Read Nightfall Online

Authors: Isaac Asimov,Robert Silverberg

Tags: #Retail, #Personal

Nightfall (6 page)

Inside, everything seemed much more ordinary. Sheerin saw a series of metal railings no doubt designed to contain the lines of people waiting to board the ride. Beyond that was a platform much like that in any railway station, with a string of small open cars waiting there. And beyond that—


Cubello said, “If you don’t mind signing this first, please, Doctor—”

Sheerin stared at the paper the lawyer had handed him. It was full of words, blurred, dancing about.

“What is this?”

“A release. The standard form.”

“Yes. Of course.” Airily Sheerin scrawled his name without even trying to read the paper.

You are not afraid
, he told himself.
You fear nothing at all.

Varitta 312 put a small device in his hand. “An abort switch,” she explained. “The full ride lasts fifteen minutes, but you just have to press this green panel here as soon as you’ve been inside long enough to have learned what you need to know—or in case you begin to feel uncomfortable—and lights will come on. Your car will go quickly to the far end of the Tunnel and circle back to the station.”

“Thank you,” Sheerin said. “I doubt that I’ll need it.”

“But you should have it. Just in case.”

“It’s my plan to experience the ride to the fullest,” he told her, enjoying his own pomposity.

But there was such a thing as foolhardiness, he reminded himself. He didn’t intend to use the abort switch, but it was probably unwise not to take it.

Just in case.

He stepped out on the platform. Kelaritan and Cubello were looking at him in an all too transparent way. He could practically hear them thinking,
This fat old fool is going to turn to jelly in there.
Well, let them think it.

Varitta had disappeared. No doubt she had gone to turn on the Tunnel mechanism.

Yes: there she was now, in a control booth high up to the right, signaling that everything was ready.

“If you’ll board the car, Doctor—” Kelaritan said.

“Of course. Of course.”

Fewer than one out of ten experienced harmful effects. Very likely they were unusually vulnerable to Darkness disorders to begin with. I am not. I am a very stable individual.

He entered the car. There was a safety belt; he strapped it around his waist, adjusting it with some difficulty to his girth. The car began to roll forward, slowly, very slowly.

Darkness was waiting for him.

Fewer than one out of ten. Fewer than one out of ten.

He understood the Darkness syndrome. That would protect him, he was sure: his understanding. Even though all of mankind had an instinctive fear of the absence of light, that did not mean that the absence of light was of itself harmful.

What was harmful, Sheerin knew, was one’s
to the absence of light. The thing to do is to stay calm. Darkness is nothing but darkness, a change of external circumstances. We are conditioned to abhor it because we live in a world where darkness is unnatural, where there is always light, the light of the many suns. At any time there might be as many as four suns shining at once; usually there were three in the sky, and at no time were there ever less than two—and the light of any of them was sufficient all by itself to hold back the Darkness.

The Darkness—

The Darkness—

The Darkness!

Sheerin was in the Tunnel now. Behind him the last vestige of light disappeared, and he peered into an utter void. There was nothing ahead of him: nothing. A pit. An abyss. A zone of total lightlessness. And he was tumbling headlong into it.

He felt sweat breaking out all over him.

His knees began to shake. His forehead throbbed. He held up his hand and was unable to see it in front of his face.

Abort abort abort abort

No. Absolutely not.

He sat upright, back rigid, eyes wide open, gazing stolidly into the nothingness through which he plunged. On and on, ever deeper. Primordial fears bubbled and hissed in the depths of his soul, and he forced them back down and away.

The suns are still shining outside the Tunnel, he told himself.

This is only temporary. In fourteen minutes and thirty seconds I’ll be back out there.

Fourteen minutes and twenty seconds.

Fourteen minutes and ten seconds.

Fourteen minutes—

Was he moving at all, though? He couldn’t tell. Maybe he wasn’t. The car’s mechanism was silent; and he had no reference points. What if I’m stuck? he wondered. Just sitting here in the dark, no way to tell where I am, what’s happening, how
much time is passing? Fifteen minutes, twenty, half an hour? Until I’ve passed whatever limit my sanity can stand, and then—

There’s always the abort switch, though.

But suppose it doesn’t work? What if I press it and the lights don’t come on?

