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Title: Finis
Author: Frank L. Pollack
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605041.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: July 2006
Date most recently updated: July 2006

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Title: Finis
Author: Frank L. Pollack








"I'm getting tired," complained Davis, lounging in the window of the
Physics Building, "and sleepy. It's after eleven o'clock. This makes the
fourth night I've sat up to see your new star, and it'll be the last.
Why, the thing was billed to appear three weeks ago."

"Are _you_ tired, Miss Wardour?" asked Eastwood, and the girl glanced up
with a quick flush and a negative murmur.

Eastwood made the reflection anew that she certainly was painfully shy.
She was almost as plain as she was shy, though her hair had an unusual
beauty of its own, fine as silk and coloured like palest flame.

Probably she had brains; Eastwood had seen her reading some extremely
"deep" books, but she seemed to have no amusements, few interests. She
worked daily at the Art Students' League, and boarded where he did, and
he had thus come to ask her with the Davis's to watch for the new star
from the laboratory windows on the Heights.

"Do you really think that it's worth while to wait any longer,
professor?" enquired Mrs Davis, concealing a yawn.

Eastwood was somewhat annoyed by the continued failure of the star to
show itself and he hated to be called "professor", being only an
assistant professor of physics.

"I don't know," he answered somewhat curtly. "This is the twelfth night
that I have waited for it. Of course, it would have been a mathematical
miracle if astronomers should have solved such a problem exactly, though
they've been figuring on it for a quarter of a century."

The new Physics Building of Columbia University was about twelve storeys
high. The physics laboratory occupied the ninth and tenth floors, with
the astronomical rooms above it, an arrangement which would have been
impossible before the invention of the oil vibration cushion, which
practically isolated the instrument rooms from the earth.

Eastwood had arranged a small telescope at the window, and below them
spread the illuminated map of Greater New York, sending up a faintly
musical roar. All the streets were crowded, as they had been every night
since the fifth of the month, when the great new star, or sun, was
expected to come into view.

Some error had been made in the calculations, though, as Eastwood said,
astronomers had been figuring on them for twenty-five years.

It was, in fact, nearly forty years since Professor Adolphe Bernier
first announced his theory of a limited universe at the International
Congress of Sciences in Paris, where it was counted as little more than
a masterpiece of imagination.

Professor Bernier did not believe that the universe was infinite.
Somewhere, he argued, the universe must have a centre, which is the
pivot for its revolution.

The moon revolves around the earth, the planetary system revolves about
the sun, the solar system revolves about one of the fixed stars, and
this whole system in its turn undoubtedly revolve around some more
distant point. But this sort of progression must definitely stop
somewhere.

Somewhere there must be a central sun, a vast incandescent body which
does not move at all. And as a sun is always larger and hotter than its
satellites, therefore the body at the centre of the universe must be of
an immensity and temperature beyond anything known or imagined.

It was objected that this hypothetical body should then be large enough
to be visible from the earth, and Professor Bernier replied that some
day it undoubtedly would be visible. Its light had simply not yet had
time to reach the earth.

The passage of light from the nearest of the fixed stars is a matter of
three years, and there must be many stars so distant that their rays
have not yet reached us. The great central sun must be so inconceivably
remote that perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of years would elapse
before its light should burst upon the solar system.

All this was contemptuously classed as "newspaper science" till the
extraordinary mathematical revival a little after the middle of the
twentieth century afforded the means of verifying it.

Following the new theorems discovered by Professor Burnside, of
Princeton, and elaborated by Dr Taneka, of Tokyo, astronomers succeeded
in calculating the arc of the sun's movements through space, and its
ratio to the orbit of its satellites. With this as a basis, it was
possible to follow the widening circles, the consecutive systems of the
heavenly bodies and their rotations.

The theory of Professor Bernier was justified. It was demonstrated that
there really was a gigantic mass of incandescent matter, which, whether
the central point of the universe or not, appeared to be without motion.

