|Author:||George R. Stewart
Del Rey, 2006
Random House, 1949
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A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he'd either dreaded or hoped for.
...and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. Federal officers, including those of the Armed Forces, will put themselves under the orders of the governors of the various states or of any other functioning local authority. By order of the Acting President. God save the people of the United States....
Here is an announcement which has just come in from the Bay Area Emergency Council. The West Oakland Hospitalization Center has been abandoned. Its functions, including burials at sea, are now concentrated at the Berkeley Center. That is all....
Keep tuned to this station, which is the only one now in operation in northern California. We shall inform you of developments, as long as it is possible.
Just as he pulled himself up to the rock ledge, he heard a sudden rattle, and felt a prick of fangs. Automatically he jerked back his right hand; turning his head, he saw the snake, coiled and menacing. It was not a large one, he noted, even at the moment when he raised his hand to his lips and sucked hard at the base of the index finger, where a little drop of blood was oozing out.
“Don’t waste time by killing the snake!” he remembered.
He slid down from the ledge, still sucking. At the bottom he saw the hammer lying where he had left it. For a moment he thought he would go on and leave it there. That seemed like panic; so he stooped and picked it up with his left hand, and went on down the rough trail.
He did not hurry. He knew better than that. Hurry only speeded up a man’s heart, and made the venom circulate faster. Yet his heart was pounding so rapidly from excitement or fear that hurrying or not hurrying, it seemed, should make no difference. After he had come to some trees, he took his handkerchief and bound it around his right wrist. With the aid of a twig he twisted the handkerchief into a crude tourniquet.
Walking on, he felt himself recovering from his panic. His heart was slowing down. As he considered the situation, he was not greatly afraid. He was a young man, vigorous and healthy. Such a bite would hardly be fatal, even though he was by himself and without good means of treatment.
Now he saw the cabin ahead of him. His hand felt stiff. Just before he got to the cabin, he stopped and loosened the tourniquet, as he had read should be done, and let the blood circulate in the hand. Then he tightened it again.
He pushed open the door, dropping the hammer on the floor as he did so. It fell, handle up, on its heavy head, rocked back and forth for a moment, and then stood still, handle in the air.
He looked into the drawer of the table, and found his snake-bite outfit, which he should have been carrying with him on this day of all days. Quickly he followed the directions, slicing with the razor-blade a neat little crisscross over the mark of the fangs, applying the rubber suction-pump. Then he lay on his bunk watching the rubber bulb slowly expand, as it sucked the blood out.
He felt no premonitions of death. Rather, the whole matter still seemed to him just a nuisance. People had kept telling him that he should not go into the mountains by himself—“Without even a dog!” they used to add. He had always laughed at them. A dog was constant trouble, getting mixed up with porcupines or skunks, and he was not fond of dogs anyway. Now all those people would say, “Well, we warned you!”
Tossing about half-feverishly, he now seemed to himself to be composing a defense. “Perhaps,” he would say, “the very danger in it appealed to me!” (That had a touch of the heroic in it.) More truthfully he might say, “I like to be alone at times, really need to escape from all the problems of dealing with people.” His best defense, however, would merely be that, at least during the last year, he had gone into the mountains alone as a matter of business. As a graduate student, he was working on a thesis: The Ecology of the Black Creek Area. He had to investigate the relationships, past and present, of men and plants and animals in this region. Obviously he could not wait until just the right companion came along. In any case, he could never see that there was any great danger. Although nobody lived within five miles of his cabin, during the summer hardly a day passed without some fisherman coming by, driving his car up the rocky road or merely following the stream.
Yet, come to think of it, when had he last seen a fisherman? Not in the past week certainly. He could not actually remember whether he had seen one in the two weeks that he had been living by himself in the cabin. There was that car he had heard go by after dark one night. He thought it strange that any car would be going up that road in the darkness, and could hardly see the necessity, for ordinarily people camped down below for the night and went up in the morning. But perhaps, he thought, they wanted to get up to their favorite stream, to go out for some early fishing.
No, actually, he had not exchanged a word with anyone in the last two weeks, and he could not even remember that he had seen anyone.
A throb of pain brought him back to what was happening at the moment. The hand was beginning to swell. He loosened the tourniquet to let the blood circulate again.
Yes, as he returned to his thoughts, he realized that he was out of touch with things entirely. He had no radio. Therefore, as far as he was concerned, there might have been a crash of the stock market or another Pearl Harbor; something like that would account for so few fishermen going by. At any rate, there was very little chance apparently that anyone would come to help him. He would have to work his own way out.
Yet even that prospect did not alarm him. At worst, he considered, he would lie up in his cabin, with plenty of food and water for two or three days, until the swelling in his hand subsided and he could drive his car down to Johnson’s, the first ranch.
The afternoon wore on. He did not feel like eating anything when it came toward suppertime, but he made himself a pot of coffee on the gasoline stove, and drank several cups. He was in much pain, but in spite of the pain and in spite of the coffee he became sleepy....
He woke suddenly in half-light, and realized that someone had pushed open the cabin door. He felt a sudden relief to know that he had help. Two men in city clothes were standing there, very decent-looking men, although staring around strangely, as if in fright. “I’m sick!” he said from his bunk, and suddenly he saw the fright on their faces change to sheer panic. They turned suddenly without even shutting the door, and ran. A moment later came the sound of a starting motor. It faded out as the car went up the road.
Appalled now for the first time, he raised himself from the bunk, and looked through the window. The car had already vanished around the curve. He could not understand. Why had they suddenly disappeared in panic, without even offering to help?
He got up. The light was in the east; so he had slept until dawn the next morning. His right hand was swollen and acutely painful. Otherwise he did not feel very ill. He warmed up the pot of coffee, made himself some oatmeal, and lay down in his bunk again, in the hope that after a while he would feel well enough to risk driving down to Johnson’s—that is, of course, if no one came along in the meantime who would stop and help him and not like those others, who must be crazy, run away at the sight of a sick man.
Soon, however, he felt much worse, and realized that he must be suffering some kind of relapse. By the middle of the afternoon he was really frightened. Lying in his bunk, he composed a note, thinking that he should leave a record of what had happened. It would not be very long of course before someone would find him; his parents would certainly telephone Johnson’s in a few days now, if they did not hear anything. Scrawling with his left hand, he managed to get the words onto paper. He signed merely Ish. It was too much work to write out his full name of Isherwood Williams, and everybody knew him by his nickname.
At noon, feeling himself like the shipwrecked mariner who from his raft sees the steamer cross along the horizon, he heard the sound of cars, two of them, coming up the steep road. They approached, and then went on, without stopping. He called to them, but by now he was weak, and his voice, he was sure, did not carry the hundred yards to the turnoff where the cars were passing.
Even so, before dusk he struggled to his feet, and lighted the kerosene lamp. He did not want to be left in the dark.
Apprehensively, he bent his lanky body down to peer into the little mirror, set too low for him because of the sloping roof of the cabin. His long face was thin always, and scarcely seemed thinner now, but a reddish flush showed through the suntan of his cheeks. His big blue eyes were bloodshot, and stared back at him wildly with the glare of fever. His light brown hair, unruly always, now stuck out in all directions, completing the mirror-portrait of a very sick young man.
He got back into his bunk, feeling no great sense of fear, although now he more than half expected that he was dying. Soon a violent chill struck him; from that he passed into a fever. The lamp burned steadily on the table, and he could see around the cabin. The hammer which he had dropped on the floor still stood there, handle pointed stiffly upwards, precariously balanced. Being right before his eyes, the hammer occupied an unduly l...
Copyright © 1949 by George R. Stewart
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