Authors: Isaac Asimov,Robert Silverberg
Tags: #Retail, #Personal
“No. We aren’t buried, Siferra!” Balik tugged at the tarpaulin in front of them and managed to lift it a little way. Siferra peered out into the open area between the cliff and the wall of the city.
She couldn’t believe her eyes.
What she saw was the clear deep blue of the sky. And the gleam of sunlight. It was only the bleak, chilly white glow of the double suns Tano and Sitha, but just now it was the most beautiful light she ever wanted to see.
The storm had passed through. Everything was calm again.
And where was the sand? Why wasn’t everything entombed in sand?
The city was still visible: the great blocks of the stone wall, the shimmering glitter of the mosaics, the peaked stone roof of the Temple of the Suns. Even most of their tents were still standing, including nearly all of the important ones. Only the camp where the workers lived had been badly damaged, and that could be repaired in a few hours.
Astounded, still not daring to believe it, Siferra stepped out of the shelter and looked around. The ground was clear of loose sand. The hard-baked, tight-packed dark stratum that had formed the surface of the land in the excavation zone could still be seen. It looked different now, abraded in a curious scrubbed way, but it was clear of any deposit the storm might have brought.
Balik said wonderingly, “First came the sand, and then came wind behind it. And the wind picked up all the sand that got dropped on us, picked it up as fast as it fell, and scooped it right on along to the south. A miracle, Siferra. That’s the only thing we can call it. Look—you can see where the ground’s been scraped, where the whole shallow upper layer of ground sand’s been cleaned away by the wind, maybe fifty years’ worth of erosion in five minutes, but—”
Siferra was scarcely listening. She caught Balik by the arm
and turned him to the side, away from the main sector of their excavation site.
“Look there,” she said.
She pointed. “The Hill of Thombo.”
The broad-shouldered stratigrapher stared. “Gods! It’s been slit right up the middle!”
The Hill of Thombo was an irregular middling-high mound some fifteen minutes’ walk south of the main part of the city. No one had worked it in well over a hundred years, not since the second expedition of the great pioneer Galdo 221, and Galdo hadn’t found anything of significance in it. It was generally considered to be nothing but a midden-heap on which the citizens of old Beklimot had tossed their kitchen garbage—interesting enough of itself, yes, but trivial in comparison with the wonders that abounded everywhere else in the site.
Apparently, though, the Hill of Thombo had taken the fullest brunt of the storm: and what generations of archaeologists had not bothered to do, the violence of the sandstorm had achieved in only a moment. An erratic zigzagging strip had been ripped from the face of the hill, like some terrible wound laying bare much of the interior of its upper slope. And experienced field workers like Siferra and Balik needed only a single glance to understand the importance of what was now exposed.
“A town site under the midden,” Balik murmured.
“More than one, I think. Possibly a series,” Siferra said.
“Look. Look there, on the left.”
Balik whistled. “Isn’t that a wall in crosshatch style, under the corner of that cyclopean foundation?”
“You’ve got it.”
A shiver ran down Siferra’s spine. She turned to Balik and saw that he was as astounded as she was. His eyes were wide, his face was pale.
“In the name of Darkness!” he muttered huskily. “What do we have here, Siferra?”
“I’m not sure. But I’m going to start finding out right this minute.” She looked back at the shelter under the cliff, where Thuvvik and his men still crouched in terror, making holy signs and babbling prayers in low stunned voices as if unable to
comprehend that they were safe from the power of the storm. “Thuvvik!” Siferra yelled, gesturing vigorously, almost angrily, at him. “Come on out of there, you and your men! We’ve got work to do!”
Harrim 682 was a big beefy man of about fifty, with great slabs of muscle bulging on his arms and chest, and a good thick insulating layer of fat over that. Sheerin, studying him through the window of the hospital room, knew right away that he and Harrim were going to get along.
“I’ve always been partial to people who are, well, oversized,” the psychologist explained to Kelaritan and Cubello. “Having been one myself for most of my life, you understand. Not that I’ve ever been a muscleman like this one.” Sheerin laughed pleasantly. “I’m blubber through and through. Except for here, of course,” he added, tapping the side of his head. —“What kind of work does this Harrim do?”
