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“Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, Part I

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?’ – EMERSON

Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury.

Theremon 762 took that fury in his stride. In his earlier days, when his now widely syndicated column was only a mad idea in a cub reporter’s mind, he had specialized in ‘impossible’ interviews. It had cost him bruises, black eyes, and broken bones; but it had given him an ample supply of coolness and self-confidence. So he lowered the outthrust hand that had been so pointedly ignored and calmly waited for the aged director to get over the worst. Astronomers were queer ducks, anyway, and if Aton’s actions of the last two months meant anything; this same Aton was the queer-duckiest of the lot.

Aton 77 found his voice, and though it trembled with restrained emotion, the careful, somewhat pedantic phraseology, for which the famous astronomer was noted, did not abandon him.

‘Sir,’ he said, ‘you display an infernal gall in coming to me with that impudent proposition of yours.’ The husky telephotographer of the Observatory, Beenay 25, thrust a tongue’s tip across dry lips and interposed nervously, ‘Now, sir, after all –‘

The director turned to him and lifted a white eyebrow.

‘Do not interfere, Beenay. I will credit you with good intentions in bringing this man here; but I will tolerate no insubordination now.’

Theremon decided it was time to take a part. ‘Director Aton, if you’ll let me finish what I started saying, I think –‘

‘I don’t believe, young man,’ retorted Aton, ‘that anything you could say now would count much as compared with your daily columns of these last two months. You have led a vast newspaper campaign against the efforts of myself and my colleagues to organize the world against the menace which it is now too late to avert. You have done your best with your highly personal attacks to make the staff of this Observatory objects of ridicule.’

The director lifted a copy of the Saro City Chronicle from the table and shook it at Theremon furiously. ‘Even a person of your well-known impudence should have hesitated before coming to me with a request that he be allowed to cover today’s events for his paper. Of all newsmen, you!’

Aton dashed the newspaper to the floor, strode to the window, and clasped his arms behind his back.

‘You may leave,’ he snapped over his shoulder. He stared moodily out at the skyline where Gamma, the brightest of the planet’s six suns, was setting. It had already faded and yellowed into the horizon mists, and Aton knew he would never see it again as a sane man. He whirled. ‘No, wait, come here!’ He gestured peremptorily. I’ll give you your story.’

The newsman had made no motion to leave, and now he approached the old man slowly. Aton gestured outward.

‘Of the six suns, only Beta is left in the sky. Do you see it?’

The question was rather unnecessary. Beta was almost at zenith, its ruddy light flooding the landscape to an unusual orange as the brilliant rays of setting Gamma died. Beta was at aphelion. It was small; smaller than Theremon had ever seen it before, and for the moment it was undisputed ruler of Lagash’s sky.

Lagash’s own sun. Alpha, the one about which it revolved, was at the antipodes, as were the two distant companion pairs. The red dwarf Beta — Alpha’s immediate companion — was alone, grimly alone.

Aton’s upturned face flushed redly in the sunlight. ‘In just under four hours,’ he said, ‘civilization, as we know it, comes to an end. It will do so because, as you see. Beta is the only sun in the sky.’ He smiled grimly. ‘Print that! There’ll be no one to read it.’

‘But if it turns out that four hours pass — and another four — and nothing happens?’ asked Theremon softly.

‘Don’t let that worry you. Enough will happen.’

‘Granted! And still — if nothing happens?’

For a second time, Beenay 25 spoke. ‘Sir, I think you ought to listen to him.’

Theremon said, ‘Put it to a vote, Director Aton.’

There was a stir among the remaining five members of the Observatory staff, who till now had maintained an attitude of wary neutrality.

‘That,’ stated Aton flatly, ‘is not necessary.’ He drew out his pocket watch. ‘Since your good friend, Beenay, insists so urgently, I will give you five minutes. Talk away.’

‘Good! Now, just what difference would it make if you allowed me to take down an eyewitness account of what’s to come? If your prediction comes true, my presence won’t hurt; for in that case my column would never be written. On the other hand, if nothing comes of it, you will just have to expect ridicule or worse. It would be wise to leave that ridicule to friendly hands.’

Aton snorted. ‘Do you mean yours when you speak of friendly hands?’

