Nightfall - Page 24


Chapter Twenty-Four

"But he's uneasy about one thing. There's room for only one boss in the Patrol, and that's Altinol. If you joined up, he'd want you to understand right from the beginning that what Altinol says goes, without any argument. He's not sure how good you are at taking orders."


"I'm not so sure how good I am at that either," Theremon said. "But I can see Altinol's point of view."


"Will you join, then? I know there are problems with the whole Patrol setup. But at least it's a force for order, and we need something like that now. And Altinol may be highhanded, but he's not evil. I'm convinced of that. He simply thinks the times call for strong measures and decisive leadership. Which he's capable of supplying."


"I don't doubt that he is."


"Think it over this evening," Siferra said. "If you want to join, talk to him tomorrow. Be frank with him. He'll be frank with you, you can be certain of that. So long as you can assure him that you're not going to be any direct threat to his authority, I'm certain that you and he-"


"No," Theremon said suddenly.


"No what?"


He was silent for a time. At length he said, "I don't need to spend the evening thinking about it. I already know what my answer will be."


Siferra looked at him, waiting.


Theremon said, "I don't want to butt heads with Altinol. I know the kind of man he is, and I'm very sure that I can't get along with people like that for any length of time. And I also know that in the short run it may be necessary to have operations like the Fire Patrol, but in the long run they're a bad thing, and once they're established and institutionalized it's very hard to get rid of them. The Altinols of this world don't give up power voluntarily. Little dictators never do. And I don't want the knowledge that I helped put him on top hanging around my neck for the rest of my life. Reinventing the feudal system doesn't strike me as a useful solution for the problems we have now. So it's no go, Siferra. I'm not going to wear Altinol's green neckerchief. There isn't any future for me here."


Quietly Siferra said, "What are you going to do, then?"


"Sheerin told me that there's a real provisional government being formed at Amgando Park. University people, maybe some people from the old government, representatives from all over the country coming together down there. As soon as I'm strong enough to travel, I'm going to head for Amgando."


She regarded him steadily. She made no reply.


Theremon took a deep breath. And said, after a moment, "Come with me to Amgando Park, Siferra." He reached a hand toward her. Softly he said, "Stay with me this evening, in this miserable little tiny room of mine. And in the morning let's clear out of here and go down south together. You don't belong here any more than I do. And we stand five times as much chance of getting to Amgando together than we would if either of us tried to make the journey alone."


Siferra remained silent. He did not withdraw his hand.


"Well? What do you say?"


Theremon watched the play of conflicting emotions moving across her features. But he did not dare try to interpret them.


Clearly Siferra was struggling with herself. But then, abruptly, the struggle came to an end.


"Yes," she said at last. "Yes. Let's do it, Theremon."


And moved toward him. And took his hand. And switched off the dangling overhead light, though the soft glow of the godlight beside the bed remained.


"Do you know the name of this neighborhood?" Siferra asked. She stared, numbed, dismayed, at the charred and ghastly landscape of ruined houses and abandoned vehicles that they had entered. It was a little before midday, the third day of their flight from the Sanctuary. The unsparing light of Onos mercilessly illuminated every blackened wall, every shattered window.


Theremon shook his head. "It was called something silly, you can be sure of that. Golden Acres, or Saro Estates, or something like that. But what it was called isn't important now. This isn't a neighborhood any more. What we have here used to be real estate, Siferra, but these days what it is is archaeology. One of the Lost Suburbs of Saro."


They had reached a point well south of the forest, almost to the outskirts of the suburban belt that constituted the southern fringes of Saro City. Beyond lay agricultural ones, small towns, and-somewhere far in the distance, unthinkably far- their goal of Amgando National Park.


The crossing of the forest had taken them two days. They had slept the first evening at Theremon's old lean-to, and the second one in a thicket halfway up the rugged slope leading to Onos Heights. In all this while they had had no indication that the Fire Patrol was on their trail. Altinol had apparently made no attempt to pursue them, even though they had taken weapons with them and two bulging backpacks of provisions. And surely, Siferra thought, they were beyond his reach by now.


