public domain, first published in 1922.
THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM
by Ray Cummings
A UNIVERSE IN AN ATOM
"Then you mean to say there is no such thing as the smallest particle of matter?" asked the Doctor.
"You can put it that way if you like," the Chemist replied. "In other words, what I believe is that things can be infinitely small just as well as they can be infinitely large. Astronomers tell us of the immensity of space. I have tried to imagine space as finite. It is impossible. How can you conceive the edge of space? Something must be beyond--something or nothing, and even that would be more space, wouldn't it?"
"Gosh," said the Very Young Man, and lighted another cigarette.
The Chemist resumed, smiling a little. "Now, if it seems probable that there is no limit to the immensity of space, why should we make its smallness finite? How can you say that the atom cannot be divided? As a matter of fact, it already has been. The most powerful microscope will show you realms of smallness to which you can penetrate no other way. Multiply that power a thousand times, or ten thousand times, and who shall say what you will see?"
The Chemist paused, and looked at the intent little group around him.
He was a youngish man, with large features and horn-rimmed glasses, his rough English-cut clothes hanging loosely over his broad, spare frame. The Banker drained his glass and rang for the waiter.
"Very interesting," he remarked.
"Don't be an ass, George," said the Big Business Man. "Just because you don't understand, doesn't mean there is no sense to it."
"What I don't get clearly"--began the Doctor.
"None of it's clear to me," said the Very Young Man.
The Doctor crossed under the light and took an easier chair. "You intimated you had discovered something unusual in these realms of the infinitely small," he suggested, sinking back luxuriously. "Will you tell us about it?"
"Yes, if you like," said the Chemist, turning from one to the other. A nod of assent followed his glance, as each settled himself more comfortably.
"Well, gentlemen, when you say I have discovered something unusual in another world--in the world of the infinitely small--you are right in a way. I have seen something and lost it. You won't believe me probably," he glanced at the Banker an instant, "but that is not important. I am going to tell you the facts, just as they happened."
The Big Business Man filled up the glasses all around, and the Chemist resumed:
"It was in 1910, this problem first came to interest me. I had never gone in for microscopic work very much, but now I let it absorb all my attention. I secured larger, more powerful instruments--I spent most of my money," he smiled ruefully, "but never could I come to the end of the space into which I was looking. Something was always hidden beyond--something I could almost, but not quite, distinguish.
"Then I realized that I was on the wrong track. My instrument was not merely of insufficient power, it was not one-thousandth the power I needed.
"So I began to study the laws of optics and lenses. In 1913 I went abroad, and with one of the most famous lens-makers of Europe I produced a lens of an entirely different quality, a lens that I hoped would give me what I wanted. So I returned here and fitted up my microscope that I knew would prove vastly more powerful than any yet constructed.
"It was finally completed and set up in my laboratory, and one night I went in alone to look through it for the first time. It was in the fall of 1914, I remember, just after the first declaration of war.
"I can recall now my feelings at that moment. I was about to see into another world, to behold what no man had ever looked on before. What would I see? What new realms was I, first of all our human race, to enter? With furiously beating heart, I sat down before the huge instrument and adjusted the eyepiece.
"Then I glanced around for some object to examine. On my finger I had a ring, my mother's wedding-ring, and I decided to use that. I have it here." He took a plain gold band from his little finger and laid it on the table.
"You will see a slight mark on the outside. That is the place into which I looked."
His friends crowded around the table and examined a scratch on one side of the band.
"What did you see?" asked the Very Young Man eagerly.
"Gentlemen," resumed the Chemist, "what I saw staggered even my own imagination. With trembling hands I put the ring in place, looking directly down into that scratch. For a moment I saw nothing. I was like a person coming suddenly out of the sunlight into a darkened room. I knew there was something visible in my view, but my eyes did not seem able to receive the impressions. I realize now they were not yet adjusted to the new form of light. Gradually, as I looked, objects of definite shape began to emerge from the blackness.
"Gentlemen, I want to make clear to you now--as clear as I can--the peculiar aspect of everything that I saw under this microscope. I seemed to be inside an immense cave. One side, near at hand, I could now make out quite clearly. The walls were extraordinarily rough and indented, with a peculiar phosphorescent light on the projections and blackness in the hollows. I say phosphorescent light, for that is the nearest word I can find to describe it--a curious radiation, quite different from the reflected light to which we are accustomed.