‘Certainly!’ Theremon sat down and crossed his legs.

‘My columns may have been a little rough, but I gave you people the benefit of the doubt every time. After all, this is not the century to preach “The end of the world is at hand” to Lagash. You have to understand that people don’t believe the Book of Revelations anymore, and it annoys them to have scientists turn about-face and tell us the Cultists are right after all –‘

‘No such thing, young man,’ interrupted Aton. ‘While a great deal of our data has been supplied us by the Cult, our results contain none of the Cult’s mysticism. Facts are facts, and the Cult’s so-called mythology has certain facts behind it. We’ve exposed them and ripped away their mystery. I assure you that the Cult hates us now worse than you do.’

‘I don’t hate you. I’m just trying to tell you that the public is in an ugly humor. They’re angry.’

Aton twisted his mouth in derision. ‘Let them be angry.’

‘Yes, but what about tomorrow?’

‘There’ll be no tomorrow!’

‘But if there is. Say that there is — just to see what happens. That anger might take shape into something serious. After all, you know, business has taken a nosedive these last two months. Investors don’t really believe the world is coming to an end, but just the same they’re being cagy with their money until it’s all over. Johnny Public doesn’t believe you, either, but the new spring furniture might just as well wait a few months — just to make sure.

‘You see the point. Just as soon as this is all over, the business interests will be after your hide. They’ll say that if crackpots — begging your pardon — can upset the country’s prosperity any time they want, simply by making some cockeyed prediction — it’s up to the planet to prevent them. The sparks will fly, sir.’

The director regarded the columnist sternly. ‘And just what were you proposing to do to help the situation?’

‘Well’ — Theremon grinned — ‘I was proposing to take charge of the publicity. I can handle things so that only the ridiculous side will show. It would be hard to stand, I admit, because I’d have to make you all out to be a bunch of gibbering idiots, but if I can get people laughing at you, they might forget to be angry. In return for that, all my publisher asks is an exclusive story.’

Beenay nodded and burst out, ‘Sir, the rest of us think he’s right. These last two months we’ve considered everything but the million-to-one chance that there is an error somewhere in our theory or in our calculations. We ought to take care of that, too.’

There was a murmur of agreement from the men grouped about the table, and Aton’s expression became that of one who found his mouth full of something bitter and couldn’t get rid of it.

‘You may stay if you wish, then. You will kindly refrain, however, from hampering us in our duties in any way. You will also remember that I am in charge of all activities here, and in spite of your opinions as expressed in your columns, I will expect full cooperation and full respect — ‘

His hands were behind his back, and his wrinkled face thrust forward determinedly as he spoke. He might have continued indefinitely but for the intrusion of a new voice.

‘Hello, hello, hello!’ It came in a high tenor, and the plump cheeks of the newcomer expanded in a pleased smile. ‘What’s this morgue-like atmosphere about here? No one’s losing his nerve, I hope.’

Aton started in consternation and said peevishly, ‘Now what the devil are you doing here, Sheerin? I thought you were going to stay behind in the Hideout.’

Sheerin laughed and dropped his stubby figure into a chair. ‘Hideout be blowed! 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 want to see these Stars the Cultists are forever speaking 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. Beta doesn’t seem to give any heat at all, at the distance it is.’

The white-haired director ground his teeth in sudden exasperation. ‘Why do you go out of your way to do crazy things, Sheerin? What kind of good are you around here?’

‘What kind of good am I around there?’ Sheerin spread his palms in comical resignation. ‘A psychologist isn’t worth his salt in the Hideout. They need men of action and strong, healthy women that can breed children. Me? I’m a hundred pounds too heavy for a man of action, and I wouldn’t be a success at breeding children. So why bother them with an extra mouth to feed? I feel better over here.’

Theremon spoke briskly. ‘Just what is the Hideout, sir?’

Sheerin seemed to see the columnist for the first time. He frowned and blew his ample cheeks out. ‘And just who in Lagash are you, redhead?’

Aton compressed his lips and then muttered sullenly, ‘That’s Theremon 762, the newspaper fellow. I suppose you’ve heard of him.’

The columnist offered his hand. ‘And, of course, you’re Sheerin 501 of Saro University. I’ve heard of you.’ Then he repeated, ‘What is this Hideout, sir?’

