I CANNOT BE sure how long the Celestial World Empire endured. Its life must certainly be counted in centuries, and possibly it lasted for a couple of thousand years. Though the world empire was at heart a diseased society and bound to disintegrate, it inherited from earlier societies a certain toughness of fibre, and its structure was such that it could carry on in a sort of living death so long as conditions remained unchanged. While its material resources were unimpaired it functioned automatically and without change.
The human race had in fact attained the kind of stability which insect species have maintained for many million years. Its whole economy had been worked out in intricate detail by the technicians of an earlier age through a period of many decades, and had at last become absolutely stereotyped. Raw materials, produced in appropriate regions and in regular annual quantities, were assigned to manufacturing districts according to a time-honoured plan, to be distributed in time-honoured proportions to the various nations and social classes. The whole industrial technique had acquired a kind of religious sanctity. No variations were to be tolerated, except the seasonal variations which were themselves sanctified.
In these circumstances the function of the technicians, the unacknowledged but effective rulers of the planet, was radically altered. From being primarily inventors of new processes and new adjustments they became simply orthodox vehicles of the sacred lore. Intelligence, therefore, even bound intelligence, came to have an increasingly restricted function. Before the onset of decline, planning had been becoming more and more comprehensive and far-seeing. Men had planned for centuries ahead and for great societies, even tentatively for the future of the species. But after the world empire had become firmly established and stereotyped, large planning was no longer necessary. Only in the ordering of individual lives was there any scope for intelligence. Even here, as individual lives became more and more dominated by the regularities imposed by the state, the office of intelligence became more restricted. Whenever any daring spirit did try to improve upon the orthodox procedure, his intelligence proved feeble and his action misguided. His failure merely strengthened the general distrust of innovation.
For a very long while the material resources and the biological condition of the race did remain in effect constant. To the subjects of the world empire it seemed certain that the existing order was eternal. The idea of progress, material or mental, had long since ceased to seem plausible, for society was universally regarded as perfect. On the other hand the idea of racial decline was never contemplated. But behind the appearance of stability great changes were already at work, both in the physical environment and in the constitution of the human race itself.
Though volcanic power was inexhaustible, certain essential raw materials were not. Coal and oil had long ago been superseded as sources of power, but as raw materials for many synthetic products they were valuable, and becoming ever more difficult to procure. The world’s phosphate deposits, so necessary for agriculture, were being steadily reduced. Guano, long ago abandoned, was once more assiduously collected. Potash deposits had been heavily worked and were seriously depleted. An earlier age had known that an unlimited supply of potash could, when necessary, be obtained from sea water, but there had been no need to work out a technique for isolating it. Now, when potash was scarce, there was no longer the inventive capacity to tackle so difficult a task. Nitrogen had for long been derived from the air for use in fertilizers and high explosives. In this case, however, the technique was well established, and so there was no immediate danger of its loss. Iron, though one of the commonest of all elements, was becoming steadily more difficult to reach. All ordinarily accessible deposits were seriously depleted, and the skill for much deeper mining was by now lacking.
The condition of forestry in the latter days of the world-empire throws a strange light on the mental decay of the race. Wood-pulp had been the main raw material for many synthetic products. In early days, when the intelligence of the technicians was still effective, afforestation schemes had been organized so as to keep the balance of production and consumption. But latterly planting had seriously lagged behind felling. This may seem surprising, since the balance of planting and felling was part of the rigid and sacred technique of social organization. The cause of the ever-increasing discrepancy was very simple but completely hidden from the sluggish minds of the latter-day empire controllers. The original scheme had been calculated on the assumption that the art of forestry would continue to be practised with quick intelligence. Some margin had been allowed for accidents and errors, but not a fool-proof margin. When intelligence had declined, mistakes became more frequent, and less successfully repaired. Consequently the old sacred formulae failed. The forests slowly but surely dwindled. But according to the sacred scriptures of afforestation this was impossible, if the formulae had indeed been followed. Therefore it was impious to suggest that the forests were dwindling. Therefore anyone who began to suspect that this was happening turned a blind eye on the facts. Thus the rot continued without any attempt being made to stop it.