"I said that the hollows inside of the cave were blackness. But not blackness--the absence of light--as we know it. It was a blackness that seemed also to radiate light, if you can imagine such a condition; a blackness that seemed not empty, but merely withholding its contents just beyond my vision.
"Except for a dim suggestion of roof over the cave, and its floor, I could distinguish nothing. After a moment this floor became clearer. It seemed to be--well, perhaps I might call it black marble--smooth, glossy, yet somewhat translucent. In the foreground the floor was apparently liquid. In no way did it differ in appearance from the solid part, except that its surface seemed to be in motion.
"Another curious thing was the outlines of all the shapes in view. I noticed that no outline held steady when I looked at it directly; it seemed to quiver. You see something like it when looking at an object through water--only, of course, there was no distortion. It was also like looking at something with the radiation of heat between.
"Of the back and other side of the cave, I could see nothing, except in one place, where a narrow effulgence of light drifted out into the immensity of the distance behind.
"I do not know how long I sat looking at this scene; it may have been several hours. Although I was obviously in a cave, I never felt shut in--never got the impression of being in a narrow, confined space.
"On the contrary, after a time I seemed to feel the vast immensity of the blackness before me. I think perhaps it may have been that path of light stretching out into the distance. As I looked it seemed like the reversed tail of a comet, or the dim glow of the Milky Way, and penetrating to equally remote realms of space.
"Perhaps I fell asleep, or at least there was an interval of time during which I was so absorbed in my own thoughts I was hardly conscious of the scene before me.
"Then I became aware of a dim shape in the foreground--a shape merged with the outlines surrounding it. And as I looked, it gradually assumed form, and I saw it was the figure of a young girl, sitting beside the liquid pool. Except for the same waviness of outline and phosphorescent glow, she had quite the normal aspect of a human being of our own world. She was beautiful, according to our own standards of beauty; her long braided hair a glowing black, her face, delicate of feature and winsome in expression. Her lips were a deep red, although I felt rather than saw the colour.
"She was dressed only in a short tunic of a substance I might describe as gray opaque glass, and the pearly whiteness of her skin gleamed with iridescence.
"She seemed to be singing, although I heard no sound. Once she bent over the pool and plunged her hand into it, laughing gaily.
"Gentlemen, I cannot make you appreciate my emotions, when all at once I remembered I was looking through a microscope. I had forgotten entirely my situation, absorbed in the scene before me. And then, abruptly, a great realization came upon me--the realization that everything I saw was inside that ring. I was unnerved for the moment at the importance of my discovery.
"When I looked again, after the few moments my eye took to become accustomed to the new form of light, the scene showed itself as before, except that the girl had gone.
"For over a week, each night at the same time I watched that cave. The girl came always, and sat by the pool as I had first seen her. Once she danced with the wild grace of a wood nymph, whirling in and out the shadows, and falling at last in a little heap beside the pool.
"It was on the tenth night after I had first seen her that the accident happened. I had been watching, I remember, an unusually long time before she appeared, gliding out of the shadows. She seemed in a different mood, pensive and sad, as she bent down over the pool, staring into it intently. Suddenly there was a tremendous cracking sound, sharp as an explosion, and I was thrown backward upon the floor.
"When I recovered consciousness--I must have struck my head on something--I found the microscope in ruins. Upon examination I saw that its larger lens had exploded--flown into fragments scattered around the room. Why I was not killed I do not understand. The ring I picked up from the floor; it was unharmed and unchanged.
"Can I make you understand how I felt at this loss? Because of the war in Europe I knew I could never replace my lens--for many years, at any rate. And then, gentlemen, came the most terrible feeling of all; I knew at last that the scientific achievement I had made and lost counted for little with me. It was the girl. I realized then that the only being I ever could care for was living out her life with her world, and, indeed, her whole universe, in an atom of that ring."
The Chemist stopped talking and looked from one to the other of the tense faces of his companions.
"It's almost too big an idea to grasp," murmured the Doctor.