The weight and distance of this new sun were approximately calculated,
and, the speed of light being known, it was an easy matter to reckon
when its rays would reach the earth.

It was then estimated that the approaching rays would arrive at the
earth in twenty-six years, and that was twenty-six years ago. Three
weeks had passed since the date when the new heavenly body was expected
to become visible, and it had not yet appeared.

Popular interest had risen to a high pitch, stimulated by innumerable
newspaper and magazine articles, and the streets were nightly thronged
with excited crowds armed with opera-glasses and star maps, while at
every corner a telescope man had planted his tripod instrument at a
nickel a look.

Similar scenes were taking place in every civilized city on the globe.

It was generally supposed that the new luminary would appear in size
about midway between Venus and the moon. Better informed persons
expected something like the sun, and a syndicate of capitalists quietly
leased large areas on the coast of Greenland in anticipation of a great
rise in temperature and a northward movement in population.

Even the business situation was appreciably affected by the public
uncertainty and excitement. There was a decline in stocks, and a minor
religious sect boldly prophesied the end of the world.

"I've had enough of this," said Davis, looking at his watch again. "Are
you ready to go, Grace? By the way, isn't it getting warmer?"

It had been a sharp February day, but the temperature was certainly
rising. Water was dripping from the roofs, and from the icicles that
fringed the window ledges, as if a warm wave had suddenly arrived.

"What's that light?" suddenly asked Alice Wardour, who was lingering by
the open window.

"It must be moonrise," said Eastwood, though the illumination of the
horizon was almost like daybreak.

Davis abandoned his intention of leaving, and they watched the east grow
pale and flushed till at last a brilliant white disc heaved itself above
the horizon.

It resembled the full moon, but as if trebled in lustre, and the streets
grew almost as light as by day.

"Good heavens, that must be the new star, after all!" said Davis in an
awed voice.

"No, it's only the moon. This is the hour and minute for her rising,"
answered Eastwood, who had grasped the cause of the phenomenon. "But the
new sun must have appeared on the other side of the earth. Its light is
what makes the moon so brilliant. It will rise here just as the sun
does, no telling how soon. It must be brighter than was expected--and
maybe hotter," he added with a vague uneasiness.

"Isn't it getting very warm in here?" said Mrs Davis, loosening her
jacket. "Couldn't you turn off some of the steam heat?"

Eastwood turned it all off, for, in spite of the open window, the room
was really growing uncomfortably close. But the warmth appeared to come
from without; it was like a warm spring evening, and the icicles were
breaking loose from the cornices.

For half an hour they leaned from the windows with but desultory
conversation, and below them the streets were black with people and
whitened with upturned faces. The brilliant moon rose higher, and the
mildness of the night sensibly increased.

It was after midnight when Eastwood first noticed the reddish flush
tinging the clouds low in the east, and he pointed it out to his
companions.

"That must be it at last," he exclaimed, with a thrill of vibrating
excitement at what he was going to see, a cosmic event unprecedented in
intensity.

The brightness waxed rapidly.

"By Jove, see it redden!" Davis ejaculated. "It's getting lighter than
day--and hot! Whew!"

The whole eastern sky glowed with a deepening pink that extended half
round the horizon. Sparrows chirped from the roofs, and it looked as if
the disc of the unknown star might at any moment be expected to lift
above the Atlantic, but it delayed long.

The heavens continued to burn with myriad hues, gathering at last to a
fiery furnace glow on the skyline.

Mrs Davis suddenly screamed. An American flag blowing freely from its
staff on the roof of the tall building had all at once burst into flame.

Low in the east lay a long streak of intense fire which broadened as
they squinted with watering eyes. It was as if the edge of the world had
been heated to whiteness.

The brilliant moon faded to a feathery white film in the glare. There
was a confused outcry from the observatory overhead, and a crash of
something being broken, and as the strange new sunlight fell through the
window the onlookers leaped back as if a blast furnace had been opened
before them.