The same disastrous decay took place in agriculture. The original organizers of the empire’s tillage had worked out a delicately balanced agricultural system which should yield an adequate crop of food-stuffs without impoverishing the land. But this system had depended on intelligent adjustment. It was not fool-proof. When sluggish minds took charge, there was a far greater wastage at every point in the system. The old formulae therefore became inadequate. But since any alteration would have been impious, the upshot was that century by century rather less was put into the ground than was taken from it. Thus there set in a steady process of denudation. Slowly but surely all the great agricultural districts became less productive. The corn-bearing plains of North America and Russia, the rice plains of China and India, the great scattered areas that had provided the world’s greens, the fruit lands of California, Australia, South Africa, one and all deteriorated. Little by little they turned into wastes of sand, like the once fertile Sahara. The process was made all the worse by climatic changes caused by the shrinking of the forests.
The gradual failure of agriculture was of course a very slow process. Ordinary citizens of the empire did not notice it. True, there were great desert tracts in which the ruins of former farmsteads might be observed; but the slow-witted populace never dreamed that this was a symptom of an ever-spreading disaster. Only by comparing the present output with past records could the trouble be realized. But the records and the sacred proportions of agricultural production were known only to the ‘mystery’ of agriculture, in fact to the heads of the world agricultural system. These magnates knew vaguely that something was wrong; but since for sundry reasons it was unlikely that there would be trouble in their day, they held their tongues. The decline was in fact easily concealed, because, while supplies were dwindling, the population of the world was also rapidly decreasing.
The decline of world-population had started long ago after the period of rapid increase which took place in the early phase of industrialization. It was due partly to the widespread use of efficient contraceptive methods, partly to anxiety about economic insecurity, partly to a vague sense of the futility and falsity of civilization. In the rather tired Utopia of North America, where the decline was first seriously felt, insecurity cannot have been a cause, for prosperity was universal. But disillusionment about a curiously aimless Utopia was a serious factor in American life. The early totalitarian states had always feared decline of population, and had done their utmost to check it, but without much success. The newer totalitarian states, the Russian and Chinese Empires, and the World Empire in its early phase, had attacked the problem with characteristic ruthlessness.
The most obvious way to increase population was waken the hundreds of millions whom past governments had from time to time put into cold storage all over the world in order to solve the unemployment problem. There was at first great reluctance to do this, for a reason which reveals the incredible stupidity and superstition of the human race in this period. Declining population, far from solving the unemployment problem, had increased it. Demand was constantly declining. Mass-productive machinery could less easily be worked at a profit. Though the rulers saw clearly enough with one side of their minds that an increase in population was needed, on the other side they were painfully aware of the unemployment problem, and reluctant to add to the stagnant pool of potential labour. Consequently, though there was much discussion about the cold-storage houses, nothing was done. Meanwhile population continued to decline.
The governments tried to compel the peoples to reproduce. Women were educated to believe that their sole function was reproduction. Mothers were honoured in relation to the number of their offspring. Those produced fifteen or more babies were given the title ‘Prolific Mother’. Any who succeeded in launching twenty human beings were deified. Contraception was made illegal and condemned as immoral. In spite of all these measures the fertility-rate declined. In desperation the World Government tightened its grip on the women. Every girl was compelled to have intercourse with a man as soon as she was certified as mature. A month after certification she appeared before her medical board again and was examined to prove that she was no longer a virgin. If after three months she had not conceived, she was sent to an institution that combined the characters of a brothel and a stud-farm. If after another three months she still failed to conceive, she was subjected to medical and surgical treatment to cure her barrenness. If this also failed, she was publicly disgraced, appropriately tortured, and gradually killed.