"What caused the explosion?" asked the Very Young Man.
"I do not know." The Chemist addressed his reply to the Doctor, as the most understanding of the group. "I can appreciate, though, that through that lens I was magnifying tremendously those peculiar light-radiations that I have described. I believe the molecules of the lens were shattered by them--I had exposed it longer to them that evening than any of the others."
The Doctor nodded his comprehension of this theory.
Impressed in spite of himself, the Banker took another drink and leaned forward in his chair. "Then you really think that there is a girl now inside the gold of that ring?" he asked.
"He didn't say that necessarily," interrupted the Big Business Man.
"Yes, he did."
"As a matter of fact, I do believe that to be the case," said the Chemist earnestly. "I believe that every particle of matter in our universe contains within it an equally complex and complete a universe, which to its inhabitants seems as large as ours. I think, also that the whole realm of our interplanetary space, our solar system and all the remote stars of the heavens are contained within the atom of some other universe as gigantic to us as we are to the universe in that ring."
"Gosh!" said the Very Young Man.
"It doesn't make one feel very important in the scheme of things, does it?" remarked the Big Business Man dryly.
The Chemist smiled. "The existence of no individual, no nation, no world, nor any one universe is of the least importance."
"Then it would be possible," said the Doctor, "for this gigantic universe that contains us in one of its atoms, to be itself contained within the atom of another universe, still more gigantic, and so on."
"That is my theory," said the Chemist.
"And in each of the atoms of the rocks of that cave there may be other worlds proportionately minute?"
"I can see no reason to doubt it."
"Well, there is no proof, anyway," said the Banker. "We might as well believe it."
"I intend to get proof," said the Chemist.
"Do you believe all these innumerable universes, both larger and smaller than ours, are inhabited?" asked the Doctor.
"I should think probably most of them are. The existence of life, I believe, is as fundamental as the existence of matter without life."
"How do you suppose that girl got in there?" asked the Very Young Man, coming out of a brown study.
"What puzzled me," resumed the Chemist, ignoring the question, "is why the girl should so resemble our own race. I have thought about it a good deal, and I have reached the conclusion that the inhabitants of any universe in the next smaller or larger plane to ours probably resemble us fairly closely. That ring, you see, is in the same--shall we say--environment as ourselves. The same forces control it that control us. Now, if the ring had been created on Mars, for instance, I believe that the universes within its atoms would be inhabited by beings like the Martians--if Mars has any inhabitants. Of course, in planes beyond those next to ours, either smaller or larger, changes would probably occur, becoming greater as you go in or out from our own universe."
"Good Lord! It makes one dizzy to think of it," said the Big Business Man.
"I wish I knew how that girl got in there," sighed the Very Young Man, looking at the ring.
"She probably didn't," retorted the Doctor. "Very likely she was created there, the same as you were here."
"I think that is probably so," said the Chemist. "And yet, sometimes I am not at all sure. She was very human." The Very Young Man looked at him sympathetically.
"How are you going to prove your theories?" asked the Banker, in his most irritatingly practical way.
The Chemist picked up the ring and put it on his finger. "Gentlemen," he said. "I have tried to tell you facts, not theories. What I saw through that ultramicroscope was not an unproven theory, but a fact. My theories you have brought out by your questions."
"You are quite right," said the Doctor; "but you did mention yourself that you hoped to provide proof."
The Chemist hesitated a moment, then made his decision. "I will tell you the rest," he said.
"After the destruction of the microscope, I was quite at a loss how to proceed. I thought about the problem for many weeks. Finally I decided to work along another altogether different line--a theory about which I am surprised you have not already questioned me."
He paused, but no one spoke.
"I am hardly ready with proof to-night," he resumed after a moment. "Will you all take dinner with me here at the club one week from to-night?" He read affirmation in the glance of each.
"Good. That's settled," he said, rising. "At seven, then."
"But what was the theory you expected us to question you about?" asked the Very Young Man.
The Chemist leaned on the back of his chair.
"The only solution I could see to the problem," he said slowly, "was to find some way of making myself sufficiently small to be able to enter that other universe. I have found such a way and one week from to-night, gentlemen, with your assistance, I am going to enter the surface of that ring at the point where it is scratched!"