Knock by FREDRIC BROWN
There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long:
"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room There was a knock on the
Two sentences and an ellipsis of three dots. The horror, of course,
isn't in the two sentences at all; it's in the ellipsis, the implication:
what knocked at the door? Faced with the unknown, the human mind supplies
something vaguely horrible.
But it wasn't horrible, really.
The last man on Earth - or in the universe, for that matter - sat
alone in a room. It was a rather peculiar room. He'd just noticed how
peculiar it was and he'd been studying out the reason for its peculiarity.
His conclusions didn't horrify him, but it annoyed him.
Walter Phelan, who had been associate professor of anthropology at
Nathan University up until the time two days ago when Nathan University
had ceased to exist, was not a man who horrifled easily. Not that Walter
Phelan was a heroic figure, by any wild stretch of the imagination. He was
slight of stature and mild of disposition. He wasn't much to look at, and
he knew it.
Not that his appearance worried him now. Right now, in fact, there
wasn't much feeling in him. Abstractedly, he knew that two days ago,
within the space of an hour, the human race had been destroyed, except for
him and, somewhere, a woman - one woman. And that was a fact which didn't
concern Walter Phelan in the slightest degree. He'd probably never see her
and didn't care too much if he didn't.
Women just hadn't been a factor in Walter's life since Martha had
died a year and a half ago. Not that Martha hadn't been a good wife -
albeit a bit on the bossy side. Yes, he'd loved Martha, in a deep, quiet
way. He was only forty now, and he'd been only thirty-eight when Martha
had died, but - well - he just hadn't thought about women since then. His
life had been his books, the ones he read and the ones he wrote. Now there
wasn't any point in writing books, but he had the rest of his life to
spend in reading them.
True, company would be nice, but he'd get along without it. Maybe
after a while, he'd get so he'd enjoy the occasional company of one of the
Zan, although that was a bit difficult to imagine. Their thinking was so
alien to his that there seemed no common ground for discussion,
intelligent though they were, in a way.
An ant is intelligent, in a way, but no man ever established
communication with an ant. He thought of the Zan, somehow, as super-ants,
although they didn't look like ants, and he had a hunch that the Zan
regarded the human race as the human race had regarded ordinary ants.
Certainly what they'd done to Earth had been what men did to ant hills-and
it had been done much more efficiently.
But they had given him plenty of books. They'd been nice about that,
as soon as he had told them what he wanted, and he had told them that the
moment he had learned that he was destined to spend the rest of his life
alone in this room. The rest of his life, or as the Zan had quaintly
expressed it, forev-er. Even a brilliant mind - and the Zan obviously had
brilliant minds - has its idiosyncracies. The Zan had learned to speak
Terrestrial English in a manner of hours but they persisted in separating
syllables. But we disgress.
There was a knock on the door.
You've got it all now, except the three dots, the ellipsis, and I'm
going to fill that in and show you that it wasn't horrible at all.
Walter Phelan called out, "Come in," and the door opened. It was of
course, only a Zan. It looked exactly like the other Zan; if there was any
way of telling one of them from another, Walter hadn't found it. It was
about four feet tall and it looked like nothing on earth - nothing, that
is, that had been on Earth until the Zan came there.
Walter said, "Hello, George." When he'd learned that none of them had
names he decided to call them all George, and the Zan didn't seem to mind.
This one said, "Hel-lo, Wal-ter." That was ritual; the knock on the
door and the greetings. Walter waited.
"Point one," said the Zan "You will please hence-forth sit with your
chair turned the other way."
Walter said, "I thought so, George. That plain wall is transparent
from the other side, isn't it?"
"It is trans-par-ent."
"Just what I thought I'm in a zoo Right?"
"That is right."
Walter sighed. "I knew it. That plain, blank wall, without a single
piece of furniture against it. And made of something different from the
other walls. If I persist in sitting with my back to it, what then? You
will kill me? - I ask hopefully."
"We will take a-way your books."
"You've got me there George. All right I'll face the other way when I
sit and read. How many other animals besides me are in this zoo of yours?"
"Two hun-dred and six-teen."
Walter shook his head. "Not complete, George. Even a bush league zoo
can beat that - could beat that, I mean, if there were any bush league
zoos left. Did you just pick at random?"
"Ran-dom sam-ples yes All spe-cies would have been too man-y. Male
and female each of one hun-dred and eight kinds,"
"What do you feed them? The carnivorous ones, I mean."