She said, "The Great Southern Highway ought to be somewhere around here, shouldn't it?"


"Another two or three miles. If we're lucky there won't be any fires burning to block us from going forward."


"We'll be lucky. Count on it."


He laughed. "Always the optimist, eh?"


"It doesn't cost any more than pessimism," she said. "One way or another, we'll get through."


"Right. One way or another."


They were moving steadily along. Theremon seemed to be making a quick recovery from the beating he had received in the forest, and from his days of virtual starvation. There was an amazing resilience about him. Strong as she was, Siferra had to work hard to keep up with his pace.


She was working hard, too, to keep her own spirits up. From the moment of setting out, she had consistently struck a hopeful note, always confident, always certain that they'd make it safely through to Amgando and that they would find people like themselves already hard at work there at the job of planning the reconstruction of the world.


But inwardly Siferra wasn't so sure. And the farther she and Theremon went into these once pleasant suburban regions, the more difficult it was to fight back horror, shock, despair, a sense of total defeat.


It was a nightmare world.


There was no escaping the enormity of it. Everywhere you turned you saw destruction.


Look! she thought. Look! The desolation-the scars-the fallen buildings, the walls already overrun by the first weeds, occupied already by the early platoons of lizards. Everywhere the marks of that terrible night when the gods had once more sent their curse against the world. The awful acrid smell of black smoke rising from the remains of fires that the recent rains had extinguished-the other smoke, white and piercing, curling upward out of basements still ablaze-the stains on everything-the bodies in the streets, twisted in their final agonies-the look of madness in the eyes of those few lingering living people who now and then peered out from the remains of their homes- All glory vanished. All greatness gone. Everything in ruins, everything-as if the ocean had risen, she thought, and swept all our achievements into oblivion.


Siferra was no stranger to ruins. She had spent her whole professional life digging in them. But the ruins she had excavated were ancient ones, time-mellowed and mysterious and romantic. What she saw here now was all to immediate, all too painful to behold, and there was nothing at all romantic about it. She had been able readily enough to come to terms with the downfall of the lost civilizations of the past: it carried little emotional charge for her. But now it was her own epoch that had been swept into the discard-bin of history, and that was hard to bear.


Why had it happened? she asked herself. Why? Why? Why? Were we so evil? Had we strayed so far from the path of the gods that we needed to be punished this way?


No.


No!


There are no gods; there was no punishment.


Of that much, Siferra was still certain. She had no doubt that this was simply the working of blind fate, brought about by the impersonal movements of inanimate and uncaring worlds and suns, drawing together every two thousand years in dispassionate coincidence.


That was all. An accident.


An accident that Kalgash had been forced to endure over and over again during its history.


From time to time the Stars would appear in all their frightful majesty; and in a desperate terror-kindled agony, man would unknowingly turn his hand against his own works. Driven mad by the Darkness; driven mad by the ferocious light of the Stars. It was an unending cycle. The ashes of Thombo had told the whole tale. And now it was Thombo all over again. Just as Theremon had said: This place is archaeology now. Exactly.


The world they had known was gone. But we are still here, she thought.


What shall we do? What shall we do?


The only comfort she could find amidst the bleakness was the memory of that first evening with Theremon, in the Sanctuary: so sudden, so unexpected, so wonderful. She kept going back to it in her mind, over and over. His oddly shy smile as he asked her to stay with him-no sly seductive trick, that! And the look in his eyes. And the feel of his hands against her skin- his embrace, his breath mingling with hers- How long it had been since she had been with a man! She had almost forgotten what it was like-almost. And always, those other times, there had been the uneasy sense of making a mistake, of taking a false path, of committing herself to a journey she should not be taking. It had not been that way with Theremon: simply a dropping of barriers and pretenses and fears, a joyful yielding, an admission, finally, that in this torn and tortured world she must no longer go it alone, that it was necessary to form an alliance, and that Theremon, straightforward and blunt and even a little coarse, strong and determined and dependable, was the ally she needed and wanted.


