“Granted,” I acquiesced. “We now come to their means of locomotion. In its simplest terms all locomotion is progress through space against the force of gravitation. Man’s walk is a series of rhythmic stumbles against this force that constantly strives to drag him down to earth’s face and keep him pressed there. Gravitation is an etheric — magnetic vibration akin to the force which holds, to use your simile again, Drake, the filing against the magnet. A walk is a constant breaking of the current.
“Take a motion picture of a man walking and run it through the lantern rapidly and he seems to be flying. We have none of the awkward fallings and recoveries that are the tempo of walking as we see it.
“I take it that the movement of these Things is a conscious breaking of the gravitational current just as much as is our own movement, but by a rhythm so swift that it appears to be continuous.
“Doubtless if we could so control our sight as to admit the vibrations of light slowly enough we would see this apparently smooth motion as a series of leaps — just as we do when the motion-picture operator slows down his machine sufficiently to show us walking in a series of stumbles.
“Very well — so far, then, we have nothing in this phenomenon which the human mind cannot conceive as possible; therefore intellectually we still remain masters of the phenomena; for it is only that which human thought cannot encompass which it need fear.”
“Metallic,” he said, “and crystalline. And yet — why not? What are we but bags of skin filled with certain substances in solution and stretched over a supporting and mobile mechanism largely made up of lime? Out of that primeval jelly which Gregory calls Protobion came after untold millions of years us with our skins, our nails, and our hair; came, too, the serpents with their scales, the birds with their feathers; the horny hide of the rhinoceros and the fairy wings of the butterfly; the shell of the crab, the gossamer loveliness of the moth and the shimmering wonder of the mother-of-pearl.
“Is there any greater gap between any of these and the metallic? I think not.”
“Not materially,” I answered. “No. But there remains — consciousness!”
“That,” he said, “I cannot understand. Ventnor spoke of — how did he put it? — a group consciousness, operating in our sphere and in spheres above and below ours, with senses known and unknown. I got — glimpses — Goodwin, but I cannot understand.”
“We have agreed for reasons that seem sufficient to us to call these Things metallic, Dick,” I replied. “But that does not necessarily mean that they are composed of any metal that we know. Nevertheless, being metal, they must be of crystalline structure.
“As Gregory has pointed out, crystals and what we call living matter had an equal start in the first essentials of life. We cannot conceive life without giving it the attribute of some sort of consciousness. Hunger cannot be anything but conscious, and there is no other stimulus to eat but hunger.
“The crystals eat. The extraction of power from food is conscious because it is purposeful, and there can be no purpose without consciousness; similarly the power to work from such derived energy is also purposeful and therefore conscious. The crystals do both. And the crystals can transmit all these abilities to their children, just as we do. For although there would seem to be no reason why they should not continue to grow to gigantic size under favorable conditions — yet they do not. They reach a size beyond which they do not develop.
“Instead, they bud — give birth, in fact — to smaller ones, which increase until they reach the size of the
preceding generation. And like the children of man and animals, these younger generations grow on precisely as their progenitors!
“Very well, then — we arrive at the conception of a metallically crystalline being, which by some explosion of the force of evolution has burst from the to us familiar and apparently inert stage into these Things that hold us. And is there any greater difference between the forms with which we are familiar and them than there is between us and the crawling amphibian which is our remote ancestor? Or between that and the amoeba — the little swimming stomach from which it evolved? Or the amoeba and the inert jelly of the Protobion?
“As for what Ventnor calls a group consciousness I would assume that he means a communal intelligence such as that shown by the bees and the ants — that in the case of the former Maeterlinck calls the ‘Spirit of the Hive.’ It is shown in their groupings — just as the geometric arrangement of those groupings shows also clearly their crystalline intelligence.
“I submit that in their rapid coordination either for attack or movement or work without apparent communication having passed between the units, there is nothing more remarkable than the swarming of a hive of bees where also without apparent communication just so many waxmakers, nurses, honey-gatherers, chemists, bread-makers, and all the varied specialists of the hive go with the old queen, leaving behind sufficient number of each class for the needs of the young queen.
“All this apportionment is effected without any means of communication that we recognize. Still it is most obviously intelligent selection. For if it were haphazard all the honeymakers might leave and the hive starve, or all the chemists might go and the food for the young bees not be properly prepared — and so on and so on.”
“But metal,” he muttered, “and conscious. It’s all very well — but where did that consciousness come from? And what is it? And where did they come from? And most of all, why haven’t they overrun the world before this?
“Such development as theirs, such an evolution, presupposes aeons of time — long as it took us to drag up from the lizards. What have they been doing — why haven’t they been ready to strike — if Ventnor’s right — at humanity until now?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, helplessly. “But evolution is not the slow, plodding process that Darwin thought. There seem to be explosions — nature will create a new form almost in a night. Then comes the long ages of development and adjustment, and suddenly another new race appears.
“It might be so of these — some extraordinary conditions that shaped them. Or they might have developed through the ages in spaces within the earth — there’s that incredible abyss we saw that is evidently one of their highways. Or they might have dropped here upon some fragment of a broken world, found in this valley the right conditions and developed in amazing rapidity.* They’re all possible theories — take your pick.”
“Something’s held them back — and they’re rushing to a climax,” he whispered. “Ventnor’s right about that — I feel it. And what can we do?”
“Go back to their city,” I said. “Go back as he ordered. I believe he knows what he’s talking about. And I believe he’ll be able to help us. It wasn’t just a request he made, nor even an appeal — it was a command.”
“But what can we do — just two men — against these Things?” he groaned.
“Maybe we’ll find out — when we’re back in the city,” I answered.
“Well,” his old reckless cheerfulness came back to him, “in every crisis of this old globe it’s been up to one man to turn the trick. We’re two. And at the worst we can only go down fighting a little before the rest of us. So, after all, whatEVER the hell, WHAT the hell.”
For a time we were silent.
“Well,” he said at last, “we have to go to the city in the morning.” He laughed. “Sounds as though we were living in the suburbs, somehow, doesn’t it?”
“It can’t be many hours before dawn,” I said. “Turn in for a while, I’ll wake you when I think you’ve slept enough.”
“It doesn’t seem fair,” he protested, but sleepily.
“I’m not sleepy,” I told him; nor was I.
But whether I was or not, I wanted to question Yuruk, uninterrupted and undisturbed.
Drake stretched himself out. When his breathing showed him fast asleep indeed, I slipped over to the black eunuch and crouched, right hand close to the butt of my automatic, facing him.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53