"We make food Syn-thet-ic."
"Smart," said Walter. "And the flora? You got a collection of that,
"Flo-ra was not hurt by vi-bra-tions. It is all still grow-ing."
"Nice for the flora," said Walter. "You weren't as hard on it, then,
as you were on the fauna, Well, George, you started out with 'point one.'
I deduced there is a point two kicking around somewhere. What is it?"
"Some-thing we do not un-der-stand. Two of the oth-er a-nimals sleep
and do not wake? They are cold."
"It happens in the best regulated zoos, George," Walter Phelan said.
"Probably not a thing wrong with them except that they're dead."
"Dead? That means stopped. But nothing stopped them. Each was a-lone."
Walter stared at the Zan. "Do you mean, George, you don't know what
natural death is?"
"Death is when a be-ing is killed, stopped from liv-ing."
Walter Phelan blinked. "How old are you, George?" he asked.
"Six-teen-you would not know the word. Your pla-net went a-round your
sun a-bout sev-en thou-sand times, I am still young."
Walter whistled softly. "A babe in arms," he said. He thought hard a
moment. "Look, George," he said, "you've got something to learn about this
planet you're on. There's a guy here who doesn't hang around where you
come from. An old man with a beard and a scythe and an hour-glass. Your
vibrations didn't kill him."
"What is he?"
"Call him the Grim Reaper, George. Old Man Death. Our people and
animals live until somebody - Old Man Deathstops them ticking."
"He stopped the two crea-tures? He will stop more?"
Walter opened his mouth to answer, and then closed it again.
Something in the Zan's voice indicated that there would be a worried frown
on his face, if he had had a face recognizable as such.
"How about taking me to these animals who won't wake up?" Walter
asked. "Is that against the rules?"
"Come," said the Zan.
That had been the afternoon of the second day. It was the next
morning that the Zan came back, several of them. They began to move Walter
Phelan's books and furniture. When they'd finished that, they moved him.
He found himself in a much larger room a hundred yards away.
He sat and waited and this time, too, when there was a knock on the
door, he knew what was coming and politely stood up. A Zan opened the door
and stood aside. A woman entered.
Walter bowed shghtly, "Walter Phelan," he said, "in case George
didn't tell you my name. George tries to be polite, but he doesn't know
all of our ways."
The woman seemed calm; he was glad to notice that. She said, "My name
is Grace Evans, Mr. Phelan. What's this all about? Why did they bring me
Walter was studying her as she talked. She was tall, fully as tall as
he, and well-proportioned. She looked to be somewhere in her early
thirties, about the age Martha had been. She had the same calm confidence
about her that be'd always liked about Martha, even though it had
contrasted with his own easy-going informality. In fact, he thought she
looked quite a bit like Martha.
"I think I know why they brought you here but let's go back a bit,"
he said. "Do you know just what has happened otherwise?"
"You mean that they've - killed everyone?"
"Yes. Please sit down. You know how they accomplished it?" She sank
into a comfortable chair nearby. "No," she said, "I don't know just how.
Not that it matters does it?"
"Not a lot. But here's the story - what I know of it from getting one
of them to talk, and from piecing things together. There isn't a great
number of them - here, anyway. I don't know how numerous a race they are
where they came from and I don't know where that is, but I'd guess it's
outside the Solar System. You've seen the space ship they came in?"
"Yes It's as big as a mountain."
"Almost. Well it has equipment for emitting some sort of a vibration
- they call it that, in our language, but I imagine it's more like a radio
wave than a sound vibration - that destroys all animal life. It - the ship
itself - is insulated against the vibration. I don't know whether its
range is big enough to kill off the whole planet at once, or whether they
flew in circles around the earth, sending out the vibratory waves. But it
killed everybody and everything instantly and, I hope, painlessly. The
only reason we, and the other two-hundredodd animals in this zoo, weren't
killed was because we were inside the ship. We'd been picked up as
specimens. You do know this is a zoo, don't you?"
"I - I suspected it."
"The front walls are transparenl from the outside The Zan were pretty
clever at fixing up the inside of each cubicle to match the natural
habitat of the creature it contains. These cubicles, such as the one we're
in, are of plastic, and they've got a machine that makes one in about ten
minutes, If Earth had had a machine and a process like that, there
wouldn't have been any housing shortage. Well, there isn't any housing
shortage now, anyway. And I imagine that the human race - specifically you
and I - can stop worrying about the A-bomb and the next war.The Zan
certainly solved a lot of prohlems for us."
