2. DISASTER IN OUR GALAXY

While our Galactic Society of Worlds was perfecting its telepathic vision, and at the same time improving its own social and material structure, the unexpected disasters which we had already observed from afar forced it to attend strictly to the task of preserving the lives of its constituent worlds.

The occasion of the first accident was an attempt to detach a star from its natural course and direct it upon an inter-galactic voyage. Telepathic intercourse with the nearest of the foreign galaxies was fairly reliable, but, as I have said, it had been decided that a physical exchange of worlds would be invaluable for mutual understanding and cooperation. Plans were therefore made for projecting several stars with their attendant systems of worlds across the vast ocean of space that separated the two floating islets of civilization. The voyage would of course be thousands of times longer than anything hitherto attempted. At its completion many more of the stars in each galaxy would already have ceased to shine, and the end of all life in the cosmos would already be in sight. Yet it was felt that the enterprise of linking galaxy with galaxy throughout the cosmos in this manner would be well justified by the great increase of mutual insight which it would produce in the galaxies in the last and most difficult phase of cosmical life.

After prodigies of experiment and calculation the first attempt at intergalactic voyaging was undertaken. A certain star, barren of planets, was used as a reservoir of energy, both normal and sub-atomic. By cunning devices far beyond my comprehension this fund of power was directed upon a chosen star with planetary girdles in such a way as to sway it gradually in the direction of the foreign galaxy. The task of securing that its planets should remain in their true orbits during this operation, and during the subsequent acceleration of their sun, was very delicate, but was accomplished without the destruction of more than a dozen worlds. Unfortunately, just as the star was correctly aimed and was beginning to gather speed, it exploded. A sphere of incandescent material, expanding from the sun with incredible speed, swallowed up and destroyed every girdle of planets. The star then subsided.

Throughout the history of the galaxy such sudden effulgence and quiescence of a star had been a very common occurrence. It was known to consist of an explosion of subatomic energy from the star’s superficial layers. This was caused sometimes by the impact of some small wandering body, often no bigger than an asteroid; sometimes by factors in the star’s own physical evolution. In either case the Galactic Society of Worlds could predict the event with great accuracy and take steps either to divert the intruding body or to remove the threatened world-system out of harm’s way. But this particular disaster was entirely unforeseen. No cause could be assigned to it. It infringed the established laws of physics.

While the Society of Worlds was trying to understand what had happened, another star exploded. This was the sun of one of the leading world-systems. Attempts had recently been made to increase this star’s output of radiation, and it was thought that the disaster must have been due to these experiments. After a while another and yet other stars exploded, destroying all their worlds. In several cases attempts had recently been made either to alter the star’s course or tap its stored energy.

The trouble spread. System after system of worlds was destroyed. All tampering with stars had now been abandoned, yet the epidemic of “novae” continued, even increased. In every case the exploding star was a sun with a planetary system.

The normal “nova” phase, the explosion caused not by collision but by internal forces, was known to occur only in a star’s youth or early maturity, and seldom, if ever, more often than once in each star’s career. In this late phase of the galaxy far more stars had passed the natural “nova” stage than not. It would be possible, therefore, to move whole systems of worlds from the dangerous younger stars and settle them in close orbits round the older luminaries. With immense expense of energy this operation was several times performed. Heroic plans were made for the transformation of the whole galactic society by migration to the safe stars, and the euthanasia of the excess population of worlds that could not be thus accommodated.

While this plan was being carried out it was defeated by a new series of disasters. Stars that had already exploded developed a power of exploding again and again whenever they were girdled with planets. Moreover, yet another kind of disaster now began to occur. Very aged stars, which had long since passed the period when explosion was possible, began to behave in an astounding manner. A plume of incandescent substance would issue from the photosphere, and this, as the star revolved, would sweep outwards as a trailing whirl. Sometimes this fiery proboscis calcined the surface of every planet in every orbit, killing all its life. Sometimes, if the sweep of the proboscis was not quite in the plane of the planetary orbits, a number of planets escaped. But in many cases in which the destruction was not at first complete the proboscis gradually brought itself more accurately into the planetary plane and destroyed the remaining worlds.

