....They thought of the glorious, yet now futile past, with all its promises shattered, its ideals valueless, its hopes unfulfilled; and seemed to feel in themselves the concentration and culmination of the woes and fears of the ages. They saw, as in one long vista, the history of the millions of vanished years — "from earth's nebulous origin to its final ruin;" from its days of four hours to its days of twenty-six and a half; from its germinating specks of primal protoplasm to its last and greatest, and yet most evil creature, Man. They saw, in mental perspective, the uneven periods of human progress; the long stages of advance and retrogression, of failure and success. They saw the whole long struggle between the tendencies of Egoism and Altruism, and knew how these had merged at last into an automatic equilibration of Duty and Desire. They saw the climax of this equilibration, the Millennium of Man — and they knew how the inevitable decay had followed.
They saw how the knowledge of the sureness and nature of life's end had come to Man; slowly at first, and not influencing him much, but gaining ever more and more power as the time grew nearer and sympathy and intellect more far-sighted and acute; how, when the cold itself began, and the temperate zone grew frigid, and the tropic temperate, and Man was compelled to migrate, and his sources of heat and power failed one after the other, the knowledge of the end reacted on all forms of mental activity, throwing all thought and invention into one groove. They saw the whole course of the long fight; the ebb and flow of the struggle against the cold, in which, after each long period, it was seen that Man was the loser; how men, armed with powers that to their ancestors would have made them seem as gods, had migrated to the other planets of the system, only to find that there, even on Mercury himself, the dying sun had made all life a fore-known lost battle; how many men, whole nations, had sought a premature refuge from the Fear in the Ultimate Silence called Death. They saw how all the old beliefs, down to the tiniest shreds of mysticism, had fallen from Man as a worn-out garment, leaving him spiritually naked to face the terrors of a relentless Cosmos: how, in the slow dissolving of the ideal Future, man's duties and thoughts were once more moulded with awe and reverence to the wishes of the Past.
They saw the closing centuries of the struggle; the discovery of the Red Metal; the building of the Spheres that none dare venture to use, but which each succeeding and lessening generation handed down to the next as a sacred heritage only to be put to test in the last resort; they remembered, in their own childhood the Conference of the Decision, when they two had been chosen, as the only pair of sufficient vigour and health and animal courage to accept the dread legacy and dare the dread adventure of seeking a fresh home in the outer vastness, so that haply the days of Man might not be ended; and they remembered, only too well, how the rest of humanity, retiring to their last few houses, had one and all pledged each other to seek the Silence and trouble the chilly earth no more. They knew how well that pledge had been kept, and in the darkness and silence of the room clutched each other closer and closer.
And at last they heard the Time Indicator in the uppermost room ring the peal of the completed hour, and knew that in their own lives they must act the final scene in the long life-tragedy of the earth....
Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader edited by Mike Ashley (Nonstop Press, 2010)
"The Last Days of Earth" by George C. Wallis (1901) is a strange story overflowing with belatedness and the tragic humanist emotion that also ends "The Time Machine" with a vision of cooling sun and a dying earth.
The action begins at a quarter to thirteen in the afternoon of Thursday, July 18th, 13,000,085 A.D.
"A whole degree, Celia, since yesterday. And the dynamos are giving out a current at a pressure of 6,000 volts. I can't run them at any higher efficiency. That means that any further fall of temperature will close the drama of this planet. Shall we go tonight?"
There was no quiver of fear nor hint of resentment in his voice, nor in the voice that answered him. Long ages of mental evolution had weeded all the petty vices and unreasoning passions out of the mind of man.
"I am ready any time, Alwyn. I do not like to go; I do not like the risk of going; but it is our last duty to the humanity behind us — and I must be with you to the end."
There was another silence between them; a silence in which the humming of the dynamos in the room below seemed to pervade the whole place, thrilling through everything with annoying audibility. Suddenly the man leaned forward, regarding his companion with a puzzled expression.
"Your eyelashes are damp, Celia. You are not crying? That is too archaic."
"I must plead guilty," she said, banishing the sad look with an effort. "We are not yet so thoroughly adjusted to our surroundings as to be able to crush down every weak impulse. Wasn't it the day before yesterday that you said the sun had begun to cool about five million years too soon for man? But I will not give way again. Shall we start at once?"
"That is better; that sounds like Celia. Yes, if you wish, at once; but I had thought of taking a last look round the world — at least, as far as the telegraph system is in order. We have three hours' daylight yet."
Careful diction and close observation of the domestic banalities quickly gives way to a globe-spanning summation.
The side wall became opaque; the globe ceased to be luminous. A moving scene grew out of the dullness of the disc, and a low, moaning sound stole into the room. They looked upon telegraphically - transmitted view of a place near which had once been Santiago, Chili. There were the ruins of an immense white city there now, high on the left of the picture. Down on the right, far below the well-defined marks of six successive beach-lines, a cold sea moaned over an icy bar, and dashed in semi-frozen spray under the bluff of an overhanging glacier's edge.
