The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 88
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THE REVOLT OF THE YOUNG.
Amid all the strife and clamour of the next few days one thing stands out now in my mind with sinister radiance. It is that peculiar form of lawlessness which broke out and had as its object the destruction of the old.
There is no doubt that the idea of immortality got hold of people and carried them away completely. The daily miracles that were occurring of the renewal of health and vigour, the cure of disease and the pa.s.sing of those infirmities that are a.s.sociated with advancing years, impressed the popular imagination deeply. As a result there grew up a widespread discontent and bitterness. The young--those who were as yet free from the germ--conceived in their hearts that an immense injustice had been done to them.
It must be remembered that life at that time had taken on a strange and abnormal aspect. Its horizons had been suddenly altered by the germ. Although breadth had been given to it from the point of years, a curious contraction had appeared at the same time. It was a contraction felt most acutely by those in inferior positions. It was a contraction that owed its existence to the sense of being shut in eternally by those in higher positions, whom death no longer would remove at convenient intervals. The student felt it as he looked at his professor. The clerk felt it as he looked at his manager. The subaltern felt it as he looked at his colonel. The daughter felt it when she looked at her mother, and the son when he looked at his father. The germ had given simultaneously a tremendous blow to freedom, and a tremendous impetus to freedom.
Thus, perhaps for the first time in history, there swiftly began an acc.u.mulation and concentration of those forces of discontent which, in normal times, only manifest themselves here and there in the relations.h.i.+ps between old and young men, and are regarded with good-humoured patience. A kind of war broke out all over the country.
This war was terrible in its nature. All the secret weariness and unspoken bitterness of the younger generation found a sudden outlet. Goaded to madness by the prospect of a future of continual repression, in which the old would exercise an undiminished authority, the younger men and women plunged into a form of excess over which a veil must be drawn.... There is only one thing which can be recorded in their favour. Chloroform and drowning appear to have been the methods most often used, and they are perhaps merciful ways of death. The great London clubs became sepulchres. All people who had received the highest distinctions and honours, whose names were household words, were removed with ruthless determination. Scarcely a single well-known man or woman of the older generation, whose name was honoured in science, literature, art, business or politics, was spared. All aged and wealthy people perished. A clean sweep was made, and made with a decision and unanimity that was incredible.
It is painful now to recall the terrible nature of that civil war. It lasted only a short time, but it opened my eyes to the inner plan upon which mortal man is based. For I am compelled to admit that this widespread murder, that suddenly flashed into being, was founded upon impulses that lie deep in man's heart. They were those giant impulses that lie behind growth, and the effect of the germ was merely to throw them suddenly into the broad light of day, unchained, grim and implacable.
Fortunately, the germ spread steadily and quickly, killing as it did so all hate and desire.
Jason, still free from the germ, flung himself into the general uproar with extraordinary vigour. It was clear that he thought the great opportunity had come which would eventually bring him to the height of his power. To check the growing lawlessness and murder he advocated a new adjustment of property. Big meetings were held in the public s.p.a.ces of London, and some wild ideas were formulated.
In the meantime the medical profession, as far as the men yet free from the germ were concerned, continued its work in a dull, mechanical way. Each day the number of patients fell lower, as the Blue Disease slowly spread. Hammer, himself an Immortal, came to see me once, but only to speak of the necessity for the immediate simplification of houses. It was odd to observe how, once a man became infected, his former interests and anxieties fell away from him like an old garment. In Harley Street an att.i.tude of stubborn disbelief continued amongst those still mortal. There is something magnificent in that adamantine spirit which refuses to recognize the new, even though it moves with ever-increasing distinctness before the very eyes of the deniers. I was not surprised. I was familiar with medical men.
Meanwhile the Royal Family became infected by the germ, and pa.s.sed out of the public eye. The Prime Minister became a victim and vanished. For once a man had the germ in his system, as far as externals were concerned, he almost ceased to exist.
The infection of Jason occurred in my presence. He had come in to explain to me a proposed line of campaign as regards the marriage laws.
"This germ of yours has given people the courage to think!" he exclaimed. "It is extraordinary how timid people were in thinking. It has launched them out, and now is the time to bring in new proposals."
