Kelly gasped. She grabbed her handbag, unsnapping it. Jennings put the slip of paper, the parcel receipt, back in his pocket. “So he saw even that,” he murmured. “The last of the trinkets. I wondered what it was for.”
Kelly groped frantically in her purse, her face wild. She brought out a slip of paper, waving it.
“You’re wrong! Here it is! It’s still here.” She relaxed a little. “I don’t know what you have, but this is –”
In the air above them something moved. A dark space formed, a circle. The space stirred. Kelly and Rethrick stared up, frozen.
From the dark circle a claw appeared, a metal claw, joined to a shimmering rod. The claw dropped, swinging in a wide arc. The claw swept the paper from Kelly’s fingers. It hesitated for a second. Then it drew itself up again, disappearing with the paper, into the circle of black. Then, silently, the claw and the rod and the circle blinked out. There was nothing. Nothing at all.
“Where — where did it go?” Kelly whispered. “The paper. What was that?”
Jennings patted his pocket. “It’s safe. It’s safe, right here. I wondered when he would show up. I was beginning to worry.”
Rethrick and his daughter stood, shocked into silence.
“Don’t look so unhappy,” Jennings said. He folded his arms. “The paper’s safe — and the Company’s safe. When the time comes it’ll be there, strong and very glad to help out the revolution. We’ll see to that, all of us, you, me and your daughter.”
He glanced at Kelly, his eyes twinkling. “All three of us. And maybe by that time there’ll be even more members to the family!”
The Great C
He was not told the questions until just before it was time to leave. Walter Kent drew him aside from the others. Putting his hands on Meredith’s shoulders, he looked intently into his face.
“Remember that no one has ever come back. If you come back you’ll be the first. The first in fifty years.”
Tim Meredith nodded, nervous and embarrassed, but grateful for Kent’s words. After all, Kent was the Tribe Leader, an impressive old man with iron-gray hair and beard. There was a patch over his right eye, and he carried two knives at his belt, instead of the usual one. And it was said he had knowledge of letters.
“The trip itself takes not much over a day. We’re giving you a pistol. There are bullets, but no one knows how many of them are good. You have your food?”
Meredith fumbled in his pack. He brought out a metal can with a key attached. “This should be enough,” he said, turning the can over.
Meredith rattled his canteen.
“Good.” Kent studied the young man. Meredith was dressed in leather boots, a hide coat, and leggings. His head was protected by a rusty metal helmet. Around his neck binoculars hung from a rawhide cord. Kent touched the heavy gloves that covered Meredith’s hands. “That’s the last pair of those,” he said. “We won’t see anything like them again.”
“Shall I leave them behind?”
“We’ll hope they — and you — come back.” Kent took him by the arm and moved even farther away, so that no one would hear. The rest of the tribe, the men and women and children, stood silently together at the lip of the Shelter, watching. The Shelter was concrete, reinforced by poles that had been cut from time to time. Once, in a remote past, a network of leaves and branches had been suspended over the lip, but that had all rotted away as the wires corroded and broke. Anyhow, there was nothing in the sky these days to notice a small circle of concrete, the entrance to the vast underground chambers in which the tribe lived.
“Now,” Kent said. “The three questions.” He leaned close to Meredith. “You have a good memory?”
“Yes,” Meredith said.
“How many books have you committed to memory?”
“I’ve only had six books read to me,” Meredith murmured. “But I know them all.”
“That’s enough. All right, listen. We’ve been a whole year deciding on these questions. Unfortunately we can ask only three, so we’ve chosen carefully.” And, so saying, he whispered the questions into Meredith’s ear.
There was silence afterward. Meredith thought over the questions, turning them around in his mind. “Do you think the Great C will be able to answer them?” he said at last.
“I don’t know. They’re difficult questions.”
Meredith nodded. “They are. Let’s pray.”
Kent slapped him on the shoulder. “All right, then. You’re ready to go. If everything goes right, you’ll be back here in two days. We’ll be watching for you. Good luck, boy.”
“Thanks,” Meredith said. He walked slowly back to the others. Bill Gustavson handed him the pistol without a word, his eyes gleaming with emotion.
“A compass,” John Page said, stepping away from his woman. He handed a small military compass to Meredith. His woman, a young brunette captured from a neighboring tribe, smiled encouragingly at him.
Meredith turned. Anne Fry was running toward him. He reached out, taking hold of her hands. “I’ll be all right,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
“Tim.” She looked up at him wildly. “Tim, you be careful. Will you?”
“Of course.” He grinned, running his hand awkwardly through her thick short hair. “I’ll come back.” But in his heart there was a coldness, a block of hardening ice. The chill of death. He pulled suddenly away from her. “Goodbye,” he said to all of them.
The tribe turned and walked away. He was alone. There was nothing to do but go. He ran over the three questions once more. Why had they picked him? But someone had to go and ask. He moved toward the edge of the clearing.
“Good-bye,” Kent shouted, standing with his sons.
Meredith waved. A moment later he plunged into the forest, his hand on his knife, the compass clutched tightly to him.
He walked steadily, swinging the knife from side to side, cutting creepers and branches that got in his way. Occasionally huge insects scurried in the grass ahead of him. Once he saw a purple beetle, almost as large as his fist. Had there been such things before the Smash? Probably not. One of the books he had learned was about lifeforms in the world, before the Smash. He could not remember anything about large insects. Animals were kept in herds and killed regularly, he recalled. No one hunted or trapped.
That night he camped on a slab of concrete, the foundation of a building that no longer existed. Twice he awoke, hearing things moving nearby, but nothing approached him, and when the sun appeared again he was unharmed. He opened his ration tin and ate from it. Then he gathered up his things and went on. Toward the middle of the day the counter at his waist began to tick ominously. He stopped, breathing deeply and considering.
He was getting near the ruins, all right. From now on he could expect radiation pools continually. He patted the counter. It was a good thing to have. Presently he advanced a short distance, walking carefully. The ticking died; he had passed the pool. He went up a slope, cutting his way through the creepers. A horde of butterflies rose up in his face and he slashed at them. He came to the top and stood, raising the binoculars to his eyes.
Far off, there was a splash of black in the center of the endless expanse of green. A burned-out place. A great swathe of ruined land, fused metal and concrete. He caught his breath. This was the ruins; he was getting close. For the first time in his life he was actually seeing the remains of a city, the pillars and rubble that had once been buildings and streets.
A wild thought leaped through his mind. He could hide, not go on! He could lie in the bushes and wait. Then, when everyone thought he was dead, when the tribe scouts had gone back, he could slip north, past them, beyond and away.
North. There was another tribe there, a large tribe. With them he would be safe. There was no way they could find him, and anyhow, the northern tribe had bombs and bacteriaspheres. If he could get to them —
No. He took a deep shuddering breath. It was wrong. He had been sent on this trip. Each year a youth went, as he was going now, with three carefully-planned questions. Difficult questions. Questions that no man knew answers for. He ran the questions over in his mind. Would the Great C be able to answer them? All three of them? It was said the Great C knew everything. For a century it had answered questions, within its vast ruined house. If he did not go, if no youth were sent — He shuddered. It would make a second Smash, like the one before. It had done it once; it could do it again. He had no choice but to go on.
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