Authors: Isaac Asimov,Robert Silverberg
Tags: #Retail, #Personal
“Yes. Of course,” Athor muttered. He sounded, Theremon thought, as if he were many miles away.
Suddenly another figure was among them, moving swiftly, a whirling flail of arms. Theremon thought it might be Yimot or even Beenay, but then he felt the rough fabric of a cultist’s robe and knew that it must be Folimun.
“The Stars!” Folimun cried. “Here come the Stars! Get out of my way!”
He’s trying to get to Beenay, Theremon realized. To destroy the blasphemous cameras.
“Watch—out—” Theremon called. But Beenay still sat huddled in front of the computers that activated the cameras, snapping away as the full Darkness swept down.
Theremon reached out. He caught hold of Folimun’s robe,
yanked, twisted. Suddenly there were clutching fingers at his throat. He staggered crazily. There was nothing before him but shadows; the very floor beneath his feet lacked substance. A knee drove hard into his gut, and he grunted in a blinding haze of pain and nearly fell.
But after the first gasping moment of agony his strength returned. He seized Folimun by the shoulders, somehow swung him around, hooked his arm around the Apostle’s throat. At the same moment he heard Beenay croak, “I’ve got it! At your cameras, everyone!”
Theremon seemed conscious of everything at once. The entire world was streaming through his pounding mind—and everything was in chaos, everything was screaming with terror.
There came the strange awareness that the last thread of sunlight had thinned out and snapped.
Simultaneously he heard one last choking gasp from Folimun, and a heavy bellow of amazement from Beenay, and a queer little cry from Sheerin, a hysterical giggle that cut off in a rasp—
And a sudden silence, a strange, deadly silence, from outside.
Folimun had gone limp in his loosening grasp. Theremon peered into the Apostle’s eyes and saw the blankness of them, staring upward, mirroring the feeble yellow of the torches. He saw the bubble of froth upon Folimun’s lips and heard the low animal whimper in Folimun’s throat.
With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the bloodcurdling blackness of the sky.
Through it shone the Stars!
Not the one or two dozen of Beenay’s pitiful theory. There were thousands of them, blazing with incredible power, one next to another next to another next to another, an endless wall of them, forming a dazzling shield of terrifying light that filled the entire heavens. Thousands of mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.
They hammered at the roots of his being. They beat like flails against his brain. Their icy monstrous light was like a million great gongs going off at once.
My God, he thought. My God, my God, my God!
But he could not tear his eyes away from the hellish sight of them. He looked up through the opening in the dome, every muscle rigid, frozen, and stared in helpless wonder and horror at that shield of fury that filled the sky. He felt his mind shrinking down to a tiny cold point under that unceasing onslaught. His brain was no bigger than a marble, rattling around in the hollow gourd that was his skull. His lungs would not work. His blood ran backward in his veins.
At last he was able to close his eyes. He knelt for a time, panting, murmuring to himself, fighting to regain control.
Then Theremon staggered to his feet, his throat constricting him to breathlessness, all of the muscles of his body writhing in a tensity of terror and sheer fear beyond bearing. Dimly he was aware of Siferra somewhere near him, but he had to struggle to remember who she was. He had to work at remembering who
was. From below came the sound of a terrible steady pounding, a frightful hammering against the door—some strange wild beast with a thousand heads, struggling to get in—
It didn’t matter.
He was going mad, and knew it, and somewhere deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the hopeless flood of black terror. It was very horrible to go mad and know that you were going mad—to know that in a little minute you would be here physically and yet all the real essence that was
would be dead and drowned in the black madness. For this was the Dark—the Dark and the Cold and the Doom. The bright walls of the universe were shattered and their awful black fragments were falling down to crush and squeeze and obliterate him.
Someone came crawling toward him on hands and knees and jostled up against him. Theremon moved aside. He put his hands to his tortured throat and limped toward the flames of the torches that filled all his mad vision.
“Light!” he screamed.
Athor, somewhere, was crying, whimpering horribly like a terribly frightened child. “Stars—all the Stars—we didn’t know at all. We didn’t know anything. We thought six stars is a universe is something the Stars didn’t notice is Darkness forever
and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn’t know we couldn’t know and anything—”
Someone clawed at the torch, and it fell and snuffed out. In that instant the awful splendor of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them.
From below came the sound of screams and shouts and breaking glass. The mob, crazed and uncontrollable, had broken into the Observatory.
Theremon looked around. By the awful light of the Stars he saw the dumbstruck figures of the scientists lurching about in horror. He made his way into the corridor. A fierce blast of chilly air coming through an open window struck him, and he stood there, letting it hit his face, laughing a little at the arctic intensity of it.
“Theremon?” a voice called behind him. “Theremon?”
He went on laughing.
“Look,” he said, after a time. “Those are the Stars. This is the Flame.”
On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of a sun.
The long night had come again.
The first thing of which Theremon became aware, after a long period of being aware of nothing at all, was that something huge and yellow was hanging over him in the sky.
It was an immense blazing golden ball. There was no way he could look at it for more than a fraction of a second, on account of its brilliance. Searing heat was coming from it in pulsing waves.
He huddled in a crouching position, head downward, and crossed his wrists in front of his eyes to protect himself from that great outpouring of heat and light overhead. What, he wondered, kept it up there? Why didn’t it simply fall?
If it falls, he thought, it will fall on me.
Where can I hide? How can I protect myself?
For a long moment he hunkered down where he was, hardly daring to think. Then, cautiously, he opened his eyes just a slit. The gigantic blazing thing was still there in the sky. It hadn’t moved an inch. It wasn’t going to fall on him.
He began to shiver despite the heat.
The dry, choking smell of smoke came to him. Something was burning, not very far away.
It was the sky, he thought. The sky was burning.