Grace Evans smiled faintly. "Another case where the operation was
successful, but the patient died. Things were in an awful mess. Do you
remember being captured? I don't. I went to sleep one night and woke up in
a cage on the space ship."
"I don't remember either " Walter said. "My hunch is that they used
the vibratory waves at low intensity first, just enough to knock us all
out. Then they cruised around, picking up samples more or less at random
for their zoo. After they had as many as they wanted, or as many as they
had space in the ship to hold, they turned on the juice all the way. And
that was that. It wasn't until yesterday they knew they'd made a mistake
and had underestimated us. They thought we were immortal, as they are."
"That we were - what?"
"They can be killed but they don't know what natural death is. They
didn't anyway, until yesterday. Two of us died yesterday."
"Two of - Oh!"
"Yes, two of us animals in their zoo. One was a snake and one was a
duck. Two species gone irrevocably. And by the Zan's way of figuring time,
the remaining member of each species is going to live only a few minutes,
anyway. They figured they had permanent specimens."
"You mean they didn't realize what short-lived creatures we are?"
"That's right," Walter said. "One of them is young at seven thousand
years, he told me. They're bi-sexual themselves, incidentally, but they
probably breed once every ten thousand years or thereabouts. When they
learned yesterday how ridiculously short a life expectancy we terrestrial
animals have, they were probably shocked to the core - if they have cores.
At any rate they decided to reorganize their zoo - two by two instead of
one by one. They figure we'll last longer collectively if not
"Oh!" Grace Evans stood up and there was a taint flush on her face.
"If you think - If they think -" She turned toward the door.
"It'll be locked," Walter Phelan said calmly "But don't worry. Maybe
they think, but I don't think. You needn't even tell me you wouldn't have
me if I was the last man on Earth; it would be corny under the
"But are they going to keep us locked up together in this one little
"It isn't so little; we'll get by.I can sleep quite comfortably in
one of these overstuffed chairs. And don't think I don't agree with you
perfectly, my dear. All personal considerations aside, the least favor we
can do the human race is to let it end with us and not he perpetuated for
exhibition in a zoo."
She said "Thank you," almost inaudibly, and the flush receded from
her checks. There was anger in her eyes, but Walter knew that is wasn't
anger at him. With her eyes sparkling like that, she looked a lot like
Martha, he thought.
He smiled at her and said, "Otherwise -'
She started out of her chair, and for an instant he thought she was
going to come over and slap him.Then she sank back wearily. "If you were a
man, you'd be thinking of some way to - They can be killed, you said?" Her
voice was bitter.
"The Zan? Oh, certainly. I've been studying them. They look horribly
different from us, but I think they have about the same metabolism we
have, the same type of circulatory system, and probably the same type of
digestive system. I think that anything that would kill one of us would
kill one of them."
"But you said -"
"Oh, there are differences, of course. Whatever factor it is in man
that ages him, they don't have. Or else they have some gland that man
doesn't have, something that renews cells."
She had forgolten her anger now. She leaned forward eagerly. She
said, "I think that's right. And I don't think they feel pain."
"I was hoping that. But what makes you think so, my dear?"
"I stretched a piece of wire that I found in the desk of my cubicle
across the door so my Zan would fall over it. He did, and the wire cut his
"Did he bleed red?"
"Yes but it didn't seem to annoy him. He didn't get mad about it;
didn't even mention it. When he came back the next time, a few hours
later, the cut was one. Well, almost gone. I could see just enough of a
trace of it to be sure it was the same Zan."
Walter Phelan nodded slowly.
"He wouldn't get angry, of course," he said. "They're emotionless.
Maybe, if we killed one, they wouldn t even punish us. But it wouldn't do
any good. They'd just give us our food through a trap door and treat us as
men would have treated a zoo animal that had killed a keeper. They'd just
see that he didn't have a crack at any more keepers.
"How many of them are there?" she asked.
"About two hundred, I think, in this particular space ship. But
undoubtedly there are many more where they came from. I have a hunch this
is just an advance guard, sent to clear off this planet and make it safe
for Zan occupancy,"
"They did a good-"
There was a knock at the door, and Walter Phelan called out, "Come
A Zan stood in the doorway.
"Hello George," said Walter.
"Hel-lo Wal-ter," said the Zan.
