A certain large group of nebulae had long attracted my attention by the unusual breadth and thoroughness of its mental development. Its culture was less exclusively aesthetic than was usual with the nebulae. Intellectual curiosity played an increasingly important part in the life of this group. One party, it is true, sought to concentrate all the interest of the group upon perfecting the physical dance measures of the group, but another was moved chiefly by the will to understand nebular nature and the nature of the universe.
These intellectualists were prone to sacrifice their duties of dance participation to their passion for exploration and experiment. All their experimentation had to be carried on by daring manipulation of their own tissues and was often very painful; but such was their enthusiasm that these nebular scientists were able to discover a good deal about their own biochemical constitution. In spite of much interference and even persecution by the dominant aesthetic party, they were able to construct out of their own tissues optical instruments for the study of the remoter regions of the cosmos, and they obtained in time a clear apprehension of its boundless finitude.
Here at last, I told myself, is the germ of an ampler and a more balanced nebular culture. From this unique group will emerge the idea of a pan-cosmical society of nebulae, a society in which the diversity of all will be a spiritual enrichment to each.
Peering into the dark spaces beyond the confines of their own group, these scientific nebulae discovered, by means of their new instruments, that the innumerable flecks of light observable in all directions were in fact creatures like themselves. Often they longed to go voyaging through these dark populous depths and to make contact with these remote beings. But they knew well that to reach even their nearest neighbours would demand an immense expenditure of power. For although voyaging in the ether is practically unaffected by friction, so that an initial push will propel the traveller for ever, yet only by the use of tremendous energy could he be given sufficient speed to cope with cosmical distances.
Now these nebular scientists learned in time how to unlock the treasury of subatomic energy contained in all matter. But since practically all matter was organized in the living tissues of nebulae, they could not make use of this discovery on a large scale save by sacrificing life. Such a course was repugnant to these highly civilized beings. The members of this group, no matter what their party, had by now conceived a violent dislike even of killing an enemy in battle. Their controversies were by now carried on by methods which the historian would call either more humane or more cowardly according to his taste.
It so happened that this highly cultured group drifted into the proximity of a purely martial group. When these warriors found themselves within striking distance of another community, they composed their own purely fictitious discords in order to unite for the prosecution of the dance measures of war upon a grander scale. With one will they contrived to deflect their orbits sufficiently to bring them actually into contact with the foreign system. Then gleefully they opened battle.
In the more civilized group each party was so deeply opposed to the other, and both were by now so unaccustomed to serious warfare, that resistance was ineffective. Many of the members were killed in the first attack. A belated attempt to use the corpses for the generation of subatomic energy was frustrated by the conquest of the whole group. The invaders became a military caste which sought to impose its barbarian culture upon the combined community.
But peace soon began to undermine the mentality of the invaders. Several of their less disciplined members were infected by the intellectual and aesthetic culture of the enslaved race and were reduced to a state of abject self-loathing by the conflict between their deep-rooted belligerence and the novel ideas which were now germinating within their minds. The leaders therefore determined that a state of war must at once be restored. It seemed at first that, as of old, they would be forced to divide upon some trumpery difference of opinion and organize themselves and their slaves into two armies to fight one another for fighting's sake. But at this point the natural science of the enslaved intelligentsia came to their aid. A cunning and unprincipled intellectual, hoping to better his position in the society, claimed that by the sacrifice of a single life he could provide energy to carry a troop of warriors at a prodigious speed far away into space to attack the nearest foreign groups.
The military caste at once arranged for the slaughter of the most annoying member of the slave race, a sly wit whose overt respectfulness failed to compensate for constant veiled ridicule of war and of the martial temperament. Under the horrified gaze of his fellow intellectuals this nebula was dismembered. A small portion of his flesh was specially treated by the scientist, and then cunningly inserted here and there within the body of a volunteer from the warrior caste. By a secret and subtle method matters were so arranged that the volunteer, by merely exerting his muscles in the ordinary way, should cause the foreign matter to disintegrate and project him rocketwise through space by the rebound of its subatomic energy.
Unfortunately the gallant warrior paid no heed to the cautions of the scientist and exploded his "fuel" too violently at the outset, so that the concussion killed him, and his corpse was hurtled irrevocably into outer space.
This accident roused fury against the scientist. He was seized and tortured, but managed to persuade the tyrants to give him another chance. Further experiments were undertaken. Finally a speedy but foolproof means of locomotion was achieved, and with it a long-range lethal beam of radiation, which outclassed all former weapons as the machine gun outclasses the spears of savages.
