Avon Fantasy Reader/Issue 10/Omega
by Amelia Reynolds Long
Inosofar as all men are mortal and foredoomed to death, and as far back as history and myth can pierce we are impressed with the similar mortality of cities and peoples and kingdoms, it is quite natural that the death of the world is a subject that would engage the thoughts of the imaginative. In Amelia Reynolds Long's story, the subject is approached in an intriguing fashion. Without stirring from their own time, without a "time machine," the characters of "Omega" manage to get a vision of things to come—to share those experiences as well.
I, doctor michael claybridge, living in the year 1926, have listened to a description of the end of the world from the lips of the man who witnessed it; the last man of the human race. That this is possible, or that I am not insane, I cannot ask you to believe: I can only offer you the facts.
For a long time my friend, Prof. Mortimer, had been experimenting with what he termed his theory of mental time; but I had known nothing of the nature of this theory until one day, in response to his request, I visited him at his laboratory. I found him bending over a young medical student, whom he had put into a state of hypnotic trance.
"A test of my theory, Claybridge," he whispered excitedly as I entered. "A moment ago I suggested to Bennet that this was the date of the battle of Waterloo. For him, it accordingly became so; for he described for me—and in French, mind you—a part of the battle at which he was present!"
"Present!" I exclaimed. "You mean that he is a reincarnation of—?"
"No, no," he interrupted impatiently. "You forget—or rather, you do not know—that time is a circle, all of whose parts are coexistent. By hypnotic suggestion, I moved his materiality line until it became tangent with the Waterloo segment of the circle. Whether in physical time the two have ever touched before, is of little matter."
Of course I understood nothing of this; but before I could ask for an explanation, he had turned back to his patient.
"Attila, the Hun, is sweeping down upon Rome with his hordes," he said. "You are with them. Tell me what you see."
For a moment, nothing happened; then before our very eyes, the young man's features seemed to undergo a change. His nose grew beak-shaped, while his forehead acquired a backward slant. His pale face became ruddy, and his eyes changed from brown to grey-green. Suddenly he flung out his arms; and there burst from his lips a torrent of sounds of which Mortimer and I could make nothing except that they bore a strong resemblance to the old Teutonic languages.
Mortimer let this continue for a moment or so before he recalled the boy from his trance. To my surprise, young Bennet was, upon awakening, quite his usual self without any trace of Hun feature. He spoke, however, with a feeling of weariness.
"Now," I said when Mortimer and I were alone, "would you mind telling me what it is all about?"
He smiled. "Time," he began, "is of two kinds; mental and physical. Of these, mental is the real; physical the unreal; or, we might say, the instrument used to measure the real. And its measurement is gauged by intensity, not length."
"You mean—?" I asked, not sure that I followed him correctly.
"That real time is measured by the intensity with which we live it," he answered. "Thus a minute of mental time may, by the standards devised by man, be three hours deep, because we have lived it intensely; while an eon of mental time may embrace but half a day physically for reverse reasons."
"'A thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past and, as a watch in the night,'" I murmured.
"Exactly," he said, "except that in mental time there is neither past nor future, but only a continuous present. Mental time, as I remarked a while ago, is an infinite circle with materiality a line running tangent to it. The point of tangency interprets it to the physical senses, and so creates what we call physical time. Since a line can be tangent to a circle at only one point, our physical existence is single. If it were possible, as some day it may be, to make the line bisect the circle, we shall lead two existences simultaneously.
"I have proven, as you saw in the case of Bennet just now, that the point of tangency between the time circle and the materiality line can be changed by hypnotic suggestion. An entirely satisfactory experiment, you must admit; and yet," he became suddenly dejected, "as far as the world is concerned, it proves absolutely nothing."
"Why not?" I asked. "Couldn't others witness such a demonstration as well as I?"
"And deem it a very nice proof of reincarnation," he shrugged. "No, Claybridge, it won't do. There is but one proof the world would consider; the transfer of a man's consciousness to the future.""Cannot that be done?" I queried.
