It was a crater; a half mile on high and all of two thousand feet across ran the circular lip of its vast rim. Above it was a circle of white and glaring sky in whose center flamed the sun.
And instantly, before my vision could grasp a tithe of that panorama, I knew that this place was the very heart of the City; its vital ganglion; its soul.
Around the crater lip were poised thousands of concave disks, vernal green, enormous. They were like a border of gigantic, upthrust shields; and within each, emblazoned like a shield’s device, was a blinding flower of flame — the reflected, dilated face of the sun. Below this diadem hung, pendent, clusters of other disks, swarmed like the globular hiving of the constellation Hercules’ captured stars. And each of these prisoned the image of our sun.
A hundred feet below us was the crater floor.
Up from it thrust a mountainous forest of the pallidly radiant cones; bristling; prodigious. Tier upon tier, thicket upon thicket, phalanx upon phalanx they climbed. Up and up, pyramidically, they flung their spiked hosts.
They drew together two thousand feet above us, clustering close about the foot of a single huge spire which thrust itself skyward above them. The crest of this spire was truncated. From its shorn tip radiated scores of long and slender spokes holding in place a thousand feet wide wheel of wan green disks whose concave surfaces, unlike those smooth ones girding the crater, were curiously faceted.
This amazing structure rested upon a myriad-footed base of crystal, even as had that other cornute fantasy beside which we had met the great Disk. But it was in size to that as — as Leviathan to a minnow. From it streamed the same baffling suggestion of invincible force transmuted into matter; energy coalesced into the tangible; power made concentrate in the vestments of substance.
Half-way between crater lip and floor began the hordes of the Metal People.
In colossal animate cheveau-de-frise of hundred-foot girders they thrust themselves out from the curving walls — walls, I knew, as alive as they!
From these Brobdignagian beams they swung in ropes and clusters — spheres and cubes studded as thickly with the pyramids as ever Titan’s mace with spikes. Group after bizarre group they dropped; pendulous. Coppices of slender columns of thistled globes sprang up to meet the festooned joists.
Between the girders they draped themselves in long, stellated garlands; grouped themselves in innumerable, kaleidoscopic patterns.
They clicked into place around the golden turret in which we crouched.
In fantastic arrases they swayed in front of us — now hiding by, now revealing through their quicksilver interweavings the mounts of the Cones.
And steadily those flowing in below added to their multitudes; gliding up cable and pillar; building out still further the living girders, stringing themselves upon living festoon and living garland, weaving in among them, changing their shapes, rewriting their symbols.
They swung and threaded swiftly, in shifting arabesque, in Gothic traceries, in lace-like fantasies; utterly bizarre, unutterably beautiful — crystalline, geometric always.
Abruptly their movement ceased — so abruptly that the stoppage of all the ordered turmoil had the quality of appalling silence.
An unimaginable tapestry bedight with incredible broidery, the Metal People draped the vast cup.
Pillared it as though it were a temple.
Garnished it with their bodies as though it were a shrine.
Across the floor toward the Cones glided a palely lustrous sphere. In shape only a globe like all its kind, yet it was invested with power; it radiated power as a star does light; was clothed in unseen garments of supernal force. In its wake drifted two great pyramids; after them ten spheres but little smaller than the Shape which led.
“The Metal Emperor!” breathed Drake.
On they swept until they reached the base of the Cones. They paused at the edge of the crystal tabling. They turned.
There was a flashing as of a meteor bursting. The globe had opened into that splendor of jewel fires before which had floated Norhala and Ruth.
I saw again the luminous ovals of sapphire, studding its golden zone, the mystic rose of pulsing, petal flame, the still core of incandescent ruby that was the heart of that rose.
Strangely I felt my own heart veer toward this — Thing; bowing before its beauty and its strength; almost worshiping!
A shock of revulsion went through me. I shot a quick, half frightened glance at Drake. He was crouching dangerously close to the lip of the ledge, hands clasped and knuckles white with the intensity of his grip, eyes rapt, staring — upon the verge of worship even as I had been.
“Drake!” I thrust my elbow into his side brutally. “None of that! Remember you’re human! Guard yourself, man — guard yourself!”
“What?” he muttered; then, abruptly: “How did you know?”
“I felt it myself,” I answered: “For God’s sake, Dick — hold fast to yourself! Remember Ruth!”
He shook his head violently — as though to be rid of some clinging, cloying thing.
“I’ll not forget again,” he said.
