“There is no doubt of it!” The little chemist pushed steel-bowed spectacles up on his high forehead and peered at his dinner guest with excited blue eyes. “Time will come to an end at six o’clock this morning.”
Jack Baron, young radio engineer at the Rothafel Radio laboratories, and protégé of Dr. Manthis, his host, laughed heartily.
“What a yarn you spin, Doctor,” he said. “Write it for the movies.”
“But it’s true,” insisted the older man. “Something is paralyzing our time-sense. The final stroke will occur about daybreak.”
“Bosh! You mean the earth will stop rotating, the stars blink out?”
“Not at all. Such things have nothing to do with time. You may know your short waves, but your general education has been sadly neglected.” The scientist picked up a weighty volume. “Maybe this will explain what I mean. It’s from Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason.’ Listen:
‘Time is not something which subsists of itself, or which
inheres in things as an objective determination, and
therefore, remains, when abstraction is made of the
subjective conditions of the intuition of things. For in
the former case it would be something real, yet without
presenting to any power of perception any real object. In
the latter case, as an order of determination inherent in
things themselves, it could not be antecedent to things, as
their condition, nor discerned or intuited by means of
synthetical propositions a priori. But all this is quite
possible when we regard time as merely the subjective
condition under which all our intuitions take place.’
“There. Does that make it clear?”
“Clear as mud,” grinned Baron. “Kant is too deep for me.”
“I’ll give you another proof,” snapped Manthis. “Look at your watch.”
The other drew out his timepiece. Slowly his face sobered.
“Why, I can’t see the second hand,” he exclaimed. “It’s just a blur!”
“Exactly! Now look at the minute hand. Can you see it move?”
“Yes, quite clearly.”
“What time is it?”
[Illustration: A few remained standing like statues.]
“Half past one. Great Scott! So that’s why you spun that yarn.” Baron hoisted his six feet one out of the easy chair. “It’s way past your bedtime. Didn’t mean to keep you up.” He stared again at his watch as if it had betrayed him. “It seems we just finished dinner. I must have dozed off...”
“Nonsense,” sniffed Manthis. “You arrived at eight o’clock--an hour late. You and I and my daughter had dinner. Then the two of us came in here. We smoked a cigarette or two. Now it’s half-past one. Do you need more proof?”
“Your theory’s all wet somewhere,” the younger man protested with a shaky laugh. “If my watch isn’t broken, time must be speeding up, not stopping.”
“That comes from depending on your senses instead of your intelligence. Think a minute. If the watch seems running double speed that would indicate that your perception of its movements had slowed down fifty per cent.”
Baron sank back into his chair, leaned forward and gripped his curly black hair with trembling fingers. He felt dizzy and befuddled.
“June,” called the doctor. Then to the agitated youth he added: “Watch my daughter when she comes in if you still think I’m crazy.”
As he spoke the door flew open and a slim, golden-haired girl shot into the room like a motion picture character in one of those comedies which is run double speed. Jack’s eyes could hardly follow her movements.
She came behind her father and threw one slim arm about his shoulders. She spoke, but her usually throaty voice was only a high-pitched squeak.
“Can’t understand you, dear,” interrupted her father. “Write it down.”
“June is using a drug which I prepared to keep her time sense normal,” Manthis explained as the girl’s pen raced over a pad. “That’s why she disappeared after dinner. I wanted you to get the full effect. Now read this.”
“The deadline is approaching,” the girl’s message read. “You’d better take your injection now. It is 2:30 A.M.”
“All right, prepare the hypodermics,” directed the chemist. He had to repeat this in a falsetto voice before June understood. “Make one for Jack too.”
June went out at express-train speed.
Baron glanced at his watch again. The minute hand was moving with the speed at which the second hand usually traveled. Three fifteen already!
When he looked up June was in the room again with two hypodermic needles. Quickly she removed her father’s coat and made the injection.
“Let her fix you up too, boy, unless you want to become a graven image,” commanded Manthis. His voice, which started at the ordinary pitch, went up like a siren at the end as the drug took effect. Dazedly Jack held out his arm.
