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Title: To Each His Own

Author: Jack Sharkey

Release Date: November 19, 2019 [EBook #60737]

Language: English


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                            To Each His Own

                            By JACK SHARKEY

                     _A world ideal for life will
                      have life on it--but don't
                          expect ideal life!_

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
              Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1960.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


On September the 24th, 1965, the Venusian spaceship _Investigator_
floated gently to Earth in Times Square.

The sleek metal belly of the ship touched feather-light upon the
asphalt "X" of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and stubby stabilizing legs
extended from ports along the sides of the hull, bracing the ship's
mass against dangerous rolling, leaving it hulking there like some
metallic beetle at rest.

The sun was almost directly overhead, sending yellow-gold serpentine
glints wriggling on the gleaming surface of the ship. After the very
slight thumping as the ship settled into place, there was no sound
throughout the nearby streets of New York.

Absent was the noise of traffic, the hubbub of voices, the
hurry-scurry of pedestrians. Nothing but heavy oppressive silence
everywhere outside the body of the ship. No apprehensive eye appeared
at a window to stare at the visitor from the nearest planet. No
telephone was picked up in nervous haste to warn the authorities of
the possible menace to the peoples of Earth. Just the silence and the
dancing sunlight.

Inside the spaceship, there was swift, practiced activity.

The Venusians were a picked, trained crew. This, the first contact with
the third planet, called for quick reaction, accurate evaluation, and
competent decision.

Each of the five aboard had a job to do immediately upon landing. With
no conversation, they were all at their tasks. It was an operation
they'd practiced many times over, back at their home base on Venus.
They were sick of the thing even before being sent to Earth. But their
training had paid well, for now their motions were automatic, each
separate action swift, sure and precise.

Gwann, the pilot, his heavy-lidded eyes narrowed with the intensity
of concentration, checked and re-checked his instruments and gauges.
His nimble three-digited hands, with their long, flat palms, flickered
from button to switch to dial. He locked the stabilizing legs into
position, once each leg had made its contact securely with the surface
outside. He dampered the power of the interplanetary drive, leaving its
deadly emanations at a low, and therefore safe, degree of pulsation. He
checked the release valves of the individual skimmers, making certain
at the same time that, should the atmosphere outside be hostile to
Venusian breathing, the tanks were filled and the cockpit seals were
tight and break-free.

       *       *       *       *       *

Drog, the navigator, used compass, ruler and stylus upon the scant,
almost rudimentary Earth map, to determine the exact point of contact
with the third planet. Venusian telescopes were able to see--very
indistinctly--continental outlines at the twenty-million-mile distance
to their neighbor planet. But the foggy overhang that shrouded their
home planet had made sharp topographical drawing well-nigh impossible.

Volval, as Drog passed him the information, relayed the findings by
light-beam back to their home base. The geographical location, coded
into the tight beam, sped outward from the surface of Earth toward
Venus, where it would not be received for at least a minute and a half.
Volval, having transmitted the data, waited impatiently while the
Venusian biochemist tested the outside surface against their leaving
the ship.

Jorik, the biochemist, revolved the small metal "cage" with its
quivering, burbling Venusian life-forms on it back into the space
over his work-table. The animals seemed unharmed by their exposure
to the alien planet, but he began more definitive tests upon the
samplings of atmosphere and soil and vegetation brought back by a tiny
robo-skimmer that had searched throughout a three-mile radius of the
ship immediately after the landing, and had returned by homing beam to
its tiny access port in the thick metal side of the ship.

While Volval waited in increasing irritation, and Jorik ran his tests,
Klendro, the most expendable member of the expedition, studied his
speech over and over, his three-valved heart squirting its watery
blood through his tiny, hairlike arteries and veins.

Klendro was almost a social outcast with these others, these real
spacemen, though his job, he felt, was the most important. Klendro was
the Venusian ambassador to the governments of Earth. He went over his
speech again, hoping that the Earth broadcasts picked up now and then
on Venus had been accurate enough for the Venusian linguists to write
him a speech that wouldn't embarrass the Earth people by its inane
misuses of their tongue.

