Last and First Men

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2. the origins of a mystery

While the Americans were mobilizing their whole armament, there occurred the really interesting event of the war. It so happened that an international society of scientific workers was meeting in England at Plymouth, and a young Chinese physicist had expressed his desire to make a report to a select committee. As he had been experimenting to find means for the utilization of subatomic energy by the annihilation of matter, it was with some excitement that, according to instruction, the forty international representatives travelled to the north coast of Devon and met upon the bare headland called Hartland Point.

It was a bright morning after rain. Eleven miles to the north-west, the cliffs of Lundy Island displayed their markings with unusual detail. Sea-birds wheeled about the heads of the party as they seated themselves on their raincoats in a cluster upon the rabbit-cropped turf.

They were a remarkable company, each one of them a unique person, yet characterized to some extent by his particular national type. And all were distinctively "scientists" of the period. Formerly this would have implied a rather uncritical leaning toward materialism, and an affectation of cynicism; but by now it was fashionable to profess an equally uncritical belief that all natural phenomena were manifestations of the cosmic mind. In both periods, when a man passed beyond the sphere of his own serious scientific work he chose his beliefs irresponsibly, according to his taste, much as he those his recreation or his food.

Of the individuals present we may single out one or two for notice. The German, an anthropologist, and a product of the long-established cult of physical and mental health, sought to display in his own athletic person the characters proper to Nordic man. The Frenchman, an old but still sparkling psychologist, whose queer hobby was the collecting of weapons, ancient and modern, regarded the proceedings with kindly cynicism. The Englishman, one of the few remaining intellectuals of his race, compensated for the severe study of physics by a scarcely less devoted research into the history of English expletives and slang, delighting to treat his colleagues to the fruits of his toil. The West African president of the Society was a biologist, famous for his interbreeding of man and ape.

When all were settled, the President explained the purpose of the meeting. The utilization of subatomic energy had indeed been achieved, and they were to be given a demonstration.

The young Mongol stood up, and produced from a case an instrument rather like the old-fashioned rifle. Displaying this object, he spoke as follows, with that quaintly stilted formality which had once been characteristic of all educated Chinese: "Before describing the details of my rather delicate process, I will illustrate its importance by showing what can be done with the finished product. Not only can I initiate the annihilation of matter, but also I can do so at a distance and in a precise direction. Moreover, I can inhibit the process. As a means of destruction, my instrument is perfect. As a source of power for the constructive work of mankind, it has unlimited potentiality. Gentlemen, this is a great moment in the history of Man. I am about to render into the hands of organized intelligence the means to stop for ever man's internecine brawls. Henceforth this great Society, of which you are the elite, will beneficently rule the planet. With this little instrument you will stop the ridiculous war; and with another, which I shall soon perfect, you will dispense unlimited industrial power wherever you consider it needed. Gentlemen, with the aid of this handy instrument which I have the honour to demonstrate, you are able to become absolute masters of this planet."

Here the representative of England muttered an archaism whose significance was known only to himself, "Gawd 'elp us!" In the minds of some of those foreigners who were not physicists this quaint expression was taken to be a technical word having some connexion with the new source of energy.

The Mongol continued. Turning towards Lundy, he said, "That island is no longer inhabited, and as it is something of a danger to shipping, I will remove it." So saying he aimed his instrument at the distant cliff, but continued speaking. "This trigger will stimulate the ultimate positive and negative charges which constitute the atoms at a certain point on the rock face to annihilate each other. These stimulated atoms will infect their neighbours, and so on indefinitely. This second trigger, however, will stop the actual annihilation. Were I to refrain from using it, the process would indeed continue indefinitely, perhaps until the whole of the planet had disintegrated."

There was an anxious movement among the spectators, but the young man took careful aim, and pressed the two triggers in quick succession. No sound from the instrument. No visible effect upon the smiling face of the island. Laughter began to gurgle from the Englishman, but ceased. For a dazzling point of light appeared on the remote cliff. It increased in size and brilliance, till all eyes were blinded in the effort to continue watching. It lit up the under parts of the clouds and blotted out the sun-cast shadows of gorse bushes beside the spectators. The whole end of the island facing the mainland was now an intolerable scorching sun. Presently, however, its fury was veiled in clouds of steam from the boiling sea. Then suddenly the whole island, three miles of solid granite, leaped asunder; so that a covey of great rocks soared heavenward, and beneath them swelled more slowly a gigantic mushroom of steam and debris. Then the sound arrived. All hands were clapped to ears, while eyes still strained to watch the bay, pocked white with the hail of rocks. Meanwhile a great wall of sea advanced from the centre of turmoil. This was seen to engulf a coasting vessel, and pass on toward Bideford and Barnstaple.

