Wearily I opened my eyes. Stiffly, painfully, I stirred. High above me was the tremendous circle of sky, ringed with the hosts of feeding shields. But the shields were now wanly gleaming and the sky was the sky of night.
Night? How long had I lain here? And where was Drake? I struggled to rise.
“Steady, old man,” his voice came from beside me. “Steady — and quiet. How are you feeling?”
“Badly battered,” I groaned. “What happened?”
“We weren’t used to the show,” he said. “We got all fed up at the orgy. Too much magnetism — we had a sudden and violent attack of electrical indigestion. Sh-h — look ahead of you.”
Gingerly I turned. I had been lying, I now saw, head toward and prone at the base of one of the crater’s walls. As my gaze swept away I noted with a curious relief that the tiny eye-points were no longer sparkling with their enigmatic life, that they were dulled and dim once more.
Before me, glimmering pallidly, bristled the mount of the Cones. Around its crystal base glittered immense egg-shaped diamond incandescences. They were both rayless and strangely — lightless; they threw no shadows nor did their lambency lessen the dimness. Beside each of these curious luminosities stood one of the sullen-fired, cruciform shapes — the Things that now I knew for the opened cubes.
They were smaller than the Keeper, indeed less than half his height. They were ranged in an almost unbroken crescent around the visible arc of the immense pedestal — and now I saw that the lights were a few feet closer to that pedestal than they. Egg-shaped as I have said, the wider end was undermost, resting in a broad cup upheld by a slender pedicle silvery-gray and metallic.
“They’re building out the base,” whispered Drake. “The Cones got so big they have to give them more room.”
“Magnetism,” I whispered in return. “Electricity — they drew down from the sun spot. And it was more than that — I saw the Cones grow under it. It fed them as it fed the Hordes — but the Cones grew. It was as though the shields and the Cones turned pure energy into substance.”
“And if we hadn’t been pretty thoroughly magnetized to start with it would have done for us,” he said.
We watched the operation going on in front of us. The cross shapes had bent, hinging above the transverse arms. They bowed in absolute unison as at some signal. Down from the horizontal plane of each whipped the long and writhing tentacles.
At the foot of every one I could now perceive a heap of some faintly glistening material. The tendrils coiled among this, then drew up something that looked like a thick rod of crystal. The bent planes straightened; simultaneously they thrust the crystalline bars toward the incandescences.
There came a curious, brittle hissing. The ends of the rods began to dissolve into dazzling, diamond rain, atomically minute, that passing through the egg-shaped lights poured upon the periphery of the pedestal. Rapidly the bars melted. Heat there must be in these lights, terrific heat — yet the Keeper’s workers seemed impervious to it.
As the ends of the bars radiated into the annealing mist I saw the tentacles creep closer and ever closer to the rayless flame through which the mist flew. And at the last, as the ultimate atoms drove through, the holding tendrils were thrust almost within it; touched it, certainly.
A score of times they repeated this process while we watched. Unaware of us they seemed, or — if aware, then indifferent. More rapid became their movements, the glassy ingots streaming through the floating braziers with hardly a pause in their passing. Abruptly, as though switched, the incandescences lessened into candle-points; instantly, as at a signal, the crescent of crosses closed into a crescent of cubes.
Motionless they stood, huge blocks blackened against the dim glowing of the cones — sentient monoliths; a Druid curve; an arc of a metal Stonehenge. And as at dusk and dawn the great menhirs of Stonehenge fill with a mysterious, granitic life, seem to be praying priests of stone, so about these gathered hierophantic illusion.
They quivered; the slender pedicles cupping, the waned lights swayed; the lights lifted and soared, upright, to their backs.
Two by two with measured pace, solemnly the cubes glided off into the encircling darkness. As they swept away there streamed behind them other scores not until then visible to us, joining pair by pair from hidden arcs.
Into the secret shadows they flowed, two by two, each bearing over it the slim shaft holding the serene flame.
Grotesquely were they like a column of monks marching with dimmed flambeau of their worship. Angled metal monks of some god of metal, carrying tapers of electric fire, withdrawing slowly from a Holy of Holies whose metallically divine Occupant knew nothing of man — nor cared to know.
Grotesque — yes. But would that I had the power to crystallize in words the underlying, alien terror every movement of the Metal Monster when disintegrate, its every manifestation when combined, evoked; the incredulous, amazed lurking always close behind the threshold of the mind; the never lifting, thin-shuddering shadow.
Smaller, dimmer waned the lights — they were gone.
We crouched, motionless. Nothing stirred; there was no sound. Without speaking we arose; crept together over the smooth floor toward the cones.