The sting of the needle was followed by a roaring in his ears like a hundred Niagaras. The room seemed to pitch and quiver. Staring down at the watch he still clutched, Jack saw the hands slow down and at last resume their accustomed pace. Gradually the unpleasant sensations died away.
“That was a close shave,” commented the doctor, drawing a long breath. “I wouldn’t have waited so long, except that I wanted to experience the sensation of coming back from the edge of the infinite. Not very nice! Like being pulled out of a whirlpool. It’s 4:30 now. Took us an hour to return to normal, although it seemed only minutes. We have an hour and a half before the end. June, have you noticed anything unusual on the streets?”
“Yes,” whispered his daughter, her usually piquant face pinched and white. “I’ve been watching from the balcony. It’s dreadful. The people creep about like things in a nightmare.”
Manthis tried to reassure her. On his face was a great sadness which was, however, overshadowed by a greater scientific curiosity.
“There’s nothing we can do for them now,” he said. “But we must learn all we can. Let’s go down and watch the city die.”
They descended in an automatic elevator and hurried through the hotel lobby. The lights of Fifth Avenue gleamed as brightly as ever. The streets near the lower end of Central Park still were crowded. But such crowds! They moved with infinite langour. Each step required many seconds.
Yet the people apparently did not know that anything unusual was happening. Many perhaps were puzzled because their watches seemed to be misbehaving but this did not stop their conversation as they traveled home from theaters or night clubs. Two white-haired men passed by, engaged in a discussion of business affairs. Their voices were pitched so low that they were almost inaudible to the trio of watchers, while their gestures looked like the slow waving of the antennae of deep sea plants.
“My God, man!” cried Baron, at last awakening from his horror-stricken silence. “Why didn’t you warn the world? This is criminal. If what you say is true, all these people will become rooted in their tracks at six o’clock like--like characters from ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’”
“I only discovered the danger a week ago while working out a chemical formula.” Manthis’ eyes showed the strain he was enduring. “It was a very delicate piece of work having to do with experiments I am making on chlorophyl--quick adjustments, you know. I’d done the thing before many times, but last week I couldn’t mix the ingredients fast enough to get the necessary reaction. Puzzled, I made further experiments. The result was that I discovered my perception of time was slowing down. I tested June and found the same thing. There was but one conclusion.”
“But the drug we are using. How did you hit on that?”
“I recalled that such drugs as hashish greatly speed up the time sense. An addict is able to review his entire past life or plan an elaborate crime between two heartbeats. So I collected a small supply of the stuff.”
“But hashish in large doses is deadly, and I’ve heard that users of it sooner or later develop homicidal mania--run amuck as they say in India.”
“True enough,” admitted the chemist, “but Andrev, the Russian, you know, recently worked out a formula to neutralize the deadly effects of the drug but retain its time-expanding effect for medical purposes. I’ve added that to the pure drug. There isn’t enough of it in New York to keep all these people normal for five minutes. Why should I have frightened the poor things?”
He relapsed into silence and the others found no heart to ask further questions as they watched the coming of the end of a world. The procession of passers-by had thinned somewhat by now. The street lights had grown dim. There was a look of increasing puzzlement on the faces of the people who remained. Something was wrong. They knew not what.
Floating along the sidewalk like a figure in a slow motion picture came a tiny tot of three. She was sobbing. Great tears formed with painful slowness and slid down her flushed cheeks.
“She’s lost,” exclaimed June. “Here, darling, I’ll find your mama.”
She picked up the child and looked up and down the street. The mother was not in sight. Automatically she turned to a policeman who stood nearby.
“Officer,” she said quickly, “this girl is lost. Will you... ?”
She stiffened in dismay. The policeman was staring through her as if his eyes had not registered her approach. Slowly his gaze came into focus. A puzzled look came over his Irish face. He spoke. It was only a blurred rumble.
“What can I do for her, Father?” June cried, turning away from the officer in despair. “She’s dying. See? Couldn’t we give her some of the drug?”
“There’s only enough for us,” her father replied firmly.
“But she’ll be quite dead in an hour!”
“I’m not so sure of that. Perhaps only in a state resembling catalepsy. We must wait. Jack, take her into the lobby. Put her on a sofa there.”
