Read Nightfall Online

Authors: Isaac Asimov,Robert Silverberg

Tags: #Retail, #Personal

Nightfall (4 page)

“Lunch, yes,” Sheerin said halfheartedly. To his own surprise he felt almost no appetite at all. He could scarcely remember a time when he had felt that way. “And he’s one of your strongest ones?”

“One of the most stable, yes.”

“What are the others like, then?”

“Some are completely catatonic. Others need sedation at least half the time. In the first stage, as I said, they don’t want to come in out of the open. When they emerged from the Tunnel they seemed to be in perfect order, you understand, except that they had developed instant claustrophobia. They would refuse to go into buildings—any buildings, including palaces, mansions, apartment houses, tenements, huts, shacks, lean-tos, and tents.”

Sheerin felt a profound sense of shock. He had done his doctoral work in darkness-induced disorders. That was why they had asked him to come here. But he had never heard of anything as extreme as this. “They wouldn’t go indoors at all? Where’d they sleep?”

“In the open.”

“Did anyone try to
force
them inside?”

“Oh, they did, of course they did. Whereupon these people went into violent hysterics. Some of them even became suicidal—they’d run up to a wall and hit their heads against it, things like that. Once you did get them inside, you couldn’t keep them there without a straitjacket and a good stiff injection of some strong sedative.”

Sheerin looked at the big longshoreman, who was sleeping now, and shook his head.

“The poor devils.”

“That was the first phase. Harrim’s in the second phase now, the claustrophilic one. He’s adapted to being here, and the whole syndrome has swung completely around. He knows that it’s safe in the hospital: bright lights all the time. But even though he can see the suns shining through the window he’s afraid to go
outside.
He thinks it’s dark out there.”

“But that’s absurd,” Sheerin said. “It’s
never
dark out there.”

The instant he said it, he felt like a fool.

Kelaritan rubbed it in all the same, though. “We all realize that, Dr. Sheerin. Any sane person does. But the trouble with
the people who have undergone trauma in the Tunnel of Mystery is that they are no longer sane.”

“Yes. So I gather,” said Sheerin shamefacedly.

“You can meet some of our other patients later today,” Kelaritan said. “Perhaps they’ll provide you with some other perspectives on the problem. And then tomorrow we’ll take you over to see the Tunnel itself. We have it closed down, of course, now that we know the difficulties, but the city fathers are very eager to find some way to reopen it. The investment, I understand, was immense. But we should have lunch first, yes, Doctor?”

“Lunch, yes,” said Sheerin once again, even less enthusiastically than before.

[4]

The great dome of the Saro University Observatory, rising majestically to dominate the forested slopes of Observatory Mount, glinted brilliantly in the light of late afternoon. The small red orb of Dovim had already slipped beyond the horizon, but Onos was still high in the west, and Trey and Patru, crossing the eastern sky on a sharp diagonal, etched shining trails of brightness along the dome’s immense face.

Beenay 25, a slender, agile young man with a quick, alert way of carrying himself, darted briskly about the small apartment below the Observatory in Saro City that he shared with his contract-mate, Raissta 717, gathering his books and papers together.

Raissta, sprawled comfortably on the worn green upholstery of their little couch, looked up and frowned.

“Going somewhere, Beenay?”

“To the Observatory.”

“It’s so
early
, though. You usually don’t go there until after Onos sets. And that won’t be for hours yet.”

“I’ve got an appointment today, Raissta.”

She gave him a warm, seductive look. They were both graduate students in their late twenties, each an assistant professor, he in astronomy, she in biology, and they had been contractmates
only seven months. Their relationship was still in its first bloom of excitement. But problems had already arisen. He did his work in the late hours, when usually only a few of the lesser suns were in the sky. She was at her freshest and best in the period of high daylight, under the golden glow of bright Onos.

Lately he had spent more and more time at the Observatory, and it was getting so that they were almost never awake at the same time. Beenay knew how trying that was for her. It was trying for
him.
All the same, the work he was doing on Kalgash’s orbit was demanding stuff, and it was leading him into ever more difficult regions that he found both challenging and frightening. If only Raissta would be patient just another few weeks—a month or two, maybe—

“Can’t you stay here a little while longer this evening?” she asked.

