“Goodwin!” Drake broke the silence; desperately he was striving to keep his fear out of his voice. “Goodwin — this isn’t the way to get out. We’re going up — farther away all the time from the — the gates!”
“What can we do?” My anxiety was no less than his, but my realization of our helplessness was complete.
“If we only knew how to talk to these Things,” he said. “If we could only have let the Disk know we wanted to get out — damn it, Goodwin, it would have helped us.”
Grotesque as the idea sounded, I felt that he spoke the truth. The Emperor meant no harm to us; in fact in speeding us away I was not at all sure that he had not deliberately wished us well — there was that about the Keeper —
Still up we sped along the shaft. I knew we must now be above the level of the valley.
“We’ve got to get back to Ruth! Goodwin — NIGHT! And what may have HAPPENED to her?”
“Drake, boy”— I dropped into his own colloquialism — “we’re up against it. We can’t help it. And remember — she’s there in Norhala’s home. I don’t believe, I honestly don’t believe, Dick, that there’s any danger as long as she remains there. And Ventnor ties her fast.”
“That’s true,” he said, more hopefully. “That’s true — and probably Norhala is with her by now.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said cheerfully. An idea came to me — I half believed it myself. “And another thing. There’s not an action here that’s purposeless. We’re being driven on by the command of that Thing we call the Metal Emperor. It means us no harm. Maybe — maybe this IS the way out.”
“Maybe so,” he shook his head doubtfully. “But I’m not sure. Maybe that long push was just to get us away from THERE. And it strikes me that the impulse has begun to weaken. We’re not going anywhere near as fast as we were.”
I had not realized it, but our speed was slackening. I looked back — hundreds of feet behind us fell the slide. An unpleasant chill went through me — should the magnetic grip upon us relax, withdraw, nothing could stop us from falling back along that incline to be broken like eggs at its end; that our breaths would be snuffed out by the terrific descent long before we reached that end was scant comfort.
“There are other passages opening up along this shaft,” Drake said. “I’m not for trusting the Emperor too far — he has other things on his metallic mind, you know. The next one we get to, let’s try to slip into — if we can.”
I had noticed; there had been openings along the ascending shaft; corridors running apparently transversely to its angled way.
Slower and slower became our pace. A hundred yards above I glimpsed one of the apertures. Could we reach it? Slower and slower we arose. Now the gap was but a yard off — but we were motionless — were tottering!
Drake’s arms wrapped round me. With a tremendous effort he hurled me into the portal. I dropped at its edge, writhed swiftly around, saw him slipping, slipping down — thrust my hands out to him.
He caught them. There came a wrench that tortured my arm sockets as though racked. But he held!
Slowly — I writhed back into the passage, dragging up his almost dead weight. His head appeared, his shoulders; there was a convulsion of the long body and he lay before me.
For a minute or two we lay, flat upon our backs resting. I sat up. The passage was broad, silent; apparently as endless as that from which we had just escaped.
Along it, above us, under us, the crystalline eyes were dim. It showed no sign of movement — yet had it done so there was nothing we could do save drop down the annihilating slant. Drake arose.
“I’m hungry,” he said, “and I’m thirsty. I move that we eat and drink and approximately be merry.”
He slung aside the haversack. From it we took food; from the canteens we drank. We did not talk. Each knew what the other was thinking; infrequently, and thank the eternal law that some call God for that, come crises in which speech seems not only petty but when against it the mind rebels as a nauseous thing.
This was such a time. At last I drew myself to my feet.
“Let’s be going,” I said.
The corridor stretched straight before us; along it we paced. How far we walked I do not know; mile upon mile, it seemed. It broadened abruptly into a vast hall.
And this hall was filled with the Metal Hordes — was a gigantic workshop of them. In every shape, in every form, they seethed and toiled about it. Upon its floor were heaps of shining ores, mounds of flashing gems, piles of ingots, metallic and crystalline. High and low throughout flamed the egg-shaped incandescences; floating furnaces both great and small.