Dawn was paling the blue-black sky as the radio engineer returned. The street lights fluttered fitfully and at last died. The streets had become deserted although groups still eddied slowly about the subway kiosks.
“Five forty-five,” whispered Manthis. “The end should come any moment.”
As he spoke a white-garbed street sweeper, who had been leaning on his broom at the curb ever since the onlookers had reached the sidewalk, decided to move on at last. With infinite slowness his foot came up. He poised, swung forward, then, the universal paralysis overcoming him, remained in a strangely ludicrous position for a moment before crashing downward on his face.
As far as they could see in the semidarkness, others were falling. A few, balanced with feet wide apart, remained standing like statues. Those who collapsed writhed slowly a time or two and were still.
After the thudding of the bodies had ended the silence became ghastly. Not an awakening bird twittered in the trees of Central Park. Not a sheep bleated in the inclosure. Except for their own breathing and the sighing of the wind, not a sound! Then a faraway clock boomed six notes. The noise made them start and turn pale faces toward each other.
“Come,” said the doctor heavily. “It’s all over. We might as well go up. We’ll have to walk. All power will be off. Twenty stories!”
The lobby of the Hotel Atchison, on the roof of which the penthouse apartment was located, was empty now except for a few clerks and bellboys. These sat with bowed heads before their grills or on their benches as if they had merely succumbed to the unpardonable sin of sleeping on duty. But they did not breathe.
June clung to her father’s arm as they crossed noiselessly over the heavy carpet.
“The city will be a charnel house when these bodies start to decompose.” Baron hesitated. “Shouldn’t we get out of town while there is a chance?”
Manthis shook his head. “No. I’m convinced these people aren’t dead. They’re simply outside of time. Change cannot affect them. If I’m not mistaken they will remain just the same indefinitely.”
“But there will be fires throughout the city.”
“Not many. The electricity is off. The day is warm so no furnaces are going. Not even a rat is left to nibble matches, for the animals must be affected in the same way that humans are. The world is asleep.”
After mounting interminable stairs they regained the apartment and went out on the balcony. It was full daylight now but not a smoke-plume trailed from tall chimneys. Not a bird was on the wing. Elevated trains stood on their tracks, passengers and guards asleep inside.
“I still don’t understand,” muttered Baron. “The sun comes up. The wind blows. How can that be if there is no time? Might this not be some plague?”
“In a way you are right, boy. It is a plague which has paralyzed man’s sense of time. You have become involved by not remembering Kant’s axiom that time is purely subjective. It exists in the mind only. It and space are the only ideas inherently in our brains. They allow us to conduct ourselves among a vast collection of things-in-themselves which time does not affect.”
“Wait a moment. Granting that time is in the mind rather than in the outside world, what will happen if the time-sense is paralyzed? Won’t the effect be similar to hypnosis whereby a man is reduced to a cataleptic state? The thought chain which usually passes ceaselessly through the brain is halted.”
Seeing that the engineer still looked puzzled, June interposed:
“It’s something like enchantment,” she explained. “The old legends are full of it--the Sleeping Beauty, Brunhilde, Rip Van Winkle. I am convinced that in ancient times a few persons knew how to draw a fairy ring about those they wished to injure or protect, placing them thus outside the reach of time and change. This has now happened the world over, perhaps through some drift in the ether or germ in the brain. That is what we must find out so we can solve the mystery and take steps to reawaken the world--”
“Perhaps this will help,” interrupted Manthis in his turn. “As you know, all the great scientists--Einstein, Jeans, Pavlov--are convinced that everything in the universe is a form of vibration. Even thought, they believe, operates somewhat like a very short radio wave. What if some agency, either inside or outside the universe, began interfering on the thought-wave channel?”
“Granting your supposition,”--Jack was on his own ground now--”transmission would be impossible on that channel.”
“Exactly! Well, that’s what I am convinced is taking place. I’m a chemist, not an engineer. I’ve given you the lead. You’ll have to do the rest. Do you think you might locate such interference?”
“Possibly. I’ll do my best.”