‘Well,’ said Sheerin, ‘we have managed to convince a few people 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. Altogether, they number about three hundred, but three quarters are women and children.’

‘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.’

‘If they can. It won’t be easy. With all of mankind insane, with the great cities going up in flames — environment will not be conducive to survival. But they have food, water, shelter, and weapons –‘

‘They’ve got more,’ said Aton. ‘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 uttered a long, low whistle and sat brooding for several minutes. The men about the table had brought out a multi-chess board and started a six-member game. Moves were made rapidly and in silence. All eyes bent in furious concentration on the board. Theremon watched them intently and then rose and approached Aton, who sat apart in whispered conversation with Sheerin.

‘Listen,’ he said, let’s go somewhere where we won’t bother the rest of the fellows. I want to ask some questions.’

The aged astronomer frowned sourly at him, but Sheerin chirped up, ‘Certainly. It will do me good to talk. It always does. Aton was telling me about your ideas concerning world reaction to a failure of the prediction — and I agree with you. I read your column pretty regularly, by the way, and as a general thing I like your views.’

‘Please, Sheerin,’ growled Aton.

‘Eh? Oh, all right. We’ll go into the next room. It has softer chairs, anyway.’

There were softer chairs in the next room. There were also thick red curtains on the windows and a maroon carpet on the floor. With the bricky light of Beta pouring in, the general effect was one of dried blood.

Theremon shuddered. ‘Say, I’d give ten credits for a decent dose of white light for just a second. I wish Gamma or Delta were in the sky.’

‘What are your questions?’ asked Aton. ‘Please remember that our time is limited. In a little over an hour and a quarter we’re going upstairs, and after that there will be no time for talk.’

‘Well, here it is.’ Theremon leaned back and folded his hands on his chest. ‘You people seem so all-fired serious about this that I’m beginning to believe you. Would you mind explaining what it’s all about?’

Aton exploded, ‘Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you’ve been bombarding us with ridicule without even finding out what we’ve been trying to say?’

The columnist grinned sheepishly. ‘It’s not that bad, sir. I’ve got the general idea. You say there is going to be a world-wide Darkness in a few hours and that all mankind will go violently insane. What I want now is the science behind it.’

‘No, you don’t. No, you don’t,’ broke in Sheerin. ‘If you ask Aton for that — supposing him to be in the mood to answer at all — he’ll trot out pages of figures and volumes of graphs. You won’t make head or tail of it. Now if you were to ask me, I could give you the layman’s standpoint.’

‘All right; I ask you.’

‘Then first I’d like a drink.’ He rubbed his hands and looked at Aton.

‘Water?’ grunted Aton.

‘Don’t be silly!’

‘Don’t you be silly. No alcohol today. It would be too easy to get my men drunk. I can’t afford to tempt them.’

The psychologist grumbled wordlessly. He turned to Theremon, impaled him with his sharp eyes, and began.

‘You realize, of course, that the history of civilization on Lagash displays a cyclic character — but I mean cyclic!’

‘I know,’ replied Theremon cautiously, ‘that that is the current archaeological theory. Has it been accepted as a fact?’

‘Just about. In this last century it’s been generally agreed upon. This cyclic character is — or rather, was — one of the great mysteries. We’ve located series of civilizations, nine of them definitely, and indications of others as well, all of which have reached heights comparable to our own, and all of which, without exception, were destroyed by fire at the very height of their culture.

‘And no one could tell why. All centers of culture were thoroughly gutted by fire, with nothing left behind to give a hint as to the cause.’

Theremon was following closely. ‘Wasn’t there a Stone Age, too?’

‘Probably, but as yet practically nothing is known of it, except that men of that age were little more than rather intelligent apes. We can forget about that.’

‘I see. Go on!’

There have been explanations of these recurrent catastrophes, all of a more or less fantastic nature. Some say that there are periodic rains of fire; some that Lagash passes through a sun every so often; some even wilder things. But there is one theory, quite different from all of these, that has been handed down over a period of centuries.’

‘I know. You mean this myth of the “Stars” that the Cultists have in their Book of Revelations.’