Broadcasts had indicated that the major powers on Earth were the United
States--whatever those were--of America and Soviet Russia. The Russian
broadcasts, however, being nothing more than a series of eulogies
declaring the happiness of life in Russia, had been too lacking in
breadth to give the linguists much to work on. They had therefore
chosen English as the tongue in which Klendro was to make his speech.

He lifted the scroll once more and began reading his speech half aloud,
having a bit of trouble, as usual, in controlling the square-tipped
surface of his tongue in forming the unfamiliar syllables.

"Pipple of Arth," he said, slowly and with much effort, "it is with
grett plazzer that we mek this, tha farst contact with arr nebber
planet. We are from tha second planet from yer--or mebbe Uh shudd
seh _arr_--sun. Tha planet you knaw as Venus. We feel that we can
share with arr nebber planet the froots of arr--of arr--" Klendro
braced himself, then forced out awkwardly, "moot-yoo-ull sa-yan-tific
ri-sarch...."

He refolded the long coil of the scroll and stuffed it into his
belt-sack. Well, he told himself, for better or worse, I've got to give
this speech. He wished he were anywhere but here.

       *       *       *       *       *

Some of the broadcasts had indicated a certain belligerency in the
inhabitants of this alien planet. He wondered, with a kind of sick
fright, if he would ever have the opportunity to deliver the speech,
even _badly_. Some of the more esoteric phrasings of the Earth
broadcasts had eluded the interpretations of the Venusian linguists.
One of the more recurrent phrases was a "slug in the guts." They
were not sure exactly what this entailed, but, from the context, the
linguists were certain that it was something dire, possibly fatal.

Klendro was a very unhappy Venusian.

"Volval!" Klendro heard Drog cry out. "Did you send that stuff?"

"Yes," the light-beam operator called back. "I'm waiting on Jorik now."

"All set here," called Jorik, coming into Volval's compartment,
followed by Gwann. "The atmosphere is breathable. A little heavy on the
oxygen and light on the carbon dioxide, but that was expected before we
took off. If we take deep inhales and periodic radiation, we should be
all right."

"Fine," said Gwann, the pilot and leader, as Klendro came into the
room with the others. "Better keep your guns loose in their holsters,
though. You know what they've told us about the Earthmen."

"Hot-headed." Volval nodded.

"Will we take the skimmers?" asked Jorik. "Or do you think the Earthmen
would prefer being met without the barrier-screens around us?"

"_They'd_ prefer it, all right!" said Drog. "However, in _my_ opinion--"

"We're going to have to chance it sooner or later without the screens,"
said Gwann. "The batteries in the skimmers won't last forever. We might
as well go out there as we are."

"Who goes first?" asked Jorik.

"Well," Gwann shrugged, "if the crowds look hostile, _I_ should go, as
your leader. If they seem merely curious, then it's up to Klendro, as
our ambassador, to make his speech."

Jorik frowned. "Now, wait, Gwann. Perhaps I ought to tell you. The
sight records on the robo-skimmer showed no evidence of Earthmen
outside the ship."

"That's ridiculous," said Gwann, his eyes flashing. "Venus reports this
city is one of the most populous."

Jorik smiled wryly. "Then the populace certainly ducked out of sight
quickly when they saw the robo-skimmer coming."

Gwann seemed on the point of making a sharp retort, and instead turned
away toward the exit lock. "Since things seem suspicious, I'd best go
first."

"Sir," said Volval, laying a hand upon his leader's arm.

"Yes?" queried Gwann, pausing.

"Good luck, sir," Volval faltered, drawing his hand back.

"Thanks," said Gwann, not unkindly. "For Venus," he added.

"For Venus," the others echoed.

Gwann released the safety lock on the circular metal door and turned
the valve handle. Slowly, the door recessed itself in the metal pocket
in the ship's wall, and Gwann went out into the yellow glow of the
sunlight glittering in Times Square.

       *       *       *       *       *

The sun was glowing crimson on the horizon when the five Venusians met
once more at the door of their ship.

"Nothing--no clue, no people," said Jorik, his face wrinkled with
puzzlement. "I can't understand it."

"Perhaps some holocaust...?" Volval began weakly.

