Isaak Asimov. Nightfall

 Title: Nightfall
 Author: Isaak Asimov
 Original copyright year: 1941
 Genre: science fiction
 Date of e-text: September 12, 1999
 Prepared by: Ken

                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?'

     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 -- it 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 aboutface 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
     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
     '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,
     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
     '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  if 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
     '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
     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
     '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,
     '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
     '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
     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 bum 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 bum 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
     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
     The rest followed after.
     Things happened quickly. Once up in the dome, Beenay cast one horrified
glance at  the  shattered  photographic plates and at the  man  bending over
them; and then hurled himself fiercely at the intruder, getting a death grip
on his throat. There was a wild threshing, and as others of the staff joined
in, the stranger was swallowed up and smothered under  the weight of half  a
dozen angry men.
     Aton came up last, breathing heavily. 'Let him up!'
     There was  a reluctant unscrambling  and the stranger, panting harshly,
with his clothes torn and his  forehead  bruised, was hauled to his feet. He
had a short  yellow beard  curled elaborately  in the  style affected by the
Cultists. Beenay  shifted  his  hold  to  a  collar  grip and  shook the man
savagely. 'All right, rat, what's the idea? These plates -- '
     'I wasn't  after  them,' retorted  the  Cultist  coldly. 'That  was  an
     Beenay followed his glowering stare and snarled, 'I see. You were after
the cameras themselves. The  accident  with  the plates was a stroke of luck
for you, then. If you had touched  Snapping Bertha or any of the others, you
would have died by slow torture. As it is -- ' He drew his fist back.
     Aton grabbed his sleeve. 'Stop that! Let him go!'
     The  young technician  wavered, and  his arm dropped  reluctantly. Aton
pushed him aside and confronted the Cultist. 'You're Latimer, aren't you?'
     The Cultist bowed stiffly  and indicated the symbol upon  his hip. I am
Latimer 25, adjutant of the third class to his serenity, Sor 5.'
     'And'  -- Aton's white  eyebrows lifted -- 'you were with his  serenity
when he visited me last week, weren't you?'
     Latimer bowed a second time.
     'Now, then, what do you want?'
     'Nothing that you would give me of your own free will.'
     'Sor 5 sent you, I suppose -- or is this your own idea?'
     'I won't answer that question.'
     'Will there be any further visitors?'
     'I won't answer that, either.'
     Aton glanced at his timepiece and scowled.  'Now,  man, what is it your
master wants of me? I have fulfilled my end of the bargain.'
     Latimer smiled faintly, but said nothing.
     'I asked  him,' continued  Aton angrily, 'for data  only the Cult could
supply, and it was given to me. For that, thank you. In return I promised to
prove the essential truth of the creed of the Cult.'
     'There  was no  need  to prove that,' came the proud  retort. It stands
proven by the Book of Revelations.'
     'For  the  handful  that  constitute  the  Cult, yes. Don't  pretend to
mistake  my meaning.  I offered  to  present  scientific  backing  for  your
beliefs. And I did!'
     The Cultist's eyes  narrowed  bitterly. 'Yes, you did  --  with a fox's
subtlety, for your pretended explanation backed our beliefs, and at the same
time removed all  necessity for them. You made  of  the Darkness and  of the
Stars a natural phenomenon and removed  all  its real significance. That was
     'If so, the fault isn't mine. The facts exist.  What can I do but state
     'Your "facts" are a fraud and a delusion.'
     Aton stamped angrily. 'How do you know?'
     And the answer came with the certainty of absolute faith. 'I know!'
     The  director purpled  and Beenay  whispered  urgently.  Aton waved him
silent. 'And what does Sor 5 want us to do? He still thinks. I suppose, that
in trying to warn the world  to take measures against the menace of madness,
we are placing  innumerable souls in jeopardy. We aren't succeeding, if that
means anything to him.'
     'The attempt itself has  done harm enough,  and your  vicious effort to
gain information  by means of your devilish instruments must be  stopped. We
obey the will of  the Stars, and I only regret that  my clumsiness prevented
me from wrecking your infernal devices.'
     'It wouldn't  have  done  you too much good,'  returned Aton.  'All our
data,  except for the direct  evidence we intend  collecting right  now,  is
already  safely  cached  and  well beyond  possibility  of harm.'  He smiled
grimly. 'But  that  does  not affect  your  present  status as an  attempted
burglar and criminal.'
     He  turned to the  men behind  him. 'Someone  call  the police  at Saro
     There was a cry of distaste from  Sheerin. 'Damn it, Aton, what's wrong
with you? There's no time for that.  Here' -- he  hustled his way forward --
'let me handle this.'
     Aton stared down his  nose at the psychologist.  'This  is not the time
for  your  monkeyshines, Sheerin. Will you please let me handle this my  own
way? Right now you are a complete outsider here, and don't forget it.'