“Fine! Of course, if it is coming from outside the stratosphere as the cosmic rays do, there is no hope. But if someone is broadcasting such a devilish wave from an earthly station we may have a chance to stop it.
“Now, Baron, my boy,” he continued, dropping into a more jovial tone and leading his friend into the laboratory, “you’ll have to get busy if you intend to keep us ticking. This equipment is at your disposal.” He waved toward a newly installed short wave radio transmitter. “Here are storage batteries, all charged.” He opened another door. “I have a five kilowatt generator installed here. It is operated by a gasoline engine. If you need other equipment you can raid the Rothafel plant.”
Returning to the main laboratory he indicated the work table set close to a great double window overlooking Central Park.
“Couldn’t ask for anything better, could you?” he smiled. “Plenty of light and air and a view of the city. Look, you can even see those poor devils lying around the subway kiosk.” His face became bleak. Then he shrugged and tried to throw off his depression. “June and I will help you as much as we can. We can raid stores for provisions and hashish. New let’s have breakfast.”
The next few days were filled with unending labor for the temporal castaways. From daybreak until far into the night, with radio receivers clamped over their ears, the three twisted dials, adjusted rheostats and listened in on long and short wave bands. But the ether, which once had pulsated with music and friendly voices, now was silent, except for static.
“Makes me think of Sunday mornings when I was a boy,” Manthis once commented. “Only this is more quiet. It gives me the jitters.” There was a note of hysteria in his voice.
When the doctor’s nerves began to quiver in that manner, Baron always insisted that they all rest. During such recesses they ate, played cards and helped June with the housework. The younger man was continually amazed by the calmness with which the girl faced their desperate situation. Clad in a blue smock which brought out the color of her eyes, she flitted about the apartment, manufacturing delicious meals out of canned goods and always having a cheery word when the others became discouraged. Yet she never would look out the window.
“I can’t bear to see those poor souls lying about like rag dolls,” she explained. “The only thing that keeps me sane is the hope that we may reawaken them.”
It was on the evening of the third day that Baron lifted the headset from his burning ears and admitted failure.
“We’ve explored everything but the super-short waves,” he sighed. “I’ll have to get equipment from the laboratories before we start on those.”
June nodded from where she perched on a high stool across the table. But Manthis did not hear. He was making delicate adjustments on his receiving set and listening with rapt attention.
“I’ve got something,” he cried. “Jack. June. Plug in on my panel. Someone is talking. It’s very loud. Must be close.”
Instantly the others did as he ordered, but were able to catch only the last inflections of a ringing voice. Then silence settled once more.
“What did he say,” the youngsters cried in one breath.
“Couldn’t understand. Some foreign language.” The chemist was furious with disappointment. “But I’d recognize that voice among a thousand. We must get in touch with him. Perhaps he can help us. God knows we need assistance. Quick, Jack. You’re an expert. See if you can pick up a reply.”
Baron leaned over his instruments, heart thumping. The dreadful loneliness against which he had been fighting was broken. Others were alive!
Minutes passed and the evening light died away. They were too excited to strike a light. Shadows crept out of the corners and surrounded them. At last a faint voice grew in their ears. But again the words were unintelligible.
“Sounds a little like Greek,” puzzled the girl, “but it isn’t.”
Baron adjusted the direction finder and made scribbled calculations.
“Coming from the southeast and far away,” he breathed.
“I caught a word then,” gasped the doctor. “‘Ganja, ‘ it was.”
“What does that tell us?” snapped Jack, his nerves jumping.
“Ganja is the Hindu word for hashish, that’s all. My Lord, man, don’t you understand? The station is in India. Those who operate it are using Andrev’s solution as we are. I--”
“Listen!” shouted Jack.
There was a grinding and clashing in the receivers. Then a new voice, harsh and strained with excitement, almost burst their eardrums.
“Beware! Beware!” it screamed. “Do not trust him. He is a devil and has put the world asleep. His mind is rotten with hashish. He is a demon from--” Then came a dull, crunching sound. The voice screamed and died away.
In the darkened laboratory the faces of the three listeners stood out like ovals of white cardboard.
“What do you make of that?” stammered Baron at last.