As we crossed I saw that the pave, like the walls, was built of the bodies of the Metal People; and, like the walls, they were dormant, filmed eyes oblivious to our passing. Closer we crept — were only a scant score of rods from that colossal mechanism. I noted that the crystal foundation was set low; was not more than four feet above the floor. The sturdy, dwarfed pilasters supporting it thrust up in crowded copses, merging through distance into apparent solidity.
Now, too, I realized, as I had not when looking down from above, how stupendous the structure rising from the crystal foundation was.
I began to wonder how so thin a support could bear the mount bristling above it — then remembered what it was that at first had flown from them, shrinking them, and at last had fed and swelled them.
Light! Weightless magnetic ions; swarms of electric ions; the misty breath of the infinite energy breathing upon, condensing upon, them. Could it be that the Cones for all their apparent mass had little, if any, weight? Like ringed Saturn, thousands of times Earth’s bulk, flaunting itself in the Heavens — yet if transported to our world so light that rings and all it would float like a bubble upon our oceans. The Cones towered above me — close, so close.
The Cones were weightless. How I knew I cannot say — but now, almost touching them, I did know. Nebulous, yet solid, were they; compact, yet tenuous, dense and unsubstantial.
Again the thought came to me — they were force made visible; energy made concentrate into matter.
We skirted, seeking for the tablet over which the Keeper had hovered; the mechanism which, under his tentacles, had shifted the circling shields, thrust the spear of green fire into the side of the wounded sun. Hesitantly I touched the crystal base; the edge was warm, but whether this warmth came from the dazzling rain which we had just watched build it outward or whether it was a property inherent with the substance itself I do not know.
Certainly there was no mark upon it to show where the molten mists had fallen. It was diamond hard and smooth. The nearest cones were but a scant nine feet from its rim.
Suddenly we saw the tablet; stood beside it. The shape of a great T, glimmering with a faint and limpid violet phosphorescence, it might have been, in shape and size, the palely shining shadow of the Keeper. It was a foot above the floor, and had apparently no connection with the cones.
It was made of thousands of close-packed tiny octagonal rods the tops of some of which were cupped, of others pointed; none was more than half an inch in width. There was about it a suggestion of wedded crystal and metal — as about its burden was the suggestion of mated energy and matter.
The rods were movable; they formed a keyboard unimaginably complex; a keyboard whose infinite combinations were like a Fourth Dimensional chess game. I saw that only the swarms of tentacles that were the Keeper’s hands and these only could be masters of its incredible intricacies. No Disk — not even the Emperor, no Star shape could play on it, draw out its chords of power.
But why? Why had it been so made that sullen flaming Cross alone could release its hidden meanings, made articulate its interwoven octaves? And how were its messages conveyed? Up to its bases pressed the dormant cubes — that under it they lay as well I did not doubt.
There was no visible copula of the tablet with cones; no antennae between it and the circled shields. Could it be that the impulses released by the Keeper’s coilings passed through the Metal People of the pave on the upthrust Metal People of the crater rim who held the shields?
That WAS unthinkable — unthinkable because if so this mechanism was superfluous.
The swift response to the communal will that we had observed showed that the Metal Monster needed nothing of this kind for transmission of the thought of any of its units.
There was some gap here — a gap that the grouped consciousness could not bridge without other means. Clearly that was true — else why the tablet, why the Keeper’s travail?
Was each of these tiny rods a mechanism akin, in a fashion, to the sending keys of the wireless; were they transmitters of subtle energy in which was enfolded command? Spellers-out of a super-Morse carrying to each responsive cell of the Metal Monster the bidding of those higher units which were to It as the brain cells are to us? That, advanced as the knowledge it implied might be, was closer to the heart of the possible.
I bent, determined, despite the well-nigh unconquerable shrinking I felt, to touch the tablet’s rods.
A flickering shadow fell upon me; a flock of pulsating ochreous and scarlet shadows —
The Keeper glowed above us!
In a life that has had its share of dangers, its need for quick decisions, I recognize that few indeed of my reactions to peril have been more than purely instinctive; no more consciously courageous nor intellectually dissociate from the activating stimulus than the shrinking of the burned hand from the brand, the will-to-live dictated rush of the cornered animal upon the thing menacing it.
One such higher functioning was when I followed Larry O’Keefe and Lakla, the Handmaiden, out to what we believed soul-destroying death in a place almost as strange as this; another was now. Deliberately, detachedly, I studied the angrily flaming Shape.