Before one of these forges, close to us, stood a Metal Thing. Its body was a twelve-foot column of smaller cubes. Upon the top was a hollow square formed of even lesser blocks — blocks hardly larger than the Little Things themselves. In the center of the open rectangle was another shaft, its top a two-foot square plate formed of a single cube.
From the sides of the hollow square sprang long arms of spheres, each tipped by a tetrahedron. They moved freely, slipping about upon their curved points of contact and like a dozen little thinking hammers, the pyramid points at their ends beat down upon as many thimble shaped objects which they thrust alternately into the unwinking brazier then laid upon the central block to shape.
A goblin workman the Thing seemed, standing there, so intent upon and so busy with its forgings.
There were scores of these animate machines; they paid no slightest heed to us as we slipped by them, clinging as closely to the wall of the immense workshop as we could.
We passed a company of other Shapes which stood two by two and close together, their tops wide spinning wheels through which the tendrils of an opened globe fed translucent, colorless ingots — the substance it seemed to me of which Norhala’s shadowy walls were made, the crystal of which the bars that built out the base of the Cones were formed.
The ingots passed between the whirling faces; emerged from them as slender, long cylinders; were seized as they slipped down by a crouching block, whose place as it glided away was instantly taken by another. In many bewildering forms, intent upon unknown activities directed toward unguessable ends, the composite, animate mechanisms labored. And all the place was filled with a goblin bustle, trollish racketings, ringing of gnomish anvils, clanging of kobold forges — a clamorous cavern filled with metal Nibelungens.
We came to the opening of another passage, a doorway piercing the walls of the workshop. Its incline, though steep, was not dangerous.
Into it we stepped; climbed onward it seemed interminably. Far ahead of us at last appeared the outline of its further entrance, silhouetted against and filled with a brighter luminosity. We drew near; stopped cautiously at its threshold, peering out.
Well it was that we had hesitated. Before us was open space — an abyss in the body of the Metal Monster.
The corridor opened into it like a window. Thrusting out our heads, we saw an unbroken wall both above and below. Half a mile away was its opposite side. Over this pit was a misty sky and not more than a thousand feet above and black against the heavens was the lip of it — the cornices of this chasm within the City.
Far, far beneath us we watched the Hordes throw themselves across the abyss in webs of curving arches and girder-straight bridges; gigantic we knew these spans must be yet dwarfed to slender footways by distance. Over them moved hurrying companies; from them came flashings, glitterings — prismatic, sun golden; plutonic scarlets, molten blues; javelins of colored light piercing upward from unfolded cubes and globes and pyramids crossing them or from busy bearers of the shining fruits of the mysterious workshops.
And as they passed the bridges swung up, coiled and thrust themselves from sight through openings that closed behind them. Ever, as they passed, close on their going whipped out other spans so that always across that abyss a sentient, shifting web was hung.
We drew back, stared into each other’s white face. Panic swept through me, in quick, alternate pulse of ice and fire. For crushingly, no longer to be denied, came certainty that we were lost within the mazes of this incredible City — lost in the body of the Metal Monster which that City was. There was a sick despair in my heart as we turned and slowly made our way back along the sloping corridor.
A hundred yards, perhaps, we had gone in silence before we stopped, gazing stupidly at an opening in the wall beside us. The portal had not been there when we had passed — of that I was certain.
“It’s opened since we went by,” whispered Drake.
We peered through it. The passage was narrow; its pave led downward. For a moment we hesitated, the same foreboding in both our minds. And yet — among the perils that crowded in upon us what choice had we? There could be no more danger there than here.
Both ways were — ALIVE, both obedient to impulses over which we had no more control and no more way of predetermining than mice in some complex, man-made trap. Furthermore, this shaft also ran downward, and although its pitch was less and it did not therefore drop as quickly toward that level we sought and wherein lay the openings of escape into the outer valley, it fell at right angles to the corridor through which we had come.
We knew that to retrace our steps now would but take us back to the forges and thence to the hall of the Cones and the certain peril waiting for us there.
We stepped into this opened way. For a little distance it ran straightly, then turned and sloped gently upward; and a little distance more we climbed. Then suddenly, not a hundred yards from us, gushed out a flood of soft radiance, opalescent, filled with pearly glimmerings and rosy shadows of light.
