We stood at the edge of a well whose walls were of that same green vaporous iridescence through which we had just come, but finer grained, compact; as though here the corpuscles of which they were woven were far closer spun. Thousands of feet above us the mighty cylinder uprose, and in the lessened circle that was its mouth I glimpsed the bright stars; and knew by this it opened into the free air.
All of half a mile in diameter was this shaft, and ringed regularly along its height by wide amethystine bands — like rings of a hollow piston. They were, in color, replicas of that I had glimpsed before our descent into this place and against whose gleaming cataracts the outlines of the incredible city had lowered. And they were in motion, spinning smoothly, and swiftly.
Only one swift glance I gave them, my eyes held by a most extraordinary — edifice — altar — machine — I could not find the word for it — then.
Its base was a scant hundred yards from where we had paused and concentric with the sides of the pit. It stood upon a thick circular pedestal of what appeared to be cloudy rock crystal supported by hundreds of thick rods of the same material.
Up from it lifted the structure, a thing of glistening cones and spinning golden disks; fantastic yet disquietingly symmetrical; bizarre as an angled headdress worn by a mountainous Javanese god — yet coldly, painfully mathematical. In every direction the cones pointed, seemingly interwoven of strands of metal and of light.
What was their color? It came to me — that of the mysterious element which stains the sun’s corona, that diadem seen only when our day star is in eclipse; the unknown element which science has named coronium, which never yet has been found on earth and that may be electricity in its one material form; electricity that is ponderable; force whose vibrations are keyed down to mass; power transmuted into substance.
Thousands upon thousands the cones bristled, pyramiding to the base of one tremendous spire that tapered up almost to the top of the shaft itself.
In their grouping the mind caught infinite calculations carried into infinity; an apotheosis of geometry compassing the rhythms of unknown spatial dimensions; concentration of the equations of the star hordes.
The mathematics of the Cosmos.
From the left of the crystalline base swept an enormous sphere. It was twice the height of a tall man, and it was a paler blue than any of these Things I had seen, almost, indeed, an azure; different, too, in other subtle, indefinable ways.
Behind it glided a pair of the pyramidal shapes, their pointed tips higher by a yard or more than the top of the sphere. They paused — regarding us. Out from the opposite arc of the crystal pedestal moved six other globes, somewhat smaller than the first and of a deep purplish luster.
They separated, lining up on each side of the leader now standing a little in advance of the twin tetrahedrons, rigid and motionless as watching guards.
There they stood — that enigmatic row, intent, studying us beneath their god or altar or machine of cones and disks within their cylinder walled with light.
And at that moment there crystallized within my consciousness the sublimation of all the strangenesses of all that had gone before, a panic loneliness as though I had wandered into an alien world — a world as unfamiliar to humanity, as unfamiliar with it as our own would seem to a thinking, mobile crystal adrift among men.
Norhala raised her white arms in salutation; from her throat came a lilting theme of her weirdly ordered, golden chanting. Was it speech, I wondered; and if so — prayer or entreaty or command?
The great sphere quivered and undulated. Swifter than the eye could follow it dilated; opened!
Where the azure globe had been, flashed out a disk of flaming splendors, the very secret soul of flowered flame! And simultaneously the pyramids leaped up and out behind it — two gigantic, four-rayed stars blazing with cold blue fires.
The green auroral curtainings flared out, ran with streaming radiance — as though some Spirit of Jewels had broken bonds of enchantment and burst forth jubilant, flooding the shaft with its freed glories. Norhala’s song ceased; an arm dropped down upon the shoulders of Ruth.
Then woman and girl began to float toward the radiant disk.
As one, the three of us sprang after them. I felt a shock that was like a quick, abrupt tap upon every nerve and muscle, stiffening them into helpless rigidity.
Paralyzing that sharp, unseen contact had been, but nothing of pain followed it. Instead it created an extraordinary acuteness of sight and hearing, an abnormal keying up of the observational faculties, as though the energy so mysteriously drawn from our motor centers had been thrown back into the sensory.
I could take in every minute detail of the flashing miracle of gemmed fires and its flaming ministers. Halfway between them and us Norhala and Ruth drifted; I could catch no hint of voluntary motion on their part and knew that they were not walking, but were being borne onward by some manifestation of that same force which held us motionless.
I forgot them in my contemplation of the Disk.
It was oval, twenty feet in height, I judged, and twelve in its greatest width. A broad band, translucent as sun golden chrysolite, ran about its periphery.
Set within this zodiac and spaced at mathematically regular intervals were nine ovoids of intensely living light. They shone like nine gigantic cabochon cut sapphires; they ranged from palest, watery blue up through azure and purple and down to a ghostly mauve shot with sullen undertones of crimson.
