In a major catastrophe... the psychological world collapses
Phobia, Amnesia, and the Psyche
The deadly riddle seems to have no answer until, almost by accident, the secret of Lagash's recurring disasters fatefully unfolds step by step towards a climactic disclosure. It all starts when several astronomers apply themselves to the Theory of Universal Gravitation. They discover, much to their chagrin, that the motions of Lagash about its primary sun—Alpha—and the orbit observed cannot be accounted for by standard gravitational computations and known perturbation factors. Years pass as theory upon theory fails to solve the enigma. At last, with no other recourse, the head of the Cultists is called in for consultation and provides some informative assistance. The meeting of science and theology produces a new line of scientific reasoning and an unanticipated and shattering postulation—A non-luminous planetary body akin to Lagash and rotating around it could also exist yet be invisible amidst the eternal blaze of sunlight. This satellite would not only account for the deviations of Lagash's theoretical orbit but would eventually get in the way of a sun.
Calculations are quickly made which indicate "that the eclipse Will occur only when the arrangement of the suns is such that Beta [one of the suns] is alone in its hemisphere and at maximum distance. The eclipse that results, with the moon seven times the apparent diameter of Beta, covers all of Lagash and lasts well over half a day, so that no spot on the planet escapes the effects. That eclipse comes once every two thousand and forty-nine years. (p- 11 ) "
A reporter named Theremon learns of this unusual phenomenon during an interview with Sheerin, a psychologist attached to a group of astronomers very much concerned with the entire matter. Within the confines of a fortress-like Observatory, these scientists anxiously await the occultation of Beta. Much trepidation, excitement, and tension permeates the air. As it happens, the moment of eclipse is once again rapidly approaching upon Lagash and the astronomers are feverishly preparing to photograph the unknown. In the meantime, many people have been sent to a place of refuge called the Hideout along with certain records for the future.
Sheerin explains to the visiting Theremon the basic reason for the present apprehension of his colleagues and himself. "There is a psychological term for mankind's instinctive fear of the absence of light. We call it 'claustrophobia,' because the lack of light is always tied up with enclosed places, so that fear of one is fear of the other ... 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? . . . 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! (pp. 14-15)"
Theremon apparently fails to grasp the full import of Sheerin's statement and the point has to be angrily driven home. "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? . . . You burn something . . . It gives off light and people know that . . . and wood isn't handy—so they'll burn whatever is nearest. They'll have their light—and every center habitation goes up in flames! (pp. 15-16)"
The conversation is abruptly ended as a series of incidents stirs the Observatory. An intruder Cultist—Latimer 25—is seized before he can lay damaging hands on the astro-cameras. He accuses Aton, the head of the Observatory, of undermining religious faith by presenting scientific backing for Cultist beliefs. "You made of the Darkness and of the Stars a natural phenomenon and removed all its real significance. That was blasphemy." The altercation is cut short as Beta begins to shrink before the encroaching blackness and the unnerved scientists struggle frantically to maintain their composure in order to take pictures of the eclipse.
Latimer commences to intone from the Book of Revelations (p. 23) first in the present and then in an old-cycle tongue. Verse after verse signals a portent of doom. Theremon wonders how the Cultists "manage to keep the Book of Revelations going from cycle to cycle, and how on Lagash did it get written in the first place?" Sheerin replies that the method of passing on the Book of Revelations is unimportant since "the book can't help but be a mass of distortion, even if it is based on fact. Naturally, the book was based, in the first place, on the testimony those least qualified to serve as historians; that is children and morons; and was probably edited and re-edited through the cycles. (p. 25)"
At this point, an associate of Sheerin, Beenay, interjects his own ideas about what the Stars might be. He suggests the existence of other suns so distant that "they'd appear small, like so many marbles" once "there'd be no real sunlight to drown them out . . of course the Cultists talk of millions of Stars, but that's probably exaggeration. There just isn't place in the universe you could put a million suns—unless they touch one another. (p. 29)"
Outside the Observatory, Beta continues to disappear within the enveloping Darkness. Slowly but surely the last light of Lagash dwindles. Panic ensues. Egged on by the trauma of the eclipse and the uncontrollable zeal of the Cultists, the citizens of Lagash storm the Observatory in desperation.
Within the Observatory, the scientists have barred the doors and lit some torches. The cameras are manned. Then, without warning, Latimer makes one final bid to impede the photographing and is blocked by Theremon who wrestles him to the floor. Suddenly, the last rays of sunlight are cut off; a choking gasp is heard from Beenay, an hysterical giggle from Sheerin; beneath Theremon, Latimer's body goes limp as his eyes recede into blankness and a bubble of froth forms upon his lips.
"With the slow fascination of fear," Theremon struggles to raise himself and turns "his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window. Through it shone the Stars! Not Earth's feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world. (p. 35)"
Theremon staggers "to his feet, his throat constricting him to breathlessness, all the muscles of his body writhing in an intensity of terror and sheer fear beyond bearing. He was going mad and knew it, and somewhere deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the hopeless flood of black terror . . . 'Light!' he screamed." (p. 35)
Elsewhere in the confines of the Observatory, a babbling and incoherent Aton whimpers "horribly like a terribly frightened child. 'Stars—all the Stars—we didn't know at all. We didn't know anything. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn't notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn't know we couldn't know and anything' —" (pp. 35-36)
As Aton's pitiful soliloquy runs its course, a torch is overturned and extinguished. "In the instant, the awful splendor of the indifferent Stars leaped nearer to them."
"On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of a sun.
The long night had come again."
1. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (Doubleday: Garden City, N. Y,, 1950), pp. 298-311 and 383.
2. I. Asimov, Pebble in the Sky (Fawcett Crest paperback ed. of Doubleday hardcover: N.Y., 1950).
3. Cf' A. Clarke, "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . . . in The Nine Billion Names of God of (Harbrace Paperbound Library: N. Y., 1967), pp. 235-240: also A. Clarke, Against the Fall of Night (Gnome Press: N. Y., 1953) and rewritten as The City and the Stars (N. Y., 1956). Obviously conjectural liberties are being exercised here in the extreme since motivational analysis is being applied to a purely fictional situation. The realistic plausibility of events does allow extrapolation into reality, however, thereby lending considerable justification for the analysis.
4. I. Asimov, "Nightfall," first appearance in Astounding Science Fiction, Sept. 1941; also in Nightfall and other Stories by Asimov (Doubleday: Garden City, 1969), pp. 2-36. "Nightfall" was chosen as the #1 science-fiction short story of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America - see The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1, (Doubleday: Garden City, 1970), ed. Robert Silverberg, p. x.