It soon became clear that, if the two kinds of stellar activity remained unchecked, civilization would be undermined and perhaps life exterminated throughout the galaxy. Astronomical knowledge provided no clue whatever to the problem. The theory of stellar evolutions had seemed perfect, but it had no place for these singular events. Meanwhile the Society of Worlds had set about the task of artificially exploding all stars that had not yet spontaneously passed through the “nova” phase. It was hoped thus to render them comparatively safe, and then to use them once more as suns. But now that all kinds of stars had become equally dangerous, this work was abandoned. Instead, arrangements were made to procure the radiation necessary to life from the stars that had ceased to shine. Controlled disintegration of their atoms would turn them into satisfactory suns, at least for a while. Unfortunately the epidemic of fiery plumes was increasing rapidly. System by system, the living worlds were being swept out of existence. Desperate research hit at last on a method of diverting the fiery tentacle away from the plane of the ecliptic. This process was far from reliable. Moreover, if it succeeded, the sun would sooner or later project another filament.

The state of the galaxy was being very rapidly changed. Hitherto there had been an incalculable wealth of stellar energy, but this energy was now being shed like rain from a thunder-cloud. Though a single explosion did not seriously affect the vigor of a star, repetitions became more exhausting as they increased in number. Many young stars had been reduced to decrepitude. The great majority of the stellar population had now passed their prime; multitudes were mere glowing coals or lightless ash. The minded worlds, also, were much reduced in number, for in spite of all ingenious measures of defense, casualties were still heavy. This reduction of the population of the worlds was the more serious because in its prime the Galactic Society of Worlds had been so highly organized. In some ways it was less like a society than a brain. The disaster had almost blotted out certain higher “brain-centers” and greatly reduced the vitality of all. It had also seriously impaired telepathic intercourse between the systems of worlds by forcing each system to concentrate on its own urgent physical problem of defense against the attacks of its own sun. The communal mind of the Society of Worlds now ceased to operate.

The emotional attitude of the worlds had also changed. The fervor for the establishment of cosmical Utopia had vanished, and with it the fervor for the completion of the spirit’s adventure by the fulfilment of knowledge and creative capacity. Now that extermination seemed inevitable within a comparatively short time, there was an increasing will to meet fate with religious peace. The desire to realize the far cosmcal goal, formerly the supreme motive of all awakened worlds, now seemed to be extravagant, even impious. How should the little creatures, the awakened worlds, reach out to knowledge of the whole cosmos, and of the divine. Instead they must play their own part in the drama, and appreciate their own tragic end with godlike detachment and relish.

This mood of exultant resignation, appropriate to unavoidable disaster, quickly changed under the influence of a new discovery. In certain quarters there had long been a suspicion that the irregular activity of the stars was not merely automatic but purposeful, in fact that the stars were alive, and were striving to rid themselves of the pest of planets. This possibility had at first seemed too fantastic; but it gradually became obvious that the destruction of a star’s planetary system was the end which determined the duration of the irregular action. Of course it was possible that in some unexplained but purely mechanical way the presence of many planetary girdles created the explosion, or the fiery limb. Astronomical physics could suggest no mechanism whatever which could have this result. Telepathic research was now undertaken in order to test the theory of stellar consciousness, and if possible to set up communication with the minded stars. This venture was at first completely barren. The worlds had not the slightest knowledge of the right method of approach to minds which, if they existed at all, must be inconceivably different from their own. It seemed all too probable that no factors in the mentality of the minded worlds were sufficiently akin to the stellar mentality to form a means of contact. Though the worlds used their imaginative powers as best they might, though they explored, so to speak, every subterranean passage and gallery of their own mentality, tapping everywhere in the hope of answer, they received none. The theory of stellar purposefulness began to seem incredible. Once more the worlds began to turn to the consolation, nay the joy, of acceptance. Nevertheless, a few world-systems that had specialized in psychological technique persisted in their researches, confident that, if only they could communicate with the stars, some kind of mutual understanding and concord could be brought about between the two great orders of minds in the galaxy. At long last the desired contact with the stellar minds was effected. It came not through the unaided efforts of the minded worlds of our galaxy but partly through the mediation of another galaxy where already the worlds and the stars had begun to realize one another.

Even to the minds of fully awakened worlds the stellar mentality was almost too alien to be conceived at all. To me, the little human individual, all that is most distinctive in it is now quite incomprehensible. Nevertheless, its simpler aspect I must now try to summarize as best I may, since it is essential to my story. The minded worlds made their first contact with the stars on the higher planes of stellar experience, but I shall not follow the chronological order of their discoveries. Instead I shall begin with aspects of the stellar nature which were haltingly inferred only after intercourse of a sort had become fairly well established. It is in terms of stellar biology and physiology that the reader may most easily conceive something of the mental life of stars.