The Complete Stories (Page 148)
‘Naturally, the book was based, in the first place, on the testimony of those least qualified to serve as historians; that is, children and morons; and was probably edited and re-edited through the cycles.’
‘Do you suppose,’ broke in Theremon, ‘that they carried the book through the cycles the way we’re planning on handing on the secret of gravitation?’
Sheerin shrugged. ‘Perhaps, but their exact method is unimportant. They do it, somehow. The point I was getting at was that the book can’t help but be a mass of distortion, even if it is based on fact. For instance, do you remember the experiment with the holes in the roof that Faro and Yimot tried — the one that didn’t work?’
‘You know why it didn’t w — ‘ He stopped and rose in alarm, for Aton was approaching, his face a twisted mask of consternation. ‘What’s happened?’
Aton drew him aside and Sheerin could feel the fingers on his elbow twitching.
‘Not so loud!’ Aton’s voice was low and tortured. ‘I’ve just gotten word from the Hideout on the private line.’
Sheerin broke in anxiously. ‘They are in trouble?’
‘Not they.’ Aton stressed the pronoun significantly. ‘They sealed themselves off just a while ago, and they’re going to stay buried till day after tomorrow. They’re safe. But the city. Sheerin — it’s a shambles. You have no idea — ‘ He was having difficulty in speaking.
‘Well?’ snapped Sheerin impatiently. ‘What of it? It will get worse. What are you shaking about?’ Then, suspiciously, ‘How do you feel?’
Aton’s eyes sparked angrily at the insinuation, and then faded to anxiety once more. ‘You don’t understand. The Cultists are active. They’re rousing the people to storm the Observatory — promising them immediate entrance into grace, promising them salvation, promising them anything. What are we to do, Sheerin?’
Sheerin’s head bent, and he stared in long abstraction at his toes. He tapped his chin with one knuckle, then looked up and said crisply, ‘Do? What is there to do? Nothing at all. Do the men know of this?’
‘No, of course not!’
‘Good! Keep it that way. How long till totality?’
‘Not quite an hour.’
‘There’s nothing to do but gamble. It will take time to organize any really formidable mob, and it will take more time to get them out here. We’re a good five miles from the city — ‘
He glared out the window, down the slopes to where the farmed patches gave way to clumps of white houses in the suburbs; down to where the metropolis itself was a blur on the horizon — a mist in the waning blaze of Beta.
He repeated without turning. ‘It will take time. Keep on working and pray that totality comes first.’
Beta was cut in half, the line of division pushing a slight concavity into the still-bright portion of the Sun. It was like a gigantic eyelid shutting slantwise over the light of a world.
The faint clatter of the room in which he stood faded into oblivion, and he sensed only the thick silence of the fields outside. The very insects seemed frightened mute. And things were dim.
He jumped at the voice in his ear. Theremon said. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Eh? Er — no. Get back to the chair. We’re in the way.’ They slipped back to their comer, but the psychologist did not speak for a time. He lifted a finger and loosened his collar. He twisted his neck back and forth but found no relief. He looked up suddenly.
‘Are you having any difficulty in breathing?’
The newspaperman opened his eyes wide and drew two or three long breaths. ‘No. Why?’
‘I looked out the window too long, I suppose. The dimness got me. Difficulty in breathing is one of the first symptoms of a claustrophobic attack. ‘
Theremon drew another long breath. ‘Well, it hasn’t got me yet. Say, here’s another of the fellows.’
Beenay had interposed his bulk between the light and the pair in the corner, and Sheerin squinted up at him anxiously. ‘Hello, Beenay.’
The astronomer shifted his weight to the other foot and smiled feebly. ‘You won’t mind if I sit down awhile and join in the talk? My cameras are set, and there’s nothing to do till totality.’ He paused and eyed the Cultist, who fifteen minutes earlier had drawn a small, skin-bound book from his sleeve and had been poring intently over it ever since.
‘That rat hasn’t been making trouble, has he?’
Sheerin shook his head. His shoulders were thrown back and he frowned his concentration as he forced himself to breathe regularly. He said, ‘Have you had any trouble breathing, Beenay?’
Beenay sniffed the air in his turn. ‘It doesn’t seem stuffy to me.’
‘A touch of claustrophobia,’ explained Sheerin apologetically.
‘Ohhh! It worked itself differently with me. I get the impression that my eyes are going back on me. Things seem to blur and — well, nothing is clear. And it’s cold, too.’
‘Oh, it’s cold, all right. That’s no illusion.’ Theremon grimaced. ‘My toes feel as if I’ve been shipping them cross-country in a refrigerating car.’
‘What we need,’ put in Sheerin, ‘is to keep our minds busy with extraneous affairs. I was telling you a while ago, Theremon, why Faro’s experiments with the holes in the roof came to nothing.’
‘You were just beginning,’ replied Theremon. He encircled a knee with both arms and nuzzled his chin against it.
‘Well, as I started to say, they were misled by taking the Book of Revelations literally. There probably wasn’t any sense in attaching any physical significance to the Stars. It might be, you know, that in the presence of total Darkness, the mind finds it absolutely necessary to create light. This illusion of light might be all the Stars there really are.’
‘In other words,’ interposed Theremon, ‘you mean the Stars arc the results of the madness and not one of the causes. Then, what good will Beenay’s photographs be?’
‘To prove that it is an illusion, maybe; or to prove the opposite; for all I know. Then again — ‘
But Beenay had drawn his chair closer, and there was an expression of sudden enthusiasm on his face. ‘Say, I’m glad you two got onto this subject.’ His eyes narrowed and he lifted one finger. ‘I’ve been thinking about these Stars and I’ve got a really cute notion. Of course it’s strictly ocean foam, and I’m not trying to advance it seriously, but I think it’s interesting. Do you want to hear it?’