Close beside us was one of the cyclopean columns. We crept to it; crouched at its base opposite the drift of the Metal People; strove, huddled there, to regain our shaken poise. Like bagatelles we felt in that tremendous place, the weird luminaries gleaming above like garlands of frozen suns, the enigmatic hosts of animate cubes and spheres and pyramids trooping past.
They ranged in size from shapes yard-high to giants of thirty feet or more. They paid no heed to us, did not stop; streaming on, engrossed in whatever mysterious business was summoning them. And after a time their numbers lessened; thinned down to widely separate groups, to stragglers; then ceased. The hall was empty of them.
As far as the eye could reach the columned spaces stretched. I was conscious once more of that unusual flow of energy through every vein and nerve.
“Follow the crowd!” said Drake. “Do you feel just full of pep and ginger, by the way?”
“I am aware of the most extraordinary vigor,” I answered.
“Some weird joint,” he mused, looking about him. “Wonder if they have any windows? This whole place looked solid to me — what I could see of it. Wonder if we’ll get up against it for air? These Things don’t need it, that’s sure. Wonder —”
He broke off staring fascinatedly at the pillar behind us.
“Look here, Goodwin!” There was a tremor in his voice. “What do you make of THIS?”
I followed his pointing finger; looked at him inquiringly.
“The eyes!” he said impatiently. “Don’t you see them? The eyes in the column!”
And now I saw them. The pillar was a pale metallic blue, in color a trifle darker than the Metal Folk. All within it were the myriads of tiny crystalline points that we had grown to know were the receptors of some strange sense of sight. But they did not sparkle as did those others; they were dull, lifeless. I touched the surface. It was smooth, cool — with none of that subtle, warm vitality that pulsed through all the Things with which I had come in contact. I shook my head, realizing as I did so what a shock the incredible possibility he had suggested had given me.
“No,” I said. “There is a resemblance, yes. But there is no force about this — stuff; no life. Besides, such a thing is utterly incredible.”
“They might be — dormant,” he suggested stubbornly. “Can you see any mark of their joining — if they ARE the cubes?”
Together we scanned the pillar minutely. The faces seemed unbroken, continuous; there was no trace of those thin and shining lines that marked the juncture of the cubes when they had clicked together to form the bridge of the abyss or that had gleamed, crosslike, upon the back of the combined four upon which we had followed Norhala.
“It’s a sheer impossibility. It’s madness to think such a thing, Drake!” I exclaimed, and wondered at my own vehemence of denial.
“Maybe,” he shook his head doubtfully. “Maybe — but — well — let’s be on our way.”
We strode on, following the direction the Metal Folk had gone. Clearly Drake was still doubtful; at each pillar he hesitated, scanning it closely with troubled eyes.
But I, having determinedly dismissed the idea, was more interested in the fantastic lights that flooded this columned hall with their buttercup radiance. They were still and unwinking; not disks, I could see now, but globes. Great and small, they floated motionless, their rays extending rigidly and as still as the orb that shed them.
Yet rigid as they were there was nothing about either rays or orbs that suggested either hardness or the metallic. They were vaporous, soft as St. Elmo’s fire, the witch lights that cling at times to the spars of ships, weird gleaming visitors from the invisible ocean of atmospheric electricity.
When they disappeared, as they did frequently, it was instantaneously, completely, with a disconcerting sleight-of-hand finality. I noted, though, that when they did vanish, immediately close to where they had been other orbs swam forth with that same astonishing abruptness; sometimes only one, larger it might be than that which had gone; sometimes a cluster of smaller globes, their frozen, crocused rays impinging.
What could they be, I wondered — how fixed, and what the source of their light? Products of electro-magnetic currents and born of the interpenetration of such streams flowing above us? Such a theory might account for their disappearance, and reappearance, shiftings of the flows that changed the light producing points of contact. Wireless lights? If so here was an idea that human science might elaborate if ever we returned to —
“Now which way?” Drake broke in upon my musing. The hall had ended. We stood before a blank wall vanishing into the soft mists hiding the roof of the chamber.
“I thought we had been going along the way They went,” I said in amazement.
“So did I,” he answered. “We must have circled. They never went through THAT unless — unless —” He hesitated.
“Unless what?” I asked sharply.
“Unless it opened and let them through,” he said. “Have you forgotten those great ovals — like cat’s eyes that opened in the outer walls?” he added quietly.
I HAD forgotten. I looked again at the wall. Certainly it was smooth, lineless. In one unbroken, shining surface it rose, a facade of polished metal. Within it the deep set points of light were duller even than they had been in the pillars; almost indeed indistinguishable.
“Go on to the left,” I said none too patiently. “And get that absurd notion out of your head.”
“All right.” He flushed. “But you don’t think I’m afraid, do you?”
“If what you’re thinking were true, you’d have a right to be,” I replied tartly. “And I want to tell you I’D be afraid. Damned afraid.”
For perhaps two hundred paces we skirted the base of the wall. We came abruptly to an opening, an oblong passageway fully fifty foot wide by twice as high. At its entrance the mellow, saffron light was cut off as though by an invisible screen. The tunnel itself was filled with a dim grayish blue luster. For an instant we contemplated it.
