Nightfall - Page 14

Chapter Fourteen

The tablets are gone?"


"Gone, yes. Stolen. I knew I never should have allowed myself to have any sort of contact with the Apostles."


Beenay said, "You think they stole them?"


"I'm sure of it," she said bitterly. "They sent word to me, after the existence of the Thombo tablets first became a matter of public knowledge, that they had information that would be of use to me. Didn't I tell you? I guess not. What they wanted was a deal similar to the one Athor worked out with that high priest, or whatever he is: Folimun 66. 'We have maintained a knowledge of the old language,' Folimun said, 'the language spoken in the previous Year of Godliness.' And so they had, apparently-texts of some sort, dictionaries, alphabets of the old script, perhaps a lot more."


"Which Athor was able to obtain from them?"


"Some of it. Enough, at any rate, to determine that the Apostles did have genuine astronomical records of the previous eclipse-enough, Athor said, to prove that the world had been through such a cataclysm at least once before."


Athor, she went on to tell Beenay, had given her copies of the few astronomical text fragments he had received from Folimun, and she had shown them to Mudrin. Who indeed had found them valuable in his own translation of the tablets. But Siferra had balked at sharing her tablets with the Apostles, at least not on their terms. The Apostles claimed to be in possession of a key to the early clay-tablet script, and perhaps they were. Folimun had insisted, though, that she give him the actual tablets to be copied and translated, rather than his giving her the decoding material that he had. He wouldn't settle for copies of the tablet texts. It had to be the original artifacts, or else no deal.


"But you drew the line at that," Beenay said.


"Absolutely. The tablets mustn't leave the university. 'Give us the textual key,' I said to Folimun, 'and we'll provide you with copies of the tablet texts. Then we can each attempt a translation.'


But Folimun had refused. Copies of the texts were of no use to him, since they could all too easily be dismissed as forgeries. As for giving her his own documents, no, absolutely not. What he had, he said, was sacred material, which could only be made available to Apostles. Give him the tablets and he would provide translations of them for her. But no outsider was going to get a look at the texts already in his possession.


"I was actually tempted to join the Apostles for a moment," Siferra said, "just for the sake of getting access to the key."


"You? An Apostle?"


"Only to get their textual material. But the idea repelled me. I turned Folimun down." And Mudrin had had to toil on at his translations without the help of whatever material the Apostles might have. It became apparent that the tablets did indeed seem to talk about some fiery doom that the gods had sent upon the world-but Mudrin's translations were sketchy, hesitant, sparse.


Well, now the Apostles had the tablets anyway, more likely than not. That was hard to take. In the chaos ahead, they'd be waving those tablets around-her tablets-as still more evidence of their own wisdom and holiness.


"I'm sorry that your tablets are gone, Siferra," Beenay said. "But maybe there's still a chance the Apostles didn't steal them. That they'll turn up somewhere."


"I'm not counting on that," said Siferra. And she smiled ruefully and turned away to stare at the darkening sky.


The best she could do by way of comfort was take Athor's line: that the world was ending in a little while anyway, and nothing mattered very much. But that was cold comfort indeed. She fought inwardly against any such counsel of despair. The important thing was to keep on thinking of the day after tomorrow-of survival, of rebuilding, of the struggle and its fulfillment. It was no good to fall into despondency like Athor, to accept the downfall of humanity, to shrug and give up all hope.


A high tenor voice cut suddenly across her gloomy meditations.


"Hello, everybody! Hello, hello, hello!"


"Sheerin!" Beenay cried. "What are you doing here?"


The plump cheeks of the newcomer expanded in a pleased smile. "What's this morgue-like atmosphere in here? No one's losing their nerve, I hope."


Athor started in consternation and said peevishly, "Yes, what are you doing here, Sheerin? I thought you were going to stay behind in the Sanctuary."


Sheerin laughed and dropped his tubby figure into a chair. "Sanctuary be damned! The place bored me. I wanted to be here, where things are getting hot. Don't you suppose I have my share of curiosity? I rode in the Tunnel of Mystery, after all. I can survive another dose of Darkness. And I want to see these Stars that the Apostles have been spouting about." He rubbed his hands and added in a soberer tone, "It's freezing outside. The wind's enough to hang icicles on your nose. Dovim doesn't seem to give any heat at all, at the distance it is this evening."


