The Project Gutenberg eBook of Inheritance

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Title: Inheritance

Author: Edward W. Ludwig

Illustrator: W. E. Terry

Release date: April 9, 2021 [eBook #65035]

Language: English

Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


He had been in the cave for only a short time it
seemed. But when he finally emerged the world he
knew was gone. And it had left him with a strange—


By Edward W. Ludwig

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy
October 1950
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

It shone as a pin-point of silver far away in the midnight-blackness of the cave. It shone as a tiny island of life in a sea of death. It shone as a symbol of His mercy.

Martin stood swaying, staring wide-eyed at that wonderful light and letting its image sink deep into his vision. His eyes lidded as consciousness faded for an instant, then opened.

"We've almost made it," he gasped. "We've almost made it, Sandy, you and me and the pup!"

His hand passed tenderly over the puppy, a soft, hairy ball of living warmth cradled in his arm. And from out of the darkness at his feet came a feeble bark.

Martin choked on the ancient, tomb-stale air. "We can't stop now, Sandy," he wheezed. "We're almost there, almost at the entrance!"

He shuffled forward over the cold stone floor of the little cave, the thick, dead air a solid thing, a wall that pressed him back, back, back.

But the light grew larger, expanding like a balloon, and suddenly there was a skittering of dog-paws over stone and a joyous, frantic barking.

"That's right, Sandy, go ahead. Breathe that air, that fresh air!"

Martin staggered once, his lean, tall body thudding against sharp rock in the side of the cave. Then a draft of air blew cool and fresh into his face, and a strength returned to him.

Abruptly, he was at the source of the light, at the cave's entrance, a hole barely large enough for him to squeeze through. The blinding light of day fell upon him like a gigantic, crashing sea wave. He closed his aching eyes and fell to the side of the rock-strewn hill, sucking the clean sweet air deep into his lungs.

At length he sat up, holding the pup in his arms. "Two days in that hole of hell," he murmured, "and it's all your fault. A month old, and you have to start exploring caves."

He cocked his head. "Still, I guess it's partly my fault. After all, I got lost, too."

Sandy, a black and white fox terrier, barked impatiently.

"Okay, Sandy, okay. We'll go home."

Shakily, Martin rose. His mind was clear now, the fogginess washed away by the cool morning air. There was only hunger, that great gnawing hunger, and thirst that made his throat and mouth seem as dry as ancient parchment.

As he stood overlooking the valley below with its green fields and little groves of trees, a realization came to him. The world wasn't so bad after all! Up to this moment, he'd almost hated the world with its wars, its threats of mass destruction, its warnings of atomic dusts and plagues that could wipe out humanity within an hour. He'd most certainly hated the cities with their blaring, rumbling automobile-monsters, with their mad rushing, their greedy, frantic, senseless, superficial living that was really not living at all.

That was why he had chosen to live in the hill country, on the outskirts of the village, raising his few vegetables and making a trip every few days to the village store to purchase other necessities with his pension check from World War II.

But now, he realized, it was good to be alive and to be a part of the green, growing things of Earth.

Sandy barked again.

"Okay, okay, Sandy. We'll go."

But Sandy came sidling up to him now, tail between his legs. His barking faded to a low, shrill whimper.

"Sandy! What's the matter? What's wrong?"

Even the whimpering ceased, and there was silence. Martin stared at the dog, not understanding. To him came a feeling. Something was wrong. A nameless fear rose within him, but the cause of that fear was intangible, locked just below the surface of consciousness.

He took the fear, crushed it, pushed it back into the caverns of his mind that held only forgotten things. "Nothing's wrong," he declared boldly. "We're just tired and hungry, that's all."

He strode down the quiet hillside toward the broad highway that stretched across the valley. He sang:

"We're happy, so happy,
Don't want to reach a star;
We're happy, always happy,
Just the way we are."

Strange about that tune, he thought. He hated popular music, but in a regrettable moment of optimism he'd once purchased a second-hand battery video. After a three-day saturation with tooth paste and soap commercials he'd consigned the monstrosity to a remote corner of the woods, but that tune—of all the dubious products of civilization—had somehow stuck in his memory.