“Longshoreman,” Kelaritan said. “Thirty-five years on the Jonglor docks. He won a ticket to the opening day of the Tunnel of Mystery in a lottery. Took his whole family. They were all affected to some degree, but he was the worst. That’s very embarrassing to him, that a great strong man like him should have such a total breakdown.”
“I can imagine,” Sheerin said. “I’ll take that into account. Let’s talk with him, shall we?”
They entered the room.
Harrim was sitting up, staring without interest at a spinner cube that was casting light in half a dozen colors on the wall opposite his bed. He smiled affably enough when he saw Kelaritan, but seemed to stiffen when he noticed the lawyer Cubello walking behind the hospital director, and his face turned completely glacial at the sight of Sheerin.
“Who’s he?” he asked Kelaritan. “Another lawyer?”
“Not at all. This is Sheerin 501, from Saro University. He’s here to help you get well.”
“Huh,” Harrim snorted. “Another double-brain! What good have any of you done for me?”
“Absolutely right,” Sheerin said. “The only one who can really help Harrim get well is Harrim, eh? You know that and I know that, and maybe I can persuade the hospital people here to see that too.” He sat down on the edge of the bed. It creaked beneath the psychologist’s bulk. “At least they have decent beds in this place, though. They must be pretty good if they can hold the two of us at the same time. —Don’t like lawyers, I gather? You and me both, friend.”
“Miserable troublemakers is all they are,” Harrim said. “Full of tricks, they are. They make you say things you don’t mean, telling you that they can help you if you say such-and-such, and then they end up using your own words against you. That’s the way it seems to me, anyway.”
Sheerin looked up at Kelaritan. “Is it absolutely necessary that Cubello be here for this interview? I think it might go a little more smoothly without him.”
“I am authorized to take part in any—” Cubello began stiffly.
“Please,” Kelaritan said, and the word had more force than politeness behind it. “Sheerin’s right. Three visitors at once may be too many for Harrim—today, anyway. And you’ve already heard his story.”
“Well—” Cubello said, his face dark. But after a moment he turned and went out of the room.
Sheerin surreptitiously signaled to Kelaritan that he should take a seat in the far corner.
Then, turning to the man in the bed, he smiled his most agreeable smile and said, “It’s been pretty rough, hasn’t it?”
“You said it.”
“How long have you been in here?”
Harrim shrugged. “I guess a week, two weeks. Or maybe a little more. I don’t know, I guess. Ever since—”
He fell silent.
“The Jonglor Exposition?” Sheerin prompted.
“Since I took that ride, yes.”
“It’s been a little more than just a week or two,” Sheerin said.
“Has it?” Harrim’s eyes took on a glazed look. He didn’t want to hear about how long he’d been in the hospital.
Changing tack, Sheerin said, “I bet you never dreamed a day would come when you’d tell yourself you’d be glad to get back to the docks, eh?”
With a grin, Harrim said, “You can say that again! Boy, what I wouldn’t give to be slinging those crates around tomorrow.” He looked at his hands. Big, powerful hands, the fingers thick, flattened at the tips, one of them crooked from some injury long ago. “I’m getting soft, laying here all this time. By the time I get back to work I won’t be any good any more.”
“What’s keeping you here, then? Why don’t you just get up and put your street clothes on and get out of here?”
Kelaritan, from the corner, made a warning sound. Sheerin gestured at him to keep quiet.
Harrim gave Sheerin a startled look. “Just get up and walk out?”
“Why not? You aren’t a prisoner.”
“But if I did that—if I did that—”
The dockworker’s voice trailed off.
“If you did that, what?” Sheerin asked.
For a long while Harrim was silent, face downcast, brow heavily knitted. Several times he began to speak but cut himself off. The psychologist waited patiently. Finally Harrim said, in a tight, husky, half-strangled tone, “I can’t go out there. Because of the—because—because of the—” He struggled with himself. “The Darkness,” he said.
“The Darkness,” said Sheerin.
The word hung there between them like a tangible thing.
Harrim looked troubled by it, even abashed. Sheerin remembered that among people of Harrim’s class it was a word that was rarely used in polite company. To Harrim it was, if not actually obscene, then in some sense sacrilegious. No one on Kalgash liked to think about Darkness; but the less education one had, the more threatening it was to let one’s mind dwell on the possibility that the six friendly suns might somehow totally disappear from the sky all at once, that utter blackness might reign. The idea was unthinkable—literally unthinkable.
