11. Thirty Second Interlude
It was a little like going down fast in an elevator. I didn’t lose consciousness but the physical sensations of transmission were so bewildering and so disorienting that I might as well have been unconscious for all the details I could give—then or later—about what happens between transmitter and receiver. All I know is that for a while the walls shimmered around me and gravity seemed to let go abruptly inside my body, so that I was briefly very dizzy.
Then, without any perceptible spatial change at all, the walls suddenly steadied and were not translucent pale gray any more, but hard dull steel, with the rivets showing where plates overlapped and here and there a streak of rust. I was in a somewhat smaller room than before. And I was alone.
“Topaz?” I said tentatively, looking around for her. “Topaz?” And then, more loudly, “Dr. Essen—where are you?”
No answer, except for the echo of my voice from those dull rusty walls.
This time it was harder to take, I don’t know why. Maybe things like that are cumulative. It was the second time I’d taken a jump into the unknown, piloted by somebody who was supposed to know the angles, and come out at the far end alone and in the wrong place.
I looked at the walls and fought down sheer panic at the possibility that this time I had really gone astray in the time-dimension and wakened here in the same room from which I’d set out in the City museum, a room now so aged that the wall surfaces had worn away and the exposed steel corroded and only I remained alive and imprisoned in a dead world.
It was a bad moment.
I had to do something to disprove the idea. Obviously the one possible action was to get out of there. I took a long step toward the nearest wall—
And found myself staggering. Gravity had gone wrong again. I weighed too much. My knees were trying to buckle, as if the one step had put nearly double my weight upon them. I braced my legs and made it to the wall in wide, plodding steps, compensating in every muscle for that extraordinary downward pull.
The moment my hand touched the wall there was a noise of badly oiled hinges and a door slid back in the steel.
Now let me get this straight.
Everything that happened happened extremely fast. It was only later that I realized it, because I had no sense of being hurried. But in the next thirty seconds the most important thing that was to occur in that world, so far as I was concerned, took place with great speed and precision.
Through the opening came a cool dusty light and the sound of buzzing, soft and insistent. I guessed at anything and everything.
I stood on the threshold of an enormous room. It was braced, tremendously braced, with rusted and pitted girders so heavy they made me think of Karnak and the tremendous architecture of the Egyptians. In an intricate series of webs and meshes metal girders ran through the great room, catwalks, but perhaps not for human beings, since some were level while others tilted dizzily and on a few one would have had to walk upside-down. I noticed, though, that while most of the catwalks were rusted those on which a man could walk without slipping off were scuffed shiny.
There was a series of broad high windows all around the room. Through them I could see a city.
Topaz had said there were no cities in her civilization except for the Museum. Well, perhaps there weren’t. Perhaps I had plunged unknowingly into time again, and looked upon a city like that Museum, no longer preserved in dead perfection. This city was living and very old. An obsolete metropolis, perhaps a nekropolis in the sense De Kalb had used the term. Everywhere was decay, rust, broken buildings, dim lights.
The sky was black. But it was day outside, a strange, pallid day lit by bands of thin light that lay like a borealis across the dark heavens. Far off, bright but not blinding, a double sun turned in the blackness.
But there were people on the streets. My confidence came back a little at the sight of them, until I realized that something curious was taking place all through the city as I watched a strange, phantom-like flitting of figures—men flashing into sight and out again like apparitions in folklore. I stared, bewildered, for an instant, before I realized the answer.
Perhaps in a city of the future like this one I had expected vehicles or moving ways of endless belts. Now I saw that at intervals along the street were discs of dull metal set in the pavement. A man would step on one—and vanish. Another man would suddenly appear on another, step off and hurry toward a third disc.
It was matter-transmission, applied to the thoroughly practical use of quick transportation.
I saw other things in that one quick look about the city. I won’t detail them. The fact of the city itself is all that was important about that phase of my thirty seconds’ experience there.
There were two other important things. One was the activity going on in the enormous room itself. And the third was waiting almost at my elbow. But I’m taking these in the reverse order of their urgency.
Something was happening on the far side of the room. It wasn’t easy to see, because of the distance and because a number of men in dark close-fitting garments clustered around it. I thought it might be an autopsy.
