He was a tall, hard man with skin the color of very old iodine. When he climbed up out of the vertical shaft of his small gold mine, The Lousy Disappointment, he could have been taken for an Indian, he was that dark. Except, of course, that Indians didn’t exist any more in 1982. His name was Tom Gannett and he was about forty years old and he didn’t realize his own uniqueness.
When he made it to his feet, the first thing he did was to squint up at the sun. The second was to sneeze, and the third to blow his nose.
“Hey, you old sun!” he growled. “You old crummy sun, you look sicker’n a dog.”
Which was literally true, for the sun seemed to be pretty queer. The whole sky seemed to be pretty queer, for that matter. Skies should be blue and the sun should be a bloated golden bauble drifting serenely across them. But the skies were not blue; they were a dirty purplish-gray. And the sun wasn’t a bloated golden bauble; somebody had it by the scruff of the neck and was dragging it.
Gannett planted his big feet wide apart and frowned sourly around and sniffed the air like a dog at a gopher hole. “The damn world smells sick,” he grunted.
Which was also true. The world did smell sick. The world smelled something like that peculiar odor that comes from an old graveyard carefully tended by an old man with dank moss sticking to the soles of his old shoes. That kind of smell.
Gannett didn’t know why the sun looked sick, and he didn’t know why the world smelled sick. Indeed, there were many things Gannett didn’t know, among which would be these in particular:
(a) He did not know (since, for the last six months, he had been
living and working all alone at his little mine, which was in the
remotest of the most remote desert regions of Nevada) that a little
less than three weeks earlier, mankind had finally achieved the
inevitable: man’s own annihilation.
(b) He did not know that he was going to be the loneliest man on
Earth--he who was used to, and perfectly content with, the
hermitlike existence of a desert rat.
© He furthermore did not know that there were four of the Ten
Commandments which he wasn’t going to be able to break any
more--not even if he stayed up nights trying and lived for
Gannett snorted the smell from his nostrils and shrugged. Hell with it. He thought about Reno and how he hadn’t been there for nearly a year. He thought of the dimly lighted, soft-carpeted cocktail lounges in Reno where drinks come in long stemmed glasses and blondes in long-stemmed legs. Reno at Christmastime, he thought. There was a town, Reno!
He grinned, showing big gold teeth that blazed out of his mouth like the glittering grille on a Buick. He dug his feet into the hard ground and walked the hundred feet or so to his cabin where he sometimes slept when he didn’t happen to sleep in the mine. He stripped off his grime-sodden clothes. He stepped out of them, in fact, and stretched luxuriously as though he hadn’t felt the good joy of being unclothed for a long time.
He got up and went to a corner of the cabin, rummaged out a pair of dusty clogs and pushed his feet into them. Then--and they don’t come any nakeder than he was--he went outside and around the shack to the rear where he kept his jeep and where the shower was.
He stepped into it, for it was nothing more ornate than a large oil drum suspended on long four by sixes. He yanked on a rope that hung down from the drum. The result of doing that made him leap out again dripping wet and colder than a buried mother-in-law.
He shivered, eyes blinking fast. He took a deep breath. His gold teeth went together tightly and the big muscles in his neck corded defensively. He deliberately went under the shower again. Pawing a sliver of laundry soap from a ledge on one of the four by sixes, he went to work with it, and when he finally tripped the hanging rope once more, he was a clean man.
He went into the cabin. It wasn’t any warmer than the great outdoors, but that was where his clothes were. He shaved from an old granite basin full of cold water. After that he went to a hook on the wall and got down a suit of clothes which looked as though it had shriveled up waiting for somebody to wear it. The last thing he did before leaving was to pry up one of the boards behind the door and lift out of this hiding place a small leather bag.
The bag was filled with gold.
The sun was gone now. Leg-like rays of light still sprawled, dirty-looking, in the sky over toward the California line, but aside from these extremities, most of it was somewhere out in the Pacific. The purplish sky was darker now. Drab. Dead, somehow.