Suddenly he stopped singing, as if some inexplicable pressure had seized his throat, stopping the flow of words. It was quiet—so incredibly, alarmingly, terrifyingly quiet. Just ahead of him was the highway, its gray smooth ribbon clearly visible through a thin wall of elms. But there was no swish-swish of speeding cars.

And there were no bird twitterings and no insect hummings and no skitterings of squirrels at the bases of trees and no droning of gyro-planes. There was only silence.

He broke out onto the highway which was dotted with cars, and the cars were motionless. Some of them were crushed, charred wrecks on the side of the road; some had collided in the center of the road to become ugly little mountains of twisted metal, and others were simply parked. But all were motionless.

"Come on, Sandy. Something's happened!"

Sandy wouldn't come. He arched his trembling body across Martin's legs, whimpering. Martin picked him up. Sandy in one arm, the drowsy-eyed pup in the other, he walked to the nearest car, which appeared undamaged.

There were three occupants. A man, a woman, a girl-child, and they were as if sleeping. No wounds, no discolorations were on their flesh. But their flesh was cold, cold, and there were no heart beats. They were dead.

"We—We won't go home yet," Martin said softly. "We'll go to the village."

He walked. He walked past a hundred, a thousand silent cars with silent occupants, past green meadows that were dotted with silent, fallen cattle and sheep and horses.

There was a new fear within him now, but even greater than the fear was a numbness that like a sleep-producing drug had dulled mind and vision and hearing. He walked stiffly, automatically. He was afraid to think and reason, for thought and reason could bring only—madness.

"At the village we'll find out what happened," he mumbled.

At the village he found out—nothing. Because there, too, was only a silence and the white, still people.

"Perhaps in the city—" he murmured. "Yes, the city."

The City was 20 miles away, and he selected an automobile, one in which there were no still people. It had been a long time since he'd driven, nearly ten years, but after a few moments of fumbling, remembrance came easily. With Sandy and the pup on the front seat beside him, he drove....

The City was as empty as an ancient skull. There was no life and no reminder of life. There were no still people and no automobiles and no movement and no sound. The towering white office buildings, the broad avenues, the theatres, the parks—all seemed hollow and unreal, like a desert mirage that would dissolve into nothingness at the whispering touch of a breeze.

Martin mumbled, "I reckon, Sandy, that everybody left the City. They headed for the country. That's why we passed so many cars."

He spied the office of The Times. "Maybe we can find out something in there," he said. "Come on, Sandy. Pup, you stay here."

He parked the car and strode into the building, past desks, cabinets, typewriters, stacked bundles of newspapers.

Then he saw the man. He was one of the silent men, sprawled back in a chair, a typewriter before him. He had been writing, evidently, for one stiff, white hand was still poised over the keys.

Martin read the typewritten words aloud:

"The enemy had apparently underestimated the power of the odorless, tasteless gas. A Nitrogen compound of extreme volutility, it has reached virtually every inch of the Earth. The enemy is destroyed as we are destroyed. Gas masks and air filters have proved useless. The gas is highly unstable and should disintegrate within 48 hours, yet because of the suddenness of the attack, we can conclude only that humanity is—" The message broke off.

Suddenly the newsroom was like a tomb, a burial of all mankind's accomplishments and frustrations, his good-doings and evil-doings. Here into this room had flowed, ceaseless as a river, the stories of man's love, hate, struggle, fear, grasping, success, and disappointment. Side by side they lay in the labyrinth of files, the stories of Mrs. Smith's divorce and a dictator's defeat, the sagas of a child losing a pet and a scientist discovering a star. All equal now, as skeletons of great men and little men are equal, all buried in steel drawers and sealed by silence.

Martin looked at the stiffened figure of the reporter. "I wonder why you stayed," he mused. "I wonder why you didn't flee like the others. Maybe, maybe you wanted to write the last news story ever written—and the most important one. Yes, I reckon that was it."