The glass cracked and fell inward. Something like the sun, but magnified
fifty times in size and hotness, was rising out of the sea. An iron
instrument-table by the window began to smoke with an acrid smell of
varnish.

"What the devil is this, Eastwood?" shouted Davis accusingly.

From the streets rose a sudden, enormous wail of fright and pain, the
outcry of a million throats at once, and the roar of a stampede
followed. The pavements were choked with struggling, panic-stricken
people in the fierce glare, and above the din arose the clanging rush of
fire engines and trucks.

Smoke began to rise from several points below Central Park, and two or
three church chimes pealed crazily.

The observers from overhead came running down the stairs with a
thunderous trampling, for the elevator man had deserted his post.

"Here, we've got to get out of this," shouted Davis, seizing his wife by
the arm and hustling her toward the door. This place'll be on fire
directly."

"Hold on. You can't go down into that crush on the street," Eastwood
cried, trying to prevent him.

But Davis broke away and raced down the stairs, half carrying his
terrified wife. Eastwood got his back against the door in time to
prevent Alice from following them.

"There's nothing in this building that will burn, Miss Wardour," he said
as calmly as he could. "We had better stay here for the present. It
would be sure death to get involved in that stampede below. Just listen
to it."

The crowds on the street seemed to sway to and fro in contending waves,
and the cries, curses, and screams came up in a savage chorus.

The heat was already almost blistering to the skin, though they
carefully avoided the direct rays, and instruments of glass in the
laboratory cracked loudly one by one.

A vast cloud of dark smoke began to rise from the harbour, where the
shipping must have caught fire, and something exploded with a terrific
report. A few minutes later half a dozen fires broke out in the lower
part of the city, rolling up volumes of smoke that faded to a thin mist
in the dazzling light.

The great new sun was now fully above the horizon, and the whole east
seemed ablaze. The stampede in the streets had quieted all at once, for
the survivors had taken refuge in the nearest houses, and the pavements
were black with motionless forms of men and women.

"I'll do whatever you say," said Alice, who was deadly pale, but
remarkably collected. Even at that moment Eastwood was struck by the
splendour of her ethereally brilliant hair that burned like pale flame
above her pallid face. "But we can't stay here, can we?"

"No," replied Eastwood, trying to collect his faculties in the face of
this catastrophic revolution of nature. "We'd better go to the basement,
I think."

In the basement were deep vaults used for the storage of delicate
instruments, and these would afford shelter for a time at least. It
occurred to him as he spoke that perhaps temporary safety was the best
that any living thing on earth could hope for.

But he led the way down the well staircase. They had gone down six or
seven flights when a gloom seemed to grow upon the air, with a welcome
relief.

It seemed almost cool, and the sky had clouded heavily, with the
appearance of polished and heated silver.

A deep but distant roaring arose and grew from the south-east, and they
stopped on the second landing to look from the window.

A vast black mass seemed to fill the space between sea and sky, and it
was sweeping towards the city, probably from the harbour, Eastwood
thought, at a speed that made it visibly grow as they watched it.

"A cyclone--and a waterspout!" muttered Eastwood, appalled.

He might have foreseen it from the sudden, excessive evaporation and the
heating of the air. The gigantic black pillar drove towards them swaying
and reeling, and a gale came with it, and a wall of impenetrable mist
behind.

As Eastwood watched its progress he saw its cloudy bulk illumined
momentarily by a dozen lightning-like flashes, and a moment later, above
its roar, came the tremendous detonations of heavy cannon. The forts and
the warships were firing shells to break the waterspout, but the shots
seemed to produce no effect. It was the city's last and useless attempt
at resistance. A moment later forts and ships alike must have been
engulfed.

"Hurry! This building will collapse!" Eastwood shouted.

They rushed down another flight, and heard the crash with which the
monster broke over the city. A deluge of water, like the emptying of a
reservoir, thundered upon the street, and the water was steaming hot as
it fell.

