4

THE GREAT NEBULAE APPEAR

I need not have been so despondent, for I was soon to find myself in a world of passionate beings whose alien, yet not entirely inhuman nature was to tax my comprehension and to wring me with conflicting sympathy and loathing. In a few brief aeons of cosmical time I was to be the spectator of a drama the very existence of which my fellow men had never suspected.

The clouds continued to drift apart from one another, continued to contract and gyrate and define themselves. Presently they were but small soft globes or flecks of light, snowflakes whirling in the huge gulf of space. They seemed to me minute; yet in each one of them was material for a host of suns, and worlds innumerable. For these were the Great Nebulae.

I had at first no inkling that these largest of all physical objects were alive, that each one of them in its own unique way was a sensitive and intelligent being, that every movement of this great host was no less significant of joy and grief than the gestures and facial expressions of men and women, that here before me were many which, though possessing nothing at all like a human eye, regarded one another's eloquent forms with joys and longings no less vivid than the personal loves of men and women, and many more which, though blind and deaf to the, external world, lived out a strange, passionate yet solipsistic life.

In time I was to learn, through long and difficult experience, not only to understand these beings up to a point, but also to respect them. But how can I give by means of a few printed pages the insight which I myself took aeons to acquire? There is nothing for it but to beg the reader once more to have patience while I try to describe as briefly as possible the physical and mental nature of the great nebulae. For without understanding the great difference between nebular and human nature he cannot possibly appreciate the strange and moving story which will follow.

In the earliest age of nebular history, when the expansion of the cosmos was not yet far advanced, the nebulae were very much closer to one another than in the age of man. They were also far more numerous; for many, as I shall tell, have been destroyed, and their flesh converted into energy to carry out the all too human activities of their fellows. They were also, at this time, much less evenly distributed than in our day. Most lay even now remote from all neighbours, lone sails on the ocean. These were the "lone nebulae" which spent their formative youth each in its own solipsistic universe. Others voyaged in convoy of a dozen or a score, or eddied together in shoals of hundreds or even a thousand. Here and there a leviathan made progress amid encircling satellites. These minute satellite nebulae constituted a race apart. Of one individual I shall say much at a later stage. Like their larger companions they were destined in the fullness of time to crumble into stars; but they would form not huge galaxies but the crowded swarms which we call the globular clusters.

Already the normal nebulae were very diverse. Some were greater, some smaller; some mere smudges of mist, some compact and formal. Each feathery ball, I noticed, was slowly shrinking. And as it shrank, it whirled more rapidly. And as it whirled, it was flattened. And as the flattening continued, there appeared in the centre a bright and swollen core. The outer parts of the nebula were flung by their own movement far out into space; but seemingly the tugging core still kept a hold on them, so that they developed into an attenuated disc around the heart of the nebula, and were torn into streamers and spreading convolutions. So might a dancer, pirouetting, halo her bright head with far-flung, tangled whirls.

Such at least was the form of these nebulae that were too far apart to distort one another. But those that were members of compact groups expressed by their very deformity their dependence upon one another. As woodland trees mould one another, so these great clouds, though at a distance of several light-years, moulded one another with their tidal sway.

It was an unearthly but a rich and subtle spectacle that now confronted me on every side. With slow rhythmic movements, the airy creatures floated around me delicately featured with many colours imperceptible to the normal human eye. Their cores were mostly tinged with violet or blue, their tresses nacrous grey, iridescent with green and gold and crimson and many unimaginable hues. In every direction and at every depth they appeared, the most distant as a very faint host of misty points. Between them spread the deep, the absolute blackness of the void.

The nearer nebulae reminded me ever more forcibly of living things. They displayed even that appearance of intelligence and purpose which is manifested by animalcules on a microscope slide. They were in continual oozy movement. I could imagine that they were seeking food, or some needed but unconceived fulfilment. Sometimes they would seem to pursue and avoid one another. Occasionally a giant would absorb and assimilate a dwarf. Or two peers, after long lonely voyaging, would come within close range of one another and protrude, each toward the other, a searching excrescence, as though yearning for intercourse. Sometimes the contact would fail to be achieved, or would be a mere moth's kiss, and the two would be borne apart with altered forms and courses. Sometimes the "lovers" would meet and mingle, to become a single great and brilliant organism, which, a pike among the small-fry, would proceed to devour all that crossed its path.

Could these lifelike creatures, I asked myself, be mere vortices of radiant gas? But I reminded myself that the briefest of the movements which I now witnessed must in fact occupy millions of terrestrial years, and that this impression of vital activity was an illusion. Age upon age must pass, I knew, before these clouds would condense into stars, and further ages before the rare meetings of stars should produce habitable worlds.

Why, I wondered, should God so long toy with lifeless matter before undertaking the main purpose of his work? And why should I, forlorn little terrestrial intelligence, be forced to watch this aimless, this puerile sport?

But at last I began to realize that, all unnoticed, new and strange experience had for some time been welling up within me, and was now clamouring for recognition.

Out of the confused and fatuous murmur of the primal mindlets of the cosmos there had emerged something new and uncouth and formidable. To use an image, the shrill and monotonous pipings of innumerable midges had been drowned by the boisterous incantation of a hurricane; or was it some more significant music, unintelligible to me?

Columbus, when he stumbled on a new world, a world of novel vegetation, beasts and men, cannot have been half so bewildered as I, who now found myself inwardly confronted by this new world of alien and primaeval spirits.

My poor human mind was at first overstrained and tortured by the flood of uncouth perceptions and novel hungers and fears which now flooded in upon me. But little by little, with many timorous tastings and agonized revulsions, I was able to accommodate myself so far as to receive without undue stress at least a muted and schematic echo of the mentality that had at first so jarred me. To do this, I had first to discriminate within the general babel some one theme of experience, the life story of some particular nebula. Attending to this, I found that the rest faded into the background, leaving me free to study, if I dared, and if I could endure it, the ardent and voluminous experience of being fantastically alien to man.

By what laborious and often painful experiment I learned at length to range at will among the minds of the nebulae, even as, with physical vision I could look now at this airy creature, now at that, I need not tell. Nor need I recount the long drawn out research by which I passed from sheer incomprehension to some degree of understanding of the nebular mentality. Instead I will present at once the fruits of my toil. I will at once try to give some idea first of the nature, and then of the impassioned history of these most immense of all living creatures. It is a history which reaches its climax before the first stars were born, and it is not completed even in our own age of terrestrial intelligence.

Chapter 5

Chapter 3

Nebula Maker Contents