Out to sea great bergs drifted slowly, and the distant horizon was pale with the ice-blink from vast floes. The view had scarcely lasted a moment, when a great crack appeared on the top of the ice-front, and a huge fragment fell forward into the sea. It overturned on the bar, churning up a chaos of foam, and began to drift away. At the same instant came the deafening report of the breakage. There was no sign of life, neither of man nor beast, nor bird nor fish, in that cold scene. Polar bears and Arctic foxes, blubber-eating savages and hardy seals, had all long since passed away, even from the tropic zone.
Another lever pressed down, and the Rock of Gibraltar appeared on the disc. It rose vast and grim from the ice-arched waters of a shallow strait, with a vista of plain and mountain and glacier stretching behind it to the hazy distance — a vista of such an intolerable whiteness that the two watchers put on green spectacles to look at it. On the flat top of the Rock — which ages ago had been levelled to make it an alighting station for the Continental aerial machines — rose gaunt and frost-encrusted, the huge skeleton framework of one of the last flying conveyances used by man.
Another lever, and Colombo Ceylon, glared lifeless on the disc. Another, and Nagasaki, Japan, the terminal front of a vast glacier, frowned out over a black, ice-fining sea. Yet more levers, and yet more scenes; and everywhere ice and snow, and shallow, slowly-freezing seas; or countries here black and plantless, and there covered with glaciers from the crumbling hills, No sign of life, save the vestiges of man's now-ended reign, and of his long fight with the relentless cold — here ruins, on the ice-free levels, of his Cities of Heat; here gigantic moats, excavated to retard the glaciers; here canals, to connect the warmer seas; here the skeletons of huge metallic floating palaces jettisoned on some ice-bound coast; and everywhere that the ice had not overcome, the tall masts of the Pictorial Telegraph, sending to the watchers at Greenwich, by reflected Marconi waves, a presentment of each sight and sound impinging on the speculums and drums at their summits. And in every daylight scene, the pale ghost of a dim, red sun hung in a clear sky.
In the more northern and southern views the magnetic lights were as brilliant as ever, but there were no views of the extreme Polar Regions. These were more inaccessible than in the remote past, for there lakes and patches of liquid and semi-solid air were slowly settling and spreading on land and sea.
Alwyn and Celia prepare to leave the earth for another star.
"....Are you sure, Alwyn, that it will carry us safely? — That you can follow out the Instructions?"
For generations the Red Sphere and all appertaining to it had been mentioned with a certain degree of awe.
"Don't trouble yourself on that point. The instructions are simple. The necessary apparatus, and the ten years' supply of imperishable nutriment, are already inside and fixed. We have only to subject the Red Metal to our 6,000 volt current for an hour, get inside, screw up the inlet, and cut ourselves adrift. The Red Metal, thus electrified, becomes, as you know, repulsive to gravitation, and will so continue for a year and a half. By that time, as we shall travel, according to calculation, at twice the speed of light, we should be more than half-way to one of the nearer stars, and so become subject to its gravitation. With the earth in its present position, if we start in a couple of hours, we should make F. 188, mag. 2, of the third order of spectra. Our sun, according to the records, belonged to the same order. And we know that it has at least two planets."
"But if we fall right into F. 188, instead of just missing it, as we hope? Or if we miss, but so closely as to be fused by its heat? Or if we miss it too widely and are thrown back into space on a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit? Or if we should manage the happy medium and find there be no life, nor any chance of life, upon the planets of that system? Or if there be life, but it be hostile to us?"
"Those are the inevitable dangers of our plunge, Celia. The balance of probabilities is in favour of either the first or second of those things befalling us. But that is not the same as absolute certainty, and the improbable may happen."
Wallis then strikes a Decadent, fin-de-siècle note:
"It will be cold while the Sphere is being prepared," said Alwyn.
"Yes, but we shall be together, dear, as we have been so long now. I remember how miserable I felt when I first knew my destiny; but when I learned that you were chosen to share it with me, I was glad. But you were not, Alwyn — you loved Amy?"
"And you love her still, but you love me, too? Do you know why she was not chosen?"
"Yes; I love you, Celia, though not so much as I loved Amy. They chose you instead of her, they said, because you had a stronger will and greater physical vigour. The slight curve we shall describe on rising will bring us over the Heat-house she and her other lover retired to after the Decision, and we shall perhaps see whether they are really dead, as we believe. Amy, I remember, had an heretical turn of mind."
"If they are not dead, it is strange that they should not have answered our Marconi and telepathic messages after the first year — unless, of course, as you have so often suggested, they have retired to the interior of the other Red Sphere. How strange that it should have been left there! If they have only enough food, they may live in it till old age intervenes, secure from all the rigours that approach, but what a tame end — what a prisonment!"
"Terrible. I could notoot endure the Red Sphere except as we shall endure it — travelling."
This triangulation of Amy, Celia, and Alwyn will shape a "human, all too human" epitaph for the planet as the last humans depart.
27 April 2021