The last habitable regions of the globe were two wide valleys near the equator, the basins of dried up seas; valleys of slight depth, for the general level was almost absolutely uniform. No mountain peaks, ravines or wild gorges, not a single wooded valley or precipice was to be seen; the world was one vast plain, from which rivers and seas had gradually disappeared. But as the action of meteorological agents, rainfall and streams, had diminished in intensity with the loss of water, the last hollows of the sea bottom had not been entirely filled up, and shallow valleys remained, vestiges of the former structure of the globe. In these a little ice and moisture were left, but the circulation of water in the atmosphere had ceased, and the rivers flowed in subterranean channels as in invisible veins.
As the atmosphere contained no aqueous vapor, the sky was always cloudless, and there was neither rain nor snow. The sun, less dazzling and less hot than formerly, shone with the yellowish splendor of a topaz. The color of the sky was sea-green rather than blue. The volume of the atmosphere had diminished considerably. Its oxygen and nitrogen had become in part fixed in metallic combinations, as oxides and nitrides, and its carbonic acid had slowly increased, as vegetation, deprived of water, became more and more rare and absorbed an ever decreasing amount of this gas. But the mass of the earth, owing to the constant fall of meteorites, bolides and uranolites, had increased with time; so that the atmosphere, though considerably less in volume, had retained its density and exerted nearly the same pressure.
Strangely enough, the snow and ice had diminished as the earth grew cold; the cause of this low temperature was the absence of water vapor from the atmosphere, which had decreased with the superficial area of the sea. As the water penetrated the interior of the earth and the general level became more uniform, first the depth and then the area of seas had been reduced, the invisible envelope of aqueous vapor had lost its protecting power, and the day came when the return of the heat received from the sun was no longer prevented, it was radiated into space as rapidly as it was received, as if it fell upon a mirror incapable of absorbing its rays.
Such was the condition of the earth. The last representatives of the human race had survived all these physical transformations solely by virtue of its genius of invention and power of adaptation. Its last efforts had been directed toward extracting nutritious substances from the air, from subterranean water, and from plants, and replacing the vanished vapor of the air by buildings and roofs of glass.
It was necessary at any cost to capture these solar rays and to prevent their radiation into space. It was easy to store up this heat in large quantities, for the sun shone unobscured by any cloud and the day was long—fifty-five hours.
For a long time the efforts of architects had been solely directed towards this imprisonment of the sun’s rays and the prevention of their dispersion during the fifty-five hours of the night. They had succeeded in accomplishing this by an ingenious arrangement of glass roofs, superposed one upon the other, and by movable screens. All combustible material had long before been exhausted; and even the hydrogen extracted from water was difficult to obtain.
The mean temperature in the open air during the daytime was not very low, not falling below –10°. Notwithstanding the changes which the ages had wrought in vegetable life, no species of plants could exist, even in this equatorial zone.
5. Many readers will regard this climate quite bearable, inasmuch, as in our own day regions may be cited whose mean temperature is much lower, yet which are nevertheless habitable, as, for example, Verchnoiansk, whose mean annual temperature is –19.3°. But in these regions there is a summer during which the ice melts; and if in January the temperature falls to –60°, and even lower, in July they enjoy a temperature of fifteen and twenty degrees above zero. But at the stage which we have now reached in the history of the world, this mean temperature of the equatorial zone was constant, and it was impossible for ice ever to melt again.
As for the other latitudes, they had been totally uninhabitable for thousands of years, in spite of every effort made to live in them. In the latitudes of Paris, Nice, Rome, Naples, Algiers and Tunis, all protective atmospheric action had ceased, and the oblique rays of the sun had proved insufficient to warm the soil which was frozen to a great depth, like a veritable block of ice. The world’s population had gradually diminished from ten milliards to nine, to eight, and then to seven, one-half the surface of the globe being then habitable. As the habitable zone became more and more restricted to the equator, the population had still further diminished, as had also the mean length of human life, and the day came when only a few hundred millions remained, scattered in groups along the equator, and maintaining life only by the artifices of a laborious and scientific industry.
Later still, toward the end, only two groups of a few hundred human beings were left, occupying the last surviving centers of industry. From all the rest of the globe the human race had slowly but inexorably disappeared—dried up, exhausted, degenerated, from century to century, through the lack of an assimilable atmosphere and sufficient food. Its last remnants seemed to have lapsed back into barbarism, vegetating like the Esquimaux of the north. These two ancient centers of civilization, themselves yielding to decay, had survived only at the cost of a constant struggle between industrial genius and implacable nature.
Even here, between the tropics and the equator, the two remaining groups of human beings which still contrived to exist in face of a thousand hardships which yearly became more insupportable, did so only by subsisting, so to speak, on what their predecessors had left behind. These two ocean valleys, one of which was near the bottom of what is now the Pacific ocean, the other to the south of the present island of Ceylon, had formerly been the sites of two immense cities of glass—iron and glass having been, for a long time, the materials chiefly employed in building construction. They resembled vast winter-gardens, without upper stories, with transparent ceilings of immense height. Here were to be found the last plants, except those cultivated in the subterranean galleries leading to rivers flowing under ground.