After helplessly watching the decline of population for many decades, perhaps centuries, the World Government decided to take the obvious step, which, moreover, was sanctioned by scripture. For it was part of the sacred canon that some day, when there was great need of workers, the sleepers must be wakened. The rulers now declared that the time had come. In panic and without proper preparation it ordered the physiologists to thaw out the whole refrigerated multitude. The process was a delicate one, and the instructions left by an earlier and brighter generation were at first badly bungled. Millions were killed, or woke up to a brief period of misery and bewilderment, speedily followed by death. Millions more survived only for a life of permanent invalidism or insanity. The majority, however, though seriously damaged by their rough awakening, were fit for active life of a sort. But they had slept through much history. Their minds had been formed by a world long vanished. Their speech and thought were often so archaic that modern individuals could not understand them. Their limbs, and their minds too, moved at first with painful sluggishness. Their procreative impulses were apparently quenched. Moreover they gradually discovered that their new world was even less propitious than the old one. Some of them, when they had entirely thrown off the miasma of their age-long sleep and had painfully adjusted themselves to the new environment, proved to be rather more quick-witted than their normal neighbours in the new world. And, as they had not been brought up to accept the recent and more extravagant prejudices of the new world, they were generally very critical of the modern customs and institutions. In fact they soon became a grave nuisance to the authorities. The Government hastened to order that all the ‘reawakened’ should at once be fitted with radio control. This obvious precaution had been delayed less through fear of putting them to too great a strain before they had recovered from the effects of refrigeration, than out of an amazingly stupid reluctance to raise them to the rank of citizens. Millions were now subjected to the operation. Half of these died under the anaesthetic. Millions more put up a desperate resistance and had to be destroyed. Here and there, where there was a large concentration of the ‘reawakened’, they were able to seize power and set up a rebel state. The spectacle of human beings resisting authority was utterly bewildering to the robot citizens of the world-state. In many minds there arose an agonizing conflict between the orthodox radio-generated will and a shocking impulse to rebel. This would probably not have occurred had not the technique of radio-control seriously degenerated, owing to the general decline of intelligence. Many of the unfortunate sub-humans (for men were no longer human) went mad or died under the stress of this conflict. Some succeeded in resisting the control and joined the rebels. It almost appeared that an era of new hope was to begin for the human race. Unfortunately the ‘reawakened’ could not stand the strain. While their cause prospered, all was well with them, but every passing misfortune was accompanied by a great crop of suicides. So little heart had they for life. One by one the rebel centres collapsed, till none was left.
The population problem remained unsolved. One other method of coping with it had been tried, at first with some success.
In the early middle period of the world empire, while innovation was still possible, a group of physiologists and surgeons had devized a method which, it was hoped, would settle the matter for ever. The new technique was a half-way stage towards true ectogenesis. The womb and other necessary organs were removed from a young woman and kept alive artificially. The mutilated donor of these precious organs was then destroyed, but part of her blood-stream was put into artificial circulation through the excised organs and used as the medium for supplying them with necessary chemicals. The womb could then be inseminated, and would produce an infant. By various technical methods the process could be made far more rapid than normal reproduction. Moreover quintuplets could be procured from every conception. Unfortunately the excised organs could not be kept alive for more than ten years, so it was necessary to have a constant supply of young women. The government therefore imposed the death penalty on women for the most trivial offences, and used them up for artificial reproduction. At the same time it tried to educate female children in such a way that when they reached maturity many would actually desire the supreme glory of sacrificing their lives so that their wombs might live on with enhanced fertility. The response to this propaganda was disappointing. In fear of a really catastrophic decline of population the government passed a law that every woman, except members of the sacred governing class, must ‘give her life for her children’s sake’ at the age of twenty-five.
Unfortunately the method of artificial reproduction involved a very delicate surgical technique, and it did not come into general use until first-class manipulative intelligence was already in decline. Increasingly, therefore, the excised wombs failed to survive the operation, or, if they did survive, failed to produce viable infants. Presently it became clear to the few free intelligences of the race that the method, far from increasing the population, was actually hastening its decline. But already the method had become part of the sacred tradition and could not be abandoned. For decades, therefore, it continued to be practised with increasingly disastrous results. There came a time, however, when even the dull and enslaved wits of the Celestial Empire could not but realize that if the decline of population was not quickly stopped civilization would disintegrate. A great struggle ensued between the orthodox and the protestants, until at last a compromise was agreed upon. At the age of twenty-five every young woman must receive a ceremonial cut on the abdomen, accompanied by suitable ritual and incantations. This, it was believed, would increase the fertility of her reproductive organs without the necessity of excising them.
In spite of everything, population continued to decline. I was not able to discover the cause of this universal process. Perhaps the root of the trouble was physiological. Some chemical deficiency may have affected the germ cells. Or again some subtle mutation of the human stock may have rendered conception less ready. Or perhaps the neurotic condition of the population had produced hormones unfavourable to conception. I am inclined to believe that the real cause, through whatever physical mechanism it took effect, was the profound disheartenment and spiritual desolation which oppressed the whole race.