     Sheerin's mouth  twisted  eloquently. 'Now  why  should  we go  to  the
impossible trouble of calling the police -- with Beta's eclipse  a matter of
minutes from  now -- when this young man here is perfectly willing to pledge
his word of honor to remain and cause no trouble whatsoever?'
     The Cultist answered promptly, 'I will do no such thing. You're free to
do what you  want, but it's only fair to warn you that just as soon as I get
my chance I'm going to finish what I came out here to do. If it's my word of
honor you're relying on, you'd better call the police.'
     Sheerin smiled in a friendly fashion. 'You're a determined cuss, aren't
you? Well, I'll explain something. Do you see  that young man at the window?
He's  a  strong, husky fellow,  quite  handy  with  his  fists, and  he's an
outsider besides. Once the  eclipse starts there will be nothing for  him to
do except keep an eye on you. Besides him, there will be  myself -- a little
too stout for active fisticuffs, but still able to help.'
     'Well, what of it?' demanded Latimer frozenly.
     'Listen and I'll tell you,' was the reply. 'Just as soon as the eclipse
starts, we're going to take you, Theremon and I, and deposit you in a little
closet with one door, to which is attached one giant  lock  and  no windows.
You will remain there for the duration.'
     'And afterward,' breathed Latimer fiercely, 'there'll be no  one to let
me  out. I know  as well as you do what  the coming of the Stars means --  I
know it far better than you. With all your minds gone, you are not likely to
free  me. Suffocation  or slow  starvation, is it? About what I  might  have
expected from a group of scientists. But I don't give my word. It's a matter
of principle, and I won't discuss it further.'
     Aton seemed perturbed. His faded eyes were troubled.
     'Really, Sheerin, locking him -- '
     'Please!' Sheerin motioned  him impatiently to silence. 'I don't  think
for a moment things will go that far. Latimer has just tried a clever little
bluff,  but  I'm not a  psychologist just  because I like  the  sound of the
word.'  He grinned  at the  Cultist. 'Come now,  you don't really think  I'm
trying anything as crude as slow starvation. My  dear Latimer, if I lock you
in the closet, you are not going to see the Darkness, and you are not  going
to see the Stars. It does not take  much knowledge of the fundamental  creed
of the Cult to realize  that for you to be hidden from  the Stars  when they
appear means  the loss of  your  immortal  soul. Now, I believe you to be an
honorable man. I'll accept your word of honor  to make no  further effort to
disrupt proceedings, if you'll offer it.'
     A vein throbbed in Latimer's  temple,  and he  seemed to shrink  within
himself  as  he said thickly,  'You  have it!' And then he added  with swift
fury. 'But it is my  consolation that you will all be damned for  your deeds
of today.' He turned on his heel  and stalked to the high three-legged stool
by the door.
     Sheerin nodded to the columnist. 'Take a seat  next to him, Theremon --
just as a formality. Hey, Theremon!'
     But the newspaperman didn't move. He had gone  pale to the  lips. 'Look
at that!' The finger he pointed toward the sky  shook, and his voice was dry
and cracked.
     There  was one simultaneous gasp  as  every eye  followed the  pointing
finger and, for one breathless moment, stared frozenly.
     Beta was chipped on one side!
     The tiny bit  of  encroaching  blackness was  perhaps the  width  of  a
fingernail, but to the staring  watchers it magnified  itself into the crack
of doom.
     Only for  a  moment they watched, and after that there was  a shrieking
confusion that was even shorter of duration and which gave way to an orderly
scurry of activity -- each man at his prescribed job. At the crucial  moment
there was no time for emotion. The  men were merely scientists  with work to
do. Even Aton had melted away.
     Sheerin  said prosaically.  'First  contact must have been made fifteen
minutes  ago. A little early, but pretty good considering the  uncertainties
involved  in  the  calculation.' He looked  about  him  and  then tiptoed to
Theremon, who  still remained staring  out  the window, and dragged him away
     'Aton is furious,' he whispered, 'so stay away. He missed first contact
on account of  this fuss with  Latimer, and if you get in his way he'll have
you thrown out the window.'
     Theremon  nodded  shortly and sat down. Sheerin  stared in  surprise at
     'The devil, man,' he exclaimed, 'you're shaking.'
     'Eh?' Theremon licked  dry lips and then tried  to smile. 'I don't feel
very well, and that's a fact.'
     The psychologist's eyes hardened. 'You're not losing your nerve?'
     'No!' cried Theremon in a flash of indignation. 'Give me a chance, will
you?  I  haven't  really believed  this rigmarole  -- not way down  beneath,
anyway -- till just this minute. Give me  a chance to get used to  the idea.
You've been preparing yourself for two months or more.'
     'You're right, at that,'  replied Sheerin  thoughtfully.  'Listen! Have
you got a family -- parents, wife, children?'