Slowly, Martin walked out of the building and slid into the car. Sandy welcomed him with a joy-filled barking and tail-wagging and tried to lick his face, and the pup attempted to waddle across his legs.

"No, Sandy, don't." He stared unseeingly through the windshield. "Everybody's gone, Sandy, everybody on Earth, except me." His eyes widened slightly. "Course, there might be somebody else, somewhere. The gas never got to us in the cave. Maybe somebody else escaped, somehow."

He shook his head. "Nope, no use hoping for that. Odds'd be a thousand to one 'gainst my finding 'em. No, we just got to make up our minds that we're the last ones alive."

The last ones alive. The thought was like flame in his mind. The numbness was gone now, as coldness thaws from a warmed body, but there came to him a second thought, a horrible, fear-born thought which he dared not say aloud, even to Sandy.

A man can't live alone, without hearing another human voice, without seeing another human form. A man isn't made that way. You've got two choices now, just two: Suicide or madness. Which will it be? Suicide or madness, suicide or madness....

He sat for a long, long time, his mind a jumble of indecision. Then at last he thought, I don't want to go mad, the other way is best. We'll make it easy. Carbon monoxide would be the easiest way.

But suddenly there was a churning and a twisting in his stomach, as though it were being squeezed by a giant hand.

"Golly, Sandy, we forgot to eat. And we haven't eaten for two days." And to himself he said, This'll be our last meal, the last we'll ever have.

He took the pup in his arms and Sandy followed. He spied a huge sign not far away—Cafe Royale. It was a magnificent restaurant, the carpeted, canopied entrance reminding him of the front of a sultan's palace. Three days ago—if he'd been foolish enough to come to the City then—he'd have rushed past it with his hand protecting his pocketbook, hardly daring to look within lest the stiff-shirted, high-chinned waiters and patrons think him a country bumpkin.

But now—well, why not?

He ambled through the vast dining hall with its multitude of white-clothed tables, its potted palms, its modernistic, chromium bar. The high walls were decorated with soft-hued, multi-colored murals depicting the rise of Western Civilization—first, the pioneers, the cowboys, then a factory scene and a war scene, and finally a group of spacemen entering a moon-bound rocket.

Martin made a wheezing sound of admiration. "What a place, eh, Sandy? We should have come here a long time ago."

Then he spied the juke box. "There's one of them music machines—and it's lit up. Reckon the power's still on."

Martin had always wanted to play a juke box, but nickels, back home, were scarce. He pursed his lips. "Why not, Sandy? Nickels don't mean much now, and if this is going to be our last meal, we might as well enjoy it."

He inserted a quarter, and after a few moments of pushing this and that button, music played. It was "Song of The Stars," the latest hit, vibrant, full, rhythmic—not at all like the screeching from the second-hand video he'd owned once.

While he listened, he strode to the bar. Not that he was a drinking man. He occasionally had a cold beer on Saturday evening; that was all. But now, with that dazzling array of bottles glittering before him—"Nobody'll miss it now," he told Sandy.

He poured himself three fingers of Scotch and downed it thirstily. "Ahhhh! Been a long time since I had anything like that. Now let's see what's in that kitchen."

Electricity was still on. Refrigerators were humming, and Martin's gaze wandered appraisingly over red, juicy T-bones, over dressed chickens, turkeys, rabbits, hams.

"Reckon we're too hungry to wait for chicken," he drawled. "Guess T-bones'd be nice for a last meal. How about it, Sandy?"

Sandy barked.

Dinner was soon ready. Fried T-bone, mashed potatoes and dark gravy, caviar, some kind of soup with a fishy taste, apple pie with strawberry ice cream, chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, maple nut, tuiti-fruiti and pineapple ice cream, and coffee.

Martin settled back and puffed on a 50c cigar. "You know, Sandy, it wouldn't always be like this. In a couple of weeks there won't be any more power. Food will spoil, there'll be only canned stuff."

He frowned thoughtfully. Perhaps he'd been wrong. Perhaps suicide was not the best way. He could have a few pleasures in the next day or two—if madness didn't come. And if madness did start to come, well....