“I wouldn’t care to be caught in there by any rush,” I hesitated.
“There’s not much good in thinking of that now,” said Drake, grimly. “A few chances more or less in a joint of this kind is nothing between friends, Goodwin; take it from me. Come on.”
We entered. Walls, floor and roof were composed of the same substance as the great pillars, the wall of the outer chamber; filled like them with dimmed replicas of the twinkling eye points.
“Odd that all the places in here are square,” muttered Drake. “They don’t seem to have used any spherical or pyramidal ideas in their building — if it is a building.”
It was true. All was mathematically straight up and down and across. It was strange — still we had seen little as yet.
There was a warmth about this passageway we trod; a difference in the air of it. The warmth grew, a dry and baking heat; but stimulative rather than oppressive. I touched the walls; the warmth did not come from them. And there was no wind. Yet as we went on the heat increased.
The passageway turned at a right angle, continuing in a corridor half its former dimensions. Far away shone a high bar of pale yellow radiance, rising like a pillar of light from floor to roof. Toward it, perforce, we trudged. Its brilliancy grew greater.
A few paces away from it we stopped. The yellow luminescence streamed through a slit not more than a foot wide in the wall. We were in a cul-de-sac for the opening was not wide enough for either Drake or me to push through. Through it with the light gushed the curious heat enveloping us.
Drake walked to the opening, peered through. I joined him.
At first all that I could see was a space filled with the saffron lambency. Then I saw that this was splashed with tiny flashes of the jewel fires; little lances and javelin thrusts of burning emeralds and rubies; darting gem hard flames rose scarlet and pale sapphire; quick flares of violet.
Into my sight through the irised, crocus mist swam the radiant body of Norhala!
She stood naked, clad only in the veils of her hair that glowed now like spun silk of molten copper, her strange eyes wide and smiling, the galaxies of tiny stars sparkling through their gray depths.
And all about her swirled a countless host of the Little Things!
From them came the gem fires piercing the aureate mists. They played and frolicked about her in scores of swiftly forming, swiftly changing, goblin shapes. They circled her feet in shining, elfin rings; then opening into flaming disks and stars, shot up and spun about the white miracle of her body in great girdles of multi-colored living fires. Mingled with disk and star were tiny crosses gleaming with sullen, deep crimsons and smoky orange.
A flash of blue incandescence and a slender pillared shape leaped from the floor; became a coronet, a whirling, flashing halo toward which streamed up the flaming tendrilings of her tresses. Other halos circled her arms and breasts; they spun like bracelets about the outstretched arms.
Then like a swiftly rushing wave a host of the Little Things thrust themselves up, covered her, hid her in a coruscating cloud.
I saw an exquisite arm thrust itself from their clinging, wave gaily; saw her glorious head emerge from the incredible, the seething draperies of living jewels. I heard her laughter, sweet and golden and far away.
Goddess of the Inexplicable! Madonna of the Metal Babes!
The Nursery of the Metal People!
Norhala was gone, blotted out from our sight! Gone too were the bar of light and the chamber into which we had been peering. We stared at a smooth, blank wall. With that same ensorcelled swiftness the wall had closed even as we had stared through it; closed so quickly that we had not seen its motion.
I gripped Drake; shrank with him into the farthest corner — for on the other side of us the wall was opening. First it was only a crack; then rapidly it widened. There stretched another passageway, luminous and long; far down it we glimpsed movement. Closer that movement came, grew plainer. Out of the mistily luminous distances, three abreast and filling the corridor from side to side, raced upon us a company of the great spheres!
Back we cowered from their approach — back and back; arms outstretched, pressing against the barrier, flattening ourselves against the shock of the destroying impact menacing.
“It’s all up,” muttered Drake. “No place to run. They’re bound to smash us. Stick close, Doc. Get back to Ruth. Maybe I can stop them!”
Before I could check him, he had leaped straight in the path of the rushing globes, now a scant twoscore yards away.
The globes stopped — halted a few feet from him. They seemed to contemplate us, astonished. They turned upon themselves, as though consulting. Slowly they advanced. We were pushed forward and lifted gently. Then as we hung suspended, held by that force which always I can liken only to myriads of tiny invisible hands, the shining arcs of their backs undulated beneath us.
Their files swung around the corner and marched down the passage by which we had come from the immense hall. And when the last rank had passed from under us we were dropped softly to our feet; stood swaying in their wake.
A curious frenzy of helpless indignation shook me, a rage of humiliation obscuring all gratitude I should have felt for our escape. Drake’s eyes blazed wrath.
“The insolent devils!” He raised clenched fists. “The insolent, domineering devils!”
We stared after them.
Was the passage growing narrower — closing? Even as I gazed I saw it shrink; saw its walls slide silently toward each other. I pushed Drake into the newly opened way and sprang after him.
Behind us was an unbroken wall covering all that space in which but a moment before we had stood!
Is it to be wondered that a panic seized us; that we began to run crazily down the alley that still lay open before us, casting over our shoulders quick, fearful glances to see whether that inexorable, dreadful closing was continuing, threatening to crush us between these walls like flies in a vise of steel?