An expeditionary force was now organized. The whole body of the slaughtered slave was divided up amongst these warriors, each of whom was in turn so treated as to have the power of using the stored "fuel."
Thus equipped, the elated army launched itself into space. Its first enterprise called for no hardihood or skill, for it was concerned merely to acquire a huge store of subatomic energy by mopping up a few score of the nearest lone nebulae. Hundreds of these drifted at no very remote distance from the group, like jellyfish in the neighbourhood of a shoal of more mobile and more predatory creatures.
Though the army moved at a speed which was regarded as incredible, its voyage lasted a long time even from the point of view of the sluggish nebular consciousness. But it was successful. The unfortunate solitaries, incapable of conceiving what had happened to them, were butchered and cut up into convenient volumes for use as "fuel."
Then followed the first of all imperialistic adventures. The army set out upon a very lengthy voyage to attack the nearest foreign group. This journey took them past many lone nebulae, one or two of which they seized for power. If their aim had been simply exploitation of the economic resources of their neighbourhood, the lone nebulae would have contented them. But it was urgent for the warrior race to find a foe before peace undermined them.
Though the size of the expanding cosmos in relation to the size of a nebula or an electron or a light wave was then very much smaller than it is now, the distance which the little army had to travel in order to reach the nearest foreign community was but a minute fraction of the whole span of the cosmos. And though the speed which they attained was very much faster than the normal drift of nebulae, the impatient warriors found their voyage almost intolerably long and tedious. Before the end of the voyage they fell to quarrelling among themselves. Several of them were killed, more were seriously disabled. But the brawl was a tonic to their pugnacious natures, and when at last they reached their destination, they were in extremely good fettle.
The enemy was a large group whose life was almost entirely devoted to the aesthetic expression of personal relationships and the interaction of these with group feeling. Though the defenders outnumbered the attackers by more than five to one, they were of course impotent against the swift movement and long-range "modern" weapons of their enemy. The exultant warriors circled around the doomed aesthetes, pouring into them a concentrated and ceaseless volley of radiation, which "mowed them down" as by machine-gun fire. In a very short time (measured by nebular standards) all semblance of resistance vanished. The survivors floundered among the disorganized corpses of their comrades. Tresses were torn and cast adrift. Cores were pierced, shattered, disintegrated, exploded.
The conquerors proceeded to impose their own martial culture upon the remnants of the group, assuring them that only in the ritual dance of war could true fulfilment of the nebular spirit be attained. Before leaving, they appointed one of their number to carryon the good work of reorganization and enlightened government.
There is no need to tell in detail how the victors returned to their base, improved their method of locomotion and their offensive weapon (by the help of the enslaved intelligentsia), and finally set out, accompanied by the rest of their peers and all the slaves, to conquer and enlighten.
There is no need to tell in detail how they fared. Group after group of nebulae, busy with its own internal strife, or rapt by some endless and subtle terpsichorean adventure, or exploring for the first time the mysteries of existence or the depths and heights of personality, found itself attacked by an invincible and ruthless foe, and was speedily overcome.
The policy of the imperialists was to destroy only those communities which refused to accept the imperial law and culture. To those which were amenable they permitted life and a certain autonomy within the bonds of empire. To those which were both sympathetic to their aims and at the same time of warlike temperament they offered partnership within the empire.
For by now the imperialists were opposed not merely by isolated and unarmed groups but by a great alliance of groups equipped with modern weapons and transport. (The enslaved scientists had apparently divulged to the enemy the secret of sub-atomic power.) It was not with regret but with glee that the imperialists at last found themselves opposed by a worthy foe, and began to organize a vast army picked from among their more warlike vassals and officered by themselves.
The check to imperial expansion was brief. The enemy was a medley of very diverse and unmartial groups united only by a common danger. Stage by stage they were overcome, to be slaughtered or enslaved according to the whim of the victors. Not till a considerable tract of the cosmos had come under the imperial sway did the advancing tide of conquest suffer a check, partly through strife within the empire, partly through the increasing resolution of the resistance.
The cosmos was now like an oyster containing a minute pearl built around an irritating foreign body; for around the empire lay a vaster no-man's-land of perennial warfare, and beyond this again the organized bases of the enemy.