Whatever the cause, the world-population continued to shrink, and in the process it became a predominantly middle-aged population. The small company of the young, though cherished and venerated, counted for nothing in decisions of policy. An ice-age of feebleness and conservatism gripped the world with increasing force.
Presently there came a time when the sacred customs could no longer be even superficially maintained. There was neither the labour nor the degree of vigour and intelligence to maintain the sacred stereotyped functions of society. The first serious breakdown was connected with volcanic power. Whenever great volcanic eruptions occurred, the machinery for harnessing and using the submerged titan was likely to be thrown out of gear or destroyed. When the tumult had subsided the local system had to be reconstructed, probably in new conditions. Great eruptions are rare, but over the centuries they occur in every active volcano. So long as intelligence was strong, the damage was quickly repaired. Long after the extinction of the fully free intelligence the limited, bound intelligence which functioned only within the orthodox system of ideas and values was still capable of great practical inventiveness. When a volcanic power station was destroyed and the volcano changed its whole configuration, even the bound intelligence was able to reconstruct the generating system. But when the actual innate capacity for intelligence had seriously declined, when even the best surviving intelligence was not only bound but feeble, such great problems of engineering could seldom be successfully tackled. In due season they became completely insoluble. Inevitably the great volcanic power stations fell one by one into disuse. The world’s supply of power steadily diminished. Since the needs of the declining population were also shrinking, this might not have mattered, had it not been for the effect on communications. After a while it became impossible to maintain the world’s transport system. Little by little the continents, and then the regions within a single continent, failed to maintain the orthodox trade-intercourse with one another. This obvious breakdown in the sacred system caused not only grave economic disorder but also a severe psychological disturbance in men’s minds. It should be mentioned that radio-control of thought and volition had by now broken down completely. The delicate surgical operation and the delicate mechanism which it involved were far beyond the compass of latter-day man. Relieved of this tyranny, men were once more independent individuals; or at least they would have been, had not the tyranny of mob-feeling and suggestion still controlled them. Generally mob-feeling and suggestion favoured the government; but the increasing gap between the official version of events and the state of affairs that men perceived around them sometimes inclined even the degenerate latter-day mobs to criticism. For at last it became impossible even for the average dullard of the race not to recognize that the Celestial World Empire, for which he had been taught to sacrifice himself body and soul, was disintegrating. This knowledge produced a kind of religious terror. The very universe, it seemed, was crumbling about men’s heads.
The process of disintegration must have lasted for several centuries at least. During this period, until the isolation of the provinces was complete and all clear memory of the past age had been lost, there was a phase of violent social unrest. The race, it seemed, was on the verge of waking from the neurotic trance which had so long gripped it. It might at any moment insist on revolutionary changes. But such was the strength of the old culture, and such the stupidity and aimlessness of the revolutionaries, that the crisis was weathered. Instead of waking into sanity the race somnambulistically adjusted itself to its new circumstances without sacrificing its cherished delusions.
The transition from a very complex and close-knit world-economy to a medley of isolated societies was very significant of the condition of the species. So long as some meagre communication persisted, it was impossible for people not to realize that foreign countries existed, and to be perturbed by the failure of the empire. When mechanical transport had collapsed altogether, attempts were made to maintain contact by sailing-ships and caravans. But both these occupations depended on techniques long since abandoned. The half-wit populations could not effectively recover them. The radio still for a while maintained contact between peoples, for this technique, though fairly complex, was preserved in the tradition. Radio communication with foreign lands, however, came to seem very objectionable to the provincial governments, which, of course, controlled the whole of each provincial radio system. Radio news kept reminding people of the existence of a world which, from the government’s point of view, they should forget; since the recollection of it filled them with restlessness and awkward questioning. One by one the governments therefore broke off all radio communication with foreign countries. Any attempt to make contact by radio with ‘imaginary other lands’ was henceforth punished by death. This state of affairs lasted until the final loss of radio through the further deterioration of intelligence.
