The party which stood for the more primitive dance and for the emancipation of the lone nebulae was greatly strengthened by the dying speech of Fire Bolt, for the prestige of the great revolutionary was at its height. But most nebulae, and almost all who were in authority, continued to favour the policy of the mechanized cosmical dance life. The delight in the power and freedom of mechanical locomotion was by now too deeply rooted to be easily foresworn. The government, moreover, saw in the more violent dance a far greater scope for governmental control and centralization than in the other.
While the dispute was raging it was suggested that no important decision should be made till experiment had revealed the actual capacities of the lone nebulae to respond to educative influence. Some of the party which advocated the more primitive dance life therefore set about making contact with several of the lone nebulae. They very soon found that the task was far more difficult than they had expected. Not one of them had Bright Heart's genius for sympathetic insight and tact. Their clumsy efforts to give the solitaries an inkling of their presence were at first entirely unsuccessful. When, later, they managed to develop a partially successful technique, they received an unpleasant surprise. The lonely mind to whom they had with such difficulty revealed themselves had been so mauled and infuriated by their efforts that he regarded the intruders with furious hate, and would do nothing but stab blindly at them with shafts of his native radiation. Even when the technique had been so far improved that mental intercourse could be achieved without distressing the solitary, the attempt to give him some idea of the external world, by speech and by training his rudimentary powers of external vision, generally put him to such a severe mental strain that he had a nervous breakdown. In many cases the unfortunate patient went mad.
Nevertheless the missionaries persevered, and in time they succeeded in producing about a score of "enlightened" lone nebulae, capable of external perception, of speech and of locomotion.
The curious flocked in from every side to meet these emancipated savages; and the solitaries themselves were eager to learn as much as possible (in small doses) of the amazing world into which they had so unexpectedly been flung.
After a while it became clear that the various individual lone nebulae were reacting to their new environment in very different ways. Those that were relatively backward in physical and mental development not only adapted themselves comparatively easily to the life which was going on around them, but declared that in glad beholding and glad dancing with other individuals, especially with one or two intimate friends, they discovered a new joy, and one which was altogether more delectable than any familiar joys. Some went even so far as to say that their earlier life had been obscured by a vague sense of frustration and futility which now at last had given place to bliss. They asked only to be allowed to live the life of personal love undisturbed forever, expressing their inner ecstasy in mystic love dance now with one individual now with another, or with twos and threes, as the spirit moved them.
But the more developed nebulae reacted in a very different manner. The goal of life for every nebula, they said, must ever be to awaken the spirit so far as possible in percipience, intelligence and appreciation. This could be done only by the life of dance action, external or internal. It was true that by the external behaviour of many nebulae acting in relation to one another the dance was made capable of far greater complexity; but, they affirmed, it was made no more significant. What had these proud but brutish social nebulae really achieved by .their vaunted social life? They talked much of glad beholding and dancing, but in truth, instead of dancing in harmony with one another, they had perpetually been in conflict. Each was a curse to his neighbours, and none had been able to attain more than the crudest and most superficial aesthetic perception. Their finer perceptions had been stifled under the urgent need to defend themselves against one another. The hurly burly of social life had deprived them of inner reality. It was this lack of inner being that had made them so obtuse as to suppose that mechanical locomotion could be used to produce significant dance forms. Could anything more fantastically false be conceived than the notion of self-expression by means of power not one's own, and in terms of a violent kind of locomotion intolerable to the true nebular nature? These empty creatures were only of importance because of their harmfulness. Already they had decimated the population of lone nebulae, and unless prevented they would exterminate them. It was evidently necessary to rouse the lone nebulae from their serious life, not to make them permanently social but in order that, by a temporary cooperation, they might destroy the social nebulae.
Among the social nebulae themselves the dispute over the lone nebulae became more and more violent. Each party claimed that the experiment had proved its case. The advocates of mechanical power argued that although a few lone nebulae might, with infinite trouble, be educated to take a humble part in the cosmical dance, the great majority were clearly too far gone in solipsism to appreciate the beauty of communal life. The advocates of the primitive dance, on the other hand, claimed with reason that the lone nebulae were not mere brutes, that they were intelligent and highly aesthetic minds, and that, if only they could be won over for community, their help in the production of a profoundly significant cosmical dance order would be invaluable.
The conflict was irreconcilable. The advocates of mechanical power took matters into their own hands. They seized government, proscribed their opponents and organized a worldwide heresy hunt. But the party of the primitive dance was not to be so easily crushed. In many regions they were able to paralyse the activities of the government; in one region they were in a majority. There they organized themselves for war and embarked upon a dual policy toward the lone nebulae under their sway. They sent missions among them to rouse them from their solitariness, and gave to the missionaries these instructions. Each lone nebula, when he had been educated into clear awareness of the community, was to be asked whether he wished to participate in the cosmical dance or not. If he was ready to do so, he was to be treated as a citizen; if he refused he was to be slaughtered for power.