     Theremon  shook his  head.  'You mean the Hideout,  I suppose. No,  you
don't  have  to worry about  that. I have a sister, but  she's two  thousand
miles away. I don't even know her exact address.'
     'Well,  then, what  about yourself? You've got time to  get there,  and
they're one short anyway,  since  I left. After all, you're not needed here,
and you'd make a darned fine addition -- '
     Theremon  looked at  the  other  wearily. 'You  think I'm scared stiff,
don't you? Well, get this, mister. I'm a newspaperman and I've been assigned
to cover a story. I intend covering it.'
     There   was  a  faint  smile  on  the  psychologist's  face.  'I   see.
Professional honor, is that it?'
     'You might call it that. But, man.  I'd give my right  arm for  another
bottle  of that sockeroo juice even half the size of the one you  bogged. If
ever a fellow needed a drink, I do.'
     He  broke  off. Sheerin was nudging him  violently.  'Do you hear that?
     Theremon followed the motion of the  other's  chin  and  stared at  the
Cultist, who, oblivious to all about  him, faced the  window, a look of wild
elation on his face, droning to himself the while in singsong fashion.
     'What's he saying?' whispered the columnist.
     'He's  quoting  Book of Revelations, fifth chapter,'  replied  Sheerin.
Then, urgently, 'Keep quiet and listen, I tell you.'
     The Cultist's voice had risen in a sudden increase of fervor: ' "And it
came to pass  that in those days  the Sun, Beta, held lone vigil in  the sky
for ever  longer periods  asthe  revolutions passed; until such time  as for
full half a revolution, it alone, shrunken and cold, shone down upon Lagash.
     ' "And  men  did assemble  in  the public  squares and in the highways,
there to debate  and to marvel  at the sight, for  a strange depression  had
seized  them. Their minds  were troubled and their speech confused,  for the
souls of men awaited the coming of the Stars.
     ' "And  in the  city of Trigon, at high noon,  Vendret 2 came forth and
said unto the men of Trigon, 'Lo, ye sinners! Though  ye  scorn the ways  of
righteousness, yet  will  the time  of reckoning  come.  Even now  the  Cave
approaches to swallow Lagash; yea, and all it contains.'
     ' "And even as he spoke the lip of the Cave of Darkness passed the edge
of Beta so that to all  Lagash it was hidden from sight. Loud were the cries
of men as it vanished, and great the fear of soul that fell upon them.
     ' "It  came to pass that the Darkness of the Cave fell upon Lagash, and
there  was no  light on all the surface of Lagash. Men were even as blinded,
nor could one man see his neighbor, though he felt his breath upon his face.
     '  "And  in  this  blackness  there  appeared the  Stars, in  countless
numbers, and to the strains  of music of such beauty that the very leaves of
the trees cried out in wonder.
     '  "And in that moment the souls  of men  departed from them, and their
abandoned bodies became even as  beasts; yea, even as brutes of the wild; so
that through the blackened streets of the cities of Lagash they prowled with
wild cries.
     ' "From the Stars there then reached down the Heavenly Flame, and where
it touched, the cities of Lagash flamed to utter destruction, so that of man
and of the works of man nought remained.
     'Even then -- " '
     There was  a subtle change in Latimer's tone. His eyes had not shifted,
but somehow he had become aware of the absorbed attention of  the other two.
Easily, without pausing for breath, the  timbre of his voice shifted and the
syllables became more liquid.
     Theremon, caught by surprise, stared. The words seemed on the border of
familiarity.  There was an elusive shift in the accent, a tiny change in the
vowel  stress;   nothing   more  --  yet   Latimer  had  become   thoroughly
     Sheerin  smiled slyly.  'He shifted to some old-cycle  tongue, probably
their traditional second  cycle.  That was the language in which the Book of
Revelations was originally written, you know.'
     'It doesn't matter;  I've heard enough.' Theremon shoved his chair back
and  brushed  his hair back with hands  that no longer  shook.  'I feel much
better now.'
     'You do?' Sheerin seemed mildly surprised.
     'I'll say  I  do. I had  a bad  case  of jitters  just  a  while  back.
Listening to you and  your gravitation and seeing that eclipse start  almost
finished  me.  But  this'  --   he  jerked  a  contemptuous   thumb  at  the
yellow-bearded Cultist -- 'this is  the sort of thing my  nurse used to tell
me. I've been laughing  at that sort of thing all  my life. I'm not going to
let it scare me now.'
     He drew  a deep breath and said with a hectic  gaiety, 'But if I expect
to keep on the good side of myself. I'm going to turn my chair away from the
     Sheerin said,  'Yes, but you'd better  talk lower. Aton just lifted his
head out of that box he's got it stuck into and gave you a look  that should
have killed you.'