And so she had given herself at last, unhesitatingly and without regret. What an irony, she thought, that it had taken the end of the world to bring her to the point of falling in love! But at least she had that. Everything else might be lost; but at least she had that.


"Look there," she said, pointing. "A highway sign."


It was a shield of green metal, hanging at a crazy angle from a lamppost, its surface blackened by smoke-stains. In three or four places it was punctured by what probably were bulletholes. But the bright yellow lettering was still reasonably legible: GREAT SOUTHERN HIGHWAY, and an arrow instructing them to go straight ahead.


"It can't be more than another mile or two from here," Theremon said. "We ought to reach it by-"


There was a sudden high whining sound, and then a twanging crash, reverberating with stunning impact. Siferra covered her ears. A moment later she felt Theremon hooking his arm through hers, pulling her to the ground.


"Get down!" he whispered harshly. "Somebody's firing!"


"Who? Where?"


His needle-gun was in his hand. She drew hers also. Glancing up, she saw that the projectile had struck the highway sign: there was a new hole in it between the first two words, obliterating several of the letters.


Theremon, crouching, was moving in a quick shuffle toward the edge of the nearest building. Siferra followed him, feeling hideously exposed. This was worse than standing naked in front of Altinol and the Fire Patrol: a thousand times worse. The next shot might come at any moment, from any direction, and she had no way to protect herself. Even when she pulled herself around the corner of the building and huddled up against Theremon in the alleyway, breathing hard, her heart pounding, she felt no assurance that she was safe.


He nodded toward a row of burned-out houses on the other side of the street. Two or three of them were intact, down near the opposite corner; and now she saw grimy shadowy faces peering out of an upstairs window of the farthest one.


"People in there. Squatters, I bet. Crazies."


"I see them."


"Not afraid of our Patrol neckerchiefs. Maybe the Patrol doesn't mean anything to them, this far out of town. Or maybe they were shooting at us because we're wearing them."


"You think so?"


"Anything's possible." Theremon edged forward a little way. "What I wonder is, were they trying to hit us and is their aim really lousy, or were they just trying to scare us? If they tried to shoot at us and the best they could do was hit the highway sign, then we could try making a run for it. But if it was just a warning-"


"That's what I suspect it was. A shot that went astray isn't likely to have gone astray right into the highway sign. That's too neat."


"Probably so," Theremon said. He scowled. "I think I'm going to let them know we're armed. Just to discourage them from trying to send a few scouts sneaking around one of these houses and coming up on us from the rear."


He looked down at his needler, adjusting the aperture to wide beam and maximum distance. Then he raised it and squeezed off a single shot. A bolt of red light sizzled through the air and struck the ground just in front of the building where the faces had appeared. An angry charred spot appeared on the lawn, and wisps of smoke came curling up.


Siferra asked, "Do you think they saw that?"


"Unless they're so far gone that they aren't capable of paying attention. But my guess is that they saw, all right. And didn't like it much."


The faces were back at the window.


"Stay down," Theremon warned. "They've got some kind of heavy hunting rifle. I can see its snout."


There was another whining sound, another tremendous crash.


The highway sign, shattered, fell to the ground.


"They may be crazies," Siferra said, "but their aim is pretty damned good."


"Too good. They were just playing with us when they fired that first shot. Laughing at us. They're telling us that if we show our noses they'll blow us away. They've got us pinned down, and they're enjoying it."


"Can we get out of here down the far end of this alley?"


"It's all rubble back there. And more squatters waiting for us on the other side, for all we know."


"Then what are we going to do?"


"Set that house on fire," Theremon said. "Burn them out. And kill them, if they're too crazy to surrender."


Her eyes widened. "Kill them?"


"If they give us no other option, yes, yes, I will. Do you want to get to Amgando, or would you rather spend the rest of your life hiding out here in this alleyway?"