In each of them was throned a flame that seemed the very fiery essence of vitality.
The — BODY— was convex, swelling outward like the boss of a shield; shimmering rosy-gray and crystalline. From the vital ovoids ran a pattern of sparkling threads, irised and brilliant as floss of molten jewels; converging with interfacings of spirals, of volutes and of triangles into the nucleus.
And that nucleus, what was it?
Even now I can but guess — brain in part as we understand brain, certainly; but far, far more than that in its energies, its powers.
It was like an immense rose. An incredible rose of a thousand close clustering petals. It blossomed with a myriad shifting hues. And instant by instant the flood of varicolored flame that poured into its petalings down from the sapphire ovoids waxed and waned in crescendoes and diminuendoes of relucent harmonies — ecstatic, awesome.
The heart of the rose was a star of incandescent ruby.
From the flaming crimson center to aureate, flashing penumbra it was instinct with and poured forth power — power vast and conscious.
Not with that same completeness could I realize the ministering star shapes, half hidden as they were by the Disk. Their radiance was less, nor had they its miracle of pulsing gem fires. Blue they were, blue of a peculiar vibrancy, and blue were the glistening threads that ran down from blue-black circular convexities set within each of the points visible to me.
Unlike in shape, their flame of vitality dimmer than the ovoids of the Disk’s golden zone, still I knew that they were even as those — ORGANS, organs of unknown senses, unknown potentialities. Their nuclei I could not observe.
The floating figures had drawn close to that disk and had paused.
And on the moment of their pausing I felt a surge of strength, a snapping of the spell that had bound us, an instantaneous withdrawal of the inhibiting force. Ventnor broke into a run, holding his rifle at the alert. We raced after him; were close to the shining shapes. And, gasping, we stopped short not a dozen paces away.
For Norhala had soared up toward the flaming rose of the Disk as though lifted by gentle, unseen hands. Close to it for an instant she swung. I saw the exquisite body gleam through her thin robes as though bathed in soft flames of rosy pearl.
Higher she floated, and toward the right of the zodiac. From the edges of three of the ovoids swirled a little cloud of tentacles, gossamer filaments of opal. They whipped out a full yard from the Disk’s surface, touching her, caressing her.
For a moment she hung there, her face hidden from us; then was dropped softly to her feet and stood, arms stretched wide, her copper hair streaming cloudily about her regal head.
And up past her floated Ruth, levitated as had been she — and her face, ecstatic as though she were gazing into Paradise, yet drenched with the tranquillity of the infinite. Her wide eyes stared up toward that rose of splendors through which the pulsing colors now raced more swiftly. She hung poised before it while around her head a faint aureole began to form.
Again the gossamer threads thrust forth, searched her. They ran over her rough clothing — perplexedly. They coiled about her neck, stole through her hair, brushed shut her eyes, circled her brow, her breasts, girdled her.
Weirdly was it like some intelligence observing, studying, some creature of another species — puzzled by its similarity and unsimilarity with the one other creature of its kind it knew, and striving to reconcile those differences. And like such a questioning brain calling upon others for counsel, it swung Ruth upward to the watching star at the right.
A rifle shot rang out.
Another — the reports breaking the silence like a profanation. Unseen by either of us, Ventnor had slipped to one side where he could cover the core of ruby flame that must have seemed to him the heart of the Disk’s rose of fire. He knelt a few yards away, white lipped, eyes cold gray ice, sighting carefully for a third shot.
“Don’t! Martin — don’t fire!” I shouted, leaping toward him.
“Stop! Ventnor —” Drake’s panic cry mingled with my own.
But before we could reach him, Norhala flew to him, like a darting swallow. Down the face of the Disk glided the upright body of Ruth, struck softly, stood swaying.
And out of the blue-black convexity within a star point of one of the opened pyramids a lance of intense green flame darted, a lightning bolt as real as any hurled by tempest, upon Ventnor.
The shattered air closed behind the streaming spark with the sound of breaking glass.
It struck — Norhala.
It struck her. It seemed to splash upon her, to run down her like water. One curling tongue writhed over her bare shoulder and leaped to the barrel of the rifle in Ventnor’s hands. It flashed up it and licked him. The gun was torn from his grip, hurled high in air, exploding as it went. He leaped convulsively from his knees and dropped.
I heard a wailing, low, bitter and heartbroken. Past us ran Ruth, all dream, all unearthliness gone from a face now a tragic mask of human woe and terror. She threw herself down beside her brother, felt of his heart; then raised herself upon her knees and thrust out supplicating hands to the shapes.
“Don’t hurt him any more! He didn’t mean it!” she cried out to them piteously — like a child. She reached up, caught one of Norhala’s hands. “Norhala — don’t let them kill him. Don’t let them hurt him any more. Please!” she sobbed.
