The hybrid began maneuvering Dixon toward the instrument enclosure. For a fleeting second the grip of the tentacles upon his shoulders loosened slightly. Dixon took instant advantage of it. Twisting himself free from the loosened tentacle in one mighty effort, he whirled and fired pointblank at the opalescent globe on the head looming above him.
The bullet smashed accurately home, shattering the globe like a bursting bubble. The great hybrid collapsed with startling suddenness, its life force instantly extinguished as the globe burst.
Dixon leaped to one side and swung the gun into line with the Centaurian's hideous face. He pulled the trigger--but there was no response. The rusty old firearm had hopelessly jammed.
Dixon savagely flung the revolver at the Centaurian. The creature tried to dodge, but the heavy gun struck its body a glancing blow. There was a slight spurt of body fluid as the chitinous armor was partly broken.
Dixon's heart leaped exultantly. No wonder these creatures had to create hybrids to fight for them. Their own bodies were as vulnerable as that of a soft-shelled crab!
The Centaurian quickly drew a slender tube of dark green from a scabbard in its belt. Dixon dodged back, looking wildly about him for a weapon. There was an ax in the pile only a few yards away. Dixon snatched the ax up, and whirled to give battle.
The other Centaurian had come hurrying over now to aid its mate. Dixon was effectually barred from attempting any progress toward the projectile by the two grotesque creatures as they stood alertly there beside each other with their green tubes menacing him. Dixon waited tensely at bay, remembering those searing radium burns upon Emil Crawford's body.
Then the first Centaurian abruptly leveled a second and smaller tube upon Dixon. A burst of yellow light flashed toward him, enveloping him in a cloud of pale radiance before he could dodge.
There was a faint plop as the protecting white globe upon his head was shattered. The yellow radiance swiftly faded, leaving Dixon unhurt, but he realized that the first round in the battle had been won decisively by the Centaurians. His only chance now, was to end the battle before the paralyzing rays of the green moon sapped his strength.
He warily advanced upon the Centaurians. Their green tubes swung into line and twin bolts of violet flame flashed toward him. He dodged, and the bolts missed by inches. Then Dixon nearly fell as his foot struck a bundle of cloth on the ground.
The next moment he snatched the bundle up with a cry of triumph. It was his lead-cloth tunic, torn and useless as a garment, but invaluable as a shield against the searing effects of those bolts of radioactive flame. He hurriedly wrapped the fabric in a rough bundle around his left forearm. The next time the tubes' violet flames flashed toward him he thrust his rude shield squarely into their path. There was a light tingling shock, and that was all. The bolts did not sear through.
With new confidence, Dixon boldly charged the two Centaurians. A weird battle ensued in the garishly lighted arena.
The effective range of the violet flashes was only about ten feet, and Dixon's muscular agility was far superior to that of his antagonists. By constant whirling and dodging he was able to either catch the violet bolts upon his shielded arm or else dodge them entirely.
Yet, in spite of the Centaurians' clumsy slowness, they maneuvered with a cool strategy that constantly kept the Earth man's superior strength at bay. Always as Dixon tried to close with one of them he was forced to retreat when a flanking attack from the other threatened his unprotected back. And always the Centaurians maneuvered to bar Dixon from attempting any dash toward the projectile.
The minutes passed, and Dixon felt his strength rapidly ebbing, both from his herculean exertions and from the paralyzing rays of the green moon beating down upon his unprotected head. As his speed of foot lessened the Centaurians began inexorably pressing their advantage.
Dixon was no longer escaping unscathed. In spite of his frantic efforts to dodge, twice the violet bolts grazed his body in searing flashes of exquisite agony.
His muscles stiffened still more in the attack of the Green Sickness. Desperately dodging a Centaurian bolt, he stumbled and nearly fell. As he staggered to regain his balance, one of his antagonists scrambled to the coveted position behind him.
It was only Ruth's scream of warning that galvanized Dixon's numbed brain into action in time to meet the imminent peril.
In one mighty effort he flung his ax at the Centaurian in front of him. The heavy blade cut deep into the thinly armored body. Mortally wounded, the creature collapsed.