The white-haired director ground his teeth in sudden exasperation. "Why do you go out of your way to do a crazy thing like this, Sheerin? What kind of good can you be ~round here?"


"What kind of good am I around there?" Sheerin spread his palms in comical resignation. "A psychologist isn't worth a damn in the Sanctuary. Not now. Not a thing I could do for them. They're all snug and safe, laced in underground, nothing to worry about."


"And if a mob should break in during the Darkness?"


Sheerin laughed. "I very much doubt that anyone who didn't know where the entrance was would be able to find the Sanctuary in broad daylight, let alone once the suns have gone out. But if they do, well, they'd need men of action to defend them. Me? I'm a hundred pounds too heavy for that. So why should I huddle in down there with them? I'd rather be here."


Siferra felt her own spirits rise as she heard Sheerin's words. She too had chosen to spend the evening of Darkness at the Observatory, rather than in the Sanctuary. Perhaps it was mere wild bravado, perhaps it was idiotic overconfidence, but she was sure that she could last out the hours of the eclipse-and even the coming of the Stars, if there was anything to that part of the myth-and retain her sanity. And so she had decided not to pass up the experience.


Now it appeared that Sheerin, no model of bravery, had taken the same approach. Which might mean that he had decided the impact of Darkness would not be so overwhelming after all, despite the grim predictions he had been making for months. She had heard his tales of the Tunnel of Mystery and the havoc it had wreaked, even on Sheerin himself. Yet here he was. He must have come to believe that people, some at least, would turn out ultimately to be more resilient than he had expected earlier.


Or else he was simply being reckless. Perhaps he preferred to lose his mind in one quick burst this evening, Siferra thought, rather than stay sane and have to cope with the innumerable and perhaps insuperable problems of the hard times ahead- No. No. She was falling into morbid pessimism again.


She brushed the thought away.


"Sheerin!" It was Theremon, coming across the room to greet the psychologist. "You remember me? Theremon 762?"


"Of course I do, Theremon," Sheerin said. He offered his hand. "Gods, fellow, you've been rough on us lately, haven't you! But bygones may as well be bygones this evening."


"I wish be was a bygone," Siferra muttered under her breath. She scowled in distaste and stepped back a few paces.


Theremon shook Sheerin's hand. "What's this Sanctuary you're supposed to have been in? I've heard a little about it here this evening, but I don't have any real idea of what it is."


"Well," said Sheerin, "we have managed to convince a few people, at least, of the validity of our prophecy of-er-doom, to be spectacular about it, and those few have taken proper measures. They consist mainly of the immediate members of the families of the Observatory staff, certain of the faculty of Saro University, and a few outsiders. My companion Liliath 221 is there at this very moment, as a matter of fact, and I suppose I should be too, but for my infernal curiosity. There are about three hundred people all told."


"I see. They're supposed to hide where the Darkness and the-er-Stars can't get at them, and then hold out when the rest of the world goes poof."


"Exactly. The Apostles have some sort of hideout of their own also, you know. We aren't sure how many people are in it-just a few, if we're lucky, but more likely they've got thousands stashed away who will come forth and inherit the world after the Darkness."


"So the university group," Theremon said, "is intended as a counterforce to that?"


Sheerin nodded. "If possible. It won't be easy. With almost all of mankind insane, with the great cities going up in flames, with perhaps a big horde of Apostles imposing their kind of order on what's left of the world-no, it'll be tough for them to survive. But at least they have food, water, shelter, weapons-"


"They've got more," said Athor. "They've got all our records, except for what we will collect today. Those records will mean everything to the next cycle, and that's what must survive. The rest can go hang."


Theremon whistled a long, low whistle.


"You people are completely certain, then, that everything you've predicted is going to come about just as you say!"


"What other position could we possibly take?"~ Siferra asked harshly. "Once we saw that disaster would inevitably come-"


"Yes," the newspaperman said. "You had to make preparations for it. Because you were in possession of the Truth. Just as the Apostles of Flame are in possession of the Truth. I wish I could be half so certain about anything as all you Truthpossessors are about this evening."


She glowered at him. "I wish you could be out there this evening, wandering through the burning streets! But no-no, you'll be safe in here! It's more than you deserve!"