“The Darkness, yes,” Harrim said. “What I’m afraid of is that—that if I go outside I’ll find myself in the Darkness again. That’s what it is. The Dark, all over again.”
“Complete symptom reversal in the last few weeks,” Kelaritan
said in a low voice. “At first it was just the opposite. You couldn’t get him to go indoors unless you sedated him. A powerful case of claustrophobia first, that is, and then after some time the total switch to claustrophilia. We think it’s a sign that he’s healing.”
“Maybe so,” Sheerin said. “But if you don’t mind—”
To Harrim he said, gently, “You were one of the first to ride through the Tunnel of Mystery, weren’t you?”
“On the very first day.” A note of pride came into Harrim’s voice. “There was a city lottery. A hundred people won free rides. There must have been a million tickets sold, and mine was the fifth one picked. Me, my wife, my son, my two daughters, we all went on it. The very first day.”
“Do you want to tell me a little about what it was like?”
“Well,” Harrim said. “It was—” He paused. “I never was in Darkness ever, you know. Not even a dark room. Not ever. It wasn’t something that interested me. We always had a godlight in the bedroom when I was growing up, and when I got married and had my own house I just naturally had one there too. My wife feels the same way. Darkness, it isn’t natural. It isn’t anything that was meant to be.”
“Yet you entered the lottery.”
“Well, this was just once. And it was like
, you know? Something special. A holiday treat. The big exposition, the five hundredth year of the city, right? Everybody was buying tickets. And I figured, this must be something different, this must be something really good, or why else would they have built it? So I bought the ticket. And when I won, everybody at the docks was jealous, they all wished they had the ticket, some of them even wanted to buy it from me—‘No, sir,’ I told them, ‘not for sale, me and my family, this is our ticket—’ ”
“So you were excited about taking the ride in the Tunnel?”
“Yeah. You bet.”
“And when you were actually doing it? When the ride started? What did that feel like?”
“Well—” Harrim began. He moistened his lips, and his eyes seemed to look off into a great distance. “There were these little cars, you see, nothing but slats inside for seats, and the cars were open on top. You got in, six people in each one, except
they let just the five of us go together, because we were all one family, and it was almost enough to fill a whole car without putting a stranger in with us. And then you heard music and the car started to move into the Tunnel. Very slow, it went, not like a car on the highway would, just creeping along. And then you were inside the Tunnel. And then—then—”
Sheerin waited again.
“Go on,” he said after a minute, when Harrim showed no sign of resuming. “Tell me about it. I really want to know what it was like.”
“Then the Darkness,” Harrim said hoarsely. His big hands were trembling at the recollection. “It came down on you like they dropped a giant hat over you, you know? And everything turned black all at once.” The trembling was becoming a violent tremor. “I heard my son Trinit laugh. He’s a wise guy, Trinit is. He thought the Darkness was something dirty, I bet you. So he was laughing, and I told him to shut up, and then one of my daughters began to cry a little, and I told her it was okay, that there was nothing to worry about, that it was just going to be for fifteen minutes, and she ought to look at it like it was a treat, not something to be scared of. And then—then—”
Silence again. This time Sheerin didn’t prompt.
“Then I felt it closing in on me. Everything was Darkness—Darkness—you can’t imagine what it was like—you can’t
—how black it was—how
—the Darkness—the Darkness—”
Suddenly Harrim shuddered, and great racking sobs came from him, almost like convulsions.
“The Darkness—oh, God, the Darkness—!”
“Easy, man. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. Look at the sunlight! Four suns today, Harrim. Easy, man.”
“Let me take care of this,” Kelaritan said. He had come rushing to the bedside when the sobbing began. A needle glinted in his hand. He touched it to Harrim’s burly arm, and there was a brief whirr of sound. Harrim grew calm almost at once. He slumped back against his pillow, smiling glassily. —“We need to leave him now,” said Kelaritan.
“But I’ve hardly only begun to—”
“He won’t make any sense again for hours, now. We might as well go for lunch.”