There was a rending crash of falling walls, and in another instant the
Physics Building seemed to be twisted around by a powerful hand. The
walls blew out, and the whole structure sank in a chaotic mass.

But the tough steel frame was practically unwreckable, and, in fact, the
upper portion was simply bent down upon the lower storeys, peeling off
most of the shell of masonry and stucco.

Eastwood was stunned as he was hurled to the floor, but when he came to
himself he was still upon the landing, which was tilted at an alarming
angle. A tangled mass of steel rods and beams hung a yard over his head,
and a huge steel girder had plunged down perpendicularly from above,
smashing everything in its way.

Wreckage choked the well of the staircase, a mass of plaster, bricks,
and shattered furniture surrounded him, and he could look out in almost
every direction through the rent iron skeleton.

A yard away Alice was sitting up, mechanically wiping the mud and water
from her face, and apparently uninjured. Tepid water was pouring through
the interstices of the wreck in torrents, though it did not appear to be
raining.

A steady, powerful gale had followed the whirlwind, and it brought a
little coolness with it. Eastwood enquired perfunctorily of Alice if she
were hurt, without being able to feel any degree of interest in the
matter. His faculty of sympathy seemed paralysed.

"I don't know. I thought--I thought that we were all dead!" the girl
murmured in a sort of daze. "What was it? Is it all over?"

"I think it's only beginning," Eastwood answered dully.

The gale had brought up more clouds and the skies were thickly overcast,
but shining white-hot. Presently the rain came down in almost scalding
floods and as it fell upon the hissing streets it steamed again into the
air.

In three minutes all the world was choked with hot vapour, and from the
roar and splash the streets seemed to be running rivers.

The downpour seemed too violent to endure, and after an hour it did
cease, while the city reeked with mist. Through the whirling fog
Eastwood caught glimpses of ruined buildings, vast heaps of debris, all
the wreckage of the greatest city of the twentieth century.

Then the torrents fell again, like a cataract, as if the waters of the
earth were shuttlecocking between sea and heaven. With a jarring tremor
of the ground a landslide went down into the Hudson.

The atmosphere was like a vapour bath, choking and sickening. The
physical agony of respiration aroused Alice from a sort of stupor, and
she cried out pitifully that she would die.

The strong wind drove the hot spray and steam through the shattered
building till it seemed impossible that human lungs could extract life
from the semi-liquid that had replaced the air, but the two lived.

After hours of this parboiling the rain slackened, and, as the clouds
parted, Eastwood caught a glimpse of a familiar form halfway up the
heavens. It was the sun, the old sun, looking small and watery.

But the intense heat and brightness told that the enormous body still
blazed behind the clouds. The rain seemed to have ceased definitely, and
the hard, shining whiteness of the sky grew rapidly hotter.

The heat of the air increased to an oven-like degree; the mists were
dissipated, the clouds licked up, and the earth seemed to dry itself
almost immediately. The heat from the two suns beat down simultaneously
till it became a monstrous terror, unendurable.

An odour of smoke began to permeate the air; there was a dazzling
shimmer over the streets, and great clouds of mist arose from the bay,
but these appeared to evaporate before they could darken the sky.

The piled wreck of the building sheltered the two refugees from the
direct rays of the new sun, now almost overhead, but not from the
penetrating heat of the air. But the body will endure almost anything,
short of tearing asunder, for a time at least; it is the finer mechanism
of the nerves that suffers most.

Alice lay face down among the bricks, gasping and moaning. The blood
hammered in Eastwood's brain, and the strangest mirages flickered before
his eyes.

Alternately he lapsed into heavy stupors, and awoke to the agony of the
day. In his lucid moments he reflected that this could not last long,
and tried to remember what degree of heat would cause death.

Within an hour after the drenching rains he was feverishly thirsty, and
the skin felt as if peeling from his whole body.