It was as though a door had opened into some world of luminescence. From it the lambent torrent poured; billowed down upon us. In its wake came music — if music the mighty harmonies, the sonorous chords, the crystalline themes and the linked chaplet of notes that were like spiralings of tiny golden star bells could be named.
Toward source of light and sound we moved, nor could we have halted nor withdrawn had we willed; the radiance drew us to it as the sun the water drop, and irresistibly the sweet, unearthly music called. Closer we came — it was a narrow alcove from which sound and light poured — into it we crept — and went no further.
We peered into a vast and columnless vault, a limitless temple of light. High up in it, strewn manifold, danced and shone soft orbs like tender suns. No pale gilt luminaries of frozen rays were these. Effulgent, jubilant, they flamed — orbs red as wine of rubies that Djinns of Al Shiraz press from his enchanted vineyards of jewels; twin orbs rosy white as breasts of pampered Babylonian maids; orbs of pulsing opalescences and orbs of the murmuring green of bursting buds of spring, crocused orbs and orbs of royal coral; suns that throbbed with singing rays of wedded rose and pearl and of sapphires and topazes amorous; orbs born of cool virginal dawns and of imperial sunsets and orbs that were the tuliped fruit of mating rainbows of fire.
They danced, these countless aureoles; they swung and threaded in radiant choral patterns, in linked harmonies of light. And as they danced their gay rays caressed and bathed myriads of the Metal Folk open beneath them. Under the rays the jewel fires of disk and star and cross leaped and pulsed and danced to the same bright rhythm.
We sought the source of the music — a tremendous thing of shimmering crystal pipes like some colossal organ. Out of the radiance around it great flames gathered, shook into sight with streamings and pennonings, in bannerets and bandrols, leaped upon the crystal pipes, and merged within them.
And as the pipes drank them the flames changed into sound!
Throbbing bass viols of roaring vernal winds, diapasons of waterfall and torrents — these had been flames of emerald; flaming trumpetings of desire that had been great streamers of scarlet — rose flames that had dissolved into echoes of fulfillment; diamond burgeonings that melted into silver symphonies like mist entangled Pleiades transmuted into melodies; chameleon harmonies to which the strange suns danced.
And now I saw — realizing with a clutch of indescribable awe, with a sense of inexplicable profanation the secret of this ensorcelled chamber.
Within every pulsing rose of irised fire that was the heart of a disk, from every rubrous, clipped rose of a cross, and from every rayed purple petaling of a star there nestled a tiny disk, a tiny cross, a tiny star, luminous and symboled even as those that cradled them.
The Metal Babes building like crystals from hearts of radiance beneath the play of jocund orbs!
Incredible blossomings of crystal and of metal whose lullabies and cradle songs were singing symphonies of flame.
It was the birth chamber of the City!
The womb of the Metal Monster!
Abruptly the walls of the niche sparkled out, the glittering eye points regarding us with a most disquieting suggestion of sentinels who, slumbering, had been caught unaware, and now awakening challenged us. Swiftly the niche closed — so swiftly that barely had we time to spring over its threshold into the corridor.
The corridor was awake — alive!
The power darted out; gripped us. Up it swept us and on. Far away a square of light appeared, grew quickly larger. Framed in it was the amethystine burning of the great ring that girdled the encircling cliffs.
I turned my head — behind us the corridor was closing!
Now the opening was so close that through it I could see the vast panorama of the valley. The wall behind us touched us; pushed us on. We thrust ourselves against it, despairingly. As well might flies have tried to press back a moving mountain.
Resistingly, inexorably we were pressed forward. Now we cowered within a yard-deep niche; now we trembled upon a foot-wide ledge.
Shuddering, gasping, we glared down the sheer drop of the City’s wall. The smooth and glimmering scarp fell thousands of feet straight to the valley floor. And there were no merciful mists to hide what awaited us there; no mists anywhere. In that brief, agonized glance every detail of the Pit was disclosed with an abnormal clarity.
We tottered on the brink. The ledge melted.
Down, down we plunged, locked in each other’s arms, hurtling to the shattering death so far below!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11