4. TRIUMPH INSUB-GALAXY

It was after the destruction of the third system of worlds, when a fourth was preparing for its end, that a miracle, or a seeming miracle, changed the whole course of events in our galaxy. Before telling of this turn of fortune I must double back the thread of my story and trace the history of the system of worlds which was now to play the leading part in galactic events.

It will be remembered that in an outlying “island” off the galactic “continent” there lived the strange symbiotic race of Ichthyoids and Arachnoids. These beings supported almost the oldest civilization in the galaxy. They had reached the “human” plane of mental development even before the Other Men; and, in spite of many vicissitudes, during the thousands of millions of years of their career they had made great progress. I referred to them last as having occupied all the planets of their system with specialized races of Arachnoids, all of which were in permanent telepathic union with the Ichthyoid population in the oceans of the home planet. As the ages passed, they were several times reduced almost to annihilation, now by too daring physical experiments, now through too ambitious telepathic exploration; but in time they won through to a mental development unequaled in our galaxy. Their little island universe, their outlying cluster of stars, had come wholly under their control. It contained many natural planetary systems. Several of these included worlds which, when the early Arachnoid explorers visited them telepathically, were found to be inhabited by native races of pre-utopian rank. These were left to work out their own destiny, save that in certain crises of their history the Symbiotics secretly brought to bear on them from afar a telepathic in-fluence that might help them to meet their difficulties with increased vigor. Thus when one of these worlds reached the crisis in which Homo sapiens now stands, it passed with seem-ingly natural ease straight on to the phase of world-unity and the building of Utopia. Great care was taken by the Symbiotic race to keep its existence hidden from the primitives, lest they should lose their independence of mind. Thus, even while the Symbiotics were voyaging among these worlds in rocket vessels and using the mineral resources of neighboring uninhabited planets, the intelligent worlds of pre-utopian rank were left unvisited. Not till these worlds had themselves entered the full Utopian phase and were exploring their neighbor planets were they allowed to discover the truth. By then they were ready to receive it with exultation, rather than disheartenment and fear. Thenceforth, by physical and telepathic intercourse the young-utopia would be speedily brought up to the spiritual rank of the Symbiotics themselves, and would cooperate on an equal footing in a symbiosis of worlds.

Some of these pre-utopian worlds, not malignant but incapable of further advance, were left in peace, and preserved, as we preserve wild animals in national parks, for scientific interest. Aeon after aeon, these beings, tethered by their own futility, struggled in vain to cope with the crisis which modern Europe knows so well. In cycle after cycle civilization would emerge from barbarism, mechanization would bring the peoples into uneasy contact, national wars and class wars would breed the longing for a better world-order, but breed it in vain. Disaster after disaster would undermine the fabric of civilization. Gradually barbarism would return. Aeon after aeon, the process would repeat itself under the calm telepathic observation of the Symbiotics, whose existence was never suspected by the primitive creatures under their gaze. So might we ourselves look down into some rock-pool where lowly creatures repeat with naive zest dramas learned by their ancestors aeons ago.

The Symbiotics could well afford to leave these museum pieces intact, for they had at their disposal scores of planetary systems. Moreover, armed with their highly developed physical sciences and with sub-atomic power, they were able to construct, out in space, artificial planets for permanent habitation. These great hollow globes of artificial super-metals, and artificial transparent adamant, ranged in size from the earliest and smallest structures, which were no bigger than a very small asteroid, to spheres considerably larger than the Earth. They were without external atmosphere, since their mass was generally too slight to prevent the escape of gases. A blanket of repelling force protected them from meteors and cosmic rays. The planet’s external surface, which was wholly transparent, encased the atmosphere. Immediately beneath it hung the photosynthesis stations and the machinery for generating power from solar radiation. Part of this outer shell was occupied by astronomical observatories, machinery for controlling the planet’s orbit, and great “docks” for interplanetary liners. The interior of these worlds was a system of concentric spheres supported by girders and gigantic arches. Interspersed between these spheres lay the machinery for atmospheric regulation, the great water reservoirs, the food factories and commodity-factories, the engineering shops, the refuse-conversion tracts, residential and recreational areas, and a wealth of research laboratories, libraries and cultural centers. Since the Symbiotic race was in origin marine, there was a central ocean where the profoundly modified, the physically indolent and mentally athletic descendants of the original Ichthyoids constituted the “highest brain tracts” of the intelligent world. There, as in the primeval ocean of the home planet, the symbiotic partners sought one another, and the young of both species were nurtured. Such races of the sub-galaxy as were not in origin marine constructed, of course, artificial planets which, though of the same general type, were adapted to their special nature. But all the races found it also necessary to mold their own nature drastically to suit their new conditions. As the aeons advanced, hundreds of thousands of worldlets were constructed, all of this type, but gradually increasing in size and complexity. Many a star without natural planets came to be surrounded by concentric rings of artificial worlds. In some cases the inner rings contained scores, the outer rings thousands of globes adapted to life at some particular distance from the sun. Great diversity, both physical and mental, would distinguish worlds even of the same ring. Sometimes a comparatively old world, or even a whole ring of worlds, would feel itself outstripped in mental excellence by younger worlds and races, whose structure, physical and biological, embodied increasing skill. Then either the superannuated world would simply continue its life in a sort of backwater of civilization, tolerated, loved, studied by the younger worlds; or it would choose to die and surrender the material of its planet for new ventures.

