Meredith lowered his binoculars. He set off, down the side of the slope. A rat ran by him, a huge gray rat. He drew his knife quickly, but the rat went on. Rats — they were bad. They carried the germs.
Half an hour after his counter clicked again, this time with wild frenzy. He retreated. A pit of ruins yawned ahead, a bomb crater, not yet overgrown. It would be better to go around it. He circled off to one side, moving slowly, warily. Once the counter clicked, but that was all. A fast burst, like bullets flying. Then silence. He was safe.
Later in the day he ate more of his rations and sipped water from the canteen. It would not be long. Before nightfall he would be there. He would go down the ruined streets, toward the sprawling mass of stone and columns that was its house. He would mount the steps. It had been described to him many times. Each stone was carefully listed on the map back at the Shelter. He knew by heart the street that led there, to the house. He knew how the great doors lay on their faces, broken and split. He knew how the dark, empty corridors would look inside. He would pass into the vast chamber, the dark room of bats and spiders and echoing sounds. And there it would be. The Great C. Waiting silently, waiting to hear the questions. Three — just three. It would hear them. Then it would ponder, consider. Inside, it would whirr and flash. Parts, rods, switches and coils would move. Relays would open and shut.
Would it know the answers?
He went on. Far ahead, beyond miles of tangled forest land, the outline of the ruins grew.
The sun was beginning to set as he climbed the side of a hill of boulders and looked down at what had once been a city. He took his belt-light and snapped it on. The light dimmed and wavered; the little cells inside were almost gone. But he could see the ruined streets and heaps of rubble. The remains of a city in which his grandfather had lived.
He climbed down the boulders and dropped with a thud onto the street. His counter clicked angrily, but he ignored it. There was no other entrance. This was the only way. On the other side a wall of slag cut off everything. He walked slowly, breathing deeply. In the twilight gloom a few birds perched on the stones, and once in a while a lizard slithered off, disappearing into a crack. There was life here, of a sort. Birds and lizards that had adapted themselves to crawling among the bones and remains of buildings. But nothing else came this way, no tribes, no large animals. Most life, even the wild dogs, stayed away from this kind of place. And he could see why.
On he went, flashing his feeble light from side to side. He skirted a gaping hole, part of an underground shelter. Ruined guns stuck up starkly on each side of him, their barrels bent and warped. He had never fired a gun, himself. Their tribe had very few metal weapons. They depended mostly on what they could make, spears and darts. Bows and arrows. Stone clubs.
A colossus rose up before him. The remains of an enormous building. He flashed his light up, but the beam did not carry far enough for him to make it out. Was this the house? No. It was farther. He went on, stepping over what had once been a street barricade, slats of metal, bags of spilled sand, barbed wire.
A moment later he came to it.
He stopped, his hands on his hips, staring up the concrete steps at the black cavity that was the door. He was there. In a moment there would be no turning back. If he went on now, he would be committed. He would have made his decision as soon as his boots touched the steps. It was only a short distance beyond the gaping door, down a winding corridor, in the center of the building.
For a long time Meredith stood, deep in thought, rubbing his black beard. What should he do? Should he run, turn and go back the way he had come? He could shoot enough animals with his gun to stay alive. Then north —
No. They were counting on him to ask the three questions. If he did not, then someone else would have to come later on. There was no turning back. The decision had already been made. It had been made when he had been chosen. Now it was far too late.
He started up the rubbled steps, flashing his light ahead. At the entrance he stopped. Above him were some words, cut in the concrete. He knew a few letters, himself. Could he make these out? Slowly, he spelled: FEDERAL RESEARCH STATION 7 SHOW PERMIT ON DEMAND
The words meant nothing to him. Except, perhaps, the word “federal.” He had heard it before, but he could not place it. He shrugged. It did not matter. He went on.
It took only a few minutes to negotiate the corridors. Once, he turned right by mistake and found himself in a sagging courtyard, littered with stones and wiring, overgrown with dark, sticky weeds. But after that he went correctly, touching the wall with his hand to keep from making a wrong turn. Occasionally his counter ticked, but he ignored it. At last a rush of dry, fetid air blew up in his face and the concrete wall beside him abruptly ended. He was there. He flashed his light around him. Ahead was an aperture, an archway. This was it. He looked up. More words, this time on a metal plate bolted to the concrete.
DIVISION OF COMPUTATION
ONLY AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ADMITTED
ALL OTHERS KEEP OUT
He smiled. Words, signs. Letters. All gone, all forgotten. He went on, passing through the arch. More air blew around him, rushing past him. A startled bat flapped past. By the ring of his boots he knew that the chamber was huge, larger than he had imagined. He stumbled over something and stopped quickly, flashing his light.
At first he could not make out what they were. The chamber was filled with things, rows of things, upright, crumbling, hundreds of them. He stood, frowning and puzzling. What were they? Idols? Statues? Then he understood. They were things to sit on. Rows of chairs, rotting away, breaking into bits. He kicked at one and it fell into a heap, dust rising in a cloud, dispersing into the darkness. He laughed out loud.
“Who is there?” a voice came.
He froze. His mouth opened, but no sound came. Sweat rose on his skin, tiny drops of icy sweat. He swallowed, rubbing his lips with stiff fingers.
“Who is there?” the voice came again, a metallic voice, hard and penetrating, without warmth to it. An emotionless voice. A voice of steel and brass. Relays and switches.
The Great C!
He was afraid, more afraid than ever in his life. His body was shaking terribly. Awkwardly, he moved down the aisle, past the ruined seats, flashing his light ahead.
A bank of lights glimmered, far ahead, above him. There was a whirr. The Great C was coming to life, aware of him, rousing itself from its lethargy. More lights winked into life, more sounds of switches and relays.
“Who are you?” it said.
“I — I’ve come with questions.” Meredith stumbled forward, toward the bank of lights. He struck a metal rail and reeled back, trying to regain his balance. “Three questions. I must ask you.”
There was silence.
“Yes,” the Great C said finally. “It is time for the questions again. You have prepared them for me?”
“Yes. They are very difficult. I don’t think that you will find them easy. Maybe you won’t be able to answer them. We –”
“I will answer. I have always answered. Come up closer.”
Meredith moved down the aisle, avoiding the rail.
“Yes, I will know. You think they will be difficult. You people have no conception of the questions put to me in times past. Before the Smash I answered questions that you could not even conceive. I answered questions that took days of calculating. It would have taken men months to find the same answers on their own.”
Meredith began to pluck up some courage. “Is it true,” he said, “that men came from all over the world to ask you questions?”
“Yes. Scientists from everywhere asked me things, and I answered them. There was nothing I didn’t know.”
“How — how did you come into existence?”
“Is that one of your three questions?”
“No.” Meredith shook his head quickly. “No, of course not.”
“Come nearer,” the Great C said. “I can’t make your form out. You are from the tribe just beyond the city?”
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