This fever and horror lasted until he forgot that he had ever known
another state; but at last the west reddened, and the flaming sun went
down. It left the familiar planet high in the heavens, and there was no
darkness until the usual hour, though there was a slight lowering of the
temperature.

But when night did come it brought life-giving coolness, and though the
heat was still intense it seemed temperate by comparison. More than all,
the kindly darkness seemed to set a limit to the cataclysmic disorders
of the day.

"Ouf! This is heavenly!" said Eastwood, drawing long breaths and feeling
mind and body revived in the gloom.

"It won't last long," replied Alice, and her voice sounded
extraordinarily calm through the darkness. "The heat will come again
when the new sun rises in a few hours."

"We might find some better place in the meanwhile--a deep cellar; or we
might get into the subway," Eastwood suggested.

"It would be no use. Don't you understand? I have been thinking it all
out. After this, the new sun will always shine, and we could not endure
it even another day. The wave of heat is passing round the world as it
revolves, and in a few hours the whole earth will be a burnt-up ball.
Very likely we are the only people left alive in New York, or perhaps in
America."

She seemed to have taken the intellectual initiative, and spoke with an
assumption of authority that amazed him.

"But there must be others," said Eastwood, after thinking for a moment.
"Other people have found sheltered places, or miners, or men
underground."

"They would have been drowned by the rain. At any rate, there will be
none left alive by tomorrow night.

"Think of it," she went dreamily,"'for a thousand years this wave of
fire has been rushing towards us, while life has been going on so
happily in the world, so unconscious that the world was doomed all the
time. And now this is the end of life."

"I don't know," Eastwood said slowly. "It may be the end of human life,
but there must be some forms that will survive--some micro-organisms
perhaps capable of resisting high temperatures, if nothing higher. The
seed of life will be left at any rate, and that is everything. Evolution
will begin over again, producing new types to suit the changed
conditions. I only wish I could see what creatures will be here in a few
thousand years.

"But I can't realize it at all--this thing!" he cried passionately,
after a pause. "Is it real? Or have we all gone mad? It seems too much
like a bad dream."

The rain crashed down again as he spoke, and the earth steamed, though
not with the dense reek of the day. For hours the waters roared and
splashed against the earth in hot billows till the streets were foaming
yellow rivers, dammed by the wreck of fallen buildings.

There was a continual rumble as earth and rock slid into the East River,
and at last the Brooklyn Bridge collapsed with a thunderous crash and
splash that made all Manhattan vibrate. A gigantic billow like a tidal
wave swept up the river from its fall.

The downpour slackened and ceased soon after the moon began to shed an
obscured but brilliant light through the clouds.

Presently the east commenced to grow luminous, and this time there could
be no doubt as to what was coming.

Alice crept closer to the man as the grey light rose upon the watery
air.

"Kiss me!" she whispered suddenly, throwing her arms around his neck. He
could feel her trembling. "Say you love me; hold me in your arms. There
is only an hour."

"Don't be afraid. Try to face it bravely," stammered Eastwood.

"I don't fear it--not death. But I have never lived. I have always been
timid and wretched and afraid--afraid to speak--and I've almost wished
for suffering and misery or anything rather than to be stupid and dumb
and dead, the way I've always been.

"I've never dared to tell anyone what I was, what I wanted. I've been
afraid all my life, but I'm not afraid now. I have never lived; I have
never been happy; and now we must die together!"

It seemed to Eastwood the cry of the perishing world. He held her in his
arms and kissed her wet, tremulous face that was strained to his.

The twilight was gone before they knew it. The sky was blue already,
with crimson flakes mounting to the zenith, and the heat was growing
once more intense.

"This is the end, Alice," said Eastwood, and his voice trembled.

She looked at him, her eyes shining with an unearthly softness and
brilliancy, and turned her face to the east.

There, in crimson and orange, flamed the last dawn that human eyes would
ever see.


TH END




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