasonably functional. Tell them who he was trying to find, and what she looked like. Spread the word around. Employ some of his journalistic skills. And make use of his status as a local celebrity. "I'm Theremon 762," he would say. "You know, from the Chronicle. Help me and I'll make it worth your while. You want your name in the paper? You want me to make you famous? I can do it. Never mind that the paper isn't being published just now. Sooner or later it'll be back, and I'll be right there with it, and you'll see yourself smack in the middle of the front page. You can count on that. Just help me find this woman that I'm looking for, and-"


"Theremon?"


A familiar voice, high-pitched, cheerful. He stopped short, squinted into the brightness of the midday sunlight cutting through the trees, peered this way and that to locate the speaker.


He had been walking for two hours, looking for people who would be glad to get out there and spread the word on behalf of the famous Theremon 762 of the Saro City Chronicle. But so far he had found only six people altogether. Two of them had taken to their heels the moment they saw him. A third sat where he was, singing softly to his bare toes. Another, crouching in the fork of a tree, methodically rubbed two kitchen knives together with maniacal zeal. The remaining two had simply stared at him when he told them what he wanted; one did not seem to understand at all, and the other burst into gales of wild laughter. Not much hope of help from any of them.


And now it appeared that someone had found him.


"Theremon? Over here. Over here, Theremon. Here I am. Don't you see me, man? Over here!"


Theremon glanced to his left, into a clump of bushes with huge prickly parasol-shaped leaves. At first he saw nothing unusual. Then the leaves swayed and parted, and a plump, roundish man stepped out into view.


"Sheerin?" he said, amazed.


"Well, at least you're not so far gone that you've forgotten my name."


The psychologist had lost some weight, and he was incongruously dressed in overalls and a torn pullover. A hatchet with a chipped blade was dangling casually from his left hand. That was perhaps the most incongruous thing of all, Sheerin carrying a hatchet. It wouldn't have been very much stranger to see him walking around with a second head or an extra pair of arms.


Sheerin said, "How are you, Theremon? Great gods, you're all rags and tatters, and it hasn't even been a week! But I suppose I'm not much better." He looked down at himself. "Have you ever seen me this skinny? A diet of leaves and berries really slims you down, doesn't it?"


"You've got a way to go before I'd call you skinny," Theremon said. "But you do look trim. How did you find me?"


"By not looking for you. It's the only way, when everything's become completely random. I've been to the Sanctuary, but no one was there. Now I'm on my way south to Amgando Park. I was just ambling along the path that cuts across the middle of the forest, and there you were." The psychologist came bounding forward, holding out his hand. "By all the gods, Theremon, it's a joy to see a friendly face again! -You are friendly, aren't you? You're not homicidal?"


"I don't think I am."


"There are more crazies per square yard in here than I've ever seen in my life, and I've seen plenty of crazies, let me tell you." Sheerin shook his head and sighed. "Gods! I never dreamed it would be this bad. Even with all my professional experience. I thought it would be bad, yes, very bad, but not this bad."


"You predicted universal madness," Theremon reminded him. "I was there. I heard you say it. You predicted the complete breakdown of civilization."


"It's one thing to predict it. It's something else again to be right in the middle of it. It's a very humbling thing, Theremon, for an academic like me to find his abstract theories turning into concrete reality. I was so glib, so blithely unconcerned. 'Tomorrow there won't be a city standing unharmed in all Kalgash,' I said, and it was all just so many words to me, really, just a philosophical exercise, completely abstract. 'The end of the world you used to live in.' Yes. Yes." Sheerin shivered. "And it all happened, just like I said. But I suppose I didn't really believe my own dire predictions, until everything came crashing down around me."


"The Stars," Theremon said. "You never really took the Stars into account. They were the thing that did the real damage. Maybe we could have withstood the Darkness, most of us, just felt a little shaken up, a little bit upset. But the Stars-the Stars-"


"How bad was it for you?"


"Pretty bad, at first. I'm better now. And you?"


"I hid away in the Observatory basement during the worst of it. I was hardly affected at all. When I came out the next day, the whole Observatory was wrecked. You can't imagine the carnage all over the place."


Theremon said, "Damn Folimun! The Apostles-"


"They poured fuel on the fire, yes. But the fire would have happened anyway."


"What about the Observatory people? Athor, Beenay, and the rest? Siferra-"


"I didn't see any of them. But I didn't find their bodies, either, while I was looking around the place. Maybe they escaped. The only person I came across was Yimot-do you remember him? One of the graduate students, the very tall awkward one? He had hidden himself too." Sheerin's face darkened. "We traveled together for a couple of days afterward- until he was killed."


"Killed?"


"By a little girl, ten, twelve years old. With a knife. A very sweet child. Came right up to him, laughed, stabbed him without warning. And ran away, still laughing."


"Gods!"