     Theremon made a mouth. 'I forgot about  the old fellow.' With elaborate
care he turned the chair from the window, cast one distasteful look over his
shoulder, and said,  'It  has occurred to me that there must be considerable
immunity against this Star madness.'
     The psychologist did  not answer  immediately. Beta was past its zenith
now,  and the  square  of bloody sunlight  that outlined the window upon the
floor  had  lifted  into  Sheerin's  lap.  He  stared  at  its  dusky  color
thoughtfully and then bent and squinted into the sun itself.
     The chip in its side had grown to a black encroachment  that  covered a
third of Beta.  He shuddered, and when he straightened once more  his florid
cheeks did not contain quite as much color as they had had previously.
     With  a smile that was  almost apologetic, he reversed his chair  also.
'There  are probably two million people in Saro City that are all trying  to
join the Cult  at once in one gigantic revival.' Then, ironically. 'The Cult
is in for an hour of unexampled prosperity. I trust they'll make the most of
it. Now, what was it you said?'
     'Just this. How did the Cultists manage to keep the Book of Revelations
going from cycle to cycle, and how on Lagash did it get written in the first
place? There must have been  some sort of immunity, for if everyone had gone
mad, who would be left to write the book?'
     Sheerin stared at his questioner ruefully. 'Well, now, young man, there
isn't any eyewitness answer to that, but we've got a few damned good notions
as to  what happened. You  see.  there are  three kinds of people  who might
remain relatively unaffected. First, the very few who don't see the Stars at
all: the  seriously retarded or those who drink themselves into a  stupor at
the beginning of the eclipse and  remain so to the end. We leave them out --
because they aren't really witnesses.
     'Then there are children below six, to whom the world as a whole is too
new  and strange for  them to be too frightened at Stars and  Darkness. They
would be just another item  in an  already  surprising world.  You see that,
don't you?'
     The other nodded doubtfully. 'I suppose so.'
     'Lastly, there are those  whose minds  are  too coarsely  grained to be
entirely toppled.  The very insensitive would be  scarcely  affected --  oh,
such  people as some of  our older, work-broken peasants. Well, the children
would  have  fugitive  memories,  and  that,  combined  with  the  confused,
incoherent babblings of the half-mad morons,  formed  the basis for the Book
of Revelations.
     'Naturally, the book was based, in the first place, on the testimony of
those least  qualified to serve as historians; that is, children and morons;
and was probably edited and re-edited through the cycles.'
     'Do  you suppose,'  broke in  Theremon,  'that  they  carried the  book
through  the cycles  the  way we're planning on handing  on  the  secret  of
     Sheerin shrugged. 'Perhaps, but their exact method is unimportant. They
do it, somehow. The point I was getting at  was that the book can't help but
be a mass of distortion, even if it is based on fact.  For instance,  do you
remember the experiment with the holes in the roof that Faro and Yimot tried
-- the one that didn't work?'
     'You know why it didn't w -- '  He stopped and rose in alarm, for  Aton
was  approaching,  his  face   a  twisted  mask  of  consternation.  'What's
     Aton drew  him  aside  and Sheerin could feel the  fingers on his elbow
     'Not so loud!' Aton's  voice was low  and  tortured. 'I've just  gotten
word from the Hideout on the private line.'
     Sheerin broke in anxiously. 'They are in trouble?'
     'Not  they.' Aton  stressed  the  pronoun significantly.  'They  sealed
themselves off just  a while ago, and they're going to stay buried  till day
after tomorrow. They're safe. But the  city. Sheerin -- it's a shambles. You
have no idea -- ' He was having difficulty in speaking.
     'Well?' snapped  Sheerin  impatiently. 'What of it? It will  get worse.
What are you shaking about?' Then, suspiciously, 'How do you feel?'
     Aton's  eyes  sparked  angrily at the insinuation,  and then  faded  to
anxiety once more. 'You  don't understand. The Cultists are active.  They're
rousing the people to  storm  the  Observatory  --  promising them immediate
entrance into grace, promising them salvation, promising them anything. What
are we to do, Sheerin?'
     Sheerin's head bent, and he stared in long abstraction at his  toes. He
tapped his chin with one knuckle, then looked up and said crisply, 'Do? What
is there to do? Nothing at all. Do the men know of this?'
     'No, of course not!'
     'Good! Keep it that way. How long till totality?'
     'Not quite an hour.'
     'There's  nothing to do but gamble. It will take time  to  organize any
really formidable  mob,  and it will take  more time  to get them out  here.
We're a good five miles from the city -- '
     He glared out the window, down the slopes to where the  farmed  patches
gave way  to  clumps  of  white houses in  the suburbs;  down  to where  the
metropolis itself was a blur on the horizon -- a mist in the waning blaze of
     He  repeated without turning. 'It will take time. Keep on  working  and
pray that totality comes first.'