It may or may not have been the same Zan, but it was always the same
"What's on your mind?" Walter asked.
"An-oth-er crea-ture sleeps and will not wake.A small fur-ry one
called a wea-sel."
"It happens, George. Old Man Death. I told you about him."
"And worse. A Zan has died. This morning."
"Is that worse?" Walter looked at him blandly. "Well, George, you'll
have to get used to it, if you're going to stay around here."
The Zan said nothing. It stood there.
Finally Walter said, "Well?"
"A-bout wea-sel You ad-vise same?"
Walter shrugged again. "Probably won't do any good. But sure, why
The Zan left.
Walter could hear his footsteps dying away outside. He grinned. "It
might work, Martha," he said.
"Mar - My name is Grace, Mr Phelan. What might work?"
"My name is Walter, Grace. You might as well get used to it. You
know, Grace, you do remind me a lot of Martha. She was my wife.She died a
couple of years ago."
"I'm sorry," said Grace "But what might work? What were you talking
about to the Zan?"
"We'll know tomorrow," Walter said. And she couldn't get another word
out of him.
That was the fourth day of the stay of the Zan.
The next was the last.
It was nearly noon when one of the Zan came. After the ritual, he
stood in the doorway, looking more alien than ever. It would be
interesting to describe him for you, but there aren't words.
He said, "We go. Our coun-cil met and de-cid-ed,"
"Another of you died?"
"Last night This is pla-net of death "
Walter nodded. "You did your share. You're leaving two hundred and
thirteen creatures alive, out of quite a few billion. Don't hurry back."
"Is there an-y-thing we can do?"
"Yes. You can hurry. And you can leave our door unlocked, but not the
others. We'll take care of the others."
Something clicked on the door; the Zan left.
Grace Evans was standing, her eyes shining.
She asked, "What -? How -?"
"Wait," cautioned Walter. "Let's hear them blast off. It's a sound I
want to remember."
The sound caiue within minutes, and Walter Phelan, realizing how
rigidly he'd been holding himself, relaxed in his chair.
"There was a snake in the Garden of Eden, too, Grace, and it got us
in trouble," he said musingly. "But this one made up for it. I mean the
mate of the snake that died day before yesterday. It was a rattlesnake."
"You mean it killed the two Zan who died? But -"
Walter nodded, "They were babes in the woods here. When they took me
to look at the first creatures who 'were asleep and wouldn't wake up,' and
I saw that one of them was a rattler, I had an idea, Grace. Just maybe, I
thought, poison creatures were a development peculiar to Earth and the Zan
wouldn't know about them. And, too, maybe their metabolism was enough like
ours so that the poison would kill them. Anyway, I had nothing to lose
trying. And both maybes turned out to be right."
"How did you get the snake to -"
Walter Phelan grinned. He said, "I told them what affection was. They
didn't know. They were interested, I found, in preserving the remaining
one of each species as long as possible, to study the picture and record
it before it died. I told them it would die immediately because of the
loss of its mate, unless it had affection and petting - constantly. I
showed them how with the duck. Luckily it was a tame one, and I held it
against my chest and petted it a while to show them. Then I let them take
over with it - and the rattlesnake."
He stood up and stretched, and then sat down again more comfortably.
"Well, we've got a world to plan," he said. "We'll have to let the
animals out of the ark, and that will take some thinking and deciding. The
herbivorous wild ones we can let go right away. The domestic ones, we'll
do better to keep and take charge of; we'll need them. But the carnovora -
Well, we'll have to decide. But I'm afraid it's got to be thumbs down."
He looked at her. "And the human race. We've got to make a decision
about that. A pretty important one."
Her face was getting a little pink again, as it had yesterday; she
sat rigidly in her chair.
"No!" she said.
He didn't seem to have heard her. "It's been a nice race, even if
nobody won it," he said. "It'll be starting over again now, and it may go
backward for a while until it gets its breath, but we can gather books for
it and keep most of its knowledge intact, the important things anyway. We
He broke off as she got up and started for the door. Just the way his
Martha would have acted, he thought, back in the days when he was courting
her, before they were married.
He said, "Think it over, my dear, and take your time. But come back."
The door slammed. He sat waiting, thinking out all the things there
were to do, once he started, but iis no hurry to start them; and after a
while he heard her hesitant footsteps coming back.
He smiled a little. See? lt wasn't horrible, really.
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the