I could test it, I suppose. Just to see—

Fatty is a coward! Fatty is a coward!

No. No. Don’t touch it. Once you turn the lights on you won’t be able to turn them off again. You mustn’t use the abort switch, or they’ll know—they’ll all know—

Fatty is a coward, Fatty is a coward

Suddenly, astonishingly, he hurled the abort switch into the darkness. There was a tiny sound as it fell—
Then silence again. His hand felt terribly empty.

The Darkness—

The Darkness—

There was no end to it. He was tumbling through an infinite abyss. Falling and falling and falling into the night, the endless night, the all-devouring black—

Breathe deeply. Stay calm.

What if there’s permanent mental damage?

Stay calm, he told himself. You’ll be all right. You’ve got maybe eleven minutes more of this at the worst, maybe only six or seven. The suns are shining out there. Six or seven minutes and you’ll never be in Darkness again, not if you live to be a thousand.

The Darkness—

Oh, God, the Darkness—

Calm. Calm. You’re a very stable man, Sheerin. You’re extremely sane. You were sane when you went into this thing and you’ll be sane when you come out.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Every second gets you closer to the exit. Or does it? This ride may never end. I could be in here forever. Tick. Tick. Tick. Am I moving? Do I have five minutes left, or five seconds, or is this still the first minute?

Tick. Tick.

Why don’t they let me out? Can’t they tell how I’m suffering in here?

They don’t want to let you out. They’ll never let you out. They’re going to—

Suddenly, a stabbing pain between his eyes. An explosion of agony in his skull.

What’s that?


Could it be? Yes. Yes.

Thank God. Light, yes! Thank any god that might ever have existed!

He was at the end of the Tunnel! He was coming back to the station! It must be. Yes. Yes. His heartbeat, which had become a panicky thunder, was starting to return to normal. His eyes, adjusting now to the return of normal conditions, began to focus on familiar things, blessed things, the stanchions, the platform, the little window in the control booth—

Cubello, Kelaritan, watching him.

He felt ashamed now of his cowardice.
Pull yourself together, Sheerin. It wasn’t so bad, really. You’re all right. You aren’t lying in the bottom of the car sucking your thumb and whimpering. It was scary, it was terrifying, but it didn’t destroy you—it wasn’t actually anything you couldn’t handle

“Here we go. Give us your hand, Doctor. Up—up—”

They hauled him to a standing position and steadied him as he clambered out of the car. Sheerin sucked breath deep down into his lungs. He ran his hand across his forehead, wiping away the streaming perspiration.

“The little abort switch,” he murmured. “I seem to have lost it somewhere—”

“How are you, Doctor?” Kelaritan asked. “How was it?”

Sheerin teetered. The hospital director caught him by the arm, steadying him, but Sheerin indignantly brushed him away. He wasn’t going to let them think that those few minutes in the Tunnel had gotten to him.

But he couldn’t deny that he had been affected. Try as he might, there was no way to hide that. Not even from himself.

No force in the world could ever get him to take a second trip through that Tunnel, he realized.

“Doctor? Doctor?”

“I’m—all—right—” he said thickly.

“He says he’s all right,” came the lawyer’s voice. “Stand back. Let him alone.”

“His legs are wobbling,” Kelaritan said. “He’s going to fall.”

“No,” Sheerin said. “Not a chance. I’m fine, I tell you!”

He lurched and staggered, regained his balance, lurched again. Sweat poured from every pore he had. He glanced over his shoulder, saw the mouth of the Tunnel, and shuddered. Turning away from that dark cave, he pulled his shoulders up high, as if he would have liked to hide his face between them.

“Doctor?” Kelaritan said doubtfully.

No use pretending. This was foolishness, this vain and stubborn attempt at heroism. Let them think he was a coward. Let them think anything. Those fifteen minutes had been the worst nightmare of his life. The impact of it was still sinking in, and sinking in, and sinking in.

“It was—powerful stuff,” he said. “Very powerful. Very disturbing.”