‘Exactly,’ rejoined Sheerin with satisfaction. ‘The Cultists said that every two thousand and fifty years Lagash entered a huge cave, so that all the suns disappeared, and there came total darkness all over the world! And then, they say, things called Stars appeared, which robbed men of their souls and left them unreasoning brutes, so that they destroyed the civilization they themselves had built up. Of course they mix all this up with a lot of religio-mystic notions, but that’s the central idea.’

There was a short pause in which Sheerin drew a long breath. ‘And now we come to the Theory of Universal Gravitation.’ He pronounced the phrase so that the capital letters sounded — and at that point Aton turned from the window, snorted loudly, and stalked out of the room.

The two stared after him, and Theremon said, ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing in particular,’ replied Sheerin. ‘Two of the men were due several hours ago and haven’t shown up yet. He’s terrifically short-handed, of course, because all but the really essential men have gone to the Hideout.’

‘You don’t think the two deserted, do you?’

‘Who? Faro and Yimot? Of course not. Still, if they’re not back within the hour, things would be a little sticky.’ He got to his feet suddenly, and his eyes twinkled. ‘Anyway, as long as Aton is gone –‘

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

‘I thought Aton 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. I’ll keep the bottle.’

And he filled the tiny cup with judicious care. Theremon rose to protest, but Sheerin eyed him sternly.

‘Respect your elders, young man.’

The newsman seated himself with a look of anguish on his face. ‘Go ahead, then, you old villain.’

The psychologist’s Adam’s apple wobbled as the bottle upended, and then, with a satisfied grunt and a smack of the lips, he began again. ‘But what do you know about gravitation?’

‘Nothing, except that it is a very recent development, not too well established, and that the math is so hard that only twelve men in Lagash are supposed to understand it.’

‘Tcha! Nonsense! Baloney! I can give you all the essential math in a sentence. The Law of Universal Gravitation states that there exists a cohesive force among all bodies of the universe, such that the amount of this force between any two given bodies is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them.’

‘Is that all?’

‘That’s enough! It took four hundred years to develop it.’

‘Why that long? It sounded simple enough, the way you said it.’

‘Because great laws are not divined by flashes of inspiration, whatever you may think. It usually takes the combined work of a world full of scientists over a period of centuries. After Genovi 4I discovered that Lagash rotated about the sun Alpha rather than vice versa — and that was four hundred years ago — astronomers have been working. The complex motions of the six suns were recorded and analyzed and unwoven. Theory after theory was advanced and checked and counterchecked and modified and abandoned and revived and converted to something else. It was a devil of a job.’

Theremon nodded thoughtfully and held out his glass for more liquor. Sheerin grudgingly allowed a few ruby drops to leave the bottle.

‘It was twenty years ago,’ he continued after remoistening his own throat, ‘that it was finally demonstrated that the Law of Universal Gravitation accounted exactly for the orbital motions of the six suns. It was a great triumph.’

Sheerin stood up and walked to the window, still clutching his bottle. ‘And now we’re getting to the point. In the last decade, the motions of Lagash about Alpha were computed according to gravity, and it did not account for the orbit observed; not even when all perturbations due to the other suns were included. Either the law was invalid, or there was another, as yet unknown, factor involved.’

Theremon joined Sheerin at the window and gazed out past the wooded slopes 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 short glance at Beta. It glowered redly at zenith, dwarfed and evil.

‘Go ahead, sir,’ he said softly.

Sheerin replied, ‘Astronomers stumbled about for year, each proposed theory more untenable than the one before — until Aton had the inspiration of calling in the Cult. The head of the Cult, Sor 5, had access to certain data that simplified the problem considerably. Aton set to work on a new track.

‘What if there were another nonluminous planetary body such as Lagash? If there were, you know, it would shine only by reflected light, and if it were composed of bluish rock, as Lagash itself largely is, then, in the redness of the sky, the eternal blaze of the suns would make it invisible — drown it out completely.’

Theremon whistled. ‘What a screwy idea!’

‘You think that’s screwy? Listen to this: Suppose this body rotated about Lagash at such a distance and in such an orbit and had such a mass that its attention would exactly account for the deviations of Lagash’s orbit from theory — do you know what would happen?’

The columnist shook his head.