The old jeep started nicely. It always started nicely; that was one of the good things about a jeep. The only funny thing was that out of its exhaust pipe in the rear came angry purplish flames. Queer flames. Gannett stared at them, surprised.
“Even the damn jeep is sick,” he muttered. He was wrong, of course, but he had no way of knowing that. He backed around, finally, and went down what he called his driveway, which was little more than rock-strewn ground, until he came to a small dirt road. This led him to another, larger dirt road, which in turn led him to route #395, which was a U.S. Highway.
A hundred miles farther on, he came to the outskirts of Carson City. It wasn’t until he pulled into a gas station that he realized something was wrong. Nobody jumped out to wipe his windshield. The attendant who still leaned in the doorway of the station had a rag in his hand, but he didn’t budge. He couldn’t. His face looked like weathered leather and he was dead.
“Holy... !” whispered Gannett incredulously. He forgot about needing gas. He jumped in the jeep and drove down the main stem and found Police Headquarters in an old gray stone building. He knew it was Police Headquarters for the green neon over the revolving door had CPD on it and it was still burning.
He went up the steps two at a time, banged through the swinging doors and stamped straight to where the Sergeant sat at a desk over in the corner by the switchboard.
“Hey, by God!” yelled Gannett to the Desk Sergeant. “There’s a guy down the street in a gas station and he’s standing up in the doorway and he’s dead as a mackerel!”
Dramatic words. But the Desk Sergeant was no longer among the living and didn’t appreciate them. It took Gannett a long while to get over that. He slowly backed away. He made the big oak doors, still backing. He went down the stairs on legs as stiff as icicles.
He got back in his jeep and started up again. He knew there was something terribly wrong, but before he thought about it, he knew he had to have a drink. He pulled up in front of a saloon that had nice, cheery, glowing lights showing through the big front window. He got out of the jeep. He went through the swinging glass doors and straight to the bar.
Nobody answered. The barman behind the mahogany, facing him, didn’t make a move. The barman had a dead cigarette between his cold colorless lips. The cigarette had a half inch of ash on it. The ash looked as though it was sculptured out of purple marble.
Gannett put both hands flat on the bar and swallowed hard. He twisted his head and looked over the shoulder of a customer on his left, who was leaning negligently on the bar with one elbow. There was a half-full bottle in front of the leaning man and it had an alert-looking horse’s head stuck in the neck of it for a pouring spout.
“Excuse me, Mac,” Gannett whispered.
The leaning man didn’t twitch a muscle.
Gannett sucked in a deep breath. He reached. He got the bottle. He blinked stupidly at the bottle and then he put it down very carefully and took another breath and looked at a highball glass in front of the leaning man. The highball glass was empty and clean, but the leaning man’s fingers were curled lightly and gracefully around it. They were nice fingers. White fingers. Fingers that looked as if they hadn’t had to do any hard work lately. Slender, tapering, carefully manicured fingers.
Gannett swore softly. He yanked the horse’s head out and then poked the bottle into his mouth and tilted it up. He held it until there wasn’t anything left but the very glass it was made of plus the bright little paper label. His throat burned. He coughed. He banged the empty bottle down on the bartop and coughed again--hard.
The leaning man stirred, seemed to turn slowly, stiffly, in a half arc that put him face to face with Gannett. Then he went down backward and all in one piece, like a tall tree on top of a hill on a very still night.
He went down with the glass in his hand and, when he hit, swirls of thick dust rose lazily from the floor and then settled back over his rigid form like freshly falling snow blanketing something left out on the front lawn.
The night was black. There wasn’t a star and there wasn’t a sound except for Earth sounds, which are never very loud. Gannett sat in his jeep with the motor running and the purple flames coming out of the tailpipe. His hands were tight around the wheel, but the Jeep wasn’t moving. Gannett was staring off into space and his eyes looked as though somebody had peeled them back.
He said it to himself mentally, for the first few times. Then, as if he couldn’t contain them any longer, the words tumbled out of his mouth into the night air:
“Everybody’s dead, by God!”