He huddled down once more close to the edge of the shelf; peering over. No one of the Metal People had moved; the silence, the stillness, was unbroken.
Now the flanking pyramids shot forth into twin stars, blazing with violet luminescences. And one by one after them the ten lesser spheres expanded into flaming orbs; beautiful they were, but far less glorious than that Disk of whom they were the counselors? — ministers? — what?
Still there was no movement among all the arrased, girdered, pillared hosts.
There came a little wailing; far away it was and far. Nearer it drew. Was that a tremor that passed through the crowded crater? A quick pulse of — eagerness?
“Hungry!” whispered Drake. “They’re HUNGRY!”
Closer was the wailing; again that faint tremor quivered over the place. And now I caught it — a quick and avid pulsing.
“Hungry,” whispered Drake again. “Like a lot of lions with the keeper coming along with meat.”
The wailing was below us. I felt, not a quiver this time, but an unmistakable shock pass through the Horde. It throbbed — and passed.
Into the field of our vision, up to the flaming Disk rushed an immense cube.
Thrice the height of a tall man — as I think I have noted before — when it unfolded its radiance was that shape of mingled beauty and power I call the Metal Emperor.
Yet this Thing eclipsed it. Black, uncompromising, in some indefinable way BRUTAL, its square bulk blotted out the Disk’s effulgence; shrouded it. And a shadow seemed to fall upon the crater. The violet fires of the flanking stars pulsed out — watchfully, threateningly.
For only an instant the darkening block loomed against the Disk; blackened it.
There came another meteor burst of light. Where the cube had been was now a tremendous, fiery cross — a cross inverted.
Its upper arm arose to twice the length either of its horizontals or the square that was its foot. In its opening it must have turned, for its — FACE— was toward us and away from the Cones, its body hid the Disk, and almost all the surfaces of the two watchful Stars.
Eighty feet at least in height, this cruciform shape stood. It flamed and flickered with angry, smoky crimsons and scarlets; with sullen orange glowings and glitterings of sulphurous yellows. Within its fires were none of those leaping, multicolored glories that were the Metal Emperor’s; no trace of the pulsing, mystic rose; no shadow of jubilant sapphire; no purple royal; no tender, merciful greens nor gracious opalescences. Nothing even of the blasting violet of the Stars.
All angry, smoky reds and ochres the cross blazed forth — and in its lurid glowings was something sinister, something real, something cruel, something — nearer to earth, closer to man.
“The Keeper of the Cones and the Metal Emperor!” muttered Drake. “I begin to get it — yes — I begin to get — Ventnor!”
Once more the pulse, the avid throbbing shook the crater. And as swiftly in its wake rushed back the stillness, the silence.
The Keeper turned — I saw its palely lustrous blue metallic back. I drew out my little field-glasses, focussed them.
The Cross slipped sidewise past the Disk, its courtiers, its stellated guardians. As it went by they swung about with it; ever facing it.
And now at last was clear a thing that had puzzled greatly — the mechanism of that opening process by which sphere became oval disk, pyramid a four-pointed star and — as I had glimpsed in the play of the Little Things about Norhala, could see now so plainly in the Keeper — the blocks took this inverted cruciform shape.
The Metal People were hollow!
Hollow metal — boxes!
In their enclosing sides dwelt all their vitality — their powers — themselves!
And those sides were — everything that THEY were!
Folded, the oval disk became the sphere; the four points of the star, the square from which those points radiated; shutting became the pyramid; the six faces of the cubes were when opened the inverted cross.
Nor were these flexible, mobile walls massive. They were indeed, considering the apparent mass of the Metal Folk, most astonishingly fragile. Those of the Keeper, despite its eighty feet of height, could not have been more than a yard in thickness. At the edges I thought I could see groovings; noted the same appearances at the outlines of the Stars. Seen sidewise, the body of the Metal Emperor showed as a convexity; its surface smooth, with a suggestion of transparency.
The Keeper was bending; its oblong upper plane dropping forward as though upon a hinge. Lower and lower this flange bent — in a grotesque, terrifying obeisance; a horrible mockery of reverence.
Was this mountain of Cones then actually a shrine — an idol of the Metal People — their God?
The oblong that was the upper half of the cruciform Shape extended now at right angles to the horizontal arms. It hovered, a rectangle forty feet long, as many feet over the floor at the base of the crystal pedestal. It bent again, this time from the hinge that held the outstretched arms to the base. And now it was a huge truncated cross, a T-shaped figure, hovering only twenty feet above the pave.