"Easy," Sheerin said. He took Theremon by the arm and quietly he said, "No sense provoking people now, friend. Let's go somewhere where we won't bother people, and we can talk."


"Good idea," Theremon said.


But he made no motion toward leaving the room. A game of stochastic chess had begun around the table, and Theremon stood watching for a moment or two in obvious incomprehension as moves were made rapidly and in silence. He seemed amazed by the ability of the players to concentrate on a game, when they all must believe that the end of the world was just hours away.


"Come," Sheerin said again.


"Yes. Yes," said Theremon.


He and Sheerin went out into the hail, followed, an instant later, by Beenay.


What an infuriating man, Siferra thought.


She stared at the bright orb of Dovim, burning fiercely in the sky. Had the sky grown even darker in the past few minutes? No, no, she told herself, that was impossible. Dovim was still there. It was just imagination. The sky looked strange, now that Dovim was the only sun aloft. She had never seen it like that before, such a deep purple hue. But it was far from dark out there: somber, yes, but there was light enough, and everything was still easily visible outside despite the relative dimness of the one small sun.


She thought about her lost tablets again. Then she banished them from her mind.


The chess players had the right idea, she told herself. Sit down and relax. If you can.


Sheerin led the way to the next room. There were softer chairs in there. And thick red curtains on the windows, and a maroon carpet on the floor. With the strange brick-toned light of Dovim pouring in, the general effect was one of dried blood everywhere.


He had been surprised to see Theremon at the Observatory this evening, after the horrendous columns he had written, after all he had done to pour cold water on Athor's campaign for national preparedness. In recent weeks Athor had gone almost berserk with rage every time Theremon's name was mentioned; yet somehow he had relented and permitted him to be here for the eclipse.


That was odd and a little troublesome. It might mean that the stern fabric of the old astronomer's personality had begun to break down-that not only his anger but also his whole inner structure of character was giving way in the face of the oncoming catastrophe.


For that matter Sheerin was more than slightly surprised to find himself at the Observatory too. It had been a last-minute decision, a pure impulse of the kind he rarely experienced. Liliath had been horrified. He was pretty horrified himself. He had not forgotten the terrors that his few minutes in the Tunnel of Mystery had evoked in him.


But he had realized, in the end, that he bad to be here, just as he had had to take that ride in the Tunnel. To everyone else, he might be nothing more than an easygoing overweight academic hack; but to himself he was still a scientist beneath all the blubber. The study of Darkness had concerned him through all his professional career. How, then, could he ever live with himself afterward, knowing that during the most celebrated episode of Darkness in more than two thousand years he had chosen to hide himself away in the cozy safety of an underground chamber?


No, he had to be here. Witnessing the eclipse. Feeling the Darkness take possession of the world.


Theremon said with unexpected frankness, as they entered the adjoining room, "I'm starting to wonder whether I was right to have been such a skeptic, Sheerin."


"You ought to wonder about it."


"Well, I am. Seeing just Dovim up there like that. That weird red color spreading over everything. You know, I'd give ten credits for a decent dose of white light right now. A good stiff Tano Special. For that matter, I'd like to see Tano and Sitha in the sky too. Or, even better, Onos."


"Onos will be there in the morning," put in Beenay, who had just entered the room.


"Yes, but will we?" asked Sheerin. And grinned immediately to take the sting from his words. To Beenay he said, "Our journalistic friend is eager for a little nip of alcohol."


"Athor will have a fit. He's given orders for everybody to be sober here this evening."


Sheerin said, "So there's nothing but water to be had?"


"Well-"


"Come on, Beenay. Athor won't come in here."


"I suppose."


Tiptoeing to the nearest window, Beenay squatted, and from the low window box beneath it withdrew a bottle of red liquid that gurgled suggestively when he shook it.


"I thought Athor didn't know about this," he remarked, as he trotted back to the table. "Here! We've only got one glass, so as the guest you can have it, Theremon. Sheerin and I can drink from the bottle." And he filled the tiny cup with judicious care.


Laughing, Theremon said, "You never touched alcohol at all when we first met, Beenay."


"That was then. This is now. Tense times, Theremon. I'm learning. A good drink can be very relaxing at times like these."