When contact with the outside world had been completely severed, each isolated people was able to readjust itself mentally by accepting the fiction that it was in fact the whole of mankind and that its state was the world empire. The sacred formulae for production and consumption could not, of course, any longer be literally applied; but they were ‘symbolically interpreted’ to mean something very different from their original intention, something adapted to the reduced life of the ‘world empire’. It was interesting to observe the stages by which this reinterpretation established itself.
The slow breakdown of communications had, of course, involved a constantly increasing infringement of the sacred formulae for international trade. In the heyday of the empire the provinces had been highly specialized for particular forms of agriculture, mining, and manufacture. Specialization had been encouraged by the early world-governments, for individuals, social classes, and peoples. Everything must be done to increase dependence on the imperial organization and the government. No region must be self-sufficient, no individual a person of all-round development. No one must ever be more than a cog in the great machine or a specialized cell in the great body politic. But now the failure of communications forced the peoples to change their whole economy or be extinguished. The great change was of course unplanned or misguided. The paucity of intelligence and the sanctity of the traditional economy made conscious planning impossible. New industries had to sprout in every region; but lack of inventiveness and organizing talent, and the universal condemnation of novelty, forced the pioneers to flounder along under a heavy cloak of subterfuge and self-deception. Inevitably the standard of living in each province deteriorated. Little by little the flood of mass-produced machine-made goods gave place to a miserable trickle of the crudest hand-made makeshifts produced by local craftsmen who were hampered not only by innate obtuseness, but by lack of all traditional technique, and also by the enervating sense that their occupation was sinful.
In agricultural regions, though food was for a while plentiful, comfort vanished; and presently, through the failure to procure new agricultural machines, tillage itself degenerated into a kind of half-wit caricature of primitive methods. In manufacturing regions there was for a while a huge surplus of certain goods and a complete absence of others, while food became ever more difficult to obtain. Populations were slowly starved, their numbers shrinking, catastrophically. The remnant, generation by generation, turned more and more to tillage of a wretchedly inefficient type.
In the old industrial regions the sacred tradition of industrialism remained as a cult wholly divorced from practical life. The ruins of the great factories were treated as temples, where, once every seven days and on the many sanctified ‘bankolidays’, everyone repaired to carry out rituals which were corruptions of the forgotten techniques of the ancient industry. The fields would not bear, it was believed, unless these rituals were meticulously performed. Throughout the week men guiltily scratched the surface of the earth with home-made implements of stone or bone, implements which the ancient Stone Age men would nave been ashamed to use. On the sabbath the whole population implored the gods of industrialism to forgive men their impious infringement of the sacred law, and to refrain from blasting the fields. One or two of the great machines in some of the former industrial regions were successfully maintained by a caste of priestly engineers, and put in action on holy days. When possible, appropriate raw materials were procured for them, so that they were able to produce a small and erratic stream of the ancient goods. These were considered far too sacred to use. Since in the old days the products of the local industry had mainly been exported, these ritual products were, if possible, carried to the sea by a great procession of the faithful. They were then loaded into a sacred ship which was taken out to sea and over the horizon, there to be ceremonially sunk.
I hoped that when the power of the Celestial World Empire had been thoroughly broken and the culture on which it was based had been reduced to absurdity, the human race might be able to develop a much less specialized economy, so that the distinctively human capacities would at last reassert themselves, and history begin again. But this was not to be. The rot had already gone much too far. Superficially the isolated human communities had still the appearance of civilization, though a severely damaged civilization. To a slight extent mechanical power was still used. Electric lighting, the telephone, water and sewage services remained in the more fortunate states, though they were all extremely inefficient, and a serious breakdown was apt to defeat all efforts at repair. Here and there, even railways remained, connecting a metropolis with some specially important provincial town. But accidents were so frequent that many people preferred to sacrifice speed for safety in the resuscitated stage-coach. The ancient main-line continental railways could still be traced by their cuttings and embankments, but the tracks had long since vanished. In the wars which frequently broke out between states with common frontiers explosives were still used, though tanks and aeroplanes were no longer available.