     Beta was cut in half, the  line of division pushing a slight  concavity
into the  still-bright portion  of the  Sun.  It was  like a gigantic eyelid
shutting slantwise over the light of a world.
     The faint  clatter of  the  room in which he stood faded into oblivion,
and he sensed only the thick silence of the fields outside. The very insects
seemed frightened mute. And things were dim.
     He jumped at the voice in his ear. Theremon said. 'Is something wrong?'
     'Eh? Er -- no. Get back to the chair.  We're in the way.' They  slipped
back  to their  comer, but  the  psychologist  did not speak for a  time. He
lifted a finger and  loosened his collar. He twisted his neck back and forth
but found no relief. He looked up suddenly.
     'Are you having any difficulty in breathing?'
     The  newspaperman  opened  his  eyes wide  and drew two  or three  long
breaths. 'No. Why?'
     'I  looked  out the  window too long,  I  suppose. The dimness  got me.
Difficulty  in breathing is one of the  first  symptoms  of a claustrophobic
attack. '
     Theremon drew another long breath. 'Well,  it  hasn't  got me yet. Say,
here's another of the fellows.'
     Beenay  had  interposed his bulk between  the light and the pair in the
corner, and Sheerin squinted up at him anxiously. 'Hello, Beenay.'
     The astronomer shifted his weight to  the other foot and smiled feebly.
'You won't mind if I sit down awhile and  join in  the talk? My cameras  are
set, and there's  nothing  to  do  till  totality.' He  paused and  eyed the
Cultist, who fifteen minutes earlier had drawn a small, skin-bound book from
his sleeve and had been poring intently over it ever since.
     'That rat hasn't been making trouble, has he?'
     Sheerin shook his head. His shoulders were thrown back and  he  frowned
his concentration as he forced himself to breathe regularly.  He said, 'Have
you had any trouble breathing, Beenay?'
     Beenay sniffed the air in his turn. 'It doesn't seem stuffy to me.'
     'A touch of claustrophobia,' explained Sheerin apologetically.
     'Ohhh! It worked itself differently with me. I get the impression  that
my eyes are going back on me.  Things seem to blur and --  well, nothing  is
clear. And it's cold, too.'
     'Oh, it's  cold, all right. That's no illusion.' Theremon grimaced. 'My
toes feel as if  I've been  shipping them  cross-country in  a refrigerating
     'What  we  need,'  put  in Sheerin,  'is  to keep our minds  busy  with
extraneous affairs. I was  telling  you  a  while ago,  Theremon, why Faro's
experiments with the holes in the roof came to nothing.'
     'You were just beginning,' replied Theremon.  He encircled  a knee with
both arms and nuzzled his chin against it.
     'Well,  as  I  started to say, they were misled  by taking the Book  of
Revelations  literally. There probably wasn't  any  sense in  attaching  any
physical significance  to the  Stars. It  might  be, you know,  that in  the
presence of total Darkness, the mind finds it absolutely necessary to create
light. This illusion of light might be all the Stars there really are.'
     'In  other  words,'  interposed Theremon, 'you mean  the Stars arc  the
results of  the  madness and not one  of  the causes.  Then, what good  will
Beenay's photographs be?'
     'To prove that it is an illusion, maybe; or to  prove the opposite; for
all I know. Then again -- '
     But Beenay had drawn his chair closer, and there was  an expression  of
sudden  enthusiasm  on  his  face.  'Say, I'm  glad  you two  got onto  this
subject.' His eyes narrowed  and he  lifted one finger. 'I've been  thinking
about these Stars and I've got a really cute notion. Of course it's strictly
ocean foam, and  I'm not trying  to advance it  seriously, but I think  it's
interesting. Do you want to hear it?'
     He seemed half reluctant, but Sheerin leaned back and  said, 'Go ahead!
I'm listening.'
     'Well, then, supposing there were other suns in the universe.' He broke
off a  little bashfully. 'I mean suns that are  so far away that they're too
dim  to  see. It  sounds as  if I've  been  reading some  of  that fantastic
fiction, I suppose.'
     'Not necessarily. Still, isn't that possibility  eliminated by the fact
that,  according to  the Law  of  Gravitation, they  would  make  themselves
evident by their attractive forces?'
     'Not  if they were far enough off,' rejoined Beenay, 'really far off --
maybe as  much as four  light  years,  or  even more. We'd never  be able to
detect perturbations then, because they'd be too  small. Say that there were
a lot of suns that far off; a dozen or two, maybe.'
     Theremon  whistled  melodiously.  'What  an  idea  for  a  good  Sunday
supplement article. Two dozen  suns in a  universe eight light years across.
Wow! That would shrink our world into insignificance. The  readers would eat
it up.'