It was a sleek, streamlined jet job, the automobile of automobiles. Not an antiquated monstrosity like the '51 coupe he'd been driving.

He stared through the window at its tear-drop lines, at its broad, transparent top, at the shiny chrome and gold.

"We shouldn't be thinking about such things, Sandy. We should be thinking about all those people, those poor people who died. All the men and women and children—"

For an instant, grief welled up within him, a cold, almost sickening grief. But abruptly, it became an impersonal, remote kind of grief. It was like a Fourth of July rocket shooting out a blinding tail of crimson and then bursting, its body crumbling into a thousand pieces, a thousand tiny sparks falling and fading and dying.

"Still, they knew it was coming, didn't they, Sandy? And they didn't try very hard to stop it."

He looked again at the car. "Reckon it won't do any harm to see how it runs. After all, if we're goin' mad, we might as well enjoy ourselves first."

The window display in the sport shop fascinated him. There were guns and fishing rods and fur-lined jackets and shiny boots and bright woolen shirts and sun goggles and camp stoves and—

"Don't reckon the guns'd do us much good," Martin murmured, "seein' as how there's nothing left alive—'cept us. Might be fun to shoot 'em though. I remember when I was a kid, how I used to shoot windows out of old houses." He chuckled softly.

His gaze traveled to the fishing equipment. "Golly, Sandy, I'll bet there's fish left in the oceans! The gas never touched us there in the cave. I'll bet the fish—or a lot of 'em—escaped, too!"

He glanced disapprovingly at his thin, faded shirt, dirty khaki trousers, and worn, scuffed shoes. Those clean, bright, woolen clothes in the window would be nice, very nice, on cool nights.

"Might even have dog clothes in there," he said. "Maybe a dog sweater. How'd you like that, Sandy?"

Sandy barked eagerly.

He squatted on the floor of the travel office, surrounded by a sea of crisp, gaudy-colored posters and pamphlets. What a place this old Earth was! The pyramids of Egypt, the Tower of London, the Washington Monument, the Florida Everglades, the Arch of Triumph, the Eiffel Tower, Yosemite Valley, Boulder Dam, the Wall of China, Yellowstone Park, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, Niagara. Why, it would take a lifetime to see them all!

"You know, Sandy, if a man didn't go mad from being alone, he could see a lot of things. He could travel anywhere on this continent in a car. If something went wrong, he could get parts out of other cars, get gas out of other tanks. There's plenty of canned food everywhere, 'nough to last a lifetime—a dozen lifetimes. Why, he could walk right into Washington, right into the White House and see how the President lived, or go to Hollywood and see how they used to make pictures, or go to them telescope places and look at the stars. Course, there'd be bodies almost everywhere, but in a year or so they'd be gone, all 'cept the bones which never hurt nobody."

He scratched his neck thoughtfully. "Why, you wouldn't have to stay on this continent even. You could find a little boat and sail up the coast to Alaska and then cut across to Asia. It's only fifty miles, they say. And then you could go down to China and India and Africa and Europe. Why, a man could go any place in the world alone!"

Sandy began to lick his face and the pup released a nervous, eager bark that was more like "Yip! Yip!" than a bark.

"That's right, Sandy. I'm not alone, am I? No more than I ever was, really. Never liked to talk to people anyway. You're only two years old, you'll live for ten, maybe twelve years yet, you and the pup. Maybe longer than I will."

He rose, frowning. It was strange. There was a grief and a loneliness within him and he knew they would be within him forever. But, too, there was an ever-growing peace and contentment and a satisfaction, and a sense of still belonging to Earth and being a part of it. Strangest of all, he realized that there was no madness in his mind and no seed of madness. He felt like a boy again, about to begin a wondrous journey through unexplored and enchanted lands to discover new marvels.

He left the travel office, Sandy and the pup barking and clammering at his heels, and he was singing:

"We're happy, so happy,
Don't want to reach a star;
We're happy, always happy,
Just the way we are...."