Her eyes closed, her body relaxed; the potion had done its work quickly. We laid her beside Ventnor on the pile of silken stuffs, covered them both with a fold, then looked at each other long and silently — and I wondered whether my face was as grim and drawn as his.
“It appears,” he said at last, curtly, “that it’s up to you and me for powwow quick. I hope you’re not sleepy.”
“I am not,” I answered as curtly; the edge of nerves in his manner of questioning doing nothing to soothe my own, “and even if I were I would hardly expect to put all the burden of the present problem upon you by going to sleep.”
“For God’s sake don’t be a prima donna,” he flared up. “I meant no offense.”
“I’m sorry, Dick,” I said. “We’re both a little jumpy, I guess.” He nodded; gripped my hand.
“It wouldn’t be so bad,” he muttered, “if all four of us were all right. But Ventnor’s down and out, and God alone knows for how long. And Ruth — has all the trouble we have and some special ones of her own. I’ve an idea”— he hesitated —“an idea that there was no exaggeration in that story she told — an idea that if anything she underplayed it.”
“I, too,” I replied somberly. “And to me it is the most hideous phase of this whole situation — and for reasons not all connected with Ruth,” I added.
“Hideous!” he repeated. “Unthinkable — yet all this is unthinkable. And still — it is! And Ventnor — coming back — that way. Like a lost soul finding voice.
“Was it raving, Goodwin? Or could he have been — how was it he put it — in touch with these Things and their purpose? Was that message — truth?”
“Ask yourself that question,” I said. “Man — you know it was truth. Had not inklings of it come to you even before he spoke? They had to me. His message was but an interpretation, a synthesis of facts I, for one, lacked the courage to admit.”
“I, too,” he nodded. “But he went further than that. What did he mean by the Keeper of the Cones — and that the Things — were vulnerable under the same law that orders us? And why did he command us to go back to the city? How could he know — how could he?”
“There’s nothing inexplicable in that, at any rate,” I answered. “Abnormal sensitivity of perception due to the cutting off of all sensual impressions. There’s nothing uncommon in that. You have its most familiar form in the sensitivity of the blind. You’ve watched the same thing at work in certain forms of hypnotic experimentation, haven’t you?
“Through the operation of entirely understandable causes the mind gains the power to react to vibrations that normally pass unperceived; is able to project itself through this keying up of perception into a wider area of consciousness than the normal. Just as in certain diseases of the ear the sufferer, though deaf to sounds within the average range of hearing, is fully aware of sound vibrations far above and far below those the healthy ear registers.”
“I know,” he said. “I don’t need to be convinced. But we accept these things in theory — and when we get up against them for ourselves we doubt.
“How many people are there in Christendom, do you think, who believe that the Saviour ascended from the dead, but who if they saw it today would insist upon medical inspection, doctor’s certificates, a clinic, and even after that render a Scotch verdict? I’m not speaking irreverently — I’m just stating a fact.”
Suddenly he moved away from me, strode over to the curtained oval through which Norhala had gone.
“Dick,” I cried, following him hastily, “where are you going? What are you going to do?”
“I’m going after Norhala,” he answered. “I’m going to have a showdown with her or know the reason why.”
“Drake,” I cried again, aghast, “don’t make the mistake Ventnor did. That’s not the way to win through. Don’t — I beg you, don’t.”
“You’re wrong,” he answered stubbornly. “I’m going to get her. She’s got to talk.”
He thrust out a hand to the curtains. Before he could touch them, they were parted. Out from between them slithered the black eunuch. He stood motionless, regarding us; in the ink-black eyes a red flame of hatred. I pushed myself between him and Drake.
“Where is your mistress, Yuruk?” I asked.
“The goddess has gone,” he replied sullenly.
“Gone?” I said suspiciously, for certainly Norhala had not passed us. “Where?”
“Who shall question the goddess?” he asked. “She comes and she goes as she pleases.”
I translated this for Drake.
“He’s got to show me,” he said. “Don’t think I’m going to spill any beans, Goodwin. But I want to talk to her. I think I’m right, honestly I do.”
After all, I reflected, there was much in his determination to recommend it. It was the obvious thing to do — unless we admitted that Norhala was superhuman; and that I would not admit. In command of forces we did not yet know, en rapport with these People of Metal, sealed with that alien consciousness Ruth had described — all these, yes. But still a woman — of that I was certain. And surely Drake could be trusted not to repeat Ventnor’s error.