His heart sank. Raissta was giving him her come-here-and-let’s-play look. Not easy to resist, nor did he really want to. But Yimot and Faro would be waiting.

“I told you. I have an—”

“—appointment, yes. Well, so do I. With you.”

“Me?”

“You said yesterday you might have some free time this afternoon. I was counting on that, you know. I cleared a whole swatch of free time of my own—did my lab work in the morning, as a matter of fact, just so—”

Worse and worse, Beenay thought. He did remember saying something about this afternoon, completely overlooking the fact that he had arranged to meet the two younger students.

She was pouting now, and somehow smiling at the same time, a trick that she managed to perfection. Beenay wanted to forget all about Faro and Yimot and go to her right away. But if he did that, he might be an hour late for his appointment with them, which wasn’t fair.
Two
hours, maybe.

And he had to admit to himself that he was desperately eager to know whether their calculations had confirmed his own.

It was practically an even struggle: the powerful appeal of Raissta on the one hand, and the desire to put his mind at rest concerning a major scientific issue on the other. And though he had an obligation to be on time for his appointment, Beenay realized in some confusion that he had made an appointment of
sorts with Raissta too—and that was a matter not only of obligation but of delight.

“Look,” he said, going to the couch and taking her hand in his. “I can’t be in two places at once, okay? And when I told you what I did yesterday, it had slipped my mind that Faro and Yimot would be coming to the Observatory to see me. But I’ll make a deal with you. Let me get up there and take care of the thing with them, and then I’ll skip out and be back here a couple of hours from now. How does that sound?”

“You’re supposed to be photographing those asteroids this evening,” she said, pouting again, and not smiling at all this time.

“Damn! Well, I’ll ask Thilanda to do the camera work for me, or Hikkinan. Or somebody. I’ll be back by Onos-set, that’s a promise.”

“A promise?”

He squeezed her hand and gave her a quick sly grin. “One that I’ll actually keep. You can bet on that. Okay? You aren’t angry?”

“Well—”

“I’ll get Faro and Yimot out of the way as fast as I can.”

“You’d better.” As he began to assemble his papers again she said, “What
is
this business with Faro and Yimot that’s so terribly important, anyway?”

“Lab work. Gravitational studies.”

“Doesn’t sound all that important to me, I have to say.”

“I hope it turns out not to be important to anybody,” Beenay replied. “But that’s something I need to find out right now.”

“I wish I knew what you were talking about.”

He glanced at his watch and took a deep breath. He could stay here another minute or two, he supposed. “You know I’ve been working lately on the problem of the orbital motion of Kalgash around Onos, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“All right. A couple of weeks ago I turned up an anomaly. My orbital numbers didn’t fit the Theory of Universal Gravitation. So I checked them, naturally, but they came out the same way the second time. And the third. And the fourth. Always the same anomaly, no matter what method of calculation I used.”

“Oh, Beenay, I’m so very sorry to hear that. You’ve worked so hard on this, I know, and to discover that your conclusions aren’t right—”

“What if they are, though?”

“But you said—”

“I don’t know if my math is right or wrong, at this point. As far as I can tell it is, but it doesn’t seem conceivable that that can be so. I’ve checked and checked and checked, and I get the same result each time, with all sorts of cross-checks built in to tell me that I haven’t made an error in computation. But the result that I’m getting is an impossible one. The only explanation I can come up with is that I’m starting from a cockeyed assumption and doing everything else right from then on, in which case I’m going to come up with the same wrong answer no matter which method of checking my calculations I use. I might just be blind to a fundamental problem at the base of my whole set of postulates. If you start with the wrong figure for planetary mass, for instance, you’ll get the wrong orbit for your planet no matter how accurate the rest of your calculations may be. Are you following me?”

“So far, yes.”

“Therefore I’ve given the problem to Faro and Yimot, without really telling them what it’s all about, and asked them to calculate the whole thing from scratch. They’re bright kids. I can count on them to do decent math. And if they end up with the same conclusion I did, even though they’re coming at it from an angle that completely excludes whatever error I might have built into my own line of reasoning, then I’ll have to admit that my figures are right after all.”