Elsewhere the surface of the earth was a ruin, and even here only the last vestiges of a vanished greatness were to be seen.
In the first of these ancient cities of glass, the sole survivors were two old men, and the grandson of one of them, Omegar, who had seen his mother and sisters die, one after the other, of consumption, and who now wandered in despair through these vast solitudes. Of these old men, one had formerly been a philosopher and had consecrated his long life to the study of the history of perishing humanity; the other was a physician who had in vain sought to save from consumption the last inhabitants of the world. Their bodies seemed wasted by anæmia rather than by age. They were pale as specters, with long, white beards, and only their moral energy sustained them yet an instant against the decree of destiny. But they could not struggle longer against this destiny, and one day Omegar found them stretched lifeless, side by side. From the dying hands of one fell the last history ever written, the history of the final transformations of humanity, written half a century before. The second had died in his laboratory while endeavoring to keep in order the nourishment tubes, automatically regulated by machinery propelled by solar engines.
The last servants, long before developed by education from the simian race, had succumbed many years before, as had also the great majority of the animal species domesticated for the service of humanity. Horses, dogs, reindeers, and certain large birds used in aerial service, yet survived, but so entirely changed that they bore no resemblance to their progenitors.
It was evident that the race was irrevocably doomed. Science had disappeared with scientists, art with artists, and the survivors lived only upon the past. The heart knew no more hope, the spirit no ambition. The light was in the past; the future was an eternal night. All was over. The glories of days gone by had forever vanished. If, in preceding centuries, some traveller, wandering in these solitudes, thought he had rediscovered the sites of Paris, Rome, or the brilliant capitals which had succeeded them, he was the victim of his own imagination; for these sites had not existed for millions of years, having been swept away by the waters of the sea. Vague traditions had floated down through the ages, thanks to the printing-press and the recorders of the great events of history; but even these traditions were uncertain and often false. For, as to Paris, the annals of history contained only some references to a maritime Paris; of its existence as the capital of France for thousands of years, there was no trace nor memory. The names which to us seem immortal, Confucius, Plato, Mahomet, Alexander, Cæsar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, had perished and were forgotten. Art had, indeed, preserved noble memories; but these memories did not extend as far back as the infancy of humanity, and reached only a few million years into the past. Omegar lingered in an ancient gallery of pictures, bequeathed by former centuries, and contemplated the great cities which had disappeared. Only one of these pictures related to what had once been Europe, and was a view of Paris, consisting of a promontory projecting into the sea, crowned by an astronomical temple and gay with helicopterons circling above the lofty towers of its terraces. Immense ships were plowing the sea. This classic Paris was the Paris of the one hundred and seventieth century of the Christian era, corresponding to the one hundred and fifty-seventh of the astronomical era—the Paris which existed immediately prior to the final submergence of the land. Even its name had changed; for words change like persons and things. Nearby, other pictures portrayed the great but less ancient cities which had risen in America, Australia, Asia, and afterwards upon the continents which had emerged from the ocean. And so this museum of the past recalled in succession the passing pomps of humanity down to the end.
The end! The hour had struck on the timepiece of destiny. Omegar knew the life of the world henceforth was in the past, that no future existed for it, and that the present even was vanishing like the dream of a moment. The last heir of the human race felt the overwhelming sentiment of the vanity of things. Should he wait for some inconceivable miracle to save him from his fate? Should he bury his companions, and share their tomb with them? Should he endeavor to prolong for a few days, a few weeks, a few years even, a solitary, useless and despairing existence? All day long he wandered through the vast and silent galleries, and at night abandoned himself to the drowsiness which oppressed him. All about him was dark—the darkness of the sepulchre.
A sweet dream, however, stirred his slumbering thought, and surrounded his soul with a halo of angelic brightness. Sleep brought him the illusion of life. He was no longer alone. A seductive image which he had seen more than once before, stood before him. Eyes caressing as the light of heaven, deep as the infinite, gazed upon him and attracted him. He was in a garden filled with the perfume of flowers. Birds sang in the nests amid the foliage. And in the distant landscape, framed in plants and flowers, were the vast ruins of dead cities. Then he saw a lake, on whose rippling surface two swans glided, bearing a cradle from which a new-born child stretched toward him its arms.
Never had such a ray of light illuminated his soul. So deep was his emotion that he suddenly awoke, opened his eyes, and found confronting him only the somber reality. Then a sadness more terrible even than any he had known filled his whole being. He could not find an instant of repose. He rose, went to his couch, and waited anxiously for the morning. He remembered his dream, but he did not believe in it. He felt, vaguely, that another human being existed somewhere; but his degenerate race had lost, in part, its psychic power, and perhaps, also, woman always exerts upon man an attraction more powerful than that which man exerts upon woman. When the day broke, when the last man saw the ruins of his ancient city standing out upon the sky of dawn, when he found himself alone with the two last dead, he realized more than ever his unavoidable destiny, and decided to terminate at once a life so hopelessly miserable.
Going into the laboratory, he sought a bottle whose contents were well known to him, uncorked it, and carried it to his lips, to empty it at a draught. But, at the very moment the vial touched his lips, he felt a hand upon his arm.
He turned suddenly. There was no one in the laboratory, and in the gallery he found only the two dead.