3. The Vision of Time
De Kalb said, Tell us what you saw.”
“You—you’ve seen it too?” The brandy helped but I wasn’t yet steady. I didn’t want to talk about what had flashed through my mind in that unending, dissolving glimpse which was slipping fragment by fragment out of my memory as I sat there. And yet I did want to talk.
“I’ve seen it,” De Kalb’s ponderous nod was grim. “Letta Essen has seen it. Now you. Three of us. We all get the same thing and yet—details differ. Three witnesses to the same scene tell three different stories. Each sees with a different brain. Tell us how it seemed to you.”
I swirled the brand around in my glass. My thoughts swirled with it, hot and potent as the liquor and as volatile. Give me ten minutes more, I thought, and they’ll evaporate.
“Red sky,” I said slowly. “Empty landscape. And—” The word stuck in my throat. I couldn’t name it.
“The Face,” De Kalb supplied impatiently. “Yes, I know. Go on.”
“The Face of Ea,” I said. “How do I know its name? Ea and time—time—” Suddenly the brandy splashed across my hand. I was shaking with reaction so violent I could not control it and I was shaking because of time. I got the glass to my lips, using both hands, and drained what was left.
The second reaction passed and I thought I had myself under control.
“Time,” I said deliberately, letting the thought of it pour through my mind in a long, cold, dark-colored tide that had no motion. Time hasn’t, of course. But when you see it as I did, at first the concept makes the brain rock in your skull.
“Time—ahead of our time. Uncountable thousands of years in our future. It was all there, wasn’t it? The civilizations rising and falling one after another until—the last city of all. The City of the Face.”
“You saw it was a city?” De Kalb leaned forward quickly. “That’s good. That’s very good. It took me three times to find that out.”
“It didn’t see it. I—I just knew.”
I closed my eyes. Before me the empty landscape floated, dark, almost night, under the dim red sky.
I knew the Face was enormous. The side of some mountain had been carved away to reveal it and, I supposed, carved with tools by human hands. But you had the feeling that the Face must always have been there, that one day it had wakened in the rock and given one great grimace of impatience and the mountainside had sloughed away from its features, leaving Ea to look out into eternity over the red night of the world.
“There are people inside,” I said. “I could feel them, being there. Feel their thoughts, I suppose. People in an enormous city, a metropolis behind the Face.”
“Not a metropolis,” De Kalb said. “A nekropolis. There’s a difference. But—yes, it’s a city.”
“Streets,” I said dreamily, sniffing the empty glass. “Levels of homes and public buildings. People moving, living, thinking. What do you mean, nekropolis?”
“Tell you later. Go on.”
“I wish I could. It’s fading.” I closed my eyes again, thinking of the Face. I had to force my mind to turn around in its tracks and look, for it didn’t want to confront that infinite complexity again. The Face was painful to see. It was too intricate, too involved with emotions complex beyond our grasp. It was painful for the mind to think of it, straining to understand the inscrutable things that experience had etched upon those mountain-high features.
“Is it a portrait?” I asked suddenly. “Or a composite? What is the Face?”
“A city,” De Kalb said. “A nation. The ultimate in human destiny—and a call for help. And much more that we’ll never understand.”
“But—the future!” I said. “That box—didn’t you say it was found in Crete? Dug up in old ruins? How could something from the past be a record of our own future? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Very little makes sense, sir, when you come to examine the nature of time.” De Kalb’s voice was ponderous again. He heaved himself up a little and folded his thick fingers, looking at me above them with veiled gray eyes.
“Have you read Spengler, Mr. Cortland?” he asked.
I grimaced and nodded.
“I know, I know. He has a high irritant value. But the man had genius, just the same. His concept of the community, moving through its course from ‘culture’ to dead and petrifying ‘civilization’ is what happened to the city of the Face.
“I said ‘happened’ because I have to use the past tense for that nekropolis of the future. It exists. It has accomplished itself in time as fully as Babylon or Rome. And the men in it are not men at all in the sense we know. They are gods.”
He looked at me as if he expected me to object. I said nothing.
“They are gods,” He went on. “Spengler was wrong, of course, in thinking of any human progress in one simple, romantic curve. You have only to compare fourteenth century Rome with sixteenth century Rome to see that a nekropolis, as Mumford calls it, can pull itself together and become a metropolis again, a living, vital unit in human culture.
“I have no quarrel with Spengler in his interpretations of a culture within itself. But both he and Toynbee went astray in their ideas of the symbolic value of a city. When you go further into the Record you’ll see what I mean.”
He paused, put out a large hand and fumbled in a dish of fruit on the table at his elbow. He found an orange and peered at it dubiously, hefted it once or twice, then closed his fingers over it and went on with his discourse.
