One Man's Poison

by Robert Sheckley

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: They could eat a horse, only luckily there was none. it might have eaten them first!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Hellman plucked the last radish out of the can with a pair of dividers. He held it up for Casker to admire, then laid it carefully on the workbench beside the razor.

“Hell of a meal for two grown men,” Casker said, flopping down in one of the ship’s padded crash chairs.

“If you’d like to give up your share--” Hellman started to suggest.

Casker shook his head quickly. Hellman smiled, picked up the razor and examined its edge critically.

“Don’t make a production out of it,” Casker said, glancing at the ship’s instruments. They were approaching a red dwarf, the only planet-bearing sun in the vicinity. “We want to be through with supper before we get much closer.”

Hellman made a practice incision in the radish, squinting along the top of the razor. Casker bent closer, his mouth open. Hellman poised the razor delicately and cut the radish cleanly in half.

“Will you say grace?” Hellman asked.

Casker growled something and popped a half in his mouth. Hellman chewed more slowly. The sharp taste seemed to explode along his disused tastebuds.

“Not much bulk value,” Hellman said.

Casker didn’t answer. He was busily studying the red dwarf.


As he swallowed the last of his radish, Hellman stifled a sigh. Their last meal had been three days ago ... if two biscuits and a cup of water could be called a meal. This radish, now resting in the vast emptiness of their stomachs, was the last gram of food on board ship.

“Two planets,” Casker said. “One’s burned to a crisp.”

“Then we’ll land on the other.”

Casker nodded and punched a deceleration spiral into the ship’s tape.

Hellman found himself wondering for the hundredth time where the fault had been. Could he have made out the food requisitions wrong, when they took on supplies at Calao station? After all, he had been devoting most of his attention to the mining equipment. Or had the ground crew just forgotten to load those last precious cases?

He drew his belt in to the fourth new notch he had punched.

Speculation was useless. Whatever the reason, they were in a jam. Ironically enough, they had more than enough fuel to take them back to Calao. But they would be a pair of singularly emaciated corpses by the time the ship reached there.

“We’re coming in now,” Casker said.

And to make matters worse, this unexplored region of space had few suns and fewer planets. Perhaps there was a slight possibility of replenishing their water supply, but the odds were enormous against finding anything they could eat.

“Look at that place,” Casker growled.

Hellman shook himself out of his reverie.

The planet was like a round gray-brown porcupine. The spines of a million needle-sharp mountains glittered in the red dwarf’s feeble light. And as they spiraled lower, circling the planet, the pointed mountains seemed to stretch out to meet them.

“It can’t be all mountains,” Hellman said.

“It’s not.”

Sure enough, there were oceans and lakes, out of which thrust jagged island-mountains. But no sign of level land, no hint of civilization, or even animal life.

“At least it’s got an oxygen atmosphere,” Casker said.

Their deceleration spiral swept them around the planet, cutting lower into the atmosphere, braking against it. And still there was nothing but mountains and lakes and oceans and more mountains.

On the eighth run, Hellman caught sight of a solitary building on a mountain top. Casker braked recklessly, and the hull glowed red hot. On the eleventh run, they made a landing approach.

“Stupid place to build,” Casker muttered.

The building was doughnut-shaped, and fitted nicely over the top of the mountain. There was a wide, level lip around it, which Casker scorched as he landed the ship.


From the air, the building had merely seemed big. On the ground, it was enormous. Hellman and Casker walked up to it slowly. Hellman had his burner ready, but there was no sign of life.

“This planet must be abandoned,” Hellman said almost in a whisper.

“Anyone in his right mind would abandon this place,” Casker said. “There’re enough good planets around, without anyone trying to live on a needle point.”

They reached the door. Hellman tried to open it and found it locked. He looked back at the spectacular display of mountains.

“You know,” he said, “when this planet was still in a molten state, it must have been affected by several gigantic moons that are now broken up. The strains, external and internal, wrenched it into its present spined appearance and--”

“Come off it,” Casker said ungraciously. “You were a librarian before you decided to get rich on uranium.”

Hellman shrugged his shoulders and burned a hole in the doorlock. They waited.

The only sound on the mountain top was the growling of their stomachs.

They entered.

The tremendous wedge-shaped room was evidently a warehouse of sorts. Goods were piled to the ceiling, scattered over the floor, stacked haphazardly against the walls. There were boxes and containers of all sizes and shapes, some big enough to hold an elephant, others the size of thimbles.

Near the door was a dusty pile of books. Immediately, Hellman bent down to examine them.

“Must be food somewhere in here,” Casker said, his face lighting up for the first time in a week. He started to open the nearest box.

[Illustration]

“This is interesting,” Hellman said, discarding all the books except one.

“Let’s eat first,” Casker said, ripping the top off the box. Inside was a brownish dust. Casker looked at it, sniffed, and made a face.