"The gods aren't listening any more, Theremon. If they ever were."


"I suppose not. -Where have you been living, Sheerin?"


His look was vague. "Here. There. I went back to my apartment first, but the whole building complex had been burned out. Just a shell, nothing salvageable at all. I slept there that evening, right in the middle of the ruins. Yimot was with me. The next day we set out for the Sanctuary, but there wasn't any way of getting there from where we were. The road was blocked-there were fires everywhere. And where it wasn't still burning, there were mountains of rubble that you couldn't get past. It looked like a war zone. So we doubled back south into the forest, figuring we'd circle around by way of Arboretum Road and try to reach the Sanctuary that way. That was when Yimot was-killed. The forest must be where all the most disturbed ones went."


"It's where everyone went," Theremon said. "The forest is harder to set fire to than the city is. -Did I hear you tell me that when you finally did get to the Sanctuary you found it deserted?"


"That's right. I reached it yesterday afternoon, and it was wide open. The outer gate and the inner gate too, and the Sanctuary door itself unlocked. Everyone gone. A note from Beenay was tacked up in front."


"Beenay! Then he made it to the Sanctuary safely!"


"Apparently he did," said Sheerin. "A day or two before I did, I suppose. What his note said was that everybody had decided to evacuate the Sanctuary and head for Amgando Park, where some people from the southern districts are trying to set up a temporary government. By the time he got to the Sanctuary there was no one there but my niece Raissta, who must have been waiting for him. Now they've gone to Amgando also. And I'm heading there myself. My friend Liliath was in the Sanctuary, you know. I assume she's on her way to Amgando with the others."


"It sounds nutty," Theremon said. "They were as safe in the Sanctuary as they could have been anywhere. Why the deuce would they want to come out into all of this insane chaos and try to march hundreds of miles down to Amgando?"


"I don't know. But they must have had a good reason. In any case, we have no choice, do we, you and I? Everybody who's still sane is gathering there. We can stay here and wait for somebody to slice us up the way that nightmarish little girl did to Yimot-or we can take our chances trying to get to Amgando. Here we're doomed, sooner or later, inevitably. If we can make it to Amgando we'll be all right."


"Have you heard anything about Siferra?" Theremon asked.


"Nothing. Why?"


"I'd like to find her."


"She may have gone to Amgando too. If she met up with Beenay somewhere along the way, he would have told her where everybody is going, and-"


"Do you have any reason to think that might have happened?"


"It's only a guess."


Theremon said, "My guess is that she's still somewhere around here. I want to try to track her down."


"But the odds against that-"


"You found me, didn't you?"


"Purely by accident. The chances that you'd be able to locate her the same way-"


"Are pretty good," Theremon said. "Or so I prefer to believe. I'm going to attempt it, anyway. I can always hope to get to Amgando later on. With Siferra."


Sheerin gave him an odd look, but said nothing.


Theremon said, "You think I'm crazy? Well, maybe I am."


"I didn't say that. But I think you're risking your neck for nothing. This place is turning into a prehistoric jungle. It's become absolute savagery here, and not getting any better as the days go along, from what I've seen. Come south with me, Theremon. We can be out of here in two or three hours, and the road to Amgando is just-"


"I mean to look for Siferra first," said Theremon obstinately.


"Forget her."


"I don't intend to do that. I'm going to stay here and search for her."


Sheerin shrugged. "Stay, then. I'm clearing out. I saw Yimot cut down by a little girl, remember, right before my eyes, no more than two hundred yards from here. This place is too dangerous for me."


"And you think going on a hike of three or four hundred miles all by yourself isn't dangerous?"


The psychologist hefted his hatchet. "I've got this, if I need it."


Theremon fought back laughter. Sheerin was so absurdly mild-mannered that the thought of him defending himself with a hatchet was impossible to take seriously.


He said, after a moment, "Lots of luck."


"You really intend to stay?"


"Until I find Siferra."


Sheerin stared sadly at him.


"Keep the luck you just offered me, then. I think you'll need it more than I will."


He turned and trudged away without another word.


For three days-or perhaps it was four; the time went by like a blur-Siferra moved southward through the forest. She had no plan except to stay alive.


There was no point even in trying to get back to her apartment. The city still seemed to be burning. A low curtain of smoke hung in the air wherever she looked, and occasionally she saw a sinuous tongue of red flame licking into the sky on the horizon. It appeared to her as if new fires were being started every day. Which meant that the craziness had not yet begun to abate.


She could feel her own mind returning gradually to normal, clearing day by day, blessedly emerging into clarity as though she were awakening from some terrible fever. She was uncomfortably aware that she wasn't fully herself yet-managing any sequence of thoughts was a laborious thing for her, and she lost herself quickly in muddle. But she was on her way back, of that she was sure.


