Omega: The Last days of the World
The cover image was created by the transcriber and is placed in the public domain.
By Jean Paul Laurens.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE WORLD
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The magnificent marble bridge which unites the Ruede Rennes with the Rue de Louvre, and which, linedwith the statues of celebrated scientists and philosophers,emphasizes the monumental avenue leading to the newportico of the Institute, was absolutely black with people.A heaving crowd surged, rather than walked, along the8quays, flowing out from every street and pressing forwardtoward the portico, long before invaded by a tumultuousthrong. Never, in that barbarous age preceding the constitutionof the United States of Europe, when might wasgreater than right, when military despotism ruled theworld and foolish humanity quivered in the relentlessgrasp of war—never before in the stormy period of agreat revolution, or in those feverish days which accompanieda declaration of war, had the approaches of thehouse of the people’s representatives, or the Place de laConcorde presented such a spectacle. It was no longerthe case of a band of fanatics rallied about a flag, marchingto some conquest of the sword, and followed by a throngof the curious and the idle, eager to see what would happen;but of the entire population, anxious, agitated, terrified,composed of every class of society without distinction,hanging upon the decision of an oracle, waiting feverishlythe result of the calculations which a celebrated astronomerwas to announce that very Monday, at three o’clock,in the session of the Academy of Sciences. Amid the fluxof politics and society the Institute survived, maintainingstill in Europe its supremacy in science, literature and art.The center of civilization, however, had moved westward,and the focus of progress shone on the shores of LakeMichigan, in North America.
This new palace of the Institute, with its lofty domesand terraces, had been erected upon the ruins remaining9after the great social revolution of the international anarchistswho, in 1950, had blown up the greater portionof the metropolis as from the vent of a crater.
THE STREETS OF PARIS BY NIGHT
On the Sunday eveningbefore, one mighthave seen from the carof a balloon all Parisabroad upon the boulevardsand public squares,circulating slowly andas if in despair, withoutinterest in anything.The gay aerial ships nolonger cleaved the air;aeroplanes and aviatorshad all ceased to circulate.The aerial stationsupon the summits ofthe towers and buildingswere empty and deserted.The course ofhuman life seemed arrested,and anxiety wasdepicted upon every face.Strangers addressed eachother without hesitation;and but one question fell10from pale and trembling lips: “Is it then true?” Themost deadly pestilence would have carried far less terrorto the heart than the astronomical prediction on everytongue; it would have made fewer victims, for already,from some unknown cause, the death-rate was increasing.At every instant one felt the electric shock of a terriblefear.
A few, less dismayed, wished to appear more confident,and sounded now and then a note of doubt, even of hope,as: “It may prove a mistake;” or, “It will pass on oneside;” or, again: “It will amount to nothing; we shallget off with a fright,” and other like assurances.
But expectation and uncertainty are often more terriblethan the catastrophe itself. A brutal blow knocks usdown once for all, prostrating us more or less completely.We come to our senses, we make the best of it, we recover,and take up life again. But this was the unknown, theexpectation of something inevitable but mysterious, terrible,coming from without the range of experience. Onewas to die, without doubt, but how? By the sudden shockof collision, crushed to death? By fire, the conflagrationof a world? By suffocation, the poisoning of the atmosphere?What torture awaited humanity? Apprehensionwas perhaps more frightful than the reality itself. Themind cannot suffer beyond a certain limit. To suffer byinches, to ask every evening what the morning may bring,is to suffer a thousand deaths. Terror, that terror which11congeals the blood in the veins, which annihilates the courage,haunted the shuddering soul like an invisible spectre.
THE OBSERVATORY ON GAURISANKAR.
For more than amonth the businessof the world hadbeen suspended; afortnight before thecommittee of administrators(formerlythe chamberand senate) hadadjourned, everyother question havingsunk into insignificance.For aweek the exchangesof Paris, London,New York and Pekin,had closed theirdoors. What wasthe use of occupyingoneself withbusiness affairs,with questions ofinternal or foreignpolicy, of revenueor of reform, if the12end of the world was at hand? Politics, indeed! Didone even remember to have ever taken any interest inthem? The courts themselves had no cases; one doesnot murder when one expects the end of the world.Humanity no longer attached importance to anything;its heart beat furiously, as if about to stop forever.Every face was emaciated, every countenance discomposed,and haggard with sleeplessness. Feminine coquetryalone held out, but in a superficial, hesitating, furtivemanner, without thought of the morrow.
The situation was indeed serious, almost desperate, evenin the eyes of the most stoical. Never, in the wholecourse of history had the race of Adam found itself faceto face with such a peril. The portents of the sky confrontedit unceasingly with a question of life and death.
But, let us go back to the beginning.