“But they can’t be right, Beenay. Didn’t you say that your findings are contrary to the Universal Law of Gravitation?”

“What if the Universal Law is wrong, Raissta?”

“What? What?”

She stared at him. There was utter bewilderment in her eyes.

“You see the problem?” Beenay asked. “Why I need to know right away what Yimot and Faro have found?”

“No,” she said. “No, I don’t understand at all.”

“We can talk about it later. I promise.”

“Beenay—” Half in despair.

“I’ve got to go. But I’ll be back as fast as I can. It’s a promise, Raissta! A promise!”

[5]

Siferra paused only long enough to snatch a pick and a brush from the equipment tent, which had been knocked askew by the sandstorm but was still reasonably intact. Then she went scrambling up the side of the Hill of Thombo, with Balik ponderously hauling himself right behind her. Young Eilis 18 had appeared from the shelter by the cliff now, and he stood below, staring up at them. Thuvvik and his corps of workmen were a little farther back, watching, scratching their heads in puzzlement.

“Watch out,” Siferra called to Balik, when she had reached the beginning of the open gouge in the hill that the sandstorm had carved. “I’m going to run a trial cut.”

“Shouldn’t we photograph it first, and—”

“I told you to watch out,” she said sharply, as she dug her pick into the hillside and sent a shower of loose soil tumbling down onto his head and shoulders.

He jumped aside, spitting out sand.

“Sorry,” she said, without looking down. She cut into the hillside a second time, widening the storm gouge. It wasn’t the best of technique, she knew, to be slashing away like this. Her mentor, grand old Shelbik, was probably whirling in his grave. And the founder of their science, the revered Galdo 221, no doubt was looking down from his exalted place in the pantheon of archaeologists and shaking his head sadly.

On the other hand, Shelbik and Galdo had had chances of their own to uncover whatever lay in the Hill of Thombo, and they hadn’t done it. If she was a little too excited now, a little too hasty in her attack, well, they would simply have to forgive her. Now that the seeming calamity of the sandstorm had been transformed into serendipitous good fortune, now that the apparent ruination of her career had turned unexpectedly into
the making of it, Siferra could not hold herself back from finding out what was buried here. Could not. Absolutely could not.

“Look—” she muttered, knocking a great mass of overburden away and going to work with her brush. “We’ve got a charred layer here, right at the foundation level of the cyclopean city. The place must have burned clear down to the stone. But you look a little lower on the hill and you can see that the cross-hatch-style town is sitting right under the fire line—the cyclopean people simply plunked this whole monumental foundation down on top of the older city—”

“Siferra—” said Balik uneasily.

“I know, I know. But let me at least begin to see what’s here. Just a quick probe now, and then we can go back to doing things the proper way.” She felt as though she were perspiring from head to toe. Her eyes were starting to ache, so fiercely was she staring. “Look, will you? We’re way up on top of the hill, and we’ve already got two towns. And it’s my guess that if we unzip the mound a little further, someplace around where we’d expect to find the foundations of the crosshatch people, we’ll—yes!
Yes!
There! By Darkness, will you look at that, Balik! Just look!”

She pointed triumphantly with the tip of her pick.

Another dark line of charcoal was apparent, near the foundations of the crosshatch-style building. The second highest level had also been destroyed by fire just as the cyclopean one had. And from the way things looked, it was sitting atop the ruins of an even older village.

Balik now had caught her fervor too. Together they worked to lay bare the outer face of the hill, midway between ground level and the shattered summit. Eilis called up to them to ask what on Kalgash they were doing, but they ignored him. Aflame with eagerness and curiosity, they cut swiftly through the ancient packing of windblown sand, moving three inches farther down the hill, six, eight—

“Do you see what I see?” Siferra cried, after a time.

“Another village, yes. But what kind of style of architecture is that, would you say?”

She shrugged. “It’s a new one on me.”

“And me too. Something very archaic, that’s for sure.”

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