This is the ninth installment of "He Who Shrank" by Henry Hasse, a science fiction story from the Gernsback Era that first appeared in the August 1936 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. Its appearance here is part of Project Golden Age, a bold attempt to create online versions of all the public domain stories from Isaac Asimov's 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age.
The story so far:
The world's greatest scientist has created "Shrinx", a substance that causes a person to continually shrink in size. He has forcibly injected his assistant with "Shrinx", and his assistant is now so microscopically small that he has passed through three subatomic iterations of his original universe, and counting . . .
It is useless to go on. I have neither the time nor the desire to relate in detail all the adventures that have befallen me, the universes I have passed into, the things I have seen and experienced and learned on all the worlds since I left the planet of the machines.
Ever smaller cycles . . . . infinite universes . . . . never ending . . . . each presenting something new . . . . some queer variation of life or intelligence . . . . Life? Intelligence? Terms I once associated with things animate, things protoplasmic and understandable. I find it hard to apply them to all the divergences of shape and form and construction I have encountered . . . .
Worlds young . . . . warm . . . . volcanic and steaming . . . . the single cell emerging from the slime of warm oceans to propagate on primordial continents . . . . other worlds, innumerable . . . . life divergent in all branches from the single cell . . . . amorphous globules . . . . amphibian . . . . crustacean . . . . reptilian . . . . plant . . . . insect . . . . bird . . . . mammal . . . . all possible variations of combinations . . . . biological monstrosities indescribable . . . .
Other forms beyond any attempt at classification . . . . beyond all reason or comprehension of my puny mind . . . . essences of pure flame . . . . other gaseous, incandescent and quiescent alike . . . . plant forms encompassing an entire globe . . . . crystalline beings sentient and reasoning . . . . great shimmering columnar forms, seemingly liquid, defying gravity by some strange power of cohesion . . . . a world of sound-vibrations, throbbing, expanding, reverberating in unbroken echoes that nearly drove me crazy . . . . globular brain-like masses utterly dissociated from any material substance . . . . intra-dimensional beings, all shapes and shapeless . . . . entities utterly incapable of registration upon any of my senses except the sixth, that of instinct . . . .
Suns dying . . . . planets cold and dark and airless . . . . last vestiges of once proud races struggling for a few more meagre years of sustenance . . . . great cavities . . . . beds of evaporated seas . . . . small furry animals scurrying to cover at my approach . . . . desolation . . . . ruins crumbling surely into the sands of barren deserts, the last mute evidence of vanished civilizations . . . .
Other worlds . . . . a-flourished with life . . . . blessed with light and heat . . . . staggering cities . . . . vast populations . . . . ships plying the surface of oceans, and others in the air . . . . huge observatories . . . . tremendous strides in the sciences . . . .
Space flight . . . . battles for the supremacy of worlds . . . . blasting rays of super-destruction . . . . collision of planets . . . . disruption of solar systems . . . . cosmic annihilation . . . .
Light space . . . . a universe with a tenuous, filmy something around it, which I burst through . . . . all around me not the customary blackness of outer space I had known, but light . . . . filled with tiny dots that were globes of darkness . . . . that were burnt-out suns and lifeless planets . . . . nowhere a shimmering planet, nowhere a flaming sun . . . . only remote specks of black amid the high-satiated emptiness . . . .
* * *
How many of the infinitely smaller atomic cycles I have passed into, I do not know. I tried to keep count of them at first, but somewhere between twenty and thirty I gave it up; and that was long ago.
Each time I would think: "This cannot go on forever -- it cannot; surely this next time I must reach the end."
But I have not reached the end.
Good God -- how can there be an end? Worlds composed of atoms . . . . each atom similarly composed . . . . The end would have to be an indestructible solid, and that cannot be; all matter divisible into smaller matter . . . .
What keeps me from going insane? I want to go insane!
I am tired . . . . a strange tiredness neither of mind nor body. Death would be a welcome release from the endless fate that is mine.