Apparently many of the others around her in the forest weren't recovering at all. Though Siferra was trying to keep to herself as much as she could, she encountered people from time to time, and most of them looked pretty badly deranged: sobbing, moaning, laughing wildly, glaring weirdly, rolling over and over on the ground. Just as Sheerin had suggested, some had suffered such mental trauma during the time of the crisis that they might never be sane again. Huge segments of the population must have lapsed into barbarism or worse, Siferra realized. They must be setting fires for the sheer fun of it now. Or killing for the same reason.


So she moved carefully. With no particular destination in mind, she drifted more or less southward across the forest, camping wherever she found fresh water. The club that she had picked up on the evening of the eclipse was never very far from her hand. She ate whatever she could find that looked edible-seeds, nuts, fruits, even leaves and bark. It wasn't much of a diet. She knew that she was strong enough physically to endure a week or so on such improvised rations, but after that she'd begin to suffer. Already she could feel what little extra weight she had been carrying dropping away, and her physical resilience beginning little by little to diminish. And the supply of berries and fruits was diminishing too, very rapidly, as the forest's thousands of hungry new inhabitants picked it over.


Then, on what she believed was the fourth day, Siferra remembered about the Sanctuary.


Her cheeks flamed as she realized that there had been no need for her to have been living this cave-woman life all week.


Of course! How could she have been so stupid? Just a few miles from here at this very moment, hundreds of university people were tucked away safe and sound in the old particle accelerator lab, drinking bottled water and dining pleasantly on the canned foods that they had spent the last few months stashing away. How ridiculous to be skulking around in this forest full of madmen, scratching in the dirt for her meager meals and looking hungrily at the little forest creatures that cavorted beyond her reach on the branches of the trees!


She would go to the Sanctuary. Somehow there would be a way to get them to take her in. It was a measure of the extent to which the Stars had disrupted her mind, she told herself, that it had taken her as long as this to remember that the Sanctuary was there.


Too bad, she thought, that the idea hadn't occurred to her earlier. She realized now that she had spent the last few days traveling in precisely the wrong direction.


Directly ahead of her now lay the steep chain of hills that marked the southern boundary of the forest. Looking up, she could see the blackened remains of the posh Onos Heights real estate development along the summit of the hill that rose like a dark wall before her. The Sanctuary, if she remembered correctly, was the opposite way entirely, midway between the campus and Saro City on the highway running along the north side of the forest.


It took her another day and a half to make her way back through the forest to the north side. In the course of the journey she had to use her club twice to fight off attackers. She had three non-violent but edgy staring-matches with young men sizing her up to decide whether she could be jumped. And once she blundered into a sheltered copse where five gaunt wildeyed men with knives were stalking one another in a circle, like dancers moving in some strange archaic ritual. She got away from there as fast as she could.


Finally she saw the wide highway that was University Road ahead of her, just beyond the forest boundary. Somewhere along the north side of that road was the unobtrusive little country lane that led to the Sanctuary.


Yes: there it was. Hidden, insignificant, bordered on both sides by untidy clumps of weeds and thick grass that had gone to seed.


It was late afternoon. Onos was almost gone from the sky, and the hard baleful light of Tano and Sitha cast sharp shadows across the land that gave the day a wintry look, though the air was mild. The little red eye that was Dovim moved through the northern heavens, still very distant, still very high.


Siferra wondered what had become of the unseeable Kalgash Two. Evidently it had done its terrible work and moved on. By this time it might be a million miles out in space, curving away from the world on its long orbit, riding on and on through the airless dark, not to return for another two thousand and forty-nine years. Which would be at least two million years too soon, thought Siferra bitterly.


A sign appeared before her:


PRIVATE PROPERTY


NO TRESPASSING


BY ORDER OF BOARD OF PROCTORS,


SARO UNIVERSITY


And then a second sign, in vivid scarlet:


!!! DANGER !!!


HIGH ENERGY RESEARCH FACILITY


NO ENTRY


Good. She must be going the right way, then.


Siferra had never been to the Sanctuary, even in the days when it had still been a physics laboratory, but she knew what to expect: a series of gates, and then some sort of scanner post that would monitor anyone who had managed to get this far. Within minutes she had come to the first gate. It was a doublehinged screen of tightly woven metal mesh, rising to perhaps twice her height, with a formidable-looking barbed-wire fence stretching off at either end and disappearing into the brambled underbrush that grew uncontrolledly here.


The gate was ajar.


She studied it, puzzled. Some illusion? Some trick of her muddled mind? No. No, the gate was open, all right. And it was the correct gate. She saw the University Security symbol on it. But why was it open? There was no indication that it had been forced.


Troubled now, she went through.


The road inward was nothing more than a dirt track, deeply rutted and cratered. She followed along its edge, and in a little while she saw an inner barrier, no mere barbed-wire fence here but a solid concrete wall, blank, impregnable-looking.