Dixon whirled and flung up his shielded left arm just in time to intercept the violet bolt of the other Centaurian. Warily backing away, Dixon succeeded in retrieving his ax from beside the twitching body of the fallen invader.
Then, with the heavy weapon again in his hand, he remorselessly charged his remaining foe. The Centaurian's tube flashed in a veritable hail of hurtling violet bolts, but Dixon caught the flashes upon his shield and closed grimly in.
One final leap brought him to close quarters. The heavy ax whistled through the air in a single mighty stroke that cleft the Centaurian's frail body nearly in two.
Then Ruth's excited scream came again. "Bruce--the other one! Get it quick!"
Dixon turned. The wounded invader, taking advantage of their preoccupation in the final struggle with its mate, had dragged its crippled body over to the instrument enclosure. Dixon staggered toward it as fast as his half-paralyzed muscles would permit.
He was just too late. The Centaurian jerked a lever home a fraction of a second before Dixon's smashing ax forever ended his activities. The lever's action upon the pen of inert hybrids was immediate.
The sweeping lances of light vanished in a brief sheet of vivid flame which kindled the dark globes on the hybrids' gruesome heads to steady opalescence--and the dread horde came to life! Sprawling from the pen, they came scuttling toward Dixon in a surging flood--a scene out of a nightmare.
Dixon faced the oncoming horde in numb despair, knowing that his nearly-paralyzed body had no chance in flight. Then, just as the hybrids were nearly upon him, he heard Ruth's encouraging voice again.
"There's still one chance left, Bruce," she cried, "and I'll take it!"
Dixon turned. Ruth had in her hand the tiny contact grenade he had given her for a last emergency. She snapped the safety catch on the little bomb, then hurled it squarely at the giant opalescent globe looming close beside her.
There was a terrific explosion and the great globe shattered to atoms. Apparently stunned by the concussion but otherwise unhurt, Ruth was flung clear of the wreckage.
With the shattering of the central globe the strange life force of the hybrid horde vanished instantly and completely. Midway in their rush they sprawled inert and dead, with their outstretched legs so close to Dixon that he had to step over one or two to get clear.
Dixon's brain reeled in the reaction of relief from the horde's hideous menace. Then he grimly fought to clear his fast-numbing senses long enough for the one final task that he knew must still be done.
The projectile, cushioned as it was, had escaped detonation in the blast. He had only to stagger across the twenty yards separating him from it, then release the stud that would send it flashing out into space.
But his last shred of reserve strength had nearly been sapped now by the insidious rays of that malevolent green moon. Even as he started toward the projectile, he staggered and fell. Unable to drag himself to his feet again, he began grimly crawling with arms and legs as stiff and dead as that much stone.
Only ten more yards to go now. And now only five. Grimly, doggedly, with senses reeling and muscles nearly dead, the last survivor of a dying planet fought desperately on under the malignant rays of the vivid green moon!
One last sprawling convulsive effort--and Dixon had the projectile in his hands. His stiff fingers fumbled agonizingly with the activating stud. Then abruptly the stud snapped home. With a crescendo whistle of sundered air the projectile flashed upward into the western sky.
Dixon collapsed upon his back, his dimming eyes fixed upon the grim green moon. Minutes that seemed eternities dragged slowly by. Then his heart leaped in sudden hope. Had there really glowed a small blue spark up there beside the green moon--a spark marking the mighty explosion of the radium bomb against the Centaurians' space ship?
A fraction of a second later, and doubt became glorious certainty. The vivid green of the moonlight vanished. The silvery white sheen of a normal moon again shone serenely up there in the western sky!
With the extinguishing of the dread green rays, new strength surged swiftly through Dixon's tired body. He arose and hurried over to where Ruth lay limp and still near the wreckage of the great globe. He worked over her for many anxious minutes before the normal flush of health returned to her white cheeks and her eyes slowly opened.
Then he took Ruth into his arms and for a long minute the two silently drank in the beauty of that radiant silver moon above them, while their hearts thrilled with a realization of the glorious miracle of awakening life that they knew must already be beginning to rejuvenate a stricken world.
THE END OF TIME.
By Wallace West "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 protege 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...?"