Three months before the day of which we speak, thedirector of the observatory of Mount Gaurisankar had sentthe following telephonic message to the principal observatoriesof the globe, and especially to that of Paris:
1. For about 300 years the observatory of Paris had ceased to be an observing station,and had been perpetuated only as the central administrative bureau of Frenchastronomy. Astronomical observations were made under far more satisfactory conditionsupon mountain summits in a pure atmosphere, free from disturbing influences.Observers were in direct and constant communication by telephone with the centraloffice, whose instruments were used only to verify certain discoveries or to satisfy thecuriosity of savants detained in Paris by their sedentary occupation.
“A telescopic comet discovered tonight, in 290°, 15´right ascension, and 21°, 54´ south declination. Slightdiurnal motion. Is of greenish hue.”
Not a month passed without the discovery of telescopic13comets, and their announcement to the various observatories,especially since the installation of intrepid astronomersin Asia on the lofty peaks of Gaurisankar, Dapsangand Kanchinjinga; in South America, on Aconcagua,Illampon and Chimborazo, as also in Africa on Kilimanjaro,and in Europe on Elburz and Mont Blanc. Thisannouncement, therefore, had not excited more commentamong astronomers than any other of a like nature whichthey were constantly receiving. A large number of observershad sought the comet in the position indicated, andhad carefully followed its motion. Their observationshad been published in the Neuastronomischenachrichten,and a German mathematician had calculated a provisionalorbit and ephemeris.
Scarcely had this orbit and ephemeris been published,when a Japanese scientist made a very remarkable suggestion.According to these calculations, the comet was approachingthe sun from infinite space in a plane butslightly inclined to that of the ecliptic, an extremely rareoccurrence, and, moreover, would traverse the orbit ofSaturn. “It would be exceedingly interesting,” he remarked,“to multiply observations and revise the calculationof the orbit, with a view to determining whether thecomet will come in collision with the rings of Saturn; forthis planet will be exactly at that point of its path intersectedby the orbit of the comet, on the day of the latter’sarrival.”
THE YOUNG LAUREATE.
A young laureate of theInstitute, a candidate forthe directorship for theobservatory, acting at onceon this suggestion, hadinstalled herself at the telephoneoffice in order tocapture on the wing everymessage. In less than ten days she had interceptedmore than one hundred despatches, and, without losingan instant, had devoted three nights and days to arevision of the orbit as based on this entire series ofobservations. The result proved that the German computorhad committed an error in determining the periheliondistance and that the inference drawn by theJapanese astronomer was inexact in so far as the dateof the comet’s passage through the plane of the eclipticwas concerned, this date being five or six days earlierthan that first announced; but the interest in theproblem increased, for the minimum distance of thecomet from the earth seemed now less than the Japanesecalculator had thought possible. Setting aside for themoment, the question of a collision, it was hoped that theenormous perturbation which would result from the attractionof the earth and moon would afford a new methodof determining with exhaustive precision the mass of boththese bodies, and perhaps even throw important light upon15the density of the earth’s interior. It was, indeed, establishedthat the celestial visitor was moving in a planenearly coincident with that of the ecliptic, and would passnear the system of Saturn, whose attraction would probablymodify to a sensible degree the primitive parabolicorbit, bringing it nearer to the belated planet. But thecomet, after traversing the orbits of Jupiter and of Mars,was then to enter exactly that described annually by theearth about the sun. The interest of astronomers was noton this account any the less keen, and the young computorinsisted more forcibly than ever upon the importanceof numerous and exact observations.
It was at the observatory of Gaurisankar especially thatthe study of the comet’s elements was prosecuted. Onthis highest elevation of the globe, at an altitude of 8000meters, among eternal snows which, by newly discoveredprocesses of electro-chemistry, were kept at a distance ofseveral kilometers from the station, towering almost alwaysmany hundred meters above the highest clouds, in a pureand rarified atmosphere, the visual power of both the eyeand the telescope was increased a hundred fold. The cratersof the moon, the satellites of Jupiter, and the phasesof Venus could be readily distinguished by the naked eye.For nine or ten generations several families of astronomershad lived upon this Asiatic summit, and had gradually becomeaccustomed to its rare atmosphere. The first comershad succumbed; but science and industry had succeeded16in modifying the rigors of the temperature by the storageof solar heat, and acclimatization slowly took place; as informer times, at Quito and Bogota, where, in the eighteenthand nineteenth centuries, a contented populationlived in plenty, and young women might be seen dancingall night long without fatigue; whereas on Mont Blanc inEurope, at the same elevation, a few steps only were attendedwith painful respiration. By degrees a small colonywas installed upon the slopes of the Himalayas, and,through their researches and discoveries, the observatoryhad acquired the reputation of