But even death is denied me. I have sought it . . . . I have prayed for it and begged for it . . . . But it is not to be.
On all the countless worlds I have contacted, the inhabitants were of two distinctions: they were either so low in the state of intelligence that they fled and barricaded themselves against me in superstitious terror -- or were so highly intelligent that they recognized me for what I was and welcomed me among them. On all but a few worlds the latter was the case, and it is on these types that I will dwell briefly.
These beings -- or shapes or monstrosities or essences -- were in every case mentally and scientifically far above me. In most cases they had observed me for years as a dark shadow looming beyond the farthest stars, blotting out certain starfields and nebulae . . . . and always when I came to their world they welcomed me with scientific enthusiasm.
Always they were puzzled as to my steady shrinking, and always when they learned of my origin and the manner of my being there, they were surprised and excited.
In most cases gratification was apparent when they learned definitely that there were indeed great ultramacrocosmic universes. It seemed that all of them had long ago held the theory that such was the case.
On most of the worlds, too, the beings -- or entities -- or whatever the case might be -- were surprised that the Professor, one of my fellow creatures, had invented such a marvelous vitalized element as "Shrinx."
"Almost unbelievable," was the general consensus of opinion; "scientifically he must be centuries ahead of the time on his own planet, if we are to judge the majority of the race by this creature here" -- meaning me.
In spite of the fact that on nearly every world I was looked upon as mentally inferior, they conversed with me and I with them, by various of their methods, in most cases different variations of telepathy. They learned in minute detail and with much interest all of my past experiences in other universes. They answered all of my questions and explained many things besides, about their own universe and world and civilization and scientific achievements, most of which were completely beyond my comprehension, so alien were they in nature.
And of all the intra-universal beings I have had converse with, the strangest were those essences who dwelt in outer space as well as on various planets; identifiable to me only as vague blots of emptiness, total absences of light or color or substance; who impressed upon me the fact that they were Pure Intelligences, far above and superior to any material plane; but who professed an interest in me, bearing me with them to various planets, revealing many things and treating me very kindly. During my sojourn with them I learned from experience the total subservience of matter to influences of mind. On a giant mountainous world I stepped out upon a thin beam of light stretched between two crags, and willed with all my consciousness that I would not fall. And I did not.
I have learned many things. I know that my mind is much sharper, more penetrative, more grasping, than ever before. And vast fields of wonder and knowledge lie before me in other universes yet to come.
But in spite of this, I am ready for it all to end. This strange tiredness that is upon me -- I cannot understand it. Perhaps some invisible radiation in empty space is satiating me with this tiredness.
Perhaps it is only that I am very lonely. How very far away I am from my own tiny sphere! Millions upon millions . . . . trillions upon trillions . . . . of light-years . . . . Light years! Light cannot measure the distance. And yet it is no distance: I am in a block of metal on the Professor's laboratory table . . . .
Yet how far away into space and time I have gone! Years have passed, years far beyond my normal span of life. I am eternal.
Yes, eternal life . . . . that men have dreamed of . . . . prayed for . . . . sought after . . . . is mine -- and I dram and pray and seek for death!
Death. All the strange beings I have seen and conversed with have denied it. I have implored many of them to release me painlessly and for all time -- but to no avail. Many of them were possessed of the scientific means to stop my steady shrinkage -- but they would not stop it. None of them would hinder me, none of them would tamper with the things that were. Why? Always I asked them why, and they would not answer.
But I need no answer. I think I understand. These beings of science realized that such an entity as myself should never be . . . . that I am a blasphemy upon all creation and beyond all reason . . . . they realized that eternal life is a terrible thing . . . . a thing not to be desired . . . . and as punishment for delving into secrets never meant to be revealed, none of them will release me from my fate . . . .
Perhaps they are right, but oh, it is cruel! Cruel! The fault is not mine, I am here against my own will.
And so I continue ever down, alone and lonely, yearning for others of my kind. Always hopeful -- and always disappointed.