"So I've heard," Theremon said lightly. He took a sip. It was some sort of red wine, rough and raw, probably cheap jug wine from one of the southern provinces. Just the sort of thing that a

lifelong abstainer like Beenay would tend to buy, not knowing any better. But it was better than nothing.


Beenay helped himself to a hearty gulp and passed the bottle to Sheerin. The psychologist up-ended it and held it to his lips for a long slow drink. Then, putting it down with a satisfied

grunt and a smack of his lips, he said to Beenay, "Athor seems strange this evening. I mean, even allowing for the special circumstances. What's wrong?"


"Worrying about Faro and Yimot, I suppose."


"Who?"


"A couple of young graduate students. They were due several hours ago and haven't shown up yet. Athor's terrifically shorthanded, of course, because all but the really essential people have gone to the Sanctuary."


Theremon said, "You don't think they deserted, do you?"


"Who? Faro and Yimot? Of course not. They're not the type. They'd give everything to be here this evening taking measurements when the eclipse happens. But what if there's some kind of riot going on in Saro City and they've been caught in it?" Beenay shrugged. "Well, they'll show up sooner or later, I imagine. But if they're not here as we approach the critical phase, things could get a little sticky when the work piles up. That must be what Athor's worrying about."


Sheerin said, "I'm not so sure. Two missing men would be on his mind, yes. But there's something else. He looks so old, suddenly. Weary. Defeated, even. The last time I saw him he was full of fight, full of talk about the reconstruction of society after the eclipse-the real Athor, the iron man. Now all I see is a sad, tired, pathetic old wreck who's simply waiting for the end to come. The fact that he didn't even bother to throw Theremon out-"


"He tried," Theremon said. "Beenay talked him out of it. And Siferra."


"There you are. Beenay, did you ever know anyone who was able to talk Athor out of anything? -Here, pass me the wine."


"It may be my fault," Theremon said. "Everything that I wrote, attacking his plan to set up Sanctuary-type shelters all across the country. If he genuinely believes that there's going to be a worldwide Darkness in a few hours and that all mankind will go violently insane-"


"Which he does," said Beenay. "As do all of us."


"Then the failure of the government to take Athor's predictions seriously must be an overwhelming, crushing defeat for him. And I'm responsible as much as anyone. If it turns out

that you people were right, I'll never forgive myself."


Sheerin said, "Don't flatter yourself, Theremon. Even if you had writted five columns a day calling for a colossal preparedness movement, the government still wouldn't have done anything. It might have taken Athor's warnings even less seriously than it did if that's possible, with a popular crusading journalist like you on Athor's side."


"Thanks," Theremon said. "I really appreciate that. Is there any wine left?" He looked toward Beenay. "And of course I'm in trouble with Siferra too. She thinks I'm too contemptible for words."


"There was a time when she seemed really interested in you," Beenay said. "I was wondering about it for a while, as a matter of fact. Whether you and she were-ah-"


"No," Theremon said, grinning. "Not quite. And we never will, now. But we were very good friends for a while. A fascinating, fascinating woman. What about this cyclic theory of prehistory of hers? Is there anything to it?"


"Not if you listen to some of the other people in her department," Sheerin said. "They're really scornful of it. Of course, they've all got a vested interest in the established archaeological framework, which says that Beklimot was the first urban center and that if you go back more than a couple of thousand years you can't find any civilization at all, just primitive shaggy jungle-dwelling folk."


"But how can they argue away these recurrent catastrophes at the Hill of Thombo?" Theremon asked.


"Scientists who think they know the real story can argue away anything that threatens their beliefs," Sheerin said. "You scratch an entrenched academic and you'll find he's pretty similar in some ways to an Apostle of Flame, underneath. It's just a different kind of robe they wear." He took the bottle, which Theremon had been idly holding, and helped himself again. "The deuce with them. Even a layman like me can see that Siferra's discoveries at Thombo turn our picture of prehistory inside out. The question isn't whether there were recurrent fires over a period of all those thousands of years. It's why."


Theremon said, "I've seen plenty of explanations lately, all of them more or less fantastic. Someone from Kitro University was arguing that there are periodic rains of fire every few thousand years. And we got a letter at the newspaper from someone who claims to be a free-lance astronomer and says he's 'proved' that Kalgash passes through one of the suns every so often. I think there were even wilder things proposed."