"Or a war?" Drog hinted gravely.

"Impossible!" said Gwann, leaning against one of the legs of the
gigantic ship. "There is a conspicuous absence of anything that might
be construed as a weapon of war. There are no bodies in the buildings
or in the streets. No wreckage anywhere."

"Perhaps they have been frightened by our appearance and have gone into
hiding?" asked Klendro, fingering the edge of his now futile scroll
where it protruded from his belt-sack.

"Nonsense," said their leader. "From all we've learned of the Earthmen,
fright would only make them aggressive. They would not have hidden from
us; they'd have tried to shoot us down when we emerged from the ship."

"There was _one_ thing...." said Jorik slowly. "I almost did not
see it, but its shadow passed close by me on the side of one of the
buildings, and I looked up barely in time to get a glimpse of it before
it vanished."

"What was it like?" asked Gwann quickly.

"Some sort of animal, probably carnivorous," said Jorik. "I cannot
be _certain_, of course, but I saw a mouth with teeth bespeaking
flesh-eating. Quite a--" he repressed a shudder--"quite a large mouth."

"Strange," said Gwann. "Exceedingly strange. You saw only the one?"

Jorik nodded.

"Well," said Gwann, "one carnivore cannot have accounted for a
population that runs into the millions. Besides, the Earthmen would be
able to deal with mere animal life."

       *       *       *       *       *

Klendro remembered the "slug in the guts" and blanched.

"What should we do, sir?" asked Volval. "Our orders were to make
peaceful contact with the Earthmen. If there _are_ no Earthmen--?"

"Calm yourself, Volval." Gwann smiled, patting the younger man upon the
shoulder. "If there are Earthmen to contact, we'll make that contact. I
have an idea."

"What, sir?" asked Drog.

"We shall each take one of the skimmers and investigate the surface of
the planet. Now, while our maps are incomplete, I feel that Drog can
draw us up competent enough maps to guide us over the surface of Earth."

"I can try, sir," said Drog.

"We'll meet back here at the ship in five days," said Gwann. "All of
you take along enough supplies for five days, plus an extra day's
rations in case of emergency. The homing beam on our ship will bring
you safely back if you get lost."

"One thing, sir," said Jorik, his brow creased in a frown. "We'd best
all take along extra ammunition for the guns."

"The carnivores?"

The biochemist nodded. "Where there's one, there are bound to be
others. That one I saw was large enough to bite a chunk out of a
skimmer."

Klendro, pale already, lost more color.

       *       *       *       *       *

Each was assigned a continent to check. Of the two extra continents,
Drog took one, and Gwann the other, the consensus being that the pilot
and navigator could better cover extra territory than the others, who
were less used to piloting the sleek skimmers.

Volval was to go to the Europe-Asia land mass, Gwann to Africa and
Antarctica, Klendro to Australia, Jorik to South America, and Drog to
Arctica, after first checking over the North American Continent on
which they had landed.

"Something exceedingly strange," said Jorik, before they separated,
"about the consolidation of their civilization. So much wasted land
area."

"The sooner I get back to Venus, the happier I'll be," said Gwann,
keeping his voice down so that only Jorik, the biochemist, could hear
him. "This place is eerie. It's--it's like a ghost planet."

"And there's something wrong about the buildings. They are abominably
inefficient. I can barely conceive the uses of some of the artifacts."

"Maybe," said Gwann suddenly, "we never _will_ know!"

"Sir," said Volval, approaching the pilot, "I've discovered some maps."
He held out a packet of papers, tinted blue and brown.

"Good work, Volval," said Gwann, taking the packet. "Where did you find
them?"

"In one of those small shops, not far from the ship, sir. I cannot read
the designations, of course, but I thought that, by a comparison with
the maps from Venus Observatory, we might--"

"That's intelligent thinking," said Gwann, nodding. "Their maps are
bound to be similar to ours. Klendro! What can you make of these?"

The ambassador came over and took the thick packet. The paper of the
maps, as he did so, tore apart, and bits and pieces of the soft, pulpy
edges dropped in a shower to the street.

