Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Damon Knight: Not with a Bang

Damon Knight


Ten months after the last plane passed over, Rolf Smith knew beyond doubt that only one other human being had survived. Her name was Louise Oliver, and he was sitting opposite her in a department-store cafe in Salt Lake City. They were eating canned Vienna sausages and drinking coffee.
Sunlight struck through a broken pane like a judgment. Inside and outside, there was no sound; only a stifling rumor of absence. The clatter of dishware in the kitchen, the heavy rumble of streetcars: never again. There was sunlight; and silence; and the watery, astonished eyes of Louise Oliver. He leaned forward, trying to capture the attention of those fishlike eyes for a second. "Darling," he said, "I respect your views, naturally. But I've got to make you see that they're impractical."
She looked at him with faint surprise, then away again. Her head shook slightly. No. No, Rolf, I will not live with you in sin.
Smith thought of the women of France, of Russia, of Mexico, of the South Seas. He had spent three months in the ruined studios of a radio station in Rochester, listening to the voices until they stopped. There had been a large colony in Sweden, including an English cabinet minister. They reported that Europe was gone. Simply gone; there was not an acre that had not been swept clean by radioactive dust.
They had two planes and enough fuel to take them anywhere on the Continent; but there was nowhere to go. Three of them had the plague; then eleven; then all. There was a bomber pilot who had fallen near a government radio station in Palestine. He did not last long, because he had broken some bones in the crash; but he had seen the vacant waters where the Pacific Islands should have been. It was his guess that the Arctic ice fields had been bombed. There were no reports from Washington, from New York, from London, Paris, Moscow, Chungking, Sydney. You could not tell who had been destroyed by disease, who by
the dust, who by bombs.
Smith himself had been a laboratory assistant in a team that was trying to find an antibiotic for the plague. His
superiors had found one that worked sometimes, but it was a little too late. When he left, Smith took along with him all there was of itforty ampoules, enough to last him for years. Louise had been a nurse in a genteel hospital near Denver. According to her, something rather odd had happened to the hospital as she was approaching it the morning of the attack. She was quite calm when she said this, but a vague look came into her eyes and her shattered expression seemed to slip a little more. Smith did not press her for an explanation.

Like himself, she had found a radio station which still
functioned, and when Smith discovered that she had not
contracted the plague, he agreed to meet her. She was, ap-
parently, naturally immune. There must have been others,
a few at least; but the bombs and the dust had not spared
them.
It seemed very awkward to Louise that not one Protestant
minister was left alive.
The trouble was, she really meant it. It had taken Smith
a long time to believe it, but it was true. She would not sleep
in the same hotel with him, either; she expected, and re-
ceived, the utmost courtesy and decorum. Smith had
learned his lesson. He walked on the outside of the rubble-
heaped sidewalks; he opened doors for her, when there were
still doors; he held her chair; he reframed from swearing.
He courted her.
Louise was forty or thereabouts, at least five years older
than Smith. He often wondered how old she thought she
was. The shock of seeing whatever it was that had hap-
pened to the hospital, the patients she had cared for, had
sent her mind scuttling back to her childhood. She tacitly
admitted that everyone else in the world was dead, but she
seemed to regard it as something one did not mention,
A hundred times in the last three weeks, Smith had felt
an almost irresistible impulse to break her thin neck and
go his own way. But there was no help for it; she was the
only woman in the world, and he needed her. If she died, or
left him, he died. Old bitchi he thought to himself furiously,
and carefully kept the thought from showing on his face.
"Louise, honey," he told her gently, "I want to spare your
feelings as much as I can. You know that."
"Yes, Rolf," she said, staring at him with the face of a
hypnotized chicken.
Smith forced himself to go on. "We've got to face the
facts, unpleasant as they may be. Honey, we're the only
man and the only woman there are. We're like Adam and
Eve in the Garden of Eden."
Louise's face took on a slightly disgusted expression. She
was obviously thinking of fig leaves.
"Think of the generations unborn," Smith told her, with a
tremor in his voice. Think about me for once. Maybe you're
good for another ten years, maybe not. Shuddering, he
thought of the second stage of the diseasethe helpless
rigidity, striking without warning. He'd had one such attack
already, and Louise had helped him out of it. Without her,
he would have stayed like that till he died, the hypodermic
that would save him within inches of his rigid hand. He
thought desperately, If 1m lucky, I'll get at least two kids
out of you before you croak. Then I'll be safe.
He went on, "God didn't mean for the human race to end
like this. He spared us, you and me, to" he paused; how
could he say it without offending her? "parents" wouldn't do
too suggestive "to carry on the torch of life," he ended.
There. That was sticky enough.
Louise was staring vaguely over his shoulder. Her eyelids
biinked regularly, and her mouth made little rabbitlike mo-
tions in the same rhythm.
Smith looked down at his wasted thighs under the table-
top. I'm not strong enough to force her, he thought. Christ,
if I were strong enough!
He felt the futile rage again, and stifled it. He had to keep
his head, because this might be his last chance. Louise had
been talking lately, in the cloudy language she used about
everything, of going up in the mountains to pray for guid-
ance. She had not said "alone," but it was easy enough to
see that she pictured it that way. He had to argue her
around before her resolve stiffened. He concentrated furi-
ously and tried once more.
The pattern of words went by like a distant rumbling.
Louise heard a phrase here and there; each of them

