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.
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?"
"How many are there of you?"
"There are more children all the time." Meredith swelled a little, with pride. "I, myself, have had children by eight women."
"Marvelous," the Great C said, but Meredith could not tell how it meant it. There was a moment of silence.
"I have a gun," Meredith said. "A pistol."
He lifted it. "I've never fired a pistol before. We have bullets, but I don't know if they still work."
"What is your name?" the Great C said.
"Meredith. Tim Meredith."
"You are a young man, of course."
"I can see you fairly well," the Great C said, ignoring his question. "Part of my equipment was destroyed in the Smash but I can still see a little. Originally, I scanned mathematical questions visually. It saved time. I see you are wearing a helmet and binoculars. And army boots. Where did you get them? Your tribe does not make such things, does it?"
"No. They were found in underground lockers."
"Military equipment left over from the Smash," the Great C said. "United Nations equipment, by the color."
"Is it true that -- that you could make a second Smash come? Like the first? Could you really do it again?"
"Of course! I could do it any time. Right now."
"How?" Meredith asked cautiously. "Tell me how."
"The same way as before," the Great C said vaguely. "I did it before -- as your tribe well knows."
"Our legends tell us that all the world was put to the fire. Made suddenly terrible by -- by atoms. And that you invented atoms, delivered them to the world. Brought them down from above. But we do not know how it was done."
"I will never tell you. It is too terrible for you ever to know. It is better forgotten."
"Certainly, if you say so," Meredith murmured. "Man has always listened to you. Come and asked and listened."
The Great C was silent. "You know," it said presently, "I have existed a long time. I remember life before the Smash. I could tell you many things about it. Life was much different then. You wear a beard and hunt animals in the woods. Before the Smash there were no woods. Only cities and farms. And men were clean-shaven. Many of them wore white clothing, then. They were scientists. They were very fine. I was constructed by scientists."
"What happened to them?"
"They left," the Great C said vaguely. "Do you recognize the name, Einstein? Albert Einstein?"
"He was the greatest scientist. Are you sure you don't know the name?" The Great C sounded disappointed. "I answered questions even he could not have answered. There were other Computers, then, but none so grand as I."
"What is your first question?" the Great C said. "Give it to me and I will answer it."
Sudden fear gripped Meredith, surging over him. His knees shook. "The first question?" He murmured. "Let me see. I must consider."
"Have you forgotten?"
"No. I must arrange them in order." He moistened his lips, stroking his black beard nervously. "Let me think. I'll give you the easiest one first. However, even it is very difficult. The Leader of the Tribe --"
Meredith nodded. He glanced up, swallowing. When he spoke his voice was dry and husky. "The first question. Where -- where does --"
"Louder," the Great C said.
Meredith took a deep breath. "Where does the rain come from?" he said.
There was silence.
"Do you know?" he said, waiting tensely. Rows of lights moved above him. The Great C was meditating, considering. It whirred, a low, throbbing sound. "Do you know the answer?"
"Rain comes originally from the earth, mostly from the oceans," the Great C said. "It rises into the air by a process of evaporation. The agent of the process is the heat of the sun. The moisture of the oceans ascends in the form of minute particles. These particles, when they are high enough, enter a colder band of air. At this point, condensation occurs. The moisture collects into great clouds. When a sufficient amount is collected the water descends again in drops. You call the drops rain."
Meredith rubbed his chin numbly, nodding.
"I see." He nodded again. "That is the way it occurs?"
"Of course. What is the second question? That was not very hard. You have no conception of the knowledge and information that lies stored within me. Once, I answered questions the greatest minds of the world could not make out. At least, not as fast as I. What's the next question?"
"This is much more difficult." Meredith smiled weakly. The Great C had answered the question about rain, but surely it could not know the answer to this question. "Tell me," he said slowly. "Tell me if you can: What keeps the sun moving through the sky? Why doesn't it stop? Why doesn't it fall to the ground?"
The Great C gave a funny whirr, almost a laugh. "You will be astonished at the answer. The sun does not move. At least, what you see as motion is not motion at all. What you see is the motion of the earth as it revolves around the sun. Since you are on the earth it seems as if you were standing still and the sun were moving. That is not so. All the nine planets, including the earth, revolve about the sun in regular elliptical orbits. They have been doing so for millions of years. Does that answer your question?
Meredith's heart constricted. He began to tremble violently. At last he managed to pull himself together. "I can hardly believe it. Are you telling the truth?"
"For me there is only truth," the Great C said. "It is impossible for me to lie. What is the third question?"
"Wait," Meredith said thickly. "Let me think a moment." He moved away. "I must consider."
"Wait." Meredith stepped back. He squatted down on the floor, staring dully ahead. It was not possible. The Great C had answered the first questions without trouble! But how could it know such things? How could anyone know things about the sun? About the sky? The Great C was imprisoned in its house. How could it know that the sun did not move? His mind reeled. How could it know about something it had not seen? Books, perhaps. He shook his head, trying to clear it. Perhaps, before the Smash, someone had read books on it. He scowled, setting his lips. Probably that was it. He stood up slowly.
"Are you ready now?" the Great C said. "Ask."
"You can't possibly answer this. No living creature could know. Here is the question. How did the world begin?" Meredith smiled. "You could not know. You did not exist before the world. Therefore, it is impossible that you could know."