Down from the Keeper writhed and flicked a tangle of tentacles; serpentine, whiplike. Silvery white, they were dyed with the scarlet and orange flaming of the surface now hidden from my eyes; reflected those sullen and angry gleamings. Vermiceous, coiling, they seemed to drop from every inch of the overhanging planes.
Something there was beneath them — something like an immense and luminous tablet. The tentacles were moving over it — pressing here, thrusting there, turning, pushing, manipulating —
A shuddering passed through the crowding cones. I saw the tremor shake their bristling hosts, oscillate the great spire, set the faceted disks quivering.
The trembling grew; a vibration in every separate cone that became even more rapid. There was a faint, curiously oppressive humming — like the distant echo of a tempest in chaos.
Faster, ever faster grew the vibration. Now the sharp outlines of the cones were dissolving.
And now they were — gone.
The mount of the cones had become a mighty pyramid of pale green radiance — one tremendous, pallid flame, of which the spire was the tongue. Out from the disked wheel at its shorn tip gushed a flood of light — light that gathered itself from the leaping radiance below it.
The tentacles of the Keeper moved more swiftly over the enigmatic tablet; writhing cloudily; confusedly rapid. The faceted disks wavered; turned upward; the wheel began to whirl — faster — faster —
Up from that flaming circle, out into the sky leaped a thick, pale green column of intensest light.
With prodigious speed, as compact as water, CONCENTRATE, it struck — straight out toward the face of the sun.
It thrust up with the speed of light — the speed of light? A thought came to me; incredible I believed it even as I reacted to it. My pulse is uniformly seventy to the minute. I sought my wrist, found the artery, made allowance for its possible acceleration, began to count.
“What’s the matter?” asked Drake.
“Take my glasses,” I muttered, trying to keep up, while speaking, my tally. “Matches in my pocket. Smoke the lenses. I want to look at sun.”
With a look of stupefied amazement which, at another time I would have found laughable, he obeyed.
“Hold them to my eyes,” I ordered.
Three minutes had gone by.
There it was — that for which I sought. Clear through the darkened lenses I could see the sun spot, high up on the northern-most limb of the sun. An unimaginable cyclone of incandescent gases; an unthinkably huge dynamo pouring its floods of electro-magnetism upon all the circling planets; that solar crater which we now know was, when at its maximum, all of one hundred and fifty thousand miles across; the great sun spot of the summer of 1919 — the most enormous ever recorded by astronomical science.
Five minutes had gone by.
Common sense whispered to me. There was no use keeping my eyes fixed to the glasses. Even if that thought were true — even if that pillar of radiance were a MESSENGER, an earth-hurled bolt flying to the sun through atmosphere and outer space with the speed of light, even if it were this stupendous creation of these Things, still between eight and nine minutes must elapse before it could reach the orb; and as many minutes must go by before the image of whatever its impact might produce upon the sun could pass back over the bridge of light spanning the ninety millions of miles between it and us.
And after all did not that hypothesis belong to the utterly impossible? Even were it so — what was it that the Metal Monster expected to follow? This radiant shaft, colossal as it was to us, was infinitesimal compared to the target at which it was aimed.
What possible effect could that spear have upon the solar forces?
And yet — and yet — a gnat’s bite can drive an elephant mad. And Nature’s balance is delicate; and what great happenings may follow the slightest disturbance of her infinitely sensitive, her complex, equilibrium? It might be — it might be —
Eight minutes had passed.
“Take the glasses,” I bade Drake. “Look up at the sun spot — the big one.”
“I see it.” He had obeyed me. “What of it?”
The shaft, if I were right, had by now touched the sun. What was to follow?
“I don’t get you at all,” said Drake, and lowered the glasses.
“What’s happening? Look at the Cones! Look at the Emperor!” gasped Drake.
I peered down, then almost forgot to count.
The pyramidal flame that had been the mount of Cones was shrunken. The pillar of radiance had not lessened — but the mechanism that was its source had retreated whole yards within the field of its crystal base.
And the Metal Emperor! Dulled and faint were his fires, dimmed his splendors; and fainter still were the violet luminescences of the watching Stars, the shimmering livery of his court.
The Keeper of the Cones! Were not its outstretched planes hovering lower and lower over the gleaming tablet; its tentacles moving aimlessly, feebly — wearily?
I had a sense of force being withdrawn from all about me. It was as though all the City were being drained of life — as though vitality were being sucked from it to feed this pyramid of radiance; drained from it to forge the thrusting spear piercing sunward.