     'Only an idea,' said Beenay with a grin, 'but you see the point. During
an eclipse, these dozen suns would become visible because there'd be no real
sunlight to drown them out. Since they're so  far off, they'd appear  small,
like so  many little marbles. Of  course the Cultists  talk of  millions  of
Stars, but that's  probably exaggeration. There  just isn't any place in the
universe you could put a million suns -- unless they touch one another.'
     Sheerin had listened  with gradually increasing interest.  'You've  hit
something there, Beenay. And exaggeration is just exactly what would happen.
Our minds, as you probably know, can't grasp directly any number higher than
five; above that there is only the concept of "many". A dozen would become a
million just like that. A damn good idea!'
     'And  I've got another cute little notion,' Beenay said. 'Have you ever
thought  what  a  simple  problem  gravitation would  be if  only you  had a
sufficiently simple system? Supposing you had a universe  in which there was
a planet with only one sun. The planet would travel in a perfect ellipse and
the exact nature of the gravitational force would be so evident  it could be
accepted  as an  axiom. Astronomers on such  a  world  would start  off with
gravity  probably  before  they  even  invented   the  telescope.  Naked-eye
observation would be enough.'
     'But  would  such a system be  dynamically stable?'  questioned Sheerin
     'Sure!  They  call  it  the  "one-and-one" case. It's been  worked  out
mathematically, but it's the philosophical implications that interest me.'
     'It's nice to think about,' admitted  Sheerin, 'as a pretty abstraction
-- like a perfect gas, or absolute zero.'
     'Of course,' continued Beenay, 'there's the  catch  that life would  be
impossible on such a planet. It  wouldn't get enough  heat and light, and if
it rotated  there would be total  Darkness half  of  each  day. You couldn't
expect  life -- which is  fundamentally  dependent upon light --  to develop
under those conditions. Besides -- '
     Sheerin's chair went over backward as he sprang to his  feet  in a rude
interruption. 'Aton's brought out the lights.'
     Beenay said, 'Huh,'  turned to  stare, and  then grinned halfway around
his head in open relief.
     There  were half a  dozen foot-long, inch-thick rods cradled in  Aton's
arms. He glared over them at the assembled staff members.
     'Get back to work, all of you. Sheerin, come here and help me!'
     Sheerin trotted  to  the  older man's  side  and,  one by one, in utter
silence, the two adjusted the rods in makeshift metal holders suspended from
the walls.
     With  the  air of  one carrying  through the  most  sacred  item  of  a
religious ritual,  Sheerin scraped a large,  clumsy match  into  spluttering
life and passed it to Aton, who carried the flame to the upper end of one of
the rods.
     It hesitated  there  awhile,  playing  futilely about the  tip, until a
sudden, crackling  flare cast Aton's  lined  face into yellow highlights. He
withdrew the match and a spontaneous cheer rattled the window.
     The  rod  was topped by six inches of wavering flame! Methodically, the
other rods were lighted, until six independent  fires turned the rear of the
room yellow.
     The light was dim,  dimmer even than  the tenuous  sunlight. The flames
reeled crazily, giving birth to drunken, swaying shadows. The torches smoked
devilishly  and smelled like a  bad  day  in  the kitchen. But they  emitted
yellow light.
     There was something  about yellow light, after  four hours  of  somber,
dimming Beta. Even Latimer had lifted his eyes from his  book and stared  in
     Sheerin warmed his hands at the  nearest,  regardless  of the soot that
gathered upon them in a  fine,  gray powder,  and muttered  ecstatically  to
himself.  'Beautiful! Beautiful! I  never  realized before what  a wonderful
color yellow is.'
     But Theremon regarded the torches suspiciously. He wrinkled his nose at
the rancid odor and said, 'What are those things?'
     'Wood,' said Sheerin shortly.
     'Oh, no,  they're not. They aren't burning. The top inch is charred and
the flame just keeps shooting up out of nothing.'
     'That's the beauty  of it. This  is a really efficient artificial-light
mechanism. We made a few hundred of them, but  most went to the  Hideout, of
course. You see'  --  he  turned and  wiped his  blackened  hands  upon  his
handkerchief -- 'you take the pithy core  of  coarse  water  reeds, dry them
thoroughly, and soak them in animal grease. Then  you set fire to it and the
grease  burns, little by little. These torches will burn  for almost half an
hour  without stopping. Ingenious,  isn't it? It was developed by one of our
own young men at Saro University.'
     After  the  momentary  sensation,  the  dome  had quieted. Latimer  had
carried his  chair  directly beneath  a torch  and continued  reading,  lips
moving in the  monotonous recital  of  invocations to the  Stars. Beenay had
drifted  away to his cameras once more, and Theremon  seized the opportunity
to add to  his notes on the article he was going to write for the Saro  City
Chronicle the next day -- a procedure he had been following for the last two
hours in a perfectly methodical, perfectly conscientious and, as he was well
aware,  perfectly meaningless  fashion.  But,  as the gleam  of amusement in
Sheerin's  eyes  indicated,  careful  note-taking  occupied  his  mind  with
something other than the fact that the sky was  gradually turning a horrible
deep purple-red, as if it were one  gigantic, freshly peeled beet; and so it
fulfilled its purpose.
