“Yuruk,” I whispered, “you love us as the wheat field loves the hail; we are as welcome to you as the death cord to the condemned. Lo, a door opened into a land of unpleasant dreams you thought sealed, and we came through. Answer my questions truthfully and it may be that we shall return through that door.”
Interest welled up in the depths of the black eyes.
“There is a way from here,” he muttered. “Nor does it pass through — Them. I can show it to you.”
I had not been blind to the flash of malice, of cunning, that had shot across the wrinkled face.
“Where does that way lead?” I asked. “There were those who sought us; men clad in armor with javelins and arrows. Does your way lead to them, Yuruk?”
For a time he hesitated, the lashless lids half closed.
“Yes,” he said sullenly. “The way leads to them; to their place. But will it not be safer for you there — among your kind?”
“I don’t know that it will,” I answered promptly. “Those who are unlike us smote those who are like us and drove them back when they would have taken and slain us. Why is it not better to remain with them than to go to our kind who would destroy us?”
“They would not,” he said “If you gave them — her.” He thrust a long thumb backward toward sleeping Ruth. “Cherkis would forgive much for her. And why should you not? She is only a woman.”
He spat — in a way that made me want to kill him.
“Besides,” he ended, “have you no arts to amuse him?”
“Cherkis?” I asked.
“Cherkis,” he whined. “Is Yuruk a fool not to know that in the world without, new things have arisen since long ago we fled from Iskander into the secret valley? What have you to beguile Cherkis beyond this woman flesh? Much, I think. Go then to him — unafraid.”
Cherkis? There was a familiar sound to that. Cherkis? Of course — it was the name of Xerxes, the Persian Conqueror, corrupted by time into this — Cherkis. And Iskander? Equally, of course — Alexander. Ventnor had been right.
“Yuruk,” I demanded directly, “is she whom you call goddess — Norhala — of the people of Cherkis?”
“Long ago,” he answered; “long, long ago there was trouble in their city, even in the great dwelling place of Cherkis. I fled with her who was the mother of the goddess. There were twenty of us; and we fled here — by the way which I will show you —”
He leered cunningly; I gave no sign of interest.
“She who was the mother of the goddess found favor in the sight of the ruler here,” he went on. “But after a time she grew old and ugly and withered. So he slew her — like a little mound of dust she danced and blew away after he had slain her; and also he slew others who had grown displeasing to him. He blasted me — as he was blasted —” He pointed to Ventnor.
“Then it was that, recovering, I found my crooked shoulder. The goddess was born here. She is kin to Him Who Rules! How else could she shed the lightnings? Was not the father of Iskander the god Zeus Ammon, who came to Iskander’s mother in the form of a great snake? Well? At any rate the goddess was born — shedder of the lightnings even from her birth. And she is as you see her.
“Cleave to your kind! Cleave to your kind!” Suddenly he shrilled. “Better is it to be whipped by your brother than to be eaten by the tiger. Cleave to your kind. Look — I will show you the way to them.”
He sprang to his feet, clasped my wrist in one of his long hands, led me through the curtained oval into the cylindrical hall, parted the curtainings of Norhala’s bedroom and pushed me within. Over the floor he slid, still holding fast to me, and pressed against the farther wall.
An ovoid slice of the gemlike material slid aside, revealing a doorway. I glimpsed a path, a trail, leading into a forest pallid green beneath the wan light. This way thrust itself like a black tongue into the boskage and vanished in the depths.
“Follow it.” He pointed. “Take those who came with you and follow it.”
The wrinkles upon his face writhed with his eagerness.
“You will go?” panted Yuruk. “You will take them and go by that path?”
“Not yet,” I answered absently. “Not yet.”
And was brought abruptly to full alertness, vigilance, by the flame of rage that filled the eyes thrust so close.
“Lead back,” I directed curtly. He slid the door into place, turned sullenly. I followed, wondering what were the sources of the bitter hatred he so plainly bore for us; the reasons for his eagerness to be rid of us despite the commands of this woman who to him at least was goddess.
And by that curious human habit of seeking for the complex when the simple answer lies close, failed to recognize that it was jealousy of us that was the root of his behavior; that he wished to be, as it would seem he had been for years, the only human thing near Norhala; failed to realize this, and with Ruth and Drake was terribly to pay for this failure.
I looked down upon the pair, sleeping soundly; upon Ventnor lost still in trance.
“Sit,” I ordered the eunuch. “And turn your back to me.”
I dropped down beside Drake, my mind wrestling with the mystery, but every sense alert for movement from the black. Glibly enough I had passed over Dick’s questioning as to the consciousness of the Metal People; now I faced it knowing it to be the very crux of these incredible phenomena; admitting, too, that despite all my special pleading, about that point swirled in my own mind the thickest mists of uncertainty. That their sense of order was immensely beyond a man’s was plain.
As plain was it that their knowledge of magnetic force and its manipulation were far beyond the sphere of humanity. That they had realization of beauty this palace of Norhala’s proved — and no human imagination could have conceived it nor human hands have made its thought of beauty real. What were their senses through which their consciousness fed?
Nine in number had been the sapphire ovals set within the golden zone of the Disk. Clearly it came to me that these were sense organs!
But — nine senses!
And the great stars — how many had they? And the cubes — did they open as did globe and pyramid?
Consciousness itself — after all what is it? A secretion of the brain? The cumulative expression, wholly chemical, of the multitudes of cells that form us? The inexplicable governor of the city of the body of which these myriads of cells are the citizens — and created by them out of themselves to rule?
Is it what many call the soul? Or is it a finer form of matter, a self-realizing force, which uses the body as its vehicle just as other forces use for their vestments other machines? After all, I thought, what is this conscious self of ours, the ego, but a spark of realization running continuously along the path of time within the mechanism we call the brain; making contact along that path as the electric spark at the end of a wire?
Is there a sea of this conscious force which laps the shores of the farthest-flung stars; that finds expression in everything — man and rock, metal and flower, jewel and cloud? Limited in its expression only by the limitations of that which animates, and in essence the same in all. If so, then this problem of the life of the Metal People ceased to be a problem; was answered!
So thinking I became aware of increasing light; strode past Yuruk to the door and peeped out. Dawn was paling the sky. I stooped over Drake, shook him. On the instant he was awake, alert.
“I only need a little sleep, Dick,” I said. “When the sun is well up, call me.”
“Why, it’s dawn,” he whispered. “Goodwin, you ought not to have let me sleep so long. I feel like a damned pig.”
“Never mind,” I said. “But watch the eunuch closely.”
I rolled myself up in his warm blanket; sank almost instantly into dreamless slumber.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53