The cultures of the states, though both crude and crazy, were such as could not have existed save as products of a past civilization. In most regions the average intelligence had sunk almost to the bushman level, and in the more degenerate populations far below it. Even outstandingly brilliant individuals were mostly mere dullards according to early standards. And these dullards were grievously hampered by their faulty upbringing. The languages of this age, mostly corruptions of the ancient English, Russian, or Chinese, were rich in fossil remains of ancient thought. Language was much cherished. It was the vehicle through which the sacred wisdom was handed down. Two dead languages, ancient English and ancient Chinese, were taught to the children of the wealthy, and proficiency in these languages was demanded of every aspirant to posts of responsibility. Ancient literature and historical records were very carefully studied, and subtly interpreted so as to accord with local mythology about the World Empire. Much of the ancient thought, particularly the great scientific and philosophical inquiries of the past, were by now far beyond the understanding of even the brightest individuals. Nevertheless immense labour was devoted to criticism of the ancient texts, which were given symbolical or magical meanings adapted to the degenerate modern mentality. Meanwhile the great mass of scientific knowledge accumulated by earlier ages was reduced to a few well-tried practical precepts, of use in manufacture and electrical engineering of a very crude kind. In physics and astronomy certain sensational mysteries were still handed down in the sacred tradition, but they were accepted without any attempt at understanding, and in general they were gross perversions of the original discovery. For instance, the theory of relativity was completely lost, but it was affirmed that if a man were to walk far enough in a straight line he would reach his starting-point. This true statement was not derived from the roundness of the earth, for the earth was assumed to be flat; it was regarded simply as a sacred mystery. Men also believed that the universe was very big; but since astronomy was a lost science, they assumed that the universe itself was a sphere, half of which was solid ground and the other half sky. Sun, moon, and stars were supposed to emerge from the eastern rim of the ground to be blown across the sky, and finally to settle down once more in the west.
In consequence of the decline of intelligence all complex organization tended to disintegrate. The great national states, the former provinces of the world-empire, fell into hopeless disorder. One by one they crumbled into small quarrelling principalities. These were ever rising and collapsing, coalescing into petty empires, splitting into a score of fragments, passing from the hands of one tyrant to another. Little by little even these small social units decayed into mere tribal territories, each occupying its own valley or plain.
Meanwhile the manner of life of the degenerate tribes of men steadily decayed. Agriculture was less and less efficient. In district after district, through lack of fertilizers and intelligent rotation of crops, it was gradually abandoned. The miserable remnant of mankind now sank to collecting wild vegetable foods and hunting the swarms of wild animals which had greatly increased with the decline of man. Wild cattle were abundant in many regions, but only the hardiest and most cunning of the half-wit hunters dared attack such large and dangerous beasts. For the most part the populations lived on the swarms of rabbits and other small rodents that thrived in a world in which the large carnivora had long since been exterminated. In some regions the starving tribes were reduced to eating mice, toads, and beetles.
Once more it seemed to me possible that from this utter debasement man might now once more take the first step on the long journey towards lucidity. The whole lethal social order which had hitherto frustrated it had now vanished. Reduced once more to the primitive family, surely men would rediscover their essential humanity. But this could not be. The dead hand of the past still gripped even their most intimate relationships. Debased intelligence, debased self-consciousness, debased sensibility towards others made it impossible for the new sub-men to realize the folly and cruelty that they were constantly perpetrating. No individual was ever treated with respect even for such rudiments of personality as he might possess. Every man and woman was merely the node of a number of formal social relations. Everyone was either a chieftain or a slave or a free hunter, either a husband or bachelor, a wife or a virgin, and so on. And for each relationship there was an intricate pattern of conventional conduct, which must never be infringed. These patterns were in the main not expressions of existing circumstances but confused survivals of a past culture, in many cases cruelly frustrating to the individual. This state of affairs was damaging to everyone, not only because of the discrepancy between his actual circumstances and the behaviour imposed by convention, but also because in everyone there still lurked a tortured and bewildered germ of that spirit which in the past had flowered as Jesus, Socrates, Gautama, and the hosts of the wise and the good.
Though the degenerate species was no longer capable of revival, it did at last attain a condition of equilibrium. The scanty world-population, scattered throughout the continents in little isolated groups persisted probably for half a million years. Floods, climatic changes, volcanic eruptions, land subsidence, plagues, might now and again wipe out whole tribes, but their place would sooner or later be taken by others. Man had found his appropriate niche in the natural system of the planet’s fauna. Generation after generation he survived. His sluggish wits were wholly occupied in the tasks of food-gathering, the maintenance of crude shelters, reproduction, and the performing of traditional rites.