“It looks as if the only persons alive, in New York at least, are hashish addicts--the most debased and murderous of drug fiends.” The doctor stopped, his eyes dilating with horror. June crept close to him and threw an arm around his shaking shoulders. “Can’t you see? Their time-sense expanded too. Like us they were unaffected. But unlike us they use the pure drug. Hashish smokers are without exception homicidal maniacs, vicious criminals. God!”
“Are they responsible for the end of time?” queried Jack.
“I don’t know. Perhaps some master mind among them is back of it--some engineering wizard who has succumbed to the drug so recently, or who has such a strong constitution that his intelligence has not been destroyed.”
The little doctor dragged off his headset, disarranging his sparse gray hair. His face was tired and worn but his jaw thrust forward pugnaciously.
“We’re making headway,” he cried. “We know the probable author of the catastrophe is a drug addict and that he is located nearby. We know he has no scruples, for the man who warned us undoubtedly was killed. And I’m convinced those extremely short wave bands hold the secret. Let’s knock off for the day. We look like ghosts. To-morrow morning you and June get what equipment you need from across the river. I’ll stay here on guard. You’d better raid a drug-store and get some more of our life-saver, too. It’s listed under Cannabis Indica.”
The next morning dawned clear and cold. It was early October and there was a chill in the apartment. Baron swung his legs over the edge of the davenport in the living room and stared out at the frost-covered trees of Central Park. The leaves were falling before the brisk wind and forming little eddying mounds over the forms of those lying about the streets. Jack shivered at the thought of the millions and millions of victims of the disaster who littered the Earth. They seemed to accuse him of still being alive. Well, if Manthis was right, perhaps all could be revived before winter set in.
June was singing as he and the doctor came to breakfast. Apparently she wished to forget the events of the previous night, so they laughed and joked as though they intended to go on a picnic rather than across a dead city.
The hotel lobby was as they last had seen it when they descended. The bellboys still nodded on their benches. A travelling salesman was hunched over a week-old Times as if he would awake in a few minutes, glance about guiltily and resume his reading. The child they had rescued still lay on the divan. Her golden hair framed her cheeks like a halo. One arm was thrown above her head. She seemed ready to awake, though she had not breathed for days.
“It all makes me feel so lonely,” whispered June, clinging to the engineer’s arm. “I want to cry--or whistle to keep up my courage.”
“Don’t worry,” Jack replied softly, patting her hand and speaking with more assurance than he felt. “We’ll find a way out.”
She squeezed his arm and smiled at him with new courage. For months, in fact ever since his first visit to the Manthis apartment, Baron had admired the doctor’s charming daughter. Although nothing had been said of love between them they often had gone to a dance or the theater together, while a firm friendship had been cemented. Now their closer association and the unflinching bravery which she showed was ripening this into a stronger bond.
They went out into the crisp morning, stepped across the body of a street sweeper who lay in the gutter, and entered the doctor’s automobile. Through the silent city they drove, Baron watching carefully to avoid striking stalled cars or grotesquely sprawling bodies.
There was a tangle of wrecked automobiles in the center of the Queensboro Bridge and they were forced to push them apart to get through. While they were engaged in this arduous work, a drifting ferry bumped into a pier, shaking the dreaming captain into a semblance of life at the wheel.
“I used to like fairy tales,” moaned June. “They’re dreadful, really.”
She clung to him like a frightened child. He drew her close and kissed her.
“I love you, June,” he whispered, as though fearful that the sleeping drivers of the tangled cars might overhear. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not--now,” she smiled through eyes filled with tears. “I’ve loved you for months, Jack. Whatever happens, we have each other.”
He helped her back into the car and drove on in silence. At last the Rothafel plant gloomed before them, forbidding as an Egyptian tomb. With a feeling that he was entering some forbidden precinct, Jack led the way to his office. Somehow, without its usual bustle and bright lights, it seemed alien.
Once inside he forgot his hesitation and set about collecting equipment--queerly shaped neon tubes, reflectors, coils, electrodes. Soon there was a pile of material glinting on top of his desk.