     The air  grew, somehow, denser. Dusk,  like  a palpable entity, entered
the room, and  the dancing circle of yellow  light  about the torches etched
itself into ever-sharper distinction against the gathering grayness  beyond.
There was the odor of smoke and the presence of little chuckling sounds that
the torches made as they burned; the soft pad of one of the men circling the
table at which he worked, on hesitant tiptoes; the occasional indrawn breath
of someone  trying to retain composure  in  a world that was retreating into
the shadow.
     It was Theremon who  first heard the extraneous  noise. It was a vague,
unorganized impression of sound that would have gone unnoticed  but  for the
dead silence that prevailed within the dome.
     The newsman sat upright and replaced his notebook. He  held his  breath
and  listened; then, with considerable reluctance,  threaded his way between
the solarscope and one of Beenay's cameras and stood before the window.
     The silence ripped to fragments at his startled shout: 'Sheerin!'
     Work stopped! The psychologist was at his side in a moment. Aton joined
him. Even Yimot 70, high in his little lean-back seat at the eyepiece of the
gigantic solarscope, paused and looked downward.
     Outside, Beta was a mere smoldering splinter, taking one last desperate
look at  Lagash. The eastern horizon, in the direction of the city, was lost
in Darkness,  and the road from  Saro to the Observatory was a dull-red line
bordered on both sides by wooded tracts, the trees of which had somehow lost
individuality and merged into a continuous shadowy mass.
     But it was the highway itself that  held attention, for along  it there
surged another, and infinitely menacing, shadowy mass.
     Aton  cried  in  a  cracked  voice, 'The madmen  from the city! They've
     'How long to totality?' demanded Sheerin.
     'Fifteen minutes, but . . . but they'll be here in five.'
     'Never mind, keep the men working. We'll hold them  off. This  place is
built like a fortress. Aton, keep an eye on our young Cultist just for luck.
Theremon, come with me.'
     Sheerin was  out the  door,  and Theremon was at his heels.  The stairs
stretched below them in  tight, circular  sweeps  about  the  central shaft,
fading into a dank and dreary grayness.
     The  first momentum of their  rush had carried them fifty feet down, so
that  the  dim,  flickering  yellow  from  the open  door  of  the dome  had
disappeared and both above and below the  same dusky  shadow crushed in upon
     Sheerin  paused,  and his pudgy  hand clutched  at his chest. His  eyes
bulged and his voice was a dry cough. 'I can't . . . breathe . . . Go down .
. . yourself. Close all doors -- '
     Theremon took a few downward steps, then turned.
     'Wait! Can you  hold out  a minute?' He  was  panting himself. The  air
passed in and out  his lungs like  so much molasses, and  there was a little
germ of screeching panic in his mind  at the thought of  making his way into
the mysterious Darkness below by himself.
     Theremon, after all, was afraid of the dark!
     'Stay here,' he said. I'll  be back in a second.'  He dashed upward two
steps  at  a time,  heart pounding  -- not altogether  from the  exertion --
tumbled  into  the  dome  and  snatched a  torch  from its  holder.  It  was
foul-smelling, and the smoke smarted his eyes  almost blind, but he clutched
that  torch  as if  he wanted  to kiss it for joy,  and  its  flame streamed
backward as he hurtled down the stairs again.
     Sheerin opened his eyes and moaned  as Theremon bent over him. Theremon
shook him roughly. 'All right, get a hold on yourself. We've got light.'
     He held  the  torch  at  tiptoe  height  and,  propping  the  tottering
psychologist  by  an  elbow,  made his way downward  in  the  middle  of the
protecting circle of illumination.
     The offices on  the ground  floor still possessed what light there was,
and Theremon felt the horror about him relax.
     'Here,' he said brusquely,  and passed the  torch to Sheerin. 'You  can
hear them outside.'
     And they could. Little scraps of hoarse, wordless shouts.
     But  Sheerin  was right; the  Observatory was  built  like a  fortress.
Erected in the last century,  when  the neo-Gavottian  style of architecture
was at its ugly height, it  had been designed  for stability  and durability
rather than for beauty.
     The windows  were protected  by  the grillwork of  inch-thick iron bars
sunk  deep  into the concrete sills.  The  walls were solid  masonry that an
earthquake couldn't have touched,  and the main  door  was a huge oaken slab
rein -- forced with iron. Theremon shot  the bolts and they slid shut with a
dull clang.
     At  the other end of the corridor, Sheerin cursed weakly. He pointed to
the lock of the back door which had been neatly jimmied into uselessness.
     'That must be how Latimer got in,' he said.