"Yes," he said. "But there is connected with it an element of danger. Mental status has a strong effect upon the physical being, as was witnessed by Bennet's reversion to the Hun type. Had I kept him in the hypnotic state for too long a period, the Teutonic cast of features would not have vanished with his awakening. What changes a projection into the future would bring, I cannot say; and for that reason he is naturally unwilling that I experiment upon him in that direction."
He strode up and down the floor of his laboratory as he talked. His head was slumped forward upon his breast, as if heavy with the weight of thought.
"Then satisfactory proof is impossible?" I asked. "You can never hope to convince the world?"
He stopped with a suddenness that was startling, and his head went up with a jerk. "No!" he cried. "I have not given up! I must have a subject for my experiments, and I shall proceed to find one."
This determined statement did not particularly impress me at the time, nor, for that matter, did the time-theory itself. Both were recalled to me a week or so later, when, in answer to his summons, I again visited Mortimer at the laboratory, and he thrust a newspaper into my hands, pointing to an item among the want ads.
"Wanted—" I read, "A subject for hypnotic experiment. $5,000 for the right man. Apply Pro. Alex Mortimer, Mortimer Laboratories, City."
"Surely," I exclaimed, "you do not expect to receive an answer to that?"
"On the contrary," he smiled, "I have received no less than a dozen answers. From them I chose the one who is most likely to prove the best subject. He will be here in a few minutes to sign the documents absolving me from any responsibility in case of accident. That is why I sent for you."
I could only stare at him.
"Of course," he went on, "I explained to him that there would be a degree of personal risk involved, but he appeared not to care. On the contrary, he seemed almost to welcome it. He—"
A knock at the door interrupted him. In response to his call, one of his assistants looked in.
"Mr. Williams is here, Professor."
"Send him in, Gable." As the assistant disappeared, Mortimer turned back to me. "My prospective subject," he explained. "He is prompt."
A thin, rather undersized man entered the room. My attention was at once drawn to his eyes, which seemed too large for his face.
"Mr. Williams, my friend, Dr. Claybridge," Mortimer introduced us. "The doctor is going to witness these articles we have to sign."
Williams acknowledged the introduction in a voice that sounded infinitely tired.
"Here are the papers," Mortimer said, pushing a few sheets of paper across the table toward him.Williams merely glanced at them, and picked up a pen.
"Just a minute," Mortimer rang for Gable. The assistant and I witnessed the signature, and affixed our names below it.
"I am ready to begin immediately, if you like," Williams said when Gable had gone.
Mortimer eyed him reflectively for a moment. "First," he said, "there is a question I should like to ask you, Mr. Williams. You need not answer if you feel disinclined. Why are you so eager to undergo an experiment, the outcome of which even I cannot foresee?"
"If I answer that, will my answer be treated as strictly confidential?" asked Williams, casting a sidelong glance in my direction.
"Most certainly," Mortimer replied. "I speak for both myself and Dr. Claybridge." I nodded affirmation.
"Then," said Williams, "I will tell you. I welcome this experiment because, as you pointed out yesterday, there is a possibility of its resulting in my death. No, you did not say so in so many words, Prof. Mortimer, but that is the fear at the back of your mind. And why should I wish to die? Because, gentlemen, I have committed murder."
"What!" We barked out the word together.
Williams smiled wanly at our amazement. "That is rather an unusual statement; isn't it?" he asked in his tired voice. "Whom I murdered does not matter. The police will never find me out, for I was clever about it in order that my sister, to whom your $5,000, Professor, is to be paid, need not suffer from the humiliation of my arrest. But although I can escape the authorities, I cannot escape my own conscience. The knowledge that I have deliberately killed a man, even while he merited death, is becoming too much for me; and since my religion forbids suicide, I have turned to you as a possible way out. I think that is all."
We stared at him in silence. What Mortimer was thinking, I do not know. Most likely he was pondering upon the strange psychology of human conduct. As for me, I could not help wondering in what awful, perhaps pitiable tragedy this little man had been an actor.
Mortimer was the first to speak. When he did so, it was with no reference to what we had just heard. "Since you are ready, Mr. Williams, we will proceed with our initial experiment at once," he said. "I have arranged a special room for it, where there will be no other thought waves nor suggestions to disturb you."
He rose, and was apparently about to lead the way to this room when the telephone ran.