"Not very substantial material, is it?" he muttered, unfolding the
topmost of the maps. He looked over the colored line drawings on the
page in some bewilderment. The letters spelling out "Rand McNally"
meant nothing to his alien eyes. The map itself was a mercator
projection of the globe, the extreme northern and southern continents
being somewhat distorted. After a few moments, he shook his head.

"I'm sorry. All the Earth broadcasts that we intercepted gave me a
working knowledge of the _spoken_ word, sir, but I'm afraid their
actual word symbols are beyond me. It would take trained linguists
months, perhaps years, to get a correlation between the sound of the
word and its written image."

"Drog?" said Gwann, turning to the navigator.

Drog took the rotting sheet in his hands and studied the configurations
of the continents. After a bit, he brightened.

"Sir, I think I can figure this out. According to our landing
calculations, we are here." He jabbed a digit at one section of the
page, and was distressed when it went right through. "The material
seems to be falling apart, sir."

"Perhaps," Jorik suggested, "it is undergoing some unnatural
stress--possibly tied up somehow with whatever it was that depopulated
this city?"

"A good point, Jorik," said Gwann.

       *       *       *       *       *

A long black shadow slid across the pavement near their feet and
the five Venusians, very much startled, looked overhead. They were
barely in time to see the huge gray form of the carnivore before it
vanished behind a sign atop a nearby building which bore the mystifying
information "Pepsi-Cola."

"There, sir!" cried Jorik. "That's exactly like the one I saw earlier!"

"Those _teeth_!" Klendro whimpered. "They could bite one of us in two!"

"And what they could do to us, they could do to an Earthman," Gwann
said speculatively. "From the sizes of the doorways in these buildings,
and the clothing on display in the shop windows, the Earthmen could not
have been much larger than us."

"Sir," said Drog, holding up the map so that the leader could see it,
"look here. This blue section that runs all over the map. You see, it's
marked circle-arc-fork-cone-zigzag."

"Yes," said Gwann. "I see. What about it?"

"Well, sir, it recurs on the map, but each time it has a new group of
symbols in front of it. What can it mean?"

Gwann frowned and studied the five symbols: O-C-E-A-N.

"Seems to suggest a similarity between all of them," said Jorik.
"Perhaps the first symbol only means that the section is in a different
place."

All five Venusians studied A-R-C-T-I-C, A-N-T-A-R-C-T-I-C, I-N-D-I-A-N,
and the other symbols that were used in conjunction with the
mysterious O-C-E-A-N.

"A tribal tabu!" exclaimed Jorik.

"What are you talking about, Jorik?" said Gwann impatiently.

"You recall I said there seemed something strange about the
consolidation of the populace in certain areas? The wasted land space?"

"Yes, yes. What about it?"

"All these sections marked O-C-E-A-N are the unused areas. There must
have been some sort of tribal superstition about dwelling in those
areas. That would explain why all the people lived on the higher ground
here."

"I--I would have expected to find something _blue_ in that area," said
Gwann uncertainly. "Or else why is it so marked?"

"Sir," said Jorik respectfully, "some sections are colored very
oddly--even in red. Yet no such colors were found anywhere on the
planet by our telescopes, were they? And none of these large blue areas
shows population centers. Tabu areas, obviously--not to be inhabited."

Gwann shivered. "The longer I stay here, the less I like it. Come on.
Each of you take one of these maps. Drog, you assign us to a specific
sector by these maps, rather than by ours. We'll meet back here at the
ship in five days."

One by one, the Venusians got aboard their skimmers, making sure the
protective barriers were working, and then glided off to investigate
the ghost planet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Drog, sliding in his trim craft over the North American continent,
stopped many times, at each large city he discovered, but the story
was the same as in New York. Empty buildings, no particular damages
except what could be accounted for by decay and long disuse. Every
so often--more often than he enjoyed--a flock of the huge carnivores
soared above his skimmer, their long, dark shadows slithering over the
cockpit in the dancing yellow sunlight.

Once, one of them broke away from the group and spiraled down to
investigate his craft. Drog jabbed the button of the nose-gun hastily,
and a lance of metal sped with a flicker of light into the thick hide
of the oncoming monster.