"In all your calculations, you omit to recollect the effects of the germ," I said. "Surely you have seen by now that it changes human nature totally?"
He stared at me uncomprehendingly. He was one of those men, so common in public life, who have no power of understanding what they themselves have not experienced. He continued with undiminished enthusiasm.
"We must have marriage contracts for definite periods. With the increased state of health, and the full span of life confronting every man, we must face the problem squarely. Now what stands in our way?"
He got up and went to the window. It was a dull foggy day, and there was frost on the ground. He stared outside for some moments.
"What, I repeat, stands in our way?"
"The Church, and a ma.s.s of superst.i.tions that we have inherited from the Old Testament. That's what stands in our way. We still attach more value to the Old Testament than to the New. The Scotch, for example, like the Jews.... Yes, of course.... What was I saying?"
He left the window and sat down once more before me, moving rather listlessly.
"Yes, Harden. Of course. That's what it is, isn't it? Do you remember--diddle--yes it was diddle, diddle----"
He paused and frowned.
"Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle," he muttered, "Yes--hey, diddle, diddle, diddle--that's what it is, isn't it?"
"Of course," I said. "It's all really that."
"Just diddle, diddle, diddle?"
"Yes--if you like."
"That is subst.i.tuting diddle for riddle," he said earnestly. He frowned again and pa.s.sed his hand across his eyes.
"Yes," I said calmly. "It's going a step up."
I suppose about half an hour pa.s.sed before either of us spoke again after this extraordinary termination to our conversation. In absolute silence we sat facing one another and during that time I saw the blue stain growing clearer and clearer in Jason's eyes. At last he rose.
"It's very odd," he said. "Tell me, were you like this?"
"How do you feel?"
"As if I had been drunk and suddenly had been made sober. I will leave you. I want to think. I will go down to the country."
"And your papers?"
"We must have a new Press," he said, and left the room.
That same day the great railway accident occurred just outside London that led to the death of sixty people, many of them Immortals. Its effect on public imagination was profound. All dangerous enterprises became invested with a terrible radiance. Men asked themselves if, in face of a future of health, it was worth risking life in rashness of any description, and gradually traffic came to a standstill. Long before the germ had infected the whole populace all activities fraught with danger had ceased. The coal mines were abandoned. The railways were silent. The streets of London became empty of traffic.
Blue-stained people began to throng the streets of London in vast ma.s.ses, moving to and fro without aim or purpose, perfectly orderly, vacant, lost--like Sarakoff's b.u.t.terflies....
Thornduck came to see me one day when the reign of the germ was practically absolute in London.
"They are wandering into the country in thousands," he remarked. "They have lost all sense of home and possession. They are vague, trying to form an ideal socialistic community. What a mess your germ is making of life! They're not ready for it. The question is whether they will rouse themselves to consider the food question."
"We need scarcely any food," I replied. "I've had nothing to eat to-day."
"Nor I. But since we're still linked up to physical bodies we must require some nourishment."
"I have eaten two biscuits and a little cheese in the last twenty-four hours. Surely you don't think that food is to be a serious problem under such circ.u.mstances?"
"It might be. You must remember that initiative is now destroyed in the vast majority of people. They may permit themselves to die of inanition. Can you say you have an appet.i.te now?"
I reflected for some time, striving to recall the feeling of hunger that belonged to the days of desire.
"No. I have no appet.i.te."
"Think carefully. In place of appet.i.te have you no tendencies?"
"I feel a kind of lethargy," I said at last. "I felt it yesterday and to-day it is stronger."
"As if you wished to sleep?"
"Not exactly. But it is akin to that. I have some difficulty in keeping my attention on things. There is a kind of pull within me away from--away from reality."
"I went in to see your Russian friend. He's upstairs. He is not exactly asleep. He is more like a man partially under the influence of a drug."
"I will go and see him," I said.