They were exploring a deep cabinet with the aid of a flashlight when a strange clicking sound made them whirl simultaneously. In a corner of the room a deeper blot of shadow caught their eyes. Jack snapped on the flash. In the small circle of light a long, cadaverous face appeared. Thin lips were drawn back over wide-spaced yellow teeth. Black eyes stared unwinkingly into the light. The flash wavered as the engineer tried to get his nerves under control.
“It’s nothing,” he assured the trembling girl. “A night watchman caught as he was making his rounds, probably. Don’t get excited.” He wet his lips.
“He’s alive!” screamed June. “The eyelids! They moved!”
“Yes, I’m alive,” boomed a hoarse voice. “I thought I was the only man God had spared. Pardon me for frightening you. I was so thunderstruck...”
The stranger stepped forward. He was dressed in a long black topcoat, high collar and string tie. The clicking noise was explained when he rubbed his long white hands together, making the knuckles pop like tiny firecrackers.
“Ivan Solinski, at your service.” He smiled with what evidently was intended to be warmth, again showing those rows of teeth like picket fences. “I suppose we’re all here on the same mission: to find a solution for the mystery of the world’s paralysis.” The apparition lit a long and bloated cigarette and through the acrid smoke surveyed them quizzically.
“I’m Jack Baron, formerly on the staff here, and this is June Manthis, daughter of Dr. Frank Manthis, head of the chemical research department.” The engineer winced as Solinski enfolded his hand in a clammy grip.
“Ah yes, I know the doctor by hearsay. A great scientist. He has a lovely daughter”--bowing deeply to June as he let his beady eyes wander over her face and figure. “Perhaps we can join forces, although I must admit I have abandoned hope. It is God’s will.” He rolled his eyes toward heaven, then riveted them once more upon June.
“Why, certainly.” Jack was striving to overcome his growing dislike. “We’ll be driving back in a few minutes. Would you care to come with us?”
“No.” The pupilless eyes skittered toward Baron for a moment. “I know the doctor’s address. I will come to visit you soon. Now I must be going.” Solinski turned as if to depart, then strode to the desk and looked down at the mass of equipment. “Ah, super-short wave tubes, I see. Very clever.” His dexterous fingers lingered over them a moment. Then he bowed and was gone.
The two remained staring at the empty doorway.
“I--I wish he’d been dead--sleeping,” whispered June at last, twisting her handkerchief with trembling fingers. “He--I didn’t like the way he kept looking at me.”
“He seemed all right to me.” Jack tried to forget his own prejudice. “He’s willing to help us.”
“Might he not be one of the hashish addicts? Those eyes--the pupils were mere pinpoints--and those evil-smelling cigarettes.”
“Then why should he have offered to help?” puzzled Jack. “He could have killed us.”
“Nevertheless I hope we’ve seen the last of him. Are you about through? Let’s get out of this awful place. He looked like a mummy!”
They drove back to the apartment so completely preoccupied that both forgot to obtain the drug which the doctor had requested.
“Yes, I’ve heard of him,” Manthis said after he had been informed of the encounter. “A naturalized Russian. Used to do quite a bit of valuable work in various fields of physics. But he was some sort of radical--seems to me an old-fashioned anarchist--and not popular. He dropped out of sight several years ago. I presumed he was dead.”
They soon had the new equipment installed and again began exploring the wave bands, beginning with the comparatively lengthy ones and working down into those only slightly longer than light. It was tedious work, but all were by now as adept as Jack in combing the ether and their task progressed rapidly. Despite the labor, however, nothing could be heard. There was only the universal, breathless silence. At times they moved to the commercial bands and tried to pick up the stations they had heard on the previous day, but even there they met with failure.
By the evening of the third day they had left the wave bands which could be measured in meters and were exploring those strange and almost wholly uncharted depths of the ether which must be calculated in centimeters. There at last luck favored them. It was Jack who caught a strange pulsating tone on the three-centimeter band. It rose and fell, rose and fell, then died away like the keening of a lost soul.
“Listen,” he whispered. “Plug in here. I’ve found something.”
June and the doctor followed his instructions. Delicately fingering the coils, Baron picked up the sound again, only to lose it. Then it came once more. This time he followed it as it changed to the five centimeter band. Back and forth it went as though weaving an intricate and devilish web.