"There's only one idea that makes any sense," Beenay said quietly. "Remember the concept of the Sword of Thargola. You have to dispense with the hypotheses that require extra bells and whistles in order to make sense. There's no reason why a rain of fire should fall on us every now and then, and it's obvious nonsense to talk about passing through suns. But the eclipse theory is accounted for perfectly by mathematical consideration of the orbit of Kalgash as it's affected by Universal Gravitation."


"The eclipse theory may stand up, yes. No doubt it does. We'll find out pretty soon, eh?" Theremon said. "But apply Thargola's Sword yourself to what you've just said. There's nothing in the eclipse theory that tells us that there'll necessarily be tremendous fires immediately afterward."


"No," Sheerin said. "There's nothing about that in the theory. But common sense indicates it. The eclipse will bring Darkness. Darkness will bring madness. And madness will bring the Flames. Which wrecks another couple of millenniums of painful struggle. It all comes to nothing tomorrow. Tomorrow there won't be a city standing unharmed in all Kalgash."


"You sound just like the Apostles," Theremon said angrily. "I heard pretty much the same stuff from Folimun 66 months ago. And told you two about it, I recall, at the Six Suns Club."


He gazed out the window, past the wooded slopes of Observatory Mount to where the spires of Saro City gleamed bloodily on the horizon. The newsman felt the tension of uncertainty grow within him as he cast a quick glance at Dovim. It glowered redly at zenith, dwarfed and evil.


Doggedly Theremon went on, "I can't buy your chain of reasoning. Why should I go nuts just because there isn't a sun in the sky? And even if I do-yes, I haven't forgotten those poor bastards in the Tunnel of Mystery-even if I do, and everyone else does, how does that harm the cities? Are we going to blow them down?"


"I said the same thing at first," Beenay put in. "Before I stopped to think things through. If you were in Darkness, what would you want more than anything else-what would it be that every instinct would call for?"


"Why, light, I suppose."


"Yes!" Sheerin cried, shouting now. "Light, yes! Light!"


"So?"


"And how would you get light?"


Theremon pointed to the switch on the wall. "I'd turn it on."


"Right," said Sheerin mockingly. "And the gods in their infinite kindness would provide enough current to give you what you wanted. Because the power company certainly wouldn't be able to. Not with all the generators grinding to a halt, and the people who operate them stumbling around babbling in the dark, and the same with the transmission-line controllers. You follow me?"


Theremon nodded numbly.


Sheerin said, "Where will light come from, when the generators stop? The godlights, I suppose. They've all got batteries. But you may not have a godlight handy. You'll be out there on the street in the Darkness, and your godlight will be sitting at home, right next to your bed. And you want light. So you burn something, eh, Mr. Theremon? Ever see a forest fire? Ever go camping and cook a stew over a wood fire? Heat isn't the only thing burning wood gives off, you know. It gives off light, and people are very well aware of that. And when it's dark they want light, and they're going to get it."


"So they'll burn logs," Theremon said without much conviction.


"They'll burn whatever they can get. They've got to have light. They've got to burn something, and wood won't be handy, not on city streets. So they'll burn whatever is nearest. A pile of newspapers? Why not? The Saro City Chronicle will give a little brightness for a while. What about the newsstands that the papers on sale are stacked up in? Burn them too! Burn clothing. Burn books. Burn roof-shingles. Burn anything. The people will have their light-and every center of habitation goes up in flames! There are your fires, Mr. Newspaperman. There is the end of the world you used to live in."


"If the eclipse comes," said Theremon, an undertone of stubbornness in his voice.


"If, yes," said Sheerin. "I'm no astronomer. And no Apostle, either. But my money's on the eclipse."


He looked straight at Theremon. Eyes held each other as though the whole matter were a personal affair of respective will powers, and then Theremon broke away, wordlessly. His breathing was harsh and ragged. He put his hands to his forehead and pressed hard.


Then came a sudden hubbub from the adjoining room.


Beenay said, "I think I heard Yimot's voice. He and Faro must have showed up, finally. Let's go in and see what kept them."


"Might as well!" muttered Theremon. He drew a long breath and seemed to shake himself. The tension was broken for the moment.

***


Tags: Isaac Asimov Science Fiction
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