The "primitive" party would certainly have been beaten in the struggle which followed, had they not discovered a new weapon, far more destructive than the simple beams of radiation which had hitherto been used. The inventor of the new method of attack was one of the socialized lone nebulae. He was a prince of outspoken 'cynics, for he had declared that though he cared not a rap for any nebula but himself, he saw the necessity of supporting the "primitives" to save his own life. The end which he desired, he boldly declared, was that all nebulae of every party and type should be destroyed, except himself. But for the present he was willing to help the less dangerous pack of brutes against the more dangerous.
The new weapon consisted of a ray which would not only shatter the enemy but would start in his flesh a process of atomic disintegration so violent that all nebulae in his neighbourhood would be infected. He only wished, he said, that he could safely use this weapon on his friends as well as on his enemies.
Not till the enemy population had been halved did they discover a means of checking the spread of this diabolic infection, and at the same time learn to use the deadly ray upon their opponents.
It would be tedious to follow the course of the war, which dragged on indecisively aeon after aeon. Its end was ignominious to both antagonists. Neither triumphed; both were reduced to impotence by forces independent of the enemy.
Throughout the nebular era two slow but irresistible changes, independent but interacting, were setting a limit to the life of any possible cosmical community of nebulae, and to the-lives of individual nebulae also. The first of these was the continued expansion of the cosmos, the second was the senescence of the individual nebulae.
Owing to the expansion, it became increasingly difficult to communicate with remote groups. Not only did messages take longer and longer, but also they entailed an ever greater expenditure of energy. Even the concentration of radiation into a beam did not do away with this difficulty; for even the finest beam spread to some extent. Actual locomotion from region to region of the cosmos was still more seriously hampered. Distances were so increasing that, though short trips from neighbour to neighbour were scarcely at all affected, long voyages to other groups were becoming ever more lengthy and costly. The cosmos, in fact, was beginning to disintegrate.
The difficulties due to the expansion would not have been so formidable had the nebulae retained their youth. But senescence was by now making it less possible for them to readjust themselves to changing circumstances. They were becoming more hidebound, more sluggish, less percipient. For by now the "crumbling disease" which had destroyed Fire Bolt was a widespread plague, especially among the social nebulae, whose more active life seems to have worn them out more rapidly than the solitaries.
Nebula after nebula, group after group, munition corps after munition corps, regiment after regiment succumbed to the strange disease. It did not suggest the spread of infection from some particular region. It was endemic in every region, and ever on the increase. At first it had been regarded as a curious and unimportant accident, much as we should regard the case of a man who should have the rare misfortune to choke himself with his own saliva. But as the plague increased, it became a matter for public concern; and in time it grew to be even more momentous than the war itself.
For as the war dragged on, aeon after aeon, now this side securing an advantage, now the other, a larger and larger proportion of the combatants was put out of action by the "crumbling disease." Finally things came to such a pass that war was simply brought to a standstill. Both armies lost heart in the endless campaigns, and melted away. The authorities had not the means, if they had the will, to send them back to the front. A few heroically or fanatically militaristic warriors did indeed struggle to keep up the fray. For a long time it was possible to discover here and there a couple of aged foes still clumsily attacking one another. Purblind, stiff-limbed and mentally enfeebled, they would fumblingly direct their lethal beams at one another; but so palsied and incompetent were they that as often as not they blew up their own bodies instead of striking the enemy.
But most nebulae, as soon as they found their powers decaying, or even earlier, were too depressed to carryon their military duties. They crept away into a quiet place to snatch whatever comfort was possible in their distress, to mumble their store of memories, to lament over their aches and pains, to converse laboriously, like deaf old men, with their aged companions.
Thus one by one these first and hugest of all living things fell into decay. Even now, in our human era, all are not dead. Some, like our own great galaxy, retain a smouldering core, organic and distressfully alive. In this galaxy of ours the vital core is hidden from man by huge clouds of dead and non-luminous matter; but our astronomers have already guessed its existence, though not its vital constitution. Most of the flesh of our once superb and ardent nebula, most of the sensitive and agile organs with which it perceived and created beauty, crumbled long ago into that inconceivably sparse dust of stars which now surrounds us. But the old heart, or rather brain, still maunders on to itself about the glorious and tragic past and about its present blind isolation and misery.
Even in our day a few far-scattered nebulae are still almost untouched by decay. They see around them nothing but the ruins of their world, their dying or their dead companions. They themselves are still alert and sensitive. Like the lone survivor of a shipwreck, each strives to construct for himself a semblance of comfort in the desolation. And since for nebulae the only really satisfying activity is ever the dance, they can but dance to themselves measures symbolic of the ardent past. With subtle rhythms and patterns, they recapture their own lost youth, their loves and hates, their mature ambitions, and all the follies and agonies of the great nebular community. They epitomize and transmute into the language of dance the whole past of their race with all its heroic ventures, its tragically missed opportunities, its conflicting purposes, its horrors and frustrations, its perennial dream of the glad beholding and dancing of every nebula with all others in the never realized cosmical dance life.
But in our day the great majority of the formerly alive and sentient host are already crumbled into stars. Their voluntary movements have long ago ceased. They drift and slowly spin under the influences of gravitation alone. The stars themselves, fiery particles left over from the continuous living tissues, also spin and drift, held loosely together, in the system that we call galaxies, by their combined gravitational influence.
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