“But you’re basically all right, isn’t that so?” the lawyer said eagerly. “A little shaken, yes. Who wouldn’t be, going into Darkness? But basically okay. As we knew you’d be. It’s only a few, a very few, who undergo any sort of harmful—”

“No,” Sheerin said. The lawyer’s face was like that of a grinning gargoyle in front of him. Like the face of a demon. He couldn’t bear the sight of it. But a good dose of the truth would exorcise the demon. No need to be diplomatic, Sheerin thought. Not when talking with demons. —“It’s impossible for anyone to go through that thing without being at grave risk. I’m certain of it now. Even the strongest psyche will take a terrible battering, and the weak ones will simply crumble. If you open that ride again, you’ll have every mental hospital in four provinces full up within six months.”

“On the contrary, Doctor—”

“Don’t ‘on the contrary’ me! Have you been in the Tunnel, Cubello? No, I didn’t think so. But I have. You’re paying for my professional opinion: you might as well have it right now. The Tunnel’s deadly. It’s a simple matter of human nature. Darkness is more than most of us can handle, and that’s never going to change, so long as we’ve got a sun left burning in the sky. Shut the Tunnel down for good, Cubello! In the name of sanity, man, shut the thing down! Shut it down!”


Parking his motor scooter in the faculty lot just below the Observatory dome, Beenay went jogging quickly up the footpath that led to the main entrance of the huge building. As he began to ascend the wide stone steps of the entranceway itself he was startled to hear someone calling his name from above.

“Beenay! So you
here after all.”

The astronomer looked up. The tall, heavyset, powerful figure of his friend Theremon 762 of the Saro City
stood framed in the great door of the Observatory.

“Theremon? Were you looking for me?”

“I was. But they told me you weren’t due to show up here for another couple of hours. And then, just as I was leaving, there you were anyway. Talk about serendipity!”

Beenay trotted up the last few steps, and they gave each other a quick hug. He had known the newspaperman some three or four years, ever since the time Theremon had come to the Observatory to interview some scientist, any scientist, about the latest manifesto of the crackpot Apostles of Flame group. Gradually he and Theremon had become close friends, even though Theremon was some five years older and came out of a rougher, worldlier background. Beenay liked the idea of having a friend who had no involvement whatsoever in university politics; and Theremon was delighted to know someone who wasn’t at all interested in exploiting him for his considerable journalistic influence.

“Is something wrong?” Beenay asked.

“Not in the least. But I need to get you to do the Voice of Science routine again. Mondior’s made another of his famous ‘Repent, repent, doom is coming’ speeches. Now he says he’s ready to reveal the exact hour when the world will be destroyed. In case you’re interested, it’s going to happen next year on the nineteenth of Theptar, as a matter of fact.”

“That madman! It’s a waste of space printing anything about him. Why does anyone pay the slightest bit of attention to the Apostles, anyway?”

Theremon shrugged. “The fact is that people do. A lot of people, Beenay. And if Mondior says the end is nigh, I need to get someone like you to stand up and say, ‘Not so, brothers and sisters! Have no fear! All is well!’ Or words to that effect. I can count on you, can’t I, Beenay?”

“You know you can.”

“This evening?”

“This evening? Oh, lord, Theremon, this evening’s a real mess. How much of my time do you think you’d have to have?”

“Half an hour? Forty-five minutes?”

“Look,” Beenay said, “I’ve got an urgent appointment right now—that’s why I’m here ahead of schedule. After that, I’ve sworn to Raissta that I’ll hustle back home and devote, well, an hour or two to her. We’ve been on such different tracks lately that we’ve hardly seen each other at all. And then later in the evening I’m supposed to be here at the Observatory again to supervise taking of a bunch of photographs of—”

“All right,” said Theremon. “I see I’ve picked the wrong time for this. Well, listen, no problem, Beenay. I’ve got until tomorrow afternoon to turn in my story. What if we talk in the morning?”

“The morning?” Beenay said doubtfully.

“I know morning’s an unthinkable concept for you. But what I mean is, I can get back up here at Onos-rise, just as you’re finishing up your evening’s work. If you could simply manage a little interview with me before you go home to go to sleep—”


“For a friend, Beenay.”

Beenay gave the journalist a weary look. “Of course I will. That’s not the issue. It’s just that I may be so groggy after a whole evening of work that I may not be of any use to you.”

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