One very small and rather uncommon kind of artificial world consisted almost wholly of water. It was like a titanic bowl of gold-fish. Beneath its transparent shell, studded with rocket-machinery and interplanetary docks, lay a spherical ocean, crossed by structural girders, and constantly impregnated with oxygen. A small solid core represented the sea-bottom. The population of Ichthyoids and the visiting population of Arachnoids swarmed in this huge encrusted drop. Each Ichthyoid would be visited in turn by perhaps a score of partners whose working life was spent on other worlds. The life of the Ichthyoids was indeed a strange one, for they were at once imprisoned and free of all space. An Ichthyoid never left his native ocean, but he had telepathic intercourse with the whole Symbiotic race throughout the sub-galaxy. Moreover, the one form of practical activity which the Ichthyoids performed was astronomy. Immediately beneath the planet’s glassy crust hung observatories, where the swimming astronomers studied the constitution of the stars and the distribution of the galaxies.

These “gold-fish-bowl” worlds turned out to be transitional. Shortly before the age of the mad empires the Symbiotics began to experiment for the production of a world which should consist of a single physical organism. After ages of experiment they produced a “gold-fish-bowl” type of world in which the whole ocean was meshed by a fixed network of Ichthyoid individuals in direct neural connection with one another. This world-wide, living, polyp-like tissue had permanent attachments to the machinery and observatories of the world. Thus it constituted a truly organic world-organism, and since the coherent Ichthyoid population supported together a perfectly unified mentality, each of these worlds was indeed in the fullest sense a minded organism, like a man. One essential link with the past was preserved. Arachnoids, specially adapted to the new symbiosis, would visit from their remote planets and swim along the submarine galleries for union with their anchored mates.

More and more of the stars of the outlying cluster or sub-galaxy came to be girdled with rings of worlds, and an increasing number of these worlds were of the new, organic type. Of the populations of the sub-galaxy most were descendants of the original Ichthyoids or Arachnoids; but there were also many whose natural ancestors were humanesque, and not a few that had sprung from avians, insectoids or plant-men. Between the worlds, between the rings of worlds, and between the solar systems there was constant intercourse, both telepathic and physical. Small, rocket-propelled vessels plied regularly within each system of planets. Larger vessels or high-speed worldlets voyaged from system to system, ex-plored the whole sub-galaxy, and even ventured across the ocean of emptiness into the main body of the galaxy, where thousands upon thousands of planetless stars awaited encirclement by rings of worlds.

Strangely, the triumphant advance of material civilization and colonization now slowed down and actually came to a standstill. Physical intercourse between worlds of the sub-galaxy was maintained, but not increased. Physical exploration of the neighboring fringe of the galactic “continent” was abandoned. Within the sub-galaxy itself no new worlds were founded. Industrial activities continued, but at reduced pressure, and no further advance was made in the standard of material convenience. Indeed, manners and customs began to grow less dependent on mechanical aids. Among the Symbiotic worlds, the Arachnoid populations were reduced in number; the Ichthyoids in their cells of ocean lived in a permanent state of mental concentration and fervor, which of course was telepathically shared by their partners.

It was at this time that telepathic intercourse between the advanced sub-galaxy and the few awakened worlds of the continent was entirely abolished. During recent ages, communication had been very fragmentary. The Sub-Galactics had apparently so far outstripped their neighbors that their interest in those primitives had become purely archaeological, and was gradually eclipsed by the enthralling life of their own community of worlds, and by their telepathic exploration of remote galaxies. To us, the band of explorers, desperately struggling to maintain contact between our communal mind and the incomparably more developed minds of these worlds, the finest activities of the Sub-Galactics were at present inaccessible. We observed only a stagnation of the more obvious physical and mental activities of these systems of worlds. It seemed at first that this stagnation must be caused by some obscure flaw in their nature. Was it, perhaps, the first stage of irrevocable decline? Later, however, we began to discover that this seeming stagnation was a symptom not of death but of more vigorous life. Attention had been drawn from material advancement just because it had opened up new spheres of mental discovery and growth. In fact the great community of worlds, whose members consisted of some thousands of world-spirits, was busy digesting the fruits of its prolonged phase of physical progress, and was now finding itself capable of new and unexpected psychical activities. At first the nature of these activities was entirely hidden from us. But in time we learned how to let ourselves be gathered up by these superhuman beings so as to obtain at least an obscure glimpse of the matters which so enthralled them. They were concerned, it seemed, partly with telepathic exploration of the great host of ten million galaxies, partly with a technique of spiritual discipline by which they strove to come to more penetrating insight into the nature of the cosmos and to a finer creativity. This, we learned, was possible because their perfect community of worlds was tentatively waking into a higher plane of being, as a single communal mind whose body was the whole sub-galaxy of worlds. Though we could not participate in the life of this lofty being, we guessed that its absorbing passion was not wholly unlike the longing of the noblest of our own human species to “come face to face with God.” This new being desired to have the percipience and the hardihood to endure direct vision of the source of all light and life and love. In fact this whole population of worlds was rapt in a prolonged and mystical adventure.