"But you can't just kill people, even though you-even though they-"


Her voice trailed off. She didn't know what she was trying to say.


"Even though they're trying to kill you, Siferra? Even though they think it's fun to send a couple of shots whistling past your ears?"


She made no reply. She had thought she was beginning to understand the way things worked in the monstrous new world that had come into being on the evening of the eclipse; but she realized that she understood nothing, nothing at all.


Theremon had crept out toward the street a short way once again. He was aiming his needler.


The incandescent bolt of light struck the white facade of the house down the street. Instantly the wood began to turn black. Little flamelets sprang up. He drew a line of fire across the front of the building, paused a moment, fired again, tracing a second line across the first.


"Give me your gun," he said. "Mine's overheating."


She passed him the weapon. He adjusted it and fired a third time. An entire section of the house's front wall was ablaze now. Theremon was cutting through it, aiming his beam toward the interior of the building.


Not very long ago, Siferra thought, that white wooden house had belonged to someone. People had lived there, a family, proud of their house, their neighborhood-tending their lawn, watering their plants, playing with their pets, giving dinner parties for their friends, sitting on the patio sipping drinks and watching the suns move through the evening sky. Now none of that meant anything. Now Theremon was lying on his belly in an alleyway strewn with ashes and rubble across the way, efficiently and systematically setting that house on fire. Because that was the only way that he and she could get safely out of this street and continue on their way to Amgando Park.


A nightmare world, yes.


A column of smoke was rising within the house now. The whole left-hand side of its front wall was on fire.


And people were leaping from the second-story windows.


Three, four, five of them, choking, gasping. Two women, three men. They dropped down on the lawn and lay there a moment, as though dazed. Their clothes were ragged and dirty, their hair was unkempt. Crazies. They had been something else, before Nightfall, but now they were simply part of that vast horde of wild-eyed, uncouth-looking drifters whose minds had been unhinged, perhaps forever, by the sudden astounding blast of stunning light that the Stars had hurled against their unprepared senses.


"Stand up!" Theremon called to them. "Hands in the air! Now! Come on, get 'em up!" He stepped out into full view, holding both of the needle-guns. Siferra came out beside him. The house was shrouded in heavy smoke now, and within that dark cloak great frightful gusts of flame were sweeping upward on all sides of the building, blazing like scarlet banners.


Were there people still trapped inside? Who could tell? Did it matter?


"Line up, there!" Theremon ordered. "That's it! Face to the left!" They straggled to attention. One man was a little slow, and Theremon sent a needler beam blazing past his cheek to encourage his cooperation. "Start running, now. Down the street! Faster! Faster!"


One side of the house caved in with a terrible roaring sound, exposing rooms, closets, furniture, like a doll's house that had been cut away. Everything was on fire. The squatters were almost at the corner now. Theremon continued to shout at them, urging them on, aiming an occasional needle-bolt at their heels.


Then he turned to Siferra. "All right. Let's get out of here!" They holstered their needlers and went running off in the opposite direction, toward the Great Southern Highway.


"What if they had come out firing?" Siferra asked afterward, when they could see the highway entrance itself just a short distance away and were moving through the open fields that led to it. "Would you really have killed them, Theremon?"


He looked at her in a steady, severe way. "If that was the only way we could have gotten ourselves out of that alleyway? I thought I gave you my answer to that before. Of course I would. What choice would I have had? What else could I have done?"


"Nothing, I suppose," Siferra said, her voice barely audible. The image of the burning house still seared her mind. And the sight of those ragged, shabby people, running down the street.


But they had fired first, she told herself. They had started the trouble. There was no telling how far they would have carried it, if Theremon hadn't hit on the idea of burning the house down.


The house-somebody's house- Nobody's house, she corrected.


"There it is," Theremon said. "The Great Southern Highway. It's a nice smooth five-hour drive to Amgando. We could be there by dinnertime."


"If we only had something to drive," said Siferra.


"If," he said.