It was broken only by a gateway of dark metal, with a scanner mounted above it.


And this gate was open too.


Stranger and stranger! What about all the vaunted protection that was supposed to have sealed the Sanctuary away from the general madness that had overtaken the world?


She stepped inside. Everything was very quiet here. Ahead of her lay some scruffy-looking wooden sheds and barns. Perhaps the Sanctuary entrance itself-the mouth of an underground tunnel, Siferra knew-lay behind them. She walked around the outbuildings.


Yes, there was the Sanctuary entrance, an oval door in the ground, with a dark passageway behind it.


And there were people, too, a dozen or so of them, standing in front of it, watching her with chilly, unpleasant curiosity. They all had strips of bright green cloth tied about their throats, as a kind of neckerchief. She didn't recognize any of them. So far as she could tell, they weren't university people.


A small bonfire was burning just to the left of the door. Beside it was a pile of chopped logs, elaborately stacked, every piece of wood very neatly arranged according to size with astonishing precision and care. It looked more like some sort of meticulous architect's model than like a woodpile.


A sickening sense of fear and disorientation swept over her. What was this place? Was it really the Sanctuary? Who were these people?


"Stay right where you are," said the man at the front of the group. He spoke quietly, but there was whip-snapping authority in his tone. "Put your hands in the air."


He held a small sleek needle-gun in his hand. It was pointing straight at her midsection.


Siferra obeyed without a word.


He appeared to be about fifty years old, a strong, commanding figure, almost certainly the leader here. His clothing looked costly and his manner was poised and confident. The green neckerchief he wore had the sheen of fine silk.


"Who are you?" he asked calmly, keeping the weapon trained on her.


"Siferra 89, Professor of Archaeology, Saro University."


"That's nice. Are you planning to do any archaeology around here, Professor?"


The others laughed as though he had said something very, very funny.


Siferra said, "I'm trying to find the university Sanctuary. Can you tell me where it is?"


"I think this might have been it," the man replied. "The university people all cleared out of here a few days back. This is Fire Patrol headquarters now. -Tell me, are you carrying any combustibles, Professor?"


"Combustibles?"


"Matches, lighter, a pocket generator, anything that could be used to start a fire."


She shook her head. "Not any of those things."


"Fire-starting's prohibited under Article One of the Emergency Code. If you're in violation of Article One the punishment is severe."


Siferra stared at him blankly. What was he talking about?


A thin, sallow-faced man standing beside the leader said, "I don't trust her, Altinol. It was those professors that started all this. Two to one she's got something hidden away in her clothes, out of sight somewhere."


"I have no fire-making equipment anywhere on me," Siferra said, irritated.


Altinol nodded. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. We won't take the chance, Professor. Strip."


She stared at him, startled. "What did you say?"


"Strip. Remove your clothes. Demonstrate that you have no concealed illegal devices anywhere on your person."


Siferra hefted her club, rubbing her hand uneasily along its shaft. Blinking in astonishment, she said, "Hold on, here. You can't be serious."


"Article Two of the Emergency Code, Fire Patrol may take any precaution deemed necessary to prevent unauthorized firestarting. Article Three, this may include immediate and summary execution of those who resist Fire Patrol authority. Strip, Professor, and do it quickly."


Delete this


He gestured with the needle-gun. It was a very serious-looking gesture.


But still she stared at him, still she made no move to remove her garments. "Who are you? What's this Fire Patrol stuff all about?"


"Citizen vigilantes, Professor. We're attempting to restore law and order in Saro after the Breakdown. The city's been pretty much destroyed, you know. Or maybe you don't. The fires are continuing to spread, and there's no functioning fire department to do anything about it any more. And maybe you haven't noticed, but the whole province is full of crazy people who think we haven't quite had enough fires yet as it is, so they're starting even more. That can't go on. We intend to stop the starters by any means available. You are under suspicion of possessing combustibles. The accusation has been placed and you have sixty seconds to clear yourself of the charge. If I were you, I'd start getting my clothes off, Professor."


Siferra could see him silently counting off the seconds.


Strip, in front of a dozen strangers? A red haze of fury surged through her at the thought of the indignity. Most of these people were men. They weren't even bothering to hide their impatience. This wasn't any sort of security precaution, despite Altinol's solemn citing of an Emergency Code. They just wanted to see what her body looked like, and they had the power to make her submit. It was intolerable.


But then, after a moment, she found her indignation beginning to slip away.


What did it matter? Siferra asked herself wearily. The world had ended. Modesty was a luxury that only civilized people indulged in, and civilization was an obsolete concept.


In any case this was a blunt order, at gunpoint. She had wandered into a remote, isolated place far down a country road. No one was going to come to her rescue here. The clock was ticking. And Altinol didn't seem to be bluffing.


It wasn't worth dying just for the sake of concealing her body from them.


She tossed her club to the ground.

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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