“In a moment,” he said, “I want to show you something with this orange as an illustration. First, however, I must do Spengler the justice of allowing the validity of his theories, in the ultimate. The City of the Face has run its course. It is a nekropolis, in the sense that Mumford uses the term.
“In our times, a nekropolis such as Rome once was, and such as New York must be someday, needn’t mean the end of our civilization, because a city isn’t a whole nation. There were outlying villages that flourished all the better when Rome ceased to dominate their world. When the dark ages closed over Europe it wasn’t by any means the end of the civilized world—elsewhere on the planet new cultures were rising and old ones flourishing. But the City of the Face is a very different matter.
“That City is really Nekropolis and there are no outlying villages to carry on, no outlying cultures rising toward fruition. In all that world there is only the one great City where mankind survives. And they aren’t men—they are gods. Gods, sir!”
“Then it can’t really be a nekropolis,” I objected.
“It need not be. That’s up to us.”
“You saw my hearth. Dr. Essen showed you the stain of plague that is creeping across it. Oh yes, my friend, that stain is spreading! Slowly, but with a rate of growth that increases as it goes. The negative matter—no, not even negative. Not even that. But it happened to the world of the Face. That whole planet is nekronic matter except for the City itself.
“You didn’t sense that from your first experience with the Record? No? You will. The people in the City can’t save themselves by direct action on the world around them. They appeal to us. We can save them. I don’t yet know how. But they know or they wouldn’t have appealed in just the way they did.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me get this straight. You’re asking me to accept a lot, you know. The only premise I’ve got to believe in is the—the Record. But what do you want from me, personally? How do I come into it? Why me?”
De Kalb shifted in his chair, sighed heavily, opened his fingers and peered at the orange he held as if he had never seen it before. He grimaced.
“Sir, you’re right. I accept the rebuke. Let me give you facts.Item, the Record. It is, in effect, a book. But not a book made by human minds. And it must, as you know, be experienced, not read. Each time you open the box you will get the same flash of complete vision, and each time you will forget a little less as your mind is conditioned. But there will always be facets of that tremendous story which will elude us, I think. Our minds can never wholly grasp what lies inside that box ...
“It was found in Crete. It had lain there perhaps three thousand years, perhaps five thousand—I think, myself, a million. It came into my hands half by accident. I could not open it. Off and on I tried. That is my habit. I used X-rays to look through the substance of the box. Of course I saw nothing.
“I detected radioactivity, and I tested it with certain of the radio-elements. I exposed it to supersonics. I—well, I tried many things. Something worked. Something clicked the safety, so that one day it opened. You see—” He looked at me gravely. “You see, it was time.”
“That box was made with a purpose, obviously. It was sent to us, with a message. I say to us but the aim was less direct. It was sent through time, Mr. Cortland—through time itself—and the address said simply, ‘To be opened only by a skilled technological civilization.’ ”
“All right,” I said. “Suppose it came through time. Suppose it’s an appeal for help. I didn’t get that, but I’m willing to believe I might if I opened the box often enough. But why do you assume this is a living issue, here and now? You imply the fate of the City depends on us. If that box is as old as you say, isn’t it more likely the City of the Face existed somewhere in the prehistoric past?
“They made a record—I can’t deny that. They cast it adrift in time like a note in a bottle and it floated ashore here and we read it. Sure. But it makes a good enough news-story for me the logical way—a relic of a dead civilization a million years old. That I could write. But—”
“You are not here to write a news story, sir!” De Kalb’s voice was sharp.
“That’s what my contract says I’m here for.”
“You were chosen,” De Kalb said heavily. “You were chosen. Not by Allister. Not by me.” He shifted uneasily. “Let me go on a little.” He peered at the orange, tossed it up and caught it with a smack in his palm. “I opened the box for the first time,” he said, “in my studio.
“You’ve seen it. I saw the box unfolding like a flower. For the first time in a million years—opening up in four dimensions, or perhaps more than four, with that tesseract motion which the eye can only partly see. But that first time, sir—something more happened.” He paused, hesitated, said in a reluctant voice, “Something came out of the box.”
I waited. Dr. Essen, who had scarcely moved since this talk began, got up abruptly and went to stand at the window, her back to us, looking out over the great brown tumble of mountains beyond.
“It came out of the box,” De Kalb said in a rapid voice, as if he didn’t want to talk about this and was determined to get it over as fast as he could. “It passed me. It leaped toward the fireplace. And it was gone. When I looked, I saw nothing. But that evening I noticed the first spot of the stain upon the stone. In the stone. It meant little to me then—I had not yet learned enough from the Record to be afraid. But I know now.”