Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“As I will showyou soon, the world was changed by another machine, or rather by a part of me that has long since done its work and been dismantled. The part of me that still exists, was created to end the Change when the time was ripe. The builders did not really expect that the changes in the world wrought by their defenses would be so great that I would be needed, but they doubted and feared enough to make me and to put the powers of restoration under my control if they should be needed. They thought that fifty thousand years must pass before the proper time for restoration came. But only now has it arrived. The odds for the survival of mankind, if the restoration is accomplished in this year, in this month, are better than they have been at any time since the Change, or are likely to be in the estimable future.”

Rolf asked: “And when this restoration you speak of is made, will it destroy the East?”

“I hope it will.”

“Then let us restore the Old World, if you think that we of the West can live in it.”

Ardneh seemed to ignore his advice, and Rolf had the uncomfortable feeling that he had been talking of things he knew nothing about.

Silently the overhead lights once more began their dance, leading them back to the room wherein they had left the mysterious gem. The heavy doors had reopened, and Rolf and Catherine entered to stare at the case in which they had left the ebon sphere. The sphere had been replaced by, or transformed into, a pearly, weightless-looking ball of light of about the same size. Looking at it, Rolf had the impression of effortless, tremendous power.

“It is what I thought it was,” Ardneh’s voice explained. “And my plans can now go forward.”

“What?” Catherine whispered, staring in fascination.

“What atechnologist of the Old World would have called the magnetohydrodynamic core of a hydrogen-fusion power lamp. From it I can draw renewed power, which is very important. Also important is what it shows. The fact that I have been able to change it from a gem back into what it was in the Old World, is a sure proof that the Change is weakening; that the restoration can be made.”

Rolf sighed. “Ardneh, there is still much of this we do not understand. And you say it is necessary that we do so.”

“Again, follow the lights. Watch and listen for a little while and then there will be time for food and rest.”

This time they were led alongyet another branching of the passageways, and to a still lower level. With every minute the buried complex housing Ardneh was revealed as larger, and there was no reason to think they had seen it all as yet.

In a room that must have been far below the level of the outside ground, but where the air was fresh and dry and comfortably warm, were couches covered in some leather-like substance that creaked and crackled with age when Rolf and Catherine lay down, but did not crumble. Above each couch and pointed at its head were clustered metal rods, suspended from somewhere in the obscurity above the lights.

The lights dimmed. “Now you will sleep,” said Ardneh. And so it was.

To Rolf there soon came a dream, so clear and methodical a dream that he knew it was not natural. Although he knew he was dreaming, he did not waken. He was drifting, no more than a disembodied viewpoint, watching people who he somehow knew were of the Old World. They were strangely dressed, and spoke to one another in a tongue unknown to Rolf, as they went about tasks that he at first found completely incomprehensible. Then he saw that they were pouring lakes into buried caverns, lakes not of water but seemingly of sparkling, coruscating liquid light.

Ardneh’s voice, also bodiless, said: “Rolf, those lakes were one attempt to prevent the Old World from destroying itself, by strengthening the powers of life. I was another attempt.”

“I know what those lakes of life were like, Ardneh, for I saw one spilled in the Black Mountains. Is there one that Duncan can make use of, to restore his men fallen in battle?”

“I think there are no more such lakes left in the whole world, Rolf. Watch, now. This dream that you see is something made by some leaders of the Old World, to show other folk of that time how well they were to be protected against war.”

And Rolf, in the strange embrace of the bed which he no longer felt, settled himself to watch the dream. With only partial comprehension, despite Ardneh’s occasionally interjected words of explanation, he watched as in scene after scene strangely-uniformed men and women built, armed, tested and concealed long finned cylinders, which Ardneh explained were rocket-driven missiles. Missiles were carried in strange craft moving hidden under the seas, were secreted in underground silos, were hung soaring in patient readiness so high above the ground that great earth itself became nothing but a ball. Small missiles intended to destroy large missiles were made in great numbers also, and one scene showed racks of these defensive weapons that swung out quickly from an artificial hillside.

Next, interspersed with views of men and women laboring at tasks even harder to understand, Rolf watched workers assembling the multitudinous cabinets of Ardneh in his cave. Or at least in some deep shelter. Rolf could not really recognize the uninhabited shelter in which he knew his sleeping body lay. Nor did the countryside around the site in the Old World much resemble that of Rolf’s time, except that there were very few people in either.

“What are those things, Ardneh?”

“They are called heat-exchangers. They are sunk deep into the earth and draw power from it. Through the ages when all atomic devices were inoperative, I drew power from the heat-exchangers, and I draw it still. And now, Rolf, Catherine, behold the last days of the Old World, and its changing. First, what those who made me foresaw might happen; next, what actually did happen, as I later pieced it together.”

Now the dream unrolling before Rolf with vivid precision no longer showed perfectly lifelike people and events, but instead what seemed to be a series of drawings that moved and spoke in close imitation of life. They were marvelous drawings, such as no artist known to Rolf could have fashioned. But they were lifeless nonetheless.

Rolf saw in this bloodless world of moving drawings how the huge missiles were fired in sudden salvos, taking flight from their many places of concealment. In swarms and clouds they leaped up high, ranged around the globe of earth, and fell again. As theirblunt heads detached and multiplied themselves, down-curving toward their targets, the small missiles sprang up to meet them, shooting like darts from hidden defensive nests. When an offensive missile passed in killing range of a defender, a blast seared the upper air, and both were gone.

But the attack was too heavy; destructive devices from halfway around the world were falling upon the helpless-looking cities of Ardneh’s builders. Only seconds remained before disaster. At once, the Ardneh portrayed in the moving drawings was shown fully alerted. To him-to it, rather, there was no sign that this Ardneh was intended to be, or thought to be, alive-was passed control of the ultimate defense.

With the help of Ardneh and the Old World dream machine Rolf was able to comprehend that this defense was in the nature of an experiment, involving the use offerees that must engulf the entire planet once they were unleashed, that were feared by some to be irreversible. They were newly-discovered forces that had never been tested and would not be tested now if destruction were not certain otherwise. The ultimate defense against atomic attack worked by robbing certain types of energy from certain atomic and subatomic configurations of matter, making the fusion or fission of nuclei enormously less likely.

A quick flicker in the drawings showed a subtle wave of change spreading out from the Ardneh-machine’s emplacement, passing over the threatened cities of the homeland moments before the enemy’s missiles struck within them. No murderous blasts erupted; the impacting warheads did no more damage than so many catapulted rocks.

What had happened to the enemy country was not apparent; but suddenly things at home were tranquil once again. A stylized drawing-man reached to touch one of Ardneh’s control panels, and with the neatness of a folding parasol the protective change that Ardneh had thrown out was folded up, withdrawn, undone.

“So much for the plan,” said Ardneh’s voice, in present time. “And now behold what truly happened, at the changing of the world.”

The visionary narrative of attack and defense began over again, with little change at first in the substance of the story. Again the offensive missiles came from around the world, launched in greater numbers and with more deceptive aids than could be dealt with by the conventional defense of short-range countermissiles. The Ardneh-machine was alerted in the first minutes of the great war, while the enemy attack was still no more than a network of trajectories in space, perceived and plotted by the defenders. While destruction was still minutes away, the counterattack was launched; whether Ardneh succeeded or failed, it seemed that the enemy must die.

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