Even after all he had seen in the course of having come this far, Theremon wasn't prepared for the way the Great Southern Highway looked. A traffic engineer's worst nightmare would not have been as bad.


Everywhere in their crossing of the southern suburbs, Theremon and Siferra had passed abandoned vehicles in the streets. No doubt many drivers, overcome by panic at the moment of the emergence of the Stars, had stopped their cars and fled from them on foot, hoping to find someplace to hide from the terrifying overpowering brilliance that blazed suddenly from the skies.


But the abandoned cars that littered the streets of these quiet residential sectors of the city through which he and Siferra had come so far had been scattered in a sparse random manner, here and there at relatively wide intervals. In these neighborhoods vehicular traffic must have been fairly light at the time of the eclipse, coming as it had after the end of the regular working day.


The Great Southern Highway, though-crowded with late intercity commuters-must have become an utter madhouse in the instant when calamity struck the world.


"Look at it," Theremon whispered, awestruck. "Will you look at it, Siferra!"


She shook her head in wonder. "Incredible. Incredible."


There were cars everywhere-clotted masses of them, piled up everywhere in a chaotic scramble, stacked two or three high in places. The wide roadway was almost completely blocked by them, an all but impassable wall of wrecked vehicles. They were facing in every direction. Some were upside down. Many were burned-out skeletons. Bright puddles of spilled fuel gleamed like little crystalline lakes. Streaks of pulverized glass gave the roadbed a sinister sheen.


Dead cars. And dead drivers.


It was the most grisly sight they had seen thus far. A vast army of the dead stretched before them. There were bodies slumped at the controls of their cars, bodies wedged between vehicles that had collided, bodies pinned beneath the wheels of cars. And a host of bodies simply strewn like pitiful discarded dolls along the sides of the road, their limbs frozen in the grotesque attitudes of death.


Siferra said, "Probably some drivers stopped right away, when the Stars came out. But others speeded up, trying to get off the highway and head for home, and went piling into the cars that had stopped. And still other people were so dazed they forgot how to drive altogether-look, they went right off the edge of the road over there, and this one here must have turned around and tried to drive back through the oncoming traffic-"


Theremon shuddered. "A horrendous colossal pileup. Cars crashing in from all sides at once. Spinning around, turning over, flung right across the road to the opposite lanes. People getting out, running for cover, getting hit by other cars just arriving. Everything gone crazy in fifty different ways."


He laughed bitterly.


Siferra said in surprise, "What can you possibly find to laugh about, Theremon?"


"Only my own foolishness. Do you know, Siferra, a wild idea crossed my mind half an hour ago, as we were getting close to the highway, that we could just sit down in somebody's abandoned car and find it fueled up and ready to go, and drive ourselves off to Amgando? Just like that, convenient as could be. I didn't stop to think that the road would be totally blocked -that even if we were lucky enough to find a car we could use, we wouldn't be able to drive so much as fifty feet in it-"


"It'll be hard enough just to walk along the road, in the shape it's in."


"Yes. But we'll have to."


Grimly, they set out on their long journey south.


By the warm Onos-light of early afternoon they picked their way through the carnage of the highway, scrambling over the twisted and battered wreckage of the cars, trying hard to ignore the charred and mutilated bodies, the dried pools of blood, the reek of death, the total horror of it all.


Theremon felt himself growing desensitized to it almost at once. Perhaps that was an even greater horror. But after a short while he simply stopped noticing the gore, the staring eyes of the corpses, the vastness of the disaster that had taken place here. The task of clambering over mountainous heaps of shattered cars and squeezing himself past dangerous jutting masses of jagged metal was so exacting that it required all his concentration, and he quickly ceased to pay attention to the victims of the debacle. He already knew there was no point in searching for survivors. Anyone who had been trapped here this many days would surely have died of exposure by now.


Siferra too seemed to have quickly adapted to the nightmare scene that was the Great Southern Highway. Scarcely saying a word, she picked her way through the obstacles alongside him, now pausing to point to an opening in the tangle of debris, now dropping to her hands and knees to crawl under some overhang of crumpled metal.