"Hello," he called into the transmitter. "Dr. Claybridge? Yes, he is here. Just a minute." He pushed the instrument towards me.
My hospital was on the wire. After taking the message, I hung up in disgust. "An acute case of appendicitis," I announced. "Of course I'm sorry for the poor devil, but he certainly chose an inopportune time for his attack.""I will phone you all about the experiment," Mortimer promised as I reached for my hat. "Perhaps you can be present at the next one."
True to his promise, he rang me up that evening.
"I have had wonderful success!" he cried exultantly. "So far I have experimented only in a small way, but at that my theory has been proven beyond the possibility of doubt. And there was one most interesting feature, Claybridge. Williams told me what would be the nature of my experiment tomorrow afternoon."
"And what will it be?" I asked.
"I am to make his material consciousness tangent with the end of the world." was the astonishing answer.
"Good heavens!" I cried in spite of myself. "Shall you do it?"
"I have no choice in the matter," he replied.
"Mortimer, you fatalist! You—"
"No, no," he protested. "It is not fatalism. Can't you understand that—"
But I interrupted him. "May I be present?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered. "You will be there. Williams saw you."
I had a good mind to deliberately not be there, just to put a kink in his precious theory; but my curiosity was too great, and at the appointed time, I was on hand.
"I have already put Williams to sleep," Mortimer said as I came in. "He is in my especially prepared room. Come and I will show him to you."
He led me down a long hall to a door which I knew had originally given upon a storeroom. Inserting a key in the lock, he turned it, and flung the door open.
In the room beyond, I could see Williams seated in a swivel chair. His eyes were closed and his body relaxed, as if in sleep. However, it was not he that awakened my interest, but the room itself. It was windowless, with only a skylight in the ceiling to admit light and air. Aside from the chair in which Williams sat, there was no furniture save an instrument resembling an immense telephone transmitter that a crane arm held about two inches from the hypnotized man's mouth, and a set of ear phones, such as a telephone operator wears, which were attached to his ears. But strangest of all, the walls, floors, and ceiling of the room were lined with a whitish metal.
"White lead," said Mortimer, seeing my eyes upon it; "the substance least conductive of thought waves. I want the subject to be as free as possible from outside thought influences, so that when he talks with me over that telephonic device, which is connected with my laboratory, there can be no danger of his telling me any but his own experiences."
"But the skylight," I pointed out. "It is partially open."
"True," he admitted. "But thought waves, like sound waves, travel upwards, and outwards; rarely, if ever, downwards. So, you see, there is little danger from the skylight."He closed and locked the door, and we went back to the laboratory. In one corner was what looked like a radio loud speaker, while near it was a transmitter similar to the one in the room with Williams.
"I shall speak to Williams through the transmitter," explained Mortimer, "and he shall hear me by means of the ear phones. When he answers into his transmitter, we will hear him through the loud speaker."
He seated himself before the apparatus and spoke: "Williams, do you hear me?"
"I hear you." The reply came promptly, but in the heavy tones of a man talking in his sleep.
"Listen to me. You are living in the last six days of the earth. By 'days,' I do not mean periods of twenty-four hours, but such lengths of time as are meant in the first chapter of the book of Genesis. It is now the first day of the six. Tell me what you see."
After a short interval, the answer came in a strange, high key. While the words were English, they were spoken with a curious intonation that was at first difficult to understand.
"This is the year 16,812," said the voice, "or, in modern time, 43,930 A. I. C. After Interplanetary Communication. It is not well upon the earth. The Polar Ice Cap comes down almost to Newfoundland. Summer lasts but a few weeks, and then its heat is scorching. What in early time was known as the Atlantic Coastal Plain has long ago sunken into the sea. High dykes must be used to keep the water from covering the island of Manhattan, where the world's government is located. A great war has just concluded. There are many dead to bury."
"You speak of interplanetary communication," said Mortimer. "Is the world, then, in communication with the planets?"
"In the year 2,952," came the answer, "the earth succeeded in getting into communication with Mars. Radio pictures were sent back and forth between the two worlds until they learned each other's languages; then sound communication was established. The Martians had been trying to signal the earth since the beginning of the twentieth century, but were unable to set up a system of communication because of the insufficient scientific advancement of the Earthmen.