Sarakoff was lying on the bed with his eyes shut. He was breathing quietly. His eyelids quivered, as if they might open at any moment, but my entrance did not rouse him. His limbs were relaxed. I spoke to him and tried to wake him, without result. Then I remembered how I had stumbled across the body of Herbert Wain in the Park some days ago. He had seemed to be in a strange kind of sleep. I sat down on the bed and stared at the motionless figure of the Russian. There was something strangely pathetic in his pose. His rough hair and black beard, his keen aquiline face seemed weirdly out of keeping with his helpless state. Here lay the man whose brain had once teemed with ambitious desires, relaxed and limp like a baby, while the nails of his hands, turquoise blue, bore silent witness to his great experiment on humanity. Had it failed? Where was all that marvellous vision of physical happiness that had haunted him? The streets of London were filled with people, no longer working, no longer crying or weeping, but moving aimlessly, like people in a dream. Were they happy? I moved to the window and drew down the blind.
"This may be the end," I thought. "The germ will be sweeping through France now. It may be the end of all things."
I rejoined Thornduck in the study.
"Sarakoff is in a kind of trance," I observed. "What do you make of it?"
"Isn't it natural?" he asked. "What kind of a man was he? What motives did he work on? Just think what the killing of desire means. All those things that depended on worldly ambition, self-gratification, physical pleasure, conceit, l.u.s.t, hatred, pa.s.sion, egotism, selfishness, vanity, avarice, sensuality and so on, are undermined and rendered paralysed by the germ. What remains? Why, in most people, practically nothing remains."
"Even so," I said, "I don't see why Sarakoff should go into a trance."
"He's gone into a trance simply because there's not enough left in him to const.i.tute an individuality. The germ has taken the inside clean out of him. He's just an immortal sh.e.l.l now."
"Then do you think----?"
I stared at him wonderingly.
"I think that the germ will send most of the world to sleep."
He got up and walked to the window. The clear noonday light fell on his thin sensitive face and accentuated the pallor of his skin.
"All those who are bound on the wheel of desire will fall asleep," he murmured. A smile flickered on his lips and he turned and looked at me.
"Harden," he said, "it's really very funny. It's infinitely humorous, isn't it?"
"I see nothing humorous in anything," I replied. "I've lost all sense of humour."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Of humour?" he queried. "Surely not. Humour is surely immortal."
THE GREAT SLEEP.
On that day the animals in London fell asleep with few exceptions. The exceptions were, I believe, all dogs. I do not pretend to explain, how it came about that dogs remained awake longer than other animals. The reason may be that dogs have some quality in them which is superior even to the qualities found in man, for there is a sweetness in the nature of dogs that is rare in men and women.
Many horses were overcome in the streets and lay down where they were. No attempt was made to remove them. They were left, stretched out on their sides, apparently unconscious.
And many thousands of men and women fell asleep. In some cases men were overcome by the sleep before their dogs, which has always seemed strange to me. It was Thornduck who told me this, for he remained awake during this period that the germ reigned supreme. He tells me that I fell asleep the next evening in my chair in the study and that he carried me upstairs to my room. I had just returned from visiting Leonora, whom I had found unconscious. He made a tour of London next morning. In the City there was a profound stillness.
In the West End matters were much the same. In Cavendish Square he entered many houses and found silence and sleep within. Everywhere doors and windows were wide open, giving access to any who might desire it. He visited the Houses of Parliament only to find a few comatose blue-stained men lying about on the benches. For the sleep had overtaken people by stealth. One day, pa.s.sing by the Zoo, he had climbed the fence and made an inspection of the inmates. With the exception of an elephant that was nodding drowsily, the animals lay motionless in their cages, deep in the trance that the germ induced.