“Yuruk,” I said, “we think you lie. We would speak to your mistress. Take us to her.”
“I have told you that the goddess is not here,” he said. “If you do not believe it is nothing to me. I cannot take you to her for I do not know where she is. Is it your wish that I take you through her house?”
“It is,” I said.
“The goddess has commanded me to serve you in all things.” He bowed, sardonically. “Follow.”
Our search was short. We stepped out into what for want of better words I can describe only as a central hall. It was circular, and strewn with thick piled small rugs whose hues had been softened by the alchemy of time into exquisite, shadowy echoes of color.
The walls of this hall were of the same moonstone substance that had enclosed the chamber upon whose inner threshold we were. They whirled straight up to the dome in a crystalline, cylindrical cone. Four doorways like that in which we stood pierced them. Through each of their curtainings in turn we peered.
All were precisely similar in shape and proportions, radiating in a lunetted, curved base triangle from the middle chamber; the curvature of the enclosing globe forming back wall and roof; the translucent slicings the sides; the circle of floor of the inner hall the truncating lunette.
The first of these chambers was utterly bare. The one opposite held a half-dozen suits of the lacquered armor, as many wicked looking, short and double-edged swords and long javelins. The third I judged to be the lair of Yuruk; within it was a copper brazier, a stand of spears and a gigantic bow, a quiver full of arrows leaning beside it. The fourth room was littered with coffers great and small, of wood and of bronze, and all tightly closed.
The fifth room was beyond question Norhala’s bedchamber. Upon its floor the ancient rugs were thick. A low couch of carven ivory inset with gold rested a few feet from the doorway. A dozen or more of the chests were scattered about and flowing over with silken stuffs.
Upon the back of four golden lions stood a high mirror of polished silver. And close to it, in curiously incongruous domestic array stood a stiffly marshaled row of sandals. Upon one of the chests were heaped combs and fillets of shell and gold and ivory studded with jewels blue and yellow and crimson.
To all of these we gave but a passing glance. We sought for Norhala. And of her we found no shadow. She had gone even as the black eunuch had said; flitting unseen past Ruth, perhaps, absorbed in her watch over her brother; perhaps through some hidden opening in this room of hers.
Yuruk let drop the curtains, sidled back to the first room, we after him. The two there had not moved. We drew the saddlebags close, propped ourselves against them.
The black eunuch squatted a dozen feet away, facing us, chin upon his knees, taking us in with unblinking eyes blank of any emotion. Then he began to move slowly his tremendously long arms in easy, soothing motion, the hands running along the floor upon their talons in arcs and circles. It was curious how these hands seemed to be endowed with a volition of their own, independent of the arms upon which they swung.
And now I could see only the hands, shuttling so smoothly, so rhythmically back and forth — weaving so sleepily, so sleepily back and forth — black hands that dripped sleep — hypnotic.
Hypnotic! I sprang from the lethargy closing upon me. In one quick side glance I saw Drake’s head nodding — nodding in time to the movement of the black hands. I jumped to my feet, shaking with an intensity of rage unfamiliar to me; thrust my pistol into the wrinkled face.
“Damn you!” I cried. “Stop that. Stop it and turn your back.”
The corded muscles of the arms contracted, the claws of the slithering paws drew in as though he were about to clutch me; the ebon pools of eyes were covered with a frozen film of hate.
He could not have known what was this tube with which I menaced him, but its threat he certainly sensed and was afraid to meet. He squattered about, wrapped his arms around his knees, crouched with back toward us.
“What’s the matter?” asked Drake drowsily.
“He tried to hypnotize us,” I answered shortly. “And pretty nearly did.”
“So that’s what it was.” He was now wide awake. “I watched those hands of his and got sleepier and sleepier — I guess we’d better tie Mr. Yuruk up.” He jumped to his feet.
“No,” I said, restraining him. “No. He’s safe enough as long as we’re on the alert. I don’t want to use any force on him yet. Wait until we know we can get something worth while by doing it.”
“All right,” he nodded, grimly. “But when the time comes I’m telling you straight, Doc, I’m going the limit. There’s something about that human spider that makes me itch to squash him — slowly.”
“I’ll have no compunction — when it’s worth while,” I answered as grimly.
We sank down again against the saddlebags; Drake brought out a black pipe, looked at it sorrowfully; at me appealingly.
“All mine was on that pony that bolted,” I answered his wistfulness.
“All mine was on my beast, too,” he sighed. “And I lost my pouch in that spurt from the ruins.”
