Chapter 13 THE BEGINNING AND THE END

1. BACK TO THE NEBULAE

WHILE the awakened galaxies were striving to make full use of the last phase of their lucid consciousness, while I, the imperfect cosmical mind, was thus striving, I began to have a strange new experience. I seemed to be telepathically stumbling upon some being or beings of an order that was at first quite incomprehensible to me.

At first I supposed that I had inadvertently come into touch with subhuman beings in the primitive age of some natural planet, perhaps with some very lowly amoeboid micro-organisms, floating in a primeval sea. I was aware only of crude hungers of the body, such as the lust to assimilate physical energy for the maintenance of life, the lust of movement and of contact, the lust of light and warmth.

Impatiently I tried to dismiss this trivial irrelevance. But it continued to haunt me, becoming more intrusive and more lucid. Gradually it took on such an intensity of physical vigor and well-being, and such a divine confidence, as was manifested by no spirits up and down the ages since the stars began.

I need not tell of the stages by which I learned at last the meaning of this experience. Gradually I discovered that I had made contact not with micro-organisms, nor yet with worlds or stars or galactic minds, but with the minds of the great nebulae before their substance had disintegrated into stars to form the galaxies.

Presently I was able to follow their history from the time when they first wakened, when they first existed as discrete clouds of gas, flying apart after the explosive act of creation, even to the time when, with the birth of the stellar hosts out of their substance, they sank into senility and death.

In their earliest phase, when physically they were the most tenuous clouds, their mentality was no more than a formless craving for action and a sleepy perception of the infinitely slight congestion of their own vacuous substance. I watched them condense into close-knit balls with sharper contours, then into lentoid discs, featured with brighter streams and darker chasms. As they condensed, each gained more unity, became more organic in structure. Congestion, though so slight, brought greater mutual influence to their atoms, which still were no more closely packed, in relation to their size, than stars in space. Each nebula was now a single great pool of faint radiation, a single system of all-pervasive waves, spreading from atom to atom.

And now mentally these greatest of all megatheria, these amoeboid titans, began to waken into a vague unity of experience. By human standards, and even by the standards of the minded worlds and the stars, the experience of the nebulae was incredibly slow-moving. For owing to their prodigious size and the slow passage of the undulations to which their consciousness was physically related, a thousand years was for them an imperceptible instant. Periods such as men call geological, containing the rise and fall of species after species, they experienced as we experience the hours.

Each of the great nebulae was aware of its own lentoid body as a single volume compact of tingling currents. Each craved fulfilment of its organic potency, craved easement from the pressure of physical energy welling softly within it, craved at the same time free expression of all its powers of movement, craved also something more.

For though, both in physique and in mentality, these primordial beings were strangely like the primeval micro-organisms of planetary life, they were also remarkably different; or at least they manifested a character which even I, the rudimentary cosmical mind, had overlooked in microorganisms. This was a will or predilection that I can only by halting metaphor suggest.

Though even at their best these creatures were physically and intellectually very simple, they were gifted with something which I am forced to describe as a primitive but intense religious consciousness. For they were ruled by two longings, both of which were essentially religious. They desired, or rather they had a blind urge toward, union with one another, and they had a blind passionate urge to be gathered up once more into the source whence they had come.

The universe that they inhabited was of course a very simple, even a poverty-stricken universe. It was also to them quite small. For each of them the cosmos consisted of two things, the nebula’s own almost featureless body and the bodies of the other nebulae. In this early age of the cosmos the nebulae were very close to one another, for the volume of the cosmos was at this time small in relation to its parts, whether nebulae or electrons. In that age the nebulae, which in man’s day are like birds at large in the sky, were confined, as it were, within a narrow aviary. Thus each exercised an appreciable influence on its fellows. And as each became more organized, more of a coherent physical unity, it distinguished more readily between its native wave-pattern and the irreg-ularities which its neighbors’ influence imposed upon that pattern. And by a native propensity implanted in it at the time of its emergence from the common ancestral cloud, it interpreted this influence to mean the presence of other minded nebulae.