“Very interesting indeed,” Hellman said, leafing through the book.

Casker opened a small can, which contained a glittering green slime. He closed it and opened another. It contained a dull orange slime.

“Hmm,” Hellman said, still reading.

“Hellman! Will you kindly drop that book and help me find some food?”

“Food?” Hellman repeated, looking up. “What makes you think there’s anything to eat here? For all you know, this could be a paint factory.”

“It’s a warehouse!” Casker shouted.

He opened a kidney-shaped can and lifted out a soft purple stick. It hardened quickly and crumpled to dust as he tried to smell it. He scooped up a handful of the dust and brought it to his mouth.

“That might be extract of strychnine,” Hellman said casually.


Casker abruptly dropped the dust and wiped his hands.

“After all,” Hellman pointed out, “granted that this is a warehouse--a cache, if you wish--we don’t know what the late inhabitants considered good fare. Paris green salad, perhaps, with sulphuric acid as dressing.”

“All right,” Casker said, “but we gotta eat. What’re you going to do about all this?” He gestured at the hundreds of boxes, cans and bottles.

“The thing to do,” Hellman said briskly, “is to make a qualitative analysis on four or five samples. We could start out with a simple titration, sublimate the chief ingredient, see if it forms a precipitate, work out its molecular makeup from--”

“Hellman, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re a librarian, remember? And I’m a correspondence school pilot. We don’t know anything about titrations and sublimations.”

“I know,” Hellman said, “but we should. It’s the right way to go about it.”

“Sure. In the meantime, though, just until a chemist drops in, what’ll we do?”

“This might help us,” Hellman said, holding up the book. “Do you know what it is?”

“No,” Casker said, keeping a tight grip on his patience.

“It’s a pocket dictionary and guide to the Helg language.”

“Helg?”

“The planet we’re on. The symbols match up with those on the boxes.”

Casker raised an eyebrow. “Never heard of Helg.”

“I don’t believe the planet has ever had any contact with Earth,” Hellman said. “This dictionary isn’t Helg-English. It’s Helg-Aloombrigian.”

Casker remembered that Aloombrigia was the home planet of a small, adventurous reptilian race, out near the center of the Galaxy.

“How come you can read Aloombrigian?” Casker asked.

“Oh, being a librarian isn’t a completely useless profession,” Hellman said modestly. “In my spare time--”

“Yeah. Now how about--”

“Do you know,” Hellman said, “the Aloombrigians probably helped the Helgans leave their planet and find another. They sell services like that. In which case, this building very likely is a food cache!”

“Suppose you start translating,” Casker suggested wearily, “and maybe find us something to eat.”

They opened boxes until they found a likely-looking substance. Laboriously, Hellman translated the symbols on it.

“Got it,” he said. “It reads:--’USE SNIFFNERS--THE BETTER ABRASIVE.’”

“Doesn’t sound edible,” Casker said.

“I’m afraid not.”

They found another, which read: VIGROOM! FILL ALL YOUR STOMACHS, AND FILL THEM RIGHT!

“What kind of animals do you suppose these Helgans were?” Casker asked.

Hellman shrugged his shoulders.

The next label took almost fifteen minutes to translate. It read: ARGOSEL MAKES YOUR THUDRA ALL TIZZY. CONTAINS THIRTY ARPS OF RAMSTAT PULZ, FOR SHELL LUBRICATION.

“There must be something here we can eat,” Casker said with a note of desperation.

“I hope so,” Hellman replied.


At the end of two hours, they were no closer. They had translated dozens of titles and sniffed so many substances that their olfactory senses had given up in disgust.

“Let’s talk this over,” Hellman said, sitting on a box marked: VORMITISH--GOOD AS IT SOUNDS!

“Sure,” Casker said, sprawling out on the floor. “Talk.”

“If we could deduce what kind of creatures inhabited this planet, we’d know what kind of food they ate, and whether it’s likely to be edible for us.”

“All we do know is that they wrote a lot of lousy advertising copy.”

Hellman ignored that. “What kind of intelligent beings would evolve on a planet that is all mountains?”

“Stupid ones!” Casker said.

That was no help. But Hellman found that he couldn’t draw any inferences from the mountains. It didn’t tell him if the late Helgans ate silicates or proteins or iodine-base foods or anything.

“Now look,” Hellman said, “we’ll have to work this out by pure logic--Are you listening to me?”

“Sure,” Casker said.

“Okay. There’s an old proverb that covers our situation perfectly: ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison.’”

“Yeah,” Casker said. He was positive his stomach had shrunk to approximately the size of a marble.

“We can assume, first, that their meat is our meat.”

Casker wrenched himself away from a vision of five juicy roast beefs dancing tantalizingly before him. “What if their meat is our poison? What then?”