The spectators leaped to their feet and clamoured, while the young author of this fury watched the spectacle with exultation, and some surprise at the magnitude of these mere after-effects of his process.

The meeting was now adjourned to a neighbouring chapel to hear the report of the research. As the representatives were filing through the door it was observed that the steam and smoke had cleared, and that open sea extended where had been Lundy. Within the chapel, the great Bible was decorously removed and the windows thrown open, to dispel somewhat the odour of sanctity. For though the early and spiritistic interpretations of relativity and the quantum theory had by now accustomed men of science to pay their respects to the religions, many of them were still liable to a certain asphyxia when they were actually within the precincts of sanctity. When the scientists had settled themselves upon the archaic and unyielding benches, the President explained that the chapel authorities had kindly permitted this meeting because they realized that, since men of science had gradually discovered the spiritual foundation of physics, science and religion must henceforth be close allies. Moreover the purpose of this meeting was to discuss one of those supreme mysteries which it was the glory of science to discover and religion to transfigure. The President then complimented the young dispenser of power upon his triumph, and called upon him to address the meeting.

At this point, however, the aged representative of France intervened, and was granted a hearing. Born almost a hundred and forty years earlier, and preserved more by native intensity of spirit than by the artifices of the regenerator, this ancient seemed to speak out of a remote and wiser epoch. For in a declining civilization it is often the old who see furthest and see with youngest eyes. He concluded a rather long, rhetorical, yet closely reasoned speech as follows: "No doubt we are the intelligence of the planet; and because of our consecration to our calling, no doubt we are comparatively honest. But alas, even we are human. We make little mistakes now and then, and commit little indiscretions. The possession of such power as is offered us would not bring peace. On the contrary it would perpetuate our national hates. It would throw the world into confusion. It would undermine our own integrity, and turn us into tyrants. Moreover it would ruin science. And,—well, when at last through some little error the world got blown up, the disaster would not be regrettable. I know that Europe is almost certainly about to be destroyed by those vigorous but rather spoilt children across the Atlantic. But distressing as this must be, the alternative is far worse. No, Sir! Your very wonderful toy would be a gift fit for developed minds; but for us, who are still barbarians,—no, it must not be. And so, with deep regret I beg you to destroy your handiwork, and, if it were possible, your memory of your marvellous research. But above all breathe no word of your process to us, or to any man."

The German then protested that to refuse would be cowardly. He briefly described his vision of a world organized under organized science, and inspired by a scientifically organized religious dogma. "Surely," he said, "to refuse were to refuse the gift of God, of that God whose presence in the humblest quantum we have so recently and so surprisingly revealed." Other speakers followed, for and against; but it soon grew clear that wisdom would prevail. Men of science were by now definitely cosmopolitan in sentiment. Indeed so far were they from nationalism, that on this occasion the representative of America had urged acceptance of the weapon, although it would be used against his own countrymen.

Finally, however, and actually by a unanimous vote, the meeting, while recording its deep respect for the Chinese scientist, requested, nay ordered, that the instrument and all account of it should be destroyed.

The young man rose, drew his handiwork from its case, and fingered it. So long did he remain thus standing in silence with eyes fixed on the instrument, that the meeting became restless. At last, however, he spoke. "I shall abide by the decision of the meeting. Well, it is hard to destroy the fruit of ten years' work, and such fruit, too. I expected to have the gratitude of mankind; but instead I am an outcast." Once more he paused. Gazing out of the window, he now drew from his pocket a field-glass, and studied the western sky. "Yes, they are American. Gentlemen, the American air fleet approaches."

The company leapt to its feet and crowded to the windows. High in the west a sparse line of dots stretched indefinitely into the north and the south. Said the Englishman, "For God's sake use your damned tool once more, or England's done. They must have smashed our fellows over the Atlantic."

The Chinese scientist turned his eyes on the President. There was a general cry of "Stop them." Only the Frenchman protested. The representative of the United States raised his voice and said, "They are my people, I have friends up there in the sky. My own boy is probably there. But they're mad. They want to do something hideous. They're in the lynching mood. Stop them." The Mongol still gazed at the President, who nodded. The Frenchman broke down in senile tears. Then the young man, leaning upon the window sill, took careful aim at each black dot in turn. One by one, each became a blinding star, then vanished. In the chapel, a long silence. Then whispers; and glances at the Chinaman, expressive of anxiety and dislike.

There followed a hurried ceremony in a neighbouring field. A fire was lit. The instrument and the no less murderous manuscript were burnt. And then the grave young Mongol, having insisted on shaking hands all round, said, "With my secret alive in me, I must not live. Some day a more worthy race will re-discover it, but today I am a danger to the planet. And so I, who have foolishly ignored that I live among savages, help myself now by the ancient wisdom to pass hence." So saying, he fell dead.

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