But they did not close. Unbroken, silent, the way stretched before us and behind us. At last, gasping, avoiding each other’s gaze, we paused.
And at that very moment of pause a deeper tremor shook me, a trembling of the very foundations of life, the shuddering of one who faces the inconceivable knowing at last that the inconceivable — IS.
For, abruptly, walls and floor and roof broke forth into countless twinklings!
As though a film had been withdrawn from them, as though they had awakened from slumber, myriads of little points of light shone forth upon us from the pale-blue surfaces — lights that considered us, measured us — mocked us.
The little points of living light that were the eyes of the Metal People!
This was no corridor cut through inert matter by mechanic art; its opening had been caused by no hidden mechanisms! It was a living Thing — walled and floored and roofed by the living bodies — of the Metal People themselves.
Its opening, as had been the closing of that other passage, was the conscious, coordinate and voluntary action of the Things that formed these mighty walls.
An action that obeyed, was directed by, the incredibly gigantic, communistic will which, like the spirit of the hive, the soul of the formicary, animated every unit of them.
A greater realization swept us. If THIS were true, then those pillars in the vast hall, its towering walls — all this City was one living Thing!
Built of the animate bodies of countless millions! Tons upon countless tons of them shaping a gigantic pile of which every atom was sentient, mobile — intelligent!
A Metal Monster!
Now I knew why it was that its frowning facade had seemed to watch us Argus-eyed as the Things had tossed us toward it. It HAD watched us!
That flood of watchfulness pulsing about us had been actual concentration of regard of untold billions of tiny eyes of the living block which formed the City’s cliff.
A City that Saw! A City that was Alive!
No secret mechanism then — back darted my mind to that first terror — had closed the wall, shutting from our sight Norhala at play with the Little Things. None had opened the way for, had closed the way behind, the coursing spheres. It had been done by the conscious action of the conscious Things of whose living bodies was built this whole tremendous thinking pile!
I think that for a moment we both went a little mad as that staggering truth came to us. I know we started to run once more, side by side, gripping like frightened children each other’s hands. Then Drake stopped.
“By all the HELL of this place,” he said, solemnly, “I’ll run no more. After all — we’re men. If they kill us, they kill us. But by the God who made me I’ll run from them no more. I’ll die standing.”
His courage steadied me. Defiantly we marched on. Up from below us, down from the roof, out from the walls of our way the hosts of eyes gleamed and twinkled upon us.
“Who could have believed it?” he muttered, half to himself. “A living city of them! A living nest of them; a prodigious living nest of metal!”
“A nest?” I caught the word. What did it suggest? That was it — the nest of the army ants, the city of the army ants, that Beebe had studied in the South American jungles and once described to me. After all, was this more wonderful, more unbelievable than that — the city of ants which was formed by their living bodies precisely as this was of the bodies of the Cubes?
How had Beebe phrased it —“the home, the nest, the hearth, the nursery, the bridal suite, the kitchen, the bed and board of the army ants.” Built of and occupied by those blind and dead and savage little insects which by the guidance of smell alone carried on the most intricate operations, the most complex activities. Nothing here was stranger than that, I reflected — if once one could rid the mind of the paralyzing influence of the shapes of the Metal Things. Whence came the stimuli that moved THEM, the stimuli to which THEY reacted?
Well then — whence and how came the orders to which the ANTS responded; that bade them open THIS corridor in their nest, close THAT, form this chamber, fill that one? Was one more mysterious than the other?
Breaking into my current of thoughts came consciousness that I was moving with increased speed; that my body was fast growing lighter.
Simultaneously with this recognition I felt myself lifted from the floor of the corridor and levitated with considerable rapidity forward; looking down I saw that floor several feet below me. Drake’s arm wound itself around my shoulder.
“Closing up behind us,” he muttered. “They’re putting us — out.”
It was, indeed, as though the passageway had wearied of our deliberate progress. Had decided to — give us a lift. Rearward it was shutting. I noted with interest how accurately this motion kept pace with our own speed, and how fluidly the walls seemed to run together.
Our movement became accelerated. It was as though we floated buoyantly, weightless, upon some swift stream. The sensation was curiously pleasant, languorous — what was that word Ruth had used? — ELEMENTAL— and free. The supporting force seemed to flow equally from walls and floor; to reach down to us from the roof. It was slumberously even, and effortless. I saw that in advance of us the living corridor was opening even as behind us it was closing.
All around us the little eye points twinkled and — laughed.
There was no danger here — there could be none. Deeper and deeper dropped my mind into the depths of that alien tranquillity. Faster and faster we floated — onward.
Abruptly, ahead of us shone a blaze of daylight. We passed into it. The force holding us withdrew its grip; I felt solidity beneath my feet; stood and leaned back against a smooth wall.
The corridor had ended and — had shut us out from itself.
“Bounced!” exclaimed Drake.
And incongruous, flippant, colloquial as was that word, I know none that would better describe my own feelings.
We were BOUNCED out upon a turret jutting from the barrier. And before us lay spread the most amazing, the most extraordinary fantastic scene upon which, I think, the vision of man has rested since the advent of time.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58