A thick spray of blood gushed from the wound, as the great beast
writhed in torment before sliding down through the atmosphere toward
the distant ground. Its blood hung in a grisly trail over it as it
plunged, marking its passage, then began to fall slowly after the beast.

Drog was by now almost a mile beyond the point where he had fired at
the carnivore, but he wasn't too far away to see its hungry companions
swoop down after it and begin rending it even before it reached the
ground.

He shuddered and looked away.

As he soared onward, he determined to keep the barrier on all night
long, while he slept. If he _could_ sleep....

North America taken care of, as well as possible in his limited time,
Drog headed northward for the continent of Arctica.

Nothing but bare land and ocean bottom met his eye.

Feeling increasingly queasy, he nosed the skimmer around and set it
swishing back toward New York.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jorik watched the shadow of his skimmer pacing his own motion over the
tops of the tangled jungle trees below. He inclined the nose of the
craft downward, and began a shallow glide toward a clearing in the
midst of the dense undergrowth.

Braking the skimmer gently, he let it settle slowly into the resilient
grip of the tall yellow-brown grass in the clearing. Making sure his
gun was loaded and the safety catch off, he slid open the cockpit and
eased himself out.

He was--though of course he didn't know it--deep in the Matto Grosso of
South America. Everywhere he looked, violent flares of color peeped at
him through the twisted, swaying vines that clung everywhere. Nature
had run riot in the jungle. No subtleties of shading or form here.
Long, sharp leaves gleamed greenly on all sides of the biochemist.
Radiant reds glowed from the shadowy depths of forest beyond the small
clearing. Golden streamers hung in profusion from each crooked elbow of
the chaotically twisted tree branches all about him.

Despite the brilliance and beauty of it, Jorik sensed a hidden menace
in the place. He should, at that spot, have been hearing shrieking,
roaring, bleating, grunting of animals, the cries of birds and
skittering of insects. There was nothing but that all-pervading silence.

Jorik moved slowly away from the skimmer and approached the nearest
tree, his scientist's eye pondering something not-quite-right-looking
about it. As he got to it, and touched it, the thick, corrugated bark
fell into powder between his fingers. He pressed, pried, thumped and
tugged at the tree. It was dead. Dead and rotting.

His heart fluttered annoyingly in his breast. There was something
frightening about the way things were going. He could understand a war
destroying human life, even civilization, but this--this was primeval
territory. The beasts, the plants, the lower forms of life--these
should have survived.

But they hadn't.

Suddenly afraid, he rushed back to his skimmer, slid into the cockpit
and took off, rising at a swift vertical angle from the dead jungle.

Toward the eastern coast of South America, he saw many fine hotels,
with magnificent curves of beaches following the perimeter of the land
mass on which the people had lived--already he was thinking of them in
the past tense--and Jorik wondered at the absence of the blue O-C-E-A-N
that should have bordered those beaches.

But as he glided outward from the coast, curving steadily northward
toward New York, he saw that the beaches, with their pale silver sands,
extended outward and downward toward only more land, soon becoming
rocky, then turning at last into mud and ooze, with a sprinkling of
blackish-green weeds. But no visible trace of the mysterious O-C-E-A-N.

       *       *       *       *       *

Gwann, searching throughout Africa, fared no better. Only the silence,
the rotting vegetation, and the absence of landlocked life. Higher in
the atmosphere of the ghost planet, he saw many of the carnivores,
but also smaller animals, soaring in gloriously colored groups, and
seemingly harmless. There were times when he had to pass through
literal clouds of these smaller beasts, whizzing and bobbing and
gliding past him by the millions, only to vanish in the hazy distance
with a blaze of color.

Africa having proven fruitless, Gwann directed the skimmer toward the
opposite polar region from that which Drog was to investigate.

Like Drog, he found only land there, and no continent. The land was
ocean bottom. He consulted his map, but there was nothing below his
skimmer that corresponded with the cryptic markings: A-N-T-A-R-C-T-I-C
O-C-E-A-N.

He turned his skimmer around and started back for New York.

