The Complete Stories (Page 140)
‘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 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 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?’