‘Well, sometimes this body would get in the way of a sun.’ And Sheerin emptied what remained in the bottle at a draft.

‘And it does, I suppose,’ said Theremon flatly.

‘Yes! But only one sun lies in its plane of revolution.’ He jerked a thumb at the shrunken sun above. ‘Beta! And it has been shown that the eclipse will occur only when the arrangement of the suns is such that Beta is alone in its hemisphere and at maximum distance, at which time the moon is invariably at minimum distance. The eclipse that results, with the moon seven times the apparent diameter of Beta, covers all of Lagash and lasts well over half a day, so that no spot on the planet escapes the effects. That eclipse comes once every two thousand and forty-nine years.’

Theremon’s face was drawn into an expressionless mask.

‘And that’s my story?’

The psychologist nodded. ‘That’s all of it. First the eclipse — which will start in three quarters of an hour — then universal Darkness and, maybe, these mysterious Stars — then madness, and end of the cycle.’

He brooded. ‘We had two months’ leeway — we at the Observatory — and that wasn’t enough time to persuade Lagash of the danger. Two centuries might not have been enough. But our records are at the Hideout, and today we photograph the eclipse. The next cycle will start off with the truth, and when the next eclipse comes, mankind will at last be ready for it. Come to think of it, that’s part of your story too.’

A thin wind ruffled the curtains at the window as Theremon opened it and leaned out. It played coldly with his hair as he stared at the crimson sunlight on his hand. Then he turned in sudden rebellion.

‘What is there in Darkness to drive me mad?’

Sheerin smiled to himself as he spun the empty liquor bottle with abstracted motions of his hand. ‘Have you ever experienced Darkness, young man?’

The newsman leaned against the wall and considered. ‘No. Can’t say I have. But I know what it is. Just — uh — ‘ He made vague motions with his fingers and then brightened. ‘Just no light. Like in caves.’

‘Have you ever been in a cave?’

‘In a cave! Of course not!’

‘I thought not. I tried last week — just to see — but I got out in a hurry. I went in until the mouth of the cave was just visible as a blur of light, with black everywhere else. I never thought a person my weight could run that fast.’

Theremon’s lip curled. ‘Well, if it comes to that, I guess I wouldn’t have run if I had been there.’

The psychologist studied the young man with an annoyed frown.

‘My, don’t you talk big! I dare you to draw the curtain.’

Theremon looked his surprise and said, ‘What for? If we had four or five suns out there, we might want to cut the light down a bit for comfort, but now we haven’t enough light as it is.’

‘That’s the point. Just draw the curtain; then come here and sit down.’

‘All right.’ Theremon reached for the tasseled string and jerked. The red curtain slid across the wide window, the brass rings hissing their way along the crossbar, and a dusk-red shadow clamped down on the room.

Theremon’s footsteps sounded hollowly in the silence as he made his way to the table, and then they stopped halfway. ‘I can’t see you, sir,’ he whispered.

‘Feel your way,’ ordered Sheerin in a strained voice.

‘But I can’t see you, sir.’ The newsman was breathing harshly. ‘I can’t see anything.’

‘What did you expect?’ came the grim reply. ‘Come here and sit down!’

The footsteps sounded again, waveringly, approaching slowly. There was the sound of someone fumbling with a chair. Theremon’s voice came thinly, ‘Here I am. I feel . . . ulp . . . all right.’

‘You like it, do you?’

‘N — no. It’s pretty awful. The walls seem to be — ‘ He paused. ‘They seem to be closing in on me. I keep wanting to push them away. But I’m not going mad! In fact, the feeling isn’t as bad as it was.’

‘All right. Draw the curtain back again.’

There were cautious footsteps through the dark, the rustle of Theremon’s body against the curtain as he felt for the tassel, and then the triumphant roo-osh of the curtain slithering back. Red light flooded the room, and with a cry of joy Theremon looked up at the sun.

Sheerin wiped the moistness off his forehead with the back of a hand and said shakily, ‘And that was just a dark room.’

‘It can be stood,’ said Theremon lightly.

‘Yes, a dark room can. But were you at the Jonglor Centennial Exposition two years ago?’

‘No, it so happens I never got around to it. Six thousand miles was just a bit too much to travel, even for the exposition.’