     'Well, don't stand  there,' cried Theremon impatiently.  'Help drag  up
the  furniture -- and  keep  that torch out of  my eyes. The smoke's killing
     He slammed the heavy table up against the door  as he spoke, and in two
minutes had built a barricade which made up for what it lacked in beauty and
symmetry by the sheer inertia of its massiveness.
     Somewhere, dimly, far off, they could hear the battering of naked fists
upon the door; and the screams and  yells  from outside had  a sort of  half
     That mob had set off from Saro City  with only two  things in mind: the
attainment of Cultist salvation by the destruction of the Observatory, and a
maddening fear that  all  but paralyzed them. There was no  time to think of
ground cars, or of weapons, or  of leadership, or even of organization. They
made for the Observatory on foot and assaulted it with bare hands.
     And now that they were there, the last flash of Beta, the last ruby-red
drop of flame, flickered feebly  over a  humanity that  had left only stark,
universal fear!
     Theremon groaned, 'Let's get back to the dome!'

In the dome, only Yimot, at the solarscope, had  kept  his  place. The  rest
were  clustered about the cameras, and Beenay was giving his instructions in
a hoarse, strained voice.
     'Get it straight, all of you.  I'm  snapping  Beta just before totality
and  changing the plate. That will leave one  of you to each camera. You all
know about . . . about times of exposure -- '
     There was a breathless murmur of agreement.
     Beenay passed  a  hand over his  eyes. 'Are  the torches still burning?
Never mind, I see them!' He  was leaning hard against the back  of  a chair.
'Now remember, don't. . . don't try to look for good shots. Don't waste time
trying to get t-two stars at a time in the scope field. One is enough. And .
. . and if you feel yourself going, get away from the camera.'
     At the door,  Sheerin whispered to Theremon, 'Take me to Aton. I  don't
see him.'
     The  newsman  did  not  answer immediately.  The  vague  forms  of  the
astronomers  wavered  and blurred, and the torches overhead had  become only
yellow splotches.
     'It's dark,' he whimpered.
     Sheerin held out his hand. 'Aton.' He stumbled forward. 'Aton!'
     Theremon  stepped  after and  seized his arm.  'Wait, I'll  take  you.'
Somehow he made his way  across  the  room. He closed his  eyes against  the
Darkness and his mind against the chaos within it.
     No  one heard them or paid attention to  them. Sheerin stumbled against
the wall. 'Aton!'
     The psychologist felt  shaking hands touching him, then  withdrawing, a
voice muttering, 'Is that you, Sheerin?'
     'Aton!' He strove to breathe  normally. 'Don't worry about the mob. The
place will hold them off.'
     Latimer,  the  Cultist,  rose  to  his  feet, and  his  face twisted in
desperation.  His word  was pledged, and to break it would mean  placing his
soul in  mortal peril. Yet  that word had been forced  from him and had  not
been given freely. The Stars  would come  soon! He  could not  stand  by and
allow -- And yet his word was pledged.
     Beenay's face was dimly flushed as it looked upward at Beta's last ray,
and  Latimer, seeing him bend over his camera, made  his decision. His nails
cut the flesh of his palms as he tensed himself.
     He  staggered crazily  as he started his rush. There was nothing before
him but shadows; the very floor beneath his feet lacked substance.  And then
someone was upon him and he went down with clutching fingers at his throat.
     He doubled his knee and drove it hard into his assailant. 'Let me up or
I'll kill you.'
     Theremon  cried out  sharply  and muttered through a  blinding haze  of
pain. 'You double-crossing rat!'
     The  newsman  seemed conscious of  everything at once. He heard  Beenay
croak, 'I've got it. At your cameras,  men!' and then there was the  strange
awareness that the last thread of sunlight had thinned out and snapped.
     Simultaneously he heard one last  choking gasp 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.
     And  Latimer had gone limp in his loosening grasp. Theremon peered into
the Cultist's eyes and  saw the blankness of them, staring upward, mirroring
the feeble yellow of the torches. He saw the bubble of froth upon  Latimer's
lips and heard the low animal whimper in Latimer's throat.
     With the slow fascination of  fear, he  lifted himself  on  one arm and
turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window.
     Through it shone the Stars!
     Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye;  Lagash
was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand 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.
     Theremon staggered  to  his  feet,  his  throat,  constricting  him  to
breathlessness,  all the muscles  of his body writhing in  an  intensity  of
terror  and  sheer fear  beyond bearing.  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 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.
     He  jostled someone crawling on hands and knees,  but stumbled  somehow
over him. Hands groping at  his tortured  throat, he limped toward the flame
of the torches that filled all his mad vision.
     'Light!' he screamed.
     Aton,  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  in 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  the
instant, the awful splendor of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them.
     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.


Last-modified: Fri, 26 Jul 2002 05:56:41 GMT