fathered chains of thought, binding her reverie tighter. "Our
duty to humanity . . ." Mama had often saidthat wa in
the old house on Waterbury Street, of course, before Mama
had taken sickshe had said, "Child, your duty is to be
clean, polite, and God-fearing. Pretty doesn't matter.
There's plenty of plain women that have got themselves
good, Christian husbands."
Husbands . , . To have and to hold . . . Orange blos-
soms, and the bridesmaids; the organ music. Through the
haze, she saw Rolf's lean, wolfish face. Of course, he was
"T"
the only one she'd ever get; she knew that well enough.
Gracious, when a girl was past twenty-five, she had to take
what she could get.
But I sometimes wonder if he's really a nice man, she
thought.
". . . in the eyes of God . . ." She remembered the
stained-glass windows in the old First Episcopalian Church,
and how she always thought God was looking down at her
through that brilliant transparency. Perhaps He was still
looking at her, though it seemed sometimes that He had
forgotten. Well, of course she realized that marriage cus-
toms changed, and if you couldn't have a regular minis-
ter . . . But it was really a shame, an outrage almost, that
if she were actually going to marry this man, she couldn't
have all those nice things. . . . There wouldn't even be any
wedding presents. Not even that. But of course Rolf would
give her anything she wanted. She saw his face again, no-
ticed the narrow black eyes staring at her with ferocious
purpose, the thin mouth that jerked in a slow, regular tic,
the hairy lobes of the ears below the tangle of black hair.
He oughtn't to let his hair grow so long, she thought. It
isn't quite decent. Well, she could change all that. If she
did marry him, she'd certainly make him change his ways.
It was no more than her duty.
He was talking now about a farm he'd seen outside
towna good big house and a barn. There was no stock,
he said, but they could get some later. And they'd plant
things, and have their own food to eat, not go to restau-
rants all the time.
She felt a touch on her hand, lying pale before her on
the table. Rolf's brown, stubby fingers, black-haired above
and below the knuckles, were touching hers. He had
stopped talking for a moment, but now he was speaking
igain, still more urgently. She drew her hand away.
He was saying, ". . . and you'll have the finest wedding
dress you ever saw, with a bouquet. Everything you want,
Louise, everything . . ."
A wedding dress! And flowers, even if there couldn't be
any minister! Well, why hadn't the fool said so before?
Rolf stopped halfway through a sentence, aware that
Louise had said quite clearly, "Yes, Rolf, I will marry you
if you wish."
Stunned, he wanted her to repeat it but dared not ask,
"What did you say?" for fear of getting some fantastic
answer, or none at all. He breathed deeply. He said, "To-
day, Louise?"
She said, "Well, today . . . I don't know quite . . . Of
course, if you think you can make all the arrangements in
time, but it does seem . . ."

Triumph surged through Smith's body. He had the ad-
vantage now, and he'd ride it. "Say you will, dear," he
urged her. "Say yes, and make me the happiest man . . ."
Even then, his tongue balked at the rest of it; but it didn't
matter. She nodded submissively. "Whatever you think
best, Rolf."
He rose, and she allowed him to kiss her pale, sapless
cheek. "We'll leave right away," he said. "If you'll excuse
me for just a minute, dear?"
He waited for her "Of course" and then left, making foot-
prints in the furred carpet of dust down toward the end
of the room. Just a few more hours he'd have to speak to
her like that, and then, in her eyes, she'd be committed to
him forever. Afterward, he could do with her as he liked
beat her when he pleased, submit her to any proof of his
scorn and revulsion, use her. Then it would not be too bad,
being the last man on earthnot bad at all. She might even
have a daughter. . . .
He found the washroom door and entered. He took a
step inside, and froze, balanced by a trick of motion, up-
right but helpless. Panic struck at his throat as he tried to
turn his head and failed; tried to scream, and failed. Be-
hind him, he was aware of a tiny click as the door, cush-
ioned by the hydraulic check, shut forever. It was not
locked; but its other side bore the warning MEN.

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