Compared to it we were as a pair of Hop-o’-my-Thumbs to the Giant; had it been man-shaped we would have come less than a third way up to its knees. I focussed my attention upon the twenty-foot-wide square that was the Keeper’s foot. Its surface was jewel smooth, hyaline — yet beneath it was a suggestion of granulation, of close-packed, innumerable, microscopic crystals.
Within these grains whose existence was more sensed than seen glowed dull red light, smoky and sullen. At each end of the square, close to the bottom, was a diamond-shaped lozenge, cabochon, perhaps a yard in width. These were dim yellow, translucent, with no suggestion of the underlying crystallization. Sense organs I set them down to be — similar to the great ovals within the Emperor’s golden zone.
My gaze traveled up to the transverse arms. They stretched sixty feet from tip to tip. At each tip were two more of the diamond figures, not dull but burning angrily with orange-and-scarlet luster. In the center of the beam was something that might have been a smoldering rubrous reflection of the Emperor’s pulsing multicolored rose had each of the petals of the latter been clipped and squared.
It deepened toward its heart into a singular pattern of vermilion latticings. Into the entire figure ran numerous tiny rivulets of angry crimson and orange light, angling in interwoven patterns with never a curve nor arching.
Set at intervals between them were what looked like octagonal rosettes filled with slender silvery flutings, wan striations — like — it came to me — immense chrysanthemum buds, half opened, and carved in gray jade.
Above towered the gigantic vertical beam. Toward its top I glimpsed a huge square of flaring crimsons and bright topaz; two other diamonds stared down upon us from just beneath it — like eyes. And over all its height the striated octagons clustered.
I felt myself lifted, floated upward. Drake’s hand shot out, clung to me as together we drifted up the living wall. Opposite the latticed heart of the square-petaled rose our flight was checked. There for an instant we hung. Then the octagonal symbols stirred, unfolded like buds —
They were the nests of the Keeper’s tentacles, and out from them the whiplike tendrils uncoiled, shot out and writhed toward us.
My skin flinched from their touch; my body, held in the unseen grip, was motionless. Yet when they touched their contact was not unpleasant. They were like flexible strands of glass; their smooth tips questioned us, passing through our hair, searching our faces, writhing over our clothing.
There was a pulse in the great clipped rose, a rhythmic throbbing of vermilion fire that ran into it from the angled veins, beat through the latticed nucleus and throbbed back whence it had come. The huge, high square of scarlet and yellow was liquid flame; the diamond organs beneath it seemed to smoke, to send out swirls of orange red vapor.
Holding us so the Keeper studied us.
The rhythm of the square rose, became the rhythm of my own mind. But here was none of the vast, serene and elemental calm that Ruth had described as emanating from the Metal Emperor. Powerful it was, without doubt, but in it were undertones of rage, of impatience, overtones of revolt, something incomplete and struggling. Within the disharmonies I seemed to sense a fettered force striving for freedom; energy battling against itself.
Greater grew the swarms of the tentacles winding about us like slender strands of glass, covering our faces, making breathing more and more difficult. There was a coil of them around my throat and tightening — tightening.
I heard Drake gasping, laboring for breath. I could not turn my head toward him, could not speak. Was this then to be our end?
The strangling clutch relaxed, the mass of the tentacles lessened. I was conscious of a surge of anger through the cruciform Thing that held us.
Its sullen fires blazed. I was aware of another light beating past us — beating down the Keeper’s. The hosts of tendrils drew back from me. I felt myself picked from the unseen grasp, whirled in the air and drawn away.
Drake beside me, I hung now before the Shining Disk — the Metal Emperor!
He it was who had plucked us from the Keeper — and even as I swung I saw the Keeper’s multitudinous, serpentine arms surge out toward us angrily and then sullenly, slowly, draw back into their nests.
And out of the Disk, clothing me, permeating me, came an immense tranquillity, a muting of all human thought, all human endeavor, an unthinkable, cosmic calm into which all that was human of me seemed to be sinking, drowning as in a fathomless abyss. I struggled against it, desperately, striving in study of the Disk to erect a barrier of preoccupation against the power pouring from it.
A dozen feet away from us the sapphire ovals centered upon us their regard. They were limpid, pellucid as gems whose giant replicas they seemed to be. The surface of the Disk ringed about by the aureate zodiac in which the nine ovals shone was a maze of geometric symbols traced in the lines of living gem fires; infinitely complex those patterns and infinitely beautiful; an infinite number of symmetric forms in which I seemed to trace all the ordered crystalline wonders of the snowflakes, the groupings of all crystalline patternings, the soul of ordered beauty that are the marvels of the Radiolaria, Nature’s own miraculous book of the soul of mathematical beauty.