The Metal People seemed to hang limply, inert; the living girders seemed to sag; the living columns to bend; to droop and to sway.
With a nerve-racking crash one of the laden beams fell; dragging down with it others; bending, shattering in its fall a thicket of the horned columns. Behind us the sparkling eyes of the wall were dimmed, vacant — dying. Something of that hellish loneliness, that demoniac desire for immolation that had assailed us in the haunted hollow of the ruins began to creep over me.
The crowded crater was fainting. The life was going out of the City — its magnetic life, draining into the shaft of green fire.
Duller grew the Metal Emperor’s glories.
“Goodwin,” cried Drake, “the life’s going out of these Things! Going out with that ray they’re shooting.”
I watched the tentacles of the Keeper grope over the tablet. Abruptly the flaming pyramid darkened — WENT OUT.
The radiant pillar hurtled upward like a thunder-bolt; vanished in space.
Before us stood the mount of cones, shrunken to a sixth of its former size.
All about the crater-lip the ringed shields tilted; thrust themselves on high, as though behind each was an eager lifting arm. Below them the hived clusters of disks changed from globules into wide coronets.
I dropped my wrist; seized the glasses from Drake; raised them to the sun. For a moment I saw nothing — then a tiny spot of white incandescence shone forth at the lower edge of the great spot. It grew into a point of radiance, dazzling even through the shadowed lenses.
I rubbed my eyes; looked again. It was still there, larger — blazing with an ever increasing and intolerable intensity.
I handed the glasses to Drake, silently.
“I see it!” he muttered. “I see it! And THAT did it — that! Goodwin!” There was panic in his cry. “Goodwin! The spot! it’s widening! It’s widening!”
I snatched the glasses from him. I caught again the dazzling flashing. But whether Drake HAD seen the spot widen, change — to this day I do not know.
To me it seemed unchanged — and yet — perhaps it was not. It may be that under that finger of force, that spear of light, that wound in the side of our sun HAD opened further —
That the sun had winced!
I do not to this day know. But whether it had or not — still shone the intolerably brilliant light. And miracle enough that was for me.
Twenty minutes — subconsciously I had gone on counting — twenty minutes —
About the cratered girdle of the upthrust shields a glimmering mistiness was gathering; a translucent mist, beryl pale and beryl clear. In a heart-beat it had thickened into a vast and vaporous ring through whose swarms of corpuscles the sun’s reflected image upon each disk shone clear — as though seen through clouds of transparent atoms of aquamarine.
Again the filaments of the Keeper moved — feebly. As one of the hosts of circling shields shifted downward. Brilliant, ever more brilliant, waxed the fast-thickening mists.
Abruptly, and again as one, the disks began to revolve. From every concave surface, from the surfaces of the huge circlets below them, flashed out a stream of green fire — green as the fire of green life itself. Corpuscular, spun of uncounted rushing, dazzling ions the great rays struck across, impinged upon the thousand-foot wheel that crowned the cones; set it whirling.
Over it I saw form a limpid cloud of the brilliant vapors. Whence came these sparkling nebulosities, these mists of light? It was as though the clustered, spinning disks reached into the shadowless air, sucked from it some unseen, rhythmic energy and transformed it into this visible, coruscating flood.
For now it was a flood. Down from the immense wheel came pouring cataracts of green fires. They cascaded over the cones; deluged them; engulfed them.
Beneath that radiant inundation the cones grew. Perceptibly their volume increased — as though they gorged themselves upon the light. No — it was as though the corpuscles flew to them, coalesced and built themselves into the structure.
Out and further out upon the base of crystal they crept. And higher and higher soared their tips, thrusting, ever thrusting upward toward the whirling wheel that fed them.
Now from the Keeper’s planes writhed the Keeper’s tangle of tentacles, uncoiling eagerly, avidly, through the twenty feet of space between their source and the enigmatic mechanism they manipulated. The crater’s disks tilted downward. Into the vast hollow shot their jets of green radiance, drenching the Metal Hordes, splashing from the polished walls wherever the Metal Hordes had left those living walls exposed.
All about us was a trembling, an accelerating pulse of life. Colossal, rhythmic, ever quicker, ever more powerfully that pulse throbbed — a prodigious vibration monstrously alive.
“Feeding!” whispered Drake. “Feeding! Feeding on the sun!”