“Then,” Hellman said, “we will assume that their poison is our meat.”

“And what happens if their meat and their poison are our poison?”

“We starve.”

“All right,” Casker said, standing up. “Which assumption do we start with?”

“Well, there’s no sense in asking for trouble. This is an oxygen planet, if that means anything. Let’s assume that we can eat some basic food of theirs. If we can’t we’ll start on their poisons.”

“If we live that long,” Casker said.

Hellman began to translate labels. They discarded such brands as ANDROGYNITES’ DELIGHT AND VERBELL--FOR LONGER, CURLIER, MORE SENSITIVE ANTENNAE, until they found a small gray box, about six inches by three by three. It was called VALKORIN’S UNIVERSAL TASTE TREAT, FOR ALL DIGESTIVE CAPACITIES.

“This looks as good as any,” Hellman said. He opened the box.

Casker leaned over and sniffed. “No odor.”


Within the box they found a rectangular, rubbery red block. It quivered slightly, like jelly.

“Bite into it,” Casker said.

“Me?” Hellman asked. “Why not you?”

“You picked it.”

“I prefer just looking at it,” Hellman said with dignity. “I’m not too hungry.”

“I’m not either,” Casker said.

They sat on the floor and stared at the jellylike block. After ten minutes, Hellman yawned, leaned back and closed his eyes.

“All right, coward,” Casker said bitterly. “I’ll try it. Just remember, though, if I’m poisoned, you’ll never get off this planet. You don’t know how to pilot.”

“Just take a little bite, then,” Hellman advised.

Casker leaned over and stared at the block. Then he prodded it with his thumb.

The rubbery red block giggled.

“Did you hear that?” Casker yelped, leaping back.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Hellman said, his hands shaking. “Go ahead.”

Casker prodded the block again. It giggled louder, this time with a disgusting little simper.

“Okay,” Casker said, “what do we try next?”

“Next? What’s wrong with this?”

“I don’t eat anything that giggles,” Casker stated firmly.

“Now listen to me,” Hellman said. “The creatures who manufactured this might have been trying to create an esthetic sound as well as a pleasant shape and color. That giggle is probably only for the amusement of the eater.”

“Then bite into it yourself,” Casker offered.

Hellman glared at him, but made no move toward the rubbery block. Finally he said, “Let’s move it out of the way.”

They pushed the block over to a corner. It lay there giggling softly to itself.

“Now what?” Casker said.

Hellman looked around at the jumbled stacks of incomprehensible alien goods. He noticed a door on either side of the room.

“Let’s have a look in the other sections,” he suggested.

Casker shrugged his shoulders apathetically.

Slowly they trudged to the door in the left wall. It was locked and Hellman burned it open with the ship’s burner.

It was a wedge-shaped room, piled with incomprehensible alien goods.

The hike back across the room seemed like miles, but they made it only slightly out of wind. Hellman blew out the lock and they looked in.

It was a wedge-shaped room, piled with incomprehensible alien goods.

“All the same,” Casker said sadly, and closed the door.

“Evidently there’s a series of these rooms going completely around the building,” Hellman said. “I wonder if we should explore them.”

Casker calculated the distance around the building, compared it with his remaining strength, and sat down heavily on a long gray object.

“Why bother?” he asked.


Hellman tried to collect his thoughts. Certainly he should be able to find a key of some sort, a clue that would tell him what they could eat. But where was it?

He examined the object Casker was sitting on. It was about the size and shape of a large coffin, with a shallow depression on top. It was made of a hard, corrugated substance.

“What do you suppose this is?” Hellman asked.

“Does it matter?”

Hellman glanced at the symbols painted on the side of the object, then looked them up in his dictionary.

“Fascinating,” he murmured, after a while.

“Is it something to eat?” Casker asked, with a faint glimmering of hope.

“No, You are sitting on something called THE MOROG CUSTOM SUPER TRANSPORT FOR THE DISCRIMINATING HELGAN WHO DESIRES THE BEST IN VERTICAL TRANSPORTATION. It’s a vehicle!”

“Oh,” Casker said dully.

“This is important! Look at it! How does it work?”

Casker wearily climbed off the Morog Custom Super Transport and looked it over carefully. He traced four almost invisible separations on its four corners. “Retractable wheels, probably, but I don’t see--”

Hellman read on. “It says to give it three amphus of high-gain Integor fuel, then a van of Tonder lubrication, and not to run it over three thousand Ruls for the first fifty mungus.”

“Let’s find something to eat,” Casker said.

“Don’t you see how important this is?” Hellman asked. “This could solve our problem. If we could deduce the alien logic inherent in constructing this vehicle, we might know the Helgan thought pattern. This, in turn, would give us an insight into their nervous systems, which would imply their biochemical makeup.”

Casker stood still, trying to decide whether he had enough strength left to strangle Hellman.

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