He sighed again, clamped white teeth down upon the stem.
“Of course,” he said at last, “if Ventnor was right in that — that disembodied analysis of his, it’s rather — well, terrifying, isn’t it?”
“It’s all of that,” I replied, “and considerably more.”
“Metal, he said,” Drake mused. “Things of metal with brains of thinking crystal and their blood the lightnings. You accept that?”
“So far as my own observation has gone — yes,” I said. “Metallic yet mobile. Inorganic but with all the quantities we have hitherto thought only those of the organic and with others added. Crystalline, of course, in structure and highly complex. Activated by magnetic-electric forces consciously exerted and as much a part of their life as brain energy and nerve currents are of our human life. Animate, moving, sentient combinations of metal and electric energy.”
“The opening of the Disk from the globe and of the two blasting stars from the pyramids show the flexibility of the outer — plate would you call it? I couldn’t help thinking of the armadillo after I had time to think at all.”
“It may be”— I struggled against the conviction now strong upon me —“it may be that within that metallic shell is an organic body, something soft — animal, as there is within the horny carapace of the turtle, the nacreous valves of the oyster, the shells of the crustaceans — it may be that even their inner surface is organic —”
“No,” he interrupted, “if there is a body — as we know a body — it must be between the outer surface and the inner, for the latter is crystal, jewel hard, impenetrable.
“Goodwin — Ventnor’s bullets hit fair. I saw them strike. They did not ricochet — they dropped dead. Like flies dashed up against a rock — and the Thing was no more conscious of their striking than a rock would have been of those flies.”
“Drake,” I said, “my own conviction is that these creatures are absolutely metallic, entirely inorganic — incredible, unknown forms. Let us go on that basis.”
“I think so, too,” he nodded; “but I wanted you to say it first. And yet — is it so incredible, Goodwin? What is the definition of vital intelligence — sentience?
“Haeckel’s is the accepted one. Anything which can receive a stimulus, that can react to a stimulus and retains memory of a stimulus must be called an intelligent, conscious entity. The gap between what we have long called the organic and the inorganic is steadily decreasing. Do you know of the remarkable experiments of Lillie upon various metals?”
“Vaguely,” I said.
“Lillie,” he went on, “proved that under the electric current and other exciting mediums metals exhibited practically every reaction of the human nerve and muscle. It grew weary, rested, and after resting was perceptibly stronger than before; it got what was practically indigestion, and it exhibited a peculiar but unmistakable memory. Also, he found, it could acquire disease and die.
“Lillie concluded that there existed a real metallic consciousness. It was Le Bon who first proved also that metal is more sensitive than man, and that its immobility is only apparent. (Le Bon in “Evolution of Matter,” Chapter eleven.)
“Take the block of magnetic iron that stands so gray and apparently lifeless, subject it to a magnetic current lifeless, what happens? The iron block is composed of molecules which under ordinary conditions are disposed in all possible directions indifferently. But when the current passes through there is tremendous movement in that apparently inert mass. All of the tiny particles of which it is composed turn and shift until their north poles all point more or less approximately in the direction of the magnetic force.
“When that happens the block itself becomes a magnet, filled with and surrounded by a field of magnetic energy; instinct with it. Outwardly it has not moved; actually there has been prodigious motion.”
“But it is not conscious motion,” I objected.
“Ah, but how do you know?” he asked. “If Jacques Loeb is right, that action of the iron molecules is every bit as conscious a movement as the least and the greatest of our own. There is absolutely no difference between them.
“Your and my and its every movement is nothing but an involuntary and inevitable reaction to a certain stimulus. If he’s right, then I’m a buttercup — but that’s neither here nor there. Loeb — all he did was to restate destiny, one of humanity’s oldest ideas, in the terms of tropisms, infusoria and light. Omar Khayyam chemically reincarnated in the Rockefeller Institute. Nevertheless those who accept his theories have to admit that there is essentially no difference between their impulses and the rush of filings toward a magnet.
“Equally nevertheless, Goodwin, the iron does meet Haeckel’s three tests — it can receive a stimulus, it does react to that stimulus and it retains memory of it; for even after the current has ceased it remains changed in tensile strength, conductivity and other qualities that were modified by the passage of that current; and as time passes this memory fades. Precisely as some human experience increases wariness, caution, which keying up of qualities remains with us after the experience has passed, and fades away in the ratio of our sensitivity plus retentiveness divided by the time elapsing from the original experience — exactly as it is in the iron.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58