Faster danced the radiant beams. The crater was a cauldron of green fires through which the conical rays angled and interwove, crossed and mingled. And where they mingled, where they crossed, flamed out suddenly immense rayless orbs; palpitant for an instant, then dissolving in spiralling, feathery spray of pallid emerald incandescences.
Stronger and stronger beat the pulse of returning life.
A jetting stream struck squarely upon the Metal Emperor. Out blazed his splendors — jubilant. His golden zodiac, no longer tarnished and dull, ran with sun flames; the wondrous rose was a racing, lambent miracle.
Up snapped the Keeper; towered behind him, all flickering scarlets and leaping yellows — no longer wrathful or sullen.
The place dripped radiance; was filling like a chrisom with radiance.
Us, too, the sparkling mists bathed.
I was conscious of a curiously wild exhilaration; a quickening of the pulse; an abnormally rapid breathing. I stooped to touch Drake; sparks leaped from my outstretched fingers, great green sparks that crackled as they impacted upon him. He gave them no heed; but stared with fascinated eyes upon the crater.
Now from every side broke a tempest of gem fires. From every girder and column, from every arras, pendent and looping, burst diamond glitterings, ruby luminescences, lanced flames of molten emerald and sapphires, flashings of amethyst and opal, meteoric iridescences, dazzling spectrums.
The hollow was a cave of some Aladdin of the Titans ablaze with enchanted hoards. It was a place of gems ensorcelled, gems in which imprisoned hosts of the Jinns of Light beat sparkling against their crystal walls to escape.
I thrust the fantasies from me. Fantastic enough was this reality — globe and pyramid and cube of the Metal People opening wide, bathing in, drinking from the radiant maelstrom that faster and ever faster swirled about them.
“Feeding!” It was Drake’s awed voice. “Feeding on the sun!”
The circling shields were raising themselves, lifting themselves higher above the crater-lip. Into the crowded cylinder came now only the rays from the high circlets, the streams from the huge wheel above the still growing cones.
Up and up the shields rose, but by what mechanism raised I could not see. Their motion ceased; in all their thousands they turned. Over the City’s top and out into the oval valley they poured their torrents of light; flooding it, deluging it even as they had this pit that was the City’s heart. Feeding, I knew, those other Metal Hordes without.
And as though in answer, sweeping down upon us through the circles of open sky, a clamor poured.
“If we’d but known!” Drake’s voice came to me, thin and unreal through the tumult. “It’s what Ventnor meant! If we had got down there when they were so weak — if we could have handled the Keeper — we could have smashed that plate that works the Cones! We could have killed them!”
“There are other Cones,” I cried back to him.
“No,” he shook his head. “This is the master machine. It’s what Ventnor meant when he said to strike through the sun. And we’ve lost the chance —”
Louder grew the hurricane without; and now within began its mate. Through the mists flashed linked tempests of lightnings. Bolt upon javelin bolt, and ever more thickly; lightnings green as the mists themselves; lightning bolts of destroying violets, searing scarlets; tearing chains of withering yellows, globes of exploding multicolored electric incandescences.
The crater was threaded with the lightnings of the Metal People; was broidered with them; was a Pit woven with vast and changing patterns of electric flame.
What was it that Drake had said? That if but we could have known we could have destroyed these — Things — Destroyed — Them? Things that could thrust their will and power up through ninety million miles of space and suck from the sun the honey of power! Drain it and hive it within these great mountains of the cones!
Destroy Things that could feed their own life into a machine to draw back from the sun a greater life — Things that could forge of their strength a spear which, piercing the side of the sun, sent gushing back upon them a tenfold, nay, a thousandfold strength!
Destroy this City that was one vast and living dynamo feeding upon the magnetic life of earth and sun!
The clamor had grown stupendous, destroying — like armored Gods roaring at sword play in a hundred Valhallas; like the war drums of battling universe; like the smitings of warring suns.
And all the City was throbbing, beating with a gigantic pulse of life — was fed and drunken with life. I felt that pulsing become my own; I echoed to it; throbbed in unison. I saw Drake outlined in flame; that around me a radiant nimbus was growing.
I thought I saw Norhala floating, clothed in shouting, flailing fires. I strove to call out to her. By me slipped the body of Drake; lay flaming at my feet upon the narrow ledge.
There was a roaring within my head — louder, far louder, than that which beat against my ears. Something was drawing me forth; drawing me out of my body into unimaginable depths of blackness. Something was hurling me out into those cold depths of space that alone could darken the fires that encircled me — the fires of which I was becoming a part.
I felt myself leap outward — outward and outward — into — oblivion.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53