       *       *       *       *       *

Volval, cruising from the Alps to the steppes and back again, found
nothing to explain the disappearance of the Earthmen. Many cities,
many lands, hamlets and villages, huts and palaces.... It was the same
every place. Silence. Fleeting glimpses of the carnivores and sometimes
tinier-but-similar beasts. But no Earthmen.

       *       *       *       *       *

Klendro had passed over the surface of Australia fifty times in his
five alloted days without discovering life of any sort other than the
carnivores. And they, for some reason, were unusually well represented
in that region. They had come at his skimmer in grinning swarms, but
the barrier held firm, and the unlucky nearer ones spun away with
scorched flesh glowing red, to be torn to pieces by their companions.

When he decided further investigation was useless, Klendro was very
glad to leave that place. A group of the carnivores gave chase, but
Klendro spun his ship about long enough to shoot metal darts into two
of them. As the others swerved back to begin an impromptu feast on
their wounded companions, Klendro turned the skimmer up to full speed
and made quick connection with the homing device on the ship, back in
New York.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I don't understand it," said Gwann, on the night of the fifth day.
The Venusians were all back in the ship in Times Square, having a
meal together that was partly to satisfy their appetites, partly to
celebrate being together again with their friends.

"It's incredible, all right," said Jorik. "A whole planet--and of a
high degree of civilization, too--wiped out. The very vegetation dying.
And that's the frightening part of it: Not _dead_, mind you, _dying_.
That means that whatever happened here happened _recently_."

"And those constructions in the buildings," said Volval, staring
bemusedly at the wall, "the ones marked S-t-a-i-r-w-a-y. I wonder what
they were for."

"Obviously they were decorations added by the architect," said Drog.
"Any fool can see they served no purpose. If anything, they _hindered_
the use of the access slots to the various levels of the buildings."

"Well," said Gwann, "our work here is through. We'd better be heading
back to Venus."

"And your report?" asked Jorik.

"Positive," said Gwann. "Favorable for immediate possession and
colonization."

"It's a good little planet." Jorik nodded. "But why do you suppose the
Earthmen all vanished?"

"We'll probably never know," Volval sighed.

"Not unless," said Klendro, indicating a bale of salvaged Earth
materials, "our linguists and archeologists can make some sense out of
this junk here."

"Let's hope so," Gwann said. "The mysteriousness of this whole thing is
going to drive me crazy if they don't."

"Well, sir," said Drog, consulting his charts, "if we're going to take
advantage of juxtaposition of the two planets--"

"Right," said Gwann, turning and making his way toward the pilot's
compartment. "We'll depart from Earth in ten minutes. Secure all
hatches and loose objects until we get into space."

The crew hurried to their tasks.

       *       *       *       *       *

Halfway to Venus, Volval, paging idly through one of the rotting books
from Earth, gave a shout.

"What is it?" said Gwann, coming into the light-beam operator's
compartment, stretching to ease the muscle cramps from his long stint
in the pilot's cabin.

"I've found a picture of the carnivore, sir!" said Volval proudly.
"Look, sir."

"Hmm," said Gwann, studying the fading illustration. "I believe you're
right. Jorik!"

The biochemist popped into the compartment, his face curious. "Yes,
sir? What is it?"

"Isn't this one of your carnivores, Jorik?" asked Gwann, giving him the
book.

Jorik, reaching for the book, nudged one of the newspapers atop the
stack near the cabin wall, and the front page fluttered unnoticed to
the floor. Across its surface were spread the incomprehensible--to
Venusian eyes--words:

                 LITHIUM BOMB TEST COULD DESTROY WORLD

                  Noted Scientist Declares Danger of
                  Polar Experiment; Melted Polar Caps
                        May Flood Entire Globe

Jorik studied the picture carefully, his gills trickling a faint stream
of bubbles as he concentrated on the image of the carnivore. "Yes,
that's one of them, sure enough. I wish I could read Earth writing. I
wonder just what a T-i-g-e-r-s-h-a-r-k is."

Volval bobbed up from his place and floated to a port in the ceiling,
through which he could see the tiny, glittering ball of Earth, its
blue-green surface sparkling like a star against the black backdrop of
empty space.

"I can't understand what killed them," he said. "Living conditions were
ideal."





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