There was a table as high as an operating table and a man or a body lay stretched out on it. Above the table hung a web of thin, shining, tenuous matter that might have been lights or wires. It made me think, for no clear reason, of a complex chart of the neural system.
At the lower edge the bright lines appeared to connect with the object on the table. At the top they vanished into a maze of ceiling connections I couldn’t follow. Some of the wires, or lights, were brilliantly colored, others were silvery. Light and color flowed along them, coalesced at intersections, glowed dazzlingly and flowed on along diverse channels downward.
That was the thing of secondary importance which I saw there. The thing of primary importance stood about six feet away from me, waiting.
Now this is the difficult part. I must get it as clear as I can.
A tall man stood facing me. He had been standing there when the door opened. Obviously he expected me. He wore tight-fitting dark clothes like the others. He was well-made, even handsome, with the emotionless face of a Greek statue or a Buddha.
He was Ira De Kalb.
I had a moment of horrible internal vertigo, as if the bottom had dropped wholly out of my reason. It couldn’t be happening. For this was De Kalb and it wasn’t, exactly as Topaz had been Dr. Essen—and not Dr. Essen. In this case, at any rate, there was almost no physical difference. This man before me was the man I had last seen asleep in the cavern of the time-axis, no younger, no older, not changed at all except for one small thing.
The Ira De Kalb I had known possessed strange veiled eyes, filmed like a bird’s, grayed with light blue dullness. But this De Kalb, who regarded me with unrecognizing coldness, as if he had never seen me before in his life, looked out of curiously changed eyes.
His eyes were made of metal.
It was living metal, like burnished steel with depth behind it, yet not real steel—some alloy unknown to me, some bright unstable thing like quicksilver. I could see my own face reflected in the eyes, very small and vivid, and as my reflection moved, the eyes moved too.
I took a deep breath and opened my mouth to speak his name.
But I did not make a sound. There wasn’t time. He had been standing there with an immobility that was not human. An image of metal would stand like that, not seeming to breathe, no tiniest random motion stirring it. And I had an instant’s uncanny recollection that the De Kalb I knew had moved with curious clumsiness, like an automaton.
Then the metal eyes moved.
No, I moved.
It was a fall, in a way. But no fall I could accurately describe. It was motion of abnormal motor impulses, fantastic simply because they were without precedent. One walks, actually, in a succession of forward-falling movements, the legs automatically swinging forward to save one from collapse toward the center of gravity.
This was reaction to a sort of warped gravitational pull that drew me toward De Kalb. It was the opposite of paralysis—a new gravitation had appeared and I was falling toward it. It was like rushing down a steep slope, unable to halt oneself.
His strange, smooth face was expressionless but the metal eyes moved, watching me, reflecting my twin images that grew larger and larger as I fell upon him down a vertiginous abyss. The eyes came toward me with an effect of terrible hypnosis, probing into mine, stabbing through the reflection of my own face, my own eyes, and pinning the brain in my skull—probing into my mind and the little chamber behind the mind, where the ego lives.
Then he was looking out—through my own eyes! Deep in my brain the metal gaze crouched, looking watchfully outward, seeing what I saw.
A telepathic rapport? I couldn’t explain it. All I knew was the fact. De Kalb was a spy in my brain now.
I turned around. I went back toward the door into the transmission room. I closed the door. I was alone there. But the metal eyes looked at the room as I looked at it. I had no control over my motions while I saw my own hand rise and finger the wall. But when the room began to shimmer and the disorientation of matter-transmission shivered through my body I knew I had my muscles and my will back again. I was free to move as I liked. I was free to think and speak. But not about what had just happened. It may have been something like post-hypnotic command, to give it a label. That’s easy for me. Remember, I’d looked into De Kalb’s quicksilver eyes.
All this happened in something under thirty seconds. I’ve given you, of course, conclusions and afterthoughts that came to me much later, when I had time to think over what I’d seen and correlate it. But I woke in the rusted room, I looked out into a city on a planet outside our solar system, I saw something like an autopsy in a vast laboratory braced as if to withstand unearthly pressures, I met the gaze of Ira De Kalb and then the thing had happened between us—happened. And I returned to the transmitter.
The room vibrated and vanished.