‘Well, I was there. You remember hearing about the “Tunnel of Mystery” that broke all records in the amusement area — for the first month or so, anyway?’

‘Yes. Wasn’t there some fuss about it?’

‘Very little. It was hushed up. You see, that Tunnel of Mystery was just a mile-long tunnel — with no lights. You got into a little open car and jolted along through Darkness for fifteen minutes. It was very popular — while it lasted.’


‘Certainly. There’s a fascination in being frightened when it’s part of a game. A baby is born with three instinctive fears: of loud noises, of falling, and of the absence of light. That’s why it’s considered so funny to jump at someone and shout “Boo!” That’s why it’s such fun to ride a roller coaster. And that’s why that Tunnel of Mystery started cleaning up. People came out of that Darkness shaking, breathless, half dead with fear, but they kept on paying to get in.’

‘Wait a while, I remember now. Some people came out dead, didn’t they? There were rumors of that after it shut down.’

The psychologist snorted. ‘Bah! Two or three died. That was nothing! They paid off the families of the dead ones and argued the Jonglor City Council into forgetting it. After all, they said, if people with weak hearts want to go through the tunnel, it was at their own risk — and besides, it wouldn’t happen again. So they put a doctor in the front office and had every customer go through a physical examination before getting into the car. That actually boosted ticket sales.’

‘Well, then?’

‘But you see, there was something else. People sometimes came out in perfect order, except that they refused to go into buildings — any buildings; including palaces, mansions, apartment houses, tenements, cottages, huts, shacks, lean-tos, and tents.’

Theremon looked shocked. ‘You mean they refused to come in out of the open? Where’d they sleep?’

‘In the open.’

‘They should have forced them inside.’

‘Oh, they did, they did. Whereupon these people went into violent hysterics and did their best to bat their brains out against the nearest wall. Once you got them inside, you couldn’t keep them there without a strait jacket or a heavy dose of tranquilizer.’

‘They must have been crazy.’

‘Which is exactly what they were. One person out of every ten who went into that tunnel came out that way. They called in the psychologists, and we did the only thing possible. We closed down the exhibit.’ He spread his hands.

‘What was the matter with these people?’ asked Theremon finally.

‘Essentially the same thing that was the matter with you when you thought the walls of the room were crushing in on you in the dark. There is a psychological term for mankind’s instinctive fear of the absence of light. We call it “claustrophobia”, because the lack of light is always tied up with enclosed places, so that fear of one is fear of the other. You see?’

‘And those people of the tunnel?’

‘Those people of the tunnel consisted of those unfortunates whose mentality did not quite possess the resiliency to overcome the claustrophobia that overtook them in the Darkness. Fifteen minutes without light is a long time; you only had two or three minutes, and I believe you were fairly upset.

‘The people of the tunnel had what is called a “claustrophobic fixation”. Their latent fear of Darkness and enclosed places had crystalized and become active, and, as far as we can tell, permanent. That’s what fifteen minutes in the dark will do.’

There was a long silence, and Theremon’s forehead wrinkled slowly into a frown. ‘I don’t believe it’s that bad.’

‘You mean you don’t want to believe,’ snapped Sheerin. ‘You’re afraid to believe. Look out the window!’

Theremon did so, and the psychologist continued without pausing. ‘Imagine Darkness — everywhere. No light, as far as you can see. The houses, the trees, the fields, the earth, the sky — black! And Stars thrown in, for all I know — whatever they are. Can you conceive it?’

‘Yes, I can,’ declared Theremon truculently.

And Sheerin slammed his fist down upon the table in sudden passion. ‘You lie! You can’t conceive that. Your brain wasn’t built for the conception any more than it was built for the conception of infinity or of eternity. You can only talk about it. A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad, completely and permanently! There is no question of it!’

He added sadly, ‘And another couple of millennia of painful struggle comes to nothing. Tomorrow there won’t be a city standing unharmed in all Lagash.’

Theremon recovered part of his mental equilibrium. ‘That doesn’t follow. I still don’t see that I can go loony just because there isn’t a sun in the sky — but even if I did, and everyone else did, how does that harm the cities? Are we going to blow them down?’