In all these regions the impotent lone nebulae were seized and slaughtered wholesale by both armies for use as power. The strength of the allies was practically inexhaustible. They had the whole cosmos to draw upon, or so much of it as was not too remote to feel the danger or to be brought into action. Behind their front lines rumour of the imperialist danger crept in all directions upon the ether. Translated from language to language, it percolated from remote to ever remoter groups upon the swift-slow rays of cosmical light.
The imperialists, on the other hand, were already being forced to conserve their resources.
The little band of raiders which had originally ignited this huge martial conflagration was now a mere handful. Most had either died in battle or succumbed to assassins; for as time passed there was a great increase of discontent among the subject populations. But though the founders of empire were few and hard-pressed, they were still masters of the whole military organization, and they still hoped that at any moment the imperial forces might break the enemy line and overrun a great tract where the lone nebulae drifted in huge shoals awaiting exploitation.
But the great day never came. The imperialists had to decree that each group within the empire should kill one of its members as a source of power for the army. In spite of careful propaganda in praise of dying for the empire, it proved extremely difficult to enforce this order; and when the power which it did provide had been squandered on a huge but barren offensive, the authorities had to demand a second and then a third victim.
The result of the third order was immediate widespread revolt and the downfall of the empire. The unsupported armies, themselves utterly tired and disillusioned, fell back in disorder. The enemy flooded in on all sides, slaughtering the fugitives and making fair promises to the rebels. A ruinous peace was agreed upon perforce by the several revolutionary succession states. The whole war area, and regions far beyond it, resounded with thanksgiving for the end of war and with praise of brotherhood and of the inoffensive life of dance and song and pure intelligence.
But this rejoicing concluded only the first and local phase of the First Cosmical War. For no sooner was peace declared than the victors, habituated now to all manner of savage passions, to fear, hate, vengeance, and above all to economic greed, began to fight among themselves, and to build up new empires, threading the whole cosmos with the opposed meshes of their alliances.
It would be tedious and unnecessarily harrowing to describe in detail this darkest age of nebular history. Everywhere I "heard" familiar cries, though in nonhuman speech. "Civilization in danger! The war to end war! Wars will never end; you cannot change nebular nature. Reduction of armaments is impracticable. Peace, with security." Everywhere I saw the fair nebular forms mutilated, dismembered, annihilated for power. Everywhere I felt the agony and spiritual stultification of war. Aesthetic activity was everywhere coarsened, partly by the direct influence of martial rhythms and martial sentiments, partly by sheer neglect of the genuine aesthetic experience. The dance life of the average group, even during times of peace, became a barren ritual significant of a past world, meaningless in the present world of war. The life of intellect was stultified by hates and fears, stifled by the endless emergencies of war.
There was of course an increasing awareness of the folly and baseness of war, and an increasing though ill-directed will for peace. Every army now claimed that it fought for peace and a new world order. Every upstart warlord posed as a militant messiah. Gestures of forlorn pacifism became more and more frequent. Individuals and even whole tribes declared that they would fight no more and never again defend themselves. But when it came to the point either their courage failed them, and they took the accustomed course, or some hard-pressed general had them slaughtered for ammunition.
During a lull in the brawling a Pan-Cosmical League was formed to settle all future disputes between rival powers, and to work out a body of principles to guide their conduct toward one another. This league, which claimed to represent public opinion throughout the cosmos, and counted among its members many former enemies, undertook to enforce its judgments if necessary by punitive expeditions and to suppress all unauthorized warfare.
The League maintained a precarious but on the whole beneficial existence, until at last a brigand empire, breaking all its pledges, overran a neighbouring tract of unorganised groups. Its conduct was formally condemned by the league; but the powers which it represented took no action. This incident had a significance all too obvious. One by one the most powerful members of the league took to arms in aggressive self-defence. Very soon the cosmical war, which had been reduced to a sporadic brawling between the least civilized communities, blazed up once more.
And what was it all about, this universal slaughter? The constant source of discord was exploitation of the lone nebulae. Each empire was determined to control as large as possible a tract of these inoffensive yet baleful creatures, and to prevent its neighbours from competing with it. For each empire was by now controlled by a small military party which saw in the clash of empires the supreme terpsichorean goal of nebular existence. The mass of un militaristic nebulae believed what they were told, namely that for safety against jealous neighbours they must at all costs maintain large reservoirs of power. Thus it was that the nebulae, though beings who were by nature exempt from economic necessity, were trapped into the lust of a power which was useless to them save for mutual destruction. Could anything, I asked myself, be more mad, more barren, more tragically incompetent than this trumped-up greed and mutual fear? But then I remembered my own world.
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