This prolonged equilibrium was insecure. Sooner or later some more than usually widespread scourge would extinguish the species. The end came in a manner that I had not expected. The rat had accompanied man through all his adventures. Indeed, long before man appeared on the earth, the rat was well-established. And it was destined to survive him. A considerable part of the energy of the human race had always been devoted to defence against the rat. Even at the height of material civilization this ubiquitous rodent devoured much of man’s food stores and infected him with plagues. With the decline of human intelligence the rat became a much more serious menace. It exacted a far heavier toll on his food stores. It multiplied extravagantly. In the last long phase of human degeneracy the rat-catcher was the most honoured profession. Only the most intelligent of men could cope with the limited but adequate native cunning of the inferior species. Century by century man held his own against this formidable enemy, but only by a narrow margin and at great cost.
At last there came a crisis. Some climatic change covering the whole planet seems to have made life rather suddenly more difficult for man, and therefore for his parasite. Driven by starvation, the rats began to change their habits. Not content with ravaging man’s food stores, they attacked men themselves. They began by devouring the babies whenever they were left for a while unguarded. Sleeping adults were also attacked. Sometimes a host of hungry rodents would waylay a lonely hunter, seize his legs, clamber up his body, hang on to his flesh with their incisors, bite at his throat, drag him to the ground and devour him alive. It seems probable that some mutation in the rat had increased its efficiency as a carnivorous beast, for attack on large mammals and particularly on men became increasingly common. Men were by now much reduced in stature, rats increased in weight. There came a time when the rats no longer confined their attention to stealthy attacks on children and sleeping adults or to persons isolated from their fellows. They gathered in great armies and invaded the scattered settlements, exterminating their inhabitants. Century by century men fought a losing battle. Tribe after tribe was exterminated, country after country depopulated, until only in the most favoured region a few hard-pressed families lurked in the woods, feeding on roots and worms, meeting at the full moon in solemn conclave to chant their spells against the rodent enemy, and assert with stupid pride their superiority over all beasts. The almost meaningless jargon which issued from these baying mouths was their one remaining title to humanity. In it there still lurked fantastic corruptions of civilized speech, relics which had lived in the times of Shakespeare, Plato, Con-fu-tsze. For a few decades, perhaps centuries, these ultimate remnants of mankind hung on to life, attacked not only by the rats but many other pests and plagues, and by the weather. In this constant warfare their frail human physique combined with their sub-human mentality to make extinction inevitable. At some time or other, unmourned and unnoticed, the last human being was destroyed.
The planet which had once and again haltingly attained the lucid mentality sank now for ever into torpor. For no species remained on earth capable of evolving to the human level. The torch which had fallen from the hand of man could never be picked up and carried forward by a fresh runner. For incalculable aeons, for a period immeasurably longer than the whole career of mankind, the terrestrial globe spun and circled, its surface possessed by a host of lowly creatures.
Meanwhile the sun, like all stars of his age and size, was growing hotter, through the increasingly rapid release of energy in his interior. The more highly specialized biological types on the Earth were gradually destroyed. The lowlier kinds became adapted to an ever more torrid climate. More and still more of the ocean vaporized into the atmosphere, shutting out the heavens with perennial cloud. Little by little conditions on the earth passed beyond the limit of adaptability of any terrestrial species. The ocean began to boil, the sands to melt, the atmosphere to vanish into outer space. The increasing heat of the sun, however, had favoured the evolution of life on Uranus. Slowly, as on Earth, there appeared a multitude of species. And as on Earth these one by one reached a climax of specialization beyond which no further evolution was possible to them. At last, as on Earth, one single type, specialized only for versatility, stood at the threshold of lucidity. But then the sun, as so many stars before him, exploded into the nova state, fusing all his planets.
These remote events I did not witness. They seem to have been obscurely borne in upon my mind through contact with the minds of my superhuman fellow explorers.
My personal experience was confined to terrestrial events. And as soon as earth’s brief flicker of lucidity had ended, my attention was withdrawn from this whole sad stream of time, in which the will for darkness had prevailed. For other scarcely less agonizing but glorious events were all the while unfolding before me.
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