They were virtually the only living people using the road. Now and then they caught sight of someone moving southward on foot far ahead of them, or even coming up out of the south heading toward the Saro City end of the road, but there were never any encounters. The other wayfarers would hastily duck down out of sight and lose themselves in the wreckage, or, if they were up ahead, would begin frantically to scramble forward at a pace that spoke of terrible fear, disappearing quickly in the distance.


What are they afraid of? Theremon wondered. That we'll attack them. Is everyone's hand lifted against everyone else, now?


Once, an hour or so from their starting point, they saw a bedraggled-looking man going from car to car, reaching in to fumble in the pockets of the dead, despoiling the bodies of their possessions. There was a great sack of loot on his back, so heavy that he was staggering under the weight of it.


Theremon cursed angrily and pulled out his needle-gun.


"Look at the filthy ghoul! Look at him!"


"No, Theremon!"


Siferra deflected his arm just as Theremon fired a bolt at the looter. The shot struck a nearby car, and for a moment set up a glittering sunburst of reflected energy.


"Why did you do that?" Theremon asked. "I was only trying to scare him."


"I thought-that you-"


Bleakly Theremon shook his head. "No," he said. "Not yet, anyway. There-look at him run!"


The looter had swung around at the sound of the shot, staring in berserk manic astonishment at Theremon and Siferra. His eyes were blank; a trail of spittle dribbled from his lips. He gaped at them for a long moment. Then, dropping his sack of booty, he went scrabbling away in a wild, desperate flight over the tops of the cars and soon was lost from view.


They went onward.


It was slow, dreadful going. The road-signs that rose high above them on shining stanchions mocked their pitiful progress by telling them what a very small distance from the beginning of the highway they had succeeded in traversing so far. By Onos-set they had gone only a mile and a half.


"At this rate," Theremon said somberly, "it'll take us close to a year to reach Amgando."


"We'll move faster as we get the knack of it," said Siferra, without much conviction.


If only they could have followed along some street parallel to the highway, instead of having to walk on the roadbed itself, it would all have been much simpler for them. But that was impossible. Much of the Great Southern Highway was an elevated road, rising on lofty pillars above wooded tracts, areas of marsh, and the occasional industrial zone. There were places where the highway became a bridge across long open patches of mining scars, or over lakes and streams. For most of the distance they would have no choice but to stick to what had once been the central traffic lanes of the highway itself, difficult as it was to get around the unending array of wreckage.


They kept to the edge of the roadbed as much as they could, since the density of wrecked cars was lower there. Looking over into the districts below, they saw signs of continuing chaos everywhere.


Burned houses. Fires still raging after all this time, stretching to the horizon. Occasional little bands of forlorn refugees, looking stunned and dazed, straggling bewilderedly through the debris-choked streets bound on some hopeless, desperate migration. Sometimes a larger group, a thousand people or more, camped together in some open place, everyone huddled in a desolate, paralyzed-looking way, scarcely moving, their wills and energies shattered.


Siferra pointed to a burned-out church at the crest of a hill just across from the highway. A small group of ragged-looking people were scrambling over its tumbled walls, prying at the remaining blocks of gray stone with crowbars, pulling them loose and hurling them into the courtyard.


"It looks as though they're demolishing it," she said. "Why would they do that?"


Theremon said, "Because they hate the gods. They blame them for everything that happened. -Do you know the Pantheon, the big Cathedral of All the Gods just at the edge of the forest, with the famous Thamilandi murals? I saw it a couple of days after Nightfall. It had been burned down-just rubble, everything destroyed, and one half-conscious priest sticking out of a pile of bricks. Now I realize that it was no accident that it burned. That fire was deliberately set. And the priest-I saw a crazy kill him right before my eyes, and I thought it was to steal his vestments. Maybe not. Maybe it was out of mere hatred."


"But the priests didn't cause-"

***



Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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