Thus the nebulae in their prime were vaguely but intensely aware of one another as distinct beings. They were aware of one another; but their communication with each other was very meager and very slow. As prisoners confined in separate cells give one another a sense of companionship by tapping on their cell walls, and may even in time work out a crude system of signals, so the nebulae revealed to one another their kinship by exercising gravitational stress upon one another, and by long-drawn-out pulsations of their light. Even in the early phase of their existence, when the nebulae were very close to one another, a message would take many thousands of years to spell itself out from beginning to end, and many millions of years to reach its destination. When the nebulae were at their prime, the whole cosmos reverberated with their talk.

In the earliest phase of all, when these huge creatures were still very close to one another and also immature, their parleying was concerned wholly with the effort to reveal themselves to one another. With child-like glee they laboriously communicated their joy in life, their hungers and pains, their whims, their idiosyncrasies, their common passion to be once more united, and to be, as men have sometimes said, at one in God.

But even in early days, when few nebulae were yet mature, and most were still very unclear in their minds, it became evident to the more awakened that, far from unity, they were steadily drifting apart. As the physical influence of one on another diminished, each nebula perceived its companions shrinking into the distance. Messages took longer and longer to elicit answers.

Had the nebulae been able to communicate telepathically, the “expansion” of the universe might have been faced without despair. But these beings were apparently too simple to make direct and lucid mental contact with one another. Thus they found themselves doomed to separation. And since their life-tempo was so slow, they seemed to themselves to have scarcely found one another before they must be parted. Bitterly they regretted the blindness of their infancy. For as they reached maturity they conceived, one and all, not merely the passion of mutual delight which we call love, but also the conviction that through mental union with one another lay the way to union with the source whence they had come.

When it had become clear that separation was inevitable, when indeed the hard-won community of these naive beings was already failing through the increased difficulty of communication, and the most remote nebulae were already receding from one another at high speed, each perforce made ready to face the mystery of existence in absolute solitude.

There followed an aeon, or rather for the slow-living creatures themselves a brief spell, in which they sought, by self-mastery of their own flesh and by spiritual discipline, to find the supreme illumination which all awakened beings must, in their very nature, seek.

But now there appeared a new trouble. Some of the eldest of the nebulae complained of a strange sickness which greatly hampered their meditations. The outer fringes of their tenuous flesh began to concentrate into little knots. These became in time grains of intense, congested fire. In the void between, there was nothing left but a few stray atoms. At first the complaint was no more serious than some trivial rash on a man’s skin; but later it spread into the deeper tissues of the nebula, and was accompanied by grave mental troubles. In vain the doomed creatures resolved to turn the plague to an advantage by treating it as a heaven-sent test of the spirit. Though for a while they might master the plague simply by heroic contempt of it, its ravages eventually broke down their will. It now seemed clear to them that the cosmos was a place of futility and horror.

Presently the younger nebulae observed that their seniors, one by one, were falling into a state of sluggishness and confusion which ended invariably in the sleep that men call death. Soon it became evident even to the most buoyant spirit that this disease was no casual accident but a fate inherent in the nebular nature.

One by one the celestial megatheria were annihilated, giving place to stars.

Looking back on these events from my post in the far future, I, the rudimentary cosmical mind, tried to make known to the dying nebulae in the remote past that their death, far from being the end, was but an early stage in the life of the cosmos. It was my hope that I might give them consolation by imparting some idea of the vast and intricate future, and of my own final awakening. But it proved impossible to communicate with them. Though within the sphere of their ordinary experience they were capable of a sort of intellection, beyond that sphere they were almost imbecile. As well might a man seek to comfort the disintegrating germ-cell from which he himself sprang by telling it about his own successful career in human society.

Since this attempt to comfort was vain, I put aside compassion, and was content merely to follow to its conclusion the collapse of the nebular community. Judged by human standards the agony was immensely prolonged. It began with the disintegration of the eldest nebulae into stars, and it lasted (or will last) long after the destruction of the final human race on Neptune. Indeed, the last of the nebulae did not sink into complete unconsciousness till many of the corpses of its neighbors had already been transformed into symbiotic societies of stars and minded worlds. But to the slow-living nebulae themselves the plague seemed a galloping disease. One after the other, each great religous beast found itself at grips with the subtle enemy, and fought a gallant losing fight until stupor overwhelmed it. None ever knew that its crumbling flesh teemed with the young and swifter lives of stars, or that it was already sprinkled here and there with the incomparably smaller, incomparably swifter, and incomparably richer lives of creatures such as men, whose crowded ages of history were all compressed within the last few distressful moments of the primeval monsters.