From time to time he met a man or woman awake like himself and stopped to talk. Those who still retained sufficient individuality to continue existence were the strangest mixture of folk, for they were of every cla.s.s, many of them being little better than beggars. They were people in whom the desire of life played a minor part. They were those people who are commonly regarded as being failures, people who live and die unknown to the world. They were those people who devote themselves to an obscure existence, shun the rewards of successful careers, and are ridiculed by all prosperous individuals. It seems that Thornduck was instrumental in calling a meeting of these people at St. Paul's. There were about two thousand of them in all, but many in the outlying suburbs remained ignorant of the meeting, and Thornduck considers that in the London district alone there must have been some thousands who did not attend. At the meeting, which must have been the strangest in all history, the question of the future was discussed. Many believed that the effect of the germ on those in the great sleep would ultimately lead to a cessation of life owing to starvation. Thornduck held that the germ would pa.s.s, arguing on principles that were so unscientific that I refrain from giving them. Eventually it appears that a decision was reached to leave London on a certain date and migrate southwards in search of a region where a colony might be founded under laws and customs suitable for Immortals. Thornduck says that there was one thing that struck him very forcibly at the meeting at St. Paul's. All the people gathered there had about them a certain sweetness and strength, which, although it was very noticeable, escaped his powers of a.n.a.lysis.
He attempted on several occasions to get into telegraphic communication with the Continent, but failed. In his wanderings he entered many homes, always being careful to lay out at full length any of the unconscious inmates who were asleep on chairs, for he feared that they might come to harm, and that their limbs might become stiffened into unnatural postures.
All the time he had a firm conviction that the phase of sleep was temporary. He himself had moments in which a slight drowsiness overtook him, but he never lost the enhanced power of thought that I had experienced in the early stages of the Blue Disease. So absolute was his conviction that a general awakening would come about that he began to busy his mind with the question as to what he could do, in conjunction with the other Immortals who were still awake, to benefit humanity when it should emerge from the trance. This question was discussed continually. Many thought that they should burn all records, financial, political, governmental and private, so that some opportunity of starting afresh might be given to mankind, enslaved to the past and fettered by law and custom. But the danger of chaos resulting from such a step deterred him. He confessed that the more he thought on the subject the more clearly he saw that under the circ.u.mstances belonging to its stage of evolution, the organization of the world was suited to the race that inhabited it. All change, he saw, had to come from within, and that to alter external conditions suddenly and artificially might do incredible harm. We were constructed to develop against resistance, and to remove such resistances before they had been overcome naturally was to tamper with the inner laws of life. And so, after long discussion, they did nothing....
It is curious to reflect that they, earnest men devoted to progress, having at their mercy the machinery of existence, walked through the midst of sleeping London and did nothing. But then none of them were fanatics, for Thornduck stated that the fanatics fell early to sleep, thus proving that the motives behind their fanaticism were egotistical, and a source of satisfaction to themselves. He made a point of visiting the homes of some of them. Philanthropists, too, succ.u.mbed early.
On the seventh day after the great sleep had overtaken London the effects of the germ began to wane. Those who had fallen asleep latest were the earliest to open their eyes. The blue stain rapidly vanished from eyes, skin and nails.... I regained my waking sense on the evening of the seventh day and found myself in a small country cottage whither Thornduck had borne me in a motor-car, fearing lest awakened London might seek some revenge on the discoverers of the germ. Sarakoff lay on a couch beside me, still fast asleep.
The first clear idea that came to me concerned Alice Annot. I determined to go to her at once. Then I remembered with vexation that I had wantonly smashed two vases worth ten pounds apiece.
I struggled to my feet. My hands were thin and wasted. I was ravenous with hunger. I felt giddy.
"What's the time?" I called confusedly. "It must be very late. Wake up!"
And I stooped down and began to shake Sarakoff violently.
BY LOU TABAKOW.
If it's too impossibly difficult to track down and recapture an escaped criminal ... there's a worse thing one might do....
JULY 18, 1949 A.D.
The fugitive lay face down in the fetid undergrowth, drawing in spasmodic lungfuls of air through cracked and swollen lips. Long before, his blue works.h.i.+rt had been ripped to ribbons and his exposed chest showed a spiderwork of scratches, where branches and brambles had sought to restrain him in his frenzied flight. Across his back from shoulder to shoulder ran a deeper cut around which the caked blood attested to the needle-sharp viciousness of a thorn bush a mile to the north. With each tortured breath he winced, as drops of sweat ran down, following the spiderwork network and burning like acid. Incessantly he rubbed his bruised torso with mud-caked palms to dislodge the gnats and mosquitoes that clung to him, gorging shamelessly.
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 88
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