"About a thousand years later, a message was received from Venus, which had now advanced to the earth's state of civilization, when Mars was signalled. For nearly five hundred years they had been receiving messages from both the earth and Mars, but had been unable to answer.
"A little over five thousand years later, a series of sounds was received which seemed to come from somewhere beyond Venus. Venus and Mars heard them too; but, like us, were able to make nothing of them. All three worlds broadcasted their radio pictures on the wave length corresponding to that of the mysterious sounds, but received no answer. At last Venus advanced the theory that the sounds had come from Mercury, whose inhabitants, obliged to live upon the side of their world farther from the sun, would be either entirely without sight or with eyes not sufficiently developed to see our pictures.
"Recently something dire has happened to Mars. Our last messages from her told of terrible wars and pestilences, such as we are now having upon earth. Also, her water supply was beginning to give out, due to the fact that she was obliged to use much of it in the manufacture of atmosphere. Suddenly, about fifty years ago, all messages from her ceased; and upon signalling her, we received no answer."
Mortimer covered the transmitter with his hand. "That," he said to me, "can mean only that intelligent life upon Mars had become extinct. The earth, then, can have but a few thousand years yet to go."
For nearly an hour longer he quizzed Williams upon conditions of the year 46,812. All the answers showed that while scientific knowledge had reached an almost incredulous stage of advancement, the race of mankind was in its twilight. Wars had killed off thousands of people, while strange, new diseases found hosts of victims daily in a race whose members were no longer physically constituted to withstand them. Worst of all, the birth rate was rapidly diminishing.
"Listen to me." Mortimer raised his voice as if to impress his invisible subject with what he was about to say. "You are now living in the second day. Tell me what you see."
There was a moment or so of silence; then the voice, keyed even higher than before, spoke again.
"I see humanity in its death-throes," it said. "Only a few scattered tribes remain to roam over the deserted continents. The cattle have begun to sicken and die; and it is unsafe to use them for food. Four thousand years ago, we took to the manufacture of artificial air, as did the Martians before us. But it is hardly worth while, for children are no longer born. We shall be the last of our race."
"Have you received no recent word from Mars?" asked Mortimer.
"None. Two years ago, at her proper season, Mars failed to appear in the heavens. As to what has become of her, we can only conjecture."
There was a horrible suggestiveness about this statement. I shuddered, and noticed that Mortimer did, also.
"The Polar Ice Cap has begun to retreat," resumed the voice. "Now it is winters that are short. Tropical plants have begun to appear in the temperate zones. The lower forms of animal life are becoming more numerous, and have begun to pursue man as man once pursued them. The days of the human race are definitely numbered. We are a band of strangers upon our own world."
"Listen to me," said Mortimer again. "It is now the third day. Describe it."
Followed the usual short interval of silence; then came the voice, fairly brittle with freezing terror."Why," it screamed, "do you keep me here: the last living man upon a dying planet? The world is festering with dead things. Let me be dead with them."
"Mortimer," I interrupted, "this is awful! Hasn't your experiment gone far enough?"
He pushed back his chair and rose. "Yes," he said, a bit shakily, I thought. "For the present, at least. Come; I will awaken Williams."
I followed him down the hall, and was close upon his heels, when he flung open the door of the lead-lined room, and stepped inside. Our cries of surprised alarm were simultaneous.
In the chair where we had left him sat Williams; but physically he was a different man. He had shrunken several inches in stature, while his head appeared to have grown larger, with the forehead almost bulbous in aspect. His fingers were extremely long and sensitive, but suggestive of great strength. His frame was thin to emaciation.
"Good Heavens!" I gasped. "What has happened?"
"It is an extreme case of mental influence upon matter," answered Mortimer, bending over the hypnotized man. "You remember how young Bennet's features took on the characteristics of a Hun? A similar thing, but in a much intenser degree, has happened to Williams. He has become a man of the future physically as well as mentally."
"Good Lord!" I cried. "Waken him at once! This is horrible."
"To be frank with you," said Mortimer gravely, "I am afraid to. He has been in this state much longer than I realized. To waken him too suddenly would be dangerous. It might even prove fatal."