The golden thing is setting fire to the world.
No. No. There was another reason for the smoke. He would remember it in a moment, if only he could clear the haze out of his mind. The golden thing hadn’t caused the fires. It hadn’t even been here when the fires started. It was those other things, those cold glittering white things that filled the sky from end to end—they had done it, they had sent the Flames—
What were they called? The Stars. Yes, he thought.
And he began to remember, just a little, and he shivered
again, a deep convulsive quiver. He remembered how it had been when the Stars came out, and his brain had turned to a marble and his lungs refused to pump air and his soul had screamed in the deepest of horror.
But the Stars were gone now. That bright golden thing was in the sky instead.
The bright golden thing?
That was its name. Onos, the sun. The main sun. One of—one of the six suns. Yes. Theremon smiled. Things were beginning to come back to him now. Onos belonged in the sky. The Stars did not. The sun, the kindly sun, good warm Onos. And Onos had returned. Therefore all was well with the world, even if some of the world seemed to be on fire.
Six suns? Then where were the other five?
He even remembered their names. Dovim, Trey, Patru, Tano, Sitha. And Onos made six. He saw Onos, all right—it was right above him, it seemed to fill half the sky. What about the rest? He stood up, a little shakily, still half afraid of the hot golden thing overhead, wondering now if perhaps he stood up too far he would touch it and be burned by it. No, no, that didn’t make any sense. Onos was good, Onos was kind. He smiled.
Looked around. Any more suns up there?
There was one. Very far off, very small. Not frightening, this one—the way the Stars had been, the way this fiery hot globe overhead was. Just a cheerful white dot in the sky, nothing more. Small enough to put in his pocket, almost, if he could only reach it.
Trey, he thought. That one is Trey. So its sister Patru ought to be somewhere nearby—
Yes. Yes, that’s it. Down there, in the corner of the sky, just to the left of Trey. Unless that one’s Trey, and the other one is Patru.
Well, he told himself, the names don’t matter. Which one is which, unimportant. Together they are Trey and Patru. And the big one is Onos. And the other three suns must be somewhere else right now, because I don’t see them. And my name is—
Yes. That’s right. I’m Theremon.
But there’s a number, too. He stood frowning, thinking about it, his family code, that’s what it was, a number he had known all his life, but what was it? What—was—it?
I am Theremon 762.
And then another, more complex thought followed smoothly along: I am Theremon 762 of the Saro City
Somehow that statement made him feel a little better, though it was full of mysteries for him.
Saro City? The
He almost knew what those words meant. Almost. He chanted them to himself.
Saro saro saro. City city city. Chronicle chronicle chronicle. Saro City Chronicle.
Perhaps if I walk a little, he decided. He took a hesitant step, another, another. His legs were a little wobbly. Looking around, he realized that he was on a hillside out in the country somewhere. He saw a road, bushes, trees, a lake off to the left. Some of the bushes and trees seemed to have been ripped and broken, with branches dangling at odd angles or lying on the ground below them, as though giants had come trampling through this countryside recently.
Behind him was a huge round-topped building with smoke rising from a hole in its roof. The outside of the building was blackened as if fires had been set all around it, though its stone walls appeared to have withstood the flames well enough. He saw a few people lying scattered on the steps of the building, sprawled like discarded dolls. There were others lying in the bushes, and still others along the path leading down the hill. Some of them were faintly moving. Most were not.
He looked the other way. On the horizon he saw the towers of a great city. A heavy pall of smoke hung over them, and when he squinted he imagined that he could see tongues of flame coming from the windows of the tallest buildings, although something rational within his mind told him that it was impossible to make out any such detail at so great a distance. That city had to be miles away.
Saro City, he thought suddenly.
Where I work. Where I live.
And I’m Theremon. Yes. Theremon 762. Of the Saro City
He shook his head slowly from side to side, as some wounded animal might have done, trying to clear it of the haze and torpor that infested it. It was maddening, not being able to think properly, not being able to move around freely in the storehouse of his own memories. The brilliant light of the Stars lay like a wall across his mind, cutting him off from his own memories.
But things were beginning to get through. Colored fragments of the past, sharp-edged, shimmering with manic energy, were dancing around and around in his brain. He struggled to make them hold still long enough for him to comprehend them.
The image of a room came to him, then.
room, heaped with papers, magazines, a couple of computer terminals, a box of unanswered mail. Another room: a bed. The small kitchen that he almost never used. This, he thought, is the apartment of Theremon 762, the well-known columnist for the Saro City
Theremon himself is not at home at this time, ladies and gentlemen. At the present moment Theremon is standing outside the ruins of the Saro University Observatory, trying to understand—
Saro University Observatory—
“Siferra?” he called. “Siferra, where are you?”
No answer. He wondered who Siferra was. Someone he must have known before the ruins were ruined, probably. The name had come bubbling up out of the depths of his troubled mind.
He took another few uncertain steps. There was a man lying under a bush a short distance downhill. Theremon went to him. His eyes were closed. He held a burned-out torch in his hand. His robe was torn.
Sleeping? Or was he dead? Theremon prodded him carefully with his foot. Yes, dead. That was strange, all these dead people lying around. You didn’t ordinarily see dead people everywhere like this, did you? And an overturned car over there—it looked dead, too, with its undercarriage turned pathetically toward
the sky, and curls of smoke rising sluggishly from its interior.
“Siferra?” he called again.
Something terrible had happened. That seemed very clear to him, though hardly anything else did. Once again he crouched, and pressed his hands against the sides of his head. The random fragments of memory that had been jigging around in there were moving more slowly now, no longer engaged in a frantic dance: they had begun to float about in a stately fashion, like icebergs drifting in the Great Southern Ocean. If he could only get some of those drifting fragments to come together—force them into a pattern that made a little sense—