The Complete Stories (Page 144)
‘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 Lagash.’
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 burn 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 burn 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 been?’
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 — ‘