Rolf started to say something, then fell silent. He waited, listening, then moved silently to look back down the passage in the direction they had come. It might have been a drop of water that he had heard, falling from the wet stone and clay of the tunnel’s roof. After a moment he shook his head, returned to where Catherine stood with a nocked arrow in her bow, and beckoned her to follow him. Their journey’s end was near, but they had not reached it yet.
“What are we do to here?” she whispered at his back, but he did not know and did not answer. Beyond the vertical shaft, the horizontal one continued, into truly growing darkness.
Going slowly to let his eyes adjust to deepening gloom, Rolf edged forward, his feet just above the steady murmur of the stream. Here was where the stream gushed into the tunnel, from an indistinguishable crevice at one side. Not a dozen meters farther on, with the floor of the tunnel now completely dry, the miners’ ancient work abruptly broke off. More crumbling tools lay, as if dropped while in use, against the tunnel’s deepest face, and high in that face a hole remained, leading to a deeper darkness. The ancient diggers might have broken through, but had not entered whatever chamber lay beyond, for the hole was not big enough…
The aperture flamed abruptly, with cold, clear light. Catherine let out a little cry and raised her bow. Rolf started, but in the next moment felt relief. He knew Old World illumination when he saw it, hard and bright and steadier than any flame. He had seen it before, and then as now Ardneh had been his guide.
He reassured Catherine, and together they peered into the hole. It opened into a simple room about five meters square, with gray smooth walls and flat panels in the ceiling from which the cold light flowed tirelessly. A closed door stood in the opposite wall.
Groping among the fallen miners’ tools, Rolf found the head of a pickaxe that was not too corroded to be effective, and with it he worked at enlarging the hole the miners had abandoned. Maybe the Old World lights had flashed for them as well, and they had chosen to drop their tools and run, not coming back.
Catherine worked at his side, clearing away lumps of rock and clay and smooth gray paneling as he broke them loose. The hole was soon enlarged enough for them to squeeze through. The floor was of the same gray stuff as the walls. Scattered on the floor and on a few shelves along one wall were a number of metallic-looking boxes, neatly marked with words in a language neither Rolf nor Catherine could read. The room and its contents were vastly better-preserved than the less ancient miners’ tools had been, but even here Time had begun to have his way. From one spot on the ceiling a waxy-looking icicle depended, and Rolf on touching it found that it was rock, with a slow drop of ground watergather-ing on its tip, and a small rocky stalagmite building on the floor beneath. He shivered suddenly in the chill cave air, with a sudden sense of what time might mean.
The door leading out of the room tried to stay shut when he twisted at its handle and shoved against it with a shoulder, but then it yielded with a sudden rasp. The passage beyond the door was revealed abruptly as its ceiling panels sprang to glowing life.
“Come,” said Rolf, as Catherine hung back again. “I tell you it is all right. This is where we are to be.”
They moved on through the new passage in the direction that seemed right to Rolf, passing through other corridors and chambers. The sound of the stream in the tunnel was lost somewhere behind them. In time they reached a room where the air was warm and their breath no longer steamed.
Time had hardly entered here as yet. There were many metal cabinets and racks, seeming perfectly preserved, filled with equipment Rolf could not begin to guess the purpose of, but which yet gave him an impression of a high degree of organization.
On the most prominent panel at one end of the room stood bold symbols that he could not read, but which he recognized as having the look of certain Old World writings that he had seen before:
AUTOMATIC RESTORATION DIRECTOR-NATIONAL EXECUTIVE HEADQUARTERS
The voice was pleasant, masculine but not heavily so. It came from somewhere in the cabinetry behind the lettering. Rolf did not even start at the sound, but only raised his eyes; he knew at once that it was Ardneh calling him. Catherine had almost literally jumped with surprise, and now stood poised as if to flee; but she waited with her eyes on Rolf.
Rolf said: “Ardneh?”, half expecting a figure to materialize. But there were only the metallic-looking cabinets, from one of which the voice of Ardneh issued again.
“Do not fear me, Catherine. Do not fear, Rolf; for years you and I have known each other, dimly, but in trust.”
“I do not fear you, Ardneh, no,” said Rolf. He held out a hand, and Catherine came slowly to his side. “You can show yourself, Ardneh, and we will not be afraid.”
“I have no flesh to showyou, Rolf. Nor am I of pure energy, like an elemental or a djinn. But I am of the West, and I need your help.”
“That is why we are here.” Rolf paused. “Are you then like Elephant that I once knew, some war machine of the Old World? But no, you have life and thought, where Elephant was mindless as a sword.”
“You are partly right,” said Ardneh’s voice. “I am, or was, what you call a machine, and made by men of the Old World. But I was not made to fight a war, I was made to restore a peace. And for a long time I have, as you say, had life and thought.”
Rolf turned around. “Where are you, then?”
“All around you. Each shelf and cabinet contains some part of me. As you see, I depend heavily on Old World technology, and it is because of your natural talent in such matters that I chose you and brought you here. The object you have brought me is important, but your own presence, Rolf and Catherine, is equally so.”
Rolf put his hand on the pouch he carried. Ardneh said: “Bring what you call the gem along the path I will now show you. There is a test that must be made before my plans go further.”
The lights in the room dimmed abruptly, but brightened beyond a doorway, in one external corridor. As Rolf and Catherine entered this corridor and followed it, the brightening of the lights moved on ahead of them, from one ceiling panel to another. After many winding passages, interspersed here and there with descending stairs, they: entered another room, larger than that where Ardneh had first spoken and crowded with a number of strange devices. Into one of these, a simple-looking crystalline case surrounded by a number of heavy metal rings, Ardneh told Rolf to drop the gem.
“And now leave this room,” said Ardneh’s voice, this time from a wall. “The test had better be made without human beings present.” Leaving the chamberwith Catherine, Rolf noticed doors as thick as castle walls, sliding from concealment to seal the passage behind them. Once more the overhead light danced on, leading them back to the room in which Ardneh had first spoken.
“Sit down, if you wish,” Ardneh said when they were there again; and they seated themselves on the floor. “There is much I must tell you, for it is going to be necessary for you to tell others the truth about me; more than I dare now explain in the world outside these chambers, but which must be explained before many more days have passed.
“I was built by war-planners of the Old World, as part of a system of defense. But not as a destructive device. My oldest purpose is to defend mankind, and so I am of the West today, though there was no East or West when I was built. My basic nature is peaceful, so it has taken me long to develop weapons of my own to enter battle. The object you have brought me will add to the physical strength I can exert, if the test I am now conducting has a favorable result. More of that later.
“My builders meant their defense system to save the world, and in a sense it did. But they called on powers they did not fully understand and could not wholly control, and in saving the world they changed it, so drastically that their civilization could not survive. This was the great Change of which humans still speak, and it divided the Old World from the new.