For a moment he seemed lost in thought. Then he removed the ear phones from Williams' head, and addressed him. "Sleep," he commanded. "Sleep soundly and naturally. When you have rested sufficiently, you will awaken and be your normal self."
Shortly after this, I left Mortimer, and, although it was my day off duty, went to my hospital. How good my commonplace tonsil cases seemed after the unholy things I had just experienced! I surprised the resident physician almost into a state of coma by putting in the remainder of the day in the hardest work possible in the free clinic; and finally went home, tired in mind and body.
I turned in early for what I deemed a well-earned rest, and fell asleep instantly. The next thing of which I was conscious was the insistent ringing of the telephone bell beside my bed.
"Hello," I cried sleepily, taking down the receiver. "Dr. Claybridge speaking."
"Claybridge, this is Mortimer," came the almost hysterical response. "For God's sake, come over to the laboratory at once!"
"What has happened?" I demanded, instantly wide awake. It would take something unusual to wring such excitement from the unemotional Mortimer."It's Williams," he answered. "I can't bring him back. He got awake about an hour ago, and still believes that he is living in the future. Physically, he is the same as he was when last you saw him this afternoon."
"I'll be over at once," I fairly shouted, and slammed the receiver down upon its hook. As I scrambled into my clothes, I glanced at the clock. Two fifteen. In half an hour I could reach the laboratory. What would I find waiting for me?
Mortimer was in the lead room with Williams when I arrived.
"Claybridge," he said, "l need someone else's opinion in this case. Look at him, and tell me what you think."
Williams still occupied the chair in the middle of the room. His eyes were wide open, but it was plain that he saw neither Mortimer nor me. Even when I bent over him and touched him, he gave no sign of being conscious of my presence.
"He looks as if he were suffering from some sort of catalepsy," I said, "yet his temperature and pulse are almost normal. I should say that he is still partially in a state of hypnosis."
"Then it is self-hypnosis," said Mortimer, "for I have entirely withdrawn my influence."
"Perhaps," I suggested lightly, "you have transported him irretrievably into the future."
"That," Mortimer replied, "is precisely what I fear has happened."
I stared a him dumbly.
"The only way out," he went on, "is to rehypnotize him, and finish the experiment. At its conclusion, he may return to his natural state."
I could not help thinking that there were certain things which it was forbidden man to know; and that Mortimer, having wantonly blundered into them, was now being made to pay the penalty. I watched him as he worked over poor Williams, straining all his energies to induce a state of hypnotic sleep. At last the glassy eyes before him closed, and his subject slept. With hands that trembled visibly, he adjusted the earphones, and we went back to the laboratory.
"Williams," Mortimer called into his transmitter, "do you hear me?"
"I hear you," replied the odiously familiar voice.
"You are now living in the fourth day. What do you see?"
"I see reptiles; great lizards that walk upon their hind legs, and birds with tiny heads and bats' wings, that build nests in the ruins of the deserted cities.
"Dinosaurs and pterodactyls!" I gasped involuntarily. "A second age of reptiles!"
"The Polar caps have retreated until there is but a small area of ice about each of the poles," continued the voice. "There are no longer any seasons; only a continuous reign of heat. The torrid zone has become uninhabitable even by the reptiles. The sea there boils. Great monsters writhe in their death agonies upon its surface. Even the northern waters are becoming heated."All the land is covered with rank vegetation upon which the reptiles feed. The air is fetid with it."
Mortimer interrupted: "Describe the fifth day."
After the customary interval, the voice replied. There was a sticky quality about it that reminded me of the sucking of mud at some object struggling in it.
"The reptiles are gone," it said. "I alone live upon this expiring world. Even the plant life has turned yellow and withered. The volcanoes are in terrific action. The mountains are becoming level, and soon all will be one vast plain. A thick, green slime is gathering upon the face of the water; so that it is difficult to tell where the land with its rotting vegetation ends and the sea begins. The sky is saffron in color, like a plate of hot brass. At night a blood red moon swims drunkenly in a black sky.
"Something is happening to gravitation. For a long time I had suspected it. Today I tested it by throwing a stone into the air. I was carried several feet above the ground by the force of my action. It took the stone nearly twenty minutes to return to earth. It fell slowly, and at an angle!"