Beside me I heard Drake cursing.
“If they touch her I’ll kill the woman! I will, by God I will!” He strode to Norhala’s side.
“If you want to live, call off these devils of yours.” His voice was strangled.
She looked at him, wonder deepening on the tranquil brow, in the clear, untroubled gaze. Of course she could not understand his words — but it was not that which made my own sick apprehension grow.
It was that she did not understand what called them forth. Did not even understand what reason lay behind Ruth’s sorrow, Ruth’s prayer.
And more and more wondering grew in her eyes as she looked from the threatening Drake to the supplicating Ruth, and from them to the still body of Ventnor.
“Tell her what I say, Goodwin. I mean it.”
I shook my head. That was not the way, I knew. I looked toward the Disk, still flanked with its sextette of spheres, still guarded by the flaming blue stars. They were motionless, calm, watching. I sensed no hostility, no anger; it was as though they were waiting for us to — to — waiting for us to do what?
It came to me — they were indifferent. That was it — as indifferent as we could be to the struggle of an ephemera; and as mildly curious.
“Norhala,” I turned to the woman, “she would not have him suffer; she would not have him die. She loves him.”
“Love?” she repeated, and all of her wonderment seemed crystallized in the word. “Love?” she asked.
“She loves him,” I said; and then, why I did not know, but I added, pointing to Drake: “and he loves her.”
There was a tiny, astonished sob from Ruth. Again Norhala brooded over her. Then with a little despairing shake of her head, she paced over and faced the great Disk.
Tensely we waited. Communication there was between them, interchange of — thought; how carried out I would not hazard even to myself.
But of a surety these two — the goddess woman, the wholly unhuman shape of metal, of jeweled fires and conscious force — understood each other.
For she turned, stood aside — and the body of Ventnor quivered, arose from the floor, stood upright and with closed eyes, head dropping upon one shoulder, glided toward the Disk like a dead man carried by those messengers never seen by man who, the Arabs believe, bear the death drugged souls before Allah for their awakening.
Ruth moaned and hid her eyes; Drake reached down, gathered her up in his arms, held her close.
Ventnor’s body stood before the Disk, then swam up along its face. The tendrils waved out, felt of it, thrust themselves down through the wide collar of the shirt. The floating form passed higher, over the edge of the Disk; lay high beside the right star point of the rayed shape to which Ruth had been passing when Ventnor’s shot brought the tragedy upon us. I saw other tentacles whip forth, examine, caress.
Then down the body swung, was borne through air, laid gently at our feet.
“He is not — dead,” it was Norhala beside me; she lifted Ruth’s face from Drake’s breast. “He will not die. It may be he will walk again. They can not help,” there was a shadow of apology in her tones. “They did not know. They thought it was the”— she hesitated as though at loss for words —“the — the Fire Play.”
“The Fire Play?” I gasped.
“Yes,” she nodded. “You shall see it. And now I will take him to my house. You are safe — now, nor need you trouble. For he has given you to me.”
“Who has given us to you — Norhala?” I asked, as calmly as I could.
“He”— she nodded to the Disk, then spoke the phrase that was both ancient Assyria’s and ancient Persia’s title for their all-conquering rulers, and that meant —“the King of Kings. The Great King, Master of Life and Death.”
She took Ruth from Drake’s arms, pointing to Ventnor.
“Bear him,” she commanded, and led the way back through the walls of light.
As we lifted the body, I slipped my hand through the shirt, felt at the heart. Faint was the pulsation and slow, but regular.
Close to the encircling vapors I cast one look behind me. The shapes stood immobile, flashing disks, gigantic radiant stars and the six great spheres beneath their geometric super-Euclidean god or shrine or machine of interwoven threads of luminous force and metal — still motionless, still watching.
We emerged into the place of pillars. There stood the hooded pony and its patience, its uncomplaining acceptance of its place as servant to man brought a lump into my throat, salved, I suppose, my human vanity, abased as it had been by the colossal indifference of those things to which we were but playthings.
Again Norhala sent forth her call. Out of the maze glided her quintette of familiars; again the four clicked into one. Upon its top we lifted, Drake ascending first, the pony; then the body of Ventnor.
I saw Norhala lead Ruth to the remaining cube; saw the girl break away from her, leap beside me, and kneeling at her brother’s head, cradle it against her soft breast. Then as I found in the medicine case the hypodermic needle and the strychnine for which I had been searching, I began my examination of Ventnor.
The cubes quivered — swept away through the forest of columns.
We crouched, the three of us, blind to anything that lay about us, heedless of whatever road of wonders we were on, striving to strengthen in Ventnor the spark of life so near extinction.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11