The Complete Stories (Page 141)
‘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.