But Sheerin was angry, too. ‘If you were in Darkness, what would you want more than anything else; what would it be that every instinct would call for? Light, damn you, light!’


‘And how would you get light?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Theremon flatly.

‘What’s the only way to get light, short of a sun?’

‘How should I know?’

They were standing face to face and nose to nose.

Sheerin said, ‘You burn something, mister. 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 know that. And when it’s dark they want light, and they’re going to get it.’

‘So they burn wood?’

‘So they burn whatever they can get. They’ve got to have light. They’ve got to burn something, and wood isn’t handy — so they’ll burn whatever is nearest. They’ll have their light — and every center of habitation goes up in flames!’

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, and he scarcely noted the sudden hubbub that came from the adjoining room behind the closed door.

Sheerin spoke, and it was with an effort that he made it sound matter-of-fact. ‘I think I heard Yimot’s voice. He and Faro are probably back. 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.

The room was in an uproar, with members of the staff clustering about two young men who were removing outer garments even as they parried the miscellany of questions being thrown at them.

Aton hustled through the crowd and faced the newcomers angrily. ‘Do you realize that it’s less than half an hour before deadline? Where have you two been?’

Faro 24 seated himself and rubbed his hands. His cheeks were red with the outdoor chill. ‘Yimot and I have just finished carrying through a little crazy experiment of our own. We’ve been trying to see if we couldn’t construct an arrangement by which we could simulate the appearance of Darkness and Stars so as to get an advance notion as to how it looked.’

There was a confused murmur from the listeners, and a sudden look of interest entered Aton’s eyes. ‘There wasn’t anything said of this before. How did you go about it?’

‘Well,’ said Faro, ‘the idea came to Yimot and myself long ago, and we’ve been working it out in our spare time. Yimot knew of a low one-story house down in the city with a domed roof — it had once been used as a museum, I think. Anyway, we bought it — ‘

‘Where did you get the money?’ interrupted Aton peremptorily.

‘Our bank accounts,’ grunted Yimot 70. ‘It cost two thousand credits.’ Then, defensively, ‘Well, what of it? Tomorrow, two thousand credits will be two thousand pieces of paper. That’s all.’

‘Sure.’ agreed Faro. ‘We bought the place and rigged it up with black velvet from top to bottom so as to get as perfect a Darkness as possible. Then we punched tiny holes in the ceiling and through the roof and covered them with little metal caps, all of which could be shoved aside simultaneously at the close of a switch. At least we didn’t do that part ourselves; we got a carpenter and an electrician and some others — money didn’t count. The point was that we could get the light to shine through those holes in the roof, so that we could get a starlike effect.’

Not a breath was drawn during the pause that followed. Aton said stiffly, ‘You had no right to make a private — ‘

Faro seemed abashed. ‘I know, sir — but frankly, Yimot and I thought the experiment was a little dangerous. If the effect really worked, we half expected to go mad — from what Sheerin says about all this, we thought that would be rather likely. We wanted to take the risk ourselves. Of course if we found we could retain sanity, it occurred to us that we might develop immunity to the real thing, and then expose the rest of you the same way. But things didn’t work out at all –‘

‘Why, what happened?’

It was Yimot who answered. ‘We shut ourselves in and allowed our eyes to get accustomed to the dark. It’s an extremely creepy feeling because the total Darkness makes you feel as if the walls and ceiling are crushing in on you. But we got over that and pulled the switch. The caps fell away and the roof glittered all over with little dots of light –‘


‘Well — nothing. That was the whacky part of it. Nothing happened. It was just a roof with holes in it, and that’s just what it looked like. We tried it over and over again — that’s what kept us so late — but there just isn’t any effect at all.’

There followed a shocked silence, and all eyes turned to Sheerin, who sat motionless, mouth open.

Theremon was the first to speak. ‘You know what this does to this whole theory you’ve built up, Sheerin, don’t you?’ He was grinning with relief.

But Sheerin raised his hand. ‘Now wait a while. Just let me think this through.’ And then he snapped his fingers, and when he lifted his head there was neither surprise nor uncertainty in his eyes. ‘Of course –‘

He never finished. From somewhere up above there sounded a sharp clang, and Beenay, starting to his feet, dashed up the stairs with a ‘What the devil!’

The rest followed after.

Part II