The flashing, petaled heart was woven of living rainbows of cold flame.
Silently we floated there while the Disk — LOOKED— at us.
And as though I had been not an actor but an observer, the weird picture of it all came to me — two men swinging like motes in mid air, on one side the flickering scarlet and orange Cruciform shape, on the other side the radiant Disk, behind the two manikins the pallid mount of the bristling cones; and high above the wan circle of the shields.
There was a ringing about us — an elfin chiming, sweet and crystalline. It came from the cones — and strangely was it their vocal synthesis, their voice. Into the vast circle of sky pierced a lance of green fire; swift in its wake uprose others.
We slid gently down, stood swaying at the Disk’s base. The Keeper bent; angled. Again the planes above the supporting square hovered over the tablet. The tendrils swept down, pushed here and there, playing upon the rods some unknown symphony of power.
Thicker pulsed the lances of the aurora; changed to vast billowing curtains. The faceted wheel at the top of the central spire of the cones swung upward; a light began to stream from the cones themselves — no pillar now, but a vast circle that shot whirling into the heavens like a noose.
And like a noose it caught the aurora, snared it!
Into it the coruscating mists of mysterious flame swirled; lost their colors, became a torrent of light flying down through the ring as though through a funnel top.
Down poured the radiant corpuscles, bathing the cones. They did not glow as they had beneath the flood from the shields, and if they grew it was too slowly for me to see; the shields were motionless. Now here, now there, I saw the other rings whirl up — smaller mouths of lesser cones hidden within the body of the Metal Monster, I knew, sucking down this magnetic flux, these countless ions gushing forth from the sun.
Then as when first we had seen the phenomenon in the valley of the blue poppies, the ring vanished, hidden by a fog of coruscations — as though the force streaming through the rings became diffused after it had been caught.
Crouching, forgetful of our juxtaposition to these two unhuman, anomalous Things, we watched the play of the tentacles upon the upthrust rods.
But if we forgot, we were not forgotten!
The Emperor slipped nearer; seemed to contemplate us — quizzically, AMUSED; as a man would look down upon some curious and interesting insect, a puppy, a kitten. I sensed this amusement in the Disk’s regard even as I had sensed its soul of awful tranquillity; as we had sensed the playful malice in the eye stars of the living corridor, the curiosity in the column that had dropped us into the valley.
I felt a push — a push that was filled with a colossal, GLITTERING playfulness.
Under it I went spinning away for yards — Drake twirling close behind me. The force, whatever it was, swept out from the Emperor, but in it was no slightest hint of anger or of malice, no slightest shadow of the sinister.
Rather it was as though one would blow away a feather; urge gently some little lesser thing away.
The Disk watched our whirlings — with a sparkling, jeweled LAUGHTER in its pulsing radiance.
Again came the push — farther yet we spun. Suddenly before us, across the pave, shone out a twinkling trail — the wakened eyes of the cubes that formed it, marking out a pathway for us to follow.
Immediately upon their gleaming forth I saw the Emperor turn — his immense, oval, metallic back now black against the radiance of the cones.
Up from the narrow gleaming path — a path opened I knew by some command — lifted the hosts of tiny unseen hands; the sentient currents of magnetic force that were the fingers and arms of the Metal Hordes. They held us, thrust us along, passed us forward. Faster and faster we moved, speeding on the wake of the long-vanished metal monks.
I turned my head — the cones were already far away. Over the tablet of limpid violet phosphorescence still hovered the planes of the Keeper; and still was the oval of the Emperor black against the radiance.
But the twinkling, sparkling path between us and them was gone — was fading out close behind us as we swept onward.
Faster and faster grew our pace. The cylindrical wall loomed close. A high oblong portal showed within it. Into this we were carried. Before us stretched a corridor precisely similar to that which, closing upon us, had forced us completely out into the hall.
Unlike that passage, its floor lifted steeply — a smooth and shining slide up which no man could climb. A shaft, indeed, which thrust upward straight as an arrow at an angle of at least thirty degrees and whose end or turning we could not see. Up and up it cleared its way through the City — through the Metal Monster — closed only by the inability of the eye to pierce the faint luminosity that thickened by distance became impenetrable.
For an instant we hovered upon its threshold. But the impulse, the command, that had carried us thus far was not to stop here. Into it and up it we were thrust, our feet barely touching the glimmering surface; lifted by the force that emanated from its floor, carried on by the force that pressed out from the sides.
Up and up we went — scores of feet — hundreds —
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58