He drove through deserted streets until he found an all-night drugstore. It didn’t seem funny to him just yet that the streets were deserted; that was something he would think of later. He walked into the drugstore and went to the newsstand and picked up a copy of the Carson Daily Bugle. The date struck him first. It was the wrong date; it was three weeks ago. He dropped it and picked up another, a Reno paper this time. Same trouble with the date. He read the headline then:
REDS STRIKE AT TURKEY!
Unveil New Weapon
He blinked at it. There was a little more--pitifully little--to the effect that Congress had been asked for a declaration of war in order to defend the assaulted member of the Atlantic Pact nations.
Gannett swallowed hard. He dropped the paper and turned to the clerk who was leaning over the glass counter watching him.
“Jeez!” Gannett said. “When did all this happen? I didn’t even know about it.”
He didn’t get any answer from the clerk. He knew he wouldn’t from the way the clerk’s eyes looked. They looked as if they should have been under refrigeration.
“People around dead,” he muttered. “By God, the Governor oughta know about this!”
He left the drugstore and drove straight for the State Capitol Building, which wasn’t far away, for Carson City isn’t very large. He walked up the long concrete ribbon to the big stone steps. He mounted them. He stood before the bronze doors for an instant, a feeling of awe coming over him despite what he knew he was going to tell the Governor. He pulled on the handle of the nearest of the bronze doors.
It was locked, of course. The Capitol is never open at three A.M. (which was the exact time when it had happened three weeks ago--but he didn’t know that).
A feeling of rage came over Gannett slowly, like heat radiating through soft wood. He stood on the stone steps and faced the broad expanse of lawn, which, in the summertime, at least, was very lovely. He slowly pulled his leather bag of gold from his coat pocket and raised it up so he could see it. Then he turned once more to the bronze doors and smashed the bag of gold through one of the glass panes.
“Gannett done it!” he roared. “If anybody wants to know, tell them Gannett, by God!”
He went back to his jeep. The big, darkly hulking form of the red brick Post Office Building went by and faded into the night. He passed a jewelry store. He looked in. An electric mantel clock in the store window indicated the time as nine-ten. He passed a supermarket. The big illuminated clock on the facade said nine-seven. The clock in the service station, where he finally pulled in for gas, pointed at nine exactly. Cycles have to be controlled if electric clocks are to keep correct time, but that was something else he did not know.
After he put back the gasoline hose, he left one more observation on the silence of the night before driving to Reno. He said it loudly, and there was angry frustration in every word of it:
“Hell with Carson City. To hell with it!”
Approaching downtown Reno at night is a pleasant, cheerful experience. There are lights all around, like a store selling electric fixtures. On the right hand side of Virginia Street they glow brightly, each one a little gaudier than the last. Big lights. Neon lights in all the colors neon lights can come in. Signs on the fronts of the big gaming houses that stay open until lights aren’t needed any more; and the one flash of light across Virginia Street at the intersection of Commercial Row which had been photographed more times than the mind of man could have conjectured:
The Biggest Little City in the World
He drove slowly by the Happy Times Club. He could see quite a few people inside. You wouldn’t think there was anything wrong when you looked at something like that.
At the corner of First Street, he stopped for the signal. He pulled around a military vehicle that seemed to be waiting for the signal, too. It was an open vehicle, painted the olive drab of the Army, and sitting stiffly erect behind the wheel was a natty-looking first lieutenant with his cap at just the right angle over one eye.
The signal bell up on the corner poles clanged loudly and the lights turned green. Gannett crossed the intersection, but the lieutenant and his military vehicle stayed behind.
He went by the Golden Bubble, which was perhaps the largest and gaudiest of all the gaming places in Reno. Its big front, done in glass bricks with multicolored lights behind them, looked like some monstrous kaleidoscope built for the use of the Man in the Moon. Seen from his jeep, through the plate glass of the wide door, the interior of the Golden Bubble seemed to be a happy, carousing place full of the joyous laughter of folks having a fine time. Only that wasn’t so, of course, for the only sounds to be heard were the jeep’s motor and the signal bells on the corner poles.