"An angle!" cried Mortimer.
"Yes. It was barely perceptible, but it was there. The earth's movement is slowing: Days and nights have more than doubled in length."
"What is the condition of the atmosphere?"
"A trifle rarefied, but not sufficiently so to make breathing difficult. This seems strange to me."
"That," said Mortimer to me, "is because his body is here in the twentieth century, where there is plenty of air. The air at the stage of the earth's career where his mind is would be too rare to support organic life. Even now the mental influence is so strong that he believes the density of the atmosphere to be decreasing."
"Recently," Williams' voice went on, "the star Vega has taken Polaris' place as centre of the universe. Many of the old stars have disappeared, while new ones have taken their places. I have a suspicion that our solar system is either falling or traveling in a new direction through space."
"Listen to me, Williams." Mortimer's voice sounded dry and cracked, and his forehead was besprinkled with great gouts of sweat. "It is the sixth, the last day. What do you see?"
"I see a barren plain of grey rock. The world is in perpetual twilight because the mists that rise from the sea obscure the sun. Heaps of brown bones dot the plain near the mounds that once were cities. The dykes around Manhattan long ago crumbled away; but there is no longer any need for them even were men here, for the sea is rapidly drying up. The atmosphere is becoming exceedingly rarefied. I can hardly breathe. . . .
"Gravitation is giving out more rapidly. When I stand erect I sway as though drunk. Last night the curtains of mist parted for a time, and I saw the moon fly off into space."Great lightnings play about the earth, but there is no thunder. The silence all around is plummetless. I keep speaking aloud and striking one object against another to relieve the strain on my eardrums. . . .
"Great cracks are beginning to appear in the ground, from which smoke and molten lava issue. I have fled to Manhattan in order that the skeletons of the tall buildings may hide them from my sight.
"Small objects have begun to move of their own volition. I am afraid to walk, as each step hurls me off my balance. The heat is awful. I cannot breathe."
There was a short interval, that came as a relief to our tightly screwed nerves. The tension to which the experiment had pitched us was terrible, yet I, for one, could no more have torn myself away than I could have passed into the fourth dimension.
Suddenly the voice cut the air like a knife!
"The buildings!" it shrieked. "They are swaying! They are leaning toward each other! They are crumbling, disintegrating; and the crumbs are flying outward instead of falling! Tiny particles are being thrown off by everything around me. Oh, the heat! There is no air!"
Followed a hideous gurgling; then:
"The earth is dissolving beneath my feet! It is the end. Creation is returning to its original atoms! Oh, my God!" There was a sickening scream that rapidly grew fainter with the effect of fading on radio.
"Williams!" shouted Mortimer. "What happened?"
There was no answer.
"Williams! Williams!" Mortimer was on his feet, fairly shrieking into the instrument. "Do you hear me?"
The only response was utter silence.
Mortimer clutched me by the arm and dragged me with him from the laboratory and down the hall.
"Is—is he dead?" I choked as we ran.
Mortimer did not answer. His breath was coming in quick, short gasps that would have made speech impossible even had he heard me.
At the door of the lead room he stopped and fumbled with his keys. From beyond we could hear no sound. Twice Mortimer, in his nervousness and hurry, dropped the key and had to grope for it; but at last he got it turned in the lock, and flung the door open.
In our haste, we collided with each other as we hurried into the room. Then as one man we stopped dead in our tracks. The room was empty!
"Where—" I began incredulously. "He couldn't have gotten out! Could he?"
"No," Mortimer answered hoarsely.
We advanced farther into the room, peering into every crack and corner. From the back of the chair, suspended by their cord, hung the earphones; while dangling from the chair's seat to the floor were the tattered and partially charred remains of what seemed to have been at one time a suit of men's clothing. At sight of these, Mortimer's face went white. In his eyes was a look of dawning comprehension and horror."What does it mean." I demanded.
For answer, he pointed a palsied finger.
As I looked, the first beam of morning sunlight slipped through the light above us, and fell obliquely to the floor. In its golden shaft, directly above the chair where Williams had sat, a myriad of infinitesimal atoms were dancing.