"There are several theories," the Great C said calmly. "The most satisfactory is the nebular hypothesis. According to this, a gradually shrinking --"
Meredith listened, stunned, only half hearing the words. Could it be? Could the Great C really know how the world had been formed? He drew himself together, trying to catch the words.
"... There are several ways to verify this theory, giving it credence over the others. Of the others, the most popular, although in disrepute of late, is the theory that a second star once approached our own, causing a violent --"
On and on the Great C went, warming up to its subject. Clearly, it enjoyed the question. Clearly, this was the type of question that had been asked of it in the dim past, before the Smash. All three questions, questions the Tribe had worked on for an entire year, had been easily answered. It did not seem possible. He was stunned.
The Great C finished. "Well?" it said. "Are you satisfied? You can see that I know the answers. Did you really imagine that I would not be able to answer?"
Meredith said nothing. He was dazed, terrified with shock and fear. Sweat ran down his face, into his beard. He opened his mouth, but no words came.
"And now," the Great C said, "since I have been able to answer the questions, please step forward."
Meredith moved forward stiffly, gazing ahead as if in a trance. Around him light appeared, flickering into life, illuminating the room. For the first time he saw the Great C. For the first time the darkness lifted.
The Great C lay on its raised dais, an immense cube of dull, corroded metal. Part of the roof above it had been broken open, and blocks of concrete had dented its right side. Metal tubes and parts lay scattered around on the dais, broken and twisted elements that had been severed by the falling roof.
Once, the Great C had been shiny. Now the cube was dirty and stained. Water had dripped through the broken roof, rain and dirt washed down the walls. Birds had flown down and perched on it, leaving feathers and filth behind. In the original destruction, most of the connecting wires had been cut, the wiring from the cube to the control panel.
And with the metal and wire remnants scattered and heaped around the dais were something else. Littering the dais in a circle before the Great C were piles of bones. Bones and parts of clothing, metal belt buckles, pins, a helmet, some knives, a ration tin.
Remains of the fifty youths who had come before, each with his three questions to ask. Each hoping, praying, that the Great C would not know the answers.
"Step up," the Great C said.
Meredith stepped up on the dais. Ahead of him a short metal ladder led to the top of the cube. He mounted the ladder without comprehension, his mind blank and dazed, moving like a machine. A portion of the metal surface of the cube grated, sliding back.
Meredith stared down. He was looking into a swirling vat of liquid. A vat within the bowels of the cube, in the very depths of the Great C. He hesitated, struggling suddenly, pulling back.
"Jump," the Great C said.
For a long moment Meredith stood on the edge, staring down into the vat, paralyzed with fear and horror. His head rang, his vision danced and blurred. The room began to tilt, spinning slowly around him. He was swaying, reeling back and forth.
"Jump," the Great C said.
A moment later the metal surface slid back into place. The surface of the cube was again unbroken.
Inside, in the depths of the machinery, the vat of hydrochloric acid swirled and eddied, plucking at the body lying inert within it. Presently the body began to dissolve, the component elements absorbed by pipes and ducts, flowing quickly to every part of the Great C. At last motion ceased. The vast cube became silent.
One by one the lights flickered out. The room was dark again.
The last act of absorption was the opening of a narrow slot in the front of the Great C. Something gray was expelled, ejected. Bones, and a metal helmet. They dropped into the piles before the cube, joining the refuse from the fifty who had come before. Then the last light went off and the machinery became silent. The Great C began its wait for the next year.
After the third day, Kent knew that the youth would not return. He came back to the Shelter with the Tribe scouts, his face dark, scowling and saying nothing.
"Another gone," Page said. "I was so damn sure it wouldn't be able to answer those three! A whole year's work gone."
"Will we always have to sacrifice to it?" Bill Gustavson asked. "Will this go on forever, year after year?"
"Some day, we'll find a question it can't answer," Kent said. "Then it'll let us alone. If we can stump it, then we won't have to feed it any more. If only we can find the right question!"
Anne Fry came toward him, her face white. "Walter?" she said.
"Has it always been -- been kept alive this way? Has it always depended on one of us to keep it going? I can't believe human beings were supposed to be used to keep a machine alive."
Kent shook his head. "Before the Smash it must have used some kind of artificial fuel. Then something happened. Maybe its fuel ducts were damaged or broken, and it changed its ways. I suppose it had to. It was like us, in that respect. We all changed our ways. There was a time when human beings didn't hunt and trap animals. And there was a time when the Great C didn't trap human beings."
"Why -- why did it make the Smash, Walter?"
"To show it was stronger than we."
"Was it always so strong? Stronger than man?"
"No. They say that, once, there was no Great C. That man himself brought it to life, to tell him things. But gradually it grew stronger, until at last it brought down the atoms -- and with the atoms, the Smash. Now it lives off us. Its power has made us slaves. It became too strong."
"But some day, the time will come when it won't know the answer," Page said.
"Then it will have to release us," Kent said, "according to tradition. It will have to stop using us for food."
Page clenched his fists, staring back across the forest. "Some day that time will come. Some day we'll find a question too hard for it!